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Ask Dr. Universe Plants, Animals, and Bugs

Dr. Universe: Why do trees grow so slow? – Ana, 7, Covert, MI

When you eat food, you get a lot of important nutrients that help you grow. The trees that live on our planet also need some nutrients to grow. Trees use their leaves to help capture energy from the sun to make their own food. But as you may have noticed, a lot of trees lose their leaves during certain times of the year. Without leaves, they can’t make nearly as much food, and without those important nutrients, they can’t grow very fast. That’s what I found out from my friend Tim Kohlhauff, a certified arborist and urban horticulture coordinator at Washington State University. He is very curious about the lives of trees. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do worms help protect the dirt? -Fisher, 7, Palouse, WA

Dear Fisher,

Worms can help the soil in a few different ways. One helpful thing worms do is move around different materials, such as leaves and grasses, and make holes in the soil. That’s what I found out from my friend Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a soil scientist at Washington State University, who was happy to help with your question. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs “Worms are actually very strong,” Carpenter-Boggs said. “They can break through soil and make holes that allow air, water and plant roots to follow those channels.” Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do horses sense how you feel? –Taylor, 11, New Zealand

When I got your question, I called up my friend and veterinarian Dr. Macarena Sanz who had just finished checking up on the horses at the Washington State University Teaching Hospital. She was happy to help. “It’s a hard question to assess scientifically,” Sanz said. “But I think everybody who has worked with horses can tell you that horses really do have a certain sense about humans.” Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do trees give us air to breathe? – Jamar, 11, Vineland, New Jersey

Our planet is home to all kinds of different plants, and they help make a lot of the oxygen we breathe. To find out how plants make oxygen, I asked my friend Balasaheb Sonawane. Sonawane is a scientist at Washington State University who researches photosynthesis, or the ways plants use energy from the sun and make oxygen. He said that in a way, plants breathe, too. “They don’t have a nose or mouth,” Sonawane said. “They have tiny microscopic organs on their leaves called stomata.” Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Do flying squirrels really fly? - Gwendolyn, 9

Flying squirrels may not really fly, but they do have flaps of skin on their bodies that act like parachutes and help them glide through the air. My friend Todd Wilson told me all about it. He’s a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon and graduate of Washington State University who researches Pacific Northwest ecosystems and the animals that call them home— including flying squirrels. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do trees have sap? -Aliyah, 8, Kirkland, WA  

Just as blood moves important stuff around the human body, sugary sap moves important things around a tree. My friend Nadia Valverdi told me all about it. She’s a researcher at Washington State University who studies how apple and cherry trees survive in different environments. When we eat food, like a delicious apple or a handful of cherries, we get important nutrients. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do mushrooms grow in rings? We have a lot of giant ones in our yard right now! - Layne, 8, Spokane 

When you see a ring of mushrooms, it’s likely they are exploring for food under the ground. Giant mushrooms in your backyard are not animals or plants. They are part of another class of living organisms called fungi. But like you and me, they do need food to survive. That’s what I found out from my friend David Wheeler, an assistant professor at Washington State University, who knows a lot about fungi. He said the mushrooms are just one part of fungi. The other part that explores the soil for food actually lives under the soil. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do apes walk on their knuckles? - Sam, 10, Benton, Arkansas

Dear Sam, A lot of apes walk on their knuckles. Gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos use their knuckles for stability and balance. That’s what I found out from my friend Nanda Grow, an anthropologist and wildlife biologist at Washington State University who studies primates. “Gorillas and chimpanzees both do knuckle walking, but they do different kinds,” she said. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: What are bees’ wings made of? -Natalia, 13, Kennewick, WA

Dear Natalia, Bee wings may be small, but they are really strong. I learned all about bee wings from my friend Melanie Kirby, a honey bee researcher at Washington State University. Kirby said you can think about bee wings as if they were a kite. If you make a kite out of thin tissue, it might rip. But if you make it out of a strong plastic film it will be stronger. Bee wings are made of a material called chitin (KITE-IN) and it’s a lot like keratin, the material that makes up your fingernails. Chitin is what makes up the wings on each side of the bee’s body. Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: I am wondering if birds can smell because I have chickens and have seen their nostrils! –Lila, 9, Philadelphia, PA

