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Ask Dr. Universe melissamayer

How do animals teach their kids how to survive if animals can't talk? — Riley, 11, Texas

Dear Riley,

There’s really nothing cuter than baby animals. Many animal parents invest lots of time into caring for their young and teaching them to survive.

I talked about your question with my friend Amber Adams-Progar. She’s an animal sciences professor at Washington State University. She’s also an expert in dairy cow behavior. She told me that non-human animals learn in ways that are like how humans learn.

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If an animal has poison inside them, how are they not affected by their own poison? – Jad, 10, Georgia

Dear Jad,

From jellyfish to snakes to spiders, lots of animals use poison or venom. It helps them catch prey and defend themselves. Even the platypus and one very spicy primate called the slow loris use venom.

I talked about your question with my friend Blair Perry. He’s a biologist at Washington State University. He’s also a snake expert.

Perry told me the difference between poison and venom. They’re both toxic mixes of mostly proteins. But they get into your body in different ways. Poison is eaten, breathed in or absorbed through the skin. Venom is injected through a bite or sting.

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How does sleeping charge us up?  -Joaquin, 10, Illinois

Dear Joaquin,

I love curling up under a pile of blankets at bedtime and waking up refreshed in the morning. You might be surprised to hear that scientists aren’t sure why sleep makes us feel that way.

I talked about how sleep works with my friend Marcos Frank. He’s a brain scientist who works in the Sleep and Performance Research Center at Washington State University.

“Without sleep, we do poorly on a lot of tasks, and our brains and bodies don't work as well,” Frank said. “But why is not entirely clear.”

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Why do you get acne? – Joey, 12, Illinois

Dear Joey,

Whether we call them pimples, spots or zits, acne is something most people experience. As many as 95% of people have some acne sometime. That’s nearly everybody.

I talked about acne with my friend Sarah Fincham. She has a clinical doctorate in nursing. She’s a nurse and a professor in the College of Nursing at Washington State University.

If you look at your skin, you’ll see tiny openings called pores. These pores connect to oil-producing glands under our skin. They’re called sebaceous glands, and the oil they make is called sebum.

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How is inflation caused? – Raymond, 12, California

Dear Raymond,

When I reached out to my friend Christopher Clarke with your question, he said, “That’s so cool that a kid is asking about inflation!” I agree.

Clarke is an economics professor at Washington State University. He told me inflation is the average rise in prices for goods and services.

So, what are goods and services? Let’s say you go to a restaurant and order enchiladas. The enchiladas are goods. You can see them, touch them and taste them. Services are the other parts of your dining experience. The people who take your order, cook your food and wash your dishes are all providing services.

The price you pay for goods and services changes over time.

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How long do you have to train to become a scientist? – Katelyn, Texas

Dear Katelyn,

Maybe you dream of pointing your telescope toward distant galaxies. Or zooming in on microscopic life on Earth. Being a scientist is an amazing job. You can also do science for fun—no matter your age or anything else about you. It belongs to everyone.

I talked about science training with my friend Kalli Stephens. She’s earning her bachelor’s degree in genetics and cell biology from Washington State University. WSU has a strong undergraduate research program. So, Stephens has been working as a scientist while going to school.

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Do animals have religion like humans? – Anna, 12, Hong Kong

Dear Anna,

When I read your question, I thought about elephants. There’s evidence that elephants have complex emotions—like grief when their relatives die or affection for humans who help them. Whales, dolphins, non-human primates and even dogs sometimes seem like they have complex emotions, too.

It makes us wonder if animals seek comfort and meaning the same ways humans do—like through religion. We truly don’t know the answer to your question. It’s something people have wondered about for a long time.

Exploring deep questions is the work of my friend Joe Campbell. He’s a philosopher at Washington State University.

We often think of religion as beliefs and behaviors. They relate to the supernatural—something beyond us and what we see in the natural world.

Campbell told me that underneath many religious beliefs and behaviors is a feeling: awe. It’s a proto-religious attitude. Proto means first.

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How do I make compost without a compost maker? – Miracle, 15, Nigeria

Hi Miracle,

My office is just down the road from the Washington State University composting facility. It processes more than 10,000 pounds of organic waste every month. That’s a lot of compost!

I talked about compost with my friend Jim Kropf. He works for WSU Extension. Extension programs connect universities with local communities. They offer classes and trustworthy, science-based resources that anyone can use online.

Kropf told me that composting is how nature recycles. “In the forest, leaves fall on the ground and come in contact with soil,” he said. “Worms, centipedes, microorganisms and fungi all work on those leaves to break them down into organic matter.”

Making compost is copying nature to make fertilizer for healthier gardens. It’s also a way to help our planet.

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How do starfish eat? – Hailey, 7, Maryland

Dear Hailey,

Starfish might have the coolest—and strangest—way of gobbling up a snack.

I learned all about it from my friend Cori Kane. She studied coral reefs when she was a biology Ph.D. student at Washington State University. Now she works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She writes policies to help protect the ocean and the animals that live there.

“Sea stars are probably one of the weirdest creatures. I don't know any other organism that basically barfs out its stomach to eat,” Kane said.

Yes, you heard that right. She said sea stars barf out their stomachs.

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How do gems form underground? – Jett, 11, Kansas

Dear Jett,

When I was a kitten, I loved collecting rocks and gems. So, I was very excited to talk about your question with my friend Johannes Haemmerli. He studies minerals in the School of the Environment at Washington State University.

Minerals are solids that form from non-living elements in nature. They have a very specific structure for how those elements are arranged. Haemmerli told me that nearly all gems are minerals or sometimes mixtures of minerals.

