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Ask Dr. Universe Plants, Animals, and Bugs

Dr. Universe: how do sleeping darts work? (e.g. for elephants) - Jonathan, 7, Pullman, Wash.

Dear Jonathan,

Some people get nervous when they go to the doctor. Maybe you’re one of them. You may not enjoy all of the visit, but you understand the doctor wants to help you. (And that a treat might await you at the end.)

But if an elephant gets sick, they can’t understand a doctor’s words. They may get confused and scared, until it’s too dangerous to help them.

That’s why sleeping darts—also known as tranquilizer darts—help so much.

“It’s safer for both the humans and the elephant because the humans aren’t right next to a wild animal, and the animal isn’t being chased to try to catch it,” Dr. Tamara Grubb said. She is a veterinarian at Washington State University who specializes in anesthesiology, drugs that make animals calm, sleepy, or unable to feel pain.

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How are seashells formed? And why are they different colors? Can seashells live or die? - Caroline, 9, Crestwood, Ky.

Dear Caroline,

Seashells come in an astounding variety. Some are curved and round, others long and tube-like. Some are smooth, others bumpy. Some are large, others small. Plus, they come in a rainbow of colors: red, green, brown, purple, pink, and more.

All that variety comes from the same source: little animals called mollusks, with a mighty muscle called a mantle.

I found out all about them from my friend Richelle Tanner, a scientist at Washington State University. She is very curious about the ocean and knows a lot about mollusks, a type of animal with a soft, moist body.

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Why won’t a female sea turtle lay her eggs in the ocean? How do baby turtles know where the ocean is when they hatch from their eggs? - Jasmine and Shereen, 8, Gainesville, Fla.

Dear Jasmine and Shereen,

Sea turtles spend almost their entire lives in the ocean. Even as babies, sea turtles’ bodies have special traits for living at sea, helping them glide and paddle through the water. After emerging from their eggs, baby sea turtles (called “hatchlings”) scramble to the ocean to live the rest of their lives. Only female sea turtles return to land as adults, to lay eggs and begin the cycle again.

I talked with my friend Frank Paladino to learn more about sea turtles. He completed his Ph.D. at Washington State University. Today he is a professor at Purdue University-Fort Wayne and former president of the International Sea Turtle Society. He is especially interested in leatherbacks, the largest living turtle.

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Dr. Universe: Do trees still create oxygen and clean the air after their leaves fall off? – Nova, 8, Palouse, Wash.

Dear Nova,

The trees that lose their leaves in fall, such as chestnuts, oaks, aspens, and maples, are called deciduous trees. Once they lose their leaves, most aren’t able to take in carbon dioxide gas from the air or produce any oxygen.

That’s what I found out from my friend Kevin Zobrist, a professor of forestry at Washington State University.

“Don’t fret, though,” Zobrist said. “For they more than make up for it in the summer.”

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Dr. Universe: Why are evergreen trees green all year? – Emily, 10, Silverdale, Wash.

Whenever I go for a hike in the woods, I can’t help but admire the tall evergreen trees. No matter what time of year it is, the pines, hemlocks, cedars, and spruces are usually all green. My friend Bert Cregg is also very curious about the lives of trees. He graduated from Washington State University and is a professor at Michigan State University. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: If snakes smell with their tongues, what do they do with their noses? – A.J., 5, Kennewick, WA

You’re right, snakes have an amazing sense of smell. They can use their tongues to pick up on all kinds of scents in the air. Whenever we smell something in the air, we are actually sniffing tiny building blocks called molecules. These molecules are what make up the scents of everything around us—things like baked bread, fresh-cut grass, and warm cookies. If you were a snake, you might sniff out the scent of a slug or mouse. You’d use your tongue to pull the molecules from the air into your mouth. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How did the first horse change into the horses of today? -Ava, 7, Kennewick, Wash.

We can learn a lot about animals of the past from fossils, the imprints or remains we find in rocks. One fossil found in the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming helped us learn about the oldest known horses. These horses are called Sifrhippus (siff-RIP-us). They had four toes on each foot and were very small. Believe it or not, these tiny horses weighed only about ten pounds. That’s just a bit heavier than your average house cat. According to the fossil records, Sifrhippus lived somewhere between 54 and 30 million years ago. When I went to visit my friend Lane Wallett, she told me all about the history of horses. As a veterinarian and a paleontologist at Washington State University, she is very curious about both horses and fossils. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do trees help the air? – Ella, 12

Take a big, deep breath. As you inhale and exhale, you can probably feel the air taking up space in your lungs. The air we breathe is made up of a few different things. It includes gases such as nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide—just to name a few. Animals breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. But in the plant world, it’s the opposite. Trees, plants, and even algae in the ocean, take in carbon dioxide from the air and, using the energy of the sun, transform it into the oxygen we all breathe. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why are dogs important to humans? Stephani R., 9, Washington State

Dear Stephani, Dogs are important to humans in all kinds of ways. The connection between the two goes back thousands of years. A long time ago, wolves would trail along after humans on hunting trips and eat any scraps they could find. Eventually these wolves evolved into dogs that helped protect the hunters and gatherers. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: What can I do to help stop ocean pollution? -Hailey, 10

It’s great to hear you want to help our oceans. After all, they do a lot for us. Life in the ocean provides much of the oxygen we breathe and is also a source of food for many animals, including humans. One of the most important things we can do to prevent more pollution is to keep our garbage, especially plastic, out of the ocean. That’s what I found out from my friend Richelle Tanner, a marine biologist and researcher at Washington State University. While a lot of plastic ends up in the ocean, it actually started under the Earth’s surface in the form of oil, leftovers of plants and animals that died long ago. Read More ...