Saturday, September 26, 2009

Do Penguins Get Cold?

Just the thought of an environment where temperatures may drop to as low as -95 degrees Fahrenheit is enough to make me throw on a sweater, turn up my heat, and brew myself a cup of hot chocolate. But for some species of penguins, that environment is home, and they don't even have scarves to put on, let alone sweaters. That being said, these feathered, flightless creatures beg the questions, "How do penguins keep from freezing to death?" and even so, "don't they ever get cold?"

It seems that there are actually several factors that keep penguins from freezing to death. The website Cool Antarctica explains that one reason they are able to survive the brutal cold is because of their size. Emperor Penguins can weigh as much as 66 pounds, and though they aren't huge animals, they are large enough to combat the cold. "The larger the animal, the smaller the surface-area to volume ratio," reads the website, "so the less relative area there is to lose heat." If this doesn't make sense, just think of a glass of water in the freezer. The more water in the cup, the longer it will take to freeze. The larger the animal, the longer it will take to cool down.

In addition to their size, Penguins have two built in features that come in very handy at below freezing temperatures. Firstly, a layer of fat under the surface of their skin. According to Cool Antarctica, this fat layer is like insulation for penguins and is especially crucial when the birds are in the water. "It keeps all warm blooded, cold water animals operational down to 25.8 degrees Fahrenheit," says the site. But surely Antarctic waters get much much colder than that. How do the penguins know to get out of the water before it drops below 25.8? Well, Cool Antarctic explains, "you can't get sea water colder than that without it being solid and then it would difficult for anything to swim in it!"

A second feature important to the survival of penguins in the cold are their feathers. Though they do little to protect penguins in the water, their feathers are extremely useful on land as both a second layer of insulation, and a way of drying off. "Penguin feathers aren't like the large flat feathers that flying birds have, they are short with an under-layer of fine woolly down," says Cool Antarctica. "Penguin feathers are also very good at shedding water when the bird emerges from the sea. They overlap and give a good streamlined effect in the water and excellent wind-shedding abilities when on the land," reads the site.

But surely Penguins get a little chilly sometimes, right? Yes, especially their feet, which don't have that warm layer of fat to protect them. Obviously, if their feet got too cold, they wouldn't be able to move them, which would lead to inactivity, and even bigger problems. However, Penguins have a built in mechanism to deal with that also. According to Cool Antarctica, the muscles that penguins use to operate their feet, are not actually in their feet, but rather in an area of the body that is protected by the penguin's fat layer and feathers. "This means that it doesn't matter if the feet and flippers get really cold as they can still be operated normally by regions that are fully functional and at normal body temperature," explains the site.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Best Lede from Discover Magazine

My favorite lede this week was from the article Jupiter's Bizarre Moon Our Best Hope for Finding Extraterrestrial Life? by Andrew Lawler.

I like this lede because it creates intense imagery in the mind of the reader; uses startling words like crackling, asphyxiate, and plunge; and finds creative ways to insert important scientific data without disengaging the reader.

The lede is as follows:

The crackling radiation would kill you in 10 minutes--that is, if you did not first asphyxiate in the nearly nonexistent atmosphere, die of exposure to the --300 degree Fahrenheit temperature, or plunge into a thousand-foot-deep icy crevice. Jupiter’s moon Europa is a forbidding world, yet NASA intends to devote billions of dollars over the next decade to getting there. At the center of this effort will be the most complicated orbital explorer ever built, each of its components carefully armored against the deadly stream of particles in Jupiter’s massive wake. The orbiter will require six years to reach its destination. Then, when it arrives at Europa, engineers will consider the mission successful if it survives for just three months of exploration before shorting out.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Good, Kitty!

My cat, Finn, and I have a rather nice pest control system in my house. He spots the unwelcome insects and alerts me to their presence by jumping about frantically and crying out, "eh eh eh oow!" I then locate them, usually on the wall, and whack them with my music of the Caribbean textbook. Finn waits close by until the insect falls the floor; He then inhales it like a vacuum, licks his lips, and wags his tail as I say, "good kitty!"

It was during a procedure of this nature that Finn and I encountered the Mustard White, a type of moth that lives in various regions of the eastern United States, as well as, north into Canada.

The moth, who is known as
Pieris oleracea in the scientific community, was a little over an inch in diameter and solid white in color. The website, Butterflies and Moths of North America, explains that, "[The] summer form is pure white above and below. [The] spring form has [a] black-tipped upper fore-wing. [The] underside of [the] hind-wing and apex of [the] forewing have veins edged with yellow-green or gray-green."

I undoubtedly saw the summer form of the moth, which makes sense since I saw it in late August. The picture above, however, is of the spring form of the creature.

The aforementioned website also explains that the male moths seek out females to reproduce with. Then, the females lay their eggs on the undersides of plants in the Mustard family (hence their name). The eggs hatch into caterpillars which eat the leaves of the Mustard plant. After hiding in a Crysalis and hibernating for some time, they reemerge as Mustard White moths. The adult moths drink the nectar from Mustard plants and have an average wing span of about one to just over two inches. They generally live in wooded areas, fields, or along streams.

