Research satisfies our natural curiosity

  • By Sharon Wootton Herald Columnist
  • Friday, October 17, 2008 2:56pm
  • Life

The outdoors is simply too large a topic to cover well in a series of books, let alone a lifetime of columns. And what we know about “nature” is constantly changing, thanks to researchers who study their specific interests and the agencies, universities and taxpayers that fund them.

Some politicians point fingers at what they consider pointless areas of study, funded in many cases by allegedly sinfully wasteful earmarks and public grants.

Yet time after time, studies that may have been the target of ridicule pay us back by leading researchers down paths that lead to discoveries that can help humans physically and psychologically, or extend our knowledge about once-ridiculed topics such as global climate change.

Here are a few of 2008’s research studies.

Fish-loving wolves: During the fall, British Columbia wolves whose territory is near salmon-bearing rivers and streams prefer fish even when the deer supply is plentiful, according to a study by the University of Victoria and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Immune problems: Threatened northern and California spotted owls may have a fragile immune system. A San Francisco State University study of 11 owl species found that 44 percent of the spotted owls carried 17 strains of blood parasites and an unusually high number of strains not found in other owl species.

Sexy chicks: Baby chickens can’t answer the boy-or-girl question raised by breeders who are building breeding flocks or matching breeder pairs. Chicks don’t have gender-telling feathers or visible genitals.

German researchers set out to find an alternative to using anesthesia and drawing blood, both stressful on the chicks. Ultraviolet resonance Raman spectroscopy tells all from the tissue pulp from birds’ feathers with 95 percent accuracy and under a minute.

No more road-kill jokes: Red squirrels in Britain have been flattened by vehicles often enough that a wildlife group built experimental rope bridges over two roads for the squirrels’ use.

Eventually a University of Leeds’ researcher, armed with cameras, nuts and sticky tape, took a look at whether they worked. His answer: they worked when placed in areas with a high squirrel population. An added benefit: the bridges allow squirrels to spread through wider areas and reduce the risk of inbreeding.

Beetles, trees and air: Are mountain pine beetles, which are killing huge areas of Rocky Mountain forests, altering the local weather? Researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research started a four-year study this summer.

Their initial computer modeling indicates that the dead trees can create a temporary increase of more than 2 degrees F, partly because there’s no foliage to reflect the sun’s heat. And because the trees apparently release chemicals in an effort to discourage the beetles, the air quality temporarily worsens.

Bad news bears: Up to now, it’s been generally assumed that black bears habituated to human garbage learned the bad behavior from their mothers. A study by the Wildlife Conservation Society examined that assumption.

Bears accustomed to human food are just as likely to start down the path of garbage-habituation on their own as they are to learning it from their mothers. The WCS’ findings might lead to better strategies that would minimize bear-human interactions.

Size matters: Female spiders often eat their mates (or potential mates). Researchers from Miami University in Ohio discovered that males are more often eaten if they are smaller than the females.

In one species, large males got a free pass and small males were eaten about 80 percent of the time.

On the bookshelf: Thousands of animals go unseen by visitors to the Olympic National Park and others are seen by go unidentified. It’s one thing to say, “There’s a Roosevelt elk,” but it’s another to be able to identify a carabid beetle, sanderling, Western tailed blue, ochre sea star or red-legged frog.

The Olympic National Park Wildlife Pocket Naturalist Guide ($6, Waterford Press) is a handy laminated 12-section accordion-folded guide with pictures of 163 of the most commonly seen birds and mammals in the park.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or

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