KIDS ASK! Why do Leaves Change Color?

Here at HTHT, we teach a LOT of science, and the best part about it is feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam packed with experiments, we make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask a scientist.   

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  Our question this week is:

WHY DO LEAVES CHANGE COLOR?

Well science friends, the Autumnal Equinox has happened here in the Northern Hemisphere, and that means the beginning of FALL!  Fall is a beautiful season, beloved for its cool days and the incredible changing colors of the trees all around us.  Why do leaves change colors in fall? Here’s the reason:

Leaf color comes from pigments. Pigments are colored substances produced by leaf cells. The three pigments that color leaves are:

chlorophyll (which produces the green color)

carotenoid(produces yellow, orange, and brown colors)

anthocyanin (produces a red color)

Chlorophyll is the most important of the three. It is the green color in leaves. Leaves contain chlorophyll in order to use the sunlight to produce their own food through the process of photosynthesis.

Carotenoids are organic pigments that are found in the chloroplasts and chromoplasts of plants and some other photosynthetic organisms.  Carotenoids create bright yellows and oranges in familiar fruits and vegetables. For example, corn, carrots, and bananas to name a few.

Anthocyanins are pigments that may appear red, purple, or blue depending on the pH. They add the color red to plants, including cranberries, red apples, cherries, strawberries and others.

In the fall, because of changes in the length of daylight and changes in temperature, the leaves stop their food-making process. Since chlorophyll is no longer needed to make food for the tree, the chlorophyll breaks down. This means the green color disappears, and the yellow to orange colors become visible. Most anthocyanins are produced only in autumn, and only under certain conditions. Not all trees can make anthocyanin, but sugar maples seem to have the easiest time in doing so.

Now you know why leaves change color! Have fun and enjoy the beautiful fall season!

SOURCES AND FURTHER READING:

Resources: State of New York: College of Environmental Science and Forestry: http://www.esf.edu/

Dnr.wi.gov- Environmental Education for Kids:  http://dnr.wi.gov/org/caer/ce/eek/veg/trees/treestruecolor.htm

KIDS ASK! Can Scientists Study Ghosts? Part II

It’s true that most scientists do not investigate ghosts, but there are a few scientists out there who do use the scientific method to investigate ghost sightings.  This means that the scientists are objective and that they carefully test the evidence they have for all possible explanations.  Vic Tandey, an engineer and researcher at Coventry University in the UK, was one of the most famous of these kinds of scientists.  There’s Dr. Chris French at University of London, who specializes in what’s called “Anomalistic Psychology,” and the Paranormal Investigators of Milwaukee, a team of ghost hunters who use the scientific method.

No one has yet seen a ghost under a microscope.

Let’s talk about a real-life ghost story that took place in a science lab at Coventry University, UK.  Wouldn’t an actual lab full of scientists be the perfect place to find real evidence of a ghost?  In the Coventry University lab, people always reported bad and creepy feelings there at night, like being watched.  Some people even reported seeing dark figures out of the corner of their eyes.   People in the lab felt stressed, depressed, and terrified!

Ever had the feeling something is standing just behind you?

Vic Tandey, who was working at the university, did not start by looking for a ghost.  He started by studying the laboratory environment, to see if there was any explanation for these feelings and sightings.  Was the lab too cold?  Was there a chemical in the air that made people feel bad?  What he found was something that might explain a lot of ghost hauntings, in a scientific way. 

A normal, non-haunted science lab.

The sounds we hear every day are vibrations that travel in waves on the air around us.  The energy in sound waves means that sound waves can also affect our bodies.  If you have ever heard a song with a strong thumping beat and felt it in your body, you know how powerful sound can be!  You probably know that there are some sounds are so high-pitched, humans cannot hear them, like the high sounds only dogs can hear.  But there are also sounds that are so low-pitched that humans cannot hear, called infrasound. 

Sound vibrations can carry a lot of energy.

Vic Tandey learned that scientists who studied infrasound in experiments found that it can cause feelings of fear, anxiety, and can even cause people to see things, because the infrasound vibrations affect people’s bodies, and seem to affect people’s eyes especially. Infrasound is often made by large machines, especially large fans.  What did scientists find in the laboratory? Not a ghost, but a very large fan!  When they turned off the fan, the ghost sightings all stopped.

Are sound waves the source of ghost sightings?

When scientists are objective and test their evidence of ghosts with the scientific method, they usually find other explanations.  Many of the explanations found have to do with things in your environment that can affect your brain.  This is why most scientists who investigate ghosts work in the fields of psychology or neurology.  For example, it’s been proven that breathing in the poisonous gas called carbon monoxide can cause symptoms that feel like a haunting.  People with carbon monoxide leaking from their stove or heater usually don’t know it, and so they breathe in the gas constantly, which hurts their brain.  This causes them to see things, and to feel very frightened.  There have been many cases of people reporting ghosts, but finding a leaky heater instead. This has happened so many times that scientists now say that if you are seeing ghosts and feeling scared, check the carbon monoxide levels in your house right away, because carbon monoxide can kill you!  There is even fascinating evidence that magnetic or electrical fields can affect people’s brains and give people the feeling that there is someone in the room with them, watching them.

The best scientific evidence for ghosts is mostly found…in your brain!

When scientists study ghosts, they often find that there is something around a person that is influencing what they see, hear, or feel.  So science friends, people who use science to investigate ghosts have to be objective, and they have to find evidence of ghosts that cannot be explained by anything else.  Most times, ghost sightings can be explained by things like infrasound, magnetism, carbon monoxide, or electricity. Because of this, so far, no one has ever scientifically proven ghosts exist – but they haven’t scientifically proven that they don’t exist either! 

Sources and Further Information:

Paranormal Investigators of Milwaukee: an awesome team of real ghost researchers who use the scientific method: https://paranormalmilwaukee.com/

The science of ghosts and the Coventry Lab Story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FuFZf89Rp-A

Dr. Chris French explains why people see ghosts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jve3p0ws-nI

A famous tale of a carbon monoxide haunting: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/319/and-the-call-was-coming-from-the-basement/prologue-3

Scientific study on how electricity can produce feelings of being haunted by a ghost: https://www.nature.com/articles/443287a

The GHOST FREQUENCY, the infrasound that makes people see ghosts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dUOHNLe9r0

KIDS ASK! Can Scientists Study Ghosts?

