Mingling with Manatees

What is the most lovable sea mammal in the world? There are so many it is hard to pick, but at the top of the list is the Manatee. I once had the opportunity to swim with a baby manatee in Crystal River, Florida under the guidance of Snorkel with Manatees, a company that provides boating trips to visit these creatures in their natural habitat.  From the boat, we could see the air bubbles from the manatee’s nose as it came to the surface to breath. This told us it was time to slip into the water. Once in the water, our group of four tried to be as still as possible by floating on the surface. All of a sudden, as I was peering through my mask, the manatee surfaced in front of me! This baby was as big as us! She was just as curious about us as we were about her! We all hung out with her for a while as she dove up and down and played on the boat ladder!  Her mom eventually came back to get her. Words just can describe what an awesome experience this was!    IMG_1168 copy

Manatees are very unique and are considered a ‘strange’ species because they belong to a small and unusual group of herbivorous mammals that live underwater- herbivorous aquatic mammals. Evolutionary biologists are interested in manatees because they are an evolutionary link to the more common land-grazing mammals such as the elephant. Scientist can also trace their evolutionary lineage to grass-eating land mammals that lived at least 50 million years ago!

IMG_1149 copyManatees live in the warm shallow rivers, bays, canals and coastal areas and are also known as ‘sea cows’.  They prefer water above 68 degrees Fahrenheit and will rarely be found in water below that temperature.  A day in the life of these gentle creatures consists of slowly swimming, eating, and resting. Manatees usually swim at a speed of 5 miles per hour, however they can swim 15 miles per hour in short bursts.  Believe it our not, manatees have fingernails and if you could see an x-ray of a front flipper, it looks very much like the bone structure of a human hand.

As a herbivore, manatees eat water grasses, weeds, and algae. A manatee can eat a tenth of its weight in just 24 hrs. Manatees weigh anywhere from 440 to 1,300 pounds (lbs.) which would translate to eating anywhere from 44 to 130 lbs. of aquatic grasses, weeds, and algae every day! For comparison, do you think you eat a tenth of your body weight in 24 hours? Human beings typically eat 4 lbs. per day on average.  If you weighed 70 lbs. that means you would eat 7 lbs. of food!  Humans definitely don’t eat as much as manatees!

The Florida Manatee is probably the best known species, but Manatees can also be found in the marshy coastal areas and rivers of the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, Amazon Basin, and West Africa. The Amazonian Manatee, unlike some other species of Manatee, never ventures into salt water. In Puerto Rico you can kayak with manatees in Salinas Bay. While kayaking, you mainly see and hear their noses breaking through the water to breath.  Once they take a breath, their noses valves that close to keep the water out while underwater. Don’t you wish your nose could do that too?IMG_1191 copy

Manatees are classified as endangered animals which means we don’t have many left in the wild and that they are protected by laws to help sustain and increase their population. There are an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 manatees living in Florida waters at this time. Manatees are vulnerable to motor boats and fishing nets. In Florida, there are signs reminding boaters to be on the look-out for manatees as to avoid accidental collisions with this slow moving creatures.  Learn more as to how you can help the manatees at the Human Society website and the Save the Manatee Club started by singer Jimmy Buffet and former US Senator Bob Graham. Remember if your wastewater drains to a river…where do rivers go?  You got it- they drain into oceans! Using environmentally friendly cleaners and using your drains and toilets for only the intended purposes, are two things you can do that help many aquatic habitats stay healthy including the mantees’!

Look for “Manatee Math” coming to a Science Bug Blog post soon!

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Figuring Out the Largest Animal with NO Teeth!

Blue Whale

Blue Whale

Blue whales are the largest animals alive today and they have no teeth to eat food! Instead blue whales are filter feeders. There are a total of 15 types of whales that eat this way. These species are known as Baleen whales, because they have baleen plates instead of teeth. These plates are made up of stiff hairs that look like combs and are used to filter food from ocean water. Baleen whales filter small fish, crustaceans known as krill, and plankton from the ocean water. Baleen whales swallow large amounts of ocean water containing the food and then push the water out of their mouths through the baleen. While letting the water out of their mouths, the baleen keeps the food in their mouths. Humpback whales, gray whales, right whales, mink whales, sei whales, Byrde’s whales, and fin whales are all Baleen Whales.

