In the 1820s, painter and naturalist John James Audubon designed an experiment to test if birds had a sense of smell. He dragged a rotten hog carcass into a field, then piled brush on top of it. After none of the local turkey vultures appeared, Audubon concluded that vultures hunted using their eyes alone.
Gabrielle Nevitt has for years pondered the smelling abilities of animals. She has studied salmon finding their way back to their birth streams and “tube-nosed” ocean birds, like albatrosses and shearwaters. The researcher from the University of California, Davis started a recent lecture in Fairbanks by pointing out how Audubon erred in his pig-and-vulture experiment.
Turkey vultures are most sensitive to a gas called ethanethiol, the rotten-egg scent that wafts from a carcass in the first 24 hours after something dies. Audubon, it seems, employed a dead pig that was quite far along in the decomposition process, emitting compounds even turkey vultures found… read more
As I was driving down the highway, I saw a shaggy, gray-black canine cruising along on the snowpack, right next to the road. Could it be one of the hardest animals to spot in Alaska, a wolf?
I pulled over and stopped. The wolf padded along the treeline, getting closer.
A few things stood out: (1) It was limping, its back-right foot not touching the ground. (2) It did not seem to mind my presence, just 30 feet away. (3) The wolf was wearing a leather satellite collar.
The next day, I drove to the headquarters building of Denali National Park and Preserve. I walked into the offices. There, I met a woman wearing a garbage bag.
I described the wolf I saw the day before.
“Oh yeah,” Kaija Klauder said, “That’s 1202.”
Klauder is a wildlife technician at the park. She had a garbage bag draped over her because there was a dead wolf curled on a steel table nearby. She was about to examine it. That wolf — not the one I saw — had died deep… read more
“So, you get to write the obituary for Alaska,” George Divoky said.
The seasoned biologist with the quick-twitch brain had spotted me, notebook in hand, standing near his poster at the December 2018 meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C.
Divoky’s greeting left me without words, but I knew what he meant. I had read enough posters in that session to see that walrus, clams, spectacled eiders and other creatures suffered greatly when an Idaho-size swath of sea ice went missing from the Bering Sea one year ago due to melting thin ice and stormy winds.
I shook Divoky’s hand, one that has wrapped around hundreds of hungry seabird chicks, and then put my pen to paper.
Every summer since 1975, Divoky, 72, has spent a few months living on Cooper Island, a crescent of gravel 25 miles southeast of Utqiagvik. He has gotten to know a few generations of Mandt’s black guillemots, sleek seabirds that hunt the edge of the sea ice.
The Cooper… read more
Why, a friend asked, are there so many birch seeds on top of the snowpack in Fairbanks? A day later, the answer hit me in the head.
As I walked through the forest, I looked up just in time to get peppered with frozen specks from above. Redpolls, finches that fit in the palm of your hand, were in a birch tree overhead, hammering at clumps of seeds clinging to otherwise naked branches.
A rain of seeds came wafting down, slowed by their oval wings. On the snow, redpolls pecked at the seeds, each shaped like a pumpkinseed but not much larger than a period.
Those tiny seeds are one of the best available energy sources for redpolls, which often spend the entire year in Alaska but have been known to show up en masse farther south.
During “irruptions,” birders in New England can suddenly find their feeders clogged with redpolls from Canada and Alaska. People in the Lower 48 documented winter irruptions (“to increase rapidly or irregularly in number,” according… read more
While walking the streets of Washington, D.C., last month, a pleasant sound stopped me. A male robin was singing, high in a sidewalk sycamore.
It was December, months away from when that bird would use the same voice to declare his breeding territory. I wondered why he practiced now, as I stood amid the urban noise and listened to a melody that transported me back to April in Alaska.
Later that day, at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, I sat in on a talk by Ruth Oliver, a graduate student at Columbia University who has studied the most common songbird on the continent as it makes its way to Alaska.
Oliver traveled to Lesser Slave Lake, a three-hour drive north of Edmonton in Alberta, during the last three springs to learn more about the American robin. Lesser Slave Lake is a popular stopping place for robins that migrate north during springtime.
Some of the 320 million robins on the continent spend their summers in the same areas they… read more
While most of Alaska has not felt too wintery yet, 175,000 moose have noticed a change. As biologist Tom Seaton pointed out in last week’s column, moose are now seeking out what amounts to a large dog-food sack of twigs each day. There are no more pond greens to slurp or succulent leaves to strip from stems.
“In the winter, all that’s available is wood,” said ecologist Diane Wagner of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Wagner was part of a study on how a tiny moth affects that wood and in turn alters the behavior of moose.
Wagner, graduate student Brian Allman and ecologist Knut Kielland studied a gray moth called the willow leafblotch miner they noticed on the flats of the Tanana River. The tiny larvae of the moth feed on the leaves of the sandbar willow, browning them out by midsummer.
Though the infested leaves look as unappetizing as a wormy apple, moose don’t eat leaves of the sandbar willow, Wagner said. Winter… read more
The magnificent creature was fooled by vocal plumbing — similar to its own but much smaller — imitating the groan of a receptive female. The bull moose grunted twice, then strode through spruce trees at the far side of a river. Brushing branches away with its antlers, it emerged, expecting to see a cow moose.
I knelt and plugged my ears with my fingers. My friend raised his rifle and shot. Twenty minutes later, as daylight faded, we found the bull moose dead beneath a small spruce tree.
We pulled out our headlamps and began the work of processing an animal as large as a grand piano. We pushed up our sleeves with a sense of gratitude, anxiety at making the correct cuts, and the knowledge that we would not be slipping into our sleeping bags any time soon.
Hunter reports for 2018 are still trickling into the offices of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, but my friend is now in the group of successful moose hunters for the year. In… read more
Leaving cloven hoofprints from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, more than 3,500 muskoxen live in Alaska. All of those shaggy, curly-horned beasts came from one group of muskoxen that survived a most remarkable journey in the 1930s.
In 1900, no muskoxen existed in Alaska. Though the stocky, weatherproof creatures have survived in the Arctic since the last ice age, the last reports of native muskoxen in Alaska came from the late 1800s.
As Peter Lent reported in his book Muskoxen and Their Hunters, Henry Rapelle in 1895 visited a Native man living on the bank of the Yukon River who had the skull of a muskox. He told Rapelle he thought the muskox was “a bear with horns” when he shot it a year earlier on the Kandik River. That muskox was perhaps the last of the Alaska population.
In May, 1930, members of the U.S. Congress gave U.S. Biological Survey scientists $40,000 “to acquire a… read more
Maybe she has the right idea, the arctic ground squirrel. Sniffing the chilly air, looking up to see the first stars of the season, she has decided to check out. A few weeks shy of fall equinox, the squirrel is now bunkered up for winter, three feet beneath the tundra of the North Slope.
“There’s tons of food, there’s tons of light, so why are they hibernating?” said Cory Williams of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Williams studies ground squirrels at Toolik Lake and near Atigun River in northern Alaska. The biologist with the Institute of Arctic Biology is interested in — among other things — how quickly the animals tune their body clocks to sunlight in summer, and how they ignore solar rhythms while underground.
Arctic ground squirrels are one of the star organisms of northern science. The size of a loaf of pumpernickel, they are the subject of dozens of scientific papers. Why? Ground squirrels are easy… read more
Thanks to her six-year-old grandson, Janet Klein of Homer recently hosted a few interesting house guests.
Five experts on ancient creatures slept in Klein’s Homer house last month as they searched local cliffs for another chunk of a mammal that lived in Alaska millions of years ago. Her guests were Patrick Druckenmiller of the UA Museum of the North, Grant Zazula and Susan Hewitson of the Yukon government, paleontologist Analia Forasiepi of Argentina, and Ross MacPhee, curator of mammology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Along with Klein, a Homer resident and naturalist, the scientists were looking for a rock that might fit into the petrified jawbone of a tapir Klein’s grandson Kai found about a year ago on a beach near Homer.
Kai Reising, then 5, was beachcombing in July 2017 with his grandmother; his mother, Deborah Klein; his father George Reising; and his younger brother Silas. In an… read more
The evidence is in: Snowshoe hares near Wiseman eat lots of dirt.
“I have thousands and thousands of photos of hares eating soil in this one little spot,” said Donna DiFolco, a biologist and cartographer with the National Park Service.
DiFolco has studied hares in the eastern portion of Gates of the Arctic National Park since 1997. That’s when she started counting hare tracks near Wiseman as part of a lynx study.
A few years after that, the hares disappeared, as did the many creatures that eat them.
Since then, hares around Wiseman have started to boom, lynx have followed, and DiFolco, collaborating with UAF’s Knut Kielland, now uses GPS collars and trail cams. That newish technology helps her confirm what researchers have seen in the lab and Wiseman residents have noticed at river banks: Snowshoe hares are engaging in geophagy, and, unlike the lynx that eat them, they are probably better off… read more
YUKON RIVER — “She’s starting to wail,” Chris Florian says, referring to the worrisome shriek of a peregrine falcon across the river.
Florian, her biologist husband Skip Ambrose and I are sitting on warm gravel a few steps from the river on a sunny summer evening. We just ate dinner, and Ambrose is repeating an action he has performed for the past 46 summers — squinting through a spotting scope aimed at a far-off rock ledge. He is trying to see white puffballs that are peregrine falcon chicks.
Now is not the time to see them. The evening sun is pleasantly baking us on the east side of the river, but 500-foot Tacoma Bluff, on the west side, is in the shade. Knowing they will see better in the morning light, Ambrose and Florian have tied their 24-foot Wooldridge motorboat to a spruce log for the evening.
After hearing rumors of them being just ahead of me for several days, I finally caught up with Ambrose and… read more
Floating down the Fortymile River, we heard the roar of a rapid just ahead. At the same time, we noticed the caribou, about 50 of them, clustered on a cliffside near the water.
It was too late to pull over. I aimed the canoe for the bumps of frothing brown water. As we plunged in, six antlered heads bobbed single-file in front of us. Caribou were swimming across the river at the pinch point.
My neighbor, eight-year-old Nora Carlson, watched from the bow of the canoe as we parted the sea of caribou. As we splashed through, three caribou swam on toward the far bank. Three others saw the red canoe and U-turned back to the rocks from which they had stepped into the water. Nora could have combed the coarse hair of their backs with her paddle.
A few seconds later, we were past the splashy water, and the caribou. We spun into a river eddy and turned to watch the two other boats in our party slip past.
… read more
Just beneath the owl box, hung 20 feet up the stem of a balsam poplar, the backyard barbeque continued late into the evening. Despite the thwap of badminton birdies and the chirp of human voices, the boreal owl had work to do.
With a vole in its talons, the hand-sized bird perched on a branch outside a wooden box nailed to the tree. After a quick scan of the activity below, the owl bent and grabbed the vole with its beak. It fluttered up, hovered, and slam-dunked the vole through the hole.
The owl then disappeared into the shadows of the spruce forest. Scratching noises came from the nest box as the adult female within tore apart the vole into pieces her hatchlings could swallow.
Over much of their range, boreal owls operate in the dark every night. They live south to Colorado and in a forested belt around the northern part of the globe.
People know boreal owls in Europe and Russia as the… read more
Of the five species of salmon that swim Alaska waters, the pink is by far the most plentiful. Some scientists think the fish is an overabundant predator that outcompetes other salmon and some seabirds.
In the late 1990s, Japanese researchers noticed an intriguing pattern while studying in the Bering Sea just north of the Aleutians. During every odd-numbered year, populations of tiny ocean creatures called copepods were very low. The year after, their numbers were high.
Pink salmon eat copepods. And, the Japanese scientists noted, pink salmon are most abundant in odd calendar years. The Japanese scientists postulated that pinks, which have exploded in numbers since the early 1990s, had gobbled up many of the copepods.
About a decade ago, biologists Alan Springer and Gus van Vliet noticed a similar pattern among tufted puffins in a well-studied colony on Buldir Island in the Aleutians. The puffins were laying… read more
Millions of Alaska birds nest on rocky emerald islands seen by few people other than ship captains. One of the funkiest of these creatures is the crested auklet, which looks like a bassist in a punk band and smells like a tangerine.
These hand-size birds have intrigued Hector Douglas for years. He just wrote a paper on how the smelliest crested auklets also have the largest crests — groups of feathers sprouting from their heads that resemble backward ponytails. The birds have neon-orange beaks and white eyes dotted with pupils that look like the period at the end of this sentence.
Douglas was a graduate student with UAF’s Institute of Marine Science when he sailed on a fishing boat to Big Koniuji Island southeast of Sand Point, Alaska, 16 years ago.
The island, named by the Aleut for the “big-crested auk,” was one of the great gathering sites of crested auklets on Earth in the years before the Russians started fox farming in the Aleutians. Now free of foxes,… read more
The wolf tracks appeared as they always do, as a surprise.
On a day between fall and winter, with the leaves fallen and browning but the ground not yet hard, I was walking with my dog and an a.m. radio. We were descending a four-wheeler trail on a hillside 20 miles from the nearest town, Minto.
The dog was exercising its need to move after a summer of walking across the state. The radio was there so I could listen to my Yankees, playing in Houston, where there was not a half-inch of snow on the ground.
Before I saw the rounds of hand-size tracks, heading toward us from the basin of the Tolovana River, Cora had tipped me to sign of her ancestors’ passage.
There on the cold, wet ground was a shallow wound of scratch marks similar to the ones Cora likes to make. The earth showed the rake of four chisel points, as wide as my outspread fingers.
There, I imagined the broad, muscled shoulders of a creature… read more
In her study of one of the farthest north lynx populations in North America this summer, Claire Montgomerie used her ears. While looking at the satellite tracker a female lynx was wearing, Montgomerie saw the animal was hanging around a hillside north of the Arctic Circle, not far from Coldfoot.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student suspected the lynx might have paused in its constant wandering to give birth to a den of kittens.
Montgomerie enlisted a few helpers from her base in Wiseman and headed to where she’d seen clusters of tracking points on her computer. After about 45 minutes in the boreal forest near the Dalton Highway, she got her break.
“I heard this little hissing noise,” Montgomerie said. “It was very subtle, like a breath.”
She approached the feline whisper, poked her head in some brush and parted a few birch saplings. There, at the root ball of a downed balsam poplar, were six lynx kittens the size of yarn balls.
MOUTH OF THE DELTA RIVER — On a morning with biting air in the single digits Fahrenheit, this river smells like sulfur and is splashy and loud. Bald eagles and ravens swoop in the updraft of a nearby rock bluff in what looks like play.
In early November, a time when shadows lengthen and deep cold hardens the landscape, chum salmon have returned to spawn in the lower Delta River. In spots, the water is so shallow that dorsal fins wiggle in the frigid air. Some fish get frostbite on really cold days.
Now is the peak of one of Alaska’s last great animal migrations of the year. Thousands of “fall run” chum salmon are hanging a right from the Tanana River into a few crystal channels of the Delta River.
These fish are at the end of their four-year lives. The tiger-striped dog salmon began a 1,100-mile journey from the Bering Sea from mid July through early September.
The Yukon River run of chum salmon is the largest in the… read more
May 11, 2017
In the early going of my second hike across Alaska along the route of the Trans-Alaska pipeline, I chose to walk the highway rather than the pipe's route to get up Thompson Pass north of Valdez. The road added six miles to our day. But I tried the pipe route up the pass 20 years ago and it was like trying to climb a 90-meter ski jump.
Most of my mileage so far on this trip has been on the shoulder of the Richardson Highway. The pipeline pad here in the mountains is still deep with punchy snow. You'd think a guy would have checked that out before starting.
The road, surprisingly, is quite pleasant. Cora doesn't seem to mind being leashed. And only about 10 cars and trucks pass us each hour. Is Alaska becoming the land gone lonesome, with people headed down the Alaska Highway and moving out? I've seen a good number of U-Hauls. Or is it not Memorial Day yet?
If the people are still on their way in, the birds have beat… read more
Skiing to work over a persistent spring snowpack, I looked up to see a large white bird flapping gracefully over the spruce tops. A few gentle honks confirmed it was a tundra swan.
After a long winter when all the large birds were black, it was good to see one of the frontrunners of the billions now winging to Alaska.
Tundra swans can live to be older than 20. Perhaps this bird, about 15 pounds with a wingspan of almost six feet, had passed over the lowlands north of UAF many times. The swan was probably headed to northwest Alaska or the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta.
That's according to a biologist who was part of a team that captured and released more than 500 tundra swans in 2007 and 2008. The birds were temporarily flightless as they shed old feathers and grew new ones in their favorite Alaska breeding areas: Cold Bay, King Salmon, the Yukon and Kuskokwim river deltas, Kotzebue Sound and the Colville River delta.
Craig Ely of the USGS Science Center in… read more
Stan Boutin has climbed more than 5,000 spruce trees in the last 30 years. He's fallen only once, and he has often returned to the forest floor knowing if a ball of twigs and moss contained newborn red squirrel pups. Over the years, those squirrels have taught Boutin and his colleagues many things, including their apparent ability to predict the future.
Boutin, of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, was in Fairbanks recently to give a lecture on one of the easiest-to-find animals in the boreal forest. The square-jawed biologist is perhaps the world's foremost expert on red squirrels.
By marking squirrel pups with ear tags over the years, he and his helpers have gotten to know the entire red squirrel population of a square kilometer of boreal forest between Haines Junction and Kluane Lake in the Yukon.
Here are some insights from three decades of observations of more than 10,000 individuals:
Though one squirrel on his plot lived to be nine years old,… read more
OUTSIDE THE UA MUSEUM OF THE NORTH — "Look, it's a crab spider eating a moth!" says Declan Griswold, an 8-year-old who points to a rose bush.
"You're right, it's a true spider, an orb weaver, just like the kind in Charlotte's Web," says Derek Sikes, head of the entomology collection at the UA Museum of the North. He and his wife Melissa are leading a group of 18 elementary-school-age kids in the university's bug camp, a weeklong summer program.
Because my daughter is attending, I'm doing something I've always wanted to do: going to bug camp. During the week, the kids will learn why carrion beetles wear orange (to warn birds that they are gross to eat), how to tease out the ladle tongue of a dragonfly larvae, and the proper spot to spear insects with pins within a handsome white foam box.
"How are you not scared of it?" a girl asks Sikes as he captures the spider, which has dropped the moth. Sikes doesn't answer, and places it in the girl's vial filled with… read more
ZITZIANA RIVER — Fishing at the spot where this long, squiggly stream mixes with a floury channel of the Tanana River, Alison Beamer feels a thump.
Line squeals from her spinning reel as a creature as long as her arm flashes beneath the surface. After a few runs east and west, the fish tires, becoming still beneath the clear surface. Beamer's canoe-mate Jason Clark nets and dispatches the fish. He then threads it on a stringer.
Beamer holds the sheefish up in the sunlight. It's a stunning fish none of us has seen before, though the the lobster of the north is common enough in northern Alaska rivers. Its long, polished silver body gleams purplish in the sun. Its mouth is U-shaped and seems big as a bucket.
This giant member of the whitefish family is found only in a few dozen river systems of North America and Asia. North of the Arctic Circle, in the Selawik and Kobuk rivers, elder sheefish can get to 60 pounds. Beamer's fish is maybe five pounds, but it seems… read more
LOWER TANANA RIVER — On a day like this 121 years ago, a hungry U.S. Army explorer passed here at the mouth of Fish Creek, where clear water collides with the cloudy Tanana. Henry Allen did not stop to fish. He had food, and further exploration, on his mind as he and his party paddled by in a skin boat.
We have stopped our canoes, squirted on insect repellant and cast lures hoping for pike or especially sheefish, the giant whitefish that lives here. We are also simply being present on this big Alaska river, making a count of animals Henry Allen did not see during his 1885 journey across Alaska.
In one summer, Allen ascended the full length of the Copper River and descended the entire Tanana River and portions of the Koyukuk and the Yukon. Allen and his scurvied companions saw zero moose from March to September. Nor did they see any caribou (and just one bear). Allen wrote this in a report to his superiors after his trip. His document is one of the first written… read more
Interior Alaska is a hungry place — lots of boreal forest and swampy wetlands with big, flat rivers winding through. Wildlife sightings, especially of big mammals, are rare.
But a recent video posted by a seismologist makes the Tanana River flats look like the Serengeti. A motion-triggered game camera installed above buried instruments shows visits from coyotes, snowshoe hares, lynx, moose and black bears during the past winter.
Carl Tape of the Geophysical Institute installed the camera near a seismometer he and his colleagues buried between Nenana and Manley Hot Springs. The shake detector is part of a network the team spread over Minto Flats to learn more about earthquakes there.
Cameras are not standard equipment at earthquake-monitoring stations. Tape installed this one because something had twice dug up buried plastic boxes and an aluminum conduit line running to an antenna mounted on a spruce tree… read more
While boating down the Yukon River during the hottest summer recorded in Alaska (1915, when Fort Yukon reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit), missionary Hudson Stuck wrote about the wildlife that most bothered his party.
“With the failure of a little breeze and the overcasting of the sky, the weather grows oppressively sultry and a swarm of horse-flies, or moose-flies as they are called in these parts, makes appearance — large venomous insects that bite a piece out of one’s flesh when they alight.”
A century later, the helmeted flies almost the size of a moose nugget maintain a healthy presence along Alaska’s waterways. The flies from the family Tabanidae (called horse and deer flies in other places) drive moose to gallops of terror. The big flies seek mammals, including you, for meals of blood that allow them to produce more flies.
The creatures are stout enough to absorb the smack of a palm and then fly away. With evolved stealth, they feather-land on skin. Soon… read more
NEAR BALLAINE LAKE — Over the blat of engines and hum of tires on nearby Farmers Loop, Mark Spangler hears the chuckles of the animal he is studying. Male wood frogs in a one-acre pond on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks are singing a song of spring.
The mating calls of several frogs ring off the eardrum. It's a piercing noise created by air in the inflated cheeks of a creature that could hide in a moose track.
"It only takes one bold individual to call and then they all jump in," Spangler said.
The UAF master's degree student wants to use a new technique to answer a basic question about the only amphibians in northern Alaska: How far north do they live?
"There are verified sightings in Anaktuvuk (Pass), Coldfoot and Wiseman," he said of the farthest-north reported frogs.
Differing range maps show the wood frog living from Alaska all the way south to Georgia. The far-north version lives an astounding life. The frogs Spangler heard… read more
Last Friday, an email popped up in all the mailboxes of people with the Geophysical Institute: Someone saw what might have been a wolf on the trails north of the UAF campus. "Please be cautious if skiing in the area."
A few people responded, saying they had seen one or two coyotes roaming the 1,000-plus acres of trails and frozen wetlands just north of campus buildings and roads.
UAF ski trail groomer Jason Garron has had several encounters, saying he believes the animal is a coyote that is "large and healthy looking." Kate Millburg saw a wolf or coyote while she was skiing that looked about "80 pounds, nicely furred and healthy." Rebecca Rolph has seen what she believes is a coyote in the same area while she was running and driving to work.
Biologists said coyotes were more likely what people saw on the university trails. Coyotes have been in Alaska since at least the early 1900s.
"People are always surprised to hear about coyotes, but they are… read more
The upper Colville River is one of the quietest places on the planet, a land of cliffs and tundra and tangles of willow. Fashion Island is one of the most human-altered landscapes in America, where developers long ago replaced the native vegetation with a Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang's.
A female peregrine falcon born in northern Alaska spent at least one of her winters on the 13th floor balcony of a hotel in Fashion Island, a development in Newport Beach, California.
The contrast between living arrangements still impresses Ted Swem, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Fairbanks. Swem cupped the peregrine chick in his hands above the Colville River in 1988, when he placed a blue band around its leg.
The blue band had two numbers stamped on it to enable biologists to recognize the bird later. Swem hoped to see one of his banded birds return to a nesting site near where it was born. The bands helped him determine which young birds survived… read more
Recent research on the ice worm has shone some light on the tiny creature that appears when the sun sets on warmish glaciers.
Few people have seen ice worms, but they are not mythical. Wispy and less than one inch long, ice worms live on glaciers, wriggling to the surface at night and sometimes lingering in meltwater pools during the day. They seem to be dormant during the winter. No one knows how long they live, or if they might have the ability to resurrect themselves after their bodies dry out.
The worms are both hardy and delicate. They live on ice, but will dissolve in the heat of your palm. Scientists in Washington once estimated there were more ice worms on a glacier there than there are humans on Earth. An ecologist once searched a good portion of the Alaska Range and found none.
That scientist, Roman Dial of Alaska Pacific University, condensed much of what is known about the ice worm in a recent paper.
Ice worms live on glaciers overlooking the… read more
Stronger winds and thinner ice are forcing Alaska polar bears to work harder to remain in Alaska, according to scientists who have studied increased movements of both sea ice and bears.
"There's an energetic cost to stay in Alaska," said David Douglas of the U.S. Geological Survey Science Center.
He and others compared wanderings of polar bears from two periods and found the bears now need to capture and eat as many as four additional seals each year to overcome faster-moving ice and stay in areas they prefer.
"That may not seem like a lot, but keep in mind that's at a time when their habitat to hunt seals is shrinking," he said.
While studying the movements of satellite-collared female polar bears (collars don't fit on males because their necks are larger than their heads), Douglas and his colleagues also looked at ice drift off the northern and northwestern coasts of Alaska.
"Not only is the ice pack thinner and more responsive to wind forcing,… read more
A headline in the print edition of the San Francisco Chronicle catches the eye of a visiting Alaskan: Wolves feed on calf.
In a Dec. 20, 2015 story, Chronicle reporter John King reported that wolves were likely responsible for killing and eating a young beef cow from a rancher's herd in northern California. It is the first reported wolf kill on California livestock since the 1920s. That was the last time people saw wolves in California.
Biologists for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife investigated the scene in Siskiyou County following a report from a rancher in November 2015. They found "bloodied bone fragments at the spot where the wolves and carcass could be seen, as well as wolf scat containing cattle hair nearby," King reported. Biologists just released a 48-page report on the suspected wolf kill.
The wolves responsible are part of what biologists have named the Shasta Pack. The seven wolves -- two adults and five pups -- are the only ones… read more
Ed Berg has spent much of his life observing the natural happenings on a large peninsula (the Kenai) that juts from a larger peninsula (Alaska). The retired ecologist who worked many years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been around long enough he might see a second version of the most damaging insect attack in Alaska history.
The insect is the spruce bark beetle. About the size of a grain of rice, billions of the black specks attacked spruce trees of the Kenai Peninsula during the 1990s. Their larvae girdled trees, cut off their sugar supply and slowly killed them. Three million acres of spruce trees died, including the ones on Berg's property in Homer. After he and his wife Sara cleared the trees, their place didn't feel the same. They moved.
Berg needed to know why the beetles attacked with such vigor. He thought about it, studied tree rings and other records of the past and combined that with a few decades of boots-on-the-ground observations. He came up… read more
During Patrick Druckenmiller's not-so-restful sabbatical year, he is flying to museums around the world. In Alberta a few weeks ago and London now, the University of Alaska Museum’s curator of earth science is looking at bones of dinosaurs similar to ones found in northern Alaska. The more he squints at them and chats with experts, the more he thinks far-north dinosaurs are like Alaskans compared to other Americans: kind of the same, but a little off.
"When we really reexamine the fauna, (northern Alaska) is a very weird place," Druckenmiller said.
The mini tyrannosaur, duck-billed swamp-stompers, armor-headed planteaters and other dinosaurs found in northern Alaska hint of a story that is theirs alone. That tale is separate from the one we learned as kids, told by fossils found in Montana, Alberta, Mongolia and other more-exposed and easier-to-get-to places.
Druckenmiller's examinations of the duckbilled dinosaurs found in Alberta led to the recent declaration… read more
Aren Gunderson parks his truck, steps out and strips off his sweatshirt.
"I always take off my outer clothing layer," says the caretaker of the University of Alaska Museum's colony of flesh-eating beetles. "The stink will stay with you."
Gunderson, mammal collection manager at the museum, approaches a weathered set of buildings. He swings open a door. The dermestid beetles are housed about one mile from the museum.
A scan of the room shows varied carcasses on their way to becoming skeletons. A baby killer whale in a box. A racing husky in a plastic tote. In a 40-gallon barrel, a grizzly killed in defense of life and property. Its jaws, wrists and toe bones point to the ceiling.
The visual is stirring, but a scent like leather and candy and hot springs makes breathing difficult.
"Some student workers just can't handle it," Gunderson says of the odor. "Some like it. I like it."
Using a spritzer bottle, Gunderson squirts the bones of the… read more
As piles of wet snow fell, an unexpected guest rapped at the window.
My wife, Kristen, heard it bump into the glass. She was soon cupping in her hands a delicate bird she saw perched on the windowsill.
"It's a golden-crowned kinglet!" she said.
Kristen is a bird biologist, but I was surprised at her identification. Mighty little ruby-crowned kinglets belt out their big songs in our woods each spring, but golden-crowns do not appear north of the Alaska Range on any maps of where the birds live. Neither of us remember seeing one here before.
But the flaming yellow mohawk was a can’t-miss indicator that what Kristen held was indeed a female golden-crowned kinglet.
That little refugee was a fun mystery during a storm that deposited more than a foot of wet snow on our patch of boreal forest in less than one day.
Kristen mixed some sugar and water in a Nalgene cap and touched a few droplets to the stunned bird's beak. Soon, she felt movement in… read more
While talking with two friends just inside a university entranceway, I saw a creature scampering in our direction just outside the glass doors. My first though was of a misdirected red squirrel running on the concrete. But this guy was longer, and bounded like a Slinky. A weasel!
We went outside and staked out the area, waiting for it to emerge from a crack between metal trim and the concrete. After a few minutes, it poked its head and torso from the 2-inch gap. Then it squeezed out, paused between us without fear and boinged past us to greenery.
Since then, I have heard of several more weasel sightings. Bob, who was there at the university, saw one in his woodpile a few days later.
Link Olson is not calling this the year of the weasel, but the curator of mammals at the University of Alaska Museum has gotten "a ton" of calls from people reporting lots of voles, including the easy-to-identify yellow-cheeked vole. An abundance of the weasel's frequent meal makes… read more
These nights, Tom Seaton is dreaming less about red-brown, steaming, humpbacked hulks. He's also getting more sleep, knowing dozens of wood bison that galloped to freedom behind his snowmachine last spring are wandering new country, munching grass and having babies. So far so good in the attempt to stock Alaska with a giant that vanished from the swamps not long ago.
"It's turning out better than I could have hoped for," said Seaton, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks. He is head of a project in which 130 wood bison are now roaming the low grass and sedge country near the village of Shageluk. Shageluk is a village of 130 people on the Innoko River.
In this "intense monitoring stage," Seaton recently flew out to the new herd to sample portions of their bison patties, in order to see what they are eating. He issued this report on the creatures, most of which had been living for years in captivity at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation… read more
A few years ago, Link Olson wanted students in his mammalogy class to see one of the neatest little creatures in Alaska, the northern flying squirrel. He baited a few live traps with peanut butter rolled in oats and placed them in spruce trees.
When he returned the next day, he found no flying squirrels. Instead, peering back at him were the beady eyes of the mice of the north, red-backed voles.
The curator of mammals at the University of Alaska Museum, Olson knew a bit about northern red-backed voles. He thought back to the few vole papers he had read and did not remember a sentence about their ability to climb.
A search led to just two references. One is a mention from author and biologist Ron Smith in his book about Alaska natural history: "This vole has been seen in trees." The other was from me, in a column I wrote about a vole I saw in a spruce tree at 40 below.
Olson wanted to document the northern red-backed vole's climbing in a science journal.… read more
While slicing a cylinder of mud he pulled from an Interior Alaska lake, Matthew Wooller ran into a snag. The wire he was using to cut the mud stopped when it hit something solid. He grabbed a knife, carved around the obstruction, and made a discovery.
"There were a bunch of bones and very sharp teeth sprouting from the lake mud," said Wooller, the head of the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility at UAF.
Suspecting the pinky-size fragment of a toothy creature was thousands of years old, Wooller ran it up to the UA Museum of the North. There, experts could tell him whether the bone was fish or fowl.
Andres Lopez, curator of fishes, recognized the jawbone of a northern pike, a duck-billed, needle-toothed super predator among freshwater fishes.
"The chance of putting the 4-centimeter barrel of the coring head through a skull like this . . . I have never seen this before," Wooller said.
The pike jawbone was not something Wooller imagined within a 20-foot-… read more
MIDDLE FORK, CHANDALAR RIVER — Two-hundred miles straight north of my home in Fairbanks, I'm at the northern edge of a forest that carpets the continent all the way to Labrador. Here for a meteorite search with an astronomer, I have helicoptered into a place humming with life.
This dark spot on the nighttime map of North America is not always in this active state, with the squeak of bank swallows overhead and passing bumblebees so heavy with pollen they fly like water balloons. A few months ago, this gray river was hard as a stone. An online thermometer nearby registers a dependable minus 50 F every winter.
In early summer, the air is perfumed with blooming purple lupine and pink wild sweet pea. It’s so fleeting, and such a contrast to the locked, odorless winter. Songbirds sing from every direction — tiny warblers, thrushes and sparrows have flooded the spruce and spongy ground beneath them.
In the past few days, meteor astronomer Peter Jenniskens, Fairbanks… read more
Like flecks of pepper on chowder, all of the spectacled eiders on the planet are now gathered amid sea ice and steaming open leads in the Bering Sea.
"It's a mass of life in this desolate area," said Matt Sexson, who once rode an icebreaker to see the winter gathering south of St. Lawrence Island.
Sexson, a biologist with the USGS Science Center in Anchorage, just handed in a draft of his Ph.D. chapter on the creatures whose wintering place was a mystery for more than a century. He has some ideas about why these "footballs with feathers" are now crowded into cracks in pack ice when other migrants are picking insects off palm trees.
First, some recent history. In the late 1980s, biologists noticed a lack of spectacled eiders in the summertime tundra nesting places the birds prefer. The decline was so steep that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials listed the birds as threatened in 1993. Wanting to know more, biologists captured birds during their brief egg… read more
Imagine a shallow lake north of Hughes, in the cold heart of Alaska. In frigid, sluggish water, dim blue light penetrates two feet of ice. The ice has a quarter-size hole, maintained by a stream of methane bubbles. Every few minutes, a brutish little fish swims up, sips air, and peels back to the dank.
The Alaska blackfish is an evolutionary loner that fins through lakes and tundra ponds across much of the state. It exists nowhere else, except just across Bering Strait in Siberia. Not much larger than a banana, the fish is different from others in the state because in addition to gathering oxygen through its gills, it can pull it from free air.
Though many fish have the ability to breathe air, most of them live in the tropics. The Alaska blackfish's ability to gulp the same air as you and me has allowed it to occupy stagnant northern pools that kill other fish. When ice seals off small lakes and the stocked rainbow trout goes belly up, the blackfish guts it out.… read more
Some biologists hang from ropes to study birds. Many rise painfully early in the morning. Stacia Backensto disguised herself as a man.
At the time, Backensto worked in the oilfields on Alaska’s North Slope. Her study subject was ravens, and she took to wearing a moustache because they seemed to recognize her as she roamed the industrial landscape.
“All of the adults I’ve tagged remember me,” Backensto, now a biologist for the National Park Service, said at the time. “It makes them hard to trap or get close to.”
She tried to fool the birds by posing as an oilfield worker. To play the part, she tucked her black hair below a ballcap and wore Carhartts overalls. Thinking that was not enough, she stuck on a fake moustache.
Backensto, a former PhD student with UAF’s Regional Resilience and Adaptation Program, studied the raven's role in how oil and gas development affects migratory birds. During her fieldwork, she spent much of her summer at oilfield camps… read more
Julie Hagelin needed a fake bird. She found one in an unexpected place.
The biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is studying the mysterious olive-sided flycatcher, known for its piercing “quick, three beers!” heard above black spruce bogs throughout Alaska. The bird, which weighs as much as a dozen pennies and migrates as far as Bolivia, is declining throughout most of its range in North America. No one knows exactly where the birds go after they breed in the far north.
A major part of Hagelin’s project is attaching sunlight-cued trackers to the birds with a tiny harness. These feather-light “geolocators” require Hagelin and her helpers to capture the birds again the following year. When the birds return in spring, the biologists recover the tiny devices. They then extrapolate where the birds have been from daylight the geolocators record while exposed to sunlight.
That’s why Hagelin needed a faux flycatcher. She knows the most effective way of… read more
Strontium is a trace element and mineral people use to make glow-in-the-dark paints and toothpaste for sensitive teeth. In research for his college degree, Sean Brennan used strontium’s unique qualities to track salmon in an Alaska river.
At Brennan’s Ph.D. defense at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, advisor Matthew Wooller praised Brennan’s ambitious plan and his execution of it up and down the many webs of the Nushagak River. The Nushagak, a river swelling with the bodies of salmon right now, drains the Nushagak Hills as well as the Alaska and Aleutian ranges. The Nushagak and all its fingers provide a path for salmon from their natal streams to Bristol Bay.
Brennan first had the idea of tracking salmon using strontium during his training in stable isotope ecology at the University of Utah. He was impressed people were able to break substances down to the atom level in order to follow salmon populations in California. He wondered if he could use stable isotope… read more
Each fall, white-crowned sparrows hop off branches in Alaska and begin journeys toward California, Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas. On their trip of several weeks, flying mostly at night, the tiny songbirds may cut back on their sleep by two-thirds.
Scientists in Wisconsin discovered the sparrow’s apparent ability to perform while cutting rest with the help of a few birds captured in Fairbanks a few years ago. White-crowned sparrows are a few inches tall, with a gray body, brown wings and tail, and black and white stripes in the pattern of a bicycle helmet on their heads. Their seven-note song is a sign of spring for many northerners.
Niels Rattenborg of the University of Wisconsin at Madison visited Fairbanks on summer with a mist net and captured 30 white-crowned sparrows near ponds off South Cushman Street and near his hotel on the Chena River. He brought those birds back to Madison, where scientists watched the caged birds. They found that the birds were… read more
Forty-two years ago, an Army helicopter pilot flying over a tundra plateau saw a group of caribou. Thinking something looked weird, he circled for a closer look. The animals, dozens of them, were dead.
The pilot reported what he saw to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The caribou, 48 adults and five calves, were lying in a group. The way their carcasses rested showed no signs that the animals had been running from a predator.
As word spread of the 53 dead caribou, people speculated what might have killed them: Nerve gas, toxic waste or some other dark secret from the Army post nearby, flying saucers, maybe a lightning strike?
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game sent wildlife disease specialist Ken Neiland to the site, about 33 miles southwest of Delta Junction. Glenn Shaw, a young atmospheric scientist from UAF’s Geophysical Institute, went with him. Shaw had studied lightning before.
From the air, the scientists saw a clue to the animals’… read more
Slicing through the top quarter of the Alaska map, the Arctic Circle marks the boundary of perpetual light. North of the line, the sun won’t set on summer solstice.
But somehow the breezy, treeless tundra of Barrow has a more arctic feel than Fort Yukon, also poleward of the line but home to dense spruce forests and Alaska’s all-time high temperature of 100 degrees.
A more “ecologically sound” definition of the Arctic is any area with an average July temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit or less. Alex Huryn and John Hobbie wrote this in their book, Land of Extremes: A Natural History of the Arctic North Slope of Alaska.
While that definition applies to Adak, Shemya, Wales and a few other cool places south of the circle and excludes Umiat (with a long-term July temperature average of 54.7 degrees), it includes most other towns and villages in what most people consider Alaska’s Arctic. When plotted as a line, that temperature standard somewhat marks the… read more
It’s late May, 118 miles from the Arctic Circle. Time for a walk to work.
The season has changed since February, the last time I wrote about walking through the North Campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The North Campus consists of more than 1,000 acres that begins a few steps south of my door and ends at the university’s multistory research buildings. The spruce-dominated forest, bordered on all sides by asphalt roads, is lined with a few trails and patches cleared for science projects. Most days are still, now with the rhythmic clop of runners’ feet and the jingling of their dogs’ tags.
In great contrast to February, May is a time of life here. Then, the sun squatted low, projecting blue-white light that seemed to carry no heat. Now, all the snow crystals have melted into cool water that evaporated, flowed away or pooled in low spots.
Above the forest floor, solar panels unfold by the billions. Birch leaves on south-facing slopes approach full… read more
TOOLIK FIELD STATION -- Despite a wind that makes today’s minus 14 degrees Fahrenheit feel like minus 39, a worker at this research camp in blue-white hills north of the Brooks Range has proclaimed this the first day of summer.
Today, the population of Toolik Field Station increases from nine -- five people running the camp, three scientists and me -- to 16. Seven support staff members are making the 10-hour drive north from Fairbanks. Starting tomorrow, Toolik Field Station will be in summer mode until September. During the next few months people will sleep in dorm-style buildings, weatherports and tents as they study ground squirrels, permafrost, plants, fish and other far-north mysteries. At the peak of action here in mid-July, more than 100 scientists will clomp the gravel in rubber boots.
People have pondered things here on the treeless tundra since 1975, when the National Science Foundation funded research on nearby Toolik Lake, a splotch on the map that takes… read more
As I skied on a frozen river, a hairy creature trotted toward me. When the wolverine spotted me, it popped up in the air like an antelope, landed like a cat, and bounced away into the high country of the Wrangell Mountains.
Nicknamed the devil bear, woods devil or carcajou, the wolverine has a Latin name, Gulo gulo, that means “glutton.” The Koyukon Indians have a better name, “doyon,” from the Russian “toyon,” which means chief or great man. The few biologists who have studied wolverines in Alaska say they are exceptional creatures.
“They’re hard-pushing animals, with a lot of perseverance. They’re on the go all the time,” said biologist Audrey Magoun, who studied wolverines in the Brooks Range for her 1985 Ph.D. thesis at the University of Alaska. “Wolverines have a weasel personality, only they’re about 30 times bigger.”
Magoun said she loves to study wolverines because so little is known about them. Legends of wolverines wrecking traps and trashing… read more
Seventy million years ago, the baddest predator on top of the world was a pygmy tyrannosaur about half the size of Tyrannosaurus rex. The creature became known to the world in mid-March 2014, when Texas-based dinosaur hunters Tony Fiorillo and Ron Tykoski unveiled it in a scientific journal.
Nanuqsaurus hoglundi was named for the polar bears that walk the sea ice not far from where its bones turned to stone and for a donor to the Perot Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas. Fiorillo and Tykoski named the dinosaur. Fiorillo is curator of earth sciences at the museum and a frequent visitor to Alaska. Tykoski is the fossil preparator at the museum.
Like the polar bear, Nanuqsaurus was in its day the dominant meat-eater of the far north. The prehistoric North Slope was a green plain spilling beneath the baby Brooks Range with a climate that could have been something between Portland and Calgary today. Fiorillo calls this the “ancient greenhouse Arctic.” Roaming that… read more
The wolf lies on a metal table, its white legs and massive paws hanging over the edge. Kimberlee Beckmen, wildlife veterinarian, wears a white lab coat and purple gloves. Scalpel in hand, she positions herself at the wolf’s belly.
Beckmen, who just finished a necropsy on an arctic fox that had been hit by a truck on the Dalton Highway, leans in on a wolf found dead on a trail east of Fairbanks. She checked her database this morning, she says. More than 250 wolves have been on her table in the 12 years she has worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Many of those wolves had been trapped or shot. The cream-colored wolf now before Beckmen died of an unknown cause. Biologists Tom Paragi and Mike Taras sledded in the frozen wolf a few miles from where it had dropped on a snowmachine trail and lay until a dog musher discovered it.
A hint of wet-dog smell fills the room. Before she begins cutting, Beckmen says this wolf is a female, about five years old… read more
The wolf is no longer stuck to the trail, as it was when the dog musher drove her reluctant team over it. Now covered with snow, the frozen animal is a few steps away, beneath small spruce trees near the South Fork of the Chena River. The only exposed part of its body — a bushy tail — points to the sky.
Since the musher discovered the dead wolf a few days ago, someone moved the carcass — maybe the trapper who passed the biologists on his snowmachine as they skied here. He discovered the wolf yesterday and was returning today to cut off its head, he said. When the trapper paused to chat, he learned the biologists wanted to retrieve the wolf and have a veterinarian determine how it died.
“You guys can have it then,” the trapper said. “I’ll tell you right now that it was shot — there’s blood on the trail underneath it.”
At the carcass, Tom Paragi levers the wolf — its stiff legs reaching like a dog in full stretch — out of the snowbank and back onto the trail.… read more
Back from the bottom of the world — where she had just experienced her second winter solstice in six months — Kristin O’Brien parked her shopping cart at the fish counter of a Fairbanks grocery.
The biologist who studies “icefish” in the ocean surrounding Antarctica saw behind the glass a chunky filet of Chilean sea bass. She asked the man at the display if he realized why the store should not be selling it.
No, he said, but customers had told him the cold-water, fatty fish tastes good. O’Brien then explained how the unique animal from the other side of the globe is at the heart of a fight for what many consider the last intact ecosystem on Earth.
O’Brien is a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks at 64.8 degrees north. Every other year, during Alaska’s early summer and Antarctica’s autumn, she travels to Palmer Station, 64.7 degrees south. There, she and her colleagues study icefish that live in the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean. The pale,… read more
NIKISKI — In a chilly building across Cook Inlet from the white pyramid of Mount Redoubt rest a few dozen plastic-lined cardboard totes filled to the brim with an amber liquid. Each chest-high cube holds about a ton of fish oil extracted this summer from the heads of salmon. It’s a product that would have been lost to the Kenai River if Pat Simpson had not recovered it.
Simpson, 49, is a fisherman-turned-entrepreneur who has for the past few summers purchased salmon heads from fish processors who do business here in this small industrial town north of the Kenai River. Using precision equipment made in Europe, Simpson’s team steams and grinds the heads of pink, chum and red salmon to render a product now available in box stores as 90-count bottles of “Wild Alaskan Salmon Oil” gel tablets.
“We sold all our fish oil the first three years (to companies that put it in capsules and sold it to large retailers),” Simpson said at his Nikiski plant, shut down and unheated for… read more
When Craig Ely thumbed through his collection of photos of Alaska Native kids and biologists gathered in front of an old church, he knew he had to make a yearbook. Not for himself, though he would savor the memories, but for all the kids who had helped him do science since the 1980s.
The U.S. Geological Survey biologist has executed on that project, working with talented colleagues to create a book with pictures of dozens of smiling teenagers from the small western Alaska village of Chevak. The children helped biologists gather and band geese and swans each August from 1986 to 2010.
The lovely volume shows a rare long-term collaboration between villagers and scientists who were there to look at the problem of declining numbers of geese returning to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in the 1970s and 1980s.
Banding Together to Learn and Preserve is the effort of Ely, who studies large waterfowl out of Anchorage, where you can find him in winter. In summer for the past… read more
Laura Prugh knew she shouldn’t bother trying to trap kangaroo rats in the California desert on nights when the moon was shining. Professors had told her that small mammals make themselves scarce under the light of the moon, lest they become a meal for a predator that spotted them.
But Prugh had no choice. She had so many study plots at Carrizo Plain National Monument she needed to set out her traps every night she could. That’s when, over time, she noticed a funny thing — she caught more of the fist-size, nocturnal creatures on nights lit by the moon.
That result led Prugh, now a wildlife ecologist with the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, to look a bit deeper. She recently coauthored a paper in which she compared the kangaroo rat study to other projects involving night animals and moonlight. She found that nocturnal creatures that use their eyes as their primary line of defense were quite active under moonlight. The creatures that… read more
After she read a column on Alaska bats, Pat Holloway of Fairbanks sent me a photo of a little brown bat that made it into her house this summer. It surprised her, as bats tend to do when they appear in your home. After she stopped shrieking and ushered the bat out through an open screen, she searched her house the point of entry.
In her loft, Holloway saw a screen with a crack at its corner no wider than a pencil. She figures the bat landed on the screen and crawled until it found the slit. It wriggled into her home and gave her “the thrill of (her) summer” by swooping overhead as she was reclined, reading a book on her living room couch.
Joe Page of Talkeetna wrote that bats have roosted in the roof of his house for the past 20 years. Though he likes them, he is ready for the bats to stop cohabitating. In summer, he sometimes hears them rustling in his roof insulation.
“We’ve seen them as late as October 20,” Page wrote in an email. “This leads me to believe… read more
While pounding nails on a roof extension for his shed this summer, Scott Rupp heard a roar that almost scared him off the roof. Three planes with bellies full of fire retardant swooped low, then banked over the mountain behind his home.
“I looked up and saw this big smoke cloud,” said the part-time farmer and leader of an organization devoted to studying climate change. “That was my first sense that this was something that was going to personally affect me.”
“This” was one of the largest wildfires in Alaska during the hot summer of 2013. It came close enough to Rupp’s homestead that he felt smoky heat on his face, a sensation that will now be on his mind every time he tweaks a computer model that simulates future fire scenarios in Alaska.
Rupp, 46, leads two lives in his home of interior Alaska. By day, he heads the Scenarios Network for Alaska & Arctic Planning, a group of about 20 scientists and staff who try to predict the future of Alaska climate so… read more
CREAMER’S FIELD, FAIRBANKS — “As this bird takes off, think about how they have to fly thousands and thousands of miles,” Tricia Blake said to 21 first-graders sitting on wooden benches surrounded by birch and balsam poplar trees.
The biologist and educator then placed a ruby-crowned kinglet in the flat palm of a six-year old boy. The thumb-size songbird was probably born in northern Alaska this spring. During the past hour of its brief life (which will last about 4 years), it had a tiny metal band clamped around its ankle.
The greenish bird with a subtle red Mohawk hesitated for a few magic seconds on the boy’s hand. Then it burst into flight.
The boy and 20 of his classmates watched the bird flutter upward and land on the branch of a nearby birch tree. After a few seconds of preening, the kinglet shot off in the direction of Mexico.
Blake, who in January started the Alaska Songbird Institute with April Harding Scurr, told the children one of their… read more
While waiting for the talking to begin in darkened auditoriums, I sometimes scan the room, counting heads. “I’ve interviewed him, and her, and him. And her.”
At last week’s dedication of the Institute of Arctic Biology’s lovely new building on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, I saw more than a dozen people who have appeared in this space since fall 1994 (when I took over this column from Carla Helfferich).
I’ve written a lot of words about these biologists because we still know so little about far-north creatures and how they survive here, and Institute of Arctic Biology people have discovered things we did not know. One example is where chickadees roost during winter (often in tiny holes in birch trees, Susan Sharbaugh found). Another is that our rugged version of Alaska wood frogs can survive colder temperatures than Lower 48 wood frogs, which live as far south as Georgia (Brian Barnes and his physiology class uncovered that one).
Barnes, who also… read more
Despite taking up as much space as Australia, the blue-white puzzle of ice floating on the Arctic Ocean is an abstraction to the billions who have never seen it. But continued shrinkage of sea ice is changing life for many living things. A few Alaska scientists added their observations to a recent journal article on the subject.
Since 1999, the loss of northern sea ice equal to the size of Greenland is a “stunning” loss of habitat for animals large (polar bears) and small (ice algae and phytoplankton that feed a chain of larger creatures leading up to bowhead whales). So write the 10 authors that teamed to write “Ecological Consequences of Sea-Ice Decline,” featured in the August 2, 2013 issue of Science.
Eric Post of Penn State University, a former graduate student who studied caribou at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is the lead author on the paper. When sea ice hit its minimum extent in the satellite era about a year ago, it got him thinking about how the loss… read more
At the approach of a canoe, the wolverine tears into the woods, its claws spitting mud. Seconds later, ravens explode from what resembles two branches reaching from a driftwood log.
After the animals flee the Fortymile River gravel bar, the driftwood turns into chewed velvet antlers the size of a folding chair. A fleshy backbone ropes from a skull, extending to rib fragments and a blade of hipbone, its sockets empty. A few tufts of hide lay amid rocks, but the rest of the caribou — so fresh it barely smells — has vanished.
How could a 300-pound animal disappear so fast? From evidence at the kill site, here’s what might have happened:
Seven wolves, a pack that includes two parents and two pups born in early June, spot a young caribou limping toward the Fortymile River. As the caribou, its right front leg injured in a fall, enters the water to swim across, the pack holds. When the caribou emerges dripping on their side of the river,… read more
In a world crawling with insects, those billions of tiny bodies fall into just 30 major descriptive groups, known as orders. That’s why Derek Sikes, curator of insects at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, was disappointed with a graduate student when she failed to identify a creature that was wandering her plots on Prince of Wales Island.
“Every entomologist should be able to ID every insect to its order just by looking at it,” Sikes said.
Jill Stockbridge, doing research for her master’s degree work on spiders and beetles on Prince of Wales Island, tried her best to identify “little tiny spots jumping around like fleas.” When she could hesitate no more, she called Sikes for help.
“I thought I knew what it was,” Sikes said. “It had features of a wingless wasp or a bark louse, but it wouldn’t key out.”
“I felt way better when he didn’t know either,” Stockbridge said recently in the Entomology Lab in the UA Museum of the North in Fairbanks.… read more
Mosquitoes and black flies, now stirring after a long winter, have probably helped assure that most of Alaska remains unpopulated, says an expert on those creatures.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the far north — in Canada, Siberia, and Alaska,” said Peter Adler, a professor of entomology at Clemson University. “You can go down rivers for a month or two at a time and see no humans. Why is that? What’s keeping them out?’
“There are two main features that might play a role — bitterly cold winters and biting flies.”
Adler is interested in the latter element, so much so that he waded through streams of western Alaska and far-east Russia a few years ago, finding and describing the black flies and mosquitoes of the region. He undertook the expedition because he was curious, and because no one had in detail cataloged the biting flies of the former land mass known as Beringia, now cleaved in two by the Bering Strait.
Armed with his field kit, which consists of… read more
Thousands of Alaska mosquitoes are now on sabbatical at the University of California, Davis. They are not pestering suntanned Californians. Researchers are analyzing their tiny corpses to see if the parasites that cause malaria are inside them.
During the last two summers, Ravinder Sehgal and his colleagues captured those mosquitoes in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Coldfoot. The San Francisco State University disease ecologist is part of a team that discovered malaria in several year-round resident birds in both Fairbanks and Anchorage (but not in Coldfoot) in 2011 and 2012. Because the malaria showed up in Alaska black-capped chickadees that don’t migrate, it proves that an Alaska mosquito was responsible for transmitting the tiny malaria parasite by sucking blood from an infected bird (probably a migrant) and pushing its infected proboscis into a local chickadee.
Sehgal’s collaborator, Anton Cornel from UC Davis, collected bags full of mosquitoes with a carbon-dioxide… read more
CHENA HOT SPRINGS — “This is your chance — maybe your only chance in a lifetime — to see vole poop in a tunnel,” said Mike Taras, an expert tracker and wildlife educator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Seven people kneel and then squint into a blue-white opening in the snow. We see tiny cigars, evidence that a red-backed or meadow vole had indeed paused there. Taras was correct — this was the first time most of us had seen vole poop in a snow tunnel.
Taras was at Chena Hot Springs Resort as part of a conference devoted to Alaska’s perpetual resources, snow and ice. Teachers from around Alaska attended to soak up lesson ideas they might share with their students.
The most accessible teaching laboratory for many of the teachers is just outside the door, Taras said. Tracking animals in snow and soil, a skill our species has lost over time, requires problem solving and teamwork.
“Tracking is the origin of science,” Taras said. “Finding animals to… read more
Forty years ago, an Army helicopter pilot flying over a tundra plateau saw a group of caribou. Thinking something looked weird, he circled for a closer look. The animals, dozens of them, were dead.
The pilot reported what he saw to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The caribou, 48 adults and five calves, were lying in a group. The way their carcasses rested showed no signs that the animals had been running from a predator.
As word spread of the 53 dead caribou, people speculated what might have killed them: Nerve gas, toxic waste or some other dark secret from the Army post nearby, flying saucers?
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game sent wildlife disease specialist Ken Neiland to the site, about 33 miles southwest of Delta Junction. Glenn Shaw, a young atmospheric scientist from UAF’s Geophysical Institute, went with him. Shaw had studied lightning before.
From the air, the scientists saw a clue to the animals’ death, a giant “Lichtenberg… read more
As she scraped cold dirt from the remains of an extinct bison, Pam Groves wrinkled her nose at a rotten-egg smell wafting from gristle that still clung to the animal’s bones. She lifted her head to scan the horizon, wary of bears that might be attracted to the flesh of a creature that gasped its last breath 40,000 years ago.
In the type of discovery they have dreamed about for years, Groves and Dan Mann, both researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, in summer 2012 found in the thawing bank of a northern river almost the entire skeleton of a steppe bison that died during the last ice age.
In adventurous work sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management, Mann and Groves have been boating down lonely northern rivers for 15 years looking for scattered bones of ice age mammals, always hoping to find a complete skeleton or mummy of a mammoth, horse, or American lion. In mid-June, on a familiar stretch of river that flows northward on Alaska’s North Slope… read more
SAN FRANCISCO — From a lecture hall within a land of warm breezes and flowering December plants comes a story of a creature 2,600 miles north, where the sun will not rise for another 50 days.
At the 2012 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, biologist George Divoky had 15 minutes to present his lifetime of work with a bird that adapted to year-round life in the Arctic during the last ice age. Divoky led off a lecture session on Barrow-area research by describing his four decades of studying birds that probably would not exist without his efforts — the black guillemots of Cooper Island, Alaska.
In the early 1970s, the biologist found a small colony of the birds on a gravel island in the Beaufort Sea about 25 miles northwest of Barrow. Black guillemots were breeding in nest cavities in wood debris left by the U.S. Navy in the 1950s. Divoky created more nests by rearranging other pieces of wood. The black guillemots, sleek birds that spend their entire lives in… read more
HALL ISLAND — On this windy, misty August day, there are perhaps one million birds clinging to the cliffs that buttress this Bering Sea island. These seabirds, crazy-eyed and with bodies both sleek and clumsy, need solid ground for just a few months to hold their eggs. When their summer mission is complete, the birds scatter to the vastness of the sea.
The temporary human population on Hall Island is six — five biologists and me. We are intruding on a five-mile-long apostrophe occupied by birds in summer and padded upon year-round by a few arctic foxes that eat voles and birds and bird eggs and who-knows-what in winter. The only signs of people here are a collection of small World War II-era batteries on the interior tundra and a dark green square of turf that might show where a few Russians and their Aleut slaves dug in for a winter in the early 1800s.
The biologists are here for a periodic check on the seabirds, using a protocol they follow on islands throughout the… read more
On the upper Chena River in the heart of a cold winter, a songbird appeared on a gravel bar next to gurgling water that somehow remained unfrozen in 20-below zero air. Then the bird jumped in, disappeared underwater, and popped up a few feet upstream.
The bird continued snorkeling and diving against the current of the stream, which is so far north that in December direct sunlight never touches it, instead bathing only the tops of spruce trees with a ruby light.
Soon, two other dark birds with bodies the size of tennis balls landed near the other. Bending from their knees, they bobbed up and down and then all three jumped into the stream. It seemed crazy behavior for a cold winter day, but swimming is how American dippers make their living, even here in Alaska, where they range as far north as the Brooks Range.
Mary Willson, a biologist, ecologist and consultant from Juneau, might be the only Alaska researcher who has studied the American dipper. She has pulled… read more
An Alaska wolf that disappeared about 12,000 years ago just made another appearance.
No one will ever see this wolf, but scientists have found that it was different from Alaska’s wolves of today, and it was not like its Ice-Age contemporaries that lived in, among other places, Los Angeles.
Blaire Van Valkenburgh is a UCLA researcher who lives and studies very close to the La Brea Tar Pits in downtown Los Angeles. She and her colleagues compared DNA from wolves that perished in Interior Alaska during the last Ice Age with DNA from living wolves. The Alaska DNA samples came from bones and skulls exposed by Fairbanks miners as they tore away frozen soil to get at gold-bearing gravels beneath. Staff members of the American Museum of Natural History came to Fairbanks from the 1920s to the 1940s to gather the bones and bring them back to the museum in New York.
The Alaska wolves surprised the researchers by being unlike the wolves running… read more
A couple of summers ago, David Tomeo was exploring a creekbed in Denali National Park, preparing for a field seminar on the park’s dinosaurs he would help lead a few weeks later. With a trained eye for the impressions dinosaurs pressed into mud millions of years ago, Tomeo walked to a large boulder in the middle of a landslide.
“Right in the middle of it, a four-toed track stood out,” said Tomeo, program director for Alaska Geographic at the Murie Science and Learning Center in Denali Park.
Tomeo snapped a picture of the track and sent it to Tony Fiorillo, a dinosaur hunter from the Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas who often travels to Alaska.
Fiorillo was intrigued. The track looked like that of a therizinosaur, a tall, feathered meat-eater with sickle-like claws that extended a few feet from the three fingers of each hand.
“Therizinosaurs are totally weird,” Fiorillo said. “These guys are unlike any predatory dinosaur you’ve ever seen. From head… read more
Fifty-five summers ago, when Dave Klein first stepped on St. Matthew Island, driftwood on the beaches held no plastic bottles and hundreds of reindeer roamed the tundra hills.
When the 85-year-old naturalist returns next week for his sixth trip to one of the most remote islands of the world, he knows he’ll see lots of plastic and no reindeer, along with some changes he can’t yet imagine.
“It’s such a fabulous place,” he said.
Klein, along with a group of scientists and one non-scientist (me!), are headed to the Bering Sea to survey the life in a place separated by more than 200 miles from the nearest landfall. Captains with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge will ferry us on the refuge’s ship the Tiglax to St. Matthew from the island of St. Paul, about 225 miles and 24 hours away.
Refuge biologists try to return to the island every five years or so, but St. Matthew — north of the Pribilof Islands and south of St.… read more
Ken Tape feels that way, after a time-lapse camera he set up in northern Alaska captured a full-frame portrait of a wolf. He shared the image with me, and, now, with you.
This spring, Tape, author of the book The Changing Arctic Landscape, set up 14 time-lapse cameras in Alaska north of the Arctic Circle. He programmed them to snap one picture every 15 minutes from April 24 to May 23. He wanted to record the great spring migrations of creatures large (caribou) and small (ptarmigan). Here’s what he had to say about serendipitously capturing a wolf’s mug shot:
“… read more
The more Tony Fiorillo explores Alaska, the more dinosaur tracks he finds on its lonely ridgetops. The latest examples are the stone footprints of two different dinosaurs near the tiny settlement of Chisana in the Wrangell Mountains.
Fiorillo, a dinosaur hunter with the Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, recently wrote of the foot impressions of a large plant-eater and small meat-eater in the science journal Cretaceous Research. Fiorillo is a yearly summer visitor to Alaska who seems to discover something exciting on every trip.
His latest published find is based on his travel to the Wrangells in 2008 with Thomas Adams of San Antonio College, Yoshitsugu Kobayashi of Hokkaido University and Linda Stromquist of the National Park Service. Fiorillo had read about prehistoric plant fossils that others found in a streambed near Chisana. That type of vegetation in… read more
A while back, Ron Koczaja was walking a riverbank in Kasigluk with a village elder when a large, striking bird perched on a powerline.
"What is that bird?" the woman asked.
"A magpie," said Koczaja, a teacher in the village. "What's it called in Yupik?"
"I don't know,” she said. “Them birds never used to be here. There is no word."
Koczaja, a math teacher at Ryan Middle School in Fairbanks, remembered this exchange from his first assignment in the Bush, about 14 years ago. He found it interesting that, in the thousands of years people had spoken Yupik in Southwest Alaska, their language had no word for magpie.
The lack of a term for the black-billed magpie may be because the bird was not in Southwest Alaska until recently. The long-tailed relative of ravens and jays seems to be extending its range throughout Alaska.
Since 2007, biologists at the Alaska Bird Observatory have tracked sightings of magpies in the far north. Reports of… read more
Thanks to information from a collar that communicated with satellites, a biologist has closed the book on the long journey of a male wolf that left its pack last one year ago and wandered thousands of miles through northern Alaska.
When I last wrote about the wolf in August 2011, the silvery black creature was somewhere in the rolling tundra east of Deadhorse, having traveled more than 1,500 miles from its former home in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve on the Yukon River last summer. The wolf was on a journey of great risk/reward, said John Burch, a biologist who fitted it with a collar that transmitted GPS coordinates to satellites every few days.
Wolves from… read more
After researching the mealtime mechanisms of mosquitoes, I've come up with a fool-proof plan to keep the bloodsuckers off me this summer.
First, I’ll wear light-colored clothing. Second, I’ll bathe more often in an attempt to be as odorless as possible. Third, I won't exhale while I'm in the woods.
Failing the above, I'll hope Richard "Skeeter" Werner's prediction proves true. Werner, a research entomologist (one who studies insects) with the Institute of Northern Forestry at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, says the lack of snow cover last fall along with subzero temperatures may have killed bunches of hibernating mosquitoes.
"Snow mosquitoes," the big, sluggish mosquitoes that are the first to irritate us, survive the winter by bundling up in leaf litter or wedging themselves under loose tree bark. Like many hibernating insects, overwintering mosquitoes depend on supercooling, a process by which an animal has the ability to rid its body fluids of… read more
After flying northward from Chile, a whimbrel landed in late March in an alfalfa field near Mexicali, Mexico. The handsome shorebird with a long curved beak left its wintering ground in South America one week earlier and flew more than 5,000 miles. Nonstop.
In one of the great migrations happening all over the world right now, the bird is heading to northern Alaska. Once there, it should touch down on tundra along the Colville River, about 25 miles inland from the Beaufort Sea coast.
Bob Gill knows the location of the bird because he got a text… read more
As we pull on our winter coats and wool hats to shield our tropical bodies from the cold, there is a creature in our midst that survives Alaska’s coldest temperatures bare-naked.
The red flat bark beetle lives as far north as there are balsam poplar trees in Alaska, hunkering down for the winter in the moist area between dead bark and tree. Scientists like Todd Sformo have found most of them in the larval stage, where they resemble segmented worms a bit longer than a grain of rice. He found a smaller number of adults that have handsome segmented bodies the color of teak.
The beetles are special among living things in Alaska because they have the ability to spend the winter above the snow, exposed to the coldest air of winter. Sformo, a biologist with the North Slope Borough in Barrow, was a graduate student at the University of Alaska… read more
Julie Hagelin remembers the day she hugged a rare New Zealand kakapo parrot to her chest. The soft, green bird emitted the scent of lavender, like dust and honey; it lingered upon Hagelin’s t-shirt for hours. That powerful essence inspired her question to the revered biologist for whom she was working. Was the bird’s pleasant odor attractive to other birds?
“Julie, don’t you know birds can’t smell?”
Hagelin, now a biologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and then a volunteer on a once-in-a-lifetime project, nodded politely. But the thought kept… read more
From my notebook, here’s more northern news presented at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, a five-day gathering of more than 20,000 scientists held in early December 2012 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco:
Bowhead whales counted from a sea-ice perch north of Barrow are “doing beautifully,” according to Craig George with the North Slope Borough. George has since 1978 counted bowhead whales for an eight-week period each year from mid-April until June. The whales, which spend their entire lives in arctic waters, are migrating past Point Barrow during that time. Since George and his colleagues began recording whale numbers 34 years ago, their counts have increased from 1,200 animals in 1978 to 3,400 in 2011. From those numbers of whales seen, George estimates there are now 14,000 to 15,000 animals.
“It’s pretty dramatic how it’s changed,” George said.
Bowheads seem to be recovering from the harvest of Yankee commercial whaling from 1848 to… read more
While running through Bicentennial Park in Anchorage, biologist Jessy Coltrane spotted a porcupine in a birch tree. On her runs on days following, she saw it again and again, in good weather and bad. Over time, she knew which Alaska creature she wanted to study.
“I thought, ‘Oh my god, how does he do it? How does this animal make it through winter?’” Coltrane said during the December defense of her doctoral thesis in Fairbanks. “It would be 20 below out and he’s there eating (bark).”
Coltrane’s study has cast some midwinter light on the Alaska… read more
There’s a new kind of dinosaur out there, and it lived in Alaska.
Its bones, long turned to stone, are part of a cliff in northern Alaska. That’s where dinosaur-hunter Tony Fiorillo brushed dirt away from a portion of its massive skull – something that most of us would mistake for a rock.
The year was 2006. It was August and summer had fled the Colville River, if it had been there at all. Fiorillo, who visits Alaska each summer from Dallas, where he works at the Museum of Nature & Science, remembers climbing from his tent with a heavy head every… read more
As Alaska cools and hardens, many scientists are reacquainting themselves with their offices. Such is the case for Derek Sikes, the curator of insects at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. This summer, he traveled across Alaska, from Sagwon Bluffs to Sitka and many places between, including a trip to the Aleutians for good lateral coverage.
Sikes’ tales of his recent insect explorations in Alaska have a Lewis and Clark feel. Scientists have inventoried the insects of Alaska for a long time, but those men and women were very few compared to the researchers studying caribou or the aurora. Because of this dearth of people looking for bugs, Alaska’s rock crevices and tidal splash zones still hide plenty of undiscovered species. Sikes and his colleagues have… read more
DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE— On a late autumn day, as naked stems of dwarf birch nod away from a warm breeze, a distant flash of antler reveals the object of our search.
“The hunters would love to see him,” Vic Van Ballenberghe says as he pulls his pickup to the side of the park road and grabs his binoculars. “He’s a trophy bull.”
The giant moose strolls over a brownish slope that waits for snow. The creature pauses at times, steering with massive antlers one of the cows that orbit him.
“He’s got seven with him,” Van Ballenberghe says of a group of blondish female moose.
Somewhere in the rolling tundra east of Deadhorse, a lone wolf hunts. The 100-pound male will take anything it can catch, or find — a ptarmigan, a darting tundra rodent, a fish, the scraps of a carcass, or, if lucky, a moose calf or caribou. Hunger is a common companion, but the wolf somehow survived when his mate probably died of it last winter.
That event may have triggered the lone wolf’s incredible summer journey from south of the Yukon River to the crumbling shores of the Beaufort Sea. The wolf has traveled about 1,500 miles in four months, according to biologist John Burch, who works for the National Park Service.
Burch has studied wolves and the things wolves eat since the mid-1990s at Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. Last November, he was part of a team that helicoptered to Copper Creek, a remote tributary of the clear-running Charley River. There, he tranquilized a healthy male wolf and fitted it with… read more
During the darkest days of Alaska’s winter, black-capped chickadees stuff themselves with enough seeds and frozen insects to survive18-hour nights. Where the chickadees spend those long nights was a mystery until a biologist tracked them.
Susan Sharbaugh has spent many winter nights trying to find out how a creature as light as a handful of paperclips survives temperatures of 40 degrees below zero. Sharbaugh is a biologist with the Alaska Bird Observatory and an unabashed fan of the black-capped chickadee, one of the most unlikely residents of the north because of the difficulty of keeping a tiny body warm in a cold place.
In her past studies, Sharbaugh has found that black-capped chickadees gain an additional10 percent of their body weight each day by stuffing themselves. The birds then use that fat to shiver all night, which keeps them warm. The human equivalent would be a 165-pound man who spent a frigid night outside and emerged 15 pounds lighter by the next… read more
When people first walked across the Bering Land Bridge thousands of years ago, dogs were by their sides, according to a study published in the journal Science.
Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Jennifer Leonard of the Smithsonian Institute, used DNA material—some of it unearthed by miners in interior Alaska—to conclude that today’s domestic dog originated in Asia and accompanied the first humans to the New World about 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. Wayne suggests that man’s best friend may have enabled the arduous journey from Asia into North America.
“Dogs may have been the reason people made it across the land bridge,” said Wayne. “They can pull things, carry things, defend you from nasty carnivores, and they’re useful to eat.”
Researchers have agreed that today’s dog is the result of the domestication of wolves thousands of years ago. Before this recent study, a common thought about the precise origin of North America’s domestic dog… read more
SAN FRANCISCO — The emissions of northern dinosaurs may have led to a warmer planet 70 million years ago, said a scientist attending the 2010 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in mid-December.
Dinosaur hunters have found preserved footprints of hadrosaurs in rocks all over Alaska, including: Denali National Park, near the Colville River north of the Brooks Range, at Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve on the Alaska Peninsula, and in Yukon-Charley National Park and Preserve.
Tony Fiorillo of the Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, Texas started thinking about all those hadrosaurs being plant-eating dinosaurs as large as elephants and their nickname, bestowed by paleontologists: cows of the Cretaceous.
At AGU, Fiorillo presented his idea that hadrosaurs were spread across the landscape at numbers comparable to today’s caribou, a calculated “standing crop” of 500,000 hadrosaurs in Alaska 70 million years ago.
He figured the output of one… read more
In 1930, the Alaska Game Commission for some reason released marmots, furry creatures the size of under-exercised house cats, on a 275-acre island between Kodiak and the Kenai Peninsula. As the years went by and few servicemen stationed on Sud Island moved on, the marmots stayed.
In the 1940s, a man who lived in Akutan tasted rabbit for the first time while working with United States Navy Seabees on Hog Island near Unalaska. He liked the meat so much that he brought a few bunnies home with him. He released them on a 134-acre island 12 miles from his home village, a place he liked to gather bird eggs. Long after the man stopped hunting them, the rabbits endured.
In 2010, managers of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge tried to turn back the clock by removing European rabbits from Poa Island and hoary marmots from Sud Island. The managers’ goal is to restore native ecosystems to islands. The mission favors seabirds over European rabbits that aren’t native to… read more
In the cold waters off northern Alaska, ringed seals dive for cod and shrimp. Sometimes the seals stay beneath the ice for longer than 30 minutes, which is about six times longer than the best human diver. This ability to survive low oxygen levels has intrigued scientists for years, and has inspired a Boston physician to travel to Barrow to learn more.
Dr. Warren Zapol is the emeritus anesthetist-in-chief at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, a Harvard professor and a member of the United States Arctic Research Commission, the duties of which recently brought him to Fairbanks. He is an expert on the workings of the human respiratory system, and pioneered the treatment of newborns with inhaled nitric oxide, which helps “blue babies” breathe. Royalties from Zapol’s life-saving invention, developed with his Swedish research fellow Claes Frostell, have funded some of his current studies.
“He is the only polar researcher I know whose work has actually saved… read more
Aaron Dupuis lost his fish. Last year, the graduate student installed radio tags on a few dozen whitefish in a maze of lakes near Minto, Alaska. Using a radio receiver, he followed some fish up the Chatanika River to where they spawned, but the location of about 40 others were a mystery. Dupuis’ search for the missing whitefish helped lead biologists to the discovery of an unlikely gathering place “boiling with fish.”
Dupuis, who has since earned a master’s degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, searched for his lost whitefish in drainages near where he had previously caught them. Washington Creek. No luck. Tatalina River. Nope. Upper Tolovana River. Not there, either. Then a biologist who has spent much of his career studying whitefish, Randy Brown of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, offered Dupuis a ride in a Cessna about 1,500 feet above the Tanana River.
“I had all but given up hope finding these fish,” Dupuis said. “(But) over the course of two… read more
Attracted by some of the smallest creatures in Alaska, dozens of the state’s largest gathered last week off Point Barrow.
Bowhead whales in groups of almost 100 were grouped a few tens of miles from Barrow to take advantage of one of the richest whale feeding hotspots off the coast of Alaska. Steve Okkonen was there to see them in the shallow waters above the continental shelf north of Barrow.
“The whales we saw Friday and Saturday were in eight meters of water,” said Okkonen, a research associate professor with the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. “That’s an eight-meter (-long) animal in eight meters of water, sometimes up to a 15-meter animal in eight meters of water.”
The creatures, weighing more than 100 bull moose, were congregating off Point Barrow because of a staggering concentration of one of their favorite foods, krill. Krill, shrimplike organism about an inch long, are so small it would take a few hundred to fill… read more
“Found Sea Otters Dead at 3851 Homer Spit Road . . . Right in front of oyster facility.”
Verena Gill was thrilled when this message appeared on her iPhone on a recent Saturday afternoon; it was the first use of a new iPhone application that allows people to report a beached marine mammal.
Gill, a biologist who studies sea otters and other marine mammals in her job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, helped develop the free iPhone application. It allows anyone with an iPhone to report stranded whales, walruses, seals, sea lions and sea otters.
People with the application on their cellphones can take photos of the dead or live animals and write a short description of the scene. The photo records the latitude and longitude of the animal, and the application sends an email to a network of biologists, veterinarians and others who scramble into action to recover the animal or examine it at the site. That team includes people from National Marine… read more
On a recent expedition to Alaska’s Quartz Lake, four-year-old visitor to Alaska Garrett Ast plucked a caterpillar from a twig. As Garrett held it in his palm, the caterpillar reared up and — with two sparkling baby blues — looked him right in the eye. Upon closer inspection, my nephew saw that, though striking; the caterpillar’s eyes weren’t real.
So was born the question of why a caterpillar might invest energy in producing a set of fake eyes. A little investigation led to a science research paper with one of the best examples of a first paragraph in its genre:
“You are a 12-gram, insectivorous, tropical rainforest bird, foraging in shady, tangled, dappled, rustling foliage where edible caterpillars and other insects are likely to shelter. You want to live 10-20 years. You are peering under leaves, poking into rolled ones, searching around stems, exploring bark crevices and other insect hiding places. Abruptly an eye appears, 1-5 centimeters from your bill. … If you… read more
From the more-you-look-the-more-you-see file, I present the willow rose.
The willow rose is lovely, green and unexpected, its whirled petals gracing the top of Alaska willows like the most delicate blossom in the cooler of a flower shop. But this rose is cultivated by an insect that manipulates the poor willow for both food and shelter, often at a price to the bug that seems worse than death.
Willow roses often appear on Barclay willows, one of 33 species of Alaska’s most numerous trees. The Barclay, named for an English botanist who sailed the west coast of America in 1835-1841, is a common willow on riverbanks from the Yukon River southward in Alaska. Because it’s hard to tell one willow from another, the presence of willow roses helps botanists know they are looking at a Barclay.
A fly about the size and shape of a small mosquito is responsible for altering the willow to its liking to create the willow rose. In springtime, after the snow is gone but before… read more
An ancient jawbone has led scientists to believe that polar bears survived a period thousands of years ago that was warmer than today.
Sandra Talbot of the USGS Alaska Science Center in Anchorage was one of 14 scientists who teamed to write a paper based on a polar bear jawbone found amid rocks on a frigid island of the Svalbard Archipelago. The scientists determined the bear was an adult male that lived and died somewhere between 130,000 to 110,000 years ago, and that bear was similar to polar bears today. Charlotte Lindqvist of the University at Buffalo in New York was the lead author on the paper, published in the March 2010 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
An Icelandic researcher in 2004 found a fossilized lower jawbone, in excellent condition and complete with a canine tooth, on a narrow spit of land on the far west edge of Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago. It was a stunning find because there aren’t many fossils of polar bears around.… read more
In these days of endless sunshine and air that doesn’t hurt to breathe, life is rich in the north, from the multitude of baby birds hatching at this instant to the month-old orange moose calves restocking the Alaska ungulate population. Less seen are the millions of insects now dancing across the tundra and floating in air.
Because of they come to us, mosquitoes are perhaps the most noticeable of Alaska’s insects. Peter Adler, a professor of entomology at Clemson University who does work in Alaska, reported the possibility that more than 12 million adult mosquitoes may live above each acre of the worst-infested northern tundra. He also quoted other scientists who measured more than 600,000 black fly larvae in about three square feet of streambed.
The floor of the boreal forest is often so alive you can almost see it move. Biologist Stephen MacLean once did the math — about one-half million soil mites, eight-legged relatives of… read more
“We landed on St. Matthew Island early on a cold gray August morning, and judge our astonishment at finding hundreds of large polar bears . . . lazily sleeping in grassy hollows, or digging up grass and other roots, browsing like hogs.”
Henry Wood Elliott wrote this account for Harper’s Weekly Journal of Civilization in 1875. Elliott was a U.S. government biologist studying fur seals on the Pribilof Islands and overseeing the harvest of their skins, used to make fur coats. In 1874, he made a trip a few hundred miles north to St. Matthew Island to confirm the rumor of hundreds of polar bears that spent their summers on one of the most remote islands in the Bering Sea.
Elliott and his party explored the island for nine days and had polar bears in sight each minute. He estimated there were at least 250 bears on the island, and the bears seemed in excellent condition, though they were molting their winter fur. This summer, there are no polar bears on St. Matthew… read more
While hiking the rocky high country on one of the westernmost islands in Alaska a few years ago, Robb Kaler stumbled onto a birder’s dream. Walking around a knee-high volcanic boulder, Kaler flushed a plump little seabird. The bird bounced off a rock and disappeared into the fog. Kaler looked down and saw a turquoise egg in a shallow cup of tundra.
“I knew it was something great,” Kaler said.
Kaler had stumbled upon a bird, the Kittlitz’s murrelet, so elusive that biologists had during the last century written about finding nests just two dozen times. The secretive little bird had become a symbol of species threatened by shrinking glaciers.
The discovery was just the beginning for Kaler, a biologist who was studying a species of ptarmigan on the island for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. When he and his field assistant and partner Leah Kenney combed the higher spots of the 55,535-acre island for Kittlitz’s murrelet nests, they found 11 in 2006, 17… read more
On a fine spring day about 70 million years ago, a few dozen duck-billed dinosaurs waded a channel of a great northern river. As they strode on two legs into the cloudy water, the man-size hadrosaurs had no idea how the sunshine was affecting the snowpack in the high mountains to the south.
A pulse of meltwater from the high country had swollen the river to much higher levels in the span of just a few hours. The dinosaurs ventured out too far, lost their footing, struggled and drowned. The river carried the bodies of the beasts downstream, depositing them at what is now a bend of the Colville River.
In a new paper, researchers write that large floods in ancient Alaska may be responsible for the impressive deposits of dinosaur bones they have found on Alaska’s North Slope.
“The Cretaceous Arctic of northern Alaska may have witnessed the coastal plain being a seasonal killing field,” wrote Tony Fiorillo, Paul McCarthy and Peter Flaig in an upcoming issue of the… read more
During the next month, while many of us are sleeping, Alaska’s population will increase by millions. The migrant birds are returning, and, thanks to tracking technology that gets better each year, we know where some of them are.
A male whimbrel that’s probably headed to the Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge in Interior Alaska is now in alfalfa fields just south of the Salton Sea in northern Mexico.
“I think he’s putting on fat to do a nonstop flight from the Salton Sea to Alaska,” said Bob Gill of the U.S. Geological Survey Alaska Science Center in Anchorage.
The handsome shorebird with the long, curved beak spent the winter on an island off the coast of Chile. On March 23, the bird took off from the island and flew more than 5,000 miles, nonstop, to northern Mexico. At times, backed by stiff winds, the whimbrel flew more than 60 mph. Gill has been following its progress using a satellite transmitter he and others surgically implanted in the… read more
Garbage allows gulls to thrive in the oilfields of northern Alaska, and furry little pikas might be changing their body shapes in response to changes in climate, according to two graduate students who recently gave public defenses of their theses at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Emily Weiser spent a few summers on Alaska’s North Slope, studying glaucous gulls, creamy white and gray birds most people refer to as “seagulls.” The birds spend their summers off the north coast of Alaska and inland up to about 100 miles.
Weiser studied gulls at Barrow, Alaska’s northernmost city; at Cape Simpson, where no people live; at Alpine oil field, in the North Slope’s Colville River Delta; and at Deadhorse, a town just south of Prudhoe Bay. She wanted to see if the presence of available garbage enhanced the population of glaucous gulls, which eat just about everything, including the eggs and chicks of other birds.
“Glaucous gulls are the most abundant human-subsidized… read more
One fall day in Interior Alaska, a lion stalked a ground squirrel that stood exposed on a hillside like a foot-long sandwich. The squirrel saw bending blades of grass, squeaked an alarm call, and then dived into its hole. It curled up in a grassy nest. A few months later, for reasons unknown, its heart stopped during hibernation.
Twenty thousand years later, Ben Gaglioti is teasing apart the mummified ground squirrel’s cache in an attempt to better reconstruct what Alaska was like during the days of the mammoth, bison, wild horse and camel.
Gaglioti is a graduate student with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology and the Water and Environmental Research Center. He is using tools ranging from tweezers to an isotope-analyzing device in his attempt to sift Alaska’s distant past from the midden of a ground squirrel that perished during the last ice age. At that time, from about 14,000 to 45,000 years ago, North America looked much different than… read more
“What in the world is Bering doing?” a woman said when she looked at Chris Larsen’s photograph of the buckled back of Alaska’s largest glacier.
“The cracking-up is new on the glacier,” Larsen said. “There’s a lot more crevasses, and a lot more elevation increases where there should be thinning.”
The 2,000-square mile mass of Bering Glacier appears to be surging, Larsen told Geophysicist Jeanne Sauber of Goddard Space Flight Facility, who was looking at his poster in mid-December 2009, at the San Francisco meeting of the American Geophysical Union.
Larsen and colleagues discovered the surge—the sudden advance of part of the glacier—by checking the results of elevation-determining flights over the glacier in August and early September 2009.
“Where Bering takes a left out of the mountains, it’s about 100 meters higher than it was in August 2008,” said Larsen, who works at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute.
When a glacier like… read more
Six thousand reindeer once lived on a remote island in the Bering Sea that was briefly their paradise. In what has become a classic story of wildlife boom and bust, no reindeer live on St. Matthew Island now. Three scientists just looked back at the St. Matthew’s reindeer herd and found that an extreme winter probably pushed the stressed animals to their deaths.
The story began in August 1944, when the U.S. Coast Guard corralled 29 Nunivak Island reindeer on a barge and floated the animals north to St. Matthew Island, more than 200 miles away and one of the most remote places in Alaska. Coast Guard officials had earlier in the year placed a radio navigational system on the island, along with 19 men. The reindeer were intended as a roaming food source should the men be cut off from supply shipments.
The men never shot a single reindeer; the Allies were winning the war, and the Coast Guard pulled its men from the island. They left the reindeer.
This was a fine… read more
In mid-December 2009, a few dozen Alaska scientists were part of the crowd that attended the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. I was there, too. I didn’t make it to all 15,788 posters and presentations, but here are some highlights from the notebook:
•The crumbling coast of northern Alaska “has experienced most of the (projected) 21st century warming already,” said Bob Anderson of the University of Colorado at Boulder. During summer, the thawing northern coast is calving like a dirty glacier into the ocean. Northern Alaska is losing about 30 to 45 feet of land to the ocean each year between Point Barrow and Prudhoe Bay, the area Anderson studies. “The ultimate culprit is loss of sea ice,” he said. When sea ice doesn’t hug the shoreline, the ocean there gets warmer, waves are larger, and the frozen bluffs of ice-cemented soil have a longer time to thaw without sea ice buttressing them (the “landfast” ice that doesn’t persist as long into summer… read more
Like millions of tiny paratroopers, snowflakes are falling through the Interior Alaska sky, touching down on a blanket a dozen inches thick. Now seems a good time to ponder the cold, white substance that covers Alaska most of the year.
Snow forms high in the atmosphere with the help of particles, such as dust, volcanic ash or sea salt. These flecks serve as condensation nuclei—something for water vapor to cling to. Without these little particles, water vapor can remain unfrozen down to minus 40 degrees. The meeting between a supercooled cloud of water vapor and a sprinkling of dust often results in a snowstorm. Seeded with dust, supercooled water vapor turns into ice crystals. These ice crystals then latch onto surrounding molecules of water vapor as they float around within the cloud. As the crystals grow, parts break off and act as nuclei for other crystals. As the crystals fall through warmer layers of air, they link up by the thousands to form snowflakes.
Arctic haze, a blob of dirty air that fuzzes up Alaska views in springtime, seems to be losing its punch.
By comparing air measurements in Barrow from the 1970s to 2008, scientists have found that pollution particles from factories in Russia and Eurasia have become fewer and fewer in the last 30 years.
“The Arctic haze is disappearing,” said Glenn Shaw, who did pioneering research on the phenomenon and is the co-author on a recent paper about its decrease. “We don’t know why.”
Shaw, a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute, has in years past stopped passersby to point out how Arctic haze—pollution particles in the air that scatter light—has “obliterated” views of the Alaska Range in springtime. In recent years, he has noticed that the vistas have been much clearer from Fairbanks, and instrumentation in Barrow seems to back that up.
“There’s less of the industrial signal, of what’s typically been known as Arctic… read more
An article about the wonders of a dog’s nose prompted a message about an example of that fine tool at work in Alaska. Jeff Smeenk of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Palmer Research Center shared a story of two dogs that found both of his daughters as they were hiding in a grassy field. The dogs tracked the girls after sniffing a fingerprint each of them had pressed into a glass microscope slide.
Tom Osterkamp was the designer of the experiment to determine whether the scent from only a person’s fingerprint might be enough for a dog to find that person. Osterkamp, a professor emeritus at the Geophysical Institute who has provided much column fodder over the years on his specialty of permafrost, now lives in Missouri but journeys to Palmer in the summer to continue some permafrost research. Another of his passions is training dogs.
While in Palmer last summer, Osterkamp asked Smeenk’s two daughters, Nicole, 14, and Katie, 11, to each pinch a different glass slide… read more
This column first appeared in 1998.
A dog can tell you a lot about the outdoors. When a Lab vacuums the ground with her nose and her tail moves like a helicopter blade, you know a grouse is about to fly. When the dog stops like a dragonfly, then runs off sniffing an invisible path, a snowshoe hare has crossed your trail.
All this entertainment is courtesy of that most sensitive appendage, a dog’s nose. It’s an instrument man has not been able to duplicate. Search-and-rescue groups use dogs to find lost people, dead people, and people buried under earth and snow. Dogs have also been used to find seals on ice, gas leaks and the presence of gypsy moth egg sacks.
Lurking behind those textured, damp nostrils are sensitive membranes that allow a dog to distinguish smells—molecules of odor that emanate from every living or once-living thing—at least one thousand times better than humans. A dog processes odoriferous molecules more readily because a dog has a much… read more
A few days ago, Steve Hasiotis found a crayfish burrow in Denali National Park and Preserve. The discovery was somewhat unusual, because the nearest living crayfish is now jackknifing through a stream in southern Ontario.
The crayfish burrow, where the creature once dug itself into soft sediment, was petrified, and about 70 million years old. The University of Kansas professor’s discovery and those by his colleagues and friends Tony Fiorillo and Yoshi Kobayashi occurred in Denali National Park, Alaska’s current hotspot for discovering dinosaurs and things that lived with them.
“Since the first (dinosaur) track was found here in 2005, we’ve found thousands and thousands of tracks and stuff to go with them,” said Fiorillo, with the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas. He gave a lecture recently at Denali National Park’s Murie Science and Learning Center, revealing some of the latest findings from a rich outcrop of rock right off the park road. The area is near… read more
Bob Gill had to look twice at his computer the other day. The two birds he was tracking in Alaska via Google Earth had veered off the lower right corner of the computer screen.
Those birds, whimbrels that Gill and others had captured and fitted with a satellite transmitter in the heart of Interior Alaska about a month before, had migrated out of the state by mid-July. The birds leapt into the air from western Alaska and caught tailwinds down south. One bird was winging its way over the ocean west of San Francisco, and the other was in Mexico.
“Judging by all the flight speeds, the bird flew nonstop from just south of St. Marys, Alaska, to the Baja Peninsula just south of Ensenada,” said Gill, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey Alaska Science Center in Anchorage.
The ptarmigan-size shorebirds with roundish bodies and long, curved beaks seem to have a knack for taking long flights timed with weather systems that push them along, Gill said. The bird that… read more
Any moose calf alive in mid-summer is a lucky animal. If the calf was born a twin, it has probably seen its sibling pulled down and eaten by a bear. If the calf was born alone, it probably stood close to its mother as she reared on her hind legs and pounded a predator with her hooves.
In late May all over Alaska, female moose find a secluded spot to birth a calf, twin calves or sometimes triplets. In the weeks that follow, many of these gangly newborns fall prey to bears and wolves. In most areas of Alaska, more moose calves die than survive.
Mark Bertram is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist at Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. In a study he did more than a decade ago, while a helicopter pilot distracted cow moose from the air, Bertram and others scrambled to birthing sites and attached radio collars to newborn calves. By following radio signals after the calves stopped moving, the biologists were able to find dead calves and determine what… read more
A few notes from American Society of Mammologists 2009 Annual Meeting, held at the University of Alaska Fairbanks:
Unlike bears and ground squirrels, which somehow don’t lose any bone mass during their months of hibernation, redbacked voles are more like humans, in that their bones become more brittle during periods of inactivity. Voles lose bone density in winter, when they scurry around much less than they do in summer. Ian van Tets, a biologist with the University of Alaska Anchorage, studies redbacked voles and thinks scientists could learn a lot about bone-mass loss from voles. People lose bone-mineral density when they don’t put stress on their bones, and weakened bones would be one of the hurdles to address for humans traveling in outer space. For instance, a trip to Mars could take as long as three years.
“We have a model organism that in a short period of time experiences effects that would happen on a flight to Mars,” van Tets said.
He… read more
While hiking a hillside in Denali National Park last July, Steve Hasiotis bent down and picked up a rock. Its curious shape, like a plaster cast of a giant bird track, made him ponder the rock for a second before handing it to Tony Fiorillo. Fiorillo looked at it and confirmed they had found a missing piece of Alaska during the time of the dinosaurs.
“I said, ‘This looks like a pterosaur handprint,’” said Fiorillo, of the Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, Texas. “Because we knew they’d never been found before (in Alaska), we were pretty excited.”
A pterosaur was a winged creature closely related to both crocodiles and dinosaurs. Seventy million years ago, it soared over Alaska like a giant albatross, casting a wide shadow beneath its 25-foot wingspan. The recent discovery by Hasiotis, Fiorillo, Yoshitsugu Kobayashi, and Susie Tomsich is the first record of a pterosaur from Alaska. The state has become a rich ground for paleontologists in the last few decades,… read more
OA few winters ago, Todd Sformo was out gathering hibernating insects from the woods near the Fairbanks International Airport. He searched for dead balsam poplar trees, looking for a beetle that spends its winters under the loose bark, exposed to the frigid air.
When he found a few of the beetles and placed them in plastic containers, he noticed thousands of wispy flies sharing space beneath the bark. He collected a few of them, even though he wasn’t sure what they were. He had a few spaces available in a cooling chamber he was using to check the cold tolerance of the beetle, so he thought, “Why not test the mystery insect, too?”
As sometimes happens in science, that chance decision led to a discovery. The second bug, a fungus gnat, survives the winter by allowing half of its body to freeze. The other half, including its head, stays thawed.
“It’s simultaneously freeze-tolerant and freeze-avoiding,” said Sformo, who is pursuing his doctorate at the University of… read more
Some people are great runners. Some people write good books. Some follow their curiosity to figure out something no one else has.
Bernd Heinrich is all of the above. The University of Vermont professor, bestselling author, and record-setting ultra marathoner traveled to Fairbanks recently at the invitation of an old friend, George Happ of the Institute of Arctic Biology.
While here, Heinrich set up a tray of slides and spoke about one of his favorite subjects, ravens, to an audience that had just endured a long winter elbow to wingtip with the black birds.
“Coming to Alaska and talking about ravens is like hauling coal to Newcastle,” he said.
Heinrich, 67, wore a flannel shirt and running shoes, and had the light-footed-yet-rugged appearance of someone who could run loops on a track until he had completed 100 miles (which took him 12 hours and 27 minutes in 1984). He also once won the Golden Gate Marathon in San Francisco, and was that same year the… read more
Mosquitoes and black flies, now stirring after a long winter, have probably helped assure that most of Alaska remains unpopulated, says an expert on the creatures.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the far north—in Canada, Siberia, and Alaska,” said Peter Adler, a professor of entomology at Clemson University. “You can go down rivers for a month or two at a time and see no humans. Why is that? What’s keeping them out?”
“There are two main features that might play a role—bitterly cold winters and biting flies.”
Adler is interested in the latter element, so much so that he waded through streams in western Alaska and far-east Russia a few years ago, finding and describing the black flies and mosquitoes of the regions. He undertook the expedition because he was curious, and because no one had cataloged in detail the biting flies of the former land mass known as Beringia, now cleaved in two by the Bering Strait.
Armed with his field kit, which consists of… read more
This morning, through the west window, I noticed a flash of white. I looked up from breakfast to see a short-tailed weasel popping from a hole in the snowpack. He was sleek and streamlined and snow-white, except for where his tail looked like he dipped it in black paint.
Later, a leggy snowshoe hare bounded away, and then paused nervously. Those sightings inspired a visit to my neighbor, who could tell me more about their white coats, the ones that won’t be white much longer.
My neighbor, who may be hosting the weasel at this moment (their home range can be as expansive as 40 acres), is Dave Klein, who has been curious about Alaska animals great and small since before he first drove up the Alaska Highway in the 1940s.
Klein, a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said that both weasels and hares undergo a molt that changes them from winter white to summer brown. That means they will soon replace their white fur with brown fur, presumably to… read more
Here on this March morning, in the forested floodplain of the Tanana River, snow is falling with vigor. Even the paddle-feet of snowshoe hares press several inches into the new fluff.
Knut Kielland wears metal-frame snowshoes as he zigzags through alders and willows near the frozen river. He stops when he sees a snowshoe hare, right where he expects it—inside a wire-screen metal box.
The hare, which ventured into the live trap in pursuit of alfalfa chunks and a carrot, wears a collar with a tiny transmitter the size of a triple-A battery. Kielland, an ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and his colleague Karl Olson have captured this animal before.
Kielland coaxes the hare into a game bag, then weighs the three-pound, snow-white creature, checks numbers on its ear tags, and releases it into the forest. The hare then bounces away, seeming to disappear into the winter world. But Kielland can find it anytime he wants, using a binocular-size radio… read more
In the early 1980s, a schoolteacher in a Southeast Alaska logging camp ordered a few clusters of frog eggs from a biological supply company. The teacher and his students succeeded in rearing those eggs into tadpoles, and then frogs. They enjoyed the frogs until school ended, when they released the frogs into a nearby pond.
From that act of seeming compassion came an invasion of Chichagof Island by redlegged frogs, a species Alaska hadn’t hosted before. The frogs have spread over the southeast portion of the island, and seem to be doing quite well.
Though they appear harmless as they hop through the island’s lowlands, the frogs could push out (by gobbling up) a native toad that makes its home on Chichagof Island. And that is the danger of exotics, said biologist Lance Lerum of the U.S. Forest Service in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Lerum spent more than a decade in Southeast Alaska before transferring to Oregon.
“My fear was that this introduced population will be… read more
Bears have the right idea. Don’t fight the cold; just shut ‘er down for six months and emerge when it’s warmer. Why didn’t we think of that?
For one thing, our bones would wither. We’d all get osteoporosis, a disease in which bones become more fragile. Bears don’t get osteoporosis, even though they hibernate for more than half the year in Alaska. What might we learn from this?
Seth Donahue of Michigan Tech University is trying to find out. He was in Fairbanks recently, giving a seminar sponsored by the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Institute of Arctic Biology on using bears as a model for preventing osteoporosis.
He started off his lecture by showing an x-ray of a female tennis player’s forearms. The bones within her right forearm were larger than those in her left.
“If you overload bone, you have bone gain,” he said. “There’s more bone formation in the racquet arm of a tennis player.”
The opposite happens when people are inactive; bones get… read more
Being a large mammal other than a human carries great risk, according to Terrie Williams, who has studied, among other creatures, African lions, mountain lions, and Stellar sea lions.
“Twenty-five percent of the world’s mammals are endangered, and more than 50 percent show declining populations,” Williams, a biology professor with the University of California, Santa Cruz, said on a recent visit to Fairbanks. She gave a lecture on the difficulties of being a mammal larger than about 50 pounds, one that is competing with humans and other animals for what it needs.
“Once you get past that (weight), you have to bring in your calories through large prey,” she said. “The bigger you are, the more space you’re going to need.”
She showed images of three African lions, lounging with full bellies after a meal of some large animal on the hoof. She and her colleagues have estimated that lions rest for 80 percent of their day. During the other 20 percent of that 24-hour… read more
A couple of weeks ago, at a time I assumed most migrating birds were long gone, a flock of swans flew overhead in a formation that resembled a check-mark headed out of Alaska. As the birds silently wafted out of sight, I wondered where they might be headed.
Not long after that, a biologist emailed me to show the results of his summer work—the migration paths of about 50 tundra swans he and his coworkers had fitted with satellite transmitters. Looking at their progress now on Google Earth, I can see that a swan took off from the pothole lake country southeast of Selawik in early October, flew over my vantage point in Fairbanks on October 6th, took a hard right through North Pole and continued down a path roughly above the Alaska Highway. Around Calgary, the bird made a run east to a huge reservoir in Saskatchewan farm country. From there, the bird turned around and made its way to where it now stands, or maybe floats, in early November: a circle-pivot irrigated field near… read more
When she began studying snowshoe hares in the foothills of the Brooks Range 12 years ago, Donna DiFolco heard something new from Wiseman local Jack Reakoff.
“Jack told me that, in some areas, when hares are at their peak, they go to certain mineral licks and eat the soil,” DiFolco said. “He also noticed that lynx appeared to be really skinny when there were tons and tons of hares to eat, and (the lynx’s) flesh was an unusually dark, purplish color.”
DiFolco, a biologist and cartographic technician with the National Park Service, wondered why a hare would eat dirt, and how that might affect their major predator, lynx. She’s trying to find some answers by doing a study on the eastern edge of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.
Though your mother told you that eating dirt was icky, many people and animals seem to disagree. Geophagy is a word meaning “to eat earth,” and pregnant women in Africa do it, as do antelopes, apes, giraffes, zebras, monkeys,… read more
A steady flow of twenty-somethings wearing jeans and backpacks entered a room that smelled slightly of fish. They sat down in front of paper plates holding three helpings of pink salmon. The crowd—mostly college students—had responded to a sign outside: “Do you like to eat fish?”
About 120 people sat down that day at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to rate Alaska pink salmon on such features as saltiness, texture, fattiness, and fish flavor. Perhaps lured by the reward of a few cookies, those fish tasters were helping Trina Lapis earn her degree.
Lapis is a master’s student in seafood science and nutrition at UAF who wanted to answer a question—can fish processors make pink salmon more attractive to consumers by boosting its oil level?
“Of the five species of salmon in Alaska, pink salmon are the highest volume caught but have the lowest value,” Lapis said as she portioned salmon into cups for tasters. Pink salmon brought Alaska fishermen about 19 cents per… read more
Eileen Weatherby of Fairbanks wrote in mid-September that her cat carried in a surprise one morning. Instead of the usual vole, her cat had captured a bat.
“I was startled because I thought bats in the Interior were pretty rare,” she wrote in an email message.
Eileen is right. Alaska is the far, frigid edge of bats’ existence. But they do live in Alaska, in places with trees, perhaps as far north as Fort Yukon. The palm-size creatures are now, in mid-October, avoiding below-freezing temperatures by either hibernating or migrating southward. Scientists aren’t quite sure which strategy far-north bats employ.
“I’ve had people tell me they know where bats hibernate in winter,” said Doreen Parker McNeill, who works at the Alaska Department of Fish & Game and who studied bats for her degree work at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Keith Price of Salcha once said he saw them hibernating in the utility corridors at Eielson Air Force Base,” she said.
One of my favorite lectures so far in 2008 was by Susan Sharbaugh, senior scientist at the Alaska Bird Observatory and steadfast Seattle Mariners fan. She spoke recently about the strategies birds employ to survive in our upcoming season of darkness and cold, talking about the flighty birds that split, and the hardy few that stay. I thought I knew something about birds, but she kept delivering facts that were new to me. Among them:
- Arctic terns, those of the 25,000-mile annual migration from Antarctica to the Arctic and back, can live 35 years.
- Northern wheatears spend their summers with muskoxen and their winters with zebras.
- Blackpoll warblers fly from eastern Canada to South America without stopping.
- One of the many tools birds use to migrate--besides the metal bits in their heads that help them sense Earth’s magnetism–is their ability to use infrasound. Infrasound consists of frequencies too low for us to hear. The aurora,… read more
Far off in the western Aleutians, Rat Island is closer to Hokkaido than it is to Anchorage. About the size of Homer, Rat Island is green and stormy, and prone to very large earthquakes. Rat Island’s main residents are rats, the first rats ever to live in Alaska. They may not be there much longer.
Biologists with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge will try to rid Rat Island of its namesake this fall. During a 45-day campaign also sponsored by the Nature Conservancy and Island Conservation, a team of biologists and helicopter pilots will carpet the island with grain pellets that contain an ingredient deadly to rats.
If they succeed, refuge managers will have removed rats from an island in Alaska for the first time. Biologists have done the same on about 300 islands around the world, including islands in New Zealand, atolls near Hawaii, and an island off the coast of California.
Rat Island currently is home to thousands of Norway rats, which are… read more
Ice worms, so small and wispy that several would fit on your fingertip, live on warmish glaciers, eating algae and slithering toward the few spots in the narrow range of temperature they can endure. Ice worms die if the temperature drops much below freezing. At temperatures comfortable for humans, they disintegrate.
This summer, a few biologists are making a ski-and-crampon trek over the glaciers on the south side of the Alaska Range to see if rumors are true of the ice worm’s existence there. Ice worms typically live on warmer glaciers in lower latitudes or near the coast of Alaska, not on the colder ice of the Interior.
“A worm in Denali would have to be a bit different to survive the harsh winters,” said Rutgers professor Dan Shain, a trekker and one of the few people who study ice worms.
Shain, Alaska Pacific University professor Roman Dial, and a few others are making a ski and packraft traverse of the southern Alaska Range this August in search of the… read more
An energetic campaign by students from the Auntie Mary Nicoli Elementary School in Aniak, Alaska declared a state insect in 1995. The winner was the four-spotted skimmer dragonfly. It mauled the mosquito. It battered the butterfly. And it bested the bumblebee in a tight contest to be the Last Frontier’s official insect.
Dragonflies, also known in some parts as mosquito hawks, horse stingers and devil's darning needles, dart through the Alaska air, tiny helicopters in search of mosquitoes and other prey. But the dragonfly is a superior flying machine to anything we humans have come up with. Dragonflies can stop on a dime at 35 miles an hour, fly backward, and cut turns that are too abrupt for any human pilot to stomach.
Aerospace engineers at the University of Colorado once set out to learn some of the secrets of the dragonfly in pursuit of a better flying machine. The late Marvin Luttges, along with then-graduate student Mark Kliss and others, tethered dragonflies… read more
Alison Triebenbach is probably the only person in Alaska with the “Manual for Mosquito Rearing” on her bookshelf.
In a windowless room behind two locked doors on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, 1,000 mosquitoes feed on blood (“donated from an unlucky sheep in a lab down south”) and artificial plant nectar provided by Triebenbach, a graduate student at UAF. Seven days a week, she feeds adult mosquitoes and their waterborne larvae and pupae (which prefer fish food and rabbit pellets), collects tiny eggs, and nurtures those eggs into mosquitoes.
“When people learn that I rear mosquitoes, first they ask me why. And then they say they want to kill them,” Triebenbach said.
“That’s worse than being a lawyer,” a man said when he heard how Triebenbach is earning her master’s degree.
So, why does Triebenbach brood over creatures so annoying that even the gentlest Alaskan murders as many as possible? She’s studying disease transmission by the mosquito,… read more
A long time ago, a dinosaur named Troodon lived in the area where Alaska’s North Slope is today. Troodon was a meat eater that looked like an eight-foot bird, with the mouth and tail of an alligator. It stood on its hind legs and had short, muscular forearms that helped it clamp down on plant-eating dinosaurs, opossum-like creatures, and maybe fish. Compared to other dinosaurs, Troodon had very big eyes.
Troodon also had very big teeth. In fact, the Alaska version of Troodon had such large teeth that a scientist thinks it may have been the largest Troodon on the continent, and the dominant predator of the far north even though it wasn’t the biggest meat-eater.
Tony Fiorillo has pondered the sharp, serrated teeth that he and other paleontologists have found on a dinosaur bone pit off the Colville River. Fiorillo, of the Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, has compared them to teeth from Troodons recovered in Montana and southern Alberta, and he has found that… read more
This just in from Shishmaref science teacher Ken Stenek: On this late April day, two house sparrows are singing their little hearts out while perched on the metal roof of the Shishmaref School. This is unusual, because the closest brethren of the tiny birds are at least several hundred miles away, with most of the population many thousands of miles away.
Stenek, who for the last decade has lived in the village on the exposed sand spit just above the Bering Sea, saw a group of about five birds near the school last October. At least two of them seem to have survived a harsh winter in the windy village, and birders have taken note.
The “house sparrow is a very rare visitor anywhere in Alaska, with only a few records in the state,” wrote renowned birder David Sibley on his blog. “Interestingly, one of the few prior Alaska records comes from Gambell, on St Lawrence Island, in mid-summer about 15 years ago. So the question is whether these (Shishmaref) birds, at the very… read more
Some news from the Alaska Bird Conference, held this spring in Fairbanks:
- The barred owl, once a rarity in Alaska, is now one of the most common owls in Southeast Alaska. The 20-inch owl with a call that sounds like “Who cooks for me? Who cooks for you all!” is a common forest resident east of the Great Plains, but has been on the move lately. In the 20th century, the owls expanded westward and northward, with the first documented sighting near Juneau in 1978. Michelle Kissling of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Juneau reported that researchers found about 13 barred owls from 1978 to 1990, but from 2000 to the present, they found more than 100, making the barred owl the second most common owl in Southeast. The most common owl in Southeast is the northern saw-whet owl, which sounds like the owl version of a large truck backing up.
- Arctic warblers don’t arrive at their summer homes off Alaska’s Denali Highway from their… read more
A giant meteor may have exploded over Alaska thousands of years ago, shooting out metal fragments like buckshot, some of which embedded in the tusks of woolly mammoths and the horns of bison. Simultaneously, a large chunk of the meteor hit Alaska south of Allakaket, sending up a dust cloud that blacked out the sun over the entire state and surrounding areas, killing most of the life in the area.
Such is the scenario envisioned by Rick Firestone, a staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. Firestone and his colleagues have found mammoth tusks and a bison skull with nickel-rich iron particles in them on one side, suggesting the metal fragments all came from the same direction.
Firestone’s theory emerged when his colleague, Alan West of Dewey, Arizona, saw at a Phoenix gem and mineral show a mammoth tusk peppered with tiny bits of metal. Intrigued, West and Firestone looked at tusks owned by the same dealer in Calgary. By passing a… read more
One million dollars or a summer in the hills chasing Alaska marmots? Not many people have to make this choice, but Aren Gunderson is not like most people.
Gunderson, 27, lives in Fairbanks, in a cabin with no running water. He is tall, athletic, adventurous, and probably would do well on the reality television show Survivor, where contestants test their tenacity and social skills on a tropical island. The last person standing gets $1 million.
Upon the urging of his sister, Rane Cortez of Washington D.C., Gunderson, a student working on a master’s degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, made an audition video for the producers of Survivor. In his three-minute film, the shaggy-haired Gunderson is seen dog mushing and, with his snow-covered outhouse as a backdrop, ranting as to why he needs a million dollars.
He mailed the tape to Seattle and went on with his life as an Alaska graduate student who wears Carhartts and does fieldwork in some of the most… read more
As we pull on winter coats and wool hats to shield our tropical bodies from the cold, there is a creature in our midst that survives Alaska’s coldest temperatures bare-naked.
The red flat bark beetle lives as far north as there are balsam poplar trees in Alaska, hunkering down for the winter in the moist area between dead bark and tree. Scientists like Todd Sformo, from the University of Alaska’s Institute of Arctic Biology, find most of them in the larval stage, where they resemble segmented worms a bit longer than a grain of rice. He finds a smaller number of adults that have handsome segmented bodies the color of teak.
The beetles are special among living things in Alaska because they have the ability to spend the winter above the snow, exposed to the coldest air of winter. Sformo, a graduate student working in Professor Brian Barnes’ lab, has cooled the beetles to minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 degrees Celsius) in the lab, and they have not died.… read more
On the evening of Oct. 7, 2007, a female bar-tailed godwit leapt off a mud flat at the mouth of the Kuskokwim River. The bird might not touch the ground again until it reaches New Zealand, more than 7,000 miles away.
Bob Gill, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage, saw on his computer that the bird had taken flight on its fall migration from Alaska to New Zealand. A few weeks earlier, Gill and his colleagues had tracked another female godwit on a flight to New Zealand. They found that the bird remained in the air for eight straight days.
On Aug. 29, that bird, called E7 for a tag on its upper leg, took off from the Yukon River Delta. Biologists tracked it as it flew to North Cape, New Zealand and landed on Sept. 7. Gill knows the bird didn’t land on the journey because of its constant movement as he and others tracked it.
Biologists in New Zealand captured E7 in February and implanted a transmitter in its abdomen. That satellite transmitter… read more
Stacia Backensto has upped the ante. The biologist and UAF student who studies ravens on Alaska’s North Slope has dropped her fake moustache and has taken more drastic measures to not resemble herself when she tries to recapture the birds.
She now wears a beard made of fuzzy fabric, a wig, and she duct-tapes pillows around her midsection to play the most fun role of her graduate-student career, that of “a grumpy old oilfield worker.”
“By the time I got around to the beard and the duct-taping of the pillows, I found myself with a 30-minute costume prep time before trapping,” said Backensto, a Ph.D. student with UAF’s Regional Resilience and Adaptation Program. “It was kind of like getting ready to go onstage.”
Backensto, studying how oil and gas development activities affect ravens, needs to hide her identity from the six or so ravens she has captured before in Prudhoe Bay.
“When I don’t have my disguise on they are a bit obnoxious,” she said, sometimes… read more
An Alaska wolf that disappeared about 12,000 years ago just made another appearance.
No one will ever see this wolf, but scientists have found that it was different from Alaska’s wolves of today, and it was not like its Ice-Age contemporaries that lived in, among other places, Los Angeles.
Blaire Van Valkenburgh is a UCLA researcher who lives and studies very close to the La Brea Tar Pits in downtown Los Angeles. She and her colleagues compared DNA from wolves that perished in Interior Alaska during the last Ice Age with DNA from living wolves. The Alaska DNA samples came from bones and skulls exposed by Fairbanks miners as they tore away frozen soil to get at gold-bearing gravels beneath. Staff at the American Museum of Natural History came to Fairbanks from the 1920s to the 1940s to gather the bones and bring them back to the museum in New York.
The Alaska wolves surprised the researchers by being unlike the wolves running around Alaska right now. By looking… read more
The tamarack is one of Alaska’s prettiest and most endangered trees. An insect outbreak in the past decade killed up to 80 percent of the adult trees in the state and scientists are keeping an eye on tamaracks to see if they’ll need to resort to “genetic conservation,” removing small trees from the forest so some will exist in the future.
Tamaracks are trees that look like spruce, but they have cones that sit upright on supple branches. Unlike spruce trees, tamaracks drop their needles every fall. When autumn arrives, tamarack needles change from green to gold before shedding like a dog’s fur onto the forest floor. Each spring, new green needles emerge like the legs of spiders from branch nodules. Tamaracks grow on boggy ground in valleys of the Koyukuk, Yukon, Tanana, and Kuskokwim river drainages and foresters say the wood is similar to birch in terms of heating value per cord.
Starting in the early 1990s, the larch sawfly started attacking tamaracks over the entire… read more
Article originally written in 1997.
Imagine, for a few minutes, that you are not reading a newspaper science column. Pretend it's springtime in Alaska, and you are a black bear living somewhere between Ketchikan and the southern flanks of the Brooks Range. You have slept fitfully for the past six months, stirring on occasion to roll over, or, if you're a pregnant female, to give birth to cubs. Your body temperature, about 92 degrees Fahrenheit during your six months in the den, will soon rise to its normal 100 degrees.
You somehow sense that it's time for a change. Perhaps prompting you is the persistent sunlight that strikes the snow covering your den. Maybe meltwater collecting in your nest-like bed wakes you, and reminds you of how uncomfortable you are. Whatever the reason, you nose toward the light and paw at the framework of twigs you pulled over the entrance to the den months ago.
After digging away the twigs, you push at the blanket of snow that has… read more
Ants—Ken Philip says ants aren’t really the muscle-bound insects people trump them up to be. And he should know. Philip and his helpers have built up a vast collection of northern butterflies that will someday belong to the Smithsonian Institution. He called to dispel the notion that the mighty ant’s strength is superior to yours. The myth is born, no doubt, from people seeing ants carrying objects bigger than they are. But tiny humans would be even stronger than ants, Philip said.
“The strength of a muscle is equal to its cross-sectional area,” Philip said. “The weight of an animal is proportional to the cube of its linear size and the strength is proportional to the square. If you reduced a human by a factor of 200, about the size of an ant, he could lift 200 times his own weight. A human being the size of an ant could lift a scaled-down tractor-trailer.”
Lynx—Yoram Yom-Tov of the Zoology Department of Tel Aviv University in Israel… read more
On the upper Chena River in the heart of a cold winter, a songbird appeared on a gravel bar next to gurgling water that somehow remained unfrozen in 20-below-zero air. Then the bird jumped in, disappeared underwater, and popped up a few feet upstream.
The bird continued snorkeling and diving against the current of the stream, which is so far north that in December direct sunlight never touches it. Instead, the sun bathes only the tops of spruce trees with a ruby light.
Soon, two other dark birds with bodies the size of tennis balls landed near the first. Bending from their knees, they bobbed up and down, and then all three jumped into the stream. It seemed crazy behavior for a cold winter day, but swimming is how American dippers make their living, even here in Alaska, where they range as far north as the Brooks Range.
Mary Willson, a biologist, ecologist and consultant from Juneau, might be the only Alaska researcher who has studied the American dipper. For… read more
There aren’t many places left in the world where animals make a comeback after they’ve disappeared, but an island in the western Aleutians may be a pleasant exception.
Agattu Island is a treeless green expanse of tundra and small mountains, located about as far west as you can go in Alaska. Ptarmigan lived there for centuries before Russian and, later, American trappers found a good way to produce arctic fox pelts was to leave a pair of fox on an Aleutian island and return in a few years to harvest their offspring. While the luxurious coats of the foxes brought trappers heaps of money, the foxes they introduced ate all the ptarmigan and eggs in their unprotected nests. By the late 1930s, ptarmigan disappeared from Agattu, but somehow survived on the nearby, much larger island of Attu.
For years, biologists with the Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge have recognized how destructive foxes were to the ground-nesting birds in the Aleutians. They started killing foxes on… read more
Things didn't look good for the five frozen wood frogs.
The palm-sized amphibians were hibernating in a box outside Brian Barnes' Fairbanks home a decade ago. Barnes, director of the Institute of Arctic Biology, and his students were in his living room checking a temperature gauge he recently plucked from the "frog corral." When he plugged the device into his computer, a graph spilled across the screen.
The temperature at frog level, under a few inches of snow and moss, had dipped to 10 degrees Fahrenheit in December.
"That guy's toast," Steve Trumble, a former UAF graduate student, said of the particular frog whose belly the temperature recorder had been stuck to.
No one in the room doubted Trumble's dire diagnosis. According to lower 48 and Canada wood frog studies, wood frogs can't take temperatures less than about 20 degrees. Barnes' lab tests, performed on Alaska wood frogs, showed the same thing: 10 degrees is just too cold for a wood frog. If its… read more
In the days when Alaska was a vast grassland, a massive bear hunted the treeless plains. Walking on four lean legs, the giant, short-faced bear loomed larger than the biggest brown bear today. A researcher once described the extinct bear as “the dominant predator of North America.”
Stirring as that description is, Paul Matheus had a problem with it. Sure, the giant bear was huge, but it seemed to be too big for its own good. Part scientist and part detective, Matheus is a paleobiologist with the Yukon government in Canada. His job is to reconstruct the lives of animals that roamed the planet thousands of years ago.
The giant, short-faced bear disappeared from its turf in Alaska and the Lower 48 about 12,000 years ago. Every now and again, the giant bear will make a reappearance, usually when a gold miner finds a skull or leg bone clunking around in a sluice box.
Using bones donated from miners and the research of others who have studied the bear,… read more
Eighteen-thousand years ago, while New York and Chicago were silent under tons of glacial ice, the grasslands of Alaska echoed with the roar of the American lion. In those days, a vast, dry belt wrapped the northern part of the globe, providing a home for lions, bison, and woolly mammoths. Stretching from France to Whitehorse, the only apparent interruption in that belt was near Alaska.
Dale Guthrie has spent much of his professional life studying the animals that lived in that ice-free zone, also known as the Mammoth Steppe. Guthrie is a retired biology professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In the late 1970s, Guthrie excavated and preserved a 36,000-year-old bison from Walter Roman’s Fairbanks mining claim. That bison, known as Blue Babe, is now one of the star attractions of the University of Alaska Museum.
The Mammoth Steppe that stretched over the northern part of the globe was dry, cold, and rich with grasses, sedges, forbs and sages. According to… read more
When he heard the news of a grizzly-polar bear hybrid shot in Canada’s Arctic last month, Tom Seaton thought back to an unusual polar bear hide he’d once seen at Nelson Walker’s home in Kotzebue.
“He had two polar bear rugs in his house—one was a huge one, and the other was special; it had lots of brown in it,” Seaton said. “It looked like a regular polar bear, but for every square inch of hide, 5 to 20 percent of the hairs were brown instead of white.”
Walker, who has since passed on, was a polar bear hunting guide in the village; Seaton was then a teenage hunter who loved to listen to Walker’s stories. He’s now a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks. Because he had heard that polar bears and brown bears had bred successfully in a zoo, Seaton was pretty sure Walker’s white-and-brown hide was from the mating of a polar bear and a brown bear. That combination of large bears is so rare that DNA testing of the hybrid bear shot recently off… read more
As you read this, salmon are darting through the deep blue ocean off Alaska, eating everything they can catch. Some of those brilliant silver fish are packing on fat to power them 1,500 miles up the Yukon, past Eagle and well into Canada. They will not eat during the journey.
“Fat is the gasoline in their tank,” said biologist Joe Margraf. “Migrating salmon start their trip with that tank, and there’s no refueling along the way.”
Margraf and other scientists have been experimenting with a method to check the primary health indicator of migrating salmon—the fat within their bodies—without killing the fish. Margraf is a fisheries professor with the USGS Alaska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Salmon entering the Yukon River begin their journeys to spawning grounds with huge fat reserves. At the Yukon River’s mouth, 20 percent of a fish’s body weight might be fat.
“(Fat) is what makes salmon such an amazing… read more
Kathy Turk has seen several wood frogs near her home in Tok, and she wonders how the farthest-north amphibians can live in such a cold, dry place.
“Since we are pond-starved in my Tok area, how are these frogs laying eggs and where do the tadpoles grow?” Turk wrote in an email.
Before answering that question, let’s pause a moment to marvel at wood frogs, which range as far north as the Arctic Ocean in Canada and have been spotted around Anaktuvuk Pass in Alaska. These palm-size creatures survive Alaska’s winter by burrowing into the duff and allowing the cold to freeze them solid, even their eyeballs and hearts. After spending the majority of the year as tiny ice cubes, protected from drying out by the glucose their livers flood their systems with as they hibernate, they thaw and hop to breeding ponds in early to mid summer. In most of mainland Alaska, they are the only cold-blooded, smooth skin creatures roaming the boreal forest. The same species of wood frog ranges… read more
At 40 below in Interior Alaska, ravens commute back and forth to communal roosts, talking along the way, and chickadees flit from tree to tree, singing their squeaky songs, but the woods are mostly silent during a cold spell.
That’s why a faint scratching noise surprised me on a recent walk. I looked to the source, a skinny spruce tree, and saw a red-backed vole looking me straight in the eye. It scrambled down the tree and into a hole in the snowpack, and left me with a question: what was that tiny, mouse-like creature doing out in that frigid air?
Ian van Tets has a few answers to that question. He is a biologist who studies voles and other northern animals at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He and two graduate students, Kalb Stevenson and April Brennan, are monitoring voles in the Eagle River Valley north of Anchorage, and they don’t usually find them in trees or on the snow.
“Running around on top of the snow is a good way to become an ex-vole,” van… read more
Aspen leaf miners, tiny insects that turn quaking aspen leaves into silvery medallions, have been thorough in their coverage of interior Alaska the past few years. From an infestation that covered 1,400 acres in 2000, the insects expanded to 584,405 acres in 2004, according to forest health specialists.
“Think about how many aspen leaves there are out there, and almost every single one of them has a few miners in it,” said Diane Wagner, an insect and plant ecologist with the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Wagner, her colleague Pat Doak and graduate student Dianna Steiner were at a field site on Ester Dome recently to learn more about one of Alaska’s most noticeable insects.
In early June 2005, when the scientists were checking aspens on Ester Dome, there was again evidence of large numbers of aspen leaf miners. Almost every aspen leaf high on the 2,500-foot hill had white eggs of the… read more
The Aleutians would probably be a lot greener if it weren’t for the arctic foxes people planted on them, researchers have found.
In a study published in Science magazine in March 2005, scientists from California, Montana and Alaska compared islands with and without foxes in the Aleutians. They discovered that islands with foxes are covered mostly with tundra, while fox-free islands have patches of lush grasslands. The major difference in types of greenery could be the lack of seabirds on islands with foxes, coupled with the fertilizing power of the birds’ guano on fox-free islands.
Foxes and their fur became a cash crop in the Aleutians after sea otters disappeared due to overhunting in the 1800s. Russians and later American fur traders would drop as few as a pair of arctic foxes on islands and that pair would multiply to a trappable population within a few years. By 1936, at least 190 islands in the Aleutians had… read more
Sea otters have had a rough time since Vitus Bering’s journey to Alaska: They were hunted almost to extinction in the 1700s and 1800s, made a comeback in the 1900s, then declined again in the last few decades. Though sea otter numbers are dropping in the Aleutians and elsewhere in Alaska, the animals are increasing in Glacier Bay.
About five sea otters lived in Glacier Bay in 1995, but today more than 1,800 live there. Jim Bodkin and his colleagues at the USGS Alaska Science Center in Alaska have studied the sea otter’s recent emergence in Glacier Bay. A biologist, Bodkin started the study in 1993, two years before otters showed up in the bay. He and other researchers knew otters were nearby at the time and would probably soon move in. Glacier Bay National Park, located in Southeast Alaska, has been in existence for about 250 years, when huge glaciers at the mouth of the bay began retreating.
The Russians and later the Americans almost wiped… read more
A New Zealand biologist emailed his colleague in Anchorage in early March with news of creatures heading toward Alaska to start a 15,000-mile round trip.
“They’re on their way,” Phil Battley wrote from Auckland after watching a group of bar-tailed godwits leap into the air and head out over the South Pacific. Those birds will head to the shores of the Yellow Sea near Korea, fatten up for a few weeks, and fly to their breeding grounds on Alaska’s tundra. After a summer of hatching and raising young godwits, the birds leave Alaska’s west coast to begin fall migrations back to New Zealand and eastern Australia.
On the return trip, godwits probably don’t make the pit stop in Asia. Some biologists think the birds stay airborne for almost one week, making a 6,800-mile beeline from Alaska to New Zealand or the coast of Australia.
If the bar-tailed godwit is flying the length of the Pacific nonstop, its migration is unrivaled by even the arctic tern, said Bob Gill, who… read more
Snow buntings are often the first songbirds to return to Interior Alaska each spring. McKay's buntings are similar birds that don't leave Alaska during the winter and are different enough in other ways that scientists are wondering when and why they came to be.
The McKay's bunting is about seven inches tall, is almost pure white, breeds only on two of Alaska's loneliest islands, and stays all winter on the flat-stone beaches of Alaska's western coast, from Kotzebue to the Alaska Peninsula.s
Researchers at the University of Alaska Museum of the North are trying to figure out more about one of the continent's most seldom-seen songbirds, which could have a population of less than 6,000. The range of McKay's buntings is so limited that the Audubon Society recently put the bird on its "watch list," because a catastrophe on their breeding islands could wipe them out.
James Maley is a graduate student at the museum who is trying to learn something about evolution… read more
A wolverine without tenacity is just a big weasel. A grizzly without a taste for flesh is an oversized koala. A moose without a big nose is a broad-antlered elk. The quality that makes the moose one of the stars of Alaska wildlife is also the subject of a recent study. Why, asked scientists from Ohio, does the moose have such a big nose?
And, one might ask, why do scientists from Ohio care?
It can tell them about evolution, says Lawrence Witmer. Witmer is a biologist and professor of anatomy at Ohio University. As part of a study of unusual noses on dinosaurs and modern animals, Witmer and his colleagues examined the enigmatic nose of the moose.
Because moose disappeared from Ohio long ago, Witmer looked farther north for help, and he found it in Newfoundland, Canada’s easternmost province. There, workers for the Department of Natural Resources shipped him four frozen heads of road-killed moose.
With mooseheads intact in his… read more
During a good year in Bristol Bay, a surge of more than 100 million pounds of sockeye salmon fights its way upstream, spawns, and dies. In Bristol Bay and elsewhere in Alaska, this incredible pulse of salmon carcasses enriches streams and rivers and makes young salmon hardier.
That’s the finding of scientists who study Alaska streams and rivers that are teeming with salmon. Aquatic ecologist Mark Wipfli of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Institute of Arctic Biology is one of those scientists who pull on rubber boots to find the ways that salmon enhance the waters of their birth and the surrounding forests.
The process starts with the return of millions of salmon to Alaska rivers and streams. Nosing their way upstream, salmon are a swimming package of protein, fats, and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. Bears are among the first to intercept them, carrying salmon away from the water and sometimes eating only part of the fish, like… read more
Each fall, white-crowned sparrows hop off branches in Alaska and begin journeys toward warm winters in California, Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas. On their trip of several weeks, flying mostly at night, the tiny songbirds may cut back on their sleep by two-thirds without crash landing.
With the help of birds captured in Fairbanks a few years ago, scientists in Wisconsin discovered the sparrow’s apparent ability to perform while cutting rest. White-crowned sparrows are a few inches tall, with a gray body, brown wings and tail, and black and white stripes in the pattern of a bicycle helmet on their heads. Their seven-note song is a sign of spring for many northerners.
Niels Rattenborg of the University of Wisconsin at Madison visited Fairbanks in June 2002 with a mist net and captured 30 white-crowned sparrows near ponds off South Cushman Street and near his hotel on the Chena River. He brought those birds back to Madison, where scientists have watched the caged… read more
In his decades of fishing in Southeast Alaska, Sitka fisherman Dennis Hicks has lost a good number of fish to giant thieves—sperm whales that pluck black cod off his longline hooks.
“We’ll set our gear and drift overnight and when we come back sometimes they’ll be at our buoy, waiting for us,” Hicks said from Sitka, where he fishes with the 46-foot EH. “(The whales) will be milling around, but when you start hauling, they’ll dive. Some fish come up munched, and some hooks are straightened out.”
While sperm whales are the longline-robbing experts of Southeast, in the Bering Sea, killer whales have gone to extremes while stripping longlines, sometimes hitting nine out of ten fish. In two research projects, scientists are trying to determine what is attracting whales to fishing boats and what they might do to block it.
Jan Straley is a biologist at the University of Alaska Southeast who has been working with Hicks and nine other fishermen on sperm whale… read more
CRIPPLE CREEK—With the blackened forest exploding in dust with every step, four scientists hiked to the muskeg bank of this clear-running stream off the Steese Highway with a goal of finding its personality and how fire might have altered it.
Was the stream rich with wriggling larvae that fish prefer, or was it home to fewer insects, possibly a sign of human disturbance? Was the creek flowing cold from the chilled groundwater that fed it, or had the charred tundra warmed it? How much nitrogen and other dissolved nutrients did the water hold?
After a few weeks of hard work in hip boots and time in the lab, the scientists would know a lot more about Cripple Creek, one of 11 Cripple Creeks in Alaska. This one, flowing into the Chatanika River, is part of a larger study on the Tanana River watershed, where scientists are trying to take the chemical, biological, and physical fingerprint of 50 streams to use in future comparisons.
The project is part… read more
NIZKI—“Goose, five. Got it. Thank you.”
Vernon Byrd set down his radio and scribbled in his notebook that someone had found a goose nest with five warm eggs inside. During a three-day survey of this small island, the senior biologist of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge used a good deal of pencil lead in further documenting the comeback of the once-endangered Aleutian Canada goose. He and nine others who searched for goose nests on the island found 432; during a survey six years before, searchers found 250 nests on both Nizki and neighboring Alaid Island, each about 1,500 acres.
“I think it’s conceivable that there’s 1,000 nests on both Nizki and Alaid” Byrd said during the survey.
On Nizki, between Shemya and Attu near the western end of the Aleutian chain, goose calls and the cries of gulls filled the air. Puffins blasted from hillside burrows and shot toward the ocean like clowns shot from cannons. Aleutian terns chirped in tight circles… read more
ATTU—Crawling through long grass with a set of wire cutters clenched in his teeth, Clait Braun extended a long fiberglass pole toward a ptarmigan. Adjusting for gusts of wind, Braun eased a small wire noose over the bird’s lower neck, then tugged. A few seconds later, he cradled a flapping ptarmigan in his hands.
“He’s a big, strong, chunky bird,” Braun said as he tucked the ptarmigan inside a white cotton bag. “Really good body mass. I love it.”
Braun, 64, is a wildlife biologist from Tucson, Arizona and one of North America’s leading experts on grouse and ptarmigan. He traveled to this remote island—the westernmost point in Alaska at the tail end of the Aleutian chain—to catch a rare subspecies of ptarmigan. Braun and a small team of biologists and volunteers were participating in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program to move a few birds from Attu to the neighboring island of Agattu, 30 miles across the swells of the northern Pacific. After team members… read more
KISKA—Ian Jones smeared Jif peanut butter on the trigger plate of a rattrap, set the spring, and placed the trap under a rotting timber carried to this remote island 60 years earlier by Japanese soldiers.
“There’s fresh sign here,” he said, sweeping away rye grass to expose dirt pressed down by the passage of many tiny feet. He hoped to catch a few rats and take tissue samples as part of a mission to learn as much as possible about how rats are affecting seabirds in the Aleutians.
Jones returned in 2004 to the black sand beaches of these lonely, windswept islands for his 16th field season to study the interactions between auklets and rats on Kiska and other islands. At Kiska he was more than 5,000 miles from his home in Newfoundland, where he is an associate professor of biology at Memorial University in St. John’s.
About 25 miles long, 10 miles wide, and closer to Russia than to Anchorage, Kiska is one of the two places in America the Japanese… read more
People who study animal behavior think they may have found out why wolves hunt in packs—because ravens are such good scavengers.
Scientists who have watched wolves on Isle Royale in Lake Superior came up with the raven-wolf pack theory after puzzling over a question—why do wolves hunt in large groups when a single wolf is able take down a moose on its own?
To find a possible answer, John Vucetich and Rolf Peterson of Michigan Tech and Thomas Waite of Ohio State University examined 27 years of wolf observations on Isle Royale in northern Michigan. Isle Royale, 45 miles long and up to nine miles wide, sits in the northwest lobe of Lake Superior. Designated a national park, the island supports a population of a few dozen wolves and hundreds of moose. Peterson has studied the wolves for more than 30 years, and the group of researchers used his observations and those of his coworkers in the present study.
Peterson’s team has seen a single wolf kill a… read more
Killer whales of the Pacific may be changing their tunes in response to the noise from whale-watching boats.
Scientists from the University of Durham in England studied three groups of killer whales off the coast of Washington state and found that the whales lengthened a call by about 15 percent when whale-watching boats were near. In earlier studies, scientists had documented changes in humpback whale songs due to sonar signals and birds that sang at higher pitches near heavy traffic, but the killer whale study may show the first animal reaction to a certain threshold level of noise. Studies of earlier periods of whale-watching activities with fewer boats did not show that orcas changed their call lengths.
Killer whales live in groups, called pods, which consist of females and their offspring of both sexes. The young whales may remain with their mother for 30 years or more. Each pod has a series of calls, and scientists have noticed that these calls remain the… read more
Though buffered by many hundreds of miles from the world’s industrial centers, the far north is not as pristine as it seems. Scientists have found dioxins in the breast milk of Native women in Canada’s Arctic and pesticide in the bark of Alaska trees, but a new study shows extremely low levels of toxins in Alaska fish.
“It is tremendously good news,” said Bob Gerlach, the state veterinarian and Alaska wild food safety coordinator at the Department of Environmental Conservation, the agency that sponsored the study.
Gerlach and his colleagues are finishing a study on more than 600 fish samples from the fresh and salt waters across Alaska, from Ketchikan to Norton Sound. The researchers looked at all five species of Pacific salmon from every major drainage in the state, halibut and other bottom-fish, and some freshwater fish, like sheefish and northern pike. Alaska’s fish are showing low amounts of PCBs and other organic pollutants that hang around for… read more
Killer whales have teeth that are three inches long, pointy, and unlike any other animal alive, but similar in size and sharpness to the teeth of Tyrannosaurus rex.
These perfect predator teeth help support the idea that killer whales are eating more sea lions, seals and sea otters, and that humans are behind a drastic change in the northern Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea ecosystems. During a recent lecture in Fairbanks, oceanographer Alan Springer presented an argument that industrial whaling in the mid-20th century caused a chain of events that has led to declines of marine mammal populations in Alaska waters.
Springer’s colleagues, including Jim Estes of the Center for Ocean Health in Santa Cruz, California, made headlines in 1998 when they claimed that killer whales were behind a population crash of sea otters living in the Aleutians and Bering Sea in the 1990s. Now the researchers are going a step further by arguing that after Japanese and Russian whalers… read more
A researcher at the University of California Davis compared black-capped chickadees from Anchorage to chickadees from Windsor, Colorado, and found that the Alaska birds cached more sunflower seeds and found the seeds quicker when they later searched for them. The Alaska chickadees also had brains that contained more neurons than Colorado chickadees.
Vladimir Pravosudov of the University of California Davis’ department of psychology performed the study to test the theory that northern birds would be better at hiding and finding seeds than birds in a more moderate climate. He chose to capture birds in Anchorage, which has a day length of about 5 hours, 30 minutes on Dec. 22, and compare them to birds he captured near Windsor, Colorado, about 50 miles north of Denver, where the Dec. 22 day length is about 9 hours, 15 minutes.
With the help of biologist Colleen Handel of the U.S… read more
If the north continues to warm, polar bears may disappear within the next century, according to a man who has studied them for the last 20 years.
Andrew Derocher is a biology professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton who visited Fairbanks recently. In a lecture he gave on the UAF campus, Derocher said that the places where the globe is warming fastest are where polar bears live, such as the Beaufort Sea coast north of Alaska.
A warmer north is a bigger threat to polar bears than toxic chemicals or oil development, Derocher said, and sea ice is the reason. Polar bears rely on sea ice, and as the amount of sea ice shrinks with increased warming, so will the world’s numbers of polar bears.
Sea ice is important to polar bears because it is home to their main prey—ringed seals that weigh up to 140 pounds and bearded seals that can reach 750 pounds. Polar bears will also eat beluga whales trapped in confined areas and other animals that overlap with… read more
An insect smaller than Ed Berg’s thumbnail uprooted he and his wife Sara.
Swarms of spruce bark beetles killed most of the centuries-old spruce trees surrounding the Bergs’ former home on East End Road in Homer in the late 1990s. After the beetles denuded their land, the Bergs moved into downtown Homer.
“Ninety-five percent of the trees on our two properties died,” Ed Berg said. “After we clearcut the dead trees so they wouldn’t fall on the house, we lost the privacy of the place because suddenly the house was visible from the road and we had all the road noise.”
Berg is an ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Soldotna who recently attended a conference on the spruce bark beetle in Homer, where the bark beetle hit hardest during what many scientists call the worst outbreak in North America’s history. A few dozen scientists met on the Homer Spit to share their findings on the tiny creature that has changed the landscape of… read more
T he killing of wolves to boost moose and caribou populations in Alaska is making headlines all over the country. Back in 1960, a government program to stock an Alaska island with wolves received less attention.
Alaska had been a state for one year when its department of fish and game conducted a wolf-planting experiment on Coronation Island in southeast Alaska. At the time, the remote 45-square-mile island exposed to the open Pacific had a high density of blacktailed deer and no wolves. In 1960, biologists from Fish and Game released two pairs of wolves on the island.
The experiment was the only wolf-stocking effort undertaken in Alaska and probably the whole world at that time, said Dave Klein, a professor emeritus with the University of Alaska’s Institute of Arctic Biology. Klein, who had studied deer on the island for his PhD thesis, helped the state make the decision to introduce wolves to Coronation Island.
“Alaska had just become a state and you… read more
During the past 20 years, Ken Philip has driven 240,000 miles in his 1984 GMC pickup in search of the northern butterfly. From Hyder to Inuvik, he has chased down most of the 85 species that live up here, but the Compton tortoiseshell came to him.
The Compton tortoiseshell is a palm-sized butterfly that people had long reported seeing in Haines and southcentral Alaska but never north of the Alaska Range. In July 2002, Fairbanks entomologist Jim Kruse saw and collected a Compton tortoiseshell at the Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest southwest of Fairbanks. Intrigued, Philip “hotfooted down there” and captured a few with his wooden-handled net. He returned to Bonanza Creek again in 2003 and saw dozens of Compton tortoiseshells.
“They were all over the place,” he said. “It’s a very strange feeling to see a large butterfly we’ve never seen before, and for it to be so common.”
Philip is an independent researcher who retired from a career in radio astronomy in the… read more
During World War II, while trying to stock a remote island in the Bering Sea with an emergency food source, the U.S. Coast Guard set in motion a classic experiment in the boom and bust of a wildlife population.
The island was St. Matthew, an unoccupied 32-mile long, four-mile wide sliver of tundra and cliffs in the Bering Sea, more than 200 miles from the nearest Alaska village. In 1944, the Coast Guard installed a loran (long range aids to navigation) station on St. Matthew to help captains of U.S. ships and aircraft pilots pinpoint their locations. The Coast Guard stationed 19 men on St. Matthew Island to operate the station. Those men—electrical technicians, cooks, medics, and others—made up the entire human population of the island.
In August 1944, the Coast Guard released 29 reindeer on the island as a backup food source for the men. Barged over from Nunivak Island, the animals landed in an ungulate paradise: lichen mats four inches thick carpeted areas of the… read more
A good number of moose on the Seward Peninsula have pitted, worn, and broken teeth. Scientists are wondering if the teeth may warn of an environmental hazard.
Julie Maier is a wildlife biologist who keeps a few boxes of moose jaws in her Fairbanks office. Hunters removed the lower jaws from moose they harvested in different areas of Alaska and sent them to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to help managers determine the age and health of the animals. In the 1980s, biologists noticed cracked and pitted teeth on many samples from the Seward Peninsula. Recently Maier, a research associate with the University of Alaska’s Institute of Arctic Biology, decided to take a closer look.
In the 1980s, moose populations crashed on the Seward Peninsula--the “nose” of Alaska that juts into the Bering Sea and includes the communities of Elim, Wales, Nome, and Deering. In some regions of the peninsula, biologists counted half as many moose in 1999 as… read more
Scooped by dipnetters from Kenai to Chitina, red salmon possibly occupy more freezer space in Alaska than any other fish. For the fisherman who ponders the life of this excellent source of protein, here’s the story of a red named Fred, based on information from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and other sources:
Fred begins life as one of thousands of eggs resting in the gravel bed of a stream that flows into Paxson Lake. As early as February, Fred hatches into an alevin; alevins are about one-inch long and carry a yolk sac, a leftover pack of nutrients from the egg. Being a tiny, tasty guy sought after by other fish and birds, Fred stays tucked in the gravel during his alevin stage.
In a few months, Fred has absorbed all the nutrients from his yolk sac and he emerges as a fry, growing to a few inches long and developing dark bars along his sides. As a fry, he migrates downstream into Paxson Lake, where he feeds on plankton near the surface. He spends the first… read more
During the darkest days of Alaska’s winter, black-capped chickadees stuff themselves with enough seeds and frozen insects to survive18-hour nights. Where chickadees spent those long nights was a mystery until a University of Alaska Fairbanks biologist tracked them.
Susan Sharbaugh has spent many winter nights trying to find out how a creature as light as a handful of paperclips survives nights of 40 below. Sharbaugh is a research associate with UAF’s Institute of Arctic Biology and an unabashed fan of the black-capped chickadee, one of the most unlikely residents of the north because of the difficulty of keeping a tiny body warm in a cold place.
In her past studies, Sharbaugh has found that black-capped chickadees gain an additional10 percent of their body weight each day by stuffing themselves; the birds then use that fat to shiver all night, which keeps them warm. The human equivalent would be a 165-pound man who spent a frigid night outside and emerged 15 pounds… read more
During a decade-long study, Canadian biologists found that red squirrels in the Yukon seem to be evolving to give birth earlier, possibly in response to a warmer climate. The scientists also discovered that sister squirrels have slumber parties on cold nights and mother squirrels plan ahead for their pups' future.
Stan Boutin, of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, is the primary researcher on a project that has revealed the biology of one of the north's most plentiful mammals. He and his coworkers, such as Andrew McAdam of the University of Alberta, know all of more than 200 red squirrels in a one-kilometer-square patch of boreal forest between Haines Junction and Kluane Lake.
The oldest red squirrel in their study area lived to an age of nine. Most squirrels reached three or four years before they disappeared, usually as a meal for a goshawk, owl, or a… read more
One of the noisiest creatures in Alaska is making headlines for its apparent ability to adapt to climate change.
Canadian scientists have found that red squirrels in the Yukon give birth 18 days earlier on average than their great-grandmothers, perhaps in response to warmer springtime temperatures. The researchers say it's the first time a mammal has shown a genetic response to climate change.
The red squirrel is familiar to anyone who has stepped into the boreal forest, which stretches from Alaska through Canada to the northern tier of the Lower 48, but few people know red squirrels as well as Stan Boutin. Boutin is a biology professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and a coauthor of the recent paper in which scientists claim that natural selection has favored squirrels that are born earlier, at least in a 1-square kilometer patch of spruce forest in the Yukon Territory.
Boutin and his colleagues, including graduate student Andrew McAdam, know… read more
When people first walked across the Bering Land Bridge thousands of years ago, dogs were by their sides, according to a recent study published in the journal Science.
Researchers from Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles used dog DNA material-some of it unearthed by miners in interior Alaska-to conclude that today's domestic dog originated in Asia and accompanied the first humans to the New World about 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. One of the study's coauthors suggests that man's best friend may have enabled the arduous journey from Asia into North America.
" Dogs may have been the reason people made it across the land bridge," said Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles, who worked on the study. "They can pull things, carry things, defend you from nasty carnivores, and they're useful to eat."
Researchers have agreed that today's dog is the result of the domestication of wolves thousands of years ago. Before the recent study, authored by… read more
Josh Stachnik, 25 years old, grew up in Michigan and went to school in Boston. He moved to Fairbanks in August 2002, and now works for the Alaska Earthquake Information Center, which is located on the third floor of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Fats is a smiling rottweiler/Chesapeake Bay retriever mix with one bad eye. He had been in the Fairbanks animal control shelter for three weeks when Josh visited on his lunch hour one October day. When Josh extended his hand into one of the shelter's cages, Fats walked over and licked him.
Josh returned after work and filled out the paperwork to adopt Fats. He decided to keep the name because the dog responded to it, and because "it fits him perfectly," Josh said.
Fats seemed happy in his new home. When Josh snoozed on the carpet that afternoon, Fats rested his head on Josh's shoulder. When Josh went to bed, Fats slept on the floor at the base of the loft.
At 3 a.m., Fats'… read more
Carol McIntyre has seen the world from an eagle's perspective. A biologist for Denali National Park, she was once sitting in a nest with a young golden eagle in her lap when she noticed the incoming six-foot wingspan of an adult eagle carrying a ground squirrel. The eagle saw McIntyre before it reached the nest, and dropped the ground squirrel before flapping to a cliff across the river.
"It was the neatest thing I've ever seen," she said.
McIntyre scrambled out of the nest and watched from afar as the adult eagle retrieved the ground squirrel and returned to the nest to feed its chick.
McIntyre has visited the nests of golden eagles in Denali National Park for the past 15 years, attaching identification bands to their legs and tiny transmitters to their backs to monitor their breeding success. Hers is the longest-running study of golden eagle ecology in the northern latitudes of North America.
Sometimes mistaken for immature bald eagles, golden… read more
While speaking at a recent science conference, Terry Bowyer let out a groan that sounded like he had stomach pain. Bowyer, a professor at the University of Alaskas Institute of Arctic Biology, was imitating the plaintive moan of a cow moose.
Two days later, I heard the same noise in the woods outside my house. I followed the cows voice until I saw her, walking a few steps ahead of a small bull in a grove of spruce trees and yellowed willows. Every few minutes, she bellowed like a milk cow in a pasture. Before long, the sound of snapping twigs from another direction indicated that another moose was approaching. I backtracked before it showed up, not wanting my nearby dog to bark and spoil the show.
The cow calls I heard were what Bowyer calls protest moans. He has heard them many times in Denali National Park and Preserve from September through November. After a four-year study there, he and two other scientists theorized that cows use a protest moan to spur… read more
While at a meeting in Dallas recently, wildlife biologist Brad Griffith needed an item carried by few wildlife biologists--a three-piece suit. The head of the U.S. Geological Survey called Griffith to Washington, D.C. to testify before members of Congress, and his best clothes were back in Fairbanks.
Griffith bought a suit in Dallas, then flew to Washington to offer insight on how oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge might affect the Porcupine caribou herd. Griffith is a biologist who works for the USGS Biological Resources Division and is also an associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Institute of Arctic Biology.
Griffith is one of several Alaska scientists now sought after by politicians as debate continues about oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Griffith has studied the Porcupine caribou herd for 10 years, and he and other scientists recently used a model to show policymakers the possible consequences of oil… read more
We entered the Powder House bar at 9:51 p.m. and handed our checklist to contest judge Milo Burcham. We sat down, our skin coated with grit accumulated from the beaches, forests and gravel roads of the Copper River Delta during the past 24 hours. Kristen Bartecchi, Lisa Beattie, and I had done our best to see as many species of birds as possible during the Great Cordova Birding Challenge, and it was time to rest.
Since 10 p.m. the night before, we had explored Alaska's onramp for migrating birds, the Copper River Delta. The delta extends for about 70 miles of Alaska coastline and covers 1,000 square miles from Cape St. Elias to Point Whitshed near Cordova.
In this birder's paradise of tidal mud flats, slow-moving sloughs, and mossy rainforests, our team buzzed along the delta in a rented Dodge Caravan. Using the Copper River Highway, we crossed muddy flats that attract more than 80 percent of the world's western sandpiper population and nearly all the Pacific… read more
Traces of salmon from 2,000 years ago are telling researchers a lot about Alaska's past.
The salmon lived on Kodiak Island, and Bruce Finney is one of the scientists who visits there to pull up plugs of ancient Alaska from lakes. Finney is an associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Institute of Marine Science. He is co-author of a recent paper in the journal Nature, "Fisheries productivity in the northeastern Pacific Ocean over the past 2,200 years."
The abundance of fish during the last 22 centuries and beyond is held in the sediment at the bottom of lakes. A few years ago, Finney devised a method to estimate ancient salmon runs by measuring a specific nitrogen level in this muck. For the latest study, he teamed with graduate student Irene Gregory-Eaves and professor John Smol of Queens University in Ontario. Together, they further validated Finney's method and came up with records of salmon booms and busts that lasted centuries and were out-of-… read more
With a recent crash in Alaska's snowshoe hare population, life is getting tough for lynx, the leggy cats of the north.
"We're in a lynx bust," said wildlife technician Stephanie Rickabaugh of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Soldotna. "We're getting several calls of lynx getting into chicken coops. They tend to stay out of the developed areas when hare numbers are higher."
When their favorite food disappears, some lynx die, a few stay to hunt the lean country, and some pad away to new territory. A Montana scientist has determined that lynx have covered enough ground over the years that animals from Alaska to Montana are closely related.
Lynx live in most areas of Alaska, in spruce forests, lowlands, and other places favored by snowshoe hares. The slender cats have long legs and big feet that leave puffy round tracks in the snow. Lynx are abundant in Alaska and Canada but are rare enough in the Lower 48 that Michael Schwartz has seen nothing but… read more
Search and rescue groups use dogs to find lost people, dead people, and people buried under earth and snow. Dogs have also been used to find gas leaks and the presence of gypsy moth egg sacks. A researcher here at the University of Alaska Fairbanks even wants to train a dog to find tiny wood frogs hibernating in the duff.
Lurking behind those textured, damp nostrils are sensitive membranes that allow a dog to distinguish smells-molecules of odor that emanate from every living or once-living thing-at least one thousand times better than humans. A dog processes odoriferous molecules more readily because a dog has a much larger set of scent membranes within its nose, explained Robert Burton in his book, The Language of Smell. While humans have a pair of these "olfactory receptors" in our noses each about the size of a postage stamp, dogs' receptors can be as large as a handkerchief, depending on how big the dog is.
Dogs' noses work much the way ours do: We inhale… read more
Knut Kielland stopped his snowmachine on the floodplain of the frozen Tanana River. Stepping off into the snow, he issued a challenge:
"Look around you, Mr. Rozell, and show me a willow that has not been hit."
Whips of willow shoots poked through the snow; all were clipped at the same height, as if by a lawnmower. I squinted around looking for a pristine willow. No luck. Moose had snipped them all.
On the Tanana River and all over Alaska, moose are great agents of change. After watching this patch of Alaska for years, Kielland and his colleagues have measured how moose alter succession of the forest, soil chemistry, and even the number and type of insects found where moose live.
Kielland is an associate research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Institute of Arctic Biology. He and one dozen other scientists study the landscape of the Tanana River floodplain as part of the Long Term Ecological Research program. The Bonanza Creek… read more
A colossal meteorite that slammed into Earth about 65 million years ago may have killed the dinosaurs, but there's a good chance it did not. The proof may be locked in the permafrost of Alaska's north slope.
A 60-mile stretch of the Colville River holds layers of well-preserved dinosaur bones that researchers can't reach using conventional methods. Roland Gangloff and his colleagues hope to get funding soon to mine the permafrost for fossils and possibly unearth one of the greatest riddles of history—what killed the dinosaurs?
Gangloff is earth science curator of the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks and an associate professor of geology and geophysics. He teamed with Australian colleagues Thomas Rich and Patricia Vickers-Rich to write a paper on polar dinosaurs published in the February 8, 2002 issue of the journal Science.
The far-north and far-south dinosaur hunters suggest that polar dinosaurs were some of the most adaptable creatures to ever… read more
Crested auklets, Alaska seabirds with whisks of feathers that sprout from their heads like ponytails, smell like tangerines. An Alaska researcher thinks the birds produce this unique scent to repel parasites and attract mates.
Hector Douglas is a biologist at the University of Alaska's Institute of Marine Science. He became intrigued when he learned that mariners know their proximity to some Bering Sea islands, even in a dense fog, when they smell a strong citrus odor emanating from very large colonies of crested auklets.
“I was curious for a long time as to what the odor’s functions might be,” Douglas said.
Why would a bird smell like a fruit? Douglas thinks two possible reasons exist: the smell may repel ticks, and a potent auklet might be more attractive to a potential mate.
By working with chemists to isolate the compounds given off by crested auklets to create their scent, Douglas found two elements the same as those secreted by stink bugs. The… read more
Searching for a snowy owl, Ed Clark followed the ravens. The black birds had been dive-bombing the owl, a seldom-seen visitor to interior Alaska that landed on the university campus in Fairbanks after it wandered south, probably from Alaska’s north slope.
Clark approached the owl to take its photograph. He was surprised at the owl’s tolerance as he stepped closer, until he noticed it was dead. He picked up the owl, which was frozen in a sitting position, and carried it to the University of Alaska Museum.
The owl was one of many birds that catch people’s attention for showing up in the wrong place at the right time, said Dan Gibson, bird collection manager at the University of Alaska Museum. Snowy owls normally don’t stray from treeless tundra, where they stand two-feet tall on hummocks and survey their surroundings for lemmings and voles.
Birds sometimes abandon their normal ranges because of food shortages, Gibson said. The snowy owl that recently died in… read more
Crab fishermen in Alaska’s Bristol Bay pulled up 40 million pounds of Tanner crab in 1990. Ten years later, fishermen harvested zero pounds of Tanner crab in Bristol Bay. Scientists have recently discovered that the booms and busts of Tanner crab populations may depend on which way the wind blows.
Tanner crabs live on the continental shelf, the floor beneath Alaska’s oceans that slopes into the abyss the farther one sails from the Alaska mainland. Tanner crabs live about 14 years, resemble red spiders with ten legs, and are one of three types of crab that make up the bulk of Alaska’s shellfish industry.
As with their relatives the snow crab and red king crab, Tanner crabs are prone to sudden disappearances. Red king crabs experienced the most famous population crash in the early 1980s, when—after years of good crab numbers that enabled boat captains to bring home $150,000 and crew members $80,000 in a season that lasts just a few weeks—the scarcity of crabs forced… read more
As a breeze rustled yellow aspen leaves on Ester Dome, Jack Duman pried up rocks with his fingertips. Duman, an expert on the nifty adaptations insects have developed to survive winter, is the chairman of the Department of Biological Sciences at Notre Dame University. He was on Ester Dome in Fairbanks recently, searching for tiny beetles and other insects that will remain unfrozen this winter long after their surroundings have turned to ice. Duman and a University of Alaska scientist want to learn more about the substances that prevent insects from freezing by turning insect blood into antifreeze.
Duman was in Alaska along with researcher Valerie Bennett, also of Notre Dame. They joined Brian Barnes, a professor of zoophysiology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, on a trip by Suburban to Toolik Lake, Wiseman, and a few other areas in northern Alaska. They stopped to collect insects along the way, then brought the bugs back to Barnes’ lab in Fairbanks.
Here, they… read more
“He is the top of the food chain on this glacier,” said glacial biologist Nozomu Takeuchi. The snow flea, a tiny wingless insect also known as a springtail, sprung away at the advance of Takeuchi’s finger, landing near a stream of meltwater. Takeuchi opened a notebook and scribbled with a pencil. He was on the Alaska Range glacier on a rainy September day to study algae, the food of the snow flea and the key to life on the surface of glaciers.
Algae are microscopic plant-like organisms that use the energy of sunlight to make their own food. The many species of algae on Earth capture more of the sun's energy and produce more oxygen than all plants combined. In adapting to life on ice, algae have provided food for the snow flea and many other wee creatures of the ice.
On that September day, Takeuchi, who works for the Frontier Observational Research System for Global Change at the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks, was collecting algae with a stainless… read more
Leaving cloven hoofprints from the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, more than 3,500 muskoxen live in Alaska. All of those shaggy, curly-horned beasts came from one group of muskoxen that survived a most remarkable journey in the 1930s.
