Having Fun with Shadows!

Do you enjoy shadows as much as I do? As a child, I fondly remember making shadow puppets with my family, creating animals out of our hands. My shadows were always very simple and I admired people who could make more complex animal shadows. Little did I know that shadow puppetry is an ancient form of storytelling. That makes sense, though; as long as you have a surface for a light to be pointed at, you can make shadows. Hopefully, this blog will shed some light on the shadowy business of shadows. 

A Shadow by any Other Name

One of my favorite shadows is in that popular poem that I recited repeatedly as a child and, I confess, I still do today. You can’t go wrong with the poems by Robert Louis Stevenson.

My Shadow

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,

And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.

He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;

And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

 

The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow—

Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;

For he sometimes shoots up taller like an India-rubber ball,

And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.

 

He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play,

And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.

He stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see;

I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!

 

One morning, very early, before the sun was up,

I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;

But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,

Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.

Me and My Shadows

I, too, delighted in the diversity of my shadow’s forms, and still do today. I even use shadows to examine my horse’s stride, since I can’t always determine what its feet are doing from my perch on its back. It’s so much easier when I can look at the horse’s shadow for confirmation that we’re moving correctly.

From my home in Tucson, I can see Pusch Ridge in the Santa Catalina Mountains, east of the city. When the sunsets, not only do the mountains change colors, orange to maroon, but shadows darken the indentations. These shadows give the ridge an air of harshness and mystery.

One mountain shadow near Phoenix is quite famous. From the third week of March through the third week of September, a shadow forms that looks like a mountain lion chasing a prey animal. This shadow forms in the Superstition Mountains, east of Mesa. The sun must be at the correct latitude on the western horizon to create this shadow. It’s amazing and spectacular to use one’s imagination on such a large scale. I wonder if the Native Americans enjoyed this phenomenon as much as modern people do.

A shadow that resembles a cougar lies between two mountain peaks.

Photo credit: Paul Fiarkoski for AZ Wonders

Shadows of the Wild

Shadows of trees can create a mysterious setting for a story. Moonlight on the desert’s sparsely leaved trees provides a satisfying effect.

An eerie shadow of a bare branches on asphalt.

My iguanas are also involved in my shadow observations. Calliope Green Iguana’s shedding skin created an interesting pattern along her back.

AN iguana with striped shadows on her side created by her shedding skin.

However, my rock iguana, Blue, did the best job of creating impressive shadows. The shadows of his claws are good enough for a horror movie!

The claw of an iguana, the shadow exaggerates the hook and sharpness of the nails.

And even though he is five feet long, his body’s shadow produced a huge reptilian creature! I especially like how his spines came out, too.

An iguana with a shadow that is twice its size with exaggerated spines.

What are your favorite shadows? For me, Shadows can be useful tools, something to enjoy, or writing inspiration. I hope you’ll find something new in a shadow the next time you encounter one. 

Celebrate Invasive Species Awareness Every Week!

This year, National Invasive Species Awareness Week was from February 28th through March 3rd. It always begins on the last Monday of February. If you’re reading this outside of that particular week, it’s okay. The knowledge and prevention of invasive species are important enough to consider every week. Read on to learn more about why you should care about invasive species despite the day, week, month, or year. 

What Is An Invasive Species? 

An invasive species is any non-native plant, animal, or microorganism that proliferates in areas outside of its native ecosystem. It can be either on land or in the water. Also known as invasives, these organisms can harm the environment, human health, and the economy.

Get to Know Some Invasives

I’ve talked about animals, such as the green iguanas and spiny-tail iguanas as invasive species, but there are soooo many more. In the US, there are more than 6,500 non-native plants and animals. Some are so common that you might think they are native because they seem to always be around. For this blog, I want to talk about a few particular invasive plants. These plants were introduced to non-native environments for a variety of reasons. Sometimes intentionally, and sometimes they are accidentally released.  

The Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and Brazilian pepper (Schinus terebinthifolia) were both introduced because they’re attractive. I admit, I enjoyed the purple flowers of the loosestrife as I kayaked the rivers of Michigan and New Jersey. However, it did strike me as odd that it was spread out so extensively. That’s what invasives do, they out-compete the native plants.

A field full of beautiful, but invasive Purple Loosestrife.

I spend a great deal of time in Florida. Many Floridians would tell me about the gorgeous bushy tree they had in their yards, the Brazilian pepper or Florida holly as it’s called locally. The leaves and red berries are often used in holiday decorations. However, this non-native plant very successfully forced native plants out of the area. I spent two summers working to remove them from the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The roots had to be destroyed because the plant would regrow if any were left alive. In addition, when the berries ripened and fermented, birds would eat them and become drunk. No matter how humorous the birds look hanging upside down and singing, this is very dangerous for them.

Round, red berries growing in a bunch surrounded by green leaves.

(Photo courtesy of Forest & Kim Starr)

The Dangers of Invasive Species

Even though invasive animal species get the most attention, plants can be dangerous, too. Just how dangerous? If you’ve ever seen kudzu, (Pueraria lobata) grow, you know how destructive plants can be. Kudzu is known as the “plant that ate the South.” Originally planted to help with ground erosion control, it spread over trees, vehicles, and even buildings. Kudzu can grow up to a foot a day. Yes, you can really watch this plant grow.

Kudzu vines covering the ground and trees.

Then there’s the symbol of the desert West, the humble tumbleweed (Kali tragus). Nothing says desolation in a show than a tumbleweed blowing across the dusty ground. But tumbleweed seeds came from Russia. The portion of the plant that is seen rolling along the ground is the seed dispersal unit. Unfortunately, the seemingly harmless balls of rolling branches actually cause significant losses through traffic accidents, invasion of agricultural operations, and property damage!

I was surprised to learn that the multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) is invasive. My neighbors in New Jersey had a glorious hedge of multiflora rose on top of their backyard fence. I enjoyed the aroma and multitude of flowers. Little did I know how well the rose out-competed the native understory plants.

Delicate white flowers of the multiflora rose.

Invasive species and conservation of native plants and animals is a worldwide issue. Learn some ways locals are protecting wildlife in the Cayman Islands or some of the native species found in North America with my fun and interactive workbooks! You can find them all here.

A Bite of a Blog: Feeding my Scaly Family

There’s a lot of talk about eating. People are encouraged to eat mindfully. Set the table and concentrate on your meal. But, I prefer to eat in front of my laptop. I like to spend most of my free time putting words onto pages. I enjoy writing books and blogs. So, when I get hungry, I grab something, set it beside me, and consume as I create. But thinking about eating habits leads me to my reptilian family members. As you can imagine, their eating habits are quite different. I hope you enjoy this little bite about the daily eating habits of my scaly family members!

What They Eat

I prepare fresh food for my scaly kids every day, serving them different proportions, depending on their appetites and food preferences. I feed my family first thing in the morning. Then, they can graze all day. Their meal is a “salad” of high calcium greens like collard greens, turnip tops, and various vegetables. I whittle the greens into thin strips with a potato peeler to make it easier for them to eat. My reptiles don’t have grinding teeth, like our molars. On occasion, I add a little fruit as a treat.

It’s Not Just What

The how and where they eat is just as important as what they eat. In captivity, most animals don’t move around as much as they would in the wild. There is no need for them to search for sustenance. Because of this, caretakers are encouraged to make their reptiles move a bit to reach their food. Calliope Green Iguana likes to climb up to her basking perch to eat. Her heat and sun lamps keep her nice and warm while she dines.

Calliope the iguana eating her salad. Her front feet are on the edge of her dish.

In contrast, Chile Green Iguana prefers to reach down. I love the way he stretches his body while enjoying his meal. Once he finishes, he’ll pull himself back up to his basking shelf. 

Chile the iguana eat his salad. He is hanging upside down in his cage while eating.

For the tortoises that roam free around my house, I put out plates of food in various spots. Consequently, they can walk about, choosing where they’d like to eat. They also enjoy basking before and after meals.

This is a close-up of a tortoise enjoying a strawberry.

Trevor the tortoise enjoying a strawberry.

One of the box turtles also enjoys strawberries. The other one doesn’t.

If you want to see my family members eating, check out their videos on my YouTube channel: Elaine Powers or Curtis Curly-tail Speaks. You’ll find all sorts of interesting videos. And while you are there, become a subscriber!

The Importance of Eating

I need to watch my family members eat. I get information about the health of each animal. When a reptile is sick, the first symptom is often a lack of appetite. If they feed eagerly, I know all is well. If they don’t, I start checking for problems. Is the heat lamp burned out? Are they sick or injured? If something is wrong, it’s off to the local reptile vet we go. I’m very fortunate to have a superb reptile vet. One bit of advice I give to new reptile caretakers is to locate a reptile veterinarian before you bring your new family member home.

If you’d like to read a fun book about the eating habits of other animals, I recommend How to Eat Breakfast by Gene Twaronite, another Lyric Power Publishing LLC author.

