Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"Goodbye, and thank your mother for the rabbits

"Goodbye, and thank your mother for the rabbits": A Unit Study,
Part the Second, June 2016. (Part 1, see March 1)
I have a friend who maintains that all of human history can be reduced to two questions: "What could possibly go wrong?" and "How was I to know"? In 1859, an Englishman by the name of Thomas Austin released twenty-four English rabbits into the wilds of Australia, saying as he watched the twenty-four cute, fluffy little tails hop merrily off into the sunset, "The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.” If pressed, I’m sure he would have added, “What could possibly go wrong?”
Quite a lot, Mr. Austin, quite a lot

Invite the children to attempt to outthink Mr. Austin. What dangers can they foresee that Mr. Austin could not? (Hint: hybrid vigor; rapid proliferation; few predators; ideal climate; farming vital to the economy.)
For starters, he failed to realize that bringing 24 of England’s finest rabbits to interbreed with the Australian locals would, thanks to hybrid vigor, produce a veritable SuperBunny   Not only were rabbits perfectly suited to the climate, whose mild winters meant they could breed year round, but farmers who ploughed up vast areas of scrub and woodland unwittingly left behind them ideal conditions for warrens. What followed was the fastest spread ever recorded of any mammal anywhere in the world. Within ten years, rabbits were so numerous that over two million could be shot or trapped annually without making a dent in the population. In less than 30 years, so great was the damage inflicted on farmers’ crops, that the government of New South Wales offered a £25,000 reward for  "any method of success not previously known in the Colony for the effectual extermination of rabbits." (Just for fun, estimate how much  £25,000  would be worth today.) On an outline map, http://www.kidzone.ws/geography/australia/map-australia.htm have the children draw in the three “rabbit proof” fences. What kinds of animals were used to help in the building? In the maintenance of the wall?

Is anyone talking of building a wall today?

MATH The reproductive potential of a female rabbit is truly phenomenal.  A single female can, in seven years, become the matriarch of 184,597,433,860 offspring.  That’s almost two billion cute little fluffy tails, from one female and her female descendants. http://www.bio.miami.edu/hare/scary.html
For a different take on a similar mathematical phenomenon, read
One Grain Of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale by Demi

For the younger children, read The Muddle-headed Wombat by Ruth Park, Australia’s delightful answer to Winnie the Pooh
Investigate marsupials; also
 Egg-laying mammals that are only found in Australia: duck-billed platypus, echidna.

DRAMA and HISTORY: They say, “it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good”; during the Depression meat was extremely hard to come by – except, that is, for rabbits. Who might have spoken our opening line? Make up, and act out, a short scene featuring a family during the Depression who have not a morsel of meat in the house, and precious little else to eat. An unexpected guest knocks at the door, bearing a gift from her mother: you guessed it – rabbits for dinner! And as they wait for the bunnies to cook, they join in singing, “Waltzing Matilda”. I’m quite sure they knew what all the words meant, and after singing along with this, so will you!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Earwigs By the Book, Part 2

Earwigs By the Book, Part 2

As you may recall from Part 1, I set myself the task of writing an entire blog about earwigs using only the six references in the Eyewitness book, Insects, and earwig minutiae already lodged in the darkest recesses of my brain. No Internet whatsoever! I had two questions: could it be done, and would the results differ significantly from an e-version? Which would be a better model to use to teach writing? There, that’s three questions. We’re off to a great start! I turn to the index, and thus to the first mention of my subject.

Earwigs can fly! I glean this from the Latin name, Dermaptera, "skin wings". This refers to their tissue-thin hind wings, which are kept folded beneath their very short, much tougher front wings.

Here I encounter my first problem: not everything that has wings can fly. Can an earwig? I know I’ve never seen one airborne . . . The only available book that offers to tell me is volume 5 (or possibly 6) of Encyclopaedia Britannica – a daunting prospect if ever I saw one. I yearn for Siri, for the instant access to information she offers. “Can earwigs fly?” I would ask, she would answer yes or no, and just like that, I would know. Oh, the temptation to tap into that infinite ocean of knowledge the Internet offers!

Reluctantly leaving the question of flight unanswered, I turn back to the book. I am relieved to find that earwigs do not in fact crawl down the ear of a sleeping human and take up residence in the brain. Furthermore, earwig mothers are awesome! They dig a small hole for their eggs then stay on guard until the nymphs are hatched. If the eggs are scattered (presumably by some malevolent researcher) she will gather them up and put them back in the hole; when the young nymphs emerge, mama earwig stays with them until they are able to fend for themselves. Get that, Hallmark? You have a new pin-up candidate for Mother's Day cards! Maybe such maternal solicitude accounts for the earwig's evolutionary success story: judging by the fossil record, they have changed little in 35 million years.

They may not care for a sleeper’s ear, but one thing they do like to crawl into is the nasturtium flower. You can tell just by looking at the little pointy bit at the back that it’s an earwig’s Ideal Home. A fact that I chose to ignore when, as a girl of about ten, I spent a significant chunk of my early summer laboriously interweaving sticks to make the framework of a den at the base of the cedar of Lebanon at the bottom of our garden. My plan was to cover the framework with nasturtiums, thus providing myself with a colorful, fragrant getaway in which to while away the lazy days of summer, and quite possibly the occasional night as well. Nourished by the adjacent compost heap, the flowers did their part and grew apace; with mounting excitement I looked forward to the day when I would enjoy my first picnic lunch in my den. What a very "Swallows and Amazons" thing to do, I thought, imagining my eager friends vying to take their turn in my flowery sanctum.