Here at HTHT, we teach a LOT of science, and the best part about it is feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam packed with experiments, we make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask a scientist.   

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  Our question this week is:

CAN SCIENTISTS STUDY GHOSTS?

At HTHT, we work with all kinds of future scientists, from engineers to paleontologists. Encouraging kids on their path to a fulfilling life in science is what we do!  This week’s question comes from a young scientist who was thinking about an unusual path in science … the field of paranormal research, aka GHOST SCIENCE!  Can scientists study ghosts?  When they study them, what do they find?! 

Is it a ghost? No, this photo is scientifically proven to be fake!

Yes!  Scientists in the field of Paranormal Psychology can study people’s reports of ghosts, and travel to haunted places all over the world to investigate and research!  But… no scientist has ever found a real ghost, or studied one.  There is no scientific evidence of ghosts at all.  But at the same time, there is no scientific evidence that ghosts don’t exist, either.  If you are dreaming of becoming the first scientist to prove ghosts are real, here are some things for you to think about!

This was taken at the Jerome Grand Hotel, which people say is very haunted. See the shadowy black figure in the back left? Is it a ghost? No one has scientifically proven it is or it isn’t!
Photo credit:
Cultureu
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Maybe you like to watch those awesome “ghost hunting” shows where people have all kinds of expensive-looking instruments like infrared cameras and electromagnetic field detectors.  They go to haunted places and record things that sound like voices, or weird shapes in the darkness.  Aren’t they getting evidence of ghosts?  They have all those cool detectors and machines, after all!  Well science friends, the truth is that you can have all of the cool technology in the world.  But if you are not following the scientific method, you are not doing real science, and whatever you find is not considered scientifically true.

This is an Electromagnetic Field Meter, which scientists can use to detect invisible electricity, magnetic fields, and radio waves. Ghost hunting TV shows say it can also demonstrate when a ghost is near.
Photo credit:
Batanagar Paranormal Society
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Real-life scientific research has to follow the scientific method, which is a series of steps that ALL scientists, everywhere in the entire world, must use.  For something to be considered true and real, it absolutely has to be found using the scientific method.  One of the first and most important parts of the scientific method is that scientists have to be objective, which means they are not attached to looking for a certain result in their experiments.  All scientists know that if you are looking for a certain result, your mind will naturally look for it in all the experiments you do.  This means that you won’t find the scientific truth, you will find what you want to find!

Scientists who study ghost hauntings, called Paranormal Psychologists, have done a lot of research on how easy it is for your mind to trick you into believing something, if you really want to believe it. Especially when you are scared!

For example, let’s say you are an ocean scientist looking for a Mystery Shark that lives in the Mariana Trench.  No one has ever seen it, but you’ve heard many stories and you are sure it’s real.  If you are using the scientific method, you do not ask Can I find the Mystery Shark?  This means your brain will think every weird thing you see could be the Mystery Shark, and you will probably start believing you found it. If you are thinking like a scientist, you ask Is there any evidence that the Mystery Shark is real?  You can go and collect things you think are evidence. Then you can TEST your evidence, using scientific experiments.

Found the Mystery Shark!

Ghost hunters on TV aren’t objective.  Most of them are very interested in finding ghosts, so to them (and to you watching the show) any little sound or image on a camera could be a ghost!  Although these TV shows use scientific instruments, they are not using the scientific method.  If a scientist looks for ghosts and finds evidence of strange heat on their infrared night vision camera, they cannot go ahead and say it is evidence of a ghost.  They have to carefully investigate other possibilities first to prove that it is not something else!  The truth is that when scientists follow the rules of the scientific method to investigate a haunting, they usually find something else that explains it.  This means that there is no scientific evidence that ghosts are real, but there’s no evidence they aren’t real, either.  All that we know is that every time someone has shown evidence of ghosts, when it was tested carefully according to the scientific method, it was shown to be something else.

Usually hauntings can be explained by other things….but what?  Are there any hauntings that science absolutely CAN’T explain? Next week we’ll investigate creepy real life ghost stories and the real life scientists who study them! 

SOURCES AND FURTHER READING:

A great animated explanation of the scientific method and how science works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nAETHZTObk

A scientist of Paranormal Psychology explains why people see ghosts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jve3p0ws-nI

Ghost Hunting TV shows and why they are not exactly scientific: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXu7tXixrtQ

KIDS ASK! Where Do Whales Go When They Die?

Here at HTHT, we teach a LOT of science, and the best part about it is feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam packed with experiments, we make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask a scientist.   

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  Our question this week is:

WHERE DO WHALES GO WHEN THEY DIE?

This most excellent question was proposed by a concerned young scientist who had watched some videos of humans dealing with whales that had washed up dead on the shore.  In these videos you can see huge whale carcasses, bloated like balloons from the gases that naturally happen when something is dead and decomposing.  A huge dead whale that’s stuck on land is a pretty big problem, and, in some famous viral videos, you can see whales on the beach either violently explode from the gases inside, or get exploded with DYNAMITE by people trying to get rid of them.  As you can imagine, this is really, really messy! 

A balloon-like dead whale on the beach in Massachusetts, USA.

Much to our young scientist’s relief, I was able to explain that, lucky for us, whales do not usually go to the shore to die.  Humans conducting a funeral for an explosive dead whale is actually pretty rare, and is not a problem humans have to constantly deal with.  Nature has a much better solution.  It’s called a WHALE FALL!

When a whale dies, its body begins to decompose.  This means the tiny microbes in and around the whale’s body begin to break the body down, and this process produces gas.  LOTS of gas.  Plus, the blubber in a whale is full of oil, which also floats.  A dead whale becomes like a balloon, floating on the ocean’s surface.  This might be gross to us, but in the open ocean, it’s like a happy party for everything out there that likes to eat meat.  Sharks especially come from many miles to feed on the tasty treat, taking huge bites until they can’t eat any more.  After the sharks have eaten as much as they can, the gas in the whale is all released, and the whale parts that are left start to sink. 