Writing this made me hungry. I’m off in search of a snack. I hope you enjoy your food as much as my scaly kids do! You might not want to hang upside down to eat, though.

The Laws of Physics (According to Horses)

I started horseback riding after I retired. Before that, I’d never been particularly fond of horses, despite being a biologist. I preferred reptiles, crustaceans, and mollusks. However, life has a way of leading me down unexpected trails. Although no matter the trail I find myself on, I always find a little science. Even with a biology major, I had to take physics classes. I particularly liked those that dealt with the physics of living beings. But I still had to learn about the general laws of movement and such. But once I started riding horses, I quickly began thinking about all of the laws of physics. 

Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation

There’s the obvious law of gravity that I’m reminded of every time I climb on the back of a thousand-pound animal. Should I be jostled off, gravity will without fail take me to the ground. Yet, it’s gravity that keeps me on the horse. By balancing above the horse’s center of gravity, I will stay on her back. Once on board, the laws of motion are very apparent. 

Newton’s Laws of Motion

First Law of Motion: an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. I have to convince the horse to move forward. Sometimes, the horse prefers to just stand. That’s the difference between a bicycle and a horse. Fortunately, most of the time when I ask nicely, the horse will move forward. When the horse moves, I feel my body being thrown back – that’s my body trying to remain at rest. The faster the horse goes forward, say to a canter, the more my body is thrown back. Hopefully, I can remain seated and not thrown completely off the back of the horse! Every time the horse changes its pace, I have to adjust my center of gravity. There’s no sitting passively when on top of a moving horse!

Second Law of Motion: acceleration of an object depends on the net force and is directly proportional to the magnitude of the force, while being inversely proportional to the mass of the object. A rider’s center of gravity is critical for horseback riding. If I’m centered on top of the horse’s center of gravity, we are in balance. I can use my balance to communicate to the horse how I want it to move. By shifting my balance back, gently pulling on the reins and relaxing my legs, this net force moves the horse’s mass to slow down or stop. This also happens when a horse jumps, combining the horse lifting its legs and gravity pulling them back down.

Third Law of Motion: when two bodies interact, they apply forces to one another that are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction. When I’m sitting on the horse, my body is pushing down on the horse (poor horse), but at the same time, the horse is pushing up on me (thank you, horse) with the same amount of force. The reason I bounce in the saddle is due to the force with which its hooves push on the ground, creating the upward force that causes me to bounce in the saddle. Of course, my coming off the horse, being thrown, involves this third law. That’s when the force of the horse is a little more than my force.

Centrifugal Force

Centrifugal force: an object moving in a circle behaves as if it’s being pushed outward.  Another aspect of departing the back of the horse involves centrifugal force. So, when I’m riding in a circle to the left, I feel like I am being flung to the right. Sometimes, if the horse makes a sharp turn, my body continues outward by centrifugal force. Sometimes, this force is sufficient to fling me off the horse, where gravity takes over.

To allow me to stay on the horse, friction can help. Holding my legs against the horse creates friction. This also helps keep me in the proper posture. The horse is creating its friction between her hooves and the ground.

Many other aspects of physics are involved in the more advanced riding that I haven’t experienced since I’m a “young” rider. The ones I’ve experienced so far have been sufficient. 

I’ve learned a lot since I started horseback riding, horse behavior, my body and its muscles and a refresher course in the physics of motion. Check out my other science based books, with an animal flair. And now it’s time to meet my physics instructors!

A chestnut horse with a white stripe running down it's head, Elaine leads it on a rope in the pasture.
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Elaine sits on a tan horse.
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Booger Warning! The Science of Sneezing

Do you think about sneezing? I mean daily. Not just when you have a cold or allergies. You probably think about sneezes when you’re in a group and trying to decide if you can hold your sneeze in, risking an eardrum explosion, or let it out and offend everyone in proximity. Well the scientist in me, propels me to think about sneezing more than the average person. Especially because of my animal companions. Get ready for a sneezy, snotty, and all-around gooey-good blog. Because we are going to explore the science of sneezing!

The Achoo of Us

Animals don’t always sneeze for the same reasons we humans do. When an irritant enters a person’s nose, the nerves activate the sneeze center in the brain stem. Messages are sent to parts of the body that need to work together and produce the sneeze action. Muscles in the chest, abdomen, and throat along with the diaphragm, build up the air pressure behind closed vocal cords. When the cords are opened, the airflow rushes up, expelling the irritant. Of course, in the case of a disease, like a cold, the air expulsion helps spread the viral particles. 

Despite the physiological way in which the human body produces sneezing, it’s not human sneezing that I find interesting. Other animals’ sneezes are far more fascinating.

When a Sneeze Isn’t a Sneeze

Let’s start with iguanas, such as green iguanas, Iguana iguana, and rhinoceros rock iguanas, Cyclura cornuta. Humans excrete excess salt through our kidneys via our urine, but iguanas have to sneeze it out! You may have seen videos of marine iguanas sneezing as they bask on the rocks. Watching their bodies jump with each sneeze is amusing. Iguanas need to conserve water in their bodies, so they utilize nasal salt glands. This salt removal method is called “snalting” (sneeze and salt). The expelled salt is called “snalt.” Snalt gets over everything around iguanas. Here are a couple of examples in my house. 

Snalt from Elaine's iguanas covering her blinds and a jar full of shells.

They can sneeze snalt amazing distances, efficiently covering walls and furniture. My printer is thoroughly encrusted in salt. One of my iguanas enjoyed sitting on my shoulder. When she felt a sneeze coming on, she would stick her nose in my ear. I know she did it on purpose. I did have clean ears from having to wash the snalt out.

The Mucus of Mammals 

While my iguanas are coating my home in snalt, my horse uses me as a human handkerchief. My mare has a tumor in her sinus that produced a nasal discharge. She was constantly rubbing her head on me and using my shirt to wipe her nostril when she sneezed. I could understand her need, but still, it left me very gooey. As a result of her behavior, I thought horses sneezed for the same reasons humans do. I’m still new to horse behavior. (The good news is that her cancer treatment is going well and she no longer has the discharge.)

Yes, horses do blow or snort when an irritant gets in their noses, such as ground dust and hay dust. However, sneezing and blowing is also common behavior indicating pleasure. Horses don’t sneeze as a reflex as humans do.

I was concerned when my young gelding would sneeze during his training sessions. Was the dust of the arena getting to him? It must be very distracting for him to be dealing with sinus issues as he was being ridden. Then one day as I was watching the trainer work him, the experienced equestrian sitting next to me mentioned that his sneezing was in revolt! His sneezes were a protest! No wonder the trainer wasn’t showing any concern that he was having allergy issues. My boy doesn’t mind being ridden, he’s just very particular about how he is ridden! But sneezing as a means of expressing discontent was a new one for me. I am happy to report that when ridden appropriately, according to him, the sneezing ceases! 

So I guess sneezing does help deal with irritants, even if the irritant is me! Looking for more gritty-science fun? Check out my science-based workbooks

The Need to Feed

An author friend of mine recently wrote a blog for my publisher, Lyric Power Publishing. She described how she, a girl who grew up on the cement streets of Manhattan, became enamored of a couple of native Desert Spiny lizards. A local informed her that she could feed the lizards mealworms. So, every day she offers the lizards a couple of worms, which they eagerly eat. However, this tale has led to a discussion about whether people should be feeding wild animals.

To Feed or Not to Feed?

This is an interesting, but tricky, topic. Do we condemn my friend for offering an acceptable food item to a lizard, when many of us have bird feeders around our homes? I am pleased that migrating bats utilize my hummingbird feeders to support their flight south. One bat species has changed its behavior to come north to feed before heading south again for migration. How about offering floating turtle food pellets in park ponds, when many people, unfortunately, feed bread to ducks? Some people put out corn for the neighborhood squirrels. These are all examples of feeding wild animals. Why are some acceptable and others not? The answer isn’t always straightforward.

During the pandemic, many people turned to the wild animals to maintain their sanity, using food to attract them, usually birds, to within viewing range. This enjoyment might lead to concern for the well-being of the animals and increase participation in conservation.

Many of our social activities involve the sharing of food. Humans seem to enjoy watching other animals eat and becoming part of their world by offering food items to other species. When companion animals eat heartily, we’re assured that they are healthy and happy. I admit, one of the pleasures I get from the Jurassic Park movies is watching the dinosaurs eat well.

It’s Not a New Discussion 

Many people are against bird feeders. Others think it will help the local birds, even if it won’t significantly enhance the general population. Sometimes, diseases are spread through bird feeders, but with our destruction of the natural habitat, humans have reduced the abundance of natural food. Providing food might help since mankind has reduced what’s available naturally, right? It’s a complex situation. And in reality, people won’t try to protect animals that aren’t important to them.

The advice that has been given is: do not feed wild animals when it might cause them harm.

When NOT to Feed

How do we know if we are harming them? Are we tempting them from natural food with tastier human food that has no nutritional value? Are we changing their behaviors? Are we affecting their health?