In 1900, no muskoxen existed in Alaska. Though the stocky, weatherproof creatures have survived in the Arctic since the last ice age, the last reports of muskoxen in Alaska came from the late 1800s. As Peter Lent reported in his book Muskoxen and Their Hunters, a man named Henry Rapelle in 1895 visited a Native man living on the bank of the Yukon River who had the skull of a muskox. He told Rapelle he thought the muskox was "a bear with horns" when he shot it a year earlier on the Kandik River. That muskox was perhaps the last of the Alaska population.
In May 1930, the U.S. Congress gave the U.S. Biological Survey $40,000 "to acquire a herd of muskoxen for introduction into Alaska with a view to their… read more
One month ago, Badami oilfield worker Royce O'Brien focused his binoculars on a rare Alaska encounter-a grizzly bear standing nose-to-nose with a muskox. Suddenly, the grizzly made its move.
"The brown bear ran up and got behind the muskox like a wrestler would, and got its front leg over the muskox's shoulder," O'Brien said. "It bit into its neck and pulled it to the ground."
The muskox struggled free and got back to its feet to face the bear and its two yearling cubs. The adult bear then flashed past the muskox's horns, duplicated its wrestling move, and pulled the muskox down a second time.
"As soon as it hit the ground, the yearlings were in there," said O'Brien, an environmental technician at Badami oilfield, located on the Beaufort Sea coast about 30 miles east of Prudhoe Bay. O'Brien watched as the bears killed the muskox and began feeding, witnessing an event that was unheard of in Alaska until recently-far-north grizzlies killing muskoxen,… read more
I am standing on the mushy shore of Smith Lake at 7 a.m., watching three women take my money. They squint into binoculars, turn their ears to familiar songs, and check a list every time they identify a new bird. Each time the pen hits paper, I owe them another $1.50.
Kristen, Anna-Marie, and Jackie are the Buff-Breasted Sandpipers, a team competing in the Farthest North Birdathon, a fundraiser for the Arctic Audubon Society and the Alaska Bird Observatory. Their birding marathon will continue for up to 24 hours. To hit the local birding hot spots, they ride bicycles. Also on a bike, I’m following them to protect my investment, and maybe learn something about the feathered creatures now flooding Alaska.
After seeing a few dozen birds at Smith Lake, including a regal flotilla of loons, we ride to a coffee shop for a break. Jackie buys me a cup of coffee, but the money I saved goes right out the window as she spots a raven through the glass.
From the coffee… read more
Each spring, millions of tiny bodies flutter and glide to Alaska from every continent on Earth. In Alaska, songbirds find a summer home, mate, build nests, lay eggs, raise young, replace their commuting feathers, and gorge themselves for the long trip home. Alaska's migrant songbirds pack an incredible amount of activity into a short summer, and the alder flycatcher is perhaps the most efficient of all.
Alder flycatchers are a little bigger than chickadees, the color of green olives, and have a beak surrounded by bristle feathers that help detect the movement of flying insects. The birds spend the majority of the year in Bolivia and Peru, but each spring they head to shrubby bogs in Alaska and northern Canada, where their "grape-ape" song wafts from the forest.
Some alder flycatchers settle in interior Alaska, near Anna-Marie Benson, the senior biologist for the Alaska Bird Observatory in Fairbanks. While studying songbird migration to earn her master's thesis… read more
Tom Gray remembers the black day in 1996 when his wife BJ called him home from setting a net for beluga whales in Golovin Bay. Someone had seen caribou mix with his domestic reindeer east of White Mountain. Gray rushed home, chartered a small plane, and saw what he feared-thousands of caribou dotting snowy tundra hills where only his reindeer stood the day before. "It was like the end of the world," he said.
Gray lost 700 reindeer that November day, when one-half of his domestic herd defected with their wild brethren. Now down to 400 reindeer, Gray is struggling to stay in the business of selling reindeer meat and antlers. He shares his plight with the seven remaining reindeer herders on the Seward Peninsula who want to remain in business despite the encroachment of the western arctic caribou herd.
Gray, an Alaska Native, lives in White Mountain, Alaska, a village on the Fish River 77 miles northwest of Nome. I met him in a cabin near Nome. Gray was… read more
The western arctic caribou herd changed the life of Palmer Sagoonick, a 2001 Iditarod musher who reached Nome in 45th place. In his biography for the race's web site, Sagoonick wrote: "Since I lost my reindeer herd due to the caribou migration, I have had time to raise and race dogs competitively."
Sagoonick lives in Shaktoolik, a wind-raked village of friendly people located south of Alaska's Seward Peninsula, where reindeer herding has been part of people's lives for more than a century. The recent infiltration of thousands of caribou onto the peninsula has herders struggling to keep their domestic reindeer separated from their wild cousins, which roam great distances and don't seem to mind when reindeer join them.
Including Sagoonick, eight of the 15 Native reindeer herders in the area have lost their entire herds to the western arctic caribou herd in the last five years.
Reindeer, differing from caribou only in that they are tame, have been part… read more
While helping Alaska Native whale hunter Billy Adams cut sections of blubber from a bowhead whale, Biologist Craig George pressed his knife into a deep scar in the whale's skin. The knife made a crunching noise, so George cut deeper. Minutes later, he pulled out a sharp harpoon point the whale had been carrying for perhaps a century.
Ten years earlier, whaling captain Fred Ahmaogak from Wainwright found an ivory harpoon tipped with a metal blade. As of early 2001, hunters have recovered six of these old harpoon points from bowhead whales. Along with new chemical evidence from the whales' eyes, the harpoon tips suggest that the bowhead may be the oldest living mammal on Earth.
George, who works for the North Slope Borough in Barrow, has studied bowheads for 21 years. The whales grow to 60 feet, weigh one ton at birth, and can weigh more than 120,000 pounds as adults. Insulated by blubber more than one foot thick and shielded by heavy bones in their skulls used… read more
While skiing on the cushion of snow that recently covered Fairbanks, I saw a spider on top of the snowpack. Snow seems a poor choice for the stroll of a cold-blooded creature, so I called Steve MacLean, an expert on small, creepy things.
“My guess is that the spider came down from the trees, where it might have been hanging out waiting for spring,” said MacLean, a professor emeritus with UAF’s Institute of Arctic Biology. “But if they’re going to overwinter up there, they have to have some cold protection.”
As Alaska enters winter, countless millions of insects are wedged into crevasses in trees and mixed with leaves on the forest floor. These insects use different strategies to survive the long wait until spring. MacLean said the spider on the snow was using either freeze tolerance or supercooling to survive.
Freeze tolerance is just as it sounds—insects turn into little bits of ice, then thaw in spring to fly or crawl away. To pull off this trick, insects… read more
Moose in the Lower 48 have it made. Take, for example, the moose that live in Grand Tetons National Park, a place with its headquarters in Moose, Wyoming. As in Alaska, moose there have plenty of lakes and rivers to hang in and around, and plenty of willows to munch. Unlike their Alaska cousins, moose in Grand Tetons don’t worry much about grizzly bears and wolves eating their babies—until they came trickling back in the last few years, those beasts had disappeared from the Tetons.
A scientist recently wondered how life had changed for moose when their main predators were gone. Would a moose a few generations removed from the last wolf still be afraid of a wolf?
Joel Berger of the University of Nevada, Reno, found in Alaska a good comparison to the Lower 48 moose. Here, wolves and grizzly bears are still a major part of a moose’s life. Berger compared calf survival from five moose ranges in Alaska to two in Wyoming. In the Susitna River drainage, four out of ten… read more
Red-necked phalaropes are not your average rednecks. The tiny shorebirds don’t drive pickup trucks, and males are the ultimate house-husbands, sitting on eggs until they hatch and leading newborns to food. Mother phalaropes drop the eggs and their parental duties simultaneously, hopping off in search of another mate and leaving dad alone to raise the kids.
The phalarope way of making more phalaropes is somewhat unique in the animal kingdom, where mothers usually nurture young, and fathers—as is the case with bull moose— sometimes assume the role of deadbeat dads after mating. Many birds, among them ravens and chickadees, share parenting duties, but phalaropes take role reversal to the extreme. Not only do females fly the coop after laying eggs, their bodies are larger than males’ and their feathers are more colorful. In Alaska, the phalarope’s unorthodox strategy seems to be working, according to biologist Doug Schamel.
Schamel is an assistant professor at the… read more
Nowadays, everyone can see seal beaches portrayed on television or in magazines with some frequency. Evidently, producers and editors think there's something innately appealing about rocky coastlines paved with great quantities of lumpy sea mammals sunning themselves and taking care of their various dry-land biological duties. Alaskans who can see seal beaches in the flesh, so to speak, might suggest that the appeal is greater when the deafening, babbling roar of a pack of pinnipeds isn't conveyed along with its picturesque appearance. Seals (and sea lions and walruses, for that matter) shout a lot.
Of course, they have a lot to shout about. Adult males challenge one another for the right to consort with the females; a shouting match may be a preliminary to bloodshed, or may prevent it entirely. (If the other guy's roaring deafens you, it may be wise to turn flippers and hump off along the shore to safety.) There's a certain testy bark-and-yelp exchange useful in defending… read more
Don Triplehorn, a University of Alaska geologist for more than 30 years, is using his retirement to pursue mysteries in rock that didn’t mesh with his teaching and research duties. He asked me to join him on a recent excursion to search for the remains of an insect that died more than six million years ago.
We drove to a gully near Healy, Alaska, that looks like the badlands in South Dakota. Bare white walls streaked with lines of red, orange and black rose from the gully in fragile spires of sandy rock rising like icicles to blue sky. Underfoot was a walkway of mud and rock with the look and feel of wet cement. This ribbon of brown masonry is replenished by spring runoff and summer rains that scrape the canyon walls free of vegetation and keep it looking like the Badlands.
Through this moonscape, Triplehorn hiked in rubber boots, followed by Syun-Ichi Akasofu, director of the International Arctic Research Center. We paused where bands of flaky black rock—the coal… read more
On a recent trip to Alaska’s coastal rainforest, Ken Philip bagged his butterfly.
Philip is an independent researcher from Fairbanks who knows more about butterflies than anyone in Alaska after chasing them across tundra and taiga for 35 years. As I wrote in a previous column, Philip let me tag along this spring as he collected mourning cloaks with his wooden-handled net. At that time, he expressed his desire to see and gather one of the few species of butterfly that had eluded him.
The zerene fritillary is palm-sized, has brown wings with black etching, and loves violet plants, on which it sets up colonies. Textbooks on butterflies list zerene fritillary’s range as no farther north than southern British Columbia, with the single exception of a tiny group in Alaska. Philip knew of their existence here, but the zerene fritillary is one of three Alaska species the 68-year old had not yet seen on the wing. To remedy this, Philip loaded his blue pickup—the one… read more
In early summer, baby birds throughout Alaska are taking that first wobbly step from the nest. Andrea Swingley of the Alaska Bird Observatory knows this time of year by the number of phone calls she receives from people who find baby birds on the ground. Swingley, the education coordinator at ABO, gives this advice—the birds don’t need our help.
“Most baby birds on the ground are just learning to fly,” she said. “They’re not very good at it at first. Some birds, like juncos, nest on the ground and might not have fallen at all.”
Parent birds are still caring for their young crash-landers, Swingley said. Baby birds on the ground may have flubbed a takeoff attempt, but adult birds will still bring food to them. The parent bird will often feed the youngster even after it learns to fly.
Swingley advises leaving baby birds alone. She encourages people to back off from a grounded bird and watch for its parents to dive down to feed it or ward off predators. If its… read more
Alaskans may be witnessing the end of the tamarack.
Trees with needles that turn golden each fall before dropping, tamaracks grow in wet, boggy areas north of the Alaska Range. People often mistake tamarack for spruce, but tamarack branches are flexible enough to be tied in a knot without breaking, and the branches are bare in winter. Most of Alaska’s tamaracks are either naked or have few needles this summer. The trees are apparently giving up the fight against the larch sawfly.
Sawfly larva—green caterpillars with black heads—have attacked almost every tamarack tree in Alaska. Research entomologist Ed Holsten of the U.S. Forest Service remembered flying over the Interior in a small plane when the invasion was heaviest, in 1996.
“At the peak of the outbreak, it was mind-boggling,” Holsten said from his Anchorage office recently. “Every pocket of tamaracks we looked at was pink (because the trees had no needles).”
Repeated attacks from the larva of… read more
You'll have to excuse me this week. This column has nothing to do with science, but I'm having a hard time thinking about science right now. Last week, my dog Jane died of a disease that she kept to herself.
When I walked her into the vet's office last Thursday, I hoped we'd be out that afternoon with some pills and instructions. Not so. The look on the vet's face when she saw an x-ray of Jane's bulbous midsection told me my dog would not leave the clinic. One hour later, after the doctor in surgery showed me cancer that turned her spleen into a grapefruit and also infested her liver, I knew it was time to say goodbye.
I can't describe the daze that followed Jane's death because I think I'm still there. All I can do is roll out the numbers: Of my 14 years in Alaska, the best in my life, Jane was by my side for 13. Three summers ago, my chocolate-coated Lab trotted across Alaska with me along the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline, and her name is now in the title of a… read more
A few weeks ago, Ulrich Bernier hiked along a swampy trail in Florida's Everglades, pulled back his sleeve, and absorbed 56 mosquito bites in 30 seconds. "My arm was coated," said Bernier, a research chemist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service in Gainesville, who counted the mosquitoes before covering his arm. His blood sacrifice was all part of the job for Bernier and a group of scientists that devote themselves to the study of Alaska's most irritating insect.
In the Everglades, Bernier was testing the effectiveness of repellants. He typically spends time in the lab, where he detects chemicals wafting from human skin. Because people give off these compounds in different concentrations depending on what they eat, what cologne they use, if they smoke, and other variables, some people are more attractive to mosquitoes than others. By analyzing glass beads that volunteers roll in their palms until skin compounds adhere to the glass, Bernier… read more
While hiking deep in a forest outside Fairbanks, a bird biologist and I saw an animal the size of a cat scramble up a spruce. When we stopped, a marten clung to the tree bark by its back toes and grunted its disapproval. We traded peeks through the binoculars at the pointy-nosed creature scolding us.
Mysterious predators of the northern woods, marten are members of the weasel family with supple, strawberry blond fur, bushy tails, short legs, and long, tubular bodies. Known as Alaska trappers’ bread and butter, marten have voracious appetites.
“One trapper aptly described them as walking stomachs,” said Tom Paragi, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks. “They’re one of the easier animals to trap.”
Like other members of the weasel family, marten hunt and kill small animals, most often voles, though they sometimes eat snowshoe hares, young birds, and blueberries. Marten feed on red squirrels in other parts of North… read more
They’re back. After six months away, migratory birds are flapping and fluttering to Alaska’s forests, lakes, and shorelines. Soon, the snowbirds will decorate the northern landscape with millions of eggs.
In The Birder’s Handbook, editors Paul Ehrlich, David Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye ponder the study of bird eggs, known as oology. They point out that every animal with a backbone produces eggs, but reptiles and their descendents, birds, somewhere along the line enclosed their eggs within a shell.
An eggshell is an incubator with a snack bar, providing everything an embryo bird needs except warmth and oxygen. Within the shell floats the fatty yoke, on top of which clings the bird embryo. The embryo feeds on the yoke and sucks water from the albumen, also known as egg white. Oxygen enters the egg the same way carbon dioxide and water get out, through tiny pores in the eggshell. An average chicken egg has about 7,500 of these microscopic holes.
To develop into a… read more
As we climbed a hill in the Goldstream Valley, Ken Philip and I flushed a butterfly that was sunning itself on warm rocks. The dark brown butterfly, which was as big as a man's palm, bobbed and weaved in the breeze. Without warning, Philip swung the wooden handle of his net and bagged the bug with a two-handed backhand.
Philip reached inside the net and pulled out a creature some people don't even know exists in Alaska. He held between his fingers one of Alaska's 83 species of butterfly, an insect Philip knows better than anyone in the state.
Philip is easy to find around Fairbanks. He drives a blue pickup with the word "INSECT" on faded Alaska plates. Sticking to the door is a sign that hints at the vehicle's mission: "Alaska Lepidoptera Survey."
Lepidoptera is the insect order that includes butterflies and moths. Philip has devoted much of his life to the pursuit of these delicate bugs in Alaska and the far north, simply because he enjoys the work.… read more
In 1991, a man living in King Salmon noticed three black-capped chickadees with beaks curved like fishhooks. Since then, hundreds of people from Southcentral Alaska have seen chickadees with overlong beaks that make it difficult for the birds to feed. The drastic increase in sightings has biologists worried that something is very wrong in Southcentral.
As of late March 2000, biologist Colleen Handel of the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage has received more than 400 reports of black-capped chickadees with deformed bills in Anchorage and the Mat-Su valley. The magnitude of the problem becomes a bit clearer when Handel points out that bird-watchers throughout the rest of North America reported just eight sightings of chickadees with similar ailments since 1986.
Handel said 60 percent of the sightings have been in the Mat-Su valley and another 35 percent of those reports have been in Anchorage. People have also seen the deformed chickadees in Kenai, Soldotna, Homer,… read more
Jill King of Fairbanks sent me an email the other day. It seems her local chickadees are acting weird. After watching a few chickadees in and around her birdhouse, King typed up this account:
“One of the chickadees flew from one of the feeders with a sunflower seed in its mouth and flew to the opening of the birdhouse. It didn’t go in, rather it stuck its beak in and another chickadee took the food from inside . . . It was very cool, but I don’t know why one would be feeding the other.”
I didn’t know why one adult chickadee would feed another either, but Susan Sharbaugh did.
“It’s the avian equivalent of taking someone to dinner,” said Sharbaugh, a professor with UAF’s Department of Biology and Wildlife and an expert on chickadees. She said the chickadees were engaging in “courtship feeding,” during which a male chickadee feeds a female to reestablish their bond.
Throughout lives that last as long as 13 years but average about 5 to 7 years,… read more
SAN FRANCISCO—Sixty-five million years ago, dinosaurs disappeared from Earth. Sixty-five million years ago, an object larger than this city of San Francisco crashed into our planet. Coincidence? Maybe not.
Two of the thousands of scientists here at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union will soon drill a test core into the Chicxulub crater to find out more about the greatest catastrophe Earth has ever experienced.
Chicxulub impact crater is more than 200 kilometers in diameter, a mammoth divot in Earth caused by a meteorite, probably a comet. Located on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, the crater is the thumbprint of a random event so unsettling that it may have wiped out thousands of species, including dinosaurs.
Finding out how a meteorite can destroy most of the life on Earth is the mutual goal of Buck Sharpton, with the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Luis Marin, with Mexican National University. The two… read more
The bull moose rocked his royal headgear from side to side, splintering branches as he responded to my grunt. The big bull was ready to defend the females in his harem from what he perceived to be another bull. Watching from a tree, I was thankful for two things: one, I wasn't on the ground; two, I wasn't a lesser moose on the ground.
In a moose's world, the big guys call the shots. Further proof of that comes from a new study by researchers at the University of Alaska's Institute of Arctic Biology. Graduate student Kelley Stewart and professor Terry Bowyer examined two groups of moose, one each in Alaska and Russia. They came away with some insights on how and why moose invest so much energy in antler development. In just a few summer months, moose antlers grow from tiny knobs to immense racks that weigh as much as 80 pounds. During June, the points on a moose's antlers grow more than one centimeter a day. One pound of antler can be added to a moose's head on one good day… read more
Bison are not subtle. A Copper River gravel bar I recently visited was decorated with manure piles the size of pies, rutted pathways, 10-foot craters in the sand, and soft hair hanging from spruce branches. I was in the lair of the bison, a creature introduced into Alaska in the late 1920s.
Five-to-ten thousand years ago, bison were a common sight in Alaska, flourishing in a climate a bit cooler and dryer than today. Alaska bison finally disappeared in the days of Columbus. Scientists think they died off because of hunting by aboriginal hunters combined with a warmer climate that reduced grasses and sedges.
Bison were reintroduced to Alaska in 1928. Responding to requests from hunters who wanted more species of big game, biologists brought in 23 plains bison from the National Bison Refuge in Moise, Montana. All of the bison were released in the Delta Junction area. By the 1990s, the Delta herd had expanded to more than 400 bison.
Delta Junction, once… read more
If you want your relatives to see a moose this summer, don't drive to Denali Park. Try Anchorage.
That's the advice of Rick Sinnott, Anchorage-area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Sinnott estimates 200-300 moose live year-round in the Anchorage bowl area, which includes downtown. The population grows by another 600-700 moose in winter.
The urban moose concentration compares to some of the best wild areas of the state, but it wasn't always that way. According to an explorer's report in 1900, moose were hard to find in what was to become the Anchorage bowl. A few hunters managed to find moose, selling the meat to miners for 10 cents a pound. When workers building the Alaska Railroad came to the area in 1915 to 1917, a boom that led to the founding of Anchorage, they killed almost all the remaining moose. Luckily, at that time miners and railroad workers accidentally started a few wildfires. The fires, along with land cleared by homesteaders,… read more
I know an artist who recently had to abandon her studio because a grizzly killed a moose calf a few steps from her window. She doesn't live in Alaska's bush. She lives in the largest city in Alaska.
In this land of contradictions, one of the most bizarre involves Anchorage, a city of 250,000 people surrounded by some of the best bear habitat in the world. When bears and people cross paths in Anchorage, the man most likely to be called is Rick Sinnott. Sinnott is the Anchorage area state Fish and Game biologist who responds to people who tell him a black bear is stealing sunflower seeds from their bird feeder. Last summer, Sinnott and other Fish and Game employees answered more than 1,500 phone calls about black bears and 300 about grizzlies in the Anchorage area. On heavy days, the phone rang 20 times with people asking for help with bear encounters.
Most of the bears who meet Anchorage residents come from Chugach State Park, a 500,000-acre preserve that… read more
Camping on the bank of the Yukon River, I once saw three ducks floating downstream. Drifting with the current of the big river and spinning in circles when they hit an eddy, they looked like wooden decoys. When a rock falling into the water scared them, the ducks started swimming, then flew off.
I realized then the ducks had been napping as they bobbed down the river, but it's a good bet they weren't sleeping too soundly. Researchers have found that ducks and other birds sometimes sleep with one eye open. Niels Rattenborg, a sleep researcher at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, recently did a study in which he and coworkers filmed a row of mallards sleeping. The birds on the both ends of the row--those that would be most vulnerable to predators--tended to keep their exposed eyes open while they slept. Mallards with ducks on both sides of them kept both eyes shut or didn't have a preference for which eye they kept open.
While sleeping with one eye open,… read more
During the annual Christmas bird count, volunteers at Prudhoe Bay typically see only one species of bird--the raven. On forty below mornings like this one, ravens glide by the Geophysical Institute on their morning commute to Fairbanks with no sign of being cold. Alaskans know the raven as one of the state's most adaptable birds. It's also one of the most intelligent, as is shown in a recent study by Bernd Heinrich, the author of Ravens in Winter.
Heinrich is a biologist at the University of Vermont who has spent 15 years in the Maine woods studying the behavior of ravens. He and John Pepper of the University of Michigan recently conducted an experiment on why ravens fly long distances to cache meat from animal carcasses when they could fly shorter distances and spend more time picking at the carcass.
Ravens and other related birds, such as crows, magpies, and blue jays, sometimes hide food and come back for it later. Chickadees also "scatter-hoard," stowing… read more
A husband and wife in the Yukon Territory were sheep hunting above treeline in August, 1997, when they smelled something that reminded them of a barnyard. They also noticed the texture of the ground had changed, from hard and rocky to soft and spongy. When the man studied the ground, he realized he was standing ankle-deep in caribou droppings.
The hunter, Gerry Kuzyk, a caribou researcher with the Yukon Department of Natural Resources, knew that no caribou had been seen in the area for decades. He told fellow biologist Don Russell about his unusual discovery in the mountains about 90 miles west of Whitehorse. They returned and noticed that, when viewed from a distance, the snowy mountains were ringed with dark bands of caribou droppings. The bands were being exposed as snow melted from areas where the wind had piled snow for centuries. Recent warming had exposed the stomping grounds of ancient caribou.
When they looked closer at the carpets of manure, Russell… read more
Just about anywhere scientists look up north--at shrinking sea ice, at thawing permafrost and at vigorous plant growth--they see a warmer Arctic. Changes in the far north, though often regarded as negative to people and animals, may be helping caribou during the summer.
Brad Griffith, a USGS biologist and the assistant unit leader of the Alaska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, thinks caribou calves have done well recently because the plants they eat have matured earlier during the past decade. Griffith tracks changes in the Porcupine caribou herd, a band of about 128,000 animals that roams the northwest portion of Yukon Territory and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. Griffith concentrates his research in early summer when caribou calves are born and when much of the North Slope greens up.
After cows give birth about June 4, their energy needs double because they begin producing milk for their calves, Griffith said. When it's… read more
Sea otters are getting harder to find along the western part of the Aleutian chain. Their population has dropped from about 53,000 animals in the early 1990s to only 6,000 today. Some biologists think the missing otters of western Alaska have disappeared to an unlikely place--the bellies of killer whales. Researchers say the actions of people may have caused this unusual switch in the diet of killer whales.
Jim Estes, a wildlife research biologist who works for the U.S. Geological Survey at the University of California, has watched sea otters in Alaska since the 1970s. On his 1990s cruises to the Aleutians, he and other biologists noticed a 25 percent decline in sea otters each year. At first, Estes didn't consider killer whales as a reason for the sea otter decline. Killer whales mostly eat sea lions, seals, and other marine mammals that spend most of their time far offshore, away from sea otters.
When he was on a cruise from Attu to Dutch Harbor in the early… read more
Anchorage, which is Alaska's hub of more than 257,000 people, attracts a fair amount of wildlife. Moose live in patches of woods throughout the city, lynx have been spotted on ski trails, and an occasional black or grizzly bear wanders through town. One creature that's taken to the city life, the lesser Canada goose, has worn out its welcome at airports, parks and businesses. Wildlife managers are now experimenting with ways to reduce by half the Anchorage population of urban Canada geese.
In 1995, an AWACS jet taking off from Elmendorf Air Force Base sucked Canada geese into several engines, causing a crash that killed 24 people. The birds also drop about six tons of feces a day during their summer stay in Anchorage, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report. Another problem is that urban geese lose their shyness, and often chase and bite people who stray close to nests.
Why does a wild creature want to live in Alaska's biggest city? Dave Crowley, a… read more
There I was, tagging along with the Arctic Research Commission on a tour behind the scenes of the new Seward Sea Life Center, when I encountered an unexpected chance to follow up on an earlier column.
The center has handsome, informative displays and spectacular deep tanks that give observers a stunning view of some of Alaska's marine creatures. Puffins and other seabirds paddle about and dive deep in one huge tank while sea lions and harbor seals perform underwater ballet in others, all--from surface to bottom--in full sight of enthralled spectators. It's wonderful.
But the Sea Life Center is a bit like the tundra swans that float elsewhere on Alaska's waters: the movement you can see above the surface looks effortless, but there's a lot of hard work going on beneath. Underlying the public portion of the Sea Life Center is a spaceship's worth of life-support systems and a college's worth of laboratories. And in one of those labs, we found new Ph.D. George… read more
There was once a lonely red salmon, we'll call him Larry, who fought his way upcurrent for more than 900 miles, through eight concrete dams, to a lake 7,000 feet above where he started. When Larry reached his destination, he was met with the most frustrating of circumstances--he was the only red salmon to return to the lake. There was no reason to spawn.
Lonesome Larry is the nickname given by a researcher's wife to the only salmon that returned a few years ago to Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho. Larry's troubles may have something to tell us about some of the problems facing Alaska's salmon.
Bruce Finney, a paleoceanographer at the University of Alaska's Institute of Marine Science, just returned from Idaho's Redfish Lake, a beautiful lake surrounded by ponderosa pines and snowcapped granite peaks. Finney, a scientist who studies ancient salmon runs by examining the residue fish leave behind, flew down to Washington, Oregon and Idaho to see… read more
When the Exxon Valdez ran into Bligh Reef in the spring of 1989, the most visible victims of the oil spill were blackened sea otters and shore birds. Now, nearly a decade later, scientists are still trying to sum up the effects of the oil spill.
In Seward, one researcher is trying to learn more about the spill by feeding small amounts of crude oil to river otters. Merav Ben-David, an ecologist who studies animal behavior and physiology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Institute of Arctic Biology, is performing research on river otters that began right after the spill.
In 1989, UAF Professor Terry Bowyer, a wildlife biologist at the Institute of Arctic Biology, Professor Larry Duffy, head of UAF's Chemistry and Biochemistry department, and technicians from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game began examining river otters in oiled and non-oiled areas. The scientists chose to study river otters because the animals often live where the land meets the sea.… read more
Like many remote places on the globe, Alaska receives its share of gunk from more populated areas. A few years ago, researchers found traces of lindane, a pesticide, in the bark of trees near Denali National Park. The chemical, carried on winds and condensing once it reached the cold air of the north, came from tree farms thousands of miles away.
Now, researchers have found pollutants that swim into Alaska. Actually, salmon do the swimming, but the fish carry nasty baggage they picked up in the ocean--DDT, PCBs and other manmade chemicals. Researchers, led by Goran Ewald of Lund University in Sweden and including Nicky Szarzi, a fisheries biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Homer, studied fish in two Alaska lakes and found evidence that salmon are passing on pollutants to other fish.
The researchers examined grayling in Round Tangle Lake and Lower Fish Lake, both located in the Alaska Range. Salmon migrate to and from Lower Fish Lake, which… read more
Look for the largest land-dwelling mammals in Alaska and you'll find them in the north. Polar bears prowl on the northern rim of the state and on sea ice off the coast, as well as on the northern coasts of Russia, Canada, Greenland and Norway. A thick coat of white fur helps bears survive in these latitudes. During the past few decades, scientists have speculated that this fur keeps bears warm because each hair routes warm sunlight to a polar bear's skin.
Daniel Koon, an associate professor of physics at St. Lawrence University in New York, became fascinated by the subject when he first read about it in a physics text book. His interest led him to assemble an Internet site that holds a few dozen newspaper and magazine articles that describe how light can travel the length of a polar bear hair in the same way water flows through a pipe. The theory goes like this: sunlight is captured by each hair, directed to the bear's black skin, and converted there to heat, thereby… read more
After six months of hibernation, two black bears recently emerged to spring sunshine. The bears, a three-year old female and a yearling male, spent the winter in the same state as thousands of other black bears in Alaska-slumbering in a cozy nest, occasionally rising, stretching, and plopping back down. The major difference was the location of their dens; they wintered in a spruce forest on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.
Brian Barnes and Oivind Toien set up the hibernating quarters for the sow and young boar, problem bears trapped in the fall at Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage. Barnes, a professor of zoology at the Institute of Arctic Biology, and Toien, a Fulbright scholar from Norway, watched the bears closely over the winter and got a fresh look at what happens to black bears during hibernation.
The bears wintered in padded boxes built so Barnes and Toien could detect each breath of the bears. By installing probes on the bears, they also… read more
In late spring, cow moose find a secluded spot to give birth to calves, alone. Meanwhile, bull moose are found nowhere near the cows they impregnated. In calving season and for most of the year, bulls and cows don't mingle.
The apparent indifference between the sexes intrigues Terry Bowyer, a biologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology. Though male and female moose always seem to find one another during mating season, for the rest of the year they have little to do with one another. Their separation is so extreme Bowyer thinks cows and bulls should be managed as different species.
Moose are not alone in this aloofness toward the opposite sex. Most ruminants (hoofed creatures that chew cuds, such as caribou, antelope, deer and sheep) only prefer the company of mates when seized by the urge to reproduce.
Bowyer, who has studied moose in Denali National Park for almost a decade, has spent many hours watching the behavior of… read more
Abby Hawkins wants to know if you've seen her birds.
Abby is a fifth-grader at Pearl Creek Elementary School in Fairbanks. In a science project, she asked: "How far does a chickadee roam?" I'm sure many feeder watchers have asked the same question while watching the birds appear as puff balls on cold days. Abby decided to try and find out.
Using a permit owned by the Alaska Bird Observatory and a few of the observatory's bird traps, Abby captured birds near her home in Fairbanks. Anna-Marie Barber of the bird observatory helped Abby place tiny, colored bands on the legs of 29 chickadees (18 boreal and 11 black-capped). With the bands, the birds appear to wear colored socks on their right legs.
Abby uses binoculars to check chickadees she sees for the color bands, and that's where she needs some help. More on that later.
In a few months of chickadee-watching, Abby has seen or recaptured 16 of the 29 banded chickadees near her home in Fairbanks.… read more
ABOARD THE ALPHA HELIX---Bob Day had a feeling something big was happening beneath the Alpha Helix, a University of Alaska research vessel floating on the Gulf of Alaska. From the ship's windows, he saw a large gathering of seabirds floating on swells 100 miles offshore from Seward.
Day, a marine ecologist with ABR, Inc., had not seen this many northern fulmars gathered here before. He suspected the Alpha Helix had just passed an area where the density of salt water changes abruptly--a front where saltier water meets fresher water, a place where small fish feed on an abundance of tiny creatures, and where seabirds are attracted to small fishes.
As Day pondered the significance of the fulmar gathering, oceanographer Tom Weingartner walked by and offered his observations of the sea water.
"There's good mixing here," Weingartner said.
"That's what the fulmars told me," Day said. "(The birds) are good oceanographers."
The ocean beneath the… read more
Near a wood stove was a good place to be this past week, as temperatures in this part of Alaska dipped to minus 40. The cold and the ice fog kept most humans indoors, but Alaskans across the state from Prudhoe Bay to Ketchikan got out for a bird count sponsored by the National Audubon Society. Bird watchers here in Fairbanks found the woods heavily sprinkled with redpolls; out of almost 10,000 birds seen by the 92 volunteers, more than 7,000 were redpolls.
While gangs of redpolls gobbled birch seeds, another bird with an appetite for tree seeds--the white-winged crossbill--was hard to find. Fairbanks spotters saw just 38 white-winged crossbills this year, compared to 830 in 1994 and none in 1995. Anchorage volunteers noticed the same pattern; they saw just six white-winged crossbills in 1995, 580 in 1994, and 28 this year.
The birds boom and bust in Alaska because white and black spruce trees do not sprout cones every year, and white-winged crossbills feed… read more
It was an important holiday tradition: as soon as the tree was trimmed to the last dangle of tinsel, we'd settle down with cocoa while my father began to read: " 'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house..."
Even when I was very young, I was impressed by how clearly Clement Moore, the author of "A Visit from St. Nicholas," had observed those extraordinary events. I knew I'd have been too startled to notice soot on Saint Nick's clothes, or to count the number of tiny reindeer hitched to the sleigh. Somewhere back then, I decided that Moore had been a good naturalist, a keen observer of the world around him.
That was before I met my first reindeer. It was tied to a parking meter in downtown Anchorage. Antlerless at that season, the reindeer looked more nearly bovine than deerlike. It was not tiny. I was not impressed.
In the years since, I've learned to be impressed by reindeer and their New World conspecifics, the caribou. They've… read more
From Robert Service's poetic reports about the Klondike in 1898 to the likely media coverage in 1998 of Cordova's annual celebration in its name, the iceworm is a creature claimed by the north. True, the world first knew the creature as fiction: Service's drink-garnishing iceworm was merely an artfully decorated bit of pasta. Cordova's iceworm festival acknowledges art as well, since there the official parade-participating iceworm, with its many booted feet, is no more real than the dancing dragon in a Chinese new year celebration.
Even so, northerners know that real iceworms live in our territory. Specifically, they live within our glaciers, where they browse on hardy algae, pollen grains, and spores carried in by the wind. The threadlike iceworms and their algal pastures actually are found in water on and in the glaciers, not within the crystalline ice itself. The inch-long worms need that water, but even in winter, glaciers as far north as the Alaska Range offer… read more
Winter has descended upon Alaska, and people who want to stay mechanically mobile throughout the cold season are asking the vital question: Did I check the antifreeze?
Meanwhile, uncountable numbers of Alaska's insects that intend to stay immobile for the season have adjusted their antifreeze levels without checking anything. Otherwise, they'd never regain mobility come spring. They didn't have to think about it, because generating antifreeze and adjusting its level is something certain northern insects have evolved to do.
Among the local creepy-crawlies capable of freeze-proofing themselves with homegrown chemicals is the spruce budworm. This pest is actually a kind of caterpillar, the larva of a small moth. Though not as spectacular as the damage spruce bark beetles can cause (as Alaska's forests now show), the economic and ecologic problems the cold-hardy budworms produce are bad enough to worry foresters.
It would be just, perhaps, if someone could… read more
Just as winter approaches, my morale gets a needed boost. The annual Arctic Science Conference is for science junkies as a really big sale at Nordstrom's is for shopping junkies. The goodies available are enough to trigger a feeding frenzy.
So this confirmed science junkie is very happy to be bound for Valdez soon, where the 48th conference is gathering. I can't begin to guess what remarkable things will be offered there, but I hope one of them will be the sequel to a story that began for me five years ago, the last time the northernmost branch of the American Association for the Advancement of Science convened in Valdez. It's filed in my old notebooks under the informal heading, "Bloodthirsty Bunnies from Back of Beyond."
That sounds like the title of a bad movie, but it was only my private joke about some promising research. In 1991, eight young Canadians set out to study the plants and animals living on the nunataks of the St. Elias Mountains, the high… read more
This summer, while my healthy young successor in writing this column was striding across Alaska in the company of his healthy young dog, I was behaving like a middle-aged couch potato, staying home and learning how and why to shoot my middle-aged cat. That's not as bloodthirsty as it sounds. The family cat got sick, then got a surprising diagnosis: diabetes mellitus. He needs insulin shots to stay alive.
Dr. Becky Lee, a Fairbanks veterinarian who owns a diabetic cat, gave me a reassuring overview. There's no unusual plague of diabetes among pets in the north, but it's not rare. She hasn't seen it among pet rodents, has heard of it, but not seen it, occurring in ferrets, and has encountered a few dogs and several cats every year with the disease. Cats often respond well to treatment.
I didn't know cats got diabetes. In fact, I didn't know much at all about the disease. I understood that the cause of "type 1" diabetes, such as the cat's illness, was a failure of… read more
Ken Kalchert exposed plenty of eyeball a few years ago when he described one of his most vivid memories in 20 years of working on the trans-Alaska pipeline. One day, while he sat in the cab of his 18-wheeler near Galbraith Lake, a large grizzly bear lumbered below.
"He was huge," said Kalchert, my landlord and the builder of my Fairbanks cabin. "I was scared even though I was in the truck."
The bear Kalchert saw was one of Alaska's most adaptable creatures, a brown bear sometimes referred to as the barren ground grizzly.
Brown bears can live almost anywhere in Alaska. People have seen them throughout the state except for on a few islands in Southeast, the Aleutians beyond Unimak Island, and islands of the Bering Sea. Brown bears away from southern coastal areas of Alaska are often called grizzlies, though scientists consider both the same species.
The grizzlies of the treeless far north thrive in the abbreviated arctic summer with far less than… read more
Above the Salcha River, Pipeline Mile 495---Enough mosquitoes perch on my tent these nights that they could airlift Jane and I to their favorite bog if they all latched on and lifted at once. Fortunately, mosquitoes don't have very big brains. The females do have a lust for blood, though, enough to alter the behavior of man and beast.
Frank Morschel recently studied how caribou were affected by the flying devils of the north. Morschel did his research in the Alaska Range during the summers of 1994 and 1995 to earn a master's degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Morschel traveled on horseback to reach the caribou of the Delta herd, a group of caribou that spends its summers in a wide patch bordered to the north by the Tanana Flats, to the south by the Denali Highway, to the East by the Delta River, and to the west by the Parks Highway.