A very happy Great White Shark chows down on a dead whale.
Photo Credit:
Fallows C, Gallagher AJ, Hammerschlag N (2013)CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

But the party doesn’t stop there! In fact, the best part is what happens after the whale sinks.  When a whale’s body sinks into the deep sea, it keeps falling until it hits the seafloor, which can be very, very far down.  After about one mile down in the ocean, it’s very different than the surface.  There is no sunlight in the deep sea, which means the tiny photosynthetic plankton that support life at the surface cannot live there.  Food is very hard to find in the deep sea.  Animals there usually have to scavenge their food from what is called “marine snow.”  Marine snow is a constant fall of tiny flakes of dead plankton, bacteria, and poop that comes from the surface above. When you live in the deep sea, ANY food is great, even if it is mostly poop from other animals far above you! 

Marine snow is breakfast, lunch, and dinner for most animals in the deep sea!

Can you imagine what it is like for deep sea animals when a huge whale falls from above?  It’s like winning the lottery!  On land, a dead whale is big trouble, but on the floor of the deep sea, it’s a wonderful gift.  Instead of having to use dynamite to clean it up, many deep sea species just go ahead and eat every last bit of the whale.  It’s a snack that can last for years.  It’s estimated that every whale fall provides 2,000 YEARS worth of the nutrients that come from just marine snow alone!

Some very happy deep sea octopi chow down on a whale fall.
Photo credit:
National Marine SanctuariesCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

First, big animals that can swim, like large sharks and hagfish, get their turn.  They eat every little scrap of meat that might be left on the bones.  Then, smaller fish, crabs, and starfish come and rake through the bones and sediment around the whale for tiny crumbs of food left by the bigger animals.  Then, bacteria and special bone-eating worms take over the skeleton, drilling deep into the bones to pull out the last of the nutrients inside.  When they do this, they release more even nutrients, which can feed even more small animals around the whale.  Finally, after several years, when the whale skeleton is just minerals, animals can attach to it like they would to rocks, and live their lives there. 

Some very happy deep sea bacteria, crabs, anemones and worms chowing down on whale bones.

So, science friends, you don’t have to worry about meeting dead whales at the beach.  Nature has a much better answer than humans could ever come up with.  The energy in a dead whale’s body feeds many, many animals in the ocean.  Even though it’s kind of sad to think of a beautiful whale dying, you can be glad that nothing is wasted, and the whale’s body goes on to bring life to other animals for years after it dies.

Whales just make everybody happy! Aren’t we lucky to live in a world that has whales in it?

SOURCES AND FURTHER READING:

Sharks enjoying a dead whale: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2e3GE5M3CY

All about marine snow: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAvQ3t4ueZw

An excellent explanation of whale fall: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxSUsn8H2zs

Marine biologists very excited to discover a whale fall in real time: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZzQhiNQXxU

KIDS ASK! Could Scientists Really Bring Back the Dinosaurs Like in Jurassic Park?

Here at HTHT, we teach a LOT of science, and the best part about it is feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam packed with experiments, we make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask a scientist.   

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  Our question this week is:

Could Scientists Really Bring Back the Dinosaurs like in Jurassic Park?

In 2021, an article appeared in a British newspaper called The Cambridge Independent.  The headline was “CAMBRDIGE SCIENTISTS AIM TO BIONEGINEER LITTLE DINOSAURS.”  The article read:

Cambridge scientists are aiming to ‘bioengineer’ real-life little dinosaurs that could help teach us more about the Jurassic era – and even carry out tasks such as collecting litter.

Biotechnology start-up company DinoDNA revealed the first details of the extraordinary project today after securing £25million in investment.

It follows what they described as “extremely promising trials” of the technology.

Many details of the pioneering scientific work have been kept under wraps, but the Cambridge Independent understands that it involves rebuilding genetic code from fragments of DNA found in fossilised remains.

The hope is that the mini dinosaurs could be allowed to roam in certain enclosed areas, safely interacting with the public.

Dr. Jean Ome, chief scientific officer at DinoDNA, said: “It might sound like science fiction, but genetic engineering technology has advanced so rapidly that we are quietly confident our first dinosaurs will walk the Earth this summer.”

WHAT?! Did they just say dinosaurs will walk the earth this summer?!

WOW!! Sounds like a dream come true, right science friends?  Interacting with REAL dinosaurs?!  I get many questions from you about if scientists can really bring back dinosaurs like in Jurassic Park.  When I saw this article I got very excited!!  But then I looked at the date: April 1.  April Fool’s Day!  Sorry to say, dinosaur fans, the article was just a joke.  Could it really be possible to bring back dinosaurs using ancient samples of their DNA, just like in the Jurassic Park movies?  Well dino fans, if you’re hoping to meet a real live dinosaur one day, I have good news for you, and I have bad news.  Let’s do the bad news first, and end with the most awesome news!

There really are scientists who specialize in finding and studying ancient DNA. Scientists who do this are called molecular paleontologists or paleogeneticists. In the 1990’s, when this type of science was still fairly new, scientists extracted DNA from a bug called a weevil that lived at the time of the dinosaurs.  The weevil died trapped in tree sap that fossilized and became amber, much like you’ve seen in the movies.  It’s scientifically true that amber might be one of the very best places to find ancient DNA!  Amber is protective and helps stop the natural tendency of DNA to fall apart, or degrade, over a long time.  This is the real problem of why it’s very hard to find dino DNA.  DNA is fragile and very complex, and falls apart naturally even in our living bodies.  Some of your DNA right now, in your very own cells, might be a little ripped or broken, but just like all living things, you have wonderful processes happening in your cells that are always repairing your DNA and making it new and fresh!

This is a modern weevil. Like a lot of insects, the design hasn’t changed much since the time of the dinosaurs.

When an animal dies, that process stops.  So, once a body’s natural repair systems are no longer correcting rips and breaks, the degradation of DNA goes even faster.  To bring back a dinosaur, scientists would need the full genome, the complete set of a living thing’s DNA.  When lots of degradation happens over a long time, scientists might get little bits of the genome, but not the full set.  This is why they were excited about the little weevil from the amber!  There was more ancient DNA than they had ever found before.  Maybe they could put together a whole genome of this bug that lived millions of years ago?  And if they could do that, maybe they COULD get dino DNA?

NOOOOPE!  It turned out most of the ancient weevil DNA the scientists thought they had found was actually from what is called cross contamination, where other things get into a sample and change the results.  There was DNA from modern fungus, trees, and even a human skin cell in the sample.  There was not much true dinosaur-era DNA in the sample at all.  Over time, and with much more research among scientists around the world, it was concluded that DNA simply cannot survive for more than about 7 million years, even if it is in amber or frozen in the ground. 

