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Monday, December 22, 2014


Okay, here it is--my new, up-dated take on the 12 Days of Christmas--THE TWELVE ARACHNIDS OF CHRISTMAS! It's just a little discovery fun inspired by my 12 book series: Arachnid World published by Lerner Publishing. ENJOY!

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave me to a black widow in a fir tree.

As I watched, that black widow spider dangled upside down from a silk thread. Next, its exoskeleton (armor-like covering) split open along the back. Then the spider pushed and pulled and crawled out of its exoskeleton.

Oh my, that spider has a new bigger body for Christmas.

By the way, are you wondering: "What's an ARACHNID?"
It's an animal that always has an exoskeleton and usually has two main body parts: a cephalothoras (like a head/chest) and an abdomen. It also usually has 8 legs.

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two striped bark scorpions.

As I watched, the smaller one--the male--grabbed the female's pedipalps (body parts near the mouth). They did a kind of dance, moving forward and backward. Then they went and around and around in circle. They did this over and over for hours.

Did you guess it's a mating dance? There will be new baby scorpions in the new year. 

On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me three wolf spiders.

As I watched, a round ball stuck to one spider's spinnerets (the part that gives out silk) split open. Hundreds of tiny spiders crawled out and onto the big spider.

She's a new mother for Christmas.

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me four wind scorpions.

Almost at once, one of the wind scorpions ran straight up a nearly vertical rock. How did it keep from falling off? This arachnid has sticky tips on its pedipalps, those long parts you can see at the front of this arachnid.

Wind scorpions have special body parts to stay safe on Christmas and all year long.

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me five tarantulas.

One goliath bird-eater tarantula was holding a gecko. As I watched it sank in its fangs and brought up digestive juices.

Why in the world did it do that? This tarantula was preparing its meal by breaking it down first. Even big spiders, like tarantulas have very small mouths. Next, the spider will suck the juice in. It's having its Christmas dinner. Of course, it eats every meal this way.

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love to me six female cross spiders spinning.

Whatever were they doing?  As I watched, a fly landed on one spider's web. That female ran to the fly and shots strands of silk over it.

Why did she do that? She was wrapping up presents--well, sort of. She was storing food for later.

I kept on watching and saw a fly zip into another spider's web. I expected the web to break. Spider silk isn't stronger than steal but it's super strong. That spider wrapped up its meal too.

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me seven fishing spiders.

At just that moment, a bat flew past and all the fishing spiders dived underwater. They stayed down for nearly thirty minutes.

How were they able to stay underwater for so long? When a fishing spider dives a layer of air coats its body. The spider is able to draw oxygen from the air-filled coat into its book lungs. Those are thin, flat folds of tissue with slits that open through its armor-like exoskeleton.

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eight crab spiders lurking 
inside flowers.

Some goldenrod crab spiders were inside yellow flowers and they were yellow. Other goldenrod crab spiders were inside white flowers and they were white.

How were these spiders able to be either yellow or white? When the spider's eyes detect it's on yellow, its body makes that coloring matter and it flows into the outer cell layer of its body. 

It takes about a week to become completely yellow. That's because to turn white, it doesn't make coloring matter. The yellow just flows down to lower layers and passes out with its wastes.

On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me nine bobbing  harvestmen.

Why were these spiders bobbing? They do this in a group when a predator, like a bird, is nearby. That way they look like a bigger animal--hopefully. By the way, harvestmen don't eat like spiders. Their mouths are big enough to bite off chunks and swallow.

On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me ten ticks-a-sucking blood 
from their host.

As I watched these female dog ticks over several days, their bodies swelled up until they were nearly six hundred times bigger.

How in the world can they swell so big? It's because the hard part covering their body is made up of layers. They spread, fanning apart, as the tick sucks in blood.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eleven jumping spiders jumping.

As I watched, one leapt from one leaf to another to catch an insect.

How could it possibly jump so far? To leap muscles inside the spider's body contract, instantly forcing blood into its four hind legs. This makes them suddenly stretch. And that launches the spider forward.  As it jumps, the spider continually produces silk. It attached that to the surface just before it leapt. So if the spider falls, it dangles instead of crashing.

