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My family and I were just talking about how much we enjoy our pets, and I thought it would be fun to investigate some science-related activities you can do with pet animals.

This week let’s start with mice. Be sure to leave a comment and tell me what pets you’d like to see next week. I'd like to hear about your favorite pet.

mouse

Have you ever had a mouse, gerbil or rat for a pet? They are lively and interested in everything that is going on. Here are some science activities to help you explore mice. Many of them do not even require that you actually own any mice.

Identification/Classification of Rodents
Learning to identify or classify animals is an important scientific skill. What kind of animals are mice? They are a type of mammal known as rodents. If you are unfamiliar with this term, you might want to visit to the “What is a Rodent?” Activity Page to learn more.

While you are at it, think about how to identify rats, hamsters, gerbils and mice. What are the similarities, and what are the differences between them? If you are interested in getting a pet rodent, you might want to research what each type needs in the way of housing and care, and make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of ownership. For example, hamsters are likely to sleep all day, whereas mice are have active periods during the day making it easier to interact with them. Mice produce more urine and feces, however, so need to be cleaned more often than gerbils. Decide what factors are more important to you.

Did you know there are many types of wild mice? You might want to find out about some really wild mice like jumping mice, cactus mice and grasshopper mice. Spiny mice are an interesting species kept in zoos and used for research. Gerbils and kangaroo rats have special characteristics for living in the desert.

Food/Nutrition
What do mice eat? Did you say cheese? You hear about mice and cheese everywhere, but in truth it isn't a good idea to feed cheese to mice, it can make them sick. Can you believe it?

Now might be a great time to investigate what mice really do eat. One source of information, in addition to books and the Internet, might be the ingredients on the back of commercially available pet food. In a previous post, we introduced the idea of theme gardens. Once you have a good idea what mice eat, you can design a garden to grow some of their favorite foods, for example sunflowers and/or peanuts. If you don’t have mice, the birds and humans will still appreciate the results.

If you have some mice and you aren’t sure what they like to eat the best, you can do a food choice experiment. Gather a clean cardboard egg carton. Cut out a section of four egg carton cups. Place the items you want to test in the separate wells. You might want to mark them so that if all the food disappears, you’ll know which was which. Always provide your mice with something you know they like, so they won’t go hungry. Watch to see which food the mice eat first. Come back every hour and record which food is disappearing. To be very accurate, you can weigh each type of food beforehand on a kitchen scale and then at the end of the experiment. If the experiment doesn’t go as expected, think of ways to modify your methods and try again.

Making Houses and Toys
Another fun project might be design and build a house and/or nest box using wood or cardboard. The San Diego Zoo has a mouse house made out of bread! We saw one when we visited the zoo a few years ago. The idea seemed weird at first, but then we got to thinking it might be fun to live in a house that you can eat.

I cheated and used our bread maker to create the loaves. The mice seemed to enjoy being able to modify the structure and eat at the same time.

bread house

We found our mice always rush to investigate new objects. They also are very active, and love to run and climb. In addition to providing standard running wheels, you can design your own playthings like ladders or tubes to run through. Just make sure the toys are safe, that the mice can’t get tangled or fall. Adding toys and other fun items for the mice to examine helps with behavioral enrichment, so they don’t get bored.

Animal Behavior
Our mice are handled every day, so they are easy to pick up and hold. If you have new mice, you can tame them by gently picking them up and holding them. Once your mice are tame, you can train them to do tricks, such as sit on your shoulder. You can also make a maze, and see how fast the mice learn to go through it. We made a maze of lightweight CD cases, so there was no danger to the mice.

When you have mice, you will hear them make many different sounds and also behaviors. Investigate how mice communicate to one another. Recently scientists have found out that male mice sing a song when they meet females, but the sounds are ultrasonic, which means humans can’t hear them.

Mouse Development
Here is a link to an adorable story about a classroom mouse named Cheeser who gave birth. The website tells the story, complete with pictures of the growing young mice. If you don’t go to any other link, try this one.