So, science friends, this is the bad news about bringing back dinosaurs: even if we wanted to, we just cannot get a complete dinosaur genome from a fossil or a bug because DNA degrades over time.  It’s impossible.  But now for the good news!  Technology is advancing all the time, and there are some cool techniques that might hold the key to building the dinosaur petting zoo of your dreams!  Thanks to gene editing technologies like CRISPR, a chemical process which can activate or deactivate DNA in a genome, some scientists at Harvard University were able to activate some of the more ancient genes in the velociraptor’s nearest living relative, the chicken!  The result was a chicken embryo with a “dinosaur-like face” and teeth!  But this was just a small study and the Dino-chicken was not fully hatched.  However, since birds and dinosaurs are such close relatives, as CRISPR technology develops, if you see a headline about a “Dino-chicken” in the next few years, it might not be an April Fool’s joke but the real scientific deal!

Your best chance to see a dinosaur at this time is to just look out your window — birds and dinosaurs are much more closely related than you might think!

Nebreda, S.M., Hernández Fernández, M. & Marugán-Lobón, J., CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Now the most awesome news for last: just last year, in 2021, scientists in China were very surprised to find some intact cells in some very special dinosaur fossils from a place called The Jehol.  When they used a chemical called hematoxylin on these cells, they turned purple, indicating there MIGHT be some cells in the fossil that have a whole nucleus, which might contain several strands of intact DNA!  They think this might be possible because the cells went through an unsual process called silification, with parts of them being replaced by a natural, glass-like substance that protected them from degradation for millions of years.  But, this discovery is very, VERY new and will take many more years of research to understand if there is DNA inside, and if it really could be used to make a complete genome.  There could be something truly amazing revealed in the next few years, so keep your eyes on the science news, dino fans – except on April first.

Sources and Further Information:

The Cambridge Independent’s April Fool’s Day article: https://www.cambridgeindependent.co.uk/news/cambridge-scientists-aim-to-bioengineer-little-dinosaurs-9193529/

A great explanation of the science of Paleogenetics and the problems of ancient DNA: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nJdWqtMljs

Famous Paleontologist Jack Horner on bringing back dinos with DNA and the Dino-chicken: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QVXdEOiCw8

Full article on the creation of the Dino-chicken: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature.2015.17507

Video explanation of the Jehol cell discovery: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzzFsxUrYMs

Full article on the recent discovery of the Jehol cells: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8463611/

KIDS ASK! How Are Seashells Made?

Beautiful, colorful seashells can be found all over the world! But… who’s making them, and why?
© Vyacheslav Argenberg / http://www.vascoplanet.com/, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Here at HTHT, we teach a LOT of science, and the best part about it is feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam packed with experiments, we make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask a scientist. 

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  Our question this week is:

HOW ARE SEASHELLS MADE?

They can be spiky, and sharp like a knife!  They can shine in every color of the rainbow!  Some are so big you could hide in them.  Some are so tiny you need a microscope to see them.  Lots of them are older than the dinosaurs.  You can even play them like a trumpet.  And, mermaids love them!  Get your flip flops and a towel, science friends, this week we’re going to the beach to check out SEASHELLS!

The sharp, super-spiky Venus Comb shell.
Didier Descouens, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Think you could hide in this Giant Clam shell?
Alicia Fagerving, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Even if you have never been up close to the ocean before, you’ve probably seen some seashells in movies or art.  Maybe you’ve put one up to your ear and heard the wild ocean waves calling to you (it’s actually the shape of the shell amplifying the sound of your own heartbeat, which is also pretty cool).  Because seashells are so beautiful and there are so many incredible kinds to see, it’s easy to admire the shell, but forget about the awesome animals that make them: an ancient, diverse, worldwide group of animals with the excellent name of MOLLUSKS.  Isn’t that a great word?  It’s fun to say and the animals in what scientists officially call the Phylum Mollusca are even more awesome than their name. 

This cutie pie is a Giant African Land Snail, and a member of Phylum Mollusca!
Sonel.SA, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mollusks are a HUGE group that includes squid, octopus, snails, clams, and even slugs.  There may be as many as 200,000 different species of mollusks, while there are only 6,500 species of mammals.  They are one of the most successful types of animals in the ENTIRE HISTORY OF THE WORLD.  Look up!  Mollusks in the trees.  Look down!  Mollusks all the way to the deepest part of the sea.  Look back in time, before there were even dinosaurs.  Who was there?  That’s right, MOLLUSKS!  The only place you will never find one is flying in the air. 

How deep do mollusks go? Introducing the Magnapinna Squid, found at 20,000 feet.
NOAA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

So, why do these ancient, world-wide powerhouses make so many beautiful shells?  It starts with the fact that their bodies are very soft, just like a slug’s.  Mollusks are invertebrates, which means they don’t have a spine or any bones in their body. Some mollusks, like squid and octopus, do have a radula, a powerful scraping beak that helps them eat.  The rock-scraping radulas of the mollusks known as limpets are thought be the strongest, toughest biological material ever found in any animal in the WHOLE WORLD.  So, even though mollusks are soft, they are still mighty! To be strong and soft at the same time, many mollusks create a hard outer covering for themselves, which is where seashells come from.  How can they make so many beautiful, different kinds of shells?  Well, mollusks have been mastering the art of making shells for at least 400 million years!

A scientist’s reconstruction of the ancient mollusks called Ammonites, which lived on earth 400 million years ago, long before the dinosaurs!
Bramfab at Italian Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
This is an incredible Ammonite shell fossil that was covered with iridescent minerals over millions of years. We told you mollusks are shell-making masters!
JamesPFisherIII, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Every seashell you see was made by one mollusk, to be its home for all its life.  Their shells start small and grow, little by little, as long as the mollusk lives and grows.  Many of our mollusk friends are actually born with a tiny, soft, colorless shell.  This tiny shell, called the protoconch, is a miniature blueprint of the shell it will grow during its life. 

See the very smallest whirl in the center? That’s the protoconch. The rest grew as the mollusk did!

