RoboSquirrel Lets Loose

7 04 2012

Squirrel robots are on the loose near San Jose, and they’re helping scientists at the University of California, Davis understand how their fleshy counterparts interact with rattlesnakes.

When squirrels approach rattlesnakes, they wag their tail and use infrared radiation to signal radiation-sensitive rattlesnakes. What exactly they’re conveying is anybody’s guess, but it’s probably safe to say that “Come eat me” is not on the menu. The radiation flashing seems to shift the snakes’ behavior from predatory to defensive, according to a 2007 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study from UC Davis.

When the researchers tested how infrared robo-tail wagging affected snake behavior in the lab, they noticed the snake spent less time exploring the chamber for food and more time in the “defensive postures of coiling and cocking-to-strike,” they wrote in the 2007 study. Tail-wagging, then, may be a squirrel’s way of posturing and discouraging their predators from striking out at them. The researchers claim rattlesnakes very rarely attack squirrels wagging their tail and those who do often miss. (In the video above, only the non-wagging critter got bit, but it looks like that snake must have had better aim than most.)

So why put yourself in a position to have your head chomped off?

Assuming the rattlesnake in the video, which was filmed during the more recent San Jose field studies, was cocked to strike, RoboSquirrel didn’t fare very well. A real squirrel may not have ended up as the rattlesnake’s main course, but injury might still have occurred.

Perhaps the tailed rodents may be assessing how dangerous the situation really is, the scientists wrote in a press release. But that seems like an ill-thought-out death mission. The researchers suggest perhaps snakes leave after encountering a wagging squirrel. If that’s true, then this strategy might be a way for squirrels to protect their vulnerable pups from being eaten by hungry snakes. In that context, that strategy seems more logical. Testing whether this happens in the wild might be easier (and less cruel) with an army of RoboSquirrels. If the hypothesis holds up, shooing away rattlesnakes by deploying furry androids could have other ecological consequences.





Less Smoke, More Fire

28 11 2011

Sarah Jane Keller

by Sarah Jane Keller

I grew up near a fortress built during the French and Indian War and used to love historical reenacting, but I eventually quit. In the eyes of dominant reenacting culture, period-correct portrayal of a frontier woman meant that my male friends would be throwing tomahawks and shooting muzzleloaders, and I’d be mending bodices and cooking over an open fire.

The next time you inhale too much smoke while roasting marshmallows, ask yourself what it would be like to have that crud in your lungs every day. (Photo by SJK)

While I had the luxury of eschewing the cooking technology of the colonial period, almost half of world’s families still prepare their meals over open flame. And just as in early America, men are often out and about, while women and young children stay in the home where they continually inhale smoke.

This October, a Science paper from authors at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) named home pollution from open cooking fires the world’s leading cause of environmental death. Killing nearly 2 million people annually, indoor air pollution is more deadly than malaria, according to the World Health Organization. Most of the deaths come from acute lower respiratory infections in children under five and adult deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

I’ve recently become more aware of this issue because I’m writing a story about the Berkeley-based Darfur Stoves Project. Just after I started talking to people involved with the Darfur Stoves Project, I interviewed Bill Toone, the executive director of the San Diego-based ECOLIFE Foundation, about monarch butterflies. Both organizations distribute fuel-efficient cooking stoves in ways that are culturally specific, address the extreme logistical challenges of distributing a new technologies in poor countries, and attempt to create market demand for the stoves. The NIH authors list all of those things as barriers to stove adoption by families.

Monarch butteflies hang from a tree for winter warmth in Mexico. Photo by: Ernest H. Williams

These projects demonstrate how food—and its preparation—directly touch individual quality of life, but then ripple into our local environments and, in the case of carbon emissions, the global environment.

As Toone said: “This is one of those wonderful crossover spots where we can help the environment, help a family and help ourselves in the sense that these cooking practices have an impact on our climate.

Since 2004, Toone and ECOLIFE have been working with communities in and near Central Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve to distribute fuel-efficient cooking stoves. Deforestation over the decades–both by illegal logging cartels and locals, who need firewood for cooking—has fragmented the butterflies’ unique Oyamel fir habitat and put the migration at risk. ECOLIFE recognized that communities could reduce pressure on the habitat that they share with the butterfly by using less firewood to prepare their meals.