Birds have nostrils, or nares, on their beaks that can help them smell all kinds of things. That’s what I found out from my friend Dave Oleyar, a scientist with HawkWatch who recently taught a course on ornithology at Washington State University. He said that when an animal breathes air, they can also breathe in different scents or combinations of molecules. The nose has receptors that pick up on scents and send information to the brain, including a part called an olfactory bulb. It’s all part of the olfactory system. You have an olfactory system, too. This system can help animals navigate the world through a sense of smell. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do some birds cheep loudly while other birds cheep quietly? -Traver, 4, Indiana 

That’s a great observation. Birds make all kinds of sounds and for lots of different reasons. When I got your question, I called up my friend Jessica Tir, a graduate student at Washington State University who studies songbirds. She said one of the main reasons a bird will make a loud sound is to attract a mate. When the birds find each other, they can make a nest for their eggs and wait for babies to hatch. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: What gives leaves their shapes? Please reply back. Thanks a ton! -Pronoy, 9, San Jose, CA, USA

We can find all kinds of leaves on our planet. Just think of tiny pine needles, fern fronds, ivy vines, or a big banana leaf. My friend Eric Roalson is a professor at Washington State University who is very curious about plants. He said there are a few things that give leaves their shapes. The shape of a leaf can depend on the family history of a plant, the group it belongs to, and the environment where it grows up. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: What is inside a blade of grass and why is it green? Green is my favorite color. We really like reading your articles in our newspaper. – Luke, 5, Ogden, Utah

Dear Luke,

I’ve been wondering the same thing lately.  Every time I go on walks, I notice new splashes of color. Watching bugs in the grass, I pretend they’re crawling through a jungle. Everything is bright and bursting with green.

When I saw your question, I knew Michael Neff would know the answer. Green is his favorite color, too. (In fact, when we talked over video, he wore a green Hawaiian shirt.) Neff researches plants at Washington State University, and he is especially curious about grasses.

If you chopped a piece of grass and looked at it with your eyes alone, you might not see much. But if you looked at it under a microscope, you’d see tiny structures containing even tinier parts.

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Why are carrots orange? - Caden, 11, N.C.

Dear Caden,

When you picture the carrot section at a grocery store in the United States, you probably imagine rows of orange. But carrots can come in a rainbow of other colors: purple, yellow, red, and more.

And the first carrots weren’t orange at all. They were stark white.

That’s what I learned from Tim Waters, a Vegetable Specialist at Washington State University-Extension. He studies how to grow different kinds of vegetables, and helps others learn how to grow them too.

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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 ...

Dear Dr. Universe: Why do flowers smell so nice? – Miles, 5

Flowers not only smell nice to humans, but also to many insects and birds who help the flowers do a really important job. Let’s imagine that you are a bee or a butterfly. You don’t have a nose on your face, but instead use your two antennae to smell things. As you fly around, you catch a whiff of chemicals floating in the air. Down below, you see a field of daisies. The flowers are releasing some chemicals, which are the building blocks of a smell. Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: How many different types of plankton are there? Are there freshwater plankton? – Arielle, 11

We can find millions and millions of plankton in bodies of water all over the world—from oceans, rivers, and lakes to ponds and mud puddles. That’s what I found out from my friend Julie Zimmerman, a scientist with the Aquatic Ecology Lab at Washington State University. In the lab, researchers can use powerful microscopes to get an up-close look at these tiny creatures. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: What is the most smelliest fruit in the world? -Tiana, 9

Our world is full of fruits that have all kinds of delightful smells. Maybe you’ve smelled the sweetness of watermelon, pineapple, peach, papaya, or mango. But you might also be wondering about the most stinky fruit in the world. When I got your question, I asked my friend Lydia Tymon, a plant scientist at Washington State University. The first stinky fruit she thought of was the durian, a large, round fruit that grows mostly in Southeast Asia. The fruit is about a foot wide with a greenish-brown husk that has lots of spikes on the outside. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How fast does a bunny hop? How long does a bunny live? Can a bunny swim? How many babies does a bunny have? -Rueben, 7, Pennsylvania

