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How are ants so strong?

Dear Dr. Universe: I would like to find out how ants are so strong. How is it possible that they can carry weight that is heavier than themselves?

–Anita, 11

Dear Anita,

Ants are pretty good little weightlifters. My friend Rich Zack, a scientist at Washington State University who studies insects, knows a lot about ants. One kind of ant that he has studied can carry up to 20 times its own weight. » More …

Why does meat brown on the grill?

Why does meat get brown on the grill?

– Christina, Seattle, Wash.

Dear Christina,

You know summer is just around the corner when the smell of barbecue is in the air. It’s a great question you ask and it leads us to the Meats Lab at Washington State University. That’s where I met up with my friend and animal scientist, Jan Busboom. » More …

How do turtles live so much longer than other animals?

How do turtles live so much longer than other animals?

-8th grader, Lewiston, Idaho

Dear Reader,

You’re right, turtles and tortoises live a lot longer than most other animals. If you were a turtle, you might live for more than 150 years. One giant Galápagos tortoise named Harriet even lived to be more than 170 years old, said my friend Donna Holmes. » More …

How do ladybugs survive winter?

How do ladybugs survive the winter? Are ladybugs we see in spring several years old or did they just hatch? Are they worms before they are beetles?

– Tanya, Pullman, WA

Dear Tanya,

You know it’s springtime when animals start coming out of hibernation. That includes ladybugs that crawl out from their cozy winter hiding places. » More …

Does interacting with animals help us?

Dear Dr. Universe: Do you know how human and animal interactions help our mind grow? Does it help us? Does it do nothing? This has fascinated me for a very long time.

– Gabby G., 11, Berlin, VT

Dear Gabby,

Our brains are pretty busy. They are constantly thinking, feeling, and sensing our world. One thing that can help some people relax is spending time with an animal friend. You might play fetch with a dog, sit with a cat, brush a horse, or even watch a goldfish zip around its bowl.

People who spend a lot of time with animals might tell you that something special seems to be going on here. But scientists are looking for evidence and want to find out for certain just what is going on. They want to know more about what happens when animals and humans spend time together.

One scientist who studies human and animal interaction is my friend Phyllis Erdman at Washington State University. After her day at work, she said, the first thing she does is go home and play with her dogs.

Everybody knows that we feel good when we are with animals, Erdman said. But we also need the science to back up the idea. She said one notion scientists test out has to do with different chemicals that are in our brains. Our body makes all kind of chemicals and some can make us feel pretty happy.

When babies and mothers bond, scientists often see the chemical oxytocin (ox-ee-toe-sin) at work in their brains. It turns out that oxytocin may be released when people spend time with animals, too.

The chemical helps us build trust and bond with each other. When it’s released in the brain, it lets you know that something, usually good, is happening. Maybe that thing is spending time with a whole bunch of kittens or puppies. The interaction can be good for the animal, too. We are social. And we like a good ear scratch or belly rub.

Erdman has actually worked with dogs and kids to study their interactions, too. She’s also worked with horses. Just brushing and taking care of the animal helped kids feel like they could let go of stressful things.

A lot of human and animal interaction scientists study behavior. But now many are becoming curious about actual changes in the brain itself. New studies are exploring images of the brain when animals and humans spend time together.

The field of human and animal interaction is growing, Erdman said. Perhaps by the time you get to college, we will have more answers to your question. Who knows, maybe you’ll even be one of the people to help us research big questions about how humans and animals can help each other out.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

 

ABOUT ASK DR. UNIVERSE

  • Ask Dr. Universe connects K-8 students with researchers at Washington State University through Q&A. Students can submit science questions on the ASK page.
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Why are plants green?

Dear Dr. Universe: Why are plants green?

– Nadia, 8, Australia

Dear Nadia,

A lush tropical rainforest, a field of sunflowers, a garden in your neighborhood. Our Earth is home to all kinds of plant life. From trees to catnip, there are thousands of different species of plants. Most of these plants are green, but not all of them.
» More …

Where do bumble bees live?

Dear Dr. Universe: We have a lawn full of clovers that bumble bees love. Where do bumble bees live? Do they have hives or live underground? I love watching them. Do they live through winter? –Karen, Arizona

Dear Karen,

When it comes time for bumble bees to find a home, it’s pretty much up to the queen bee.

That’s what I found out from my friends Rachel Olsson and Elias Bloom. They are graduate student researchers here at Washington State University and really curious about bees, too. » More …

Why does stuff decay?

Dr. Universe: I have a ginormous question for you. How come non-biodegradables take like a million, billion, zillion years to decay? -Madeline C., age 8

Dear Madeline,

You’re right. It can take a really long time for some things to decay.

If we buried an apple peel in the backyard it might only take a few weeks to break down into the soil. But if we buried a plastic water bottle, it would probably still be there hundreds of years from now.

There are a lot of living creatures in nature that help break down things. In fact, our trash cans are almost like an all-you-can-eat-buffet for tiny creatures called microbes. Well, an almost all-you-can-eat-buffet. There are some things that they can’t really feast on. It all depends on what’s in our trash bins.

For billions of years, microbes have been munching on plants and animals. They’ve also had some help from fellow decomposers, like worms, flies, and fungi.

The environment where they work can also speed up or slow down the process. The conditions of dirt, air, water, temperature, and sunlight can change the speed of decomposition.

These decomposers are pretty great at breaking down a lot of things we find in nature. But they aren’t as good at breaking down some other materials, such as plastic.

To find out why, I visited my friend Shuresh Ghimire, a scientist who studies biodegradables at Washington State University. He is also really curious about finding ways to decrease the amount of plastic waste in our world, particularly on farms.

Plastics were introduced in the 1930s, he explained. Now, that may seem like a long time ago to us. But for microbes that have been around for billions of years, that’s still a pretty new material.

Both an apple peel and a plastic bottle are made up of different kinds of atoms. Those atoms are bonded and held together in different ways. In an apple, the bonds between atoms are pretty weak. Microbes don’t have to use a lot of energy to break them into smaller parts.

But the plastic bottle has really strong bonds—especially where a carbon atom bonds with another carbon atom. It makes the material sturdy, but it also makes it pretty indestructible. Most microbes don’t recognize these bonds as something they can break down, at least not yet.

“There is a possibility that evolution of microbes over many years in the future may enable more of them to recognize bonds in plastics,” Ghimire said.

In fact, a group of scientists in Japan recently discovered a microbe that looks to be pretty good at eating plastic. They might be able to help us manage some of the plastic waste, but we can help, too.

A water bottle might last hundreds of years buried underground or in a land fill, but it could have a new purpose in our own lifetime if we remember to reuse or recycle it.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe