animals, biologist, K-12, pets

What to Buy the Burgeoning Biologist?

Ant farms and “Sea Monkeys” have been around for decades, and it is little wonder that they’ve been so popular. These educational kits, and other kinds of temporary “pets” available today, captivate curious minds of all ages. And they can make great gifts. So if you’re looking for a perfect present for a burgeoning biologist, or even an experienced one, you may want to consider some of the ideas explored here.

  • Ant Farms: Also known as “formicariums,” ant farms have been around for over half a century, and their great popularity highlights just how interested people are in watching the life of tiny, hard-working insects. Ant farms can be purchased online, such as at, Insect Lore, or Carolina Biological Supply Company. You could also try making your own inexpensive ant farm following a design I made called the Soda Bottle Ant Farm.
  • Sea Monkeys: Brine shrimp, also known as Sea Monkeys, have also been extremely popular short-lived “pets” for decades. They’re small, ancient crustaceans, putting them in the same group as crabs, lobsters, other shrimp, and crayfish. Their extremely durable eggs and short lifecycle (lasting about a year) make them very appealing creatures to investigate. Sea Monkey (or brine shrimp) kits can be purchased online, such as at, Insect Lore, Carolina Biological, and Connecticut Valley Biological Supply Company.
  • brine shrimp artemia
    Tiny brine shrimp in water.
  • Triops: Triops, also known as the “dinosaur shrimp” or tadpole shrimp, are quickly becoming popular educational pets. Like brine shrimp, they’re crustaceans, but Triops get much bigger, easily reaching two-and-a-half inches long. They basically look like a little horseshoe crab. They can also be purchased online through, Insect Lore, and Carolina Biological.
  • triops
    Triops make fascinating, short-lived, educational pets. (Image credit: Steve Jurvetson)

  • Praying mantises: Probably one of the most captivating and respected insects is the praying mantis, a stealthy cannibalistic predator. Over 2,000 species of praying mantises live around the world, mostly in warm, subtropical, and tropical areas. Mantises in captivity live about six months up to a year, and egg cases or adults can be purchased from many places online, including, Insect Lore, and Carolina Biological.
  • triops
    A predatory praying mantis. (Image credit: Scott Robinson)
  • Millipedes: While it may not always be easy to find praying mantises in your own back yard, there are many other little critters that can usually be discovered if you’re looking in the right places. Millipedes fall into this category. They’re arthropods, which means they’re invertebrates with an exoskeleton, a segmented body, and jointed appendages – like insects, spiders, crustaceans, and others in this group. If you can’t find them in your back yard, millipedes can be purchased from Carolina Biological.
  • millipedes
    Two giant African millipedes.
  • Pill bugs and sow bugs: These critters make such great little pets that they were explored in a previous post on Biology Bytes. They can often be found in great numbers on damp soil under rocks or decaying wood (even when it’s cold outside). (And if you want to do some quantifiable science while searching for bugs outdoors, you could try the Science Buddies science project idea Bug Vacuums: Sucking up Biodiversity.) Alternatively, they can be purchased online through Carolina Biological and Connecticut Valley Biological.
  • Earthworm: Earthworms are extremely important in recycling nutrients in soil (just like millipedes, sow bugs, and pill bugs). A variety of kits for doing worm composting (also known as vermiculture) can be purchased online, such as through Such a kit could even be explored in a science fair project, as described in the Science Buddies project idea Composting and Vermiculture.
  • Caterpillars:: There are a number of different types of caterpillars that can be easily obtained and are fascinating to watch as they mature into butterflies or moths. Silkworms have been reared for millennia to make silk, so the eggs can be purchased at many places online, such as through Insect Lore and Carolina Biological. Painted lady caterpillars are also commonly used in classrooms, and be purchased online, such as through Insect Lore and Carolina Biological. (And if you wanted to do a science project based on these fluttery friends, you could try Science Buddies’ project idea Does Temperature Affect the Rate of Butterfly Development?.)
  • Madagascar giant hissing cockroaches: These make such fascinating, unique pets that they were also explored in a previous post on Biology Bytes. They can be purchased online through Insect Lore and Carolina Biological.

If your favorite biologist would like to learn lots more about these captivating critters, including tips and suggestions on how to take care of them, they may want to check out my recently-published book Biology Bytes: Digestible Essays on Animals Both Commonplace and Bizarre.

So as we start thinking about holiday presents, don’t forget that nothing quite fascinates a biologist like a real living creature (and taking care of a short-lived one is an easier commitment to make!).

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