STEM Tuesday– Survival Science — Christine Taylor-Butler

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview, a repeating feature for the last Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!

Today I’m doing something different. I’m not interviewing a different author. I’m going to use the time to talk about writing nonfiction and in particular, the books I wrote as part the “Save The . . .” series developed by Chelsea Clinton and Penguin Random House. The reality is, that in studying and understanding these animals, we may in fact, be learning how to save ourselves.

How I got started: I grew up in an inner city environment surrounded by overachieving nerds at a time when the Civil Rights Act was still being debated. Back then I didn’t think much about what it took to survive. All the basic necessities were available. By the eighth grade I had a math teacher, Walter Havenhill. According to him, I was the only student who took his extra credit problems seriously. So he recommended I look into a school called MIT when I was ready for college. Years later, that’s where I received two degrees. It was during that time I realized my life was about problem solving. Back then there were no computers or cell phones. There was paper, pencil and libraries. There was no topic called STEM/STEAM. Everyone tinkered and experimented and created.

As I grew older I saw a shift in the way students were learning. I had been a college interviewer in the evenings. Over time I found quite a few students focused on how to get into a good college by being the “best” numerically. Most read only what was required to pass a test. But there were others, a small minority, who were exploring the world outside of the classroom. They had inquisitive minds and were sometimes looking around their homes for resources to use. Or going out and knocking on doors to find out how they could help on a project. Those are the students I left engineering to write for. Most of my published work is now nonfiction.

Animal survival:  A few years ago, Penguin Random House asked if I wanted to join a group of authors writing books about endangered animals with Chelsea Clinton. The project looked not only at explaining the animals and their survival instincts, but why they became endangered and how their disappearance created unexpected consequences for the human race. Even better, there was a section on how young readers could get involved.  I was all in.

The books are broken into several parts:

  1. Who the animals are and where to find them
  2. What do we know about these animals? What do they eat, where do they live, and how do they raise their young? What are methods they use to survive their environments?
  3. What happened to make them endangered?
  4. The race to save the animals. Who is helping and what can YOU do to participate.
  5. Resources so you can look up some of the information yourself.

Tiger coverIn Save The . . . Tigers. I learned that once upon a time there were enough tigers living in the wild to fill the Roman Colosseum — twice. Think about that. That was about 100,000 tigers. But now there are less than 4,000 among the six remaining species living outside of a zoo or sanctuary. All survive in various parts of Asia, that range from moist hot rainforests, to cold Russian climates.

Tigers are apex predators. That means they are at the top of the food chain and can briefly run faster than a car drives on a street or highway. They are heavy, so they don’t run for long periods of time. Just short bursts. And they sleep a lot to conserve energy for hunts. Mostly during the day. Hunting is hard work. Tigers are only successful in one out of every twenty attempts to catch prey. And yet, tigers don’t tend to eat humans. They’d rather ambush other animals.

But their bodies and furs became valuable to humans. Hunting them for sport reduced their numbers. Humans moving into their habitats to build farms and homes made things worse. It reduced the prey available for tigers to eat as well. Even so, there are now people studying the animals and helping to increase their numbers. And they’re learning a lot in the process. For instance, did you know that tigers (as well as all cat species) have structures in their eyes that we don’t have? That’s why the eyes glow in light at night. Tigers hunt in dark, so their night vision is better than ours. So watch out!

Orange and black tiger

Photo by Kartik Iyer on Unsplash










Blue Whales coverSave the . . . Blue Whales was harder because blue whales are rarely photographed. They are the largest mammal living in the ocean. Some grow as long as 110 feet. That is as long as a 737 airplane. But water covers about 70 percent of the planet. And our oceans are very deep. So the whales weren’t easy to find or catch. A lot of what scientists knew initially was from examining dead bodies and guessing. As humans created steam powered ships it became easier to hunt them. Whale blubber was used for fuel and explosives. Other parts of the whale bodies were used for clothing and umbrellas.