While I was researching the Mustard White, I found that some resources were referring to it as a moth, while others called it a butterfly. I have always felt that butterflies are angelic, graceful creatures, and moths are butterflies that have chosen the dark side and become evil, disgusting creatures. It seems, however, that the difference between the two is not as cut and dry as I suspected.

The website, explains that, "There is no real taxonomic difference between butterflies and moths. Both are classified in the order Lepidoptera. This order contains over 100 families of insects worldwide, some of which are moths and some of which are butterflies. However, there are some differences in physical and behavioral characteristics that are easy to learn and recognize." Please see this website for a detailed list of these differences.

Lastly is a piece of information that I was unable to confirm with any reliable internet source, but I believe it to be true based on my own experience; Mustard Whites are a favorite evening snack of house cats.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Best Lede...

The best lede from the Science Times this week is by far the one from, "In a Shark's Tooth, a New Family Tree."

Normally I am not a fan of using a quote in a lede, but this article is the exception. Sean B. Carrol uses one short, yet intense quote from the movie Jaws to draw the reader in and almost guarantee that he or she will read the entire article, hanging on every word. What's most interesting is that the quote isn't even a complete sentence, but it simply doesn't matter because the visual is so intense that you must find out the context of the quote.

The article begins:

"Like a locomotive with a mouth full of butcher knives."

Monday, September 14, 2009

Aw, Skunks!

Last night I was driving through Vermont, on my way to the Grand Isle Ferry. It was about 11pm when a skunk scurried across the road in front of my car. Obviously I am familiar with what a skunk is, and I recognized it right away; however, I have chosen to write about it because this was the first time I had ever actually seen a live skunk in the wild (although I have certainly smelt them before).

I caught quite a good glimpse of it as it passed in front of my vehicle, before disappearing into the darkness. It was a cute little black and white creature with a big bushy tail, and it reminded me a bit of a stuffed animal that had come to life.

The striped skunk, whose scientific name is, Mephitis mephitis, is a member of the weasel family and is a nocturnal animal who prefers to reside in brushy or wooded areas or in underground burrows, according to this informative website. This site also explains that female skunks have an average litter size of 4 to 7 young, which are born blind and with little hair. Their average lifespan is about six years.

Of course, the skunk is infamous for the horrid smell it sprays as a defense mechanism. The Wildlife Orphanage explains that skunks spray when they feel frightened and that they can spray their obnoxious, lingering scent up to ten feet.

The Striped Skunk Natural History Notebook explains that, “Skunks have few natural enemies; the Great Horned Owl is the main one. Other carnivores tend to avoid them unless they are desperate for food.” Perhaps the potential odor of the skunk kills the appetites of most other animals…

Aside from their smell, They are actually very cute! Click here to view photos...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I just finished reading “Birth Order: Fun to Debate, but How Important?” on the New York Times website. While it is a somewhat interesting topic, I don’t feel that the article made any groundbreaking or reliable assertions.

The first several paragraphs are spent discussing obvious ideas. Of course birth order is important because as the article points out,”it is said that no two children grow up in the same family, because each sibling’s experience is so different.” Shouldn’t the author avoid making statements that he himself acknowledges have been said before?

To write an article that points out that the order in which children in a family are born affects who they are is like writing an article that says that the century in which you were born affects who you are. DUH!

The article then tries to suggest that birth order may affect IQ. In a way this is obvious too because if a first child is born into a more stimulating environment than a later child, it would make sense that the first child would have a better chance of developmental success. However, I do not buy that first born children are more intelligent simply because they were born first. This seems a bit ridiculous especially since the evidence offered leaves a lot to be desired:

“Norwegian study, published in 2007, which found that eldest siblings’ I.Q.’s averaged about three points higher than their younger brothers’. (The study made use of Norwegian military records, so all the subjects were male.)

This is just one study of an isolated group of people who all happen to be male and of the same nationality. What about random selection of subjects? What about more subjects!?

Lastly, I did not like the author’s choice to use the first person in this article. I felt like his personal insights were irrelevant and annoying.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Doomed Planet...

This week I read the article, “A Doomed Planet, and Scientists Are Lucky to Have Spotted It,” by Kenneth Chang on I chose this article because I have taken two years of astronomy, and I find the cosmos intriguing.

Some of the information conveyed in the article blew my mind (as astronomy often does; I think that’s why I like it), such as the fact that a million years is considered, “an eye blink on the cosmic scale.” It’s also incredible to think about a planet that orbits its star in less than 24 hours, while it takes Earth an entire year to orbit our sun. This demonstrates the proximity of WASP-18b to its star.

In addition to being interesting, this article was also well written. Chang did a good job of putting probability into perspective with his example of the likelihood of, “drawing two red aces in a row from a full deck of cards.” I also appreciate the inclusion of the parenthetical information about WASP-18b being located in the constellation of Phoenix. Sometimes as a journalist you acquire a piece of non-essential information that you just can’t help but want to share with your reader.

Lastly, I enjoyed the link to the journal, Nature. I’m not sure that I have ever read a science journal letter before, and it was neat to hear about the astronomer’s findings in their own words. I can see how journals are incredibly useful resources for science writers.