Human-wildlife interaction has become an important topic in The Bahamas, concerning their endemic rock iguanas and tour operators. How do you balance the needs of the iguanas with the need of Bahamians to earn a living? The tour operators take day-trippers out to see the magnificent lizards, but just looking at them and taking photos is not enough. The tourists want to interact, i.e., feed the iguanas. Early on, people would feed whatever leftover food they had onboard their boats, potato chips, etc. After discussions with the scientists, they agreed to offer food closer to natural food, often grapes. But throwing the grapes on the sand, led to the ingestion of sand and caused impaction, resulting in the death of the iguanas. After further discussion, it was agreed that the grapes would be put on sticks, like roasting marshmallows. An improvement. It’s true that grapes aren’t a natural food and have high sugar content, but it’s an improvement. Effects on iguana health have been noted, so more work is needed. Discussions are ongoing to develop protocols that allow the tour operators to conduct their tours with wild iguana feeding while minimizing the effects on the iguana populations.

Along with impacting the iguanas’ health, the tourist’s feeding has changed their behavior. When the boats arrive, the iguanas, mostly males, run down to the beach to get the handouts. This is another factor to be discussed. You might have seen the YouTube video about the woman doing yoga on a beach being bitten by an iguana. Her nail polish was grape-colored. It’s dangerous to wear fruit-colored toenail polish as well. Iguanas have color vision! In addition, they have razor-sharp teeth for biting through fibrous plant material.

The One Thing to Remember

In conclusion, it would be hypocritical of me to condemn all feeding of wild animals. My yard is filled with various bird feeders. I do ask that if you do feed your neighborhood wild animals, do it responsibly with knowledge of the possible risks.

Snakes (and Science) for All!

Buying books online is wonderfully convenient, but for me, selling my STEM-based books in-person is special, especially when the people are children. I’m delighted when kids show interest in the science that I include in my books. And I’m especially thrilled when girls are interested in snakes!

Breaking into Science

As a child, I dreamt of being a scientist, an outdoorsy naturalist, in particular. At that time, my grandmother, who was a teacher, was a little doubtful in my ability to be a scientist, something that she couldn’t be, due to societal restrictions on women. Even though she taught science in school, she couldn’t be a scientist. But, I hoped to study the environment and be involved in conservation. Fortunately, with time came change. I did pursue a career in science, eventually obtaining a Master of Science. Though I had hoped for a job outside, I ended up indoors and became a laboratory research biologist. I was able to do hands-on research involving many diseases and medical technology. Still, I still longed to be outdoors. 

To curb my naturalist cravings, I volunteered as a citizen scientist. My first project was helping with conservation projects on the rock iguanas, Cyclura sp., in the Caribbean. To me, the ideal vacation is chasing large, wild lizards over rough limestone karst and thorny brush. No laying on the beach for me!

Over the years, I also obtained the desire to write books and decided to mix my two favorite things together, creating engaging educational books that make science fun! Two of my books involve snakes: Don’t Make Me Rattle about rattlesnakes and Bahamian Boas: A Tabby Tale about the endemic boa constrictors of The Bahamas. The boa book includes actual photographs taken by scientists in the field! 

A brown book cover with illustrations of bahamian boa snakes      book cover graphic of rattlesnake

All this to say, that I am absolutely delighted by the fact that a majority of the snake book sales in recent years have been to girls! Yes, girls! When allowed to choose for themselves, I’m excited to report that girls like snakes and want to learn about them.

So, this holiday season, as you are thinking about a great gift for the girls in your life, think science, think SNAKES! My publisher, LyricPower.net has workbooks and activity sheets about snakes, too.

PS

I also discuss this very topic in one of my most recent Reptile Chats. Check it out below, or view that and all my wonderfully scaley videos on my YouTube channel.

Iguanas and Tortoises are… Invasive Species?

 

Invasive species are a common topic in environmental discussions these days, and rightfully so. Often, these concepts seem to deal with invasive plants or animals that affect people and places far away. But if you’ve ever watched my Reptile-Side chats, or witnessed one of my school or community visits, you know my non-human housemates are reptiles, mostly iguanas and tortoises. What you may not realize is that some of them are invasive species.

It’s Raining Green Iguanas!

Take green iguanas, for instance. I have both green and rock iguanas, species involved in my conservation effort in the Caribbean area. However, green iguanas are well-known invasives. They can be entertaining, like when comatose green iguanas fall from the trees during cold snaps in Florida. “It’s raining reptiles!” people love to say. Knowing how fond I am of iguanas, folks assume I want to help these unfortunate frozen lizards. They’re surprised when I suggest that the local wildlife personnel and the public finish the job that nature began.

I am a fan of iguanas, but prefer them to be safe and protected in their natural environment. Green iguanas, who are unable to handle cold weather in south Florida, are native to much warmer Central America. These wonderful animals have been introduced around the world through the pet trade, as stowaways on ship containers, and from human negligence. As a result, they’ve become a very dangerous invasive species. They’re not aggressive or a danger to humans; rather, they’re dangerous because they destroy non-native environments.

Part of my volunteer work as a citizen scientist involves helping to identify invasive green iguanas throughout the world. Posters have been created and flyers produced to spread the word, but more needs to be done. My author skills came to the rescue, and I created identification booklets for the public. These little booklets enable the public to tell the difference between native and invasive iguanas. In addition, they educate folks on the importance of native lizards.

In Tucson, Arizona, where I live, green iguanas are not a problem. Iguanas need more humidity and better vegetation to survive in this harsh environment. It’s not a problem for their relatives, the chuckwalla, who do well here. An invasive species that also does well here and lives in my yard—the sulcata tortoise. Surely, you must be thinking ‘how dangerous can a tortoise be?’

Invasive Tortoises in the Desert

The reality is that sulcata tortoises can have devastating effects on native Sonoran desert tortoises. Sulcata tortoises are natives of southern Saharan Africa, not southern Arizona. Sulcatas are much larger than the desert tortoise, 100-200lbs versus 15lbs. Both species eat the same plants, which means competition for limited food sources and water supplies. They also compete for a territory that, thanks to humans, steadily decreases.

Why are sulcatas roaming the Sonoran desert in the first place? They’ve been dumped by humans. You see, sulcatas are a favorite pet choice. As hatchlings, they’re a nice size and are both friendly and calm. In contrast, desert tortoises are much smaller at hatching. They’re shy around humans (who are viewed as possible predators) and tend to explore.

People may enjoy having a pet tortoise when they’re small. However, as they grow (and grow and grow) their caretakers learn how just destructive sulcatas can be. Sulcatas can easily dig through doors and drywall. Furniture is moved and broken while gardens and plantings are destroyed. One of my sulcata tortoises digs outside quite a bit, and I wondered how close she’d gotten to my house foundation. Turns out she was undermining it.

Due to the harshness of desert life, both sulcata and desert tortoises dig tunnels to escape the intense heat. Obviously from their size, sulcatas dig much bigger holes than the smaller desert tortoises. Sulcata dens can easily be 30 feet long and 20 feet deep, while desert dens are far smaller. Either type of den can provide a habitat for other animals. When my female sulcata dug a burrow in my yard, the desert tortoise helped herself and moved right in. Consequently, the sulcata had to continue digging to make the burrow big enough for both of them. They are not happy den-mates.

The entrance to a large den is visible beneath the broken edge of a house foundation.
A large sulcata den.
The entrance to a small desert tortoise den is visible beneath a succulent plant.
A small Sonoran tortoise den.

In other households, many unwitting owners eventually decide their tortoise is too destructive and unmanageable. Instead of finding a new home or at least contacting a rescue group, they’re often just dumped in the desert. Once there, not only do they have to compete with desert tortoises, they can also introduce diseases.

At least dumped sulcatas can survive here in the Sonoran desert. When I lived in New Jersey, I read a report stating that a Sulcata tortoise was found in a Pennsylvania forest. Fortunately, the unlucky tortoise was found before winter set in. A long, slow death in cold weather is a fate no reptile deserves.

How Can You Help?

An inconvenient and abandoned pet can easily become invasive and have a devastating effect on native animals. When we bring animals into our homes, it’s our responsibility to ensure they have a good place to live for the rest of their lives—which is up to 150 years for a tortoise. Once they live with humans they can never be released or returned into the wild. And they should never, ever be left in someone else’s habitat. Before you decide to bring home a pet, like a tortoise or an iguana, it’s a good idea to learn everything you can about them and make sure they’re the right pet for you.

Sharing a Fond Memory of Mexican Jumping Beans. What’s Yours?

When I was a child, my parents bought me a package of Mexican beans, frijoles saltarine. I was fascinated to learn why the beans moved.

Over time I forgot about them, until recently when I was reading an article about midge larvae that can fling themselves 36 times their body length.* The article got me thinking again about those moths inside of galls inside of beans.