Finally, be sure to write down your experiences, keep records, and share your stories. Who knows, you might come up with the next exciting scientific finding about mice.

Books:

There are literally 100's of fiction books with mice as main characters. Now would be a great time to reread some of your favorites or try a new one (images and linked titles are affiliate links to Amazon).

Could You be a Mouse? (1990) is a nonfiction book that is a fun game. The reader actually makes choices about what a mouse should do and then flips the pages to find out the results. Caution: There is a drawing of a dead mouse which could be disturbing to young and/or sensitive children. Older children should find it fun and informative.


Of Mice & Rats (Rookie Read-About Science) by Allan Fowler

Mice (Pet Care) by Rebecca Sjonger and Bobbie Kalman (2004)

Oh, I wish I had the time to take some video of one of our plants this morning. Our desert spoon is flowering and it is alive with bees. Honey bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, digger bees, sweat bees, big bees, tiny bees, billions and billions of bees. Well, probably not that many, but it seemed that way. It was like a swarm.

The desert spoon plant sends up a huge flower stalk covered with blooms. This year there were 5 stalks. You can't see them all here.

desert spoon

Each stalk was covered with hundreds of bees. Each of those specks was a fast-moving insect.

bees
Of course you know that the bees were gathering pollen, the yellowish powder produced by the flower, and nectar, the sweet liquid reward for picking up the pollen. The honey bees pack the pollen into the specially shaped baskets on their hind legs. Check out the load this honey bee has gathered. Honey bees were the most numerous bees this morning.

honey bee

I was able to get very close to these insects without any danger. They were intent on gathering food, and that is it.

The biggest bees I saw were the black carpenter bees, but they seemed intimidated by the other bees and quickly flew away. They may have also been sizing up the stalks as future home sites. Carpenter bees build their nests in agave and desert spoon flower stalks.

The second biggest bees were yellow and black bumble bees. They stay near the top of the stalks, so I couldn’t get a close up.

bumble bee

The smallest bees were some tiny sweat bees. They were numerous, but not as noticeable because of their pencil-lead size.

sweat bee

Mixed in were a few other sweat bees and digger bees. Here are two examples.

green beeStripe bee

Finally, not all the creatures I saw this morning were working hard to gather pollen and nectar. This jumping spider was taking advantage of the bounty of bees to catch breakfast. It was behaving in an odd manner, jumping down and hanging upside down with its legs drawn in. In that position it looked all the world like a flying bee. Very Cool!!

spider

For more information about bees, check out the "Africanized Honey Bees on the Move" website under the blogroll in the sidebar.

Also, try out growing list of children's books about honey bees at Science Books for Kids.

honey-bee-books-for-children

Have you guessed which picture is a caterpillar from the previous post on Butterflies Everywhere? The real caterpillar is the lowest photo. The photo above it is a bird-dropping sitting on a nearby leaf.

The caterpillar, sometimes called an orange dog, is thought to mimic bird-droppings to avoid being eaten by birds.

We are quite excited because this caterpillar turns into the beautiful giant swallowtail butterfly (photo at Butterflies of Southeastern Arizona website).

Another interesting thing about the orange dog caterpillar is that it has an unusual defense. When alarmed, it shoots out a smelly orange, horn-like structure called an osmeterium.

orange gog

This one is pretty small because the larva is still small. I found an even better shot of an orange dog osmeterium at the BugGuide website.

Not six feet away we have a pair of caterpillars on our desert milkweed. These are the larvae of the queen butterfly. They resemble monarch larvae, but have three sets of spiky appendages and the stripes are red rather than black.

queen caterpillar

I caught a picture of the adult queen butterfly as it was laying eggs a few days before on another desert milkweed.

queen butterfly

By the way, it is not an accident that we have so many caterpillars and butterflies in our yard. When we planted our landscape, we purposely chose plants that are food for caterpillars. Butterfly gardening is something that the whole family can enjoy. If you are interested in learning more, just let me know.