While wolves currently get all the press as being a major factor in the decline of caribou herds, caribou face… read more
On the south bank of the Klutina River, near Copper Center --- I'm sitting on a muddy rock, trying to think like an arctic grayling. Nothing's coming to mind.
A couple of guys expended a bit more energy trying to understand grayling in the late 1960s. They emerged with some interesting insights into the behavior of one of Alaska's most popular game fish.
Gian Vascotto, then with the University of Manitoba, and James Morrow, then a researcher with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, spent much of the summer of 1968 on their bellies, peering into McManus Creek in Interior Alaska. Using "a brushy barrier for concealment," they studied six pools of the river in great detail, lying motionless to watch grayling for up to 14 hours at a time.
In what must have been a buggy but rewarding summer, the researchers found that the biggest grayling seemed to call the shots. Large grayling always lurked closest to the bottom of the deepest pools, while smaller fish… read more
Near Pump Station 12, pipeline mile 736 --- I'm sitting in the woods, on a cushy pad of spruce cones provided by a red squirrel. The spruce tree supporting my back is dead. Dead too, is the spruce tree in front of me. The mountains surrounding me are gray with the skeletons of thousands of former spruce trees. The culprit? The spruce bark beetle.
About the size of a grain of rice, the spruce bark beetle has drastically changed the forest here. I noticed the effects of these tiny insects at my first campsite beyond Thompson Pass -- the tree I used to suspend my food away from bears was a beetle-killed spruce. I'll be witnessing their work for the next several weeks as I hike toward the Alaska Range.
How could such a tiny creature do so much damage? Before I embarked on my journey, I called Ed Holsten, a research entomologist for the U.S. Forest Service in Anchorage, who told me I'd have a hard time finding many beetles here these days. "There is very little… read more
A researcher who studies dark-eyed juncos once told me a particular junco would, after a journey of several thousand miles each spring, perch in the same Alaska valley. In the same tree. On the same branch.
How did the junco find the way back to its favorite Alaska tree branch after wintering as far away as Missouri? After conducting a simple experiment with garden warblers, a group of German researchers suggest migratory birds might use both the stars and Earth's magnetic field to navigate. Their study was detailed in a recent issue of Nature.
Biologist Peter Weindler and several colleagues at J.W. Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, studied garden warblers, a species of bird that migrates to northern Europe from Africa in springtime. As do many birds that migrate to Alaska, garden warblers fly great distances at night.
In autumn, garden warblers in northern Germany trek back to Africa, but they don't fly due south. Perhaps avoiding such… read more
Things didn't look good for the five frozen wood frogs.
The palm-sized amphibians were hibernating in a box outside Brian Barnes' Fairbanks home. Barnes, a University of Alaska Fairbanks associate professor of zoophysiology, and his students were in his living room checking a temperature gauge he recently plucked from the "frog corral." When he plugged the device into his computer, a graph spilled across the screen.
The temperature at frog level, under a few inches of snow and moss, had dipped to 10 degrees Fahrenheit in December.
"That guy's toast," Steve Trumble, a UAF graduate student, said of the particular frog whose belly the temperature recorder had been stuck to.
No one in the room doubted Trumble's dire diagnosis. According to lower 48 and Canada wood frog studies, wood frogs can't take temperatures less than about 20 degrees. Barnes' lab tests, performed on Alaska wood frogs, showed the same thing: 10 degrees is just too cold for a… read more
There's something different about the brown bears of Southeast Alaska's ABC islands.
They look like your average Alaska grizzly: milk-chocolate colored fur, a humped back, and a size and reputation that gives humans something to fear when walking the wilds of Alaska.
The difference in the brown bears of the ABC (Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof) islands isn't visible. It's in their DNA. Researchers found the bears are more closely related to polar bears than they are to other brown bears.
The bears' baffling background was discovered when Gerald Shields and Sandra Talbot of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology began analyzing the DNA of brown bears from around the world. Talbot, a graduate student, extracted DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid, the genetic information warehouse in the chromosomes of every living cell) from hundreds of Alaska brown bears. Starting with slivers of kidney or muscle tissue attained from hunting guides,… read more
Back in medical school, John Sutton never dreamed he'd someday be called "Dr. Moose."
Sutton, chief of trauma services and associate professor of surgery at Dartmouth Medical School, earned the nickname by researching what happens to drivers who collide with moose.
Sutton became Dr. Moose after giving a presentation on the mammals at a recent trauma conference. Since very few people are stabbed or shot in small-town New Hampshire, Sutton focused on injuries people receive when their vehicles hit moose. His research attracted the attention of "National Geographic," National Public Radio, the Associated Press, and Carla Helfferich, who clipped the news story for me.
Sutton studied cases of 23 patients who were admitted to New England medical centers after striking moose with their vehicles. Their injuries reflect the tendency on collision for a moose's stilt-like legs to deliver the bulk of its body to a windshield or roof: seventy percent of the patients… read more
There's a new mammal in Alaska.
When its scientific name appears in a research journal, the Alaska tiny shrew will officially join bowhead whales, brown bears, and buffalo as one of Alaska's wild creatures that grows hair and has the ability to produce milk for its young.
Though new to the list of Alaska mammals, the Alaska tiny shrew didn't recently scamper over the border. The shrew has been here a long time; but it's easy to hide when you weigh less than a dime.
The shrew's scurry to species status began in 1987. That's when Galena biologist Tim Osborne found a smaller-than-normal shrew in one of his pit traps. A pit trap is a metal cone shoved in the ground that proves inescapable to small animals that tumble in. Osborne, who still works in Galena for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, set several traps in his back yard to see what they would produce for his daughter's science project.
Osborne thought the small creature was probably an… read more
After a decade in Alaska without seeing a northern flying squirrel, I held one in my hands the other day. It was soft and velvety. Unfortunately, it was also dead.
That particular flying squirrel rests in a drawer in the basement of the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks. Gordon Jarrell, a research associate who manages the museum's mammal collection, gave me a glimpse of the stuffed flying squirrel. Few people have seen these furry kites of the forest, even though they're not rare in Alaska.
The northern flying squirrel's large, teddy-bear eyes hint at why the creature is so hard to spot--it's nocturnal. The lucky people who spot them usually see them dining at bird feeders in winter or gliding from tree to tree in the mid-summer, when the sleepless sun doesn't allow them to sail in darkness.
The northern flying squirrel performs its acrobatics everywhere there are trees in Alaska. The airborne rodent ranges as far south as California and the… read more
The neighborhood chickadees worried me the other day and the local red squirrel did nothing to ease my mind. The usually mellow chickadees attacked my bird feeder, emptying it of sunflower seeds almost as quickly as I could spill them in. A few mornings later, the squirrel woke me up with a steady tapping on my roof as it tossed down dozens of spruce cones from an overhanging tree.
It seemed as if the tiny critters had something to tell me. I wondered if they or other animals have the ability to predict what kind of winter we'll have.
I called Pierre Deviche, an associate professor of animal physiology with UAF's Institute of Arctic Biology, to find a reason for the chickadees' feeding frenzy.
The birds were busy caching seeds for later, he said. Chickadees' actions are probably regulated by internal rhythms rather than an ability to sense bad weather, Deviche said. The chickadees' bustle was perfectly normal. In a way, they were predicting that winter… read more
The office phone rang while Brian Barnes discussed with me his need for wood frogs. The caller's loudness forced Barnes, a University of Alaska Fairbanks associate professor of zoophysiology, to tilt the phone away from his ear.
"He's got some frogs," the voice boomed. "He don't wanna sell 'em. He wants to know what they eat."
The caller, a man from Fox, told Barnes that he and his son had read Barnes' unusual classified ad in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: "Wanted: Live wood frogs collected in or nearby Fairbanks. Needed for UAF study on wood frog overwintering biology. Where do they go? Will pay 25 cents for small; $1 each for large."
As father handed the phone over to son, Barnes lobbied with 8-year-old David, a student at Weller Elementary. If David sold Barnes his frogs, Barnes would tell David's class about the unique way the farthest north amphibians survive the winter. David wouldn't budge.
"He wants to keep his frogs," Barnes said,… read more
The sharp squeal of an animal in pain pierced the silence of a recent Alaska summer night. I bounded up from the couch and looked out the window. Harriet, my girlfriend's cat, sat on the lawn with a serene look on her face. In her jaws, she held a struggling snowshoe hare by the neck. The hare kicked convulsively, then died. By conservative count, Harriet has killed (and at least partially eaten) three hares and one red squirrel during the past two weeks. If Harriet, who is at least 10 years old, puts that much of a dent in the local animal population, what are the combined effects of cats on wildlife?
Researchers in places as divergent as England and Wisconsin have asked that question at least twice during the past few years. All seem to agree--house cats kill a staggering amount of wildlife.
To conduct one experiment, British scientists Peter Churcher and John Lawton gave the townspeople of Bedfordshire plastic bags in which they saved whatever their cats… read more
Cindy Gulledge pulled a vial from the laboratory refrigerator. Sitting at the bottom of the tube of clear liquid was what looked like a gray wad of chewing gum that had just been scraped off the underside of a desk.
It wasn't gum. The gray globule was the brain of a dark-eyed junco, a songbird that visits Alaska spruce forests in the summer. Gulledge, a graduate student at the University of Alaska's Institute of Arctic Biology, knows her way around a junco brain. She studies them to better understand how and why birds sing. Junco brains also give Gulledge and other researchers a simple model that can be used to gain insight on how brains control animal behavior.
Gulledge and Pierre Deviche, an IAB associate professor of animal physiology, said the wonderful songs wafting from Alaska forests are probably all coming from the beaks of male songbirds. Although it sounds as if the boy birds are crooning the joys of being alive, Deviche said songbirds are acting more… read more
By day, they shred garbage bags in the back of open pick-up trucks. By night, they gather by the hundreds in black spruce trees, digest the day's bounty and share information on where the best dumpster in town is.
Ravens, famous in mythology and a favorite winter sight of many Alaskans, are most often spotted in winter as they indulge on our discarded, or unguarded, food. But few people see them after the sun sets, and it's not just because they're the color of night.
Along with other birds such as pigeons, ravens seek the shelter and companionship of a communal roost to get them through the long Alaska winter nights.
Rod King, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Fairbanks, is one of the few people who have seen a raven roost. King recognizes a roost because of the signs ravens leave behind: snow knocked off the branches of black spruce trees and the ground below littered with feces and the eye-catching, colorful garbage… read more
Their fair-weather cousins have long since departed, migrating for warmer climes and a more varied menu. Black-capped chickadees stay, appearing as little puff balls at Alaskan's bird feeders even on the coldest days of the winter. Chickadees aren't built to take an Alaska winter, but they thrive with unique adaptations to life in the north.
Bigger is better when it comes to surviving an Alaska winter without artificial heat, said Pierre Deviche, an associate professor of animal physiology with UAF's Institute of Arctic Biology. Just like a large cup of coffee cools more slowly than a small one, a moose retains body heat more efficiently than a fox, Deviche said. A fox needs to produce more heat relative to its body size to keep warm.
Weighing about as much as a handful of paper clips, a chickadee overcomes its size disadvantage with physical adaptations and by using their tiny, black-and-white heads. Susan Sharbaugh, a doctoral student at the UAF Department of… read more
Uh oh. It's that time again, when distant, throaty honks cause Alaskans to look skyward. Migrating geese, cranes and ducks signal the end of summer as they fly in a V-shaped wedge toward warm places, like a spear being hurled out of Alaska. A physics question comes to mind amid the melancholy reflections the snow birds inspire: Why do the birds fly in formation?
Larry Gedney, a former associate professor of geophysics at the Geophysical Institute who died in 1992, explored the question in this column more than a decade ago. Gedney was told as a boy that father goose was at the head of the V-formation with his family spread out behind. Another theory is that the lead goose is breaking trail for his flock-mates, much like a front-running bicycle racer allows teammates to decrease wind resistance by drafting directly behind. When the lead goose gets pooped, he supposedly gives a honk and… read more
Pedigreed pepper spray? Handguns that heel? Bear bells with a bark?
Biologist Carrie Hunt wants to introduce an age-old tool to reduce conflicts between wild bears and humans---the dog.
Hunt, a participant at the Tenth Annual Conference on Bear Research and Management held recently in Fairbanks, thinks a special dog should do a job now assigned to rubber bullets, pepper spray and other gadgets. After becoming interested in using dogs to deter and repel bears in the early 1980's, Hunt found a breed that seems perfect for the task---the Karelian bear dog.
Just like a Labrador retriever is born nuts about ducks, Karelians enter the world with a keen sense for bears. Bear hunters have bred Karelian bear dogs for centuries in eastern Finland and western Russia. A properly trained Karelian bear dog will guard homes, camps, and people by warning bears away, according to Hunt, a biologist with federal, state and private agencies for 20 years in Montana, Wyoming… read more
My eyes water when I remember my introduction to bear-deterrent pepper spray. During Park Service bear spray training, the instructor wet a finger to the breeze, walked upwind of our group, and let go with a short, orange burst of pepper spray. The few particles that wafted our way inspired us to kill him---lucky for him, we couldn't open our sizzling eyes long enough to see where he was.
We learned that day pepper spray works on humans, but is it effective on discontent 700-pound bears moving rapidly toward you?
Stephen Herrero said yes, it is, but don't bet your life on it. Herrero, a researcher with the University of Calgary, presented results of a pepper spray study in Fairbanks recently during the Tenth International Conference on Bear Research and Management. He and Andrew Higgins combed North America for 66 examples of what happened in the field when bears were hit with a snout full of pepper spray.
Their study included black bears and brown (… read more
Alaska will have a state insect---officially---on Aug. 24. After an energetic campaign by students from the Auntie Mary Nicoli Elementary School in Aniak, the winner is the four-spot skimmer dragonfly. It mauled the mosquito. It battered the butterfly. And it bested the bumblebee in a tight contest to be the Last Frontier's official insect.
Dragonflies, also known in some parts as mosquito hawks, horse stingers and devil's darning needles, dart through the Alaskan air, tiny helicopters in search of mosquitoes and other prey. Actually, it's an insult to compare the flying ability of dragonflies with any man-made aircraft. Dragonflies can stop on a dime at 35 miles an hour, fly backward, and cut turns that are too abrupt for any human pilot to stomach.
Aerospace engineers at the University of Colorado set out to learn some of the secrets of dragonfly flight a few years ago in pursuit of a better flying machine, as was detailed in National Wildlife magazine… read more
Their staccato voices can make a wilderness muskeg bog as loud as a city street, even though most are so small they could sit in a coffee cup without scraping their noses.
They surprise hikers, who notice them hopping around in a spruce forest, nowhere near water. The wood frog, America's farthest north amphibian and one of our state's most unlikely residents, is the only species of frog living north of Southeast Alaska.
Rana sylvatica is among only six species of amphibians in Alaska, according to Amphibians and Reptiles in Alaska, the Yukon and Northwest Territories by Robert Parker Hodge, former curator at the University of Alaska Museum. While the rough-skinned newt, the northwestern and long-toed salamanders, the boreal toad and the spotted frog prefer the mild, wet climate of Southeast Alaska, the wood frog thrives throughout the state, even north of the Brooks Range. The wood frog also holds the lonely distinction of being the Yukon… read more
In the name of science, Kyle Manger and Joel Cladouhos sat down in front of Kyle's Labrador retriever, Yogi, and started to eat dinner. Almost instantly, gelatinous icicles of drool began dripping from the dog's jowls.
Instead of being grossed out, the two sophomores at Juneau-Douglas High School held a sterile glass tube under the stream and collected Yogi's saliva for use in their science fair experiment, titled "Dog Saliva: The Next Wonder Drug?"
Seven-hundred miles north, in Fairbanks, West Valley High School senior Patryce McKinney was busy reaching inside the mouths of 102 dogs to complete her award-winning science project, titled "Antibiotics and Dog Saliva."
Each of the students, who hadn't heard of one another's projects, became interested in the rumored ability of dog saliva to kill bacteria. Joel said his father works at a health clinic where a nurse said that wounds inflicted by human bites get infected more often than dog bite wounds.… read more
Jamie Barger raked his fingers through a wet mat of birch leaves and exposed a frosted floor of decomposing forest litter. His trained eye caught a familiar image---the vivid yellow and black striped abdomen of a queen yellow jacket wasp, clinging like a frozen water droplet to the underside of a leaf she'd attached herself to last fall.
Barger, a graduate student in biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, dropped the queen in a jar and resumed his search. He, along with Rutgers transfer student Jessie Seares, graduate student Gerry Zuercher and UAF Associate Professor of Zoophysiology Brian Barnes were taking advantage of a warm spring day in an attempt to understand more about Alaska's most cussed-at wasp, the yellow jacket also known as Vespula vulgaris.
A scavenger, Vespula vulgaris has a taste for garbage and good barbecues, where it often inspires screams by crawling between hamburger buns. To punish vulgaris for crashing the… read more
On a recent snowshoe through the melting snowpack of the spring woods, Science Forum reader Eric Troyer's eyes darted downward. He saw black dots, as if someone had sprinkled the snow with pepper. Moose tracks and other indentations were speckled almost solid black.
He stopped for a closer look. The dots moved. Some jumped around. The pepper was obviously alive.
The creatures Eric saw were springtails, according to Stephen MacLean, professor of biology at the University of Alaska's Institute of Arctic Biology. Most people would call them insects if they got a close look at a springtail, even though they're not considered to be true insects because of the structure of their heads and mouths. They're about as long as the edge of a quarter is thick; they have six legs; and they have no wings with which to escape predators of the forest floor, where they live.
When threatened by spiders, centipedes, or humans on snowshoe, springtails live up to their… read more
When the going gets tough in the north, the tough sometimes resort to dining on one another.
Canadian scientists conducting a study on snowshoe hare population cycles have found that in years where there aren't many hares, predators will prey upon one another rather than starve to death.
In the study, which was described in the March issue of Natural History, scientists from three Canadian universities have been radio tracking lynx and coyote for eight years in a 135 square-mile forested valley in southwest Yukon Territory. Their main mission in the study, dubbed the Kluane Boreal Forest Ecosystem Project, has been to further understand the 10-year population cycle of the snowshoe hare and its effects on predators.
The snowshoe hare, also called the varying hare because its coat changes from brown in summer to white in winter, is one of the most abundant plant-eating mammals in the boreal forests of Alaska and Canada. The hare, which was named… read more
When a long-distance musher says his favorite sled dog has a big heart, he might be describing more than the dog's loving disposition.
A team of five veterinarians from Alaska and around the country---including Jeanne Olson, a veterinarian who owns and operates Raven Veterinary Services in North Pole---found that sled dogs may develop an enlarged heart, just as human athletes sometimes do when they push themselves training for and anticipating in endurance events.
The study, which the vets volunteered their time to complete, compared 48 dogs that ran in the 1992 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race with two other groups of dogs. The Yukon Quest dogs had trained 2,000 to 3,100 miles before the race. Another group, called "lightly trained" dogs, ran from 200 to 500 miles during long-distance training. A third, the mongrels, had body types similar to the sled dogs but hadn't been on any endurance training runs.
By listening to the dogs' heart beats and… read more
For mushers who worry about the mountain of dog manure that looks more like Denali with each daily yard cleaning, Ann Rippy has a suggestion---compost it.
Rippy, an agronomist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Fairbanks (formerly the Soil Conservation Service), shares the unique job of composting dog feces in an ongoing study that began in the summer of 1993. Rippy and technicians at the Fairbanks Water and Soil Conservation District received a $17,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to help maintain local water quality, since many dog lots are on or near wetlands.
Rippy and other researchers worked with dog mushers within commuting distance of Fairbanks who were frustrated with dog yard build-up, or who were interested in using the compost as a high-nutrient soil amendment for the garden.
As is often the case with Alaska research, Rippy found little background material dealing with composting dog manure. However, she did… read more
Alaska miners take heed---where there be griffins, there may be gold. At least that's what ancient Mediterranean and Asian cultures believed, and some recent evidence may explain why.
In the November/December 1994 issue of Archaeology, folklorist Adrienne Mayor explains how the griffin, a mythological creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle, was thought by ancient prospectors to be a guardian of placer gold deposits.
In detailing her research on ancient cultures, Mayor said she was surprised by the many references to griffins. In written anecdotes and in griffin likenesses on pottery and bronze reliefs, she noticed several similarities---all the griffins had four legs and a beak, and their nests often contained gold.
Mayor wrote that what really initiated her griffin quest was the 1940's discovery of Soviet archaeologist Sergei Rudenko. Rudenko found fifth-century BC tombs in the permafrost at Pazyryk, a region where… read more
There really could be bats in your belfry this Halloween, or it turns out, they may be snuggled up in your wood pile. After talking to researchers and other bat-fans, I learned that bats may hang out in interior Alaska all winter.
Myotis lucifugus, also known as little brown bats, are one of six different species that live in Alaska and the only bat seen with any regularity in the Interior. In the Lower 48, they typically migrate from wet, buggy feeding grounds in the summer to a moist cave for hibernating in winter. Up here, biologists such as Brian Lawhead of Alaska Biological Research in Fairbanks, have found that the bats prefer similar feeding grounds, but where they spend the winter hibernating is a mystery.
Keith Price, a Salcha homesteader, has had many close encounters with little brown bats. Each summer for about the past 30 years, the bats have set up a maternity colony---where bats give birth to and raise their young---in one of his potato… read more
Thinking of buying one of those high-tech bug destroyers at off-season sale prices? Don't bother.
Among the many specialist groups communing on the Internet is an entomological discussion group--that is, a set of people who love to learn about insects. The group recently had a protracted exchange of information on these insect-killing devices, with enlightening results.
Back in the early 1970s, Dr. Richard Gorham, of the Arctic Health Research Laboratory then in Fairbanks, took an ultrasonic mosquito repeller to Sagwon on the North Slope. The machine emitted a kind of extremely high-pitched whine that supposedly sent mosquitoes far, far away. Gorham challenged that claim by testing the whiner at the height of mosquito season. A true scientist, he calibrated the mosquito density by exposing the back of his unprotected hand for five minutes, counting the number of mosquitoes that drew blood.
From that part of the experiment alone, Gorham was able to… read more
The woods around home were quieter than they should have been this autumn. The whistles and chirps from gathering flocks of south-migrating songbirds were sparse. Maybe the Interior's wild summer weather did in the birds; local birdwatchers have commented on nests being rained out this year.
But maybe it's trouble at the other end of the line. Many of Alaska's summer songbirds spend their winters far south of the U.S. border, in countries where growing human populations and struggling economies have put terrific pressures on the birds' natural habitat. So whether it's real or illusory, temporary or permanent, the decline in songbird numbers and kinds has made me especially alert to news about what could affect Alaska's birds when they're not living in Alaska.
Would you believe--coffee?
That's a flippant synopsis of the conclusions of a serious study. Four years ago, Russell Greenberg of the Smithsonian Institution's Migratory Bird Center in Washington,… read more
The mail held an oversized envelope with a return address showing it was from Dr. Gerald F. Shields, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks. From my viewpoint, the envelope held good news: the results of Shields' studies in genetic analysis are once again upsetting the standard views of how the world works.
In this case, much of the work has been done by Shields' graduate student Sandra Talbot. For four years, Talbot has been studying populations of brown bears by means of laboratory research in molecular biology.
Biologists in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game formed a network of collectors for the project, gathering samples of blood, skin, or other tissue from hunter-killed bears and bears captured for radio collaring. Talbot needed only tiny bits of the bears, because she was using a new technique that replicates genes of interest so that sufficient quantities of DNA have been produced for her to study.
Once Talbot had… read more
Wisecracks about baked Alaska notwithstanding, in the Interior we've had the mother of all summers. The other day I was braving the 90-degree heat to scrape aphid clusters off the daisies while ducking buzz-bombing yellow jackets, and I began wondering about the possible effects of global warming on northern insects. For example, the local entomologists have assured Fairbanksans that the hornet hordes come to us courtesy of the preceding mild winter; too many fertile queens hibernated safely through the cold season, so now we have their numerous offspring to battle. But what about other insects? What about the aphids?
Hallelujah--an excuse to get away from the bugs and do some reading!
I soon found a pertinent report. British entomologists have worked for the last three years on the buggy denizens of northern Spitsbergen, the main island of the Svalbard Archipelago in the European Arctic. At 79 degrees north latitude, the entomologists' study area is about as… read more
Zoologist Valerius Geist seems to be hung up on horns. As director of the Environmental Science Program at the University of Calgary in Alberta, he became interested in mammals with horns during his first year of field studies. He summed up some of what he has learned about the meaning of horns and antlers in a recent issue of Natural History magazine. Horns, which are permanent bone-based growths, and antlers, which are shed annually, are used for more than decorative purposes by their possessors; they can be used as weapons.
In the early 1960s, Geist spent months at a time observing the behavior of mountain goats--which is more closely related to pronghorn antelope than to true goats--in northern British Columbia. After the mating season in early winter, dominant females with kids chased other goats away from prime feeding grounds. The goats were quick to use their sharp horns in these territorial disputes, and the horns made nasty weapons. Mountain goats of… read more
People who know such things have assured me that few tourists read these columns. Good. That makes it possible to discuss here some matters better kept private among Alaskans--matters such as the nasty side of sea otters.
We all appreciate that sea otters are right up there with giant pandas for pure critter appeal. It wouldn't do for our visitors to think these bewhiskered, back-floating charmers are anything but delightful. Granted, shore-dwelling folks from Ketchikan to Akutan may sometimes make rude remarks at frolicking otters. If caught by an alert visitor, these folks can simply explain that otters consume quantities of things that people also would like to eat, such as crabs, shrimp, clams, and suchlike. A little hostility is understandable, because otters are both efficient hunters and prodigious eaters. To keep warm in the cold waters where they live, the otters need more than their splendid pelts; they also need to burn calories galore.
But no matter… read more
Science isn't moving nearly fast enough to keep up with politics. That, at least, is the conclusion I came to after reading a technical paper in the journal Ecology.
Written by Francois Messier, a member of the biology department at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, the paper reviews a great many publications on and near the subject of its title: "Ungulate population models with predation: a case study with the North American moose."
You can probably figure out why the title made me think of politics. Just in case you've been in Bora Bora or Tashkent for the past few years, let's say simply that predator control has been a subject of heated debate in Alaska's political circles. A bill recently signed into law---Senate Bill 77---codifies one aspect of predator control, by formally adopting the opinion that human consumption is the highest and best use of game animals.
That assumption of what constitutes best use is a political one. It… read more
When the sun slipped north of the equator at the spring equinox, some of Alaska's seasonal residents began getting organized for their great trek northward. No, I don't mean birds, nor even construction workers. These travelers are the mightiest migrators of all, the great whales. And this year, we may be welcoming more whales than at any time since the whaling fleet left our coasts. At long last, it looks as if Alaska's biggest mammals are regaining their numbers.
Consider, for example, the gray whales. Often called California grays, particularly by denizens of that smaller state to the southeast of us, our gray whales spend the winter in Mexican lagoons and summer in the shallower reaches of the Bering Sea and points north. Once apparently on the brink of extinction, the eastern Pacific population of these big bottom feeders has now recovered so well that the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service has requested gray whales' removal from the endangered species list.… read more
I was thumbing through a recent issue of the journal Arctic the other day when I suddenly remembered a poem. No, the publication of the Arctic Institute of North America has not decided to add rhymes to its studies of far-northern matters. Rather, one of the articles answered a question posed in an early attempt at poetry from daughter #1: The snow does fall/The wind does blow/I wonder where the white hares go?
Probably all of us some time have thought about creatures who brave winter's worst without benefit of walls, roof, or windows, without even campfires or long underwear. How do they do it? Some of us have thought pretty seriously---hunters, trappers, long-distance mushers, for example---but most of us are happy to give a shiver of sympathy and let it go at that.
At least one scientist was unwilling to let it go at that. Thus the article that caught my eye: "Behavioral adaptations to arctic winter: shelter seeking by arctic hare (Lepus arcticus)" by… read more
I can't pass some things by. Book sales always stop me. So do articles about dinosaurs, especially when they have some relevance to Alaska and the north. And, like any dinosaur-besotted child, I can't resist passing on what I learn.
What entangled me in the pages of a recent issue of the American Association for the Advancement of Science publication Science had to do---yet again---with the dinosaurs' demise. More is found daily about the catastrophe that marked the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary eras of geologic time. The asteroid that struck Earth then was perhaps even bigger than first thought, and could have created even more damage.
But was it the right kind of damage to kill off the dinosaurs? The standard scenario has dust hurled skyward from the impact blocking the sun's light and heat, leading to a planetary deep-frozen darkness lasting for months at least, years at most. According to this scenario, the dinosaurs froze to death in… read more
Scientific careers usually follow reasonably predictable paths. A beginning would-be researcher undertakes studies with increasingly narrow focus, starting in classes with titles like "Introduction to Geology" or "Biology 101" and concluding with an individual research project covering a tiny slice of the universe.
The danger then, as a scientist friend of mine once put it, "is that you get to know more and more about less and less. If I keep at it long enough, I expect to know absolutely everything about nothing whatsoever. Then there are careers in science like that of Kathy Turco. Her name may seem familiar to long-time readers of this column because a couple of years ago she reported here on work underway: her thesis research on the thermoregulation of walruses.
As she tells it, she grew fascinated with walruses' ability to stay warm while watching them surge from the chill of the Beaufort Sea into the even colder winter air. Even more fascinating was an… read more
Every northerner knows ravens are smart. In the early beliefs of Scandinavians, ravens perched on the shoulders of the chief of gods, whispering wisdom gained on far-seeing flights. Native Alaskans told of Raven who brought light to humankind, clever Raven who could fool chiefs and spirits, wise raven who liberated infant humankind from its imprisoning shell.
In contemporary conversations, we swap smart-raven stories, how they snitched windshield wiper blades in North Pole, how they slid on their tail feathers down snow chutes above Dutch Harbor, how they figured out which fast-food places offered the best pickings in Southeast. Everyone has raven stories. Everyone knows they're smart.
But try to prove that.
The problem is that virtually brainless behavior can look intelligent. Consider honeybees, for example. They live within complex social structures; they construct geometrically precise and functionally effective homes; they even communicate… read more
I caught some razzing recently from an Australian friend who thought perhaps I was a little over- enthusiastic about the far north. "It's not really the center of the universe," she said.
Foo. She's just bitter because north-polar projection maps, the best kind, don't show Australia at all. The north usually plays some role in almost any matter. Consider the dinosaurs, for example.
No, it' s not that the north had something to do with the extinction of those giant reptiles. The best evidence is that about 65 million years ago, a huge chunk of celestial debris smashed into our planet, and the ensuing catastrophes put an end to the dinosaur family, among many others. Most, but not all, scientists think that the main body of that deadly asteroid hit the northern edge of the Yucatan Peninsula in what is now Mexico. Northern Yucatan isn't part of what we think of as the real north, so our preferred turf can't take any credit for the departure of the dinosaurs.… read more
"Saw a couple of them near the foot of the hill today," said one of the neighbors early this summer. A few days later, another neighbor called around with an update: "They're up as far as the bend in the road," he said. "Shouldn't be long now." Days later, the good news finally came: "They're here. Had a half a dozen dragonflies cruising the parking lot when I got home this evening."
Someone overhearing the neighborhood residents might think we're awaiting a liberating army rather than some oversized flying insects, but in a way, those insects are liberators. Once the dragonfly fleets make their way uphill, the local mosquito population falls dramatically.
Where I grew up, big dragonflies were called "mosquito hawks" for very good reason. Dragonflies and their cousins, the generally smaller but similar damselflies, catch and consume quantities of flying pests. (The easiest way to tell the cousins apart is to watch them at rest. Dragonflies sit with their wings… read more
On a warm day of my first spring in Alaska many long years ago, a friend took me for a hike through a patch of early flowers. I spotted a bee working among the blossoms. It was the skinniest, silliest-looking honeybee I ever saw. I commented on the poor creature's condition, which made my Alaska-born friend laugh. That's not a bee, she said. It's a hoverfly. Those little guys and bumblebees do about all the pollinating that gets done in the north.
She was right, but my mistake was understandable. Hoverflies do look a little like small, scrawny bees, though they seem to fly more like miniature helicopters. They hover in midair, wings an invisible blur, between forays onto flowers.
She also was right about pollinators. Most of us believe that pollen gets carried from plant to plant by domestic honeybees, without which it would be a flowerless world. Yet the world of flowers needs a whole array of pollinators, from butterflies and hummingbirds to bats and carrion… read more
As February meanders into March and winter threatens to drag on forever, my reading tends toward science in the tropics. I want to know about warmth, and greenness, and people clever enough to work productively in the winter-free zone. Of course, I'm happy to share what I find with fellow Alaskans also waiting, waiting, waiting for spring.
I recently found a research project to rank high on the list of "What I'd Be Doing Now If I'd Done Better in School." It involves warmth and unfrozen waters. It's even reasonably important, for the hard-working scientists whose report I read are studying a highly endangered animal and its interactions with humans. Russell K. Miya and George H. Balazs, with the assistance of some students and technicians, have been observing green sea turtles that have taken up a new habitat in nearshore Hawaiian waters: Waikiki Beach.
Yes, for their project, these National Marine Fisheries Service researchers had to pay visit after visit to… read more
Life is hard for snowshoe hares. They live in a tough country---ours. These big-footed bunnies are found where winters are harsh. They eat tough food, preferring certain types of woody plants. The plants fight back; heavily browsed willows and birches apparently crank out hare-sickening chemicals in defense.
Even more hazardous than severe weather and cantankerous food are the hares' predatory neighbors. Lynx are so fond of hare diets that the big cats' populations closely follow the years-long cyclical surge and decline of hare numbers, but weasels, martens, foxes, wolves, coyotes, owls, hawks, and just about every other predator in the north also happily hunt hares.
Assessing the role of predators in the hares' population cycles was the crux of some research that began in 1989 near Kluane Lake in the Yukon Territory. As part of the Kluane Boreal Forest Ecosystem Project, the husband and wife team of Mark O'Donoghue and Susan Stuart studied the ecology of… read more
Houseflies seem to have a mysterious power to transcend the cold. Give them a little heat, and they'll behave in January as if it were August. Earlier this winter, an acquaintance heated up an outbuilding that had been chilled to 20 below, and found the place buzzing with dozens of thawed-out flies within just a few hours.
Many northern buggy beasts can live in deathlike dormancy through bitter cold, then thaw into pestiferous life as soon as temperature permits. Arctic woolly bear caterpillars can stay frozen solid, at temperatures down to -50oC (-58oF), for as long as ten months without damage. Our multilegged denizens aren't the only ones to master the freeze-thaw life cycle. It's possible to find frozen frogs, showing all the vital signs of granite, burrowed into the equally frozen mud in some Interior lakes.
Normally, freezing is deadly for living things. Ice crystals burst through cell and capillary walls, disrupting delicate… read more
A familiar name caught my eye in the December issue of the journal Arctic: Fairbanks biologist Ray Cameron, collaborating with others in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, published an article called Redistribution of Calving Caribou in response to Oil Field Development on the Arctic Slope of Alaska.
The hassles over how petroleum development affects caribou have been going on for decades, and show no sign of easing. Mostly they've been expressions of opinion backed by extrapolation from a scanty supply of fact. Cameron and colleagues confront that problem in their first paragraph. They note that calving caribou seemed to be avoiding the Prudhoe Bay area, "suggesting a causal relationship between oil field presence and low caribou abundance." But the authors make it clear that suggestions is as far as science can go because "comparable pre-development observations were lacking, and the data remained equivocal."
That's a nice choice of words,… read more
Alaska, some scientists claim, is catastrophe country. Glaciers grind hills into valleys, and volcanoes spew enough ash to fill them up again. Earthquakes sink whole beaches in some places and uplift others into cliffs. Between extreme climate and unsettled terrain, Alaska makes for a high-risk homeland for living things.
Halfway around the earth, another bit of the north could challenge us for catastrophes. The island nation of Iceland sits astraddle the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a great seam in the earth's structure. The sides of this seam are lurching apart, letting new molten rock well up from within to fill the gap. Most of this activity takes place far beneath the Atlantic Ocean, but at Iceland the ridge rides the surface. So here too, volcanoes spew and glaciers grind over quake-raddled ground.
All this activity helped form Iceland's largest lake, Thingvallavatn. "Thing" here doesn't mean Whatchamacallit; in Icelandic, the word is used in its very old sense of… read more
Deep in darkest Florida, north of Hurricane Andrew's damage but well south of frosts, another precedent is emerging in environmental law. Once again, an endangered species is catching the blame for halting economic development. But this is no case of the spotted owl versus the timber industry. This is Roger Lambert versus the turtle dumpers, or tortoise dumpers, actually. The endangered species in question is the gopher tortoise. (The rule of thumb is that turtles are water-living beasts, found in swamps or seas depending on their kind, while tortoises live on land.)
A full-grown gopher tortoise has a domed shell about the diameter of a dinner plate. Gopher tortoises look a bit like old-fashioned helmets without soldiers underneath as they go creeping through the grassy country they favor. They are great at digging, as their common name implies, and have shovel-like front feet. They have fairly elaborate courtship procedures, involving much bobbing and weaving of necks… read more
Most funding for scientific studies comes from government agencies, which means most science must somehow follow priorities set by those agencies. Usually that works well enough: whatever needs studying eventually gets studied, because somewhere an agency recognizes the need.
In U.S. science, there's an odd exception to that premise. No agency concerns itself with the medical problems of pet animals. If it's a disease of cattle, sheep, or even honeybees, the Department of Agriculture would be interested. If it's an animal sickness with implications for humans, then the National Institutes of Health would write the check. If it affects the top predator in an ecosystem, then the National Science Foundation would consider the proposal. But if it gives your beloved golden retriever the sniffles, don't call Uncle Sam.
That, at least, is the rather gloomy (and surprising) picture I draw from an article in a recent issue of The Scientist, a biweekly newspaper… read more
Southeastern Alaska sometimes deserves the envy of the rest of the state. Its scenery is everywhere magnificent, it has mild winters, plenty of fish, ships full of cash-carrying tourists, and hummingbirds.
Granted, not many people find hummingbirds to be as impressive as tidewater glaciers or monster king salmon, but a resident hummer zipping around the flowers is a marvelous addition to any garden. It's easy to see why hardware stores from Cordova to Ketchikan stock red-nozzled nectar dispensers for luring these shimmering little buzzbombs.
And they are little. A full-grown rufous hummingbird, the one species venturing into Alaska, measures about 3 1/2 inches from bill-tip to tail-end, and flared tail feathers and needle-thin bill take up much of those few inches.
Despite their puny size, rufous hummingbirds make long migrations. The hummingbird flaunting his fox-colored feathers in a springtime Juneau garden probably spent the winter well south of… read more
An observation came from a friend who had visited the national capitol. "It was nice, of course, but some of the monuments were grubbier than I expected." I didn't pay much attention to her comment at the time; Washington, D.C., is a major modern city as well as a virtual historical park, and major cities are dirty. It was no surprise that federal clean-up crews couldn't keep up with the crud.
That conversation took place a few years ago, but it returned to mind recently when I read an article in the May/June 1992 issue of Wildlife. It turns out that the Lincoln Memorial, at least, wasn't dirty mainly because of city grime. The mighty marble version of Honest Abe was playing host to a simple but populous ecosystem, leaving the monument befouled---and even endangered---by the by-products of life.
This chain of life began with midges, tiny flying insects that find the warm and once swampy Washington area a comfortable home. In their flying phase of life,… read more
Ants are hard to like. They are leggy, nippy, creepy-crawlies who get in where they don't belong and can act like characters in our worst nightmares---think of columns of army ants stripping the tropical countryside! Yet, they are also capable of the most fascinating behavior, complex activities that seem little short of incredible for tiny animals that are hardly more than armor-plated reflexes.