How does something hard like a shell GROW?  There’s more to the mollusk’s magic.  A mollusk takes nutrients and minerals into its body from the things it eats and from the water around it.  These nutrients and minerals then feed into the shell gland, a part of the mollusk’s body that mixes up just the right formula to make a shell.  A mollusk’s shell is mostly made of a mineral called calcium carbonate and also a little protein called chitin.  The shell mixture is released through the mantle, the soft body of the mollusk.  The shell mixture crystallizes, hardens and basically becomes a form of rock!

How strong are shells, really? These are the famous White Cliffs of Dover in England. They are white because the entire cliff is made of hard, compressed SHELLS from ancient mollusks that lived millions of years ago.
Immanuel Giel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A mollusk’s shell grows only from the edge of the shell.  This means that the tiny center point of a shell is the oldest part, the protoconch, that was there when the mollusk was born.  The rest has grown over time.  If you look closely at a seashell, you can see the “growth rings” where the mollusk has added another layer of growth. When you see a big shell with many rings, it means the mollusk was growing for a long time!

See the ridges here? Those are where the shell grew outward! Next time you look at a shell, look for the rings or ridges on its surface.
RealGatba, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Aren’t we lucky to live in a world that has beautiful things like seashells in it? Although shells are formed by completely natural processes, they are as beautiful as anything an artist could create. So now you know, science friend, that shells take a mollusk a long time to grow, and the shell is their only home. If you go to the beach this summer, have fun looking for shells! But if you pick up a shell with an animal at home in it, please put it back and let the animal enjoy its home — they built it themselves, after all!

SOURCES AND FURTHER INFORMATION:

The delightful Dr. Helen Scales introducing everything wonderful about mollusks and shells:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n796FoQjOHI

A quick introduction to shell formation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YVNllt_2BiE

A deep introduction to shell formation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C07VIb0vhaM

Ammonites and Ammonite fossils: https://natmus.humboldt.edu/exhibits/fossil-focus-exhibits/what-ammonite

The deepest-dwelling mollusk: https://www.livescience.com/worlds-deepest-squid-philippine-trench

Just beautiful shells and shell facts for you to look at:

KIDS ASK! Where Did The Air Come From? Part II

Here at High Touch High Tech, we teach a LOT of science, and the best part about it is feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam packed with experiments, we make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask a scientist.   

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  Our question this week is:

WHERE DID THE AIR COME FROM?

Science is awesome for so many reasons, but one thing we love about learning science is how it helps you to think differently about things you don’t usually notice in your day-to-day life.  Like air.  Air is the source of our life, carrying oxygen to our cells so they can function.  We take about 20,000 breaths of air every day and if we’re lucky, we hardly ever have to think about it.  It’s easy to think of air as just, well…boring.  It’s just there, softly surrounding us and sometimes making cool breezes or big storms.   In fact, the layer of air around the earth, called the atmosphere, is such a rare, unique, unbelievably lucky mixture that we’ve never seen its equal anywhere else in the known universe. The story of how the air came to be is actually one of the most EPIC, amazing stories in all of science.  So what is this air we breathe?  Buckle up science friends, because the story of our air is a truly wild ride –it’s a story of ice ages, deep-sea volcanoes, mass extinctions, comets and no less than the beginning of all of LIFE! 

It’s a story SO epic, we had to tell it in two parts.  At the conclusion of our tale this week, you’ll never see the stuff in your lungs the same way again.

WHERE DID THE AIR COME FROM PART TWO: FROM DEATH TO LIFE

In our last episode, we left our dear young Earth cooling out after a mega-crash with another planet.   At the same time, a few million light years away, earth’s neighbors in the solar system were also forming.  Many of the planets in our solar system cooled and formed an atmosphere, which is a layer of gas that gravity pushes close to the planet.  Earth is not the only planet with an atmosphere. The atmosphere of Pluto is deadly carbon monoxide and methane.  The atmosphere of Venus is mostly poisonous carbon dioxide.  Jupiter’s is hydrogen and helium.

We’re basically the Goldilocks of the solar system.

Only on Earth are we lucky enough to have an atmosphere that is the right mix of oxygen and nitrogen.  Nitrogen actually makes up the most of our atmosphere today, about 78%.  Scientists think a lot of nitrogen came from comets and from volcanoes when the earth was forming.  The rest of our atmosphere is our good friend oxygen, just a little bit of carbon dioxide, and a few other gases like argon.  When you put oxygen and nitrogen together like we have on Earth, the oxygen is able to provide energy for living things, instead of being poisonous. 

If the different gases of today’s atmosphere were your hand.

Whew! Take  a deep breath! So …. the Earth’s formation was pretty wild, full of crashes and smashes and volcanoes and stuff — but now it’s ready with oxygen and nitrogen to support an epic variety of living things, right?  NOOOOPE!  The story of our atmosphere is even wilder than that!  About 4 billion years ago, as our Earth began to cool, the atmosphere was mostly carbon dioxide and a lot of water vapor.  Not great for life!  But then came the rain.  For a very long time, maybe as much as TWO MILLION YEARS STRAIGHT, the water vapor in the atmosphere cooled and fell to earth as rain.  Can you imagine a rainy day that lasted two million years? All that rain billions of years ago still makes up every lake, every ocean, and every stream on earth today. Water was there when Earth was very new and has been here on Earth ever since.

Like this, but for two million years.

Because comet strikes and a whole planet strike brought so much water to Earth when it first formed, the Earth became a water planet.  Earth’s water became key to creating the atmosphere you are breathing right now.  After Earth’s water settled into the oceans, rivers, and lakes, our beautiful Earth was cool and quiet… too quiet!  There was nothing alive on the planet.  Over another billion years, carbon in the atmosphere began to dissolve into the ocean, and mix with things like nitrogen.  Somehow, all of those different chemicals and elements that made up the early earth began to mix and clump together in the water, and over a long time, out popped the first living things!  Maybe it was a bolt of lightning that helped all of those compounds come to life?  Or perhaps, just like a lot of Earth’s nitrogen and water, microscopic life came to earth from space?

ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA IGO 3.0CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO, via Wikimedia Commons

This is one of the best photos of a comet ever taken. There is recent evidence from scientists in Japan that comets do carry the kinds elements and compounds needed for life.