Toone’s approach to biological conservation comes from his conviction that people need to have adequate food, water and shelter before they can care for other things. “The most effective way we’re going to enact conservation on the planet, is that conservation is how we ensure our healthy survival into the future,” said Toone. “It’s really about us.”

When ECOLIFE tried to save money by removing the tile indicating that the Lorena cookstove is a friend of the butterflies, new stove users wondered what happened to the tile, and ECOLIFE restored the important symbol of the community's connection to the environment. Photo credit: ECOLIFE Foundation

The Darfur Stoves Project is another stoves group working for human and environmental health. In 2006, the U.S. Agency for International Development approached Ashok Gadgil, a

The Berkeley-Darfur Stove is manufactured in Mumbai, assembled in Darfur, and was designed in tested by Lawrence-Berkeley labs engineers with constant input from the women of Darfur. Photo credit: LBNL Cookstoves Project

physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories, to help because militiamen were raping Darfuri women as they left refugee camps to search for firewood. A fuel-efficient stove would cut down on wood-gathering trips and women’s exposure to violence.

The stove that Gadgil and his team developed is the product of a long, iterative process between engineering and culture. The stove has been successful because it incorporated many design suggestions from Darfuri women. Now that there are few trees left to gather around the refugee camps, many women buy firewood rather than collect it, and the stove saves them money and time.

Andree Sosler, the executive director of the Darfur Stoves Project, told me in an interview that will appear elsewhere, about their most recent work in marketing the stoves and providing microloans so that women may purchase them. Like the NIH paper, she emphasized the importance of developing a market for stoves because it helps make the product more consumer-driven and sustains its distribution.

Though Toone is a conservation biologist who once worked on the California condor reintroduction, and Ashok Gadgil is a physicist and engineer, I heard a similar refrain from both of them. They weren’t satisfied with just working with animals or making gadgets, they wanted to see real changes in the quality of life of individuals.

Gadgil, a master of developing technology for people who are often overlooked by traditional research and development, summed up his motivations in an interview earlier this fall: “How can we say at the end of the day we made the world a little better. Do you say: ‘I want to publish one more paper’? No!”





Who You Gonna Call?

9 11 2011

Natural Bridges, photo by Meghan D. Rosen


By Meghan D. Rosen

On Halloween, an adventure-seeking Santa Cruz surfer braved wintery water temperatures and paddled a half-mile out past Seabright Beach wearing only a bikini.  But she wasn’t trying to catch a wave.  The scantily clad surfer was trawling for an intimate look at the humpback whales that had been feeding off the coast. And she was in for a treat — or maybe it was a trick: two titanic whales burst through the water’s surface mere feet from her surfboard, scattering silvery anchovies into the air.

A nearby kayaker caught the close encounter on tape, and the video surged through local media circuits.  But “surfer-swallowing whales” aren’t just big news in Santa Cruz.  On Nov. 3, Anderson Cooper aired the clip on CNN, and three days later the YouTube video had nearly 2.3 million views.

The past week has been a special thrill for whale watchers: a pod of humpbacks settled unusually close to Santa Cruz’s seashores to hunt for food.  But curious crowds weren’t flocking to the docks just to spot a fleeting fluke: they were jamming into boats and kayaks and hopping onto surfboards to move in for a closer look. Though humpbacks don’t eat people, invading the whales’ space can still be dangerous. The marine mammals are powerful and massive: they range from the size of a school bus to the size of a semi-truck.

Humpback Whale (Megatera novaeanglieae) wrapped in kelp, Monterey Bay, Pacific Ocean. Photo by (c) Peggy Stap / Marine Life Studies NMFS Permit 1094-1836-02

Peggy Stap, director of Marine Life Studies, wants people to remember to maintain a safe distance.  “It’s exciting to see the whales so close to shore,” Stap said.  “But when they are feeding they are sometimes oblivious to their surroundings— a kayaker or boater could be hurt as the whales lunge feed at the surface.”

