With rain in the sky and in the forecast ahead, nature learning must go indoors for a few days; and, hey, if it comes with popcorn, all the better!
The new animated movie, Epic, is a tale based on nature and set in the eastern deciduous forests of North America, with plenty of true-to-form plants and animals for kids identify and enjoy.
This is a departure from animated films of the past, which have focused on the largest of animals (lions in The Lion King, bears in Brother Bear, tigers in Jungle Boy, etc.) and have been set in far away or inaccessible locales (Africa, Alaska, India, coral reefs, to name a few).
This movie provides kids with a story that will get them inspired to check out the abundant nature in their own back yards – from hummingbirds to toads and bats to lightning bugs.
First, quickly, the creatures in this movie who aren’t real: Boggans (yay – no part of nature is actually evil, they’re all just trying to get a meal) and all of Queen Tara’s people, including the Leaf Men. (Or perhaps we just haven’t looked hard enough for them?)
Many others, however, are thoroughly real and even more fascinating in real life than they are on film. These slides will share some exciting info on the Epic creatures, come to life.
The ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) was the bird of choice for Leaf Men in the movie Epic; the best bird for speed and quick maneuvering in sky battles with the Boggans.
In real life, the ruby-throated hummingbird is impressively quick and maneuverable, beating its wings about 53 times every second. They can fly straight and fast and also stop instantly, hover, and adjust their position up, down, or backwards with tremendous precision and control.
All of that fast flying means that hummingbirds need a lot of high-octane fuel, like the sugar-heavy nectar they like to sip from native flowers such as trumpet creeper, cardinal flower, coral honeysuckle, jewelweed, bee-balm, red buckeye and red morning glory and, sometimes, tree sap. For protein, super-speedy hummingbirds can catch insects in midair or pull them out of spider webs; their favorite bug-meals include mosquitoes, gnats, fruit flies, and small bees.
This hummingbird migrates to North America from South America, breeding here during the summer months. The ruby-throated is the only hummingbird found in eastern North America.
Eastern Forest Snail
Though experts will likely argue about Grub the snail’s actual genus and species, the Noonday Snail (Patera clarki nantahala) is a pretty good match for Grub’s brown shell, grey upper body and pale beige lower body.
Snails, who like to chew on leaves of all sorts, are not generally a gardener’s favorite backyard wildlife, but they do serve a very important role in nature.
Snails, by virtue of their leaf-loving appetite, control plant growth and recycle those nutrients into the soil for other plants and animals to use. This particular snail eats (among other things) poison ivy, so naked-legged nature lovers everywhere should be grateful for fewer itchy ankle rashes.
Both snails and slugs (like Grub’s friend, Mub) do leave slime trails wherever they go. The slime that they produce is actually hygroscopic, like honey, in that it attracts and absorbs water, which is just cool.
The slime also serves many purposes, including:
- Helping the snail or slug stick to a vertical surface, such as a plant stem or garden wall;
- Protecting the snail or slug’s body from drying out;
- Making them too slippery for predators, such as birds, to hold onto – and making them taste bad, too; and
- Leaving a scent trail for other slugs of the same species to follow to find a mate.
Mub makes more than a few funny comments disparaging poor Nod’s unfortunate “flat face.” Though not aesthetically pleasing to humans, the two sets of “feelers”, or tentacles, on a slug’s head are actually quite impressive.
The upper pair of tentacles are tipped with light-sensing organs (depicted as eyes in the movie, but actually not so complex). The lower pair of tentacles provide the slug with a sense of smell.
Both pairs of tentacles are retractable (as Mub demonstrates when making fun of Nod) and can be regrown if lost.
In real life, slugs are more worried about their many predators than they are about non-existant Boggans. Many kinds of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish feed on slugs. Notably, the brown trout here in this region enjoy a good slug for a meal, and so do the frogs of the genus “Bufo.” Speaking of Bufo, he’s in the next slide. . .
Bufo is the genus name for about 150 different species of toads. The American toad pictured here is Bufo americanus. It was chosen as an example of what the character “Bufo” might look like in reality, as this species is common to the mid-atlantic mountain woods.
American toads are usually two to three inches long, and their call is a high, musical trill that lasts for up to 30 seconds.
Toads eat many different kinds of insects and invertebrates. They can catch prey with their sticky tongues or, for larger prey, clamp down on the animal and shove it into their mouths with their “hands”.