How life began on Earth is still one of the biggest questions in all of science.  We do know that Earth’s water was essential the beginning of life, and we do know that the earliest life were single-celled organisms called anaerobic bacteria.  Anaerobic bacteria were the first things to grow and reproduce.  It’s thought that Anaerobic bacteria began very deep in the ocean at hydrothermal vents, a type of underwater volcano, and got their energy from the minerals and chemicals in the water around the vents.  Anaerobic bacteria are still around today, closer than you think – lots of them are living around your teeth right now!  Anaerobic bacteria does NOT need oxygen to live. Oxygen is actually deadly to this bacteria.  At this time there was hardly any oxygen on the planet, so there was no problem! 

This is a deep-sea hydrothermal vent called “Lost City.” Using chemical analysis, scientists think life on earth may have begun right here.

Anaerobic life covered the planet until another life form, called cyanobacteria, emerged on the scene, and this little green friend has a lot to do with why you are breathing oxygen, and why you, or anything alive, are even here at all.  Basically, cyanobacteria murdered pretty much everything on the planet by making that oxygen you are enjoying right now. The tiny cyanobacteria did not need deep-sea chemicals for energy.  They used sunlight.  Sound familiar?  The reason we have lovely, life supporting oxygen for everyone is photosynthesis.  Photosynthesis is the amazing process still used by plants and bacteria today that takes the energy from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water and turns it into sugars and oxygen.  Because cyanobacteria could use sunlight to feed and grow, soon they were everywhere on the planet.  That meant more and more oxygen was pouring into the atmosphere.  Oxygen, which is great for us…but DOOM for anaerobic life on earth at that time.  Mega-doom. According to some scientists, it was even-worse-than-the-extinction-of-the-Dinosaurs-mega-doom.

By 2.4 billion years ago, there was so much oxygen in the atmosphere, it caused a catastrophic extinction that scientists call The Great Oxidation Event.  It’s amazing enough that so much of our atmosphere came from awesome things like comets, planetary collisions, and huge volcanoes.  But the truth is, what’s in your lungs right now is also the byproduct of an absolutely deadly extinction event that changed the Earth forever.  At the time of the Great Oxidation Event, oxygen had spread through the atmosphere and into the ocean.  There was so much of it, it reacted with Earth’s iron and covered the ocean and land in rust.  It wiped out most of the anaerobic bacteria, and even a lot of the cyanobacteria too. Even worse, it changed the climate so much that Earth went into a massive ice age that froze the entire Earth like a giant snowball.  Nearly everything on Earth died – 90% of all life!  The 10% of tiny organisms that survived became the ancestors of all living things, even humans.  These little survivors adapted to the new oxygen-rich atmosphere, and were able to use the energy in it to grow from tiny bacteria into everything now alive on earth.  Including YOU: a person who now knows the epic truth of where the air came from!

Sources and Further Information:

That time it rained for two million years: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1LdMWlNYS4

How life might have begun on our water planet:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZCeOUSYb4g

How cyanobacteria evolved and took over the world: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ps2GlGs8oso&list=RDCMUCBbnbBWJtwsf0jLGUwX5Q3g&index=1

How cyanobacteria almost wiped out all of life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dO2xx-aeZ4w

A deep dive on the Great Oxidation Event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H476c8UjLXY

KIDS ASK! Where Did The Air Come From?

Here at High Touch High Tech, we teach a LOT of science, and the best part about it is feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam packed with experiments, we make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask a scientist.   

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  Our question this week is:

WHERE DID THE AIR COME FROM?

Science is awesome for so many reasons, but one thing we love about learning science is how it helps you to think differently about things you don’t usually notice in your day-to-day life.  Like air.  Air is the source of our life, carrying oxygen to our cells so they can function.  We take about 20,000 breaths of air every day and if we’re lucky, we hardly ever have to think about it.  It’s easy to think of air as just, well…boring.  It’s just there, softly surrounding us and sometimes making cool breezes or big storms.   In fact, the layer of air around the earth, called the atmosphere, is such a rare, unbelievably lucky mixture that we’ve never seen its equal anywhere else in the known universe. The story of how the air came to be is actually one of the most EPIC, amazing stories in all of science.  So what is this air we breathe?  Buckle up science friends, because the story of our air is a truly wild ride –it’s a story of burning stars, mega-asteroids, monster volcanoes, comets, and no less than the beginning of all of LIFE! 

It’s a story SO epic, we’re going to tell it in two parts. Come back next time for the sequel, and you’ll never see the stuff in your lungs right now the same way again.

WHERE DID THE AIR COME FROM PART ONE: 

A WHOLE LOT OF CRASHING AND SMASHING AND EXPLODING IN OUR SOLAR SYSTEM

The story of the air you are breathing RIGHT NOW began in a place like this one

About 4.6 Billion years ago, before our solar system and planets even existed, a small star went supernova.  The mighty shockwave of that explosion compressed a huge – like light-years-across-huge — cloud of gas and dust hanging out nearby.  Over time this mega-cloud pushed in closer, and closer, and closer, until there was enough hydrogen and helium being pressed together, and then … BOOM!

The sun and planets of our solar system

Sol, our sun, IGNITED into its massive, burning existence.  This explosive beginning used a lot of hydrogen and helium from the cloud, and left a lot of other stuff, like gases, elements, and chemical compounds it didn’t need.  The energy and heat of the newly ignited sun somehow ZAPPED all of the stuff hanging out into big drops of molten rock and metal called chondrules.  Over time these became… you guessed it… THE PLANETS! 

Chondrules can be made of many, many different combinations of elements. This kind, Olivine, is made of Iron, Silicon, and Magnesium. There’s a lot of Olivine right under the Earth’s crust.
Antonio Ciccolella
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So, here in the middle of this massive, churning, stormy cloud of molten rock and metal, you might ask: “Hey! Why do we have to go back this far to understand the air?”  Because, science friends, the ingredients in the air you’re breathing right now have been around since the BEGINNING OF OUR SOLAR SYSTEM.  The stuff you’re breathing is really, really old and has been through a LOT to get to you.  All of the stuff that formed the planets is made from elements and compounds that were made in space, and those elements and compounds then gradually formed our atmosphere.  So, what you are breathing is VERY old, and a lot of it was made in SPACE (but not all of it, there’s a Part 2 after all).

An artist’s drawing of our very early, VERY molten earth. It’s Earth’s baby picture!