One of the most mind-boggling things I've ever learned was that some ants keep aphids the way dairy farmers keep cows. The mind was very young at the time, and easily boggled, but it was an astounding fact.
If ants were thoughtful creatures, aphid ranching would be logical behavior. But ants don't reason. They haven't the brain power. For both protected aphid and well-fed ant, the cooperative arrangement is the result of trial and error, gene and enzyme, luck and evolution, all operating over millennia piled atop one another. Somehow, ants' simple programming tidily… read more
The newspaper headline read, "Scientists track slime mold in space." For a wild moment, I thought my early suspicions were confirmed: a critter as preposterous as a slime mold must come from outer space. But no. The Associated Press story beneath the headline explained that slime molds were among the experimental organisms sent up from Earth on a recent space shuttle flight. Drat.
Part of my difficulty in accepting slime molds as ordinary denizens of this world may come from the way in which I first encountered them. A university colleague showed slides of her field work in California, and among her photos was one depicting a gray blobby animal that looked like an odd slug.
"Banana slug?" I asked, knowing those were found in California.
"Nope," she said. "Slime mold. Biggest one I've ever seen."
Now, obviously the thing in the photograph was crawling, or at least oozing, over twigs and leaves. No mold I knew of could move under its own power,… read more
In nature, everything is looking for a way--and a place--to make a living. Leave a field unplowed, and it becomes a meadow; leave the meadow untended, and forest returns. Kill off timber wolves, and coyotes move in.
Another example of this pattern has been uncovered by a researcher working in the Ungava region of Labrador. Alasdair Veitch, a Ph.D. student of zoology at the University of Alberta, presented an informal report on the matter in "Information North," a newsletter from the Arctic Institute of North America.
Veitch's study area is wild and remote, even by Alaska standards. He worked close to the east coast, near 59 degrees north latitude. His base camp was the old Moravian mission known as Hebron, abandoned in 1959. The nearest permanent settlement is now Nain, 200 kilometers south along the coast.
The tree line lies a few inlets to the south along the coast, but below Nain inland. North Ungava is tundra country. Veitch's original aim was to… read more
Whoever coined "birdbrain" as an epithet meaning "stupid" didn't live in interior Alaska. As I write this, a fine blizzard is howling outdoors, scouring fields that hold no birds. All the cranes and geese flew south; most of the people didn't.
To be fair, avian migration isn't a thoughtful process, even if it does look like a wise choice by this time of year. And it isn't undertaken primarily to escape from the cold. If they stayed in the high latitudes through winter, most of our transient bird species would starve before they'd freeze. Scientists understood that migrating birds sought wintering grounds that were good feeding grounds, and assumed that the tropics provided especially abundant food because so many birds flew that far.
The problem with that assumption is that sometimes birds bound for the tropics fly past food-rich areas in the temperate zone. They even fly past flocks of conspecifics, birds of the same kind apparently doing perfectly well on… read more
In 1900, millions of rhinoceroses walked the earth. In 1991, about 11,000 remain, divided among two African species and three Asian ones. They've been hunted almost to extinction because their horns are coveted for Chinese folk medicines and Yemeni dagger handles.
Rhino horns aren't particularly good for either purpose, but human desires needn't be based on reality. The craving for rhino horn is backed by money: an adult African rhino's nose ornament, which can weigh ten pounds, is worth $2000 a pound in Taiwan. The trade is illegal under international law, yet the potentially enormous profits keep sales going.
According to a recent article in Bioscience magazine, the nations of Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia have strived to control poaching and habitat destruction threatening their rhinoceroses. Armed guards and watchful patrols are maintaining stable or even increasing rhinoceros populations in those countries.
But the rhino-protection… read more
There are two things I don't like about fishing for fun and food in Alaska's seas. I enjoy reading while I'm waiting my turn with the poles (or waiting out the weather), and it's tough finding the right thing to read while I wait. The bounding main is no place to study tough stuff, but a compelling spy story isn't right either---inevitably someone will hook a big halibut just when the fictional spy is in deepest danger.
Then there's the problem of the Mystery Catch. "Yeah," the skipper will say as we con-template a strange scaly beast with a big mouth and a baleful expression. "That's one of your fram-mistated greenocks. Make good eating unless you don't clean 'em right. Had a cat die once after it ate just a bit of greenock liver...Come to think of it, maybe it was a semipalmated greenock that time." Many a Mystery Catch has been returned to the sea after expert advice like that.
I now have a cure for both problems, thanks to Tina Wyllie-Echeverria, a graduate… read more
Just as the dragonflies began to cut down the appalling hordes of mosquitoes encouraged by the Interior's record snowpack, the magazine Natural History came out with a whole issue devoted to the buzzing bloodsuckers. This, I thought, was good timing; a couple of weeks ago, I couldn't have contemplated the subject rationally, but now I could learn a thing or two.
Among the items I'd never considered was how mosquitoes decide to bite. It's not a thoughtful process; as I learned, a mosquito brain is about the size of the period concluding this sentence---pretty inadequate equipment for making decisions. Instead, they operate on physics and chemistry.
Chemical traces in the air tell a hungry adult female mosquito that an appropriate victim is in the vicinity. If the intended prey is wearing an effective repellent, the sensors on her antennae may be confused, but animals do exude many chemical clues---ask any bloodhound. And a mosquito is a determined seeker… read more
Though it once seemed impossible, the snow has finally left our gardens. The mud is drying, the plants are growing, and so are the insects that aim to eat our vegetables before we do.
With good seasonal timing, Science magazine has just printed an article to stir hope in gardeners who are not looking forward to the summer-long battle with the bugs. The subject is an unusual term likely to become very familiar over the next few years: biopesticides.
Biological pest control agents are not new, in either human experience or the natural world. Alaskans, for example, repel mosquitoes by burning products having an active ingredient--pyrethrin--obtained from pyrethrum daisies. And just as there are germs and parasites that make people sick, so too are there germs and parasites that make insects sick. The trick has been to find and tame them.
The first modern biopesticide was employed about forty years ago, when researchers found a bacterial disease that… read more
Say "pike" to Alaskans, and they're likely to think of a big swift fish easily found--but not so easily caught--in northern lakes. Say "pike" to Australians, and they're likely to think only of ancient weaponry--unless they pay keen attention to ichthyological developments Down Under. A member of the pike family of fishes has turned up in Australia's southwestern corner, according to "Geo," a quarterly journal reminiscent of "National Geographic" but devoted to the region extending from southeast Asia through the South Pacific islands.
The relationship isn't obvious. A good-sized northern pike may be the size of a big man's leg; the Australian variety wouldn't exceed his finger. It's slow moving, seems to lack its northern cousin's ferocity, and even appears to blush.
The fish has had plenty of time to develop some peculiarities. The last time the northern and southern branches of the pike clan, technically the Esocoidei, could have hung out together is earlier… read more
No sooner had I finished writing about Earth's mid-Cretaceous hot spell recently than I got more information relevant to the subject. (The writing took place last week, but your newspaper's editor decides when, if ever, to run the column.) The journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution for January 1991 offers "Polar Dinosaurs and Ancient Climates," by British geologist Michael Benton. The article features Alaska's own giant, but long-gone reptiles.
When dinosaurs lived in Alaska, beginning in the mid-Cretaceous age, Earth's climate was warm into the high latitudes because of the greenhouse effect--volcanic activity had loaded the atmosphere with carbon dioxide: so I said in my column, following the more knowledgeable author Richard Kerr, writing in Science magazine. But I didn't say how warm, chiefly because the Science article didn't tell me.
The "Trends" article… read more
For northerners, the harbingers of returning spring aren't the welcome birds. We know warm weather is on the way when the first sluggish mosquitoes set out from hibernation, eager to drill our veins. And we know too that they are only the outriders of hungry, buzzing, hateful hordes to come.
Fellow sufferers, take heart: science is working on our revenge against the foul mosquito. If the research of Stanford University's Leon Rosenberg pans out, eventually there'll be a way to visit sure death on any mosquito biting a human being. The punishment will fit the crime, without our having to lift a finger in retribution.
Rosenberg set out not to pursue justice, only health---bovine health at that. Cattle are subject to an array of tick-borne diseases. If a tick bites a germ-laden cow, it takes in disease organisms along with its meal of bovine blood, then introduces the organisms to the next cow it attacks. Rosenberg worked on breaking the chain.
His… read more
Come spring, the woods are full of apparent nonsense. All over the world, male birds sing, flash bright feathers, flaunt fancy plumes, build structures, and even dance to lure potential mates. Noise, color, and motion are all great ways to attract predators; singing and dragging excess feathers through the air take extra energy. A sensible female bird shouldn't look twice at a male guilty of such high-risk behavior. Who'd want to chance raising a family with an energy-wasting, danger-luring showoff?
Just about every female bird on the planet, that's who. They flock to the showoffs. If they have a choice, usually they'll pair up with the showiest male they can find.
Evolutionary biologists have debated for years about why apparently negative features should be judged so positively by female birds. According to the British journal Nature, three hypotheses dominate the argument.
One holds that the features are essentially arbitrary signals; according… read more
Hovering seems like a strenuous activity, and common sense suggests it should require greater exertion to stay aloft in one spot than to move forward at a moderate pace. Only at higher speed, when atmospheric drag is also higher, should forward flight and hovering cost the same amount of energy.
A standard theory of animal aerodynamics does hold that a flying animal uses about as much energy to hover as it does in fast flight. Theories exist to be tested, but how could one test this hypothesis?
With great difficulty, it turns out. The standard means of quantifying an animal's energy consumption is by measuring its oxygen uptake. Now, if your study animal is a human being, measuring oxygen consumption becomes a pretty straightforward problem. You need merely convince your experimental subject to wear a device like a gas mask, covering nose and mouth, while walking on a treadmill or otherwise exercising. The automated measurements of oxygen consumption are made by… read more
If I were a gold miner, I'd probably be investigating the cost of nets. No, not because fishing looks more profitable than mining, but because miners soon might need a way to fend off bats.
Wait, now. This is not the introduction to a horror movie in which hardy prospectors are pursued by flitting hordes that have mistaken our heroes for giant mosquitoes. It's another example of new technology confusing evolved behavior.
Modern, large-scale gold mines like the ones now operating near Fairbanks use a technique known as heap leaching to coax fractions of an ounce of flour-fine gold from tons of rock. Cyanide is the indispensable ingredient in the leaching fluid, and cyanide-tainted water is the inescapable by-product. Cyanide is poisonous, so the solution is kept in lined ponds. It can't flow away to other water bodies or soak into the water table.
Wandering wildlife or would-be swimmers can be kept at bay with fences. But the ponds are open to the air,… read more
Maybe because they're not around to tie up traffic, dinosaurs seem to be everybody's favorite animal. It's as true for scientists as schoolchildren---and for scientists who work on them, there's the added career advantage that no live dinosaur will show up to dispute an appealing theory about the big reptiles.
However, deciphering the scanty evidence dinosaurs have left behind in the rocks is iffy enough to keep argument alive among human interpreters of the fossil record. Consider, for example, the debate over some dinosaur features.
It started with stegosaurs. A distinctive feature of this dinosaur family is a row of bony plates jutting upright from their backs. The plates looked like defensive armor, useful if odd-looking protection against taller predatory saurians that might bite down on a stegosaur's spinal column. That was pretty much the assumption until about ten years ago---after all, dinosaurs tried lots of defensive structures that look odd to us… read more
When the Berlin Wall fell, it marked the real end at last of World War II and signalled a dramatic winding down of the Cold War. Germans wept for joy; people who'd never been to Germany and never wanted to go wept along with them. The falling wall was a powerfully positive symbol worldwide.
Yet, as a recent issue of the British journal Nature explains, the best of events can have unhappy repercussions. When Gerrnany was divided, the line was marked by a harsh no-man's land, a swathe accurately called "the death strip." From north to south, a guarded zone lay just within the East German border. Six hundred kilometers long and five kilometers wide, it was forbidding territory, inhabited only by armed and wary patrols prepared to shoot first, ask questions later.
Land forbidden to people becomes a haven for wildlife. In densely populated Europe, the death strip became a refuge. East Germany also held other areas closed to the public---the private hunting… read more
Things got a bit exciting around our house the other evening. The big cat came in through his little cat door carrying a grouse. A live, healthy, adult grouse. After a brief period of tumult and some bad language in the voices of three species, the bird left through the human-sized door. It was short of feathers and dignity but otherwise seemed well.
I had considerable time to muse upon the situation while I cleaned up scattered feathers. The cat and I have an uneasy truce about his hunting. I don't much care for it. Yet I understand that he is trying to contribute his fair share to family support when he brings critters home; we open cans for him, he brings home fresh meat for us, undismayed by our refusal to eat it. His skill has other values as well. There are no rabbits in the family cabbage patch, no squirrels in our insulation, no voles in the pantry. They keep their distance, or become cat food.
Despite his skills, he seldom catches some animals of… read more
I have a very environmentally conscious friend in Hawaii. She recycles everything she can; she treads carefully when she walks in the woods; she eats a lot of whole grains and very little meat. And far in the back of her undersink cabinet she keeps a can of lethal, do-not-breathe-ever insecticide. It's like a skeleton in her closet, for more reasons than the small skull and crossbones symbol she's pasted on it.
"I hate the stuff," she said. "But it works. And this is cockroach country. They'd carry me off if I didn't use it, or something just as awful."
In some ways Alaskans are better off than Hawaiians. If we're a bit careless with our garbage, we're more likely to draw bears than cockroaches. Still, we must deal with some invading and unwelcome creepy-crawlies in homes and camps. I too have a can of awful stuff I hate to use--but when the carpenter ants come marching in, I use it.
There may now be a product for people who'd like to keep the bugs at… read more
Like many children, I was fascinated by dinosaurs from the moment I toddled into my first natural history museum. The hardest thing to accept was that--except for the tyrannosaurs in my nightmares--none of them were left. How could an entire family of creatures that had ruled the earth for millions of years vanish so completely?
The theory popular back then blamed the upstart mammals for eating dinosaur eggs. I didn't buy that, I couldn't see mouse-size beasties gnawing through tough cannonball-size eggs. I blamed volcanoes--chiefly because of a vivid painting showing a family of duckbilled dinosaurs (like those that left fossilized remains in northern Alaska) watching from a verdant bog as great rivers of lava and ash flowed toward them from a line of erupting cones.
The prevalent view now is that dinosaurs were the victims of a celestial collision, and the evidence seems convincing. About 66 million years ago, something stunning happened on Earth. Before then… read more
Releasing a mass of multicolored helium balloons as part of public celebrations is poor form. The balloons look gorgeous, but we now realize they're litter in the making--sometimes dangerous litter at that, since curious animals may eat the deflated remnants when they descend to earth or sea.
To celebrate Earth Day this year, the citizens of Sitka were able to incorporate a splendid replacement for a balloon launch: they released bald eagles.
Sitka is home for the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center, and bald eagles are the center's specialty. Eagle releases are nothing new to center personnel; they see successful freeing of these great birds as their chief reason for existing. Over the decade the center has been working with ill and injured raptors, they've retumed over 60 healed eagles to the wild, including a dozen this spring alone. Other eagles, beyond rehabilitation for one reason or another, have gone to zoos and captive breeding programs Outside.… read more
"The thing about field work," said my friend Beth Bergeron recently, "is that you rack up experiences stay-at-home types wouldn't believe." She was back on solid ground after weeks aboard the university's research vessel Alpha Helix, where her technical expertise keeps numbers flowing accurately from an array of sensitive electronic equipment.
The ship had passed the Barren Islands on its way home to Seward when, according to Bergeron, "the bridge called down and said there were fins off to starboard. Big fins. Way off. Not killer whales."
With that kind of bait, both the scientific and ship crews quickly agreed that a little change in course was appropriate. The vessel's decks grew crowded with people all humming the theme from the movie "Jaws." Those were big fins indeed, and they were unmistakably the proper shape for shark fins--the arch of a dorsal, the curve of a tail lobe.
The Alpha Helix had found a shark, all right, but not… read more
Don Schell does isotopes. That means when he says you are what you eat, he's speaking factually, and in a special sense.
From his base at the Institute of Northern Engineering of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Schell studies isotope ratios in the tissues of different kinds of northern animals. It's informative work, thanks to the property of plants to pick and choose among different isotopes of carbon.
Almost 99 per cent of all naturally occurring carbon has an atomic mass number of 12; almost all the rest is a heavier isotope, carbon 13, with a smidgin of radioactive carbon 14. As a plant takes in carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, it slightly alters the initial proportions of the carbon isotopes. In the marine environment, geographic differences in environmental conditions cause distinct geographic signatures in the isotope ratios of the plants. These isotopic signatures are conservative; that is, they can be traced through the food… read more
Years ago, a friend of mine took a snapshot of a flying bird. The photograph isn't great, but the bird is: it looks sculptured, artificial, a composition in colors of fog and cloud. It's also huge.
"That bird looked like a cross between a seagull and a Cessna," my friend reported. He wasn't far wrong, at least about size. With a wingspan that can exceed 11 feet, the wandering albatross is the largest seabird in the world.
But it doesn't wander every sea. My friend took his photograph from the deck of a ship nearing Antarctica, in the most likely waters to find these rare birds. They live only in the Southern Hemisphere, usually very far south.
That limitation has given me occasional regrets, since I'd like to see one of these giants someday. Other kinds of albatross visit Alaska waters; why not wandering ones? Why are they so stubbornly southern?
The answer has been found. French scientists Pierre Jouventin and Henri Weimerskirch, who… read more
Scientists can be an amazing lot. Sometimes it seems to me they thrive on difficulty. Take, for example, the work I saw in a poster at the recent Ocean Sciences Conference, which is a joint meeting of the American Geophysical Union and the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography. Three scientists set themselves the problem of figuring out how an invisible animal feeds.
Properly speaking, the tiny marine animal in question isn't invisible. It's just transparent--so transparent that it makes a typical jellyfish seem as obvious as a gob of peanut butter.
The subject of the study conducted by C.C. Morris, D. Deibel, and P.F. Flood is the larvacean tunicate Oikopleura. These tunicates are only a few millimeters long; a big one may reach ten millimeters (still less than half an inch). Most of that largely gelatinous speck is surrounded by a filmy veil of mucous that the animal excretes---the so-called house--which struck some early observer as being like… read more
Sentimental parents may complain that children grow up too quickly, but no human child leaves home as swiftly as the offspring of a little northern seabird. Two days after hatching, chicks of the ancient murrelet flee their nests, never to return.
Members of the auk family--the Northern Hemisphere's answer to the penguin clan--ancient murrelets are found all along North Pacific shores, from China and Korea through the Aleutians, southcentral and southeastern Alaska, and British Columbia. Small creatures themselves, with adults weighing about half a pound, they feed far from land on the much smaller animals comprising the zooplankton.
We share the planet with perhaps a million ancient murrelets; nearly half of them breed in British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands. That is where Canadian zoologist Tony Gaston spent four years studying them, as he reports in the magazine Natural History.
Reef Island, where Gaston worked with student Ian Jones, seems a… read more
Charley the cold-nosed caribou doesn't have quite the same ring as Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, but why shouldn't caribou qualify for places on Santa's sled team? Are there any true differences between caribou and reindeer?
There's only one really good answer: ten thousand years of domestication.
Caribou certainly look like reindeer. Both female reindeer and female caribou grow antlers; they are the only deer-family females that can do so. Both animals are classified taxonomically under the same Latin name, Rangifer tarandus, which means that scientists think they are the same animal.
The deer themselves don't see any significant differences. In fact, the animal that most worries the reindeer herders on Alaska's Seward Peninsula isn't a mighty predator nor a disease-bearing insect--it's caribou. When a migrating caribou herd sweeps past, domestic reindeer are likely to hear the call of the wild and join right along. That kind of mass elopement… read more
Most of us, sometime during childhood, learned a little verse to use in one of life's unpleasant moments. There are variants, but the basic form is: "A little birdie flying by/ Dropped a present in my eye/ But I'm a good kid, I don't cry/ I'm just glad that cows can't fly."
Readers, I regret to inform you that they've found a flying cow.
Let me clarify, before you grab for the nearest hard hat. It's not that scientists have stumbled on a herd of winged Holsteins lurking in some hidden meadow. What they have discovered is that one bird has a remarkably cow-like digestive system. To science, that was nearly as surprising as finding a bovine version of Pegasus.
The hoatzin (hoe-AT-zin) lives in the tropical zone of the Western Hemisphere, ranging from the Guianas to Brazil. It's a member of the cuckoo tribe, but looks rather like a small skinny chicken in fancy dress. (For the issue of Science magazine reporting the research, the cover photo showed… read more
Spawned-out salmon carcasses aren't a pretty sight. The tattered bodies littering Alaska's watersides every year seem not only a sad reminder of mortality but a waste; all that food, too much for even the greediest gulls, quickly becoming too rank even for rodents or ravens.
Or so I used to think, until Tom Kline set me straight. I should have known that nature doesn't waste anything, but graduate student Kline has proved it--at least in the case of salmon.
His Ph.D. work, as reported in a recent newsletter from the Alaska Sea Grant College Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, involves figuring out the sources of nitrogen in several Alaska lakes. Nitrogen is vital stuff for all life--it's virtually synonymous with "fertilizer," and plants grab it as fast as they can. Kline tackled the problem by studying the natural abundance of nitrogen isotopes in the food webs, the what-eats-what connections, in the lakes.
This was a useful approach because… read more
The German Shepherd zigzags across the raw, snow-patched earth ahead of his handler, nose to the ground. Suddenly he stops, concentrating on a bit of earth no different from any other to human senses, then begins to dig furiously. His handler rewards the dog with a tidbit and an affectionate hug, flags the spot the dog has marked, then sends the dog out ahead again, searching for more pipeline leaks.
Pipeline leaks? Found by a dog?
Back in 1974, a new buried natural gas pipeline was due for opening in Ontario. The line, however, leaked -- and engineers and scientists using every bit of technology at their disposal had been unable to find the leaks. Sections of the pipeline would literally burst from overpressure before the leak rates became high enough to be detected. The line was due to be opened in just nine days when someone thought to consider dogs and contacted dog trainer Glen Johnson.
Johnson took three dogs already trained in scent work, and in two and… read more
Domestic cats are an oddity in the animal kingdom. All other domesticated mammals are social animals that travel naturally in herds, flocks, or packs. Cats would rather be alone.
Since people are also social animals, it's no wonder the two species have suffered from occasional missed signals as they've tried to get along together over the centuries. Successful dog training, for example, depends on a human's ability to mimic the natural authority of a pack leader; once a dog has decided its owner is, so to speak, a top dog, then discipline comes easily. There's nothing in a cat's instinctive background to make it believe in a higher authority.
Nevertheless, perhaps for their own amusement as much as practical reasons, cats usually attempt to gain the approval of the people with whom they live. They also develop various ways of communicating preferences and wants. With most kinds of domestic cat, that involves various vocalizations--yowling, growling, purring.… read more
One thing I've always appreciated about northern wildlife is that our spiders are small. Mind, I'm in favor of the local spiders---anything that reduces the number of mosquitoes is a good creature in my book---but I'm glad they don't come in tropical (or even temperate-zone) sizes. An eight-legged strider as big as my fingertip is a welcome hunter of pests, but I can't shake the feeling that one the size of my hand might hunt me.
Though individually small, spiders in Alaska and the Yukon are a diverse group. Before much in the way of greenery has broken through the soil, dark-colored hunting spiders are out roaming for early insects. Scientists who study spiders---arachnologists---consider these wanderers to be fairly primitive examples of their kind. One clue is that they do not build webs to snare prey; that ability came later in spider evolution.
During summer, gardeners may find little spiders lurking in their flowers, mimicking the color of the blooms.… read more
I was a very small child when, while ducking a little yellow and black buzzbomb, I heard an adult say, "You know, some scientist once figured out that bumblebees can't fly." Back then I hadn't the least understanding of aerodynamics, but I knew hokum when I heard it. That bee flew perfectly well.
Certainly a lot of northern children hear the same story every summer, as they marvel at (or flee from) Alaska's fuzzy, hardworking native bees. The aerodynamically impossible bumblebee makes a wonderful story at the expense of someone who thought mathematics was more true than observable reality.
That particular know-it-all is nearly as fictitious as the flightless bee. John McMasters, principal engineer on the aerodynamics staff of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, reports in a recent issue of American Scientist magazine that he spent some time trying to track down the villain who gave his profession such a black eye.
He found the tale was circulating in… read more
Going by catch statistics, it's possible to imagine the sea bottom off Alaska was paved with flatfish before commercial fisheries came to our coasts. From giant halibut and Greenland turbot to little rex and Dover soles, we have a wide selection and great numbers of these peculiar creatures. It's difficult to tell newly hatched flatfish apart--or from the larval forms of ordinary fish. At first, they don't look flat. When they emerge from eggs they swim upright, with eyes on either side of their heads, just like a newly hatched salmon or cod. At this stage, larval flatfish are planktonic, drifting where currents take them. They are nearly colorless and quite transparent, which probably helps them to avoid predators.
The young fish are first sustained by yolk sacs, a leftover high-energy portion of their eggs. Some time after they start feeding, a strange transformation begins. One eye migrates across the top of the fish's skull to lie next to the eye on the other side.… read more
In Alaska and the Yukon, the largest members of the deer family are high valued. Northerners and tourists alike enjoy moose watching, and these animals are certainly in demand by people hunting with gun or camera. Because of their popularity, moose may also be more closely associated with management than any other northern animal. We manage forest fires with an eye toward moose browse; we manage wolf populations to increase the hunters' odds.
The more we can base management decisions on science (hard numbers and well-established hypotheses) the happier we are: so there's a good bit of research on moose populations and the effect of wolf and bear populations on the number of moose in a given area. But what about the beavers?
An aggravating, but interesting, aspect of research is that the pursuit of answers often turns up dozens of new questions. A recent study of how moose browsing affects boreal forest soils and plant communities did just that; it raised a… read more
It's not hard to make bad jokes about the situation: a hibernating Siberian animal slept so long he should have been dead, but instead woke up Red. They held the revolution without him.
According to the British journal New Scientist, biologists in the Soviet Union have successfully revived an Asian salamander that had been frozen for 90 years. The researchers, who work at the Magadan Institute of Northern Biology, did not have to rely on advanced technology of any dramatic sort to bring their subject back to life. All they did was put the salamander in a tub of cold water, and the creature's own system did the rest.
How the Soviet scientists established the length of the salamander's sleep wasn't specified, but the behavior of Asian salamanders gives some clues. They select hibernation sites under tree stumps and hummocks of earth, and some will follow cracks and passageways deep into the soil before they settle down to sleep away the cold season. If… read more
As whales go, the narwhal seems a modest beast, wearing a discreet dapple-gray hide and keeping to high Arctic waters where tourists seldom go. That is, it seems modest enough until you come to its nose, for there the males of the species sport a single grand horn unique in the animal kingdom.
Canny northern traders a few centuries back called these ivory protuberances "unicorn horn," and sold them at great profit to medieval princes. Modern zoologists know they are not horns but modified teeth, akin to walrus tusks, and consider them display organs--one of their uses is in an aquatic equivalent to bragging matches, for male narwhals to brandish and show off before females. Possible other uses are the subject of disputes among scientists, since the shy narwhals are seldom observed, but some adult male narwhals have scars that could have come from competitors' tusks.
For teeth, narwhal horns seem excessive. A full-grown bull narwhal is quite… read more
If you have a dog, or a horse, or even a cat, this is the time of year that their hair is everywhere -- long hair, short hair, straight stiff hair, fine wavy hair, black hair, brown hair, white hair, even striped hair. The combination of increasing day length and warmer temperatures triggers the massive shed that most animals go through in the spring.
Look at a single hair, preferably one of the straight outer hairs, with a magnifying glass. It will taper to a fine point at one end, the first end to grow out of the animal's skin, and have a slight thickening at the other end, the hair base. Many hairs have deeper color at the tip than near the base, and some are black at the tip and have one or more bands of brown, red, yellow or cream color as you move toward the base of the hair. This kind of banded hair color is called agouti, after a South American rodent with banded hair. It occurs to varying degrees in at least some hairs of many dogs, cats, horses, and the majority of… read more
Pity the poor cheetahs! These speedy spotted cats managed to survive one population crisis, which left them the most inbred wild animal known. Then human inroads on their habitat and hunting for their fur shoved them toward a second population crisis, which seemed headed off by captive breeding. Now it appears that the zoo diet in North America is simultaneously killing them off with liver disease and preventing them from breeding effectively.
In 1985, 29 American zoo cheetahs died and only 18 were born, and 7 of the 18 died before adulthood. Only about 10% of North American adult female cheetahs have been producing live cubs in the last 5 years, compared with 60 to 80 % in other countries.
Since North American cheetahs mostly eat a commercial feline diet based on horsemeat and soy, while the cheetahs living and breeding more successfully elsewhere are being fed whole carcasses, a group of researchers in Ohio decided to look at the zoo… read more
"I will pass through all thy flock to day, removing from thence all the speckled and spotted cattle, and all the brown cattle among the sheep, and the spotted and speckled among the goats: and of such shall be my hire."
-- Genesis 31: 32
The first step in science, the one on which all the experiments are based, is simply playing with ideas. Granted, we don't usually publish this part of the scientific process, but both Larry and Neil have done it here in the past and that's what I'm going to do today. The topic? Why is white spotting so common in domesticated animals, and so rare in wild ones?
White markings do occur in wild animals -- white tails on deer and rabbits, white face markings in wolves, stripes on zebras, chest patches on mink, and warning white bands on skunks. But these markings are very consistent in location from animal to animal within a species, and they serve a purpose -- communication, breaking up the animal's outline, or warning potential… read more
In the genetic code of Siamese cats, Himalayan rabbits, and certain mice lies a mutant gene that produces the special pattern of color in these animals. Not only does this gene restrict color to areas which are cooler than normal, it affects the organization of the brain as well.
The Siamese gene is thought to be one of a series of genes, called the albino series, that participate in the formation of melanin pigment. In its normal form, which is completely dominant over all of its other forms, it allows full expression of whatever genes for color the animal may possess. In its most recessive form, the albino gene, no melanin-type pigments can be formed in the pigment-generating cells. An animal or person with two albino genes will have white or light reddish hair, pink or red eyes, and a white to yellowish skin which will appear pinkish due to the blood showing through. (Some color will remain from other, non-melanin pigments such as the hemoglobin in the blood, especially… read more
Many people ask the same question in Alaska: "How many moose (caribou, bears, wolves) live in this state?"
No one knows - exactly. But then, no one knows exactly how many people there are here, either. It's usually easier to count humans, because people can talk to each other and ask and answer questions. Animals aren't that cooperative. The numbers of wild animals in the state are estimated using a variety of methods.
Some wildlife populations group together so biologists can determine their numbers using a photo census. Caribou, for example, aggregate in the summer when mosquitoes are thick. When the caribou gather, the groupings are monitored until biologists are convinced that nearly all of the caribou in the herd are included. Assuming the weather cooperates, they fly over the herd in an aircraft fitted with a belly-mounted camera and photograph the entire herd on large-format film. After the film is processed, biologists sit in the office with magnifying… read more
If you ever get a chance to be airborne above the Bering Sea on a sunny early summer day, you may be lucky and see small groups of large marine mammals hauled out on ice floes drifting north. If you head south around Nunivak Island and east into Bristol Bay, you will spot a larger congregation of these pink colored animals hauled out on an island off the coast near Togiak. As you begin to feel chilled in the plane, you might wonder how these apparently bare-skinned mammals can freely move from seawater to land and migrate north each year on snow-covered ice floes into the Chukchi Sea. These remarkable pinnipeds of the Arctic are walruses (Odobenus rosmarus), and they have evolved specialized anatomical and physiological adaptations to maintain a healthy body temperature in extreme environmental conditions.
How can nearly hairless walruses be exposed to the extreme temperature gradients between the seawater and the atmosphere and still maintain… read more
You see them in parades, golden horses with silver manes and silver-trimmed tack: palominos, a color that hearkens back to the days when California was little more than a string of missions. It was then and is now a very special color for a horse, perhaps the equine equivalent of a fantasy landscape on a van.… read more
We will shortly witness hordes of mosquitoes emerging from overwintering sites throughout Alaska. Different species of mosquitoes will become active at various times throughout the summer depending on where and in what particular life stage they spent the winter. Mosquito activity following spring break-up is also regulated by the temperature of the water in which the eggs have been deposited. A warm April and May with average precipitation followed by a warm dry month of June is ideal for mosquito development.
The mosquito life cycle consists of eggs, larvae or "wrigglers," pupae or "tumblers," and adults. All life stages except adults are aquatic and can occur in a variety of wet or moist places such as ponds, sloughs, standing pools of water, salt water marshes, artificial containers, hollow trees, low depressions of land, and moist areas of fields, bogs, and forests. The flat areas of interior and parts of south-central Alaska are ideal breeding sites because of the… read more
Two black Labs are mated, and nine weeks later the puppies arrive: some blacks, of course, but some chocolates and yellows as well. Has something gone wrong? No, the litter is merely demonstrating Mendel's laws in action.
Gregor Mendel was an Austrian monk of the nineteenth century who, as a result of experiments in cross-breeding plants in his monastery garden, formulated the laws of heredity now known by his name. In modern terms, these laws state that every hereditary characteristic is controlled by a pair of genes in each individual. During reproduction, each parent provides just one gene for each character to the offspring, and which of the parent's pair is passed on is a random process. In some cases, there are several different variants of the gene for a particular trait. If both genes in an individual are of the same form, the individual will show the characteristic determined by that form of the genes. If the two genes in a pair differ, one may dominate… read more
The dogsled-racing mania is largely out of the way for the year now that the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod are over, but it is still interesting to ponder the origins of dog mushing.
I am reminded of a question asked by Mr. Alvin Bramstedt Sr. of Anchorage. The query, to the "Dear Bud" column in the Anchorage Times, asked: "Did our Alaska Eskimos and Indians have dog teams before the arrival of the white man?"
In reply, the article suggested that it wasn't until the nineteenth century that Eskimos and Indians used dogs in teams, and that this was taught to them by white people. This answer bothered me, but at the time, I was unable to find anything definitive to rebut or confirm such a conclusion.
Recently, I came across an illustration taken from the 1675 edition of Martin Frobisher's "Historic Navigations." This illustration shows, in the background, a dog in harness, pulling what appears to be a canoe-like sled, or perhaps… read more
Dog trainers have long known that dogs will respond to whistles that are too high-pitched for human ears to hear. Similarly, bats navigate and hunt utilizing a system of "radar" based on squeaks that they emit in flight, but which are beyond the audible range of human ears.
Technically, the upper limit of human hearing is about 20,000 hertz (cycles per second). Dogs are sensitive to sound at over 40,000 hertz, and bats, mice and many smaller animals can hear to over 80,000 hertz. At the opposite extreme, humans can hear sound at frequencies as low as 125 hertz, to which the smaller animals seem oblivious. The question naturally arises: does size have anything to do with the sounds that a creature can detect? The answer seems to be yes. The larger the animal, the lower in tone its hearing range is centered.
Rickye and Henry Heffner of the University of Kansas, in collaboration with Ned Stichman of the Independence (Kansas) zoo, have found that animals with a head… read more
The white winter camouflage of many birds and mammals such as the ptarmigan, the Arctic hare and the harp seal (as a pup) serves to protect them against predators. The polar bear scarcely needs such protection, and one might wonder why nature chose to provide it--until it is considered that a sneaking white polar bear cannot be easily seen by a sunbathing seal. In any case, to biologists who are concerned with keeping track of animal populations, such camouflage can be frustrating.
These animals often live in areas (such as on ice packs) where aerial counts are feasible because of the lack of overhead cover, but ordinary photographic means do not easily distinguish white animals against a white background. Zoologists D. Lavigne and N. Oritsland of Ontario tried using thermal infrared imagery as a means of detection (this is one of the methods used by border patrols to catch illegal aliens during the hours of darkness), but they found that in cold and windy conditions,… read more
They are the largest animals ever to have evolved on Earth. At 150 tons and over 100 feet long, an adult blue whale could behave like the bully on the block, but it doesn't. Most whales are placid browsers, straining through vast volumes of ocean for the small animals on which they graze.
They are an enigma. Some seventy million years ago, their ancestors decided to return to the ocean, although they had already established themselves as viable mammals on dry land. Whales are loving (as witness the long motherhood period), they are playful, they are curious, they are intelligent. With that intelligence, it makes one wonder why they so often beach themselves.
But the most intriguing part of their behavior is that apparently they have a kind of language of their own. In the murky depths of the ocean, sight is not a very reliable sense on which to rely. So it appears that they use sound. The communication could be, for instance, between a mother and her baby or… read more
Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Islands in the Canadian Arctic are the northernmost part of North America, reaching to within 500 miles of the North Pole.
A recent article by Michael Lemonick in Time magazine reported on the discovery of the remains of an ancient forest on Axel Heiberg Island. The trees had once grown 150 feet tall and lived for as long as 1,000 years (they were so well preserved that the growth rings could be counted). One astonishing thing about the stumps is that they are 45 million years old! A second is that they are not petrified (that is, turned to rock with minerals replacing the cellular wood structure), but are mummified and can actually be burned. This could be explained by rapid burial and deprivation of oxygen, but the biggest riddle of all is how they could have grown there in the first place.
That far north of the Arctic Circle, the trees would have had to survive 5 months of the year without sunshine (necessary for… read more
In these ecology-minded days, we are constantly reminded that everything has its place, and to disturb a single thread in Nature's fabric is to risk unraveling us all.
Every link in the food chain is vital, we learn. Yet, during the moist days of early summer, it is difficult to find even the most dedicated environmentalist who will stand up for the pesky mosquito.
Who needs it? What is it good for? Why was it ever invented? Even people who enjoy the graceful flight of swallows admit the birds can eat other insects--and note that mosquitoes are eager to dine on nestling swallows.
A rather sketchy off-the-cuff sampling of opinions from several experts within the university system reveals that nobody is really sure what would happen if all the mosquitoes on earth were to disappear overnight. Since we'll never know, I'd like to list just a couple of the more interesting comments that I received.
Dr. Richard (Skeeter) Werner, an entymologist with… read more
The Aleutian goose is a small and very rare variant of the Canada goose, heretofore believed to breed only on tiny Buldir Island in the extreme western Aleutians. Because of its rarity and presumed limited breeding range, it had been declared an endangered and therefore protected wildlife species.
It would hearten wildlife managers if there indeed was another population of these rare birds, but the problem facing them was to determine whether the geese that Hatch reported were actually Aleutian geese. If they were, the species' breeding range is actually more extensive than had been believed, so they are less threatened by immediate extinction. Then, however, pressure might be brought to withdraw the practice of protecting them.
The geese resembled the Aleutian strain in their size and plumage, but they also bore points of similarity to some mainland Alaska geese. Lacking the means by which to resolve the matter, Hatch and Dr. Calvin Lensink, leader of the Fish… read more
One of the mysteries of nature is how salmon manage to navigate in the oceans and return to spawn in the very same streams from which they came. It is known that the odor or taste of the particular stream plays a role. Salmon can home-in on the smell of "their" stream if they are sufficiently close to its mouth so that the water has not been diluted to the point where it is unidentifiable.
But how can odor play a part when the fish migrate over thousands of miles in the open ocean and cross ocean currents which destroy any possible "trail" that may lead them back? At any rate, it is known that salmon do not follow meandering paths back "home" to answer the spawning instinct, but travel directly to their spawning grounds by the most direct route when sexual maturity occurs.
For example, sockeye salmon leave their freshwater origins in the streams entering Bristol Bay and make their way to the Alaska Gyre in the North Pacific and western Bering Sea. They then… read more
To the visitor, it doesn't look much like an archaeological dig taking place on the banks of the Paluxy River in Texas. Pieces of heavy equipment such as backhoes and bulldozers are flipping over large slabs of limestone to uncover the underlying strata. Strangely, the conventional practice of painstaking excavation and kid glove treatment does not appear to be of overriding concern.
