Tag Archives: mammals

2. How to Think Like a Scientist – Colorful Cats

phineas_scientist001When i was a little kid, my family got a kitten. He was an orange tabby and I named him “Tang” after the powdered orange flavored breakfast beverage that NASA astronauts drank.

My cousins also had an orange cat and I had seen tigers at the Bronx Zoo, so I figured that all cats were orange. Imagine my shock when I saw my neighbor’s grey cat. What the heck? I guess I was wrong. After that I knew better, that cats were either orange or grey. Of course I was still very wrong, but I was closer to the truth.

NASA Tang AdvertisementIt’s okay to be wrong. Some of the best scientific discoveries are found that way. And though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was already thinking like a scientist, following the scientific method.

  1. I made an observation (orange cat)
  2. I made an educated guess (all cats are orange)
  3. I tested and verified the hypothesis (my cousin has an orange cat, and tigers are orange)
  4. Then I found that the hypothesis was false (oops! Some cats are grey)
  5. I revised my hypothesis (cats are either orange or grey)

Let’s examine these steps because they show how a guess becomes a hypothesis. A scientific hypothesis must be tentative, predictive, verifiable and falsifiable.

Yikes! What does that mean?

  • Tentative means I am not certain about my hypothesis, and I will change my mind if there is evidence that I was wrong.
  • Predictive means I am not just explaining what I have found. I am also making claims about future observations. The next cat anyone sees will be either orange or grey.
  • Verifiable means I can find more orange or grey cats. If I cannot, I got problems!
  • Falsifiable means that I can make an experiment to prove that my hypothesis is wrong. If I see a cat that is any other color besides orange or grey (maybe a black cat) then my hypothesis is wrong, it has been falsified.

It is impossible for me to check every cat in the world, so I can never completely prove my hypothesis. With each cat I find that is orange or grey, my hypothesis is more likely to be correct. But all I need is one black cat to make my hypothesis false.

Cat Named TangFun Phineas Fact
If an idea cannot be falsified, it is only an opinion. For example, “cats are weird” is not a hypothesis. Even if it is true, since it cannot be disproven it is not scientifically relevant. To be scientifically valid, a hypothesis must survive all attempts to falsify it. If I still believed that all cats are orange after I have seen a grey one, it would just be silly. But my opinion that orange kittens are cuter would still stand.

Website: Tang in Space

Video: 1970s Tang Commercial

Sticky Situation: Million-Year-Old Bugs Preserved in Fossilized Amber

spiderattackIf you’ve ever handled a freshly cut Christmas tree or spent an afternoon climbing a neighborhood pine, you know that trees can get pretty sappy. Part of the healing process for a tree that loses a limb or gets a cut in its bark is to fill in the damaged area with sticky, gooey, sappy resin.

This helps the tree form something like a scab. The scab keeps out bad things (like germs) and keeps in good things (like water).

While this excellent healing process is great for the tree, it can be pretty crummy for insects that come along and get stuck in the sap.

But that is not the end of the story.

Fast forward a few million years, and the scientist of today can find well-preserved insect fossils still in the sappy resin. By this time the resin has turned into a fossil itself, called amber.

Researchers have found all kinds of ancient insects in amber, and have found frogs, flowers, lizards, even the bones of small mammals and animal hair. For scientists studying creatures that are mostly long gone, amber adds up to a real treasure trove.

Recently, scientists at Oregon State University have been studying a rare amber fossil that trapped a spider just as it was attacking a wasp that had just gotten stuck in the spider’s web. The spider was moving in for the kill when resin covered the web, freezing them both for all time. Talk about your sticky situations.


Fossil:  the remains or impression of something that was alive in prehistoric times, now preserved in rock

Resin: a thick substance that flows from some types of pine trees

Amber: fossilized resin

Mammal: warm-blooded animals with hair or fur that fed their young milk


PRESS RELEASE: Fossil of ancient spider attack only one of its type ever discovered

WEB: Fossil Information on KinderScience.com

WEB: World of Amber: What is Amber?

WEB: Fossils for Kids

ARTICLE: New York Times: Mammal Bones Found in Amber for First Time

WEB: Resin & Tree Damage


© 2012 Oregon State University: “This is the only fossil ever discovered that shows a spider attacking prey in its web. Preserved in amber, it’s about 100 million years old.”

Scat Dogs of the High Seas


File this post in the “Things you might never know if you don’t go to the museum” category.

Whales are mysterious creatures, but scientists can learn a lot about them by studying whale poop. They can learn about the whales’ eating habits, whether they are male or female, whether they are healthy or under a lot of stress. The scientists can even use DNA testing to identify individual animals and learn whether female whales are pregnant.

That’s useful information. But here’s the problem: finding whale scat (scat is another word for animal poop) in something as large as the ocean is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Luckily, there’s a solution.

As anyone who has ever walked a dog knows, dogs love to sniff. Sniffing around the ground, for a dog, is like reading a good book with a complicated story. The weirder the smells, the more interesting the story.

So imagine the lucky dog that gets to go out on the trail of some of the Earth’s largest creatures.

Once they are trained to know what to sniff for, dogs riding in the front of boats can help marine biologists find whale poop floating in the water. Dogs can even smell whale poop from one mile away, which you have to admit is pretty amazing.

Since learning how to get help from trained pooches, scientists now find four times as much, err…, research material, as they used to find. That means they have greater access to all kinds of useful data. Not bad.

Another Interesting Thing About Whale Poop: Sometimes poop from a whale with an upset stomach contains a particular substance that hardens into a waxy, almost rock-like object after floating around the surface of the sea for years and years. It is called ambergris and can wash up on any beach in the world. It has a unique smell that is very valuable to perfume makers. In 2012, an 8-year-old boy walking on a beach in England found a chunk of ambergris that weighed a little over a pound. It turned out to be worth $63,000.

Scat: another word for animal poop
Ambergris: waxlike substance that originates in the intestines of a sperm whale

North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Science for Kids


National Geographic