Toads do have a tough skin and, when threatened, glands in their skin secrete a white, poisonous fluid that can cause inflammation and irritation of the mouth and throat and nausea.
Chomping down on a toad is a real danger for dogs, who can get quite sick from that poison. MK’s dog, Ozzie, is lucky he never caught Bufo!
Little Brown Bat
When will the “stompers” in real life get it? Just because an animal is nocturnal does not make it evil!
In fact, Virginia’s native bats do a great service for humans, by feasting on mosquitoes and other bugs all night. They catch bugs with acrobatic flying maneuvers using their powers of echolocation.
Echolocation is sending out pulses of very high pitched sound, which then bounce off of flying insects (their prey) and back to the bat’s big ears. The differences in the sound that bounces back tell the bat where the bug prey is with incredible accuracy.
Little brown bats send out echolocation calls about 20 times per second when they’re flying; but when they’re chasing prey, they can call up to 200 times per second.
A single little brown bat can catch and eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes an hour.
Find out more about these awesome night flyers at www.batrescue.org.
There are many different species of “lightning bugs” or “fireflies”, but the one most common to the eastern U.S. is the Photinus pyralis.
The bugs we see flying and flashing at night are the males, who are lighting up either to defend their territory or to show off for the females, which are waiting in the grass or on trees and are most often called “glow worms”.
The light comes from a chemical reaction inside the firefly’s body between two chemicals: luciferin and luciferace. (“Lux” is the Latin root word for light.)
This reaction is so effective that all of the energy created is actually emitted as light. Compare that to an incandescent bulb, which emits only 10% of the energy it uses as light, or to a fluorescent bulb, which emits 90% of the energy it uses as light. (The rest comes out as heat.)
To learn more about lightning bugs / fireflies, visit www.firefly.org.
When Nod races, the bird he rides looks quite a bit like a tree sparrow (Spizella arborea).
A common visitor at winter bird feeders, the tree sparrow spends summers farther north in Canada.
The tree sparrow would be an expensive animal to feed and keep as a racing pet; they need to eat at about one-third of their body weight each day.
However, they’re a good choice for a race around the woods because their body shape and flying style make them very quick and maneuverable.
The common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) may have feathers of deep, rich black, but its yellow eyes and its mind are very bright! (It would never willingly help a Boggan.)
Grackles are smart enough to know that they’ll get a good meal following a plow or lawn mower; they snap up the insects and even mice that are visible in the shorter grass and go running away from the mower.
They’re also smart enough to keep clean. They use ants help them wash up. According to AllAboutBirds.org, “You might see a Common Grackle hunched over on the ground, wings spread, letting ants crawl over its body and feathers. This is called anting . . . The ants secrete formic acid, the chemical in their stings, and this may rid the bird of parasites. In addition to ants, grackles have been seen using walnut juice, lemons and limes, marigold blossoms, chokecherries, and mothballs in a similar fashion.”
Who could ever be afraid of a mouse? MK finds out who when she tumbles into a mouse’s burrow: anything that looks or smells like food.
Mice aren’t just seed eaters, they’ll also happily gobble up nuts, fruits, and small animals, including beetles, caterpillars, coccoons, centipedes, snails, moths, crane flies, grasshoppers, crickets, and other insects. They sometimes even eat small mammals (like MK) or birds.
The white-footed mouse is an excellent swimmer and a great climber (its long tail helps it balance) – MK is lucky Nod showed her how to get away!
The face of a star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata) ridden by the boggan leader is scary enough to make a young moviegoer sure the animal works for evil. Honestly, it’s a face that not even a mother (of a young moviegoer) could love.
But the real star-nosed mole is an impressive and very lovable mammal common to the east coast of the United States and Canada.
Found in low, wet places, this hamster-sized mammal digs through soil and swims through water snacking on worms, terrestrial and aquatic insects, mollusks, and small amphibians and fish.
That crazy-looking nose is actually made of 11 pairs of tentacles called Eimer’s organs. They’re incredibly sensitive to vibrations and help the mole detect the tiny movements of its prey in the complete darkness of the soil.
Those tentacles are so sensitive and accurate, in fact, that the star-nosed mole holds the title for the fastest eating organism in the world: it can identify and eat prey in as little as one fifth of a second!