What's the record for how far a jumping spider can leap? Some have been recorded leaping 40 times their own body length. 

How far can you jump? Can you jump farther than your body length (your height)?

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a plant with twelve mites-a-multiplying.

On the first day of Christmas I didn't even notice the twelve, tiny two-spotted mites on one of my plant's leaves. After all, each was only 0.02 inch long. However, on the twelfth day of Christmas, the plant was nearly covered with web strands dotted with tiny mites. 

How did there get to be so many mites so quickly? It's because each female laid about 10 eggs a day. Soon the young hatched, became adults, and the new females started laying eggs. There were soon lots of mites. Worse, each and everyone was feeding by sucking the plant's juices. I couldn't get rid of them. I finally just threw away my plant. 

So my arachnid Christmas this year is one I'll always remember. After all, it's the year I received:

12 mites-a-multiplying
11 jumping spiders jumping
10 ticks sucking
harvestmen bobbing
crab spiders lurking
fishing spiders fishing
orb weavers spinning
4 wind scorpions
3 wolf spiders
2 scorpions
And a black widow in a fir tree

And as he drove out of sight, Spider Claus spun a silk web with a message, "Merry Christmas to all and have Even MORE fun exploriing Arachnids in the 

New Year!"

Sunday, December 14, 2014


I love receiving letters from young readers. Yesterday, I received a wonderful letter from a third grader in Mrs. Akason's class in Brookview Elementary School in West Des Moines, Iowa.  I was so impressed with her thoughtful questions I'd like to share her letter with you. And my answers.

NOTE: Child's name purposefully deleted


I liked receiving your letter and finding out that you too like exploring outdoors. In fact, I was impressed with how well you write for being 8 years old. SMILE!

And you’ve also asked me some of the most interesting questions I’ve ever been asked: Why did I want to be an author? How did I find all that out about animals? What did I do when I was little? These are such interesting questions because all of the answers go together.

I was an only child so I didn’t have any brothers and sisters. Plus there were few children to play with in my neighborhood. So I read lots of books and spent a lot of time at my grandparent’s house. That I loved because it was just outside the little town I grew up in, Fostoria, Ohio, in the middle of a farming area. There were fields and forests and streams around. Best of all, my grandfather loved the outdoors and was happy to share all the “treasures” I found on my journeys into this just wild enough world. One summer, I rescued a young fox squirrel with fur as red as my hair that liked to ride on my shoulder until it was ready to go off on its own. So was born my fascination with animals and my desire to really understand them and how they live in their world.
I wandered.
I wondered.
I watched and loved what I saw.

No surprise that when I went to college I majored in biology, which is the study of animal life. Summers, during college, I worked at a girl’s camp in Vermont, taking groups on trips to hike, canoe, and explore the forests, lakes, and rivers in that area. When I started teaching school fulltime, I mainly taught science from fifth through eighth grades and always did a lot of outdoor investigating. My classes made rock collections, leaf collections, insect collections, and bird feeders to draw the local birds close enough to study. We also set up nature trails and planted vegetable gardens on the school grounds.

In those years, it seemed to me there were never enough really interesting—fun—books for children about animals and nature. That’s why I began writing my own. These were first for my students and my own son and daughter. Then, once I was published, for lots of young readers, like you. SMILE. And one of the biggest things I worked to change was to have my nonfiction books be in full color. It may be hard to believe now but when I first starting publishing all of the photos and even the art in nonfiction books were always black and white. I was thrilled when my publishers finally agreed to have my books be in full color. Now, they always are.

I’ve now published well over 200 different books but I’m not done. There are so many interesting animals and parts of the world to investigate and share. I love finding out about all the animals. Sometimes, like my three trips to Antarctica to live with 60,000 Adelie penguins while they raised their chicks, I learn for myself. Just as exciting is that I’m able to connect with experts around the world who have spent their lives studying animals. And they kindly share their research adventures with me.

So I hope this answers your questions.  You make me wonder some of my own, like what do you like about the outdoors? What are your favorite animals to read about? And do you sometimes write stories of your own about animals? Writing books about animals for children is a wonderful career. I know I love it! As well as you write already, this could be something to think about for your future.

With Very Best Wishes!
Sandra Markle