That’s right, it’s a baby moth, Cydia saltitans, or larva, inside the bean. The moth, lays its eggs in the flower of the Mexican shrub Sebastiania pavoniana, so the eggs end up inside the seeds. The larva eats itself a chamber in the seed, or “bean,” and lives there. (Of course, the seeds aren’t beans like the legumes we eat.)

The larva may live inside the bean for months. It attaches itself to the chamber with a silk-like thread. When the bean is warm, say by being held in a hand, the larva moves, pulling on the threads, causing it to “hop.” That’s why they are called jumping beans!

Too much heat, though, and the larva dies. If you want to prolong your larva, the beans need to be kept in a cool, dry place . . . until then, it’s time to mimic the monsoon season. They should be soaked, but not submerged, for a few hours a couple of times a month.

Eventually, the larva metamorphoses into an adult moth, drills a hole in the side of the seed and flies off. The moth only lives for a few days. How sad.

The jumping beans come from a restricted place in Mexico where the host shrub grows, Alamos, Sonora, which calls itself the “Jumping Bean Capital of the World.”

The jumping beans are one of my favorite childhood memories. Adding in positive thoughts is a good thing right now. I’d love to hear about one of your favorite memories. Please share in a comment below.

image of mex jumping bean stages
Image courtesy of https://www2.palomar.edu/users/warmstrong/index.htm

 

*Grace Farley in Journal of Experimental Biology

 

 

 

Book Note: I was a budding scientist as a child. If you have one of those, or suspect you might, please introduce them to my fun science books. I weave science in adventure tales and fun rhyming stanzas–to make learning science fun! Grab a copy of one of my fun science stories today at My Books.

A collage of book covers indicating the categories of books at elaineapowers.com
My Books By Category

An Unusual Visitor Stopped By

The Sonoran Desert is home to many species of hummingbirds. The first things I installed in my yard when I moved in were hummingbird feeders.  Whenever a hummer would stop for a drink, I’d pull out my bird book to identify it. I’ve had quite a few species stop by over the years.  Some were local residents, and some were passing through on their annual migrations. I even had an albino individual who frequented my yard for a couple of years.

Usually, I have no trouble identifying my feathered visitors, since they were all present in my Birds of the Southwest book. I find they often cooperate by sitting on a branch so I can examine them.  I’ve been honored to host Black-chinned, Anna’s, Costas, Rufous, Calliope and Lucifer Hummingbirds.

photo of blue hummingbirdRecently, when a hummer visited my yard, as usual, I went out for a look. However, I didn’t recognize this individual. I looked in the book, but I couldn’t find her. That seems to be a problem with identifying birds – lots of photos of the males, but not enough of the females.

I contacted a friend whose son is an expert on hummingbirds. He thought it looked like a female Blue-throated hummingbird or Blue-throated Mountaingem. Blue-throateds are unusual in Tucson, but they are known to be in the area. Maybe the drought brought her to my yard. She stayed a few days.

Whatever her reasons for visiting, she is welcome anytime.

This hummer posed very nicely for me, but not all hummingbirds are that accommodating. I recommend my humorous tale, How NOT to Photograph a Hummingbird, about a bumbling visitor trying to photograph a hummer. Though the desert seems to conspire against him, it’s more that he doesn’t understand the environment he is in. So, the book also contains a lot of information about the animals, plants and minerals of the Sonoran Desert. Your kids will get a kick out of his ‘accidents.’ If they’d like to learn about the desert in a funny way, pick up a copy for them today. 

book cover about how NOT to photograph a hummingbird

#elaineapowers

#lyricpower

#bluethroatedhummingbird

#bluethroatedmountaingem

#hummingbird

#sonorandeserthummingbird

A Spectacular ‘Bloom Night’ 2021 at Tohono Chul Botanical Gardens

The Night-blooming Cereus had to bloom all alone in the summer of 2020, but this year, they opened in all their glory for the visitors at the Tohono Chul Botanical Gardens on June 30, 2021.

Just prior to the 2019 blooming, I published my book, Queen of the Night: The Night-blooming Cereus. I wrote this book when the folks at Tohono Chul mentioned there were no books specifically for the native Cereus, Peniocereus greggii. After consulting with their expert botanist, I published this rhyming picture book. I was delighted by the public’s reception of the book on Bloom Night 2019.

Shortly after the 2019 blooming, photographer Karen Wright published a book about the Cereus featuring her phenomenal photographs, Queen of the Night: A Rare Beauty. So, with the park being open to members for the 2021 Bloom Night, I suggested that Karen and I do a book signing together.

I am pleased to report that we both had good sales and we made a good team, encouraging people to learn more about and fully embrace this unusual cactus species native to the Sonoran Desert. Most of the year, it looks like a stick, which extends from a large tuber buried in the desert soil.  Once a year, at the beginning of the summer monsoon, the cereus plants develop flowers. When all the conditions are just right, all the flowers across the area, bloom on the same night – for only one night! Their fragrance summons the pollinating moths and bats before the flowers all die with the morning sun.

These sticks produce spectacular blossoms one night per summer
Pots of Cereus Plant at Tohono Chul Botanical Gardens

A very brief but spectacular shared life!

 

 

 

 

 

book cover Queen of the Night

REVIEW ARIZONA DAILY STAR

Queen of the Night:
The Night-Blooming Cereus

$14.95
by Elaine A. Powers

Illustrated by Nicholas Thorpe 

A perk of Sonoran-desert living is the one-night-only appearance of the Night-Blooming Cereus, a much-anticipated summer event for Tucsonans who rely on predictions from experts to know precisely when the tiny window of opportunity will open on the floral extravaganza. How in the world do the experts know? And what causes a cactus to behave this way?

With this picture book, Elaine Powers demystifies the mysterious bloom, explaining – in rhyming couplets no less – the life cycle of the plant, how to predict its flowering (when the buds reach 170-230 millimeters, stand back!), why they all flower simultaneously, and other bits of botanical lore about this intriguing plant, which spends most of the year looking like an undistinguished stick. Written for children, Powers’ book will charm and edify cactus lovers of any age. Lush illustrations by Nicholas Thorpe are a splendid accompaniment: Look for his very stern javelina on page 12 – he’s delightful.

A former laboratory biologist, Powers, who makes her home in Tucson, now writes science-based children’s books.

– Helene Woodhams is retired from Pima County Public Library, where she was literary arts

 

 

 

Come Out and See Me at a Book-Signing on Cereus Bloom Night

On a recent walk in a Sonoran Desert wash, I came across the plant pictured above. I think it may be a night-blooming cereus, Peniocereus greggii, the first one I’ve seen in the wild. I don’t believe it’s dead—these plants look like sticks in the Sonoran Desert.

I have seen many night-blooming cereus plants and their magnificent flowers at Tohono Chul Botanical Gardens. Each year, they predict when “Bloom Night” will occur–when the night-blooming cereus plants will all bloom–open and close together in one night. It’s incredible! Even the plants in pots in the greenhouses bloom right along with those in the ground.

I was asked to write a book about these remarkable flowers and my illustrated and rhyming book was created. It went on to become an Amazon No. 1 book.

photo of Night-blooming Cereus plant

Look for me at a table with my book, Queen of the Night. I’d love to autograph your copy!

Now that the monsoons are approaching, it’s almost time for another Bloom Night at Tohono Chul. Check their website link above for the date of Bloom Night and, if you’re a member, stop by and get your personalized, autographed copy of my book, Queen of the Night: The Night-blooming Cereus.

It has all the scientific information you’ll need before the cereus plants bloom, and it features the captivating illustrations of Nicholas Thorpe. If you’re not a member of the gardens, you can still get the book at their gift shop. It’s also available on Amazon.com

infographic about Queen of the Night: The Night-blooming Cereus

#elaineapowers   #lyricpower  #nightbloomingcereus  #queen of the night
#Amazon No. 1 Book

Brittlebush Can Take the Heat!

One plant that has always amazed me in the Sonoran Desert is the Brittlebush. No matter how little rain falls nor how hot it is, this bush produces a lush crop of flowers.

Brittlebush, Encelia farinose, is a bush native to the Sonoran Desert and is a member of the sunflower family.  The leaves are long, oval and silver-gray with a fuzzy surface (trichomes). The fuzziness provides protection from excessive heat and cold.  The grayish white color reflects sunlight, helping to keep the plant cool. In addition, the fuzziness helps collect any moisture and reduce water loss, which is very important in the desert.

photo of brittlebush plant
Brittlebush, Encelia farinose

In late winter and early spring, yellow flowers form on long stalks on the outside of bush.  Notice their sunflower-like appearance. Their bright color contrasts with the dull tan-gray of the ground.

The common name, brittlebush, refers to the brittleness of its stems. It’s also called incienso because the fragrant resin was dried and burned by early Spanish missions as incense. Brittlebush was used by indigenous and pioneer people. The resin was also used as glue, sealant, varnish and chewing gum. Brittlebush was important in oral hygiene.  Cowboys used stems as toothbrushes, while Native Americans used it to treat toothaches.

