Wild Things

Life as We Know It

Cheryl Carlin

With 310,000 acres to roam, moose in Grand Teton National Park could easily avoid roads. But Joel Berger of the Wildlife Conservation Society found that pregnant female moose stay near roads during calving season at the end of May. At least, that's what they do if bears, which prey on calves, are at large. The reason: bears themselves shun automobile traffic, so cow moose, Berger speculates, have learned to use roads as "human shields."

Once a year, corals in the Great Barrier Reef spawn all at once, triggered by the full moon. How do they know it's time? Researchers from Australia and elsewhere now say the coral is guided by a protein that's sensitive to the moon's faint blue light; they call the protein a "precursor to eyes."

At midday, University of Utah scientists have found, male cones of Australia's Macrozamia lucida cycad heat up by more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit and emit toxic chemicals. That causes cone-eating bugs called thrips, which happen to be covered with male pollen, to flee—to cooler female cycad cones. Pollination accomplished.

Hungarian mathematicians who study the theory of how objects balance turned their attention to a real-world question: How does an upside-down turtle right itself? They found that a turtle with a tall shell simply waggles its head and feet to start rolling over. A flat-shelled turtle usually has a long, muscular neck with which it nudges itself upright. For a turtle, it turns out, geometry is destiny.

Name: Smilodon fatalis, a saber-toothed cat that stalked North and South America until about 10,000 years ago.
Big Kitty: About 350 to 600 pounds, maybe 4 feet in height, with canine teeth 7 inches long.
Bad Kitty: Bad enough to kill bison, horses, even mammoths.
Wimpy Kitty?: New computer modeling by researchers in Australia shows that the cat's bite was only one-third as forceful as a modern lion's.
Big, Bad Kitty: The finding won't erase "fatalis" from the cat's name. Rather, it advances a 150-year quest to learn how the animal killed. Unlike a lion, whose jaws exert a deadly "clamp-and-hold" grip, the sabercat apparently used its powerful body to fell prey before finishing it off with a stabbing bite.

“Fear, human shields and the redistribution of prey and predators in protected areas,” by Joel Berger, Biology Letters, October 9, 2007
“Light-Responsive Cryptochromes from a Simple Multicellular Animal, the Coral Acropora millepora,” by O. Levy et al., Science, October 19, 2007
“Odor-mediated Push-Pull Pollination in Cycads,” by Irene Terry et al., Science, October 5, 2007
“Geometry and self-righting of turtles,” by Gábor Domokos and Péter L. Várkonyi, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, October 17, 2007
“Supermodeled sabercat, predatory behavior in Smilodon fatalis revealed by high-resolution 3D computer simulation,” PNAS, October 9, 2007

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