Humpback Whale showing off its baleen inside its mouth!

Humpback Whale showing off its baleen inside its mouth!

Scientists in Canada estimated that a Blue Whale can consume 480 million calories of food in a single dive. The average person ONLY consumes 2,000 calories per day. In one day, this whale will consume around 12,500 pounds of food to fuel its 300,000 pound (150 ton) body! Feeding occurs eight months of the year and then these whales live off their bubbler reserves for the other four months. Most of the time they dive to a depth of 300 feet to capture their prey.

Now these numbers don’t mean much unless you compare them to numbers and amounts that are easier to picture! Compared to blue whales an average adult eats about 4.7 pounds of food in one day. Additionally, 2,000 people who each weighed 150 pounds would equal the weight of one blue whale! If 2,000 people are too hard to picture, a blue whale is roughly the weight of 25 African bull elephants!

There are a lot more numbers that can be applied to the blue whale that are just amazing- like their hearts weight roughly 1 ton and are about the size of Science Bug! There are about 12,000 blue whales swimming throughout the oceans today where there used to be around 200,000 to 300,000 whales.  Before you go off becoming a blue whale expert, try your hand at the math problems below to see what else you can “figure out” about this amazing animal!

Ariel View of Blue Whale in the Indian Ocean

Ariel View of Blue Whale in the Indian Ocean

1. If you round up the amount of food consumed by the average person, how many times more does a Blue Whale eat?

2. What percentage of its body weight does a blue whale eat in one day?

3. How many tons of food does a blue whale eat using the US short ton conversion (1 ton= 2,000 pounds)?

4. Using the numbers above, what is the average weight of a male African elephant weigh?

5. Can you convert the weight of the African elephant from pounds to tons?

6.If a small dog or large cat weighs 15 pounds, how many would you need to equal the weight of the blue whale? African elephant? And the 150-pound person?

7. If the depth that the whale dives to get its food was compared to football field with the 0 yard line (end zone) being at the surface, what yard line would the whale be diving to?

Look for the answers in an up-coming blog post! Send us your answers prior to us posting ours and get your name in the post!

Summer of the Toads

I never encountered as many toads as I did this summer. I knew they were not frogs because toads have bumps on their skin and most frogs have smooth skin. My cat, Sebastian even found an American Toad under our deck. I immediately thought something was wrong with the toad (see photo below), since it had some brown slime coming from it’s mouth!


I later learned that toads have the ability to secrete a poisonous slim when they are scared.  This toad also puffed itself up to look bigger.  This is another part of their defense strategies.

American toads also have special glands, called paratoid glands, which look like bumps on their head. These glands produce a foul-smelling, toxic chemical. This is another defense mechanism that keeps predators from trying to eat it.

Toads start their life in the water and then spend the rest of their lives on land.  Toads change from a tadpole to a toad. Some species can do this in only 12 days while others need a full year.  When a young toad grows, it’s skin does not grow, so it needs to shed its skin. Ever wonder why no one has brought in a toad skin for show and tell?  Toads actually eat their old skin!

Toads also like to bury into the dirt during the hottest parts of the day or for protection. They can dig backwards with their hind legs.  Imagine my surprise to dig up this little toad in my flower garden. The dirt was moving and then a Bufo Americanus Toad hopped into the woods. It is very well camouflaged in this picture.  Can you find it?


The Official Start of Summer

IMG_8330Here’s to summer! It started today….June 21, 2013!  Exactly, when did summer start?


It started with the summer solstice.


Summer Solstice is an instant in time when the sun reaches it highest point in the sky because the earth’s axis of rotation leans most towards the sun.  This happened today at June 21 at 1:04 am Eastern Time for the United States and marked the official start of summer. Today we will have the most day light as the sun is overhead the longest!

The tilt of the earth will stay towards the sun from now until September.  The axis started to tilt towards the sun in March but was the most inclined towards the sun earlier today.  The tilt allows the northern hemisphere to receive more direct rays from the sun and therefore temperatures increase.  