You’ve guessed what comes next: as I took my first bite of whatever succulent treat I’d chosen for my sandwich (quite possibly a Winnie-the-Pooh special, honey and condensed milk – I was ten, after all,) I was puzzled by the sound of raindrops falling in my perfectly dry den.  A glance at the ground revealed the awful truth: it was alive with earwigs, plopping gently from the flowers to form a shining, golden-brown carpet.

I high-tailed it out of my labor of love den in less time than it takes to tell, and I never looked back.

So there you have it: blogging without a (n/inter) net! I rather enjoyed it – I’d never have recalled the nasturtium den that wasn’t without ransacking my brain for a story. As for the tantalizing question of whether earwigs fly, I just checked Wikipedia and the answer, as is so often the case, is a resounding . . . yes and no. There are around 1200 species worldwide and some do, some don’t. It would be hard to write an interesting paper about that, I think

As to whether I can write an interesting column without the Internet . . . well,
You Be The Judge. And please, let me know the verdict!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Earwigs By The Book

 I had a startling encounter in the bathroom last night. In the dark. Something . . . someone? had its . . . his? hands around my neck in a malevolent tickle that gave fair  warning of its evil intent to throttle me to death. Meanwhile, his accomplice was crawling up my leg, pausing to savor enormous bites on his way . . . I took a deep breath,  stilled the panic mounting in my breast, and TURNED ON THE LIGHT!!!

Two earwigs, blinking stupidly (if earwigs do indeed blink, which I think they don’t,) momentarily transfixed by the light. I was seized on the spot by a burning desire to find out everything  I could about earwigs, what they were doing in my bathroom, and most important of all, how I could keep them from returning.

Now, this is where the story takes a surprising turn. The next sentence should read, what with it being the 21st century and all, "I opened up my computer and logged on to my trusty search engine." But this is where the story enters perhaps the realms of anti-science fiction, because the next sentence actually reads, "I was overwhelmed by an irresistible desire to open a book."

Not Google—a book.

The book that was calling me so eloquently, INSECT – Discover the world of insects in close-up – their behavior, anatomy, and important role in Earth’s ecology, sat among the other Eyewitness Books that I had been eyeing as likely candidates for my next run to the thrift store. As I removed it from the shelf it clung stickily to its neighbors as if to say, “Hey, I’ve been sitting here for years – why move me now?” It fell open to the double page, “How to avoid being eaten” (if you’re an insect, that is); there I found the incredible bombardier beetle, who has discovered that nothing deters a hungry predator like a good explosion right in his face. In the top right corner a hawksmoth caterpillar stretches out its unusually large head, tricking predators into thinking the caterpillar is in fact an extremely small but very poisonous snake.   Fascinating stuff!

On the very same page sits the weta, an enormous cricket from New Zealand that filled the role, normally filled by mammals, of ground-dwelling predator; this was necessary since the only mammals native to New Zealand are two species of bats. Once rats hitchhiked a ride with mankind onto the main islands, the weta “meta” sorry end, and today is extinct in all but the smallest islands.

My goodness, but I had forgotten how much fun it is to browse a good book! Look—here's a man with a bee bonnet (looks rather like my Russian ex-boyfriend… I wonder) . . . And here are two entomologists visiting Alexandria, Egypt in 1920 who spent the night collecting bed bugs rather than sleeping. Their tally by morning? Both men had 70 pins with 10 bugs on each. By my reckoning, that’s fourteen hundred bed bugs. Not a bad night’s work . . . Hmm, this browsing business is getting out of hand. It’s as bad as the computer for tempting you to stray off topic.

But off the topic of earwigs in a book about insects carries one into the wonderful realm of compound eyes and beetle antennae. Did you know that each hair around the mouth of a carpet beetle larva has its own “ball and socket” joint, and can probably pick up vibrations? Or that a locust curves its wings when landing to trap the maximum amount of air and ensure a gentle meeting with the ground, in a manner later copied by airplane designers?
Get off topic on Google (worse yet, on Youtube,) and find a world of salacious gossip about the British royal family, and fifteen uses for a used teabag. And those are the least objectionable, that merely waste time and jam your browser. They don’t threaten to lead one into an utterly depraved lifestyle—though mind you, I haven’t checked out numbers 12-15 of those things to do with a used teabag . . .

But earwigs – what about earwigs? Could I come up with enough content for a blog from the (count ‘em) six earwig references in Insect?  Tune in tomorrow and . . . Now, I know I don’t exactly have a stellar record with lead-ins to part two of a blog (the rabbits are still waiting in Australia, though I did much better with How to Make the Perfect Pot of Tea.)

Tomorrow, I will attempt the death-defying stunt: blogging without a net. Relying entirely on those six references to earwigs from Insects, and rosy earwig reminiscences from my youth, I will produce an entire blog! An extraordinary feat – if, indeed, it can be done.

Tune in next time to find out.