Humpback Whale's tangled fluke, Monterey Bay, Pacific Ocean. (c) Peggy Stap / Marine Life Studies MMHSRP Permit #932-1489

Stap’s not just worried about overeager onlookers, though. She’s worried about the whales. Her Monterey-based nonprofit organization works to protect marine mammals, and educate people about whales and dolphin conservation. In 2006, they organized California’s Whale Entanglement Team (W.E.T.), a group dedicated to helping free whales from the insidious underwater webs of fishing gear and lines.  According to Stap, 50% of whales have entanglement scars.

Before the team was established, Stap said, “If there was an entangled whale in California, there was no one to call to help.”  Now, if someone sees a trapped whale, they can contact W.E.T. at 877 SOS WHALE (877-767-9425).

Stap’s team advises snared-whale spotters to stay with the animal, but she tells people to avoid getting in the water with it. The W.E.T. team is trained to assess whether a whale actually needs help (some will ‘throw the gear’ and extricate themselves on their own) and has specialized whale-extracting tools if it does. Marine Life Studies recently received a grant to expand their W.E.T tool cache. Soon, they’ll be able to transport a trailer full of tools —Stap calls “W.E.T on Wheels” her dream— wherever there is a whale in need.

Marine Life Studies' Ocean User's Guide

Though Stap’s dream project has come true, her organization is constantly looking for ways to educate the public about marine life protection. Their most recent project, a waterproof ‘ocean users’ guide’ — Marine Mammals of Northern California — outlines little-known rules of thumb for interactions between humans and marine mammals, and is illustrated with 25 different types of whales and dolphins, along with sea lions, sea otters, and seals. The rules are based on NOAA’s regulations to protect marine mammals.

Stap hopes the guide will help people remember to keep a safe distance from marine wildlife. So far, they’ve distributed the guides to boaters, kayak guides, dive instructors, docents, and teachers.

“The law says you need to be 100 yards away from whales,” Stap said. “People need to realize that humpbacks are an endangered species.”





Not Your Average Birdhouse

24 10 2011

Researchers and conservationists are giving some seabirds an extreme home makeover on Año Nuevo Island (photo: Erin Loury)

Erin Loury

by Erin Loury

On a little island off the coast of central California, researchers, conservationists and artists are teaming up to help some threatened sea birds raise their next generation. The helping hand comes in the form of some stylish new housing.

The Rhinoceros Auklet is a small seabird that researchers call the “the penguin of the North Pacific.”   When it comes to setting up shop, these seabirds have some special needs.  They only nest on islands, safe from the predators they would encounter on the mainland, and they dig those nests in the ground, burrowing long tunnels into the topsoil.

A Rhinoceros Auklet (photo: Dick Daniels, Wikimedia Commons)

On Año Nuevo Island, soil erosion threatens some prime seabird real estate.  A combination of human use, dry summers, heavy storms, and trampling sea lions and pelicans sloughed five feet of topsoil from the island in the 1990s.  Without stable soil, the burrows can blow away or collapse and kill the chick inside.  To top it off, Rhinoceros Auklets only raise one chick a year.

That’s where a little human engineering comes in to play.

The Año Nuevo Island Restoration project, headed by California State Parks, the non-profit Oikonos and Go Native Inc., is giving the island a little TLC to make it a better bird habitat.  In addition to planting 10,000 native plants to stabilize the soil, the team found a creative way to give the birds a boost in the nesting department.

Students at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, instructed by ceramicist Nathan Lynch and Rebar designer Matthew Passmore, crafted 90 ceramic burrows that the team buried in the soil. The burrows consist of a long tube that curves at the end like the crook of a pipe.  The shape mimics the style of burrows that Rhinoceros Auklets construct for themselves, with a bendy bit serving as a place to tuck their chicks out of the light.

The burrows create a solid place for the birds to nest without fear of collapsing tunnels.  They also have a handy little lid over the nesting area that researchers can lift to check in on the birds.  Once they know a nesting pair is incubating an egg, they won’t disturb them until they estimate they egg is ready to hatch.

The birds have been warming up to their sturdy new digs.  After the first burrows were installed in 2010, a single pair used one to successfully raise a chick. This year, 33 pairs of auklets cozied up to the new burrows.   It’s no wonder the team dubs these ceramic nests things like “The Love Shack.”

You can read a great description about the project, and follow their progress online.  And just for kicks, another recent of example of crafters giving seabirds a lift: knitters make sweaters for the oil-splashed penguins of New Zealand.