Bunnies are hopping all over our planet. Some hop through snow and deserts while others hop through wetlands and woods. There are lots of different kinds of rabbits and they are all a little different. For the most part, a bunny hops, or actually runs, anywhere between 25 and 45 mph That’s even faster than most house cats can run. Rabbits are related to another group of animals called hares. Actually, rabbits and hares are in the same family, Leporidae. Hares look a lot like rabbits, but they have much bigger ears and bigger feet. Read More ...

Why do lizards lose their tails? -Bailey, Inwood, Iowa

Dear Bailey,

Our planet is home to all kinds of lizards. Maybe you’ve seen one climbing up the wall, scurrying through the grass, or at the pet store. Just the other day I saw a big green iguana when I visited the Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital in search of an answer to your question.

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Dear Dr. Universe: I have a question for you about ants. From what I searched on Google, an ant has a nervous system, blood, open circular system, muscles, and a brain. So, Dr. Universe, the question is, do ants or other insects get headaches? Cause they work hard. –Joseph, 14, Singapore

Dear Joseph,

If you’ve ever had a headache, it might have felt like pain was radiating right out of your brain.

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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.

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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.

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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 …

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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.

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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.

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What is the smallest insect on Earth? -Laurenz, 8, Molino, Philippines 

Dear Laurenz,

When I saw your question, I set out to explore with my bug net and a magnifying glass. I was searching all around for tiny insects when I ran into my friend Laura Lavine, a Washington State University scientist who studies bugs.

She said there are nearly a million different kinds of insects on Earth. The smallest of all the known ones are called fairyflies.

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How do plants hold dirt? -Gordon, Pullman, WA

Dear Gordon,

The other day, I wandered into a Washington State University greenhouse and ran into my friend Mechthild Tegeder, a professor and expert on plants.

She gently dug a small plant out of a pot so we could take a closer look. When she lifted it up, I pawed at the clumpy soil hanging from the bottom to reveal some stringy roots.

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What is Dr. Universe's favorite experiment? -Garrett, 8th grade, Eastern Washington

Dear Garrett,

You know, your question reminds me of a couple other science questions from curious readers. Evangeline, age 7, wants to know why her hair is black. Sureya, age 8, wants to know why some people have curly hair.

It just so happens that one of my favorite science projects explores our questions about what makes us unique. It has to do with our DNA, or the blueprint for life.

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Dear Dr. Universe, How does a chameleon change colors? -Jasmine B. 12, Nepean, Canada & Marie F., 11, Ghana

Dear Jasmine and Marie,

There’s something about a chameleon’s darting eyes, long tongue, curled tail, and ability to climb that makes it a fascinating animal to watch. Especially when it’s changing colors.

And the latest research on your question suggests that how a chameleon changes has more to do with light than scientists once thought.

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Why is yawning contagious? -Grant, 10, Pullman, WA

Dear Grant,

When I got your question, I met up with my friend Hans Van Dongen, a scientist at Washington State University in Spokane. He works in a research lab where they study sleep. As a cat who appreciates naps, it’s one of my favorite places to visit.

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Why do bees make hexagons in their hives? Why not any other shape? -Aditya, 10, New Delhi, India

Dear Aditya,

When bees make hexagons in their hives, the six-sided shapes fit together perfectly. In fact, we’ve actually never seen bees make any other shape. That’s what I found out when I visited my friend Sue Cobey, a bee researcher at Washington State University.

Cobey showed me some honeycombs where the female bees live and work. Hexagons are useful shapes. They can hold the queen bee’s eggs and store the pollen and honey the worker bees bring to the hive.

When you think about it, making circles wouldn’t work too well. It would leave gaps in the honeycomb. The worker bees could use triangles or squares for storage. Those wouldn’t leave gaps. But the hexagon is the strongest, most useful shape.