Brittlebush thrives in dry gravelly to sandy habitats. A sunny site is required along with the well-drained soil. The plant has a shallow taproot and lateral roots to take advantage of any rainfall.  It is sensitive to frost, so my bush enjoys the protection of my backyard wall.

The profusion of blossoms is an important food source for a variety of animals.  Once they fade away, thousands of seeds will be produced, another food source.

I hope that some of my bush’s offspring will germinate in my yard, creating more magnificent bushes.

Thank you, Brittlebush, for providing a bit of vibrant color in my life.

BOOK NOTE: If you love plants as much as I do, I hope you’ll check out my fun science books on plants, especially Queen of the Night: The Night-blooming Cereus, which is all about the very unusual Sonoran Desert flowering plants that bloom all together on one night per year!

Photo of night-blooming cereus in Tucson AZ
Photo courtesy of This is Tucson

It happens in June or July every summer and people come out by the hundreds to see these magnificent beauties bloom together. More to follow about the 2021 expected bloom dates. Learn all about the Night-blooming Cereus before they bloom this year!

book cover for the Night-Blooming Cereus
All about the mysterious plant that blooms only one night per year–all at the same time!

Also, to enjoy a tale of friendship and learn more about the ecosystems necessary to Bahamian trees, and how seeds find their homes, check out my children’s adventure tale (ages 8+), Grow Home, Little Seeds.

book cover about seeds finding a place to sprout
The graduating bundle of mixed seeds of the Leon Levy Preserve vows to stay together and form their own forest. Will they be able to remain together, or will their natures lead them in different directions? Will they find what the need to survive, to germinate, and to put down roots? Join these Bahamian natives on their adventures to find their places to call home.

For a humorous take on the Sonoran Desert and its flora and fauna, see How NOT to Photograph a Hummingbird. After the fun, refer to the desert plant and wildlife glossary in the back of the book.

illustration of a hummingbird on a cactus
A Humorous Tale Introducing the Plants
and Animals of the Sonoran Desert
“I’ll have a long-term memory of this visit.
Maybe a permanent one.”
For All Ages
Reading Level Age 8+
26 pages
Glossary of Minerals, Flora and Fauna
Illustrated by Anderson Atlas
A bumbling visitor to Southern Arizona is repeatedly injured when trying to photograph a mischievous hummingbird, as the Sonoran Desert conspires against him.
Have a laugh while enjoying learning about the plants and animals of Southern Arizona.

All three books would be help with science or book reports. And for summer supplemental, educational, and fun activity sheets and workbooks, go to Lyric Power Publishing, LLC.

It’s my calling to help make science fun, and I’m sticking to it!

#elainapowers  #sonorandesert   #sonorandesertflowers

Now, That’s My Kind of Window Dressing

I enjoy watching the sun rise over the Santa Catalina Mountains, and having a lizardly window dressing makes it even better. Who needs curtains when a Desert Spiny Lizard drapes herself across the screen?

The Desert Spiny Lizard, Sceloporus magister, is a native of the Sonoran Desert. My window ornament is probably a female, since I couldn’t find any blue patches on the belly, throat, sides and tails. The coloration is great camouflage from predators. Desert Spiny’s grow to a length of about five and a half inches. You might also see them doing their push-ups, which is a territorial display, not exercise.

photo 2 of desert spiny tail before warmer

Like all ectothermic reptiles, these lizards absorb heat form sunlight to raise their body temperatures.  To aid in this process, the spiny’s are darker when it is cool. They become lighter when sufficiently warmed. Compare the photo right with the photo below which was taken several hours later.

 

photo 3 of spiny tail lizard

The spiny’s are active during the day, although they’ll seek shade during the hottest periods of summer. They brumate during the cold months of winter.

They are primarily insectivores, but also feed on spiders, centipedes, and small lizards.  I suspect the lizard was waiting to ambush insects drawn the window by my interior lights.

I’m hoping this lizard will be a regular visitor and I hope she brings her friends!

screenshot web page Lizards

Book Note: If your children love lizards as much as I do, they might enjoy my fun science books that feature lizards as the main characters on adventures! Along the way, we learn about these lizards and their environments. Summer is coming and educational, fun adventure tales can help pass the days in a meaningful way. Check them out on the Lizards page.

#elaineapowers  #sonorandesertlizard  #desertspinylizard  #Sceloporus magister  #weloveourlizards  #funscienceeducation  #funsciencebooks

The Very Tall Octopus Agave Plant

I saw these magnificent agave’s in the neighborhood where my chorus practiced outside. I was astounded by the height of the flower stalks that passed the second floor’s windows. I had to know what plant they were! They are Octopus Agave, Agave vilmoriniana.

photo of octopus agaveThese plants are native to northwest Mexico, so it’s not surprising they would also grow well just over the international border.  They are rapid growers, but short-lived. They can grow to four to five feet in height, but live less than ten years. The presence of these stalks indicates these individuals’ lives are coming to an end.

It wasn’t obvious to me why the common name is Octopus Agave. However, it’s because the leaves are recurved, first sloping down and slightly twisting upward.

photo of the base plant

Of course, the flower spikes are what attracted my attention. The stalk grows to 10-20 feet tall. Over six to eight weeks the flowers will bloom and develop plantlets.

photo of flowers of octopus agave plant

 

 

 

 

 

 

An interesting fact is that this agave has a very high concentration of the sapogenin smilagenen. Sometimes, the leaves are cut, dried and fibers beaten to create a brush with its own soap.

This is a striking, beautiful plant that lives fast and dies young, and can clean up, too!

#elainapowers  #lyricpower  #octopusagave

Book Note: I am fascinated by plants and truly enjoy having them all around me. I have written two books about plants, one for ages 8+, Grow Home, Little Seeds, an adventure tale starring seeds that are all looking for just the right place to germinate. It teaches the science about plants and how they grow in a fun way.  The second one, Queen of the Night: the Night-blooming Cereus, is about the magnificent desert plants that all bloom on one night, together. It is colorfully illustrated and written in rhyme, so learning the science is memorable and interesting.

image of the covers of two plant books by Elaine A. PowersI believe learning science in rhyme or a story makes the learning stick. Check my books out today. Someone you know might really enjoy a fun-science book. You can see all my fun-science children’s books on My Books page.

Tomorrow is Earth Day!

What are you doing tomorrow to celebrate Earth Day?

April 22, 2021 is National Earth Day, which, as you probably know, is an annual event to support environmental protection. The goals are to educate people about protecting the world and to learn more about local and global environments. It is a day to realize that we are all part of the earth’s ecosystem and that without maintaining this world, we won’t survive. Earth Day activities aren’t only for adults—children need to be involved, too, because it is their future at stake. Along with outdoor activities, I encourage adults and children to read science-based books together.

The pandemic and resulting shutdowns showed us a lot about the environment. We observed the air clear, and wild animals as they reacted to the release from the constant presence of people. People discovered the value of the ecosystems in their neighborhoods, whether urban, suburban or rural. The plants and animals of nature helped us survive the social isolation. If we couldn’t interact with other humans, we could interact with animals. We could watch plants germinate and grow and we had time to enjoy the wonder of life. I’ve published pictures here of plants in my yard that I enjoyed observing more closely this past year.

photo of barrel cactus
Barrel Cactus

If you must stay inside, I’d like to suggest my science-based, educational, and fun, books–and the books by all the authors found at Lyric Power Publishing.  I like to think my books about plants and animals are adding to the knowledge about the preciousness of the environments that support all living things. I have written three books about conservation and I also publish iguana conservation materials that help people protect iguana environments from not only human impact, but from invasive species, both animals and plants.

book covers conservation

My Conservation books and brochures.

photo of iguana conservation brochure

The Don’t Series

photo of Sonoran Desert Book Covers

My Sonoran Desert plant book.

It’s important to participate in Earth Day. We each need to do what we can to learn how to help protect our world tomorrow–and every day.

#elaineapowers   #lyricpowerpublishing  #earthday   #earthdayactivities

Lights! Camera! Action! (and Scratches!)

With the pandemic, my reptile talks have moved to video, instead of live, presentations. I talk about reptiles every Thursday afternoon at 3:00 p.m. MST at my Facebook page, Elaine Powers. I hope you’ll join me tomorrow for my Reptile-Side Chat, when the green iguanas and I talk about color, chromatophores, and so much more! C’mon–it’ll be fun! Bring the kids–they’ll really enjoy the iguanas.

I’m discovering that some of my reptiles are not thrilled with new technology. I was surprised that Blue Rock Iguana, the star of my in-person talks, did not have any patience with being viewed over my laptop! Usually, he stays still as I hold him for everyone to see.  Not in front of the computer! He had no patience and had had enough of  being held after a few moments. I did get some impressive scratches upon his departure.

photo of a rock iguana hybrid
Blue likes to escape from his enclosure at home, too!

