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Dispatches
Dumb and Dumber

Star Search
No Eye Chart Necessary
Bug Out
Swooning Swans
Flying High
Hug a Jellyfish Today
Starling Songbook

Dumb and Dumber

Off-road driving erodes stream banks and hillsides, chews up vegetation, and forges roads in otherwise roadless areas. It also brings people to places they just shouldn’t be—like, in one case, down a mine shaft. Last spring two men off-roading through Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands in California, just north of the Mexican border, managed to nose-dive their Suzuki Samurai into an abandoned mine. The fall broke one man’s arm though, fortunately, nothing else (except the car). Still, the men surely hadn’t planned to spend their vacation 35 feet beneath the desert. “This was a very peculiar one. We don’t usually see a vehicle in a mine shaft,” says Jeff Green, president of the De Anza Rescue Unit, which goes to the aid of stranded motorists when their “sand toys” break down or run out of gas. The mine is one of many within the BLM’s Limited Use Areas, where driving outside of designated routes is forbidden—and for good reason. These men spent 21 hours trapped in the small mine without water, and Green says that if the weather hadn’t been mild that day, they likely would have died of dehydration.—Melissa Mahony
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Star Search

Ivory-billed woodpeckers seem almost as elusive as space aliens these days, so NASA may be the perfect agency to help find the mysterious birds. Scientists from the University of Maryland and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center recently used an infrared sensor to collect information on the Big Woods area of the Mississippi River delta, where the lost species was (or wasn’t, depending on who you talk to) video-recorded in 