story, science, technology and creativity

A science writing week: Workshops, Nobel Prizes, frozen heads and pygmy tarsiers

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Let’s go! National Science Week and Children’s Book Week! My favourite time of year!

I’ve been lucky enough to spend two days at Williams Primary doing writing workshops (Hi Williams! Thanks Jac for organising!), and today I was at Applecross Primary sharing some tips on science writing, fiction writing and the power of believing in yourself (Hi Applecross! Thanks for a fab day!).

I’m super-excited this Children’s Book Week to be focusing on non-fiction writing, and especially to be sharing the story of Robin Warren and Barry Marshall, Western Australian winners of the 2005 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

And, even luckier, I have these amazing *signed* posters to give to each school, with big thanks to the Nobel Office. How awesome is that!?!


Do books light up your life?

This year the themes for Children’s Book Week (Books Light Up My Life) and National Science Week (International Year of LIght) combine…If you’re an adult and want to know more about the science of light, check this out.

If you’re a kid and don’t believe me about putting the head in the fridge…

And if you’re interested in tarsiers, check out this article, which appeared recently in CSIRO’s Scientriffic magazine:



Cute, furry and critically endangered, tarsiers are distantly related to someone you know very well: you!

Fact file

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Tarsiers share the family name Tarsiidae. There are 5–15 species of tarsier.

DIET: Entirely carnivorous: they prefer cockroaches, crickets and other insects.

STATUS: Threatened by the illegal pet trade, hunting and habitat destruction.

Living fossils

Until around 50 million years ago, tarsiers and humans shared the same genetic path. Then, while some of us evolved into modern primates—animals like monkeys, apes and human beings—tarsiers did nothing much at all.

“They look remarkably like primates that roamed the earth 50 million years ago,” says researcher Sharon Gursky-Doyen.

Nicknamed “living fossils,” tarsiers live in forests across the Philippines and Indonesia. They are active at night, when their huge eyes help them see in the dark. Each eye is around the same size and weight as their brain.

By the light of the moon

Most nocturnal animals are afraid of the moon, but not tarsiers.

“They like full moons and are more active during full moons,” says Sharon. “This increases their exposure to potential predators, but also increases their ability to see.”

Sharon recently found that instead of seeing mostly black and white, like typical nocturnal animals, tarsiers can see red, green and blue, just like you and me.

They also have unusually large babies.

“The infants are a quarter to a third of adult weight at birth,” says Sharon. Imagine your Mum giving birth to a baby already as big as you!

“Instead of carrying their babies on their bodies, like most primates, tarsiers transport their infants in their mouths,” says Sharon.

Not yawning, screaming

Some species of tarsier are very noisy, calling to each other all night long. Others are silent—or so we thought.

One day Sharon noticed tarsiers seemed to spend a lot of time yawning, with their mouths open but making no sound. She was curious, grabbed some equipment designed for working with bats, and set to work.

Incredibly, Sharon’s team discovered these “silent” species are actually communicating ultrasonically, using chirps and whistles so high-pitched that human ears can’t hear them.

Sharon recorded tarsiers calling to each other at frequencies as high as 79 kilohertz, or 79,000 vibrations per second.  She found they can hear sounds up to 91 kilohertz, while humans can only hear up to 20 kilohertz—which to us is a brain-piercing squeal.

Pygmy tarsiers

In the highlands of Indonesia, back in 2000, two scientists were catching rats when they discovered something strange in their trap: a pygmy tarsier. Last seen alive nearly 80 years earlier, pygmy tarsiers are the smallest species of tarsier, about the size and weight of a chicken’s egg.

Sharon and her team were inspired. They searched the jungle to find more pygmy tarsiers.

“It was always foggy and wet,” she says, “…and the moss was so slippery, we were always struggling to stay upright.”

Finally, after two months of searching, Sharon trapped two male pygmy tarsiers and a female, fitting them with radio collars before releasing them.

Now, by tracking the signals from their collars, we can learn more about these shy and mysterious creatures.

Author: cristyburne


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