Science Wednesday: A Hedgehog was my ‘Sputnik Moment’

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Aaron Ferster

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the annual science fair at my daughter’s elementary school. I joined several hundred other proud parents in the loud, over-crowded gymnasium to bask in the collective genius of our children.

As I’ve come to expect, the projects were impressive. There were investigations exploring which substance—sand , salt, or flour—melted ice the fastest (it was salt); what kind of pet rodent could learn to negotiate a maze the fastest (a rat), and which paper towel absorbed the most water.

I finished checking the other presentations just in time to watch the judge interview my daughter about her own project: the self-anointing behavior of her pet hedgehog. For largely unknown reasons, hedgehogs sometimes contort backwards so they can reach the quills on their back and cover them with a coating of frothy saliva. Once you get past the yuck factor, it’s really quite fascinating.

My daughter put her hedgie in front of newspaper, a toy hedgehog, and a magazine to compare anointing responses. It anointed the most when confronted with newspaper, which it would bite and energetically chew up. There was no response at all at  the toy.

At the exact same time the elementary school students were showing off their experiments, some of my colleagues were preparing to share EPA research activities at a gathering of slightly older, more experienced scientists: the annual meeting of The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The AAAS meeting is just one of several gatherings where EPA scientists and science communicators go to share their work every year. For scientists, such events serve as important venues to share their latest findings, meet colleagues, and cultivate new research partnerships in support of EPA programs protecting human health and the environment.

Next month EPA scientists and their work will be prominently featured at the 5oth Anniversary celebration of the Society of  Toxicology. In April, EPA’s own Earth Day activities will include bringing college and university student teams together at the 8th Annual P3 Awards : A National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet.

Whether it’s the scientific presentations presented by elementary school students or the world class scientists gathering at AAAS, there seems to be lots of enthusiasm for sharing science. I always look forward to the next event. And who knows, someday soon maybe I’ll learn more about why hedgehogs self anoint.

About the Author: Science-writer Aaron Ferster is the editor for Science Wednesdays and a frequent contributor.