 Even through the earth’s axis will still tilt towards the sun- the days will get slightly shorter but we will still have more daylight than night until the axis begins to tilt away from the sun after the equinox in September.

The summer solstice occurs every year in the northern hemisphere in the date range of June 20- 22. However, if we lived on the opposite side of the earth, it would be time to get out the boots and mitten because this same solstice marks the official start of winter in the southern hemisphere! Winter solstice won’t occur here until December 21 in 2013. It will mark the point where the earth’s axis of rotation is tilted farthest from the sun. After this solstice the amount of daylight starts to increase once again. 

Now this is where it gets very interesting….

 Right now the earth is moving away from the sun and will be at the greatest distance from the sun on July 3.  With summer upon us- that just doesn’t seem to make sense! It seems like we should be getting colder and not start to warm up until after July 3 when the earth starts moving closer to the sun.

To understand this here is what you need to know- it is the tilt of the axis that dictates the temperatures and not the distance from the sun.  Without the axis tilting towards or away from the sun- there would be no seasons. No seasons?!? Can you think where that would be?

The opposite is true on January 4. At that time the earth will be closest to the sun on its orbital path but its axis of rotation is titled away from the sun, which means less direct rays of sun hitting the northern hemisphere and hence colder temperatures- winter as we know it. Want summer then? Head to the southern hemisphere where they will be getting more direct rays of sun and waxing up their surfboards!

Until then here’s to fireflies, ice cream and beach days!

Detectives in Training!

Catch the Science Bug was just at the Chocksett Middle School working with the fifth grade!  The students were asked to solve a mystery about natural selection!  Everyone made a great effort working on this challenging feat! The following students wrote the best answers:


Zachary and Rowan

Thomas and Aiden

Alex and Dmitri

Adam and Cameih

Jake and Carson

Seth, Noah, and Colman

Natalie and Dylan

Honorable Mention to Maria and Rosie for an awesome picture!



Evan and Owen

Sarah and Anya

John and Caleb

Congratulations on a job well done!


Inside the forest #1

You never know how things might be changing in the woods near your home!
Natural selection could be slowly driving changes right before your own eyes!

Mysterious Moving Rocks

At the Racetrack Playa, a dried up lakebed in Death Valley, CA- the rocks move! They even leave trails. No one has seen them move. They don’t move very often- maybe once every several years. Some serve left and right and one named “Karen” even made a sharp right angle turn.Moving Rock at Racetrack Playa

Death Valley is an area of desert that is below sea level. Let’s say you wanted to walk from the bottom of the valley on flat (level) land all the way to the coast. To do this a tunnel would have to be made through the earth. That would be the only way you could stay level with the bottom of the valley. Once you got to the coast, you would be underwater- 282 feet underwater. Death Valley is the eighth lowest dry land area in the world!

It is also famous for being the hottest place in North America. Temperatures can reach over 100oF for many days in a row. The ground temperature is at least 40% greater than the air temperature.

Rainfall has increased 50% in the last 30 years to approximately 2.5 inches per year…not a lot for an entire year. On average Massachusetts receives 45 inches of rain per year. One rainy day in Massachusetts could equal the total rainfall for one year in Death Valley.

At this point, no one is exactly sure why the rocks move.  Does it have something to do with:

  • The shallow lake that forms at one end of the basin due to flash flooding?
  • The wind? Can the wind blow fast enough to move a rock? How heavy are the rocks?
  • Temperatures reaching below freezing the during winter nights?
  • The rain events that only deliver between 0.04 to 0.35 inches of rain?

Search the web. Read the theories by scientists as to “why the rocks move”. Take a closer look at the weather data in that area. Study the geology of the lakebed. What is your explanation as to why the rocks move?

Groundhog Questions and Answers








What do groundhogs do to get ready for winter?

We usually eat a bit more in the fall since during the winter we will hibernate underground- that means we go into a deep sleep. Sometimes we even dig another burrow for our hibernation.  Burrows are usually dug below the frost line (or the depth at which the water in the ground will freeze) so that they will stay warmer.  We might go as deep as 5 feet underground when making a burrow.  And of course we add a little extra insulation, like grass or hay to keep warm too.