The area is rich in fossilized dinosaur tracks, but the real prizes which are being sought are human footprints in the same strata as the dinosaurs', thus proving their contemporaneity. Although it is scientifically well-established that such conditions never existed, excavators (who claim to have scientific credentials) state that the have uncovered "giant" human footprints alongside those of the dinosaurs'. This "research" is being supported by donations.
The Paluxy River area gained a certain amount of fame during the depression years when the carving of footprints for sale to… read more
Baseball season is upon us again, along with occasional disgruntled suggestions from the stands that the umpire is either blind, or in need of a good optometrist.
The latter recommendation may have occasional merit, according to Philadelphia optometrist Arthur Seiderman, who examined a random sampling of umpires and referees of college, high school, and other amateur sports events.
Of the 40 umpires and referees tested, just 29 demonstrated 20/20 vision or better, and fully 12 of them had difficulties with depth perception or spatial localization (the ability to judge an object's movement through space). Seiderman suggests that all umpires and referees should have eye examinations, and steps be taken to improve the visual acuity of those who do not meet specified standards.
What, exactly, does 20/20 vision imply? As applied to humans, it means that a person is capable of discerning, at 20 feet, letters of different sizes that the majority of people can… read more
As reported in an earlier column , Alaskan bears show a great deal of interest in remote scientific field sites, and particularly delight in tearing them up.
This brought to mind some other instances pertaining to animals and field sites, almost always humorous, and almost always involving my best friend, Doug VanWormer. Doug and I worked together for many years at the University of Nevada in Reno, at the U.S. Earthquake Mechanism Laboratory in San Francisco, and at the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks. Doug, a young father, died tragically from cancer in 1979, but our trips to the field were always fun and I remember them vividly and with great fondness.
In 1966, the annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America was holding its annual meeting in Reno. Dr. Alan Ryall, our boss, and president of the society a number of years later, had dispatched… read more
It won't be long now until we find ourselves in mortal combat with our constant springtime foe, the mosquito.
The big, slow-moving early adults are relatively easy prey for an experienced mosquito- swatter, but they get smaller, faster, and meaner as summer comes on and the mosquito kids leave home.
For years, I have tried to perfect the one-handed, mid-air grab, but succeed only occasionally. Now I find out that I may have been doing it all wrong.
According to George Gray, professor emeritus at University College in London, swatting should be a two-handed operation. Gray, in an article in Nature magazine, was experimenting with flies and not mosquitoes, but there may be some similarities.
Gray explains that if you approach a fly with hands to either side, moving back and forth slowly, this flusters the creature because it doesn't have the brainpower to keep track of both hands. A fly can avoid only one threat at a time, and when it sees… read more
Most people tend to associate hibernation with bears. However, only small animals can enter the torpor that defines true hibernation. Hibernation is a process that involves a drastic lowering of body temperature, and bears simply have too large a mass to dissipate enough heat for them to enter a true state of hibernation. A wintering bear's temperature rarely falls below 86 degrees Fahrenheit, so they are rather easily awakened. It takes a true hibernator several hours to arouse from a near-freezing body temperature.
In the January/February issue of Science 84, Carrol Fleming reports on some recent findings made by various researchers in the field. When a ground squirrel, for instance, curls up for the winter, its body temperature drops from a normal level of about 98 degrees to as low as 34 or 35 degrees. Its heart, over a period of three to four hours slows from 350 beats a minute to as few as two to four beats.
The obvious purpose of hibernation is to… read more
I have have just finished reading the book Wildlife's Ten-Year Cycle by Lloyd Keith, and it strikes me that there are probably few areas in scientific investigation that are as hard to pin down as the question of why certain animal populations undergo the wild fluctuations which are observed.
The most visible manifestation, of course, is that of the snowshoe hare. If you see several squished rabbits on a mile of road, you know they're at a peak; if you don't see any in a hundred-mile drive, you know they're at a low.
The all-too-popular consensus is the seemingly obvious one that when the population density becomes too high, the food supply is insufficient to support them all, and they die from starvation. Keith's book makes the point that, while this may be a contributing factor, it is a minor one at most.
The primary cause of the "crash mortality" rates of the snowshoe hare at roughly ten-year intervals seems to be an epidemic disease--and a… read more
Back in March, we mail-ordered a mosquito zapper from Sears. This is a gadget about the size of a flip-top trash can that looks like a roll of chicken wire with a tin hat on top and an ultraviolet light in the middle. The theory, says the brochure, is that mosquitoes are attracted by the light, and when they enter through the wire mesh, they are zapped by static electricity between two interior screens.
Looking forward to spring during those days of late winter, this sounded like a pretty good investment, despite the $150 price tag. By the time the contraption arrived in the mail, the days had lengthened, and we began to question the wisdom of buying something that was supposed to attract insects by light, when it was light outside practically all the time.
But in early May, we sat it out on the deck (about ten feet above ground level) and plugged it in. The first results were disappointing, but there weren't too many mosquitoes out by that time anyway. By the… read more
Now that the Iditarod race is over, the question again arises: Why are sled dogs so small? Bigger and stronger would seem, to the uninitiated, to be a better choice. After all, those among us who have read Jack London's Call of the Wild, recall that Buck, John Thornton's 150 pound St. Bernard-Scotch Terrier mix, won a memorable bet for his boss by pulling half-a-ton over a hundred-yard course.
But bulk isn't all of the story, apparently. Larry "Cowboy" Smith dropped five of his strongest dogs after he crossed the Alaska Range on this year's Iditarod in the interest of picking up speed. To non-mushers, that strategy may seem baffling, but actually the reasoning is sound.
I contacted George Attla, perhaps Alaska's premier musher, and asked why racers preferred smaller dogs. His answer was that the type of dog used depended upon the service to be performed. There are freight dogs and there are racing dogs.
To broadly categorize, the best freight dogs are… read more
When watching Alley Oop ride into the Sunday funnies on his pet dinosaur, or witnessing similar situations on the kiddie cartoons on TV, I never know whether to grimace or smile when I see caricatures of our ancestors cavorting with dinosaurs, friendly or otherwise.
The fact is, the dinosaurs did not know the same planet as we, considering the time that they were here.
The dinosaurs held sway over the earth's creatures for over 140 million years in what is known as the Mesozoic Era of the earth's history. They inexplicably became extinct about 100 million years ago.
The earliest appearance of mankind, however, did not occur until some one to two million years ago. Obviously, our forebears could not have met, even briefly, with dinosaurs.
This does not mean, however, that humans did not come to grips with other exotic and extinct beasts such as the mastodon and the saber tooth tiger which arrived long after the dinosaur was gone. There are… read more
Any day now, the geese, the ducks, the cranes and other transient summer guests will be leaving us to spend the winter in a more sensible climate. One cannot help but feel a little wistful as he watches those majestic vees march across the sky amid the honking and quacking and screeching, and the question always comes to mind: Why do they fly in formation?
When I was a boy, I was told that Papa Duck was always at the head of the vee with the rest of the family spread out behind. Actually, that idea is not much more fanciful than some others that sound a lot more scientific. The favorite incorrect theory is that the lead duck is "breaking trail" for those that follow, in much the same manner that racing cars "draft" in the wind shadow of the leading car. Then, so the story goes, when the leader tires, it drops back in line and another duck takes its place at the head of the vee. That isn't the way it's done.
In actuality, when migrating birds fly in a staggered… read more
Fish, being cold-blooded, maintain body temperatures equal to that of the water surrounding them. The polar oceans are characterized by winter water temperatures of -1.4°C to -2.0°C (29.5°F to 28.4°F). Blood plasma of most fish freeze at around -0.6°C to -0.8°C (30.9°F to 30.6°F). Why, then, are there any fish in the Arctic oceans at all? (Whales and other warm-blooded ocean denizens do not have to answer this question.)
The answer, as given in the June 1982 issue of Arctic in an article by Garth L. Fletcher and co-workers, is that marine fish in the High Arctic have antifreeze in their veins--and that does not mean a nip of Old Granddad.
The Arctic sculpin, for instance, manufactures an antifreeze protein in its blood named, appropriately enough, glycoprotein. This depresses the freezing temperature of its plasma sufficiently to permit it to live in the winter Arctic waters without turning into the block of ice you'd expect to find in your freezer.… read more
About a month ago, I requested that knowledgeable citizens respond to this column with their own favorite mosquito repellent remedies.
John Rosa, a 23-year resident of Alaska, reports a method that is probably not familiar to many of us. It requires at least one other participant. To quote: "First, when going fishing, camping, mining or even gardening, before you start, give your partner, wife, sweetheart or mother a banana. This produces a scent through the pores of their skin which attracts mosquitoes to them, leaving you relatively free."
Another of Mr. Rosa's recommendations, which may (or may not be) quite as tongue-in-cheek, is that a used Bull Durham bag filled with mothballs and hung outside the tent not only keeps mosquitoes away from the campsite, but also wards off black bears."
The mosquitoes are with us again. It is always a special pleasure in the early spring to swat those big, slow-moving ones because they are usually fertilized females who, having wintered over in chinks of tree bark or buildings, will soon be about their business of laying eggs to produce more of their own kind. Depending on the species of mosquito (and Alaska has many), the egg-laying can take place in pools of stagnant water, in tree holes or on moist ground.
Some species of Alaskan mosquitoes do not hibernate, but lay their eggs the previous year and leave the little darlings unattended to overwinter as best they can. They usually do pretty well. Although most varieties have a life span of only a few weeks to a few months, they can produce several generations over the course of a summer.
At this time of the year, the questions always arise: How do they find us and what can we do to keep them away? Many people have their own ideas of how to best combat this… read more
In his book Old Yukon, written in 1938, Judge James Wickersham tells a story that illustrates the remarkable jumping ability of migrating grayling. Wickersham could not vouch absolutely for the truth of the story but he obviously believed it true and even made a drawing to portray the event.
Three Alaskan gold prospectors built a log dam to block completely a small stream. Using canvas, they built an eighteen-inch diameter pipe to carry the water flow some 200 feet downstream and attached a four inch nozzle to the lower end of the pipe. A screen placed at the upper end of the pipe kept debris from entering. Since there was no reason to do otherwise, they allowed the water to flow through the pipe even when not using the water for mining.
One morning they approached the pipe to find three or four large grayling lying on the ground beside the nozzle. At the time the nozzle was about five feet above ground and was jetting water out horizontally approximately… read more
Experiments performed during recent years have strongly suggested that birds use the earth's magnetic field for navigation when they cannot see the sun or stars. The thought has been that when all else failed, the birds fell back to using the magnetic field to steer them. Now, a new experiment suggests that homing pigeons use the magnetic field as a preferred rather than a secondary guide.
Reporting in the October 16, 1981 issue of Science, German scientists described what happened when they released several different groups of pigeons on sunny days early in the morning. In one group were normally raised pigeons that had been exposed to the sun during all times of the day. When released, this group headed for home. The pigeons in a second group had never in their lives seen the sun before noon. They too flew for home without trouble, obviously using something other than the sun for guidance.
A third group of pigeons which also had not ever seen the… read more
Though more-southerly states such as Colorado can claim 250 or more resident species of butterflies, at least 78 species flit around the Alaskan countryside.
Summer coolness rather than winter's cold limits the number of butterflies in the Arctic. Not having a source of heat within their bodies as mammals do, and yet needing a certain minimum body temperature in order to fly, butterflies must gain heat from their environment. In winter they are, of course, inactive but those who live over the winter in the adult stage avoid freezing damage to their body tissues by stocking up on self-manufactured antifreeze materials each fall. Some arctic butterflies survive, in larval stage, over two winters.
A few species of butterflies live only in the northern tundra. They can survive there in summer because they have become experts on making use of solar energy. By doing so, butterflies are capable of raising their body temperatures as much as 17°C (30°F) above ambient.… read more
As porpoises swim near the ocean surface, they are often seen to jump completely out of the water. The behavior is called porpoising. This leaping into the air has been suggested to be a playful antic, but it has a benefit that goes beyond merely having fun. For the porpoise it is a matter of conserving energy as it swims.
Porpoises and dolphins--there is no sharp distinction between the two, except that porpoises are smaller and lack the characteristic beak nose of dolphins--are high-speed swimmers able to move at sustained speeds near 20 mph. To achieve such speed, these mammals must swim at least five or ten feet below the ocean surface. If they try to swim nearer the surface, the passage of their bodies creates waves on the surface, a process which consumes considerable energy. Thus, the porpoise or dolphin will tire quickly if ;i swims very close to the surface for long periods.
Being mammals, porpoises and dolphins must breathe air, hence they must surface… read more
The Japanese and Russians not only catch fish offshore from Alaska, they are a major source of data the United States uses to manage the fisheries resource. Testifying recently before the Alaska Council on Science and Technology, Murray Hayes of NOAA's Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Center said that the Russians are particularly cooperative in providing information. He said that they were eager to help because they realize that their cooperation is required if the United States is to continue to let them fish in our coastal waters.
Russian and Japanese fishing vessels provide voluntary information on fish catches and also cooperate by carrying Americans onboard to observe the catches directly. The result of the foreign and domestic data collections is that there is rather good information on which to base management of the fisheries.
Dr. Hayes reported that the Bering Sea king crab fishery probably has the best data base for management of any fishery in the world… read more
According to folklore and almanac entries, there are certain activities best undertaken during particular phases of the moon. Even if one does not subscribe to such advice, there is no denying that some animal behavior is related to the 27-1/3 day rotation of the moon about the earth.
Evidence is mounting that salmon and related species of trout born in fresh water migrate back to the sea at times influenced by the phase of the moon. A possible explanation of this phenomenon is given in an article in the February 6, 1981 issue of Science, written by E. Gorden Grau of the University of California and several coauthors.
By measuring the amounts of thyroxine in young salmon, these scientists have found that the level of the thyroxine dramatically increases near the time of new moon. Thyroxine is the hormone produced by the thyroid gland to control growth. The surge of thyroxine seems to cause salmon to undergo smoltification, a process whereby the fish ready… read more
We're used to the idea of using fossil fuel, indeed we depend upon it heavily. But consider how one's future might look if it was necessary to eat fossil food in order to exist.
That is just the situation faced by certain aquatic larvae and shrimp- like crustaceans living on Alaska's North Slope. Their cousins living in warmer climes subsist year-round by eating microscopic photosynthetic plants that grow in the water or on rocks and mud at the bottoms of ponds. However, on the North Slope, the growing season is too short to grow enough food for the little critters to eat all winter. They make up the deficit by eating peat, in a secondhand sort of way.
Peat has been accumulating on the tundra since vegetation was reestablished on the North Slope about 12,000 years ago, when ice age glaciers receded. Today, the vegetative residue of 12,000 years is present as a layer of peat 1-2 m (3-6 feet) thick overlying the tundra and topped by the living plants of today. Only… read more
The article on earthworms that appeared in this column in early October 1980 contained a regretted error. The mistake was the statement that northern forest soils were too alkaline to support earthworms. Ms. Lola Oliver of the University of Alaska's Forest Soils Laboratory correctly notes that these soils are acidic. Earthworms like neutral soil; they can handle slightly acidic or slightly alkaline soil, but not the more-acidic soil typically found in northern forests.
Also, thanks to Fairbanksan Bob Cummings, who has loaned me two books on earthworms) I've learned more about the topic. One book in particular, The Earthworm Book by Jerry Minnich, published by Rodale Press in 1977, is a goldmine of factual and interesting information.
Like snakes, earthworms are cold-blooded, so they slow their activity when the temperature moves toward the freezing point. Even those earthworm… read more
Earthworms apparently are rare enough in sub-arctic Alaska and Yukon that a face-to-face meeting with one is uncommon. Perhaps the earthworms' cousins, the almost-legendary iceworms, are more numerous in the North.
Earthworms live in strange places. They survive in sewage beds, manure piles, beneath the bark of trees, and in tropical ferns growing high above the ground. Able to live submerged in water, earthworms have been found in mud beneath deep lakes, and also in moss on rocks above the beeline in the Himalayas and the Andes.
Despite this versatility, earthworms require acidic to neutral soil (pH between 4.5 and 8.4). This requirement, more than anything else, seems to prevent earthworms from living in northern soils, where the forest soil typically is too acidic.
Many years ago, a student dug up earthworms from soil adjacent to a dormatory on the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. During the summer of 1980, U.S. Geological Survey geologist… read more
Today there are perhaps 270,000 caribou and about 24,000 reindeer in Alaska. In 1935, biologist Olaus Murie estimated the caribou population at between one and two million. Others estimated that about 600,000 Alaskan reindeer existed then. Why has the last 45 years brought such a drastic change?
It makes sense to consider together the populations of reindeer and caribou because they are the same species of animal, Rangifer tarandus. Though reindeer and caribou interbreed, there are some differences. Male reindeer tend to be a little smaller than caribou bulls. Reindeer may be a little more white, may have shorter legs and may be slightly more placid than caribou. These differences are so tenuous that it can be hard to tell if one individual is a reindeer or a caribou. However, if you find a caribou with an ear notch or other form of branding, you can be sure it's a reindeer.
Though there had been caribou in western and northwestern Alaska some years… read more
The eruption of Mt. St. Helen's volcano and the fall of dust it spread reminds of another incident, similar in nature, but much larger, thought to have occurred sixty-five million years ago. Then, the dinosaurs and flying reptiles inhabited the earth--the large mammals and man had not yet come into existence.
Then one day, according to findings of Luis Alvarez and colleagues at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, the tranquility ended and, alas, so did the dinosaurs and the magnificent 25-foot wingspan pterodactyls. In fact, it is estimated that half of the plant and animal life on our planet perished. The end for them probably came rather quickly.
According to Alvarez's findings, an earth-crossing meteoroid, about 6 miles in diameter and weighing about one million-million tons, collided with the planet. At some unknown site, perhaps a location now eroded away by ongoing tectonic activity, the meteoroid generated a crater 250 miles in diameter and hurled… read more
Numerous experiments have shown that birds and bees use the geomagnetic field as a backup system when overcast skies prevent navigation by the sun or the stars. Also, pods of magnetic grains have been found inside the skulls of homing pigeons and in the abdomens of bees. Scientists suspect this is no coincidence. But even if these pods are the sensory organs that might detect both the strength and direction of the geomagnetic field, there remains the puzzle of how the information is transmitted to the animal's brain.
The answer may be in a suggestion by James L. Gould, writing in the May/June 1980 issue of American Scientist. In essence, his idea is that if the magnetic grains--each of which acts as a microscopic bar magnet--are properly arranged in linear chains, then the animal's ability to sense pressure changes could convey messages to the brain.
To see how this idea could work, suppose a pigeon lines up its head so that the magnetic chains are… read more
Mosquito repellents do not repel mosquitos because the repellents smell or taste badly to the mosquitos. Instead, the repelling action is by a more subtle process that blocks sensory functions.
Female mosquitoes--as usual, it's the females that are the trouble makers--do not use the sense of sight or touch in seeking out victims or the most stingable parts of victims. A mosquito will become restless and commence to fly around if there is an increase of carbon dioxide in the surrounding air. At first, the direction of the flight path may be random, but if the mosquito finds warm and moist air she tries to stay in it. Since animals give off carbon dioxide as well as heat and moisture, the mosquito can quickly home in on a patch of exposed skin in preparation for a good meal.
Sensory hairs on the mosquito's antennae detect changes in carbon dioxide content, humidity and temperature of the air. If these sensors detect a lowering of carbon dioxide, humidity or… read more
Protected sites in the mountains of Alaska and Canada support snow beds that may last well into the summer, or even throughout the year. These snow beds may seem inhospitable sites for life, yet birds are often seen foraging on them. The attraction is a surprising abundance of dead or inactive insects that make good eating.
Many insects and other arthropods have a dispersal phase in the life cycle, in which they may travel great distances. Some, like juvenile spiders and mites, are aided by threads of silk that act like balloons in the wind. Others use their wings. In either case, they may be carried long distances by the wind. Insects have been captured in nets hundreds of miles at sea, and thousands of feet above the mountain tops.
Large snow beds cause local downdrafts, and thus act as traps for this "aerial plankton." The insects that end up on the snow may have originated many miles away. Studying snow beds at Eagle Summit, in interior Alaska, Dr. John S.… read more
Humans are not the only ones to have dental problems. The muskox, so well adapted in many ways to life in harsh environments, has more than its share of dental anomalies. Here in Alaska a large number of muskoxen have rotated teeth of a kind similar to that occurring in young people and which they correct by wearing braces. Some muskox have peg-shaped teeth, and some have teeth that are congenitally missing.
In Greenland, I worked with muskoxen for the Danish government. After examining skulls found in the field and in museums, I became aware of the muskox's dental irregularities. Since last autumn I have been working on the "Muskox project" at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and have been able to examine the teeth of 13 animals here. In one animal the outermost front teeth had never developed, in four animals these teeth were peg-shaped, and in three of the oxen one or more premolars were rotated approximately 90 degrees.
In humans it has been shown that… read more
Recently I was surprised to learn that ice worms are found occasionally in glaciers of the Alaska Range. Ice worms are numerous in the warmer glaciers of southeastern Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State, but they cannot tolerate temperatures much below zero.
Real ice worms--not the spaghetti and ink concoctions of Klondike poet Robert Service--live in pools of water and crawl around between ice crystals near the glacier surface. When I expressed amazement that ice worms could exist in the comparatively cool glaciers of the Alaska Range, glacier expert Larry Mayo of the United States Geological Survey stated that the glaciers there are not necessarily all that cold.
Even though temperatures in the mountains are subfreezing many months of the year, glaciologist Mayo points out that the Alaska Range glaciers do contain water in liquid form the year around. From time to time, crevasses become water-filled. Also, channels cut in the glacier ice by running… read more
We normally think of Alaska and Northwestern Canada as being fairly pristine and free of many of the environmental pollutants that occur in more populated areas of the world. However, recent work on seabirds in Alaska indicates that this is not always the case. Almost 25% of individual seabirds examined have contained plastic pellets or fragments of plastic which they have picked up from the surface of the ocean. In some species the frequency of contaminated birds is frightening; 83% of the Short-tailed Shearwaters and 75% of the Parakeet Auklets examined contained plastic particles.
This plastic is primarily polyethylene, a type used in making plastic bags and squeeze bottles commonly found around the house. The plastic enters the ocean during manufacture or shipment, or from the at-sea dumping of garbage by merchant or fishing boats, and is moved around in the ocean by currents and winds. It appears that most of the plastic in the North Pacific is produced in Japan,… read more
Trod lightly when you walk through the north woods; there is life everywhere you step!
Each year the leaves and wood that fall combine with roots and humus matter to make food for an abundant and varied group of animals who live in the forest floor. These are tiny invertebrates, animals without backbones, that make up for their lack of size by sheer numbers.
Locked in frozen soil and dormant throughout the long northern winter, an abundance of life becomes evident in the spring. Studies by University of Alaska biologists show that the life in the floor of black spruce forest becomes more abundant as summer progresses. Soil mites, eight-legged relatives of the spiders, increase in abundance from 150,000 per square meter shortly after snow melt to 500,000 in each square meter by August. To convert that to more meaningful units, I drew a line around my size 11 boot and found that each step on the forest floor covers about 44 square inches. Thus, by August, each… read more
Careful tests with homing pigeons and other birds displaying the ability to judge direction show that the birds are affected by changing magnetic fields. Small coils placed near the birds' heads to create unnatural magnetic fields there do disturb the ability of pigeons to find home. Magnetic storms do the same. If birds are released at places where the earth's magnetic field is anomalously strong, their homing ability is entirely disrupted.
A possible reason why birds can sense the earth's magnetic field and perhaps use it for navigation is given by Charles Walcott and co-authors in the 7 September 1979 issue of Science magazine. Dissecting a number of pigeons, these scientists found the equivalent of a compass needle in each pigeon's head.
Next to, or essentially in, each pigeon skull, they located a tiny piece of tissue 1 mm by 2 mm (about 1/16 in by 1/8 in) that was somewhat magnetic. Searches inside this tissue with an electron microscope revealed… read more
Of the baleen whales, least is known about the medium-sized "gray whale".
The gray whale was commercially discovered by whaling captain Charles M. Scammon in 1857 as he explored the coast of Baja, California, on his way home from a bad season in the North Pacific. (Scammon Bay, Alaska was named after Captain Scammon, though apparently, he never visited this Bering Sea port.)
Captain Scammon and other whalers soon established a fishery to take the twenty-five barrels of oil to be gotten from each gray whale. Cornered in their shallow Baja, California calving grounds, the gray whales were so easily caught that they were nearly totally destroyed within 20 years.
By 1900, gray whales were not seen along the California coast and were thought to be extinct. A few reappeared there in the 1920's but whalers attacked them again. Hunting was banned in 1946 when, according to August Pivorunas, writing in the July-August issue of American Scientist, not more… read more
Stories of bear attacks abound, and there even may be people around who tell of having been kicked by a moose. But there are few neighborhoods, like ours, that can boast of a resident who has been gored by a musk ox.
Musk ox are not generally known as aggressive animals. In fact, they are famous for the passivity of their defense tactic: they simply form a ring around their young when danger threatens.
So how does one get gored by a musk ox? Ask Dr. David Klein, Professor of Wildlife Management at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Professor Klein has learned that female musk ox are to be managed carefully.
Dr. Klein was helping several others move the musk ox from one holding pen to another after she had undergone a natural abortion. Apparently, the hormone changes in an animal mother when giving birth can tend to make her somewhat irascible as well as more protective of her young. While Dr. Klein was pushing on her trying to get her to move, the cow… read more
It appears that there is more to being a rabbit than one is led to believe, hearing only the stories and jokes about the animal's reproductive capability.
Indeed, one learns much that is surprising by reading an Avon paperback by R. M. Lockley called The Private Life of the Rabbit. Among the topics covered there is the curious manner in which a European rabbit processes its food. It is a scheme designed to allow for a relatively short eating period followed by an extended interval for food processing.
Rabbits typically graze during the afternoon and evening hours. As they fill their stomachs, they also void fecal matter in the form of hard pellets--about 360 each day. Simultaneously, the new food taken in passes down through the stomach into the eaecum. The eaecum, also called the blind gut, is a stomach-sized sack opening onto the digestive system just above the rabbit's intestine. In the blind gut the ingested food is formed into soft pellets surrounded… read more
Fishes of the ocean do not swim along randomly chosen paths. Instead their routes of travel are determined by water temperature, oxygen content, salinity, currents and the availability of food. Also salmons' sense of smell evidently guides them to their spawning streams.
Increasingly it is becoming clear that the weather has a big impact on commercial fishing just as it does on agriculture. Changing weather patterns can alter fish migration routes and greatly affect the growth rates and numbers of fish available to fishermen.
Sydney Schultz, writing in the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration publication EDIS cites several examples of weather effects upon fish off Alaska's shores. During years when the weather causes cold temperatures in Bering Sea, bottomfish do not feed as well upon organisms at the sea bottom as they do in years when climatic factors warm the water.
Young sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea tend to… read more
The European rabbits on Middleton Island in the Gulf of Alaska and on Umnak, Rabbit and Hog Islands in the Aleutians have an involved history which began about two million years ago. Then, they inhabited Africa, Asia and North America, later entering South America during the ice age era a few tens of thousands of years ago.
Phoenician traders found the forefathers of the Middleton and Aleutian rabbits in Spain about three thousand years ago. The rabbits became an item of trade and soon were domesticated all over Europe. There, different breeds were evolved. Released in England by the Normans to grow wild, the domesticated rabbits soon took over and were a dominant pest for a thousand years. Introduced into Australia, the European rabbits soon were devastating pasture land there, too.
Once released, the European rabbit multiplies and does well in places where there is open grassland and not too many controlling predators such as fox, coyote or wolf. Grassy islands… read more
It now seems to be generally accepted that salmon find their way back to their spawning grounds through their acute sense of smell. Just as each major city of the world has its own set of identifiable odors, each stream apparently has a unique set.
An illustration of just how acute is the salmon's ability to distinguish between different scents is given by C. Herb Williams writing in the November 1978 issue of Pacific Search. He cites experiments by Canadian scientists showing that salmon will slow or stop their migrations when certain human smells are present. A solution of one part human skin in 80 billion parts water dumped into a river caused salmon to stop migration for as long as a half hour.
The cause of the offensive smell is an amino acid called serine. It is found in the skin or hoofs of various animals, including dog, doer and sea lion. The amount of serine in human skin depends upon the sex, age and race of the individual. Women and children… read more
Wolf rabies in North America has been known to occur only infrequently, though in the eastern Mediterranean wolves are important carriers of the disease. There had been only six verified cases of rabies in American wolves prior to 1977, when at least six wolves in one Alaskan pack died of rabies within a period of weeks.
While studying a wolf pack of ten animals on the upper Hulahula River of northeast Alaska, Richard C. Chapman noted strange behavior by one member of the group. Between vicious attacks on other members of the pack, this wolf wandered back and forth and pursued other unusual and aimless activities.
Writing in the July 28, 1978, issue of Science magazine, Chapman told about the wolf later approaching his tent. After being driven off by shouting and banging of pots, the wolf later returned and was beaten off twice more by raps on the head with an old boot. Chapman finally shot the wolf with a pistol. The dead wolf was found to be rabid; its… read more
Bark beetles attack spruce trees in early summer. These brownish black beetles are common throughout Alaska and Yukon Territory where they kill trees by boring through the bark and feeding and breeding in the phloem (inner bark)--the thin layer of soft tissue directly beneath the bark. If the beetles girdle the phloem, the tree will die since the phloem is the vital path that transports food manufactured in the needles down to the roots.
The primary indication that beetles are attacking a tree is reddish brown dust which accumulates on the bark, in bark crevices, and on the ground beneath the attacked tree. Globules of resin or pitch tubes at the beetles' entrance hole into the bark are another sign of beetle attack. Entrance holes are found from the base of the trunk upward to the top and even in the branches. Different species of bark beetles, of which there are about 20 in Alaska, attack the tree at different heights. To determine if beetles are present, remove the… read more
The 600 or so plates of baleen carried in the upper jaw of a bowhead whale were so valuable during the heyday of whaling that the take from a single whale could pay the expenses of an entire voyage, leaving all else for profit. The long, tough fibers forming the baleen plates were so strong that they were used for many applications now taken over by fiberglass or plastics. Had radially wound auto tires been invented a hundred years earlier, the best of them would have been called "baleen-belted radials."
Baleen plates ranging in length up to ten feet are attached by one end to the upper jaw so that they hang down on either side of the whale's massive tongue. The plates are set side-by-side crossways in the jaw with the frayed-out hairy bristles toward the inside of the mouth, next to the tongue.
To feed, the baleen whale swims with open mouth through swarms of small creatures known as water fleas or schools of somewhat larger shrimp-like crustacea--the small… read more
For years I thought one of my distant neighbors had a faulty chain saw that would die after firing a few times. John Collette in a letter to the editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner described the sound as that of a big diesel generator starting up, then stopping and also as that of a giant kid dropping two-foot marbles onto a concrete surface. Yet another description is that the sound is similar to a motorcycle engine starting, coming up to speed and then dying.
The male ruffed grouse produces this sound as part of a courtship ritual by beating the air with his wings. This drumming noise is composed of sound waves of such low frequency--about 40 cycles per second--that many of the grouses' predators are unable to hear it.
The ruffed grouse struts and drums during courtship in the deciduous forests where he lives, According to University of Alaska ornithologist Brina Kessel, the spruce grouse, which lives in coniferous forests, courts by strutting, jumping and… read more
About 15 years ago several scientists reported to the annual Alaska Science Conference the results of a study on the behavior of hibernating Alaskan bears.
They had located a sleeping bear in a den and proceeded to measure the bear's body temperature. One of them would crawl into the den and insert an electrical rectal thermometer into the bear, then back out of the den quickly.
The scientists were surprised to learn that this hibernating bear moved around a great deal. The movement was interfering with the measurements of temperature because the bear kept ejecting the thermometer. This, of course, necessitated another hazardous entry into the bear's den.
At last the bear settled down, and a good series of temperature measurements were obtained. They showed that the bear's temperature dropped steadily. After some hours, the scientists became quite excited because they were measuring a temperature lower than they thought any animal experienced in… read more
Fearing total extinction of the bowhead whale, the International Whaling Commission has now limited Alaskan Eskimos to a total of 12 killed or 18 struck whales per year, much to the consternation of the villagers on Alaska's northwest coast.
Decline of the bowhead whale (the Greenland or Arctic right whale) began about 300 years ago. By then, European whalers had essentially wiped out the North Atlantic right whale which they hunted for baleen and whale oil. During the hundred years ending in 1775 nearly 60,000 right whales were taken. By 1840 commercial hunting of the Arctic right whale in the eastern North Atlantic was not feasible for lack of whales.
Yankee whalers breached the last Arctic stronghold of the right whale north of Bering Strait in 1843. Nine years later 278 ships reddened Alaskan waters with their kills of the bowhead, probably taking more than a thousand whales. So efficient were these whalers that they depleted the fishing by 1908. Now the… read more
The April 1977 issue of Sunset magazine offers a clue to what might conceivably be a means to develop the offshore salmon fishery in a way that will most benefit American fishermen. The article describes year-round fishing in Puget Sound for resident salmon. These are fish that stay in the sound instead of migrating far offshore in the normal fashion.
Evidently the resident fish grow from hatchery-produced smolt which have been released later than usual. Starting in 1971, marine biologists in the Puget Sound area began a delayed-release program. The result is a soaring population of Chinook (king) and coho (silver) salmon.
Suppose a delayed-release program were to be begun in Alaskan waters. Is it possible that the program would lead to a high population of salmon living their entire lives inside our new 200-mile limit where only we could catch them?
If you itch, as I do, and have been swimming recently in waterfilled gravel pits in Fairbanks, "Cheer-Up", you have probably been parasitized! The itch-producing organism is an Alaskan, non-human schistosome, classed as a Trematode and a member of the Platyhelminthes, or Flat Worms, Phylum of the Animal Kingdom.
This schistosome, or blood fluke, is normally parasitic in wild ducks, where it is to be found in the blood vessels near the small intestine. Eggs laid by the female schistosome drop out with the bird's excrement. In a watery environment, ciliated embryos, termed miracidia, hatch from these eggs and attack and penetrate freshwater snails. The snails, such as Lymnaea stagnalis and palustris, serve as intermediate hosts. In the snail, the miracidia undergo morphological and reproductive changes which result in the production of forked-tailed larvae, or cercariae. These cercariae leave the snails in July and August and swim as free-living organisms in the water of… read more
Commenting on the question of whether migrating birds are affected by the magnetic disturbances accompanying auroras, geologist Florence Weber cites an incident that suggests that birds are at least aware of auroras.
Last fall she and others were boating down the Yukon and had camped near the mouth of Stewart River. That evening, at sunset, several thousand sandhill cranes paused in their southward migration to land on nearby sandbars. Later in the night an intense aurora appeared overhead. When it abruptly ceased, the cranes set up an intense gabbling noise and then quieted down.
Still later, a bright meteor flashed across the sky and the cranes again gabbled loudly. Sunrise again set off the chattering.
Florence Weber described the incident to ornithologist Brina Kessel, who, as it turned out, that same night was waiting at Big Delta hoping to observe the sandhill crane migration along the normal route. But the cranes never appeared there. Whether the… read more
Do great auroral displays affect migrating birds? It now seems that there is some connection, though how it comes about is obscure. The most spectacular auroras occur during intervals known as magnetic storms; during these times it appears that migrating birds shift from their normal tracks.
There is a hint that migrating birds have a tendency to fly left of normal track during magnetic (and aurora!) disturbances.
More obvious is an observed variation in migrating track direction as much as twenty or thirty degrees to either side of normal during disturbances.
According to an article by Frank R. Moore of Clemson University that appeared in the May 6, 1977 issue of Science, these effects have been seen in migrating robins, warblers and other passerine (perching) birds. Tests with homing pigeons also show that birds may sense change in the earth's magnetic field. So far, there is evidently no proof that birds actually use the magnetic field for… read more
Petroleum is a mixture of hundreds of hydrocarbons--chemicals containing the elements carbon and hydrogen. These range from propane (heating gas) through gasoline and lube oil to naphthalene (moth balls) and asphaltenes (highway blacktop). As a result of petroleum transportation and natural processes (green plants make hydrocarbons), millions of tons of these compounds enter the oceans every year. About 6 million (0.3%) of the 2 billion tons of petroleum produced each year are spilled into the oceans.
Particularly in coastal areas this oil would persist were it not for the bacteria that eat it. Other microorganisms metabolize oil too, as do higher organisms. Whereas humans do not gain energy from ingested hydrocarbons, many species of microorganisms--bacteria, yeasts and fungi--obtain both energy and tissue-building material from petroleum. These microorganisms require both the existence of oxygen and certain minerals to metabolize oil. They are able to attack the oil… read more
In marked contrast to all large mammals, including man, a number of small northern and alpine mammals are capable of reducing voluntarily, and often conspicuously, their metabolic rates and their body temperatures for extended periods of time. This process, because it occurs in the winter, is known as hibernation and provides a mechanism by which the animal can escape the rigors of a long and often hard winter, when food is largely very limited. Hibernation is largely confined to small herbivores such as marmots, ground squirrels, chipmunks, dormice, and northern bats (the black bear is an acknowledged hibernator although it does not conform to the accepted pattern).
Entry into the hibernating state is characterized by a large reduction of the metabolic rate (sometimes down to as much as 1/200th of the normal rate) and body temperature (in some cases down to 32°F). Some animals arouse periodically and quite regularly, especially the ground squirrels, and experience wide… read more
Years ago huge reindeer herds were successfully managed on the Seward Peninsula and nearby parts of Alaska. For various reasons the herds declined and the industry became relatively unimportant. Now the NANA Native Corporation has hopes of reestablishing a thriving reindeer industry. Responding to a request from NANA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service is conducting a range inventory of 4 million acres on the Seward Peninsula.
Imagery from the LANDSAT satellites is being processed by the Geophysical Institute to aid the range inventory. Through the use of computer techniques, color-coded maps are generated to show vegetation types. These maps are being checked by a field crew that collects data on vegetation, soil type and plant productivity.
These checked maps will be used to develop a management plan for the reindeer herds. The plan will include initial herd stocking rates and grazing plans. In this way it is hoped that a maximum yield… read more
While man is incapable of deep and prolonged dives, many species of marine mammals found in Alaskan waters perform such feats regularly and with no ill effects. Even a pearl diver or other well-trained man can remain submerged for only a few minutes, but the common harbor seal can remain active underwater for as long as 20 minutes. Clearly, the diving marine mammal has some built in mechanism which allows it to continue to operate when the oxygen supply is cut off. Without such a special ability, a mammal builds up excess carbon dioxide in the blood and may undergo a lapse into suspended animation.
Compared to non-diving mammals, one diver, the seal, has a large supply of blood, a greater concentration of the oxygen-carrying pigment in the blood, and a network of arteries with very elastic walls that permit blood pressure to be maintained more easily. At the onset of a dive, the seal displays a pattern of reflexes known collectively as the diving response. This response… read more
"A cocktail I can understand--but what's an ice-worm please?"
Said Deacon White:
It is not strange that you should fail to know,
since ice-worms are peculiar to the Mountain of Blue Snow."
And so Robert Service's barroom heroes led Major Brown down the snowy path to belief that ice worms really do exist. Before his eyes was placed a bottleful, picked and put away to show the scientific guys .
"Their bellies were a bilious blue, their eyes a bulbous red,
Their backs were grey, and gross were they, and hideous of head.
And when with gusto and a fork the barman speared one out,
It must have gone four inches from its tail-tip to its snout."
Robert Service perhaps knew that real ice worms were discovered on the Muir Glacier in 1887. Ann Saling, writing in the March 1978 issue of Search, tells much of what is known about ice worms. They live in the coastal glaciers… read more