Slowly gravity began to push the chondrules together into the planets of our solar system.  The early earth was a ball of space-rock and space-metal, and it resembled a super-hot ball of lava, with melted rock and metal just oozing from the center to the surface and churning all around in an ocean of lava.  Over time, MILLIONS of comets and asteroids also smashed into the early earth, adding more chemicals and elements into the hot, melty mix.  So not only is that nice fresh air very old and made in space, some of it, especially elements like nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon, were delivered to your lungs by massive comet impact.  Oh yeah – and another very important player in this epic tale, water, was ALSO made in space and delivered to this planet by comets billions of years ago.  Yeah.  That water. That you’re drinking!

This is an artist’s drawing of an asteroid that collided with Earth later in earth’s formation. The one that hit the early Earth was MUCH bigger.

All those comet impacts were tiny pipsqueaks compared to the moment that another whole PLANET, called Theia, hit the earth and broke apart, in an unimaginably massive smash!  This interplanetary mash-up was 100 MILLION TIMES BIGGER than the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs!  When Theia hit the earth, some scientists believe that Theia may have also brought another huge amount of  water to the still-hot ball of earth.  The extra chunks of Theia left over eventually came together and became our own wonderful moon.  Our beautiful moon will go on to play a big part in the air you enjoy, but for now let’s leave the earth and moon to re-form and chill out a bit after their mega-mega-MEGA-crash. 

See, we told you the story of air was wild!  And the air hasn’t even been made yet!  But out of all these crashes and smashes and explosions in our early solar system, the ingredients are coming together to make our earth, our air, and a little thing called LIFE ITSELF.

Take a deep breath, and we’ll see you for Part 2 next time. 

Sources and Further Reading:

The Supernova that Kickstarted the Sun: https://www.space.com/35151-supernova-trigger-solar-system-formation.html

The Formation of our Solar System: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1QTc5YeO6w

Theia Hits the Earth: https://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/StarChild/questions/question38.html

The Moon and its Connection to Water: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190521101505.htm

Comets and the Amazing Things they Deliver: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDPPCoUUqY4

KIDS ASK! WHAT WILL HAPPEN WHEN THE SUN DIES?

A picture of a Red Giant Star with a unique spiral pattern.
ALMACC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Here at High Touch High Tech, we teach a LOT of science, and the best part about it is feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam packed with experiments, we always make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask a scientist.   

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  Our question this week is:

WHAT WILL HAPPEN WHEN THE SUN DIES?

Here at High Touch High Tech, we love talking about all the cool stuff that happens on our beautiful blue planet Earth, but we also love talking about SPACE!  From giant planets to fiery stars to mysterious black holes, space is a subject that always inspires wonder.  Our young astronomers love learning about the “life cycles” of stars, and how stars coalesce from giant, dusty nebulas, ignite, and eventually burn through all of their fuel, “dying” in a supernova full of the elements that make up our very own bodies!  It’s a wonderful thing to know that we are all made of stars, but when we teach about stars, there’s always a quiet moment of realization that our own sun, Sol, is a star too, and one day will come to the end of its “life” as the star that we see. That’s when someone usually asks the kinda-scary question: what will happen when our sun dies?

Our own star, Sol, center of our Solar System.

Well, science friends, there’s GOOD NEWS and there’s BAD NEWS.  Bad news first? OK: Sol will eventually run out of hydrogen and helium fuel, as all stars do.  When that happens, the results will be catastrophic and will probably destroy the earth.  Now the good news!  Scientists are sure that that time will be very, very far in the future, like several BILLIONS of years far.  So, it will not be a problem in our lifetimes.  We also believe by the time the sun does go out, with science on our side, humans, animals, and plants from the earth will be safely living on other planets. So even when the sun dies, the good things we love about earth will be able to go on, even if they are in a different place.  It’s OK to feel sad or scared about the idea that earth will come to an end. All scientists know that even though it’s a little scary, it’s also true that our universe is always changing, and nothing stays the same forever.  That’s just the way the universe works. The end of our sun is a normal, natural thing that is probably happening to several other stars right now, out there in space.  We hope it helps to know that it’s a scientific fact that the whole universe is always changing, but nothing is ever really lost forever. It just changes shape and becomes something new.

This is a picture of new young stars being created out of the supernovas of old stars, in a place called the Magellanic Cloud. Aren’t they beautiful?
X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. Potsdam/L. Oskinova, et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech
, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

So, what will happen?  Astrophysicists, the awesome scientists who study stars, have observed many different kinds of stars going through many different kinds of changes.  When Astrophysicists observe stars, the color and size of the star can tell them about how old a star is, and how much fuel it still has.  There are many types of stars, with cool names like “Yellow Dwarf,” which are small and common, and “Red Supergiant,” which are huge, old, and very hot.  Our friend Sol is a Yellow Dwarf star, and is now about 4.5 billion years old.  Sol is currently halfway through its life as a star, which means that it still has plenty of hydrogen and helium fuel to keep shining for another 4.5 billion years.  But when that hydrogen and helium start to run out, Sol is going to change from a Yellow Dwarf into a Red Giant, and that’s when the trouble starts for Earth!

A scientific artist’s drawing of a Red Giant Star.
BaperookamoCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When a star becomes a Red Giant, it means the star is running out of hydrogen and helium fuel in its center, and starts to collapse in on itself, getting smaller at first.  But, as the star collapses in, it actually pushes more fuel together and the star gets a kind of “second wind,” burning even hotter and puffing up to HUGE size.  When Sol becomes a super-hot Red Giant, it will become so big that it will probably swallow up the Inner Planets closest to the sun, our neighbors Mercury and Venus, and then… yup, you guessed it.  It’s coming for Earth.  Scientists are not sure whether the Earth will be completely swallowed up by the Red Giant Sol, or if it will be just burned so hot that nothing can live there anymore.  The Outer Planets that are further away, like Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune, will be pushed even further away by all of this and will probably be OK.  Astrophysicists believe that some moons of Saturn, like Titan, actually hold water and could support life, so let’s imagine humans far in the future watching all of this happen from there!  Maybe there will even be Red Giant-Watching Parties all across the galaxies of space!

Yellow Dwarf Sol and the Inner and Outer Planets. The Earth is the third closest to Sol. Because it is so close, Earth will probably be swallowed up into Sol when it becomes a Red Giant.

