Playing with Owl Puke, and Other Science Inspired Holiday Gifts

BY Jenny Marder  December 10, 2012 at 12:00 PM EST

Owls, like this one seen at an animal pet fair in Stuttgart, Germany, swallow their prey whole and then regurgitate what they can’t digest. Photo by Marijan Murat/AFP/Getty Images.

File this one under unusual science-inspired kids toys. And a warning — you may want to put down your lunch.

Owls eat by swallowing their prey whole and then regurgitating what they can’t digest into a sausage-shaped ball of bones, fur, feathers and teeth. The pellets are molded inside the owl’s gizzard, and when vomited back up, often contain entire skeletons of small animals.

Two years ago, Scientific American featured a toy inspired by this particular bodily function called “Unreal Upchuck.” The package contained sanitized versions of owl puke pellets. Children are expected to pick apart these pellets, find the tiny bones of the mouse or starling that the animal swallowed inside, and then carefully rebuild the skeleton.

The good news is it’s still for sale! Here’s the hilarious and very informative note from the manufacturer:

Kids and puke go hand in hand. This brand new box set combines the thrill of dissecting owl puke and rebuilding skeletons with the hypoallergenic and sanitary means that only modern manufacturing can provide. The sanitary and synthetic pellets will provide hours of fun. Complete kit comes with two kinds of pellets, bone sorting chart, dissection tray and magnifier.

Along those lines, here are a few other science-inspired gifts for the holiday season:

Steve Spangler’s Big Bucket of Science is filled with 18 test tubes containing popular experiments. One contains absorbent polymers, which turn into fake snow when water is added.

This Smithsonian article features 3-D printers, electronic field guides and martian meteorites. Plus, crystal growing kits and magnetic blocks are among the bestsellers at the Smithsonian store.

3-D space shuttle puzzle from the gift shop at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

And who wouldn’t want this toy of a microbe emerging from a gooey puddle of ooze?

Wired has scoured the Internet for “the best, quirkiest, most innovative examples of science-inspired Lego creations.” The list includes the Mars Curiosity rover, an anatomical model of a human spine and ATLAS, the 7,000-ton particle detector at CERN.

On the much pricier side, this Wired article profiles the man behind these exquisite glass-blown anatomical models of the human body’s vascular systems, designed with the help of cardiologists and used by medical students. There’s one of the main arteries of the brain; another of the heart. And check out the trachea.

QUICK BITES

  • Seven-year-old Emma Whitehead had relapsed twice after chemotherapy for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, but is now in remission after an experimental treatment that seems to have given her body’s immune system the ability to fight off the cancer. The New York Times has the full story.

  • Meteorite or volcanos? Which do you think killed these dinosaurs in India? LiveScience examines.

  • The bone-dry landscape of Chile’s Atacama desert is prime real estate for astronomers. It’s home to Alma, the largest ground-based telescope in the world. Miles O’Brien reports for National Science Foundation’s Science Nation.*

  • If the hum of fluorescent light bulbs drive you crazy, this might be the lightbulb of your future.

  • How tall could you possibly build a Lego tower?

  • Ed Yong reports in his popular Discover blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science about a group of fish in Southwestern France that have learned how to kill birds by “lunging out of the water, grabbing a pigeon, and then wriggling back into the water to swallow their prey.”

NOT SAFE FOR LUNCH

Here’s a beautiful piece by Carl Zimmer on “zombies in nature:”

“Viruses, fungi, protozoans, wasps, tapeworms and a vast number of other parasites can control the brains of their hosts and get them to do their bidding,” he writes. “But only recently have scientists started to work out the sophisticated biochemistry that the parasites use.”

Jeremy Blackman and Patti Parson contributed to this report.

*The National Science Foundation is an underwriter of the NewsHour.