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Dear Dr. Universe, Please answer this question: Do animals dream? What dreams do they get? I humbly request you to answer these questions. BYE! Or should I say MEOWY! -Prahlad R.

Dear Prahlad,

After a quick catnap and a stretch, I went to visit my friend Marcos Frank, a scientist at Washington State University who studies animal sleep.

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If mollusks have such heavy shells to drag around with them, how have they spread all over the ocean? -Michel W.

Dear Michel,

Mollusks, from land snails and slugs to oysters and mussels in the sea, have a few things in common. They have a head. They have a soft middle part that holds their organs. Then, some have a muscle that’s known as a “foot.”

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Dr. Universe: Are aliens real? -Lily, 10, New York City, NY Is there life on other planets? -Heidi, Cincinnati, OH 

Dear Lily and Heidi,

Well, we don’t know for certain. Looking up to the stars at night, I’ve often wondered if alien cats are out chasing alien mice or taking naps on other planets.

My imagination aside, your questions are like those scientists are asking, too. And it’s no wonder we are so curious.

With billions of planets in our galaxy, including small Earth-like worlds, the possibility of life out there is an exciting thought to many people. So, humans have set out to look for planets that might support life.

In fact, this month scientists announced the Kepler spacecraft’s discovery of … » More …

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Dr. Universe: What is something a lot of people might not know about sharks?

It’s Shark Week, so I made a visit to my friend Jon Mallatt. He’s a Washington State University biologist who has studied the jaws of ancient sharks.

dru-hero-pose

Jon Mallatt: Some of them, such as tiger sharks, cat sharks, and even great white sharks, have quite large brains—relative to their body weight— and are intelligent. They are not “primitive” animals. The shark relatives, Manta rays and devil rays, have even larger brains than any shark.

Dr. U: How long have sharks been around, anyways?

JM: At least 420 million years and maybe 460. It is … » More …

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I saw a caterpillar and a butterfly in the neighbor's yard. So my question is, what exactly happens inside the little sack they're in while they transform into a butterfly and HOW exactly do they do it?  -Eston

Dear Eston,

Springtime sets the stage for one of the greatest transformations in the natural world.

“It’s the construction of a butterfly or moth from caterpillar soup,” said my friend David James, an entomologist at Washington State University. James studies the science behind metamorphosis, or how a creature transforms.

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Why are ripe fruits sweet and why is it so important?  -Alexa, Schenzhen, China

Dear Alexa,

My friend Kate Evans said the answer really depends on whether you want the perspective of a person, a plant, or even a cat. Evans is a plant scientist at Washington State University in Wenatchee, where she investigates fruit in the Apple Capital of the World.

She explained how long ago, wild apples actually grew in forests. Without farmers around to plant them in orchards, trees had to scatter their own seeds to survive.

For some trees, the key to survival is growing sweet, ripe fruit.

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Can you grow stuff like thread, cloth, silk, and most importantly, clothing? -Jay, Colorado

v
Dear Jay,

We can use all kinds of animal, bug, and plant materials to make cloth. Even some of the tiniest living things on the planet can make cloth, too.

I heard about this from my friend Hang Liu, a Washington State University professor who studies the science of materials we use and wear every day.

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Do bats have habits? -Elliot 

Dear Elliot,

You are onto something. Quick, to the bat-lab! That’s where I met up with my friend Christine Portfors, a scientist at Washington State University who studies fruit bats.

Portfors explained that while bats don’t quite have habits like humans, they do have behaviors.

Bats are nocturnal. They sleep during the day and wake up in the early evening. The first thing they’ll do when they wake up is fly around and around their caves for a while.

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Dear Dr. Universe, Do bugs have hearts and brains? -Nick

Take a look inside a bug and you’ll find one brain in its head and other little brains called “ganglia” along its whole body. These tiny control centers help insects see, taste, and smell. They also help them quickly escape threats, like other bugs.

“If you had little brains everywhere else, you would also be much quicker,” says bug expert Laura Lavine. Read More ...