Calliope Green Iguana wasn’t old enough or big enough for me to take along on talks in 2019 and early 2020.  However, she has grown nicely over the past year and is now an excellent size for talks. Even though she happily rides around on my shoulder at home and, as my writing muse, she is delighted to watch me write, she was not willing to be used for a demonstration during my talk. I hope she reconsiders her behavior, since I plan on using her in future talks.

I do have experience with green iguanas in performance. Two of my iguanas were featured in a television commercial for Corazon Tequila. 

Credits & Description: Company: DEVITO/VERDI, USA, New York Creative Director: Sal Devito Copywriter: John Devito Art Director: Manny Santos Agency Producer: Karen Tomlin Director: Kenan Moran Editor: Jerry Fried The TV Commercial Ad titled GREEN IGUANA was done by Tequila New York advertising agency in United States. It was released in the Apr 2006.

The two iguanas who made it on screen were Jubby (blue) and Algae (yellow). However, four iguanas were taken for the shoot, because I didn’t know who would cooperate. The large male, Jimmy, was a disaster (as I suspected he would be, but the director had liked his looks). I was surprised that Noel had no interest, but Jubby and Algae and turned out to be regular hams. They endured take after take, for three hours! They were filmed from a variety of directions, since the director was intrigued by their performances. This resulted in a fifteen second commercial. I was amused that my iguanas had an acting agent, but I, an actor and script writer, did not!

 

photo of green iguana named Algae
Algae, the TV star

Here are Algae and Noel.

photo of green iguana named Noel
Noel, who said no to fame

graphic Facebook Live Reptile Side Chat

I hope you’ll join me tomorrow on Facebook as the greens and I talk about iguanas.

My Computer is Padded: Reptile-Side Chats Here I Come!

In previous posts, I mentioned the lessons learned from doing Facebook Live talks. I was able to continue them last week with my new laptop.  New, because my Sonoran Desert tortoise peed on my old laptop and killed it. I did hold her up for 12 minutes, and she showed great restraint, so it really wasn’t her fault.

Despite having purchased the protection plan with my new computer, I wasn’t taking any chances with last Thursday’s talk, which featured three tortoises! I remembered I had these absorbent pads tucked away in my bathroom closet.  This is what I was saving them for!

With my new laptop safely covered, the chat went on without a soaking! I will now continue my talks, knowing all will be well. (Reptiles are known to be a bit leaky.)

My Reptile-Side Chats are on Thursdays at 3:00 pm MST on Facebook on my personal page, Elaine Powers. Tomorrow, 3/25/21, I’ll be showing the differences between tortoises and turtles live, with the very cute Trevor the Turtle and one of my tortoises. I’ll also show the book I wrote about the differences, Don’t Call Me Turtle! The rhyming stanzas make learning science fun!

If you’d like to watch the recordings of my Reptile-Side Chats (teaching about reptiles, of course!), they are posted on my YouTube channel, Curtis Curly-tail Speaks.

#funscience #elaineapowers #Reptile-Side Chats #tortoiseorturtle

#reptileeducation

a green book cover with an illustration of a tortoise standing on hind legs
There are many differences between tortoises and turtles, and the wise tortoise who narrates this book tells us about ten of those differences–in rhyme. She also says, “Don’t Call Me Turtle!” (Even if my name should be Myrtle.)

March 2nd is NATIONAL READ ACROSS AMERICA DAY

March 2nd, National Read Across America Day, is set aside to encourage kids to read. As an author of fun science-based children’s books, I love the idea of children reading books. I’m happy they’re reading, whether it’s one of my brightly illustrated picture books or adventure tales, or any other authors’ books, comic books, graphic novels. I want kids to just read!

Books can be sources of educational material or fantastical flights of imagination. In this world of visual stimulation through cell phones, computers, television and movies, children should be encouraged to use their imaginations, to come up with mental images all their own.

Children don’t have to read alone. Adults can read with them, children can read to other children, and children can read to pets.

photo of author elaine a powers reading to her tortoise, Myrtle
Myrtle, my red-foot tortoise grew so exasperated by being called a ‘turtle’ that she asked me to write her story. Here we are together, just after the book was published.

I enjoy reading to my reptilian family members. Here I am reading Don’t Call Me Turtle! to Myrtle the tortoise, the book she insisted I write after being called ‘Myrtle the Turtle’ one too many times! It’s a rhyming picture book for the young ones about the many differences between tortoises and turtles—so parents and grandparents learn, too. And the rhymes help the knowledge to stick with the kids. I’m inspired to write fun science books, and you’re welcome. ?

Photo of interior book page of Don't Make Me Fly

Enjoy the vivid, colorful illustrations in the science-filled picture book about roadrunners, Don’t Make Me Fly!

image of book cover children's book Curtis Curly-tail Ship of Sneakers

Or a suspense-filled adventure tale like Curtis Curly-tail and the Ship of Sneakers. Curtis does not resist wanderlust very well—and then he has to find his way across the ocean and back home.

I encourage you to take up reading if you haven’t recently. There’s so much to learn and understand in our world. If you’re looking for something new, check out my books here at elaineapowers.com or all of the authors’ books at Lyric Power Publishing LLC.

At the very least, everybody, grab a book and READ! You will grow, and I like to think that’s why we’re here.

Today is National Tell a Fairy Tale Day– Meet Tabby the Five-Finger Fairy!

Today, February 26, is Tell a Fairy Tale Day. A fairy tale is defined as a children’s story about imaginary or magical beings and lands. Some fairy tales have been around so long they are part of folklore, passed down from storyteller to storyteller. Many of the fairy tales popular today were written in the 1800s; you might be familiar with those written by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.

I am excited to tell you that fairy tales are still being created today. These stories and characters might still be popular two hundred years from now.

Tabby the Five-Finger Fairy is a new magical being, a fairy who lives in the common Five-finger tree, Tabebuia bahamensis, found only in the Lucayan Archipelago. The land in my fairy tale is very real, but it is a wondrous, I might even say, magical, place: The Bahamas. It is hoped by Scott Johnson, Tabby’s creator, and The Bahamas National Trust, and me that Tabby (illustrated by Nicholas Thorpe), who loves Bahamian wildlife, bush teas, and making friends with animals and humans alike, will become a symbol for conservation and environmental education, not only in the islands but around the world.

photo of the cover of the book Tabby and Clean: Unexpected Friends
A Magical Chapter Book about
Tabby, the Five-Finger Fairy and Her
Adventures with Cleo, a Bahamian Boa
Reading Level: Ages 8+
52 Pages
Tabby Comes Alive in
Illustrations by Nick Thorpe
Tabby, the Five-Finger Fairy, who comes from the Five-Finger Tree, Tabebuia bahamensis, loves the native plants, animals and people of The Bahamas. She makes friends wherever she goes! Glossary of plants and animals included.

I encourage you to meet this new fairy tale character, Tabby, and enjoy her story aloud with another who appreciates warm tales of adventure and friendship, in Tabby and Cleo: Unexpected Friends. These stories are what I do: making science fun by weaving scientific information into adventure tales or rhyming stanzas. Enjoy a new fairy-tale story, on this special fairy-tale day.

Having Fun With The Mysterious Massachusetts Potatoes

With all the bad news today, unusual stories bring us a lot of entertainment, probably more than they should. They also provide opportunities for puns, as you will read in this tale about the baked potatoes found at the Wayland Free Public Library in Massachusetts.

The first cooked russet potato appeared on a Monday with a second arriving on the following Thursday. The library humorously suggested that the potatoes were part of a rare potato-migration. They are asking people to keep their eyes peeled for whoever left them. Perhaps the russets were rustled?

The library has been having great fun with the potato mystery. Books about cooking potatoes have become very popular. So far, the culprit has not been identified and no more potatoes have shown up—but Mr. Potato Head is looking for his friends.

You can still follow this developing story at the Wayland Library page.

Photo above is courtesy of the Wayland Free Public Library.

Book Note: I do enjoy funny stories, which is why I wrote How NOT to Photograph a Hummingbird, after watching a man at the Tucson Botanical Gardens race around, trying to capture a photo of a hummingbird that seemed to be taunting him. In my story, he is injured by Sonoran Desert flora and fauna, but remains undaunted in his efforts. Of course, I also include a glossary of the plants and animals in the story because science education is what I’m all about. I just love to make it fun for all the budding scientists out there!

illustration of a hummingbird on a cactus
A Humorous Tale Introducing the Plants
and Animals of the Sonoran Desert
“I’ll have a long-term memory of this visit.
Maybe a permanent one.”
For All Ages
Reading Level Age 8+
26 pages
Glossary of Minerals, Flora and Fauna
Illustrated by Anderson Atlas
A bumbling visitor to Southern Arizona is repeatedly injured when trying to photograph a mischievous hummingbird, as the Sonoran Desert conspires against him.
Have a laugh while enjoying learning about the plants and animals of Southern Arizona. Includes glossary.

Horse Care, Sirens, and a Desert Singalong

One afternoon about 3:00 p.m., I heard sirens on a nearby main road.  The sirens went on for quite a while and included several pitches. The vehicles probably included those from the police and fire departments, and perhaps an ambulance. I listened as I brushed my horse, Button.

Photo of a Missouri Foxtrotter horse
Button, my 1000 pound friend!

She turned to listen to the noise, too–not that she hadn’t heard sirens before, but these did seem to be excessive.

Then, voices nearby were raised in a chorus that matched the pitches of the sirens! The large pack of coyotes in the area joined in the song. I usually hear the coyotes’ chorus at dawn or dusk, not mid-afternoon, but they added spontaneous flourishes and harmony to the sirens that midday. One ran up and down the scale in an amazing arpeggio. It was a magical choral moment.

They typically call to each other in greeting to help them stay in contact and reunite. On that afternoon, did they believe the sirens were pack members calling hello, or did they simply grab an opportunity to enjoy a musical interlude in the afternoon?

Book Note: I live in the Sonoran Desert and enjoy the wildlife immensely. I have written three books on Sonoran Desert wildlife, one for little ones about desert tortoises entitled Don’t Call Me Turtle; and two others for all ages, called Don’t Make Me Fly about roadrunners, and Don’t Make Me Rattle, about rattlesnakes. They are written in rhyme and vividly illustrated to make learning the science throughout fun.

These books make excellent gifts and can be used for school projects, too. Check out my ‘Don’t Series’ today.

Fossil Iguana Burrow in The Bahamas?

Even though Rock Iguanas (Cyclura nubila caymanensis) make their dens and escape holes in the limestone karst of the Caribbean islands, the females still need sand to lay their eggs. Females dig a burrow tunnel, lay their eggs in a chamber, then back fill it in—the iguana mothers cover over the entrance area to hide the presence of the eggs. I have watched females dig their dens and after their concealment efforts, I was unable to find the burrow entrance. Once the eggs hatch, the baby iguanas dig their way out of the tunnel to the surface.

Researchers have published an article stating they found a fossil iguana burrow on an island in The Bahamas: First known trace fossil of a nesting iguana (Pleistocene) The Bahamas  by Anthony J. Martin, Dorothy Stearns, Meredith J. Whitten, Melissa M. Hage, Michael Page, and Arya Basu.

Illustration by Anthony Martin of prehistoric iguana burrow

Illustration shows a cross section of the prehistoric iguana burrow, and how the surrounding landscape may have looked during the Late Pleistocene Epoch. (Credit: Anthony Martin.)

Anthony Martin is shown at the top of the page next to the trace fossil of the Pleistocene iguana burrow. (Credit: Melissa Hage.) The fossilized burrow dates back to the Late Pleistocene Epoch, about 115,000 years ago. The island still has iguanas, but they are critically endangered.

“After further investigation, Martin and his co-authors determined that the trace fossil he noticed on the limestone outcrop was that of a nesting iguana burrow. Ample evidence, including a nearby fossil land-crab burrow discovered by Hage, showed that the outcrop was a former inland sand dune, where iguanas prefer to lay their eggs.”

It is reasonable to assume fossilized sand dens would both be difficult to create and to be discovered, so if this is an ancient iguana nesting den, it is very exciting. Several iguana researchers doubt the conclusions of the authors, however. One point in question is that iguanas’ nesting dens are not dug straight down – they angle down slightly from the surface until the desired incubation temperature is found. They nesting chambers are not dug straight down as they appear to be in the fossil.

But that’s the great thing about science. Ideas are proposed and then evidence for and against the conclusions are presented and discussed.

photo San Salvador rock iguanas are critically endangered. Credit Anthony Martin.

The modern-day San Salvador rock iguanas are critically endangered. Credit: Anthony Martin.

One conclusion is certain: The San Salvador Rock Iguana is critically endangered. Hopefully, the current population can be preserved and not become known only as a fossil species.

For more information on iguanas and lizards and tortoises and turtles and snakes and roadrunners and desert plants and even a very special fairy (!), check out all the books here at elaineapowers.com.

February 1st is National Serpent Day!

I came across this beauty, a Western Diamondback Rattler, on a recent ride in the Sonoran Desert.

Ooh, February 1st is National Serpent Day! Some of my favorite animals are serpents. I grew up with snakes as family pets, mostly garter snakes, because my brother was allergic to fur. We cuddled them like you would any other pet.

The term serpent usually refers to a large snake, often in a negative way. In my books, I try to educate people about the value of snakes, to respect them, not to fear them. Religious beliefs have, unfortunately, been used to persecute snakes, which are important to the ecosystem of the human environment. Imagine a world overrun with rodents.

One of the misunderstood serpents in the Sonoran Desert, where I currently reside, is the rattlesnake.  You can learn all about them in Don’t Make Me Rattle! You’ll learn about what great mothers’ rattlers are, how they collect drinking water, what their venom is really used for and many other interesting facts.

book cover graphic of rattlesnake
There’s Much More to Me Than You Know! I Am Shy and My Rattle is Only a Warning: Please, Stay Away! For All Ages Reading Level 8+
Bold and Vibrant Illustrations by Nicholas Thorpe
Written in Rhyme 40 pages

Another misunderstood and persecuted snake is the rainbow boa of The Bahamas. I’ve written a couple of books about the gorgeous rainbow boa.

A brown book cover with illustrations of bahamian boa snakes
Tabby, the Five-Finger Fairy, is a good friend to everyone she meets. After Cleo, a Bahamian Boa, rescues her in their first book, Tabby & Cleo: Unexpected Friends, Tabby goes on to teach us about the natural history of the often misunderstood endemic Bahamian Boas, which have an important place in Bahamian life.

One is more of a natural history book, The Bahamian Boa: A Tabby Tale, while the other is an adventure tale, Tabby and Cleo: Unexpected Friends. It includes Bahamian folk tales and a study of human nature and is a true tale of friendship. Don’t worry, the adventure tale is full of science, as well.

Cleo, a Bahamian boa, one of the misunderstood animals of The Bahamas, rescues Tabby, a Five-Finger Fairy. In trying to find Cleo a safe place to live, this unlikely pair help each other and the people they meet. Tabby loves Bahamian wildlife, Bahamian bush teas, and making friends with both animals and humans alike. This book focuses on important conservation issues that threaten Bahamian wildlife, such as wildlife smuggling, habitat loss, invasive species and human intolerance of animals such as snakes and spiders.

May I suggest you get to know more about serpents and the important roles they play in their ecosystems, whether in person in your neighborhood or with a good book?  Here are a few of the serpents I’ve known personally.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes

Baby Rattlesnake born in garage

This rattler was born in my garage.

photo Sonoran Desert Rattler

Met this magnificent rattler while walking my horse.

Bahamian Boas

photo of New Providence Boa

A baby New Providence boa in The Bahamas.

On the Lyric Power Publishing LLC website, www.lyricpower.net, you’ll discover snake-related workbooks. such as this one, My Book About the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake.

Book cover with photo of western diamondback rattler
Something for everyone from kindergarten through grade 3! Forty-six pages of fascinating information on the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. Worksheets and project sheets include snake anatomy, crossword puzzle, word search, predators and prey; assemble a rattlesnake analog clock; math sheets including line graph, tally sheet, pictograph, and bar graph; THREE Venn-diagrams with corresponding fact sheets; life cycle activity pages, and reading comprehension.

What Makes Sunsets So Spectacular?

Sunsets can be spectacular in Tucson, Arizona. Bright colors predominate, such as the red one above. Sometimes, they’re dark red, sometimes orangish-red like on this night.

Why are these sunsets red? Because of particulates in the air. The colors of a sunset are caused by the scattering of light’s wavelengths. Stuff in the air like dust, smoke, pollution, and water change the intensity of the light, i.e. scatter the light. However, the wavelengths don’t scatter equally.  The short wavelengths, blue and violet, scatter away easily, so we can’t see them. The other colors of red, orange and yellow are able to make it through.

The dust from the Sonoran desert monsoons can enhance the red color. It’s good to know that the dust has a positive purpose.

Even though our sunsets result merely from light scattering, their brilliance can be quite enjoyable.

photo of sunrise in tucson az

The same scattering effect happens at sunrise. The light at sunrise has even farther to travel through the air because the sun is low on the horizon.

It’s nice to know why the sky can be so colorful. Understanding the science doesn’t diminish our enjoyment of the bright colors at all, does it?

The Sonoran Desert has inspired me to write many fun science books. Check them out on the My Books tab today.

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There’s a Rainbow in that Dying Cactus

The saguaro pictured above is dying. I was curious about where the colors were coming from. I learned the green color in the photo above is, of course, from chlorophyll; the orange is carotenoids and the purple in the rainbow is betacyanins.

Plants live and die like all living organisms. Some die of old age, but some die when they are young, like this saguaro. A rainbow of colors is revealed as the cactus dies. This is a similar process to what happens to the deciduous tree leaves that change color with the coming of winter, but I wondered what pigments are found in cacti.

The green is chlorophyll, present in the stem for photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process which converts light energy into chemical energy that is used to fuel the plant’s activities. As the chlorophyll fades away, the other pigments are revealed.

Associated with the chlorophyll are the yellow to orange carotenoids. As the green chlorophyll degrades, the carotenoids become visible. These pigments act as photoprotective agents as well as additional light-harvesting pigments, enhancing the light collection for photosynthesis.
The nice purplish colors seen here are the betacyanins, reddish to violet betalain pigments. These pigments may act as a screen, protecting the plant tissue, and may also serve an an antioxidant. Fungicidal properties have also been suggested. Betalains are most obvious in the cactus flowers and fruits, such as the yellow-orange betaxanthins and red-violet betacyanins.
So, the rainbow-in-death colors seen in this saguaro are produced by the pigments revealed as the green chlorophyll is reduced.

Book Note: If you’d like to learn about another fascinating Sonoran Desert plant, I wrote Queen of the Night: Night-Blooming Cereus, about the beautiful plants that bloom once a year, all on the same night, usually in July. The blooming is a big deal here in Southern Arizona and something fun and mysterious to learn about. I love to write fun science books (I believe the learning stays when it’s fun), so I wrote Cereus in rhyme. Check it out here.

image of yellow green book cover about the plant Cereus
The Night-Blooming Cereus: An Amazon No. 1 Book!

 

Photo of night-blooming cereus in Tucson AZ
Photo courtesy of ThisisTucson.com

November 6th is National Nachos Day. YUM!

November 6 is National Nachos Day, a day set aside to celebrate a delicious culinary delight. Nachos are crunchy with melted cheese, a perfect combination of taste and texture. Nachos were created by “Nacho” Anaya from Piedras Negras, Mexico in 1943.

Over the years, other ingredients have been added to the tortilla chips and cheese. Even though I regularly enjoy beef on my mine, my favorite is seafood nachos topped with shrimp and crab meat. I’ve found just about anything goes well with the basic chips and cheese.

Try being creative with your nachos.  Today, go ahead and nosh on some nachos!

(Above image courtesy of José Vanegas López from Pixabay.)

And when you and the kids are done with the nachos, check out the activity sheets and workbooks at my publisher’s website, Lyric Power Publishing LLC. They’re entertaining, educational and economical and were created to coordinate with my fun science books for children.

book cover illustration with two lizards
The Lime Lizard Lads, Gene and Bony, LOVE exploring their island home, where the bravest thing possible is to go see the Dragon of Nani Cave. An Adventure Tale For Readers Age 8+ 48 pages Fun and Colorful Illustrations by Anderson Atlas of the many animals they encounter, including the Dragon!
book cover for workbook "My Book About Rocks"
Forty-one pages of information, worksheets, and activity sheets that will give students in grades 2-5 an all-around understanding of rocks and minerals and how they are formed. Includes three word searches, a crossword puzzle, opinion essay writing, group chart activity, cut-and-paste the rock cycle, check lists for collecting rocks in the field and sorting and classifying them in the classroom. Homework project: How to build a sedimentary sandwich, with full instructions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Reptile Awareness Day Should Be Appreciation Day!

October 21 is National Reptile Awareness Day. I would prefer the term ‘Appreciation’ instead of ‘Awareness.’ Many people are aware of reptiles but don’t appreciate them. They often state they hate reptiles—especially snakes!

image of Zoe tortoise
Zoe, who lives in the Sonoran Desert with me, stars in a video on my You Tube Page.

This day is for celebrating all 10,000 species of reptiles, from the cute, colorful gecko to the unnerving rattlesnake, and to educate and raise awareness to the threats suffered by these fascinating beings. Reptiles are equally as important to the Earth’s ecosystems as are mammals, birds, amphibians and fish. Their presence helps to ensure a healthy environment, but they are almost always underappreciated.

Sometimes, people’s actions toward reptiles make me angry.  A few years ago, it was the number of Sister Isle Rock Iguanas killed in one week by cars on Cayman Brac. I knew many of those iguanas by name from my work in iguana conservation as a citizen scientist. This led to me writing the book, Silent Rocks.

Recently, a FL poster on Facebook displayed a photo of a decapitated corn snake, asking if it was a coral snake. A man who hated snakes had killed it out of fear–a harmless, native corn snake who would have eaten the rodents around their home, preventing damage to their electrical wires and infestations of disease. Despite several responders assuring the poster that it was a harmless, nonvenomous snake, popular as a pet, others insisted it had to be a venomous coral snake or cottonmouth. Why do we always assume the worse when it comes to snakes?

Sadly, the RV park in FL has a history of needlessly fearing animals. A mother alligator had shared the rearing of her hatchlings with the residents, only to be killed when she took a walk down a park road one day. Not threatening anyone, merely using the road as a thoroughfare. I believe they should have known better because they knew her.

I want to write books about these episodes, but how do I present these occurrences in an educational way that people would relate to and not be offended by? Inspiration will come to me. But obviously, educational books about reptiles are still very necessary. I get disheartened by people’s attitude that reptiles are “disposable” animals. I hope that through my books, I can bring people who “hate” reptiles to “disliking but respecting” them.

So, please appreciate all reptiles, even those you may not like. Maybe do some online research about the animal you dislike or are afraid of. Learn about their species and life-cycle and predators and offspring and what they bring to the circle of life. We don’t fear what we understand.

And remember that we’re all part of the great ecosystem of Earth.

Ever Set a Pumpkin on Fire? In Your Kitchen?

My reptiles like hard squash, so I cook pumpkin, butternut and acorn squash until they are soft and squishy. The easiest way to cook them is whole in the microwave. I don’t bother to cut off the stem. I rinse off the outside, plop it in, and cook until it is soft.

Photo of Rhino Iguana standing on a tortoise
My pumpkin flambe, please?

I was cooking the third of the ‘Buy 3-for-$5’ pumpkins while writing at the kitchen table. Good thing, because I smelled smoke. Not the flavorful aroma of cooking vegetables but the odor of burning wood.  With the number of heat lamps in my house, I do worry about the wooden enclosures catching fire from a misplaced heat lamp. I immediately began sniffing for the direction the odor, which led my eyes to the microwave, where I saw that the pumpkin stem was in flames! (Inside the microwave, mind you.)

I ran over and unplugged the microwave, grabbed the pumpkin and poured water on the stem in the sink. The inside of the oven was scorched but had not been engulfed in flames, for which I was very thankful. Fortuitously, the pumpkin was cooked to perfect squishiness, so I would be able to feed the reptiles. The stem, however, was ash.

After all the squash I had cooked in microwaves, why did this one catch fire?

Microwaves produce an electric field that does the cooking. If small amounts of metals or minerals are present, they can enhance the electric field, sort of like a lightning rod. Pumpkins contain minerals; after all they are very nutritious. It is possible that the minerals in the stem, a conductive material, along with the extended stem, created a stronger electric field than the air around it. The dry stem was definitely flammable.

Poof! Kind of like a Pumpkin Flambe happened in my microwave.

Apparently, flames can be produced by many fruits and vegetables, but my advice is, “Don’t try this at home!”

Then, it was back to writing. Books, blog posts, newsletters–I am a busy writer, especially if you add in the mystery novels I’m working on. I hope you’ll check out my fun children’s science books on the My Books page. My publisher sells activity sheets and workbooks to accompany them, at Lyric Power Publishing LLC. They are jam-packed with lots of fun and interesting supplemental science education activities.

 

Umm . . . Ever Wanted to Lick a Toad’s Back?

Toad image courtesy of ockienot88 from Pixabay

Are you familiar with the word entheogen? I wasn’t either until I heard it mentioned in a talk about the Sonoran Desert toad, also known as the Colorado River toad, Incilius alvarius.

You may have heard of this toad without knowing much else: It’s the toad made famous by claims that if you licked its back, you would experience a hallucinogenic effect, due to entheogen. Entheogen is a psychoactive substance that produces alterations in perception, mood, cognition or behavior for the purpose of enhancing spiritual development. The compound found specifically in this species of toad that causes this effect is 5-MeO-DMT (5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine).

The toad only produces these toxins for defensive purposes, not for human use as an entheogen. You must harass the toad to get it to secrete its toxins and, for the record, harassing animals is just wrong. By the way, licking the toad will not get you high, or closer to your deity. And, if your dog tries to eat one of these toads, it could be fatal. Native predators have learned to avoid the toad’s back, grabbing its prey by the feet and eating the underbelly.

Sonoran Desert toads also produce the related toxin bufotenin (5-HO-DMT). These toxins are exudates from the parotoid gland behind the toad’s eyes.

Now you know what “entheogen” means. Try to include it your next conversation. I love the challenge of new words and try to inject them as often as I can. I guess that means I am a writer. Well, you can kind of tell that on My Books page, too. Still, to think a tiny curly-tail lizard could inspire me to write his story and that THAT would lead to all these science books that I’ve written to be FUN is really something! We just never know where life is going to take us.

Enjoy the quest!

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My Books By Category