Finally, after another long, long time, when all of its energy is burned up, Astrophysicists believe that Sol will probably shrink down and become a White Dwarf Star, a dense, heavy, star with very little fuel left, mostly made of all of the heavy elements like gold, zinc, and iron that are the byproducts of stars burning their hydrogen and helium.  A White Dwarf is sometimes called a “ghost star.” They have a dusty appearance because their gravity is so heavy, they pull in and disintegrate any asteroid or comet that comes near.  White Dwarf Sol won’t be very bright and any humans on Titan probably won’t be able to see it anymore, but hopefully, no matter where we humans go, we will always remember our old friend Sol.

A picture of White Dwarf Stars taken by the Hubble Telescope.

Sources and Further Information:

An Astrophysicist explains Sol’s changes clearly for you, short version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaOPDk8Xbgw

Sol’s changes by an Astronomer, longer version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pcwcsfy2FDc

Detailed explanation of the changes Sol will go through: https://www.universetoday.com/25669/the-sun-as-a-white-dwarf-star/

An excellent examination of mysterious White Dwarf Stars: https://astroengine.com/2009/03/19/what-will-happen-when-the-sun-turns-into-a-white-dwarf/

A WHOLE IMAX MOVIE about Sol and how its going out could affect earth! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUwA610rnZg

KIDS ASK! How Do You Find Fossils?

Smile! This week is all about FOSSILS!
(All photos credit: pixabay)

Here at High Touch High Tech, we teach a LOT of science, and the best part of our work is feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam-packed with experiments, we make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask a scientist.   

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  Our question this week is:

HOW DO YOU FIND FOSSILS?

Now this is a truth all our science friends, young and old, can agree on: fossils are really, really, REALLY cool!  Whether it’s a giant Megalodon tooth bigger than your hand or a towering T-Rex,  fossils show us a whole world that existed before humans were ever here.  It’s amazing to think that once upon a time, here on this same earth, there were animals like stegosauruses, triceratops, and pterodactyls.  It’s amazing to look at a fossil and realize that this earth is actually very, very old, and our lives are just one little part in the long and beautiful story of life on earth! 

It’s no wonder that our young scientists want to know where to find fossils, and we at High Touch High Tech are happy to tell you more.  When you watch a movie or TV show, you often see Paleontologists (a.k.a. the awesome scientists who get to find and study fossils for a living), carefully brushing dirt away from a huge skeleton emerging from the ground.  Paleontologists really do find huge skeletons from time to time, but the truth is they are pretty rare.  So, bad news first: if you go hunting for fossils you probably won’t find a whole Brontosaurus.  Now for the good news: there are MANY other kinds of fossils you can find, and they are more common than you might think! 

Here’s the real secret of fossil hunting: it’s all about WHERE you look.  Paleontologists and Fossil Fans all follow the same rule of thumb: look for fossils where fossils have been found before.  Usually people find fossils in certain locations because those places had the best conditions for ancient animals and plants to turn into fossils.  For example, there’s a place in England called “Jurassic Beach” where some of the first fossils known to science were found hundreds of years ago, and people still go to find awesome fossils today.  Jurassic Beach is a great place for fossil hunting because a long time ago it was a warm ocean, full of many kinds of life AND the right kind of mud in the ocean to fossilize the bodies of ancient animals and plants.  Before you start your fossil hunt, remember that fossils are only found in places with sedimentary rocks, such as  limestone, sandstone, or shale.  Sedimentary rocks mean that once upon a time a place was full of the kind of mud and sand that makes fossils.

Jurassic Beach in England. See all of the layers in the rock? Places that look like this can be a good place to find fossils!

One way YOU can start finding fossils is to google “best places to find fossils in (your state or country).”  You will see lots of information about the best places to go, and you might even find a few fossil-hunting clubs and organizations that lead trips to those places.  Going with a fossil club will help you learn quickly how to spot fossils, as you go on the hunt with other Fossil Fans.  If you can’t travel, that’s OK too – there might be some fine fossil-hunting spots right in your own backyard!  A great place to find fossils might be what’s called a “road cut,” where construction has cut through a hill or mountain.  If you look at the sides of the road cut and see many layers of different rock, you might be on the road to a fossil find! Another great place can be on steep riverbanks with many layers in the sides.  Just be sure to hunt with an adult science friend so they can help keep you safe, and make sure you are on public land, not in someone’s private backyard. 

These are Ammonites, a very abundant fossil. Keep your eyes open for round and spiral shapes!

The first rule of fossil hunting is: it’s all about WHERE you look.  The second is: it’s all about WHAT you look for.  You might be thinking of big T-Rex skulls or Velociraptor claws when you think of fossils, but there are a lot more fossils out there than that.  They’re just very small, and you have to learn how to look for small clues, not big ones.  Many Paleontologists recommend taking along a special book called a field guide to help you identify what you see.  The vast majority of fossils come from animals called invertebrates, animals like today’s mollusks, snails, and insects.  There are also many types of fossilized plants to keep an eye out for.  When you are out fossil hunting, you will be looking at every rock you see, just like a detective looks for clues.  Look for rocks with shell or leaf shapes in them.  Those shapes are usually fossils!  If your adult science friend has a special tool called a rock hammer, you can even try to split rocks open to see what’s inside.  Look for round rocks called nodules, which often form around a fossil.  

Some fossils to look out for are: Nautilus fossils (above) and Trilobite fossils (below).

Because we know our young scientists are such big Fossil Fans, we’ve included lots of resources below to help you get started.  There are lists of the best places to hunt, a link to a real fossil hunting club, and many videos of experts fossil hunting to show you more.  Happy hunting, science friends!

SOURCES AND FURTHER INFORMATION:

Best public sites to find fossils: https://www.rockseeker.com/fossil-dig-sites/

More about the best places to look and what to look for (very helpful website!): https://www.rockseeker.com/category/fossils/

The North Carolina Fossil Club: https://ncfossilclub.org/ 

A Paleontologist talking about how he finds fossils: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TG_p3CPFJmY

An awesome explanation of the different types of fossils you can find: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UdP4_7f0vmo

How to tell a fossilized bone from a rock: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erUBB8h-qsY

An excellent explanation of how and where YOU can find fossils (with a good recommendation for books and guides that can help you): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plf3wZI8GOQ

Splitting open nodules on Jurassic Beach: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3x6ua5RkERw