What happens when you hibernate?

Hibernation is kind of like sleeping without getting up until spring. Our body temperature drops and our heart rate, breathing, and metabolism (other chemical reactions in our body) all slow down.

How big is a typical burrow?

In a typical burrow, we might have as many as 5 to 7 openings to the ground surface.  Some of my friends have up to 46 feet of tunnels in their burrows.  One burrow might require the removal of 35 cubic feet of dirt or 710 pounds of dirt.

What do groundhogs do when out and about all day?

We like to eat. We are herbivores so we only eat plants. Next, we have to watch out for the foxes, coyotes, and hawks that might try to eat us. If we need to we will climb trees to take a look at the surroundings.  And believe it or not, we are excellent swimmers.

Do you really look for your shadow on Groundhog Day?

We leave the shadow spotting to the Ground Hogs at the zoos especially to Phil in Punxsutawney, PA.  That hole shadow business is too much of a mob scene for us that live in wild. Plus we are still hibernating at that time and really don’t want to leave our warm burrows!

Measuring Flow

Have you ever seen something that looks like this…



Or like this…











Or even like this…

These shed and boxes are  called stream gage stations. They are scattered through out the United States along river banks. Stream gages can even be silver boxes mounted to sides of bridges. The gages are part of the stream gaging network maintained by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Yes, the USGS studies more than just rocks and volcanoes! One of the biggest responsibilities of the USGS is to study water!


Each one of these stations has equipment that can detect the height of the water and how much water is flowing in the river. 


The amount of water flowing in the river is measured in cubic feet per second* (cfs).  This type of information is especially important when designing the construction of dams and bridges, irrigation, and during stormy weather.

Next blog installment:  Check the amount of water flowing in your state at each stream gage station- right from your own computer!!! 

*What is a cubic foot?  Picture a box that is 1 foot high, 1 foot in length, and 1 foot in width to visualize a cubic foot.  Another way to visualize a cubic foot is to picture a basketball since a basketball is just about the size of a cubic foot.  So you can think of the stream gage as being able to tell you how many water “basketballs” flow past it every second.



Do raindrops get bigger as they fall from the sky?

This excellent question came from a second grader while learning about condensation in The Weather Program taught by Catch the Science Bug.   He wanted to know if more and more water vapor molecules stuck to the water drop as it fell and  if that is why the amount of rain falling can change from a drizzle to rain to a down pour.

Yes! After checking with the National Weather Service, water vapor can attach to raindrops as they fall and increase the size of the falling drop, thus increasing the amount of rain falling. The United States Geological Survey also informed us that raindrops can bump into each other and become one drop as they are falling as well.  This process is called coalescence. Once a drop reaches 4 millimeters in size, it usually splits into two drops.

Additionally when a different cloud moves overhead, the amount of rain and the intensity of rain may also change. So this is another reason why, we can change from a drizzle to rain.  Rain is usually from a cloud higher in our atmosphere and drizzle from a lower cloud.

In case you are wondering…..How do raindrops form?

Raindrops form when water vapor molecules bump into a dust particle in a cloud and condense around it becoming a droplet (smaller than a drop). Condense means that the water vapor (water in gas form) changes to water in liquid form around the dust particle. Wow- a good thing about dust! The size of the dust particle will affect the size of the droplet. A bigger particle of dusts results in a bigger droplet. The droplets must coalesce (bump and become one) with other droplets to become heavy enough to fall from the cloud.

The Beginning with Rex Trailer

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In honor of the March 12, 1999 anniversary of the idea for Catch the Science Bug, we would like to share with you an interview between Rex Trailer, former host of Boomtown, and Kim Bent that was recorded on the very first day that Catch the Science Bug was broadcasted from PBS Rhode Island on November 13, 2006!

 Since the beginning, we have met so many people that are huge Rex Trailer fans.  From working with Rex, I can firmly attest that he lives up to everything you would want in a childhood hero!  THANK YOU Rex! Your legacy of helping children will live on through Science Bug.

 Thank you to everyone who helped Catch the Science Bug grow to where it is today! We could not have done it without all of you who have supported us in countless different ways- a big hug of appreciation is being sent to ALL of YOU!