Scientists discovered that by reducing the numbers of whales, we hurt the planet. Before they were hunted, whales removed as much carbon from the atmosphere as all the forests on the planet – millions of tons. They ate krill and stored the krill’s carbon in their bodies. You would have to eat 1,000 cheeseburgers to consume the calories a whale eats in a single gulp of krill. And those whales take a lot of gulps per meal. When blue whales dive and poop those actions mix and distribute nutrients throughout the ocean. Now whale numbers are fewer and carbon dioxide on Earth is increasing. Eighty-eight countries have stopped whaling. Three continue to hunt: Japan, Norway and Iceland. There is pressure for them to decrease the amount.

blue whale

Blue Whale sculpture at the Smithsonian

Click here for an interesting video on Blue Whales

Polar Bears coverLast was Save the . . . Polar Bears. With warming climates these bears are at risk, not because of hunting but because of lack of food and sea ice in the Arctic regions. Most bears can eat a variety of foods. Polar bears are different. They eat mostly seals. One seal can last a polar bear for eleven days. The polar bear body can make fresh water from the seals as well. Also, did you know that a pregnant polar bear can go without food for the last months of her pregnancy? She’s pretty hungry when the cubs are born, so hunting seals becomes a priority. She will teach the cubs to hunt when they are older. When they’re old enough, they’ll move away and start living on their own. But seals live and hide their young on sea ice. With global warming, there’s less of that ice to find. When food is scarce polar bears have been known to enter villages. But that’s very rare.

When I first started researching this book that there were 19 populations of polar bears being studied. But NASA had been secretly tracking a 20th population for several years. Those polar bears were found with the help of indigenous tribes. They didn’t rely on sea ice for survival. Could studying the new population give us clues on how to save all the other groups of polar bears too?

polar bears

Photo by Hans-Jurgen Mager on Unsplash

Who is tracking?

There are many organizations, sanctuaries and museums listed in the books. Here are a few to get started.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) keeps track of efforts around the world. They’ve studied 138,000 species so far and rates them based on level of endangerment. There is a significant amount of information on animals you might be interested in studying. The link takes you to their “red list” for endangered animals.

Polar Bears International. They have scientists, Zoom sessions, web cams and tons of information kids might find useful (teachers and librarians too). Too much to describe here.

The Global Tiger Forum is an international group working to conserve tigers in the wild.

International Whaling Commission – has 88 member countries and is responsible for whale management and conservation.

Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute’s global efforts help save wildlife species from extinction. They train future generations of conservationists at research facilities around the world.

What can you do? There are many ways but here are a few tips to get started:

Recycling is a good easy way to start. A lot of animals are harmed by plastics which make their way into the environment and into the oceans. Better yet, can you reduce the amount of plastic you buy? How about filling a water bottle that can be washed and reused?

Don’t buy clothes or jewelry made from animal parts. That decreases the reasons to hunt animals.

Donate to organizations that help save animals. Even a small amount will help increase animal chances of survival. And the money will help create or sustain habitats that provide a safe environment for animals to raise their young.

Look at ingredient labels on foods and other household items. Avoid ones made with palm oil. Healthy forest habitats are torn down and replaced with palm oil farms. That not only hurts the animals but hurts our environment as well. Forest are like lungs for the planet.

Know that a single individual can make a huge difference in healing our planet. Learning about animals is great way to start. The bonus is that many of their survival skills can prove useful if you’re ever in danger. Where to find shelter, food and warmth. How to avoid predators. Don’t forget, humans are animals too.


author christine Taylor-butler

Photo by Kecia Stovall

Your host is Christine Taylor-Butler, MIT nerd and author of Bathroom Science, Sacred Mountain: Everest, Genetics, and many other nonfiction books for kids. She is also the author of the middle grade sci-fi series The Lost Tribes. Follow @ChristineTB on Twitter and/or @ChristineTaylorButler on Instagram

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1 Comment
  1. Great series by a great writer! Inspires me to continue and complete the series I started. Thank you Christine for encouraging me when I met you at Chattaquah.Many years back!

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