You’re right that gems form underground. A diamond forms when the element carbon is buried nearly 100 miles deep inside the Earth. It’s super-hot and there’s tons of pressure down there. Eventually the pressure pushes the carbon atoms together to form the mineral we call diamond. Above ground, where there is much less pressure, the same carbon can come together and form a mineral we call graphite. That’s the “lead” of your pencil.

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Who invented books? – Nicole, 6, Washington

Dear Nicole,

Some people only like paper books. But I love the library app on my phone. It’s like having stacks of library books in my pocket.

To learn more about books, I talked with my friend Greg Matthews. He’s the rare books librarian at Washington State University. “The short answer would probably be the Romans,” Matthews said. “But Rome was a really vast empire. So, it could have been a Roman in North Spain. It could have been a Roman in Egypt.”

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What are microorganisms? –Trystan, 11, North Carolina

Dear Trystan,

One of my favorite things to do is look at pond water with a microscope. I love to see all the teeny tiny critters zooming around in a single drop.

I talked about microorganisms, also called microbes, with my friend Claire Burbick. She’s a microbiologist at Washington State University. She told me the key trait for microbes is size. Microbes are micro—which means extremely small.

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Native American Heritage Month: What is a land acknowledgement? Why does representation matter?

WSU’s campuses are on ceded land belonging to the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) Tribe and Palus people, traditional Cowlitz lands, traditional lands of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and historical Spokane Tribe lands. This story was written on land belonging to the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

November is a great time to honor historical figures and Native American scientists changing the world right now.

I talked about this with Sara Mills, a Prevention Science graduate student at Washington State University. She’s a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes.

Mills’ research centers Native American student voices. She wants to figure out what makes those students feel like they belong.

“Representation is huge,” she said. “If you can see yourself in these spaces, then you're more willing to put yourself out there and be in those spaces. I met Native American faculty right away when I got to WSU. I don't know if I would have been able to visualize myself here if I hadn't.”

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Do animals feel home-like in wildlife sanctuaries? – Haniya, 8, Pakistan

Dear Haniya,

There are lots of things that make a place feel like home. Your home is probably full of sights, sounds and smells that feel familiar and cozy. Those things are important for animals in captivity, too.

To find out more, I talked with Charles Robbins, a wildlife biologist at Washington State University. He started the WSU Bear Center. It’s the only grizzly bear research center in the United States.

“The most important thing to bears and probably most animals is a feeling of safety—that they’re not being hurt, and the food is good,” Robbins said. “Probably all the same things that … » More …

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When was the first bee made? – Henry, 7, Illinois

Dear Henry,

It’s easy to love bees. They’re furry and buzzy. Along with other insects, birds and bats, they pollinate about one-third of the plants we eat.

I talked about how long bees have been buzzing around Earth with my friend Silas Bossert. He’s an evolutionary biologist in the Department of Entomology at Washington State University.

“The oldest bee fossil that is really without doubt a bee is between 65 and 70 million years old,” Bossert said.

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How does the brain transfer signals to each body part to move? Yulissa, 11, Virginia

Dear Yulissa,

Your brain weighs less than 3 pounds but has the power to move your whole body. That’s because it’s part of your nervous system.

Your brain and the spinal cord that runs down your back make up your central nervous system. You also have a peripheral nervous system made up of nerve cells. These connect your brain and spinal cord to all the other parts of your body.

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How did life begin? Kelsey, 10, Texas

Dear Kelsey,

The universe is a big place. Thinking about how we fit into it is part of what makes humans (and cats like me) special.

I talked about your question with my friend Afshin Khan who studied astrobiology and environmental science at Washington State University. Astrobiologists explore how life began. They also look for signs of life outside Earth.

Khan told me your question is a huge mystery.

“We have very good ideas about what could have happened,” she said. “In different labs around the world, we’ve gotten very close to simulating some of those conditions. But simulations can only get so … » More …

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How does honey last forever? Gillian, 7, Illinois

Dear Gillian,

Archaeologists exploring ancient Egyptian tombs sometimes find honey. It’s thousands of years old, but you could still safely spread it on your toast!

I talked to my friend Brandon Hopkins, professor in the WSU department of entomology, about why honey lasts so long. He told me honey is one of the only foods that never spoils.

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How was the moon formed? - Barbara, 10, Texas

Dear Barbara,

Why do moon rocks taste better than Earth rocks? They’re a little meteor! In all seriousness, your question is something humans wondered about for a long time.

I talked to my friend Michael Allen, astronomy professor at WSU about how the moon formed. He told me we figured out the answer in 1972. That’s shortly after humans visited the moon for the first time.

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What is octopus ink? – Henry, 6, Maryland

Dear Henry,

An octopus has three hearts and long arms with suction cups. It probably seems very different from you. But you have the main ingredients of octopus ink in your body, too!

I talked about octopus ink with my friend Gretchen Rollwagen-Bollens, associate professor in WSU’s School of the Environment. She told me that ink isn’t just an octopus thing. Most animals called cephalopods (sef-uh-luh-pods) make it. These include octopus, squid and cuttlefish.

Cephalopods including octopuses use color a lot. They have sacs of colored pigments all over their bodies. They use those sacs to change their body color. That helps them blend into their environment.

They also make and store a dark pigment in special ink sacs.

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Dr. Universe: Do spiders sleep? - Peter, 10, South Dakota

Dear Peter,

At the end of the day, you probably curl up in a cozy bed for a little shut eye. Unlike you, most spiders have eight eyes, and they never shut any of them. They don’t even have eyelids!

I talked about spider sleep with my friend Richard Zack, an entomologist and professor in WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. He also runs the biggest insect museum in the state of Washington at WSU. He told me that spiders and insects do rest. They nestle into a safe spot and enter a “stupor,” which means they’re very still.

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