by Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, II
White-Footed Mouse (or Deer Mouse).
As a boy, I was always interested in how things worked. This led me to a strong interest in science. Thanks to a couple of my teacher/ mentors, I finally became determined to conduct a research project and get my Ph.D. (which stands for Doctor of Philosophy) in biology (which is the study of living things). So that’s how I became a scientist.
Science is always asking questions and trying to discover the true facts about something. For example, from a young age I was interested in different kinds of birds and how they behaved. I would spend hours looking for their nests, watching how they flew, seeing what they ate, or what sounds they were making. Have you ever seen a Robin pulling a worm out of the ground? I would watch them tilt their heads as they listened for the sound of the worm moving in the soil. They could actually hear that sound! I was really beginning to do my own research about birds!
Scientists are always checking their own facts as well as those discovered by other scientists. In this way, they keep trying to reach the truth about something by checking and testing the facts. A good scientist, therefore, is always trying to correct bad science!
When I first started to prepare to do research for my doctorate at the University of Colorado, I decided that I wanted to do an animal behavior study. My professor suggested that an animal that would be good for me to use was the White-footed Mouse (or Deer Mouse). They were easy to find and capture in the wild around the Boulder area. If I could catch a pair or two, they were easy to breed in captivity, so I would soon have as many individual mice as I needed for my research.
The Biology Department where I was working had a battery of 60 individual small cages stacked in a special rack on wheels with 30 cages on each side. Each cage pulled out like a drawer. Each had a special bottle and tube that supplied water for an animal to drink. It was suggested that I supply dog chow checkers and whole barley for food as well as a paper towel and an empty tuna can in which a mouse could build a nest by shredding the paper towel with its sharp incisor (front) teeth.
I soon had 60 mice in their individual cages, ready to study. But what should I study? I noticed that indeed the mice eventually shredded the paper towel and used the pieces to construct nests in the round tin tuna cans. What made them shred? Did they shred more at cold temperatures than at warmer ones. What about the quality of their nest building? Since these mice are more active at night, did they shred more in the dark than in the light? I realized that finding the answers should be my research project!
I then built a large structure out of plywood that looked like a shipping case with two big doors into which I could roll the battery of 60 cages and close the doors. It had lights, a heater, and a compressor (for cooling) inside so I could control the temperature (warm or cold) and light (bright or dark). I tested the mice for 24-hour periods, each time giving them one new paper towel to shred (or not). Sure enough, they shredded much more in the cold temperature and in the dark and made better nests than in the warm temperature and in the light. I was excited with these results!
This is just one example of research. I hope you grow up liking science and wanting to do research, as I did. Remember that the world always needs good scientists!
Dr. Thorne is founder and honorary president of Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder. They have helped “connect kids to nature” for more than 55 years. For more information about Thorne Natural Science School classes for children, check www.thornenature.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (303) 499-3647.