Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Researching STEM - Welcome Guest Blogger Melissa Stewart

Delightfully Disgusting Research

The story behind my upcoming book Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses) traces back to a three-week research trip I took to Africa in 1996. During the safari, I watched with fascination as a mother black-backed jackal upchucked her partially-digested dinner to feed her three feisty pups. When the little ones had eaten their fill, she scarfed down the mushy leftovers.  

The next day, while observing a gerenuk standing on its tippy-toes as it ate, our guide told us that it’s one of more than 150 mammals (including cows) that regurgitate their food and re-munch their lunch as many as four times. It’s their way of eking every possible nutrient from the tough plants they eat.

Right then and there, I started making a list of animals that vomit their vittles as a survival strategy. Over time, I added more than a dozen insects, birds, and mammals to that list. 

But why stop there? I also made lists of creatures that use poop, pee, spit, snot, and other bodily substances in the most surprising ways. Eventually, I had more than enough information for a 100-page book. 

Photo: Satoshi Kuribayashi/Nature Production/Minden Pictures

One of my favorite examples is the bombardier beetle—an insect that blasts enemies with a scalding spray that bursts out its butt. I observed the insect in action during a class I took at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, many years ago.

In March 2018, an article in Science News led me to an amazing video of a Japanese common toad vomiting an African bombardier beetle drenched with gooey mucusFor 88 minutes, the tenacious insect fought for its life by blasting the toad’s insides with nasty, sizzling-hot spray. 
PhotoShinji Sugiura
Finally, the toad couldn’t take it anymore and spewed its supper. After a brief rest, the slime-covered beetle slowly crawled away.

You know you’ve chosen one of the world’s best professions when watching something so weird and wonderful is a legitimate part of your job!

Available in June 2020 wherever books are sold.

Observational research—whether it’s in person, through videos, or via webcams—is one of my favorite parts of being a nonfiction writer. It’s also one of the best ways I know to gather tantalizing tidbits that can transform a piece of science writing from okay to outstanding. 

And the good news is that young writers can do this kind of active, engaging, self-driven research just as easily as I can. Why not let them give it a try?

Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 180 nonfiction books for young readers, including Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses, Seashells: More than a Home, and Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs. She maintains the Celebrate Science blog and serves on the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators board of advisors. Melissa’s highly-regarded website features a rich array of nonfiction writing resources.

Nancy Castaldo has been writing about the planet for over 20 years. Learn more about her award-winning books at Purchase and pre-order autographed copies of Nancy's books here.

Coming May 2020! 


  1. who can resist "delightfully disgusting"?

  2. It takes all kinds, Melissa! Haha. What a fantastic topic. Can't wait to share this book.

  3. My boys will think this is delightful! Can't wait to get them a copy.


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