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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

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August 11, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Abalone sex: Sometimes it’s best to go with the flow

There’s a lot you can learn about human reproduction by spending a little time with shellfish.

Just ask Jeffrey Riffell, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Washington.

Scientists have long known that many species release chemicals to draw sperm to an egg during reproduction. Sponges do it. So do plants. So do humans. And so do shellfish. But much about these chemical attractants is unknown.

Riffell and a colleague took a novel approach to learn more. They studied the chemical cues released by a troubled type of shellfish — the abalone. By choosing to focus on these mollusks they could advance our understanding of human biology — and perhaps find ways to help save some marine creatures.

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The colorful shell of a red abalone. Photo by Ignacio Vilchis

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July 22, 2011 at 9:56 AM

With the oldest male whale, “Ruffles,” gone, who will be orcas’ next Big Daddy?

He was the first southern resident killer whale in J-pod to be identified, perhaps because he was so easy to distinguish from the others.

J1 came to be known by many as “Ruffles” because his dorsal fin was wavy, like a potato chip, or a flag in the wind.

J1, aka Ruffles, was Puget Sound’s oldest male orca. Photos by Center for Whale Research

When he disappeared sometime last fall, killer whale experts and orca watchers knew the score; J1 was nearly 60 years old. They wrote rememberances, set up social networking pages and put up photo galleries. The Big Daddy of the southern residents almost certainly had died.

But J1’s absence is raising interesting new questions about how the makeup of the southern residents will change now that he’s gone. His death is yet another reminder that even though Puget Sound’s orcas are among the most studied marine mammals in the world, much about them remains a mystery.

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July 19, 2011 at 1:30 PM

Sniffing out the other sex: People do it, as do mice and lizards, but seabirds?

Looking for love? Wiggle your nose.

OK. Perhaps that is a gross generalization. Few of us (consciously, at least) choose our mates based on how they smell. But that’s not to say that odors aren’t important. Scientists have found that women might actually prefer the body odor of men who are, ahem, “genetically dissimilar,” said Sarah Leclaire, a biologist with the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge. In other words, we’re more attracted to people who don’t smell like our relatives.

That makes sense, of course, since few species benefit from inbreeding. And when it comes to following olfactory cues, we’re certainly not alone. Among some species of voles and mice, females prefer hanging out with males that smell genetically different. Same with sand lizards. In fact, links between odor and sex have been found in everything from hyenas and pandas to tortoises and boa constrictors.

But what about birds? That’s what Leclaire wanted to find out.

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Comments | Topics: Alaska, birds, panda

July 8, 2011 at 7:00 AM

A summer of counting wolf pups and hunting grizzly bear hair

Carnivore biologists have new reasons to spend a lot of time in the Cascades this summer.

Wildlife researchers plan to head into the field in Kittitas County late this month or early next trying to find and count a new litter of gray wolf pups. Meanwhile, bear biologists will be trekking through the woods much farther to the north. They’ll be hauling barbed wire as part of an effort to get DNA samples from wild grizzlies.

Both efforts are linked to recent discoveries that are getting some buzz in wildlife circles. For those who missed it, we reported last week that a live grizzly bear had been photographed in the North Cascades of Washington for the first time in roughly 50 years. The photograph was reviewed by a panel that included many of the nation’s top grizzly bear experts. Read the story here.

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A grizzly bear chows down in preparation for winter on Oct. 21, 2010, in the North Cascades. Photo by Joe Sebille.

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July 1, 2011 at 7:00 AM

Crows don’t get mad, they get even — and bring friends, and never forget

It had been almost half a decade since they first donned the scary caveman mask and went about trying to capture and place monitoring bands on crows in a corner of the city.

John Marzluff, the professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington most famous for his work with the intelligent urban birds, wanted to know if crows would actually recognize and remember the face of the human that had caused such a ruckus. So he and some students came back time and again wearing the same caveman mask. Each time, they were harassed, the birds sometimes even swooping down and nearly touching them.

Marzluff and his students repeated their quiet journey several times over the years, and wrote scientific papers that got attention around the world. Crows, it seemed, could remember a face. Marzluff’s crew took a breather for awhile and then went back and paid the neighborhood another visit wearing their special caveman mask. The results were published Wednesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. See it here.

The results show that angry crows don’t just recognize individual tormentors, but they share that information with friends and family. Most notably: They remember it for years and years and years — even when the person in the caveman mask appears far away from the scene of the original crime.

“They have remembered this dangerous caveman guy for five years,” Marzluff said. “And they hadn’t even seen him for a year.”

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June 29, 2011 at 8:15 AM

Weird creatures: an Alaskan fur seal found in a cow pasture

It was inauguration day 1993. On the East Coast, Bill Clinton and Al Gore were swearing an oath. On the West Coast a lost marine mammal was barking up a storm.

The 8-month-old northern fur seal was supposed to be out at sea. But it got disoriented in a storm during its journey south from the Pribilof Islands in Alaska. Instead of staying on course 20 miles off Washington’s coast, this tiny pup turned left and washed up in Hoquiam, Grays Harbor.

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Al the fur seal at the Seattle Aquarium. Mark Harrison, photo

It “came ashore and just kept moving until it ended up in this cow field,” said C.J. Casson, life sciences curator at the Seattle Aquarium, which adopted the creature and named it “Little Al.”

I wrote a story this week about bizarre creatures that have shown up unexpectedly in Northwest waters. Check out the story here. But I didn’t have enough space to talk about Al.

While the range of northern fur seals extends from Alaska to Russia and Japan and south to the Channel Islands, they almost never make it to the mainland. Their lives are spent almost entirely at sea, and they come ashore on a few select ocean islands to breed. They aren’t supposed to show up in Puget Sound or the Washington coast.

But, sometimes, they do.

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June 28, 2011 at 5:30 AM

Sharks, dolphins, birds and whales: weird visitors to Puget Sound

After researchers last week documented two long-beaked dolphins swimming in waters near Olympia, we decided to check out the unusual creatures that have appeared in recent years in the Northwest. We found documented visits by marlin and mackerel, leopard sharks and Bryde’s whales, and a crazy round beast called an Ocean sunfish. We spoke to a…

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Comments | Topics: booby, dolphin, fish

June 23, 2011 at 4:03 PM

Mule deer vs. cows: Can livestock grazing benefit wildlife?

It has been one of the most controversial questions in southeast Washington: When livestock graze on public land does that ever actually help wildlife? A host of science over the years has made clear that running cattle on sensitive landscapes can damage soils and streams and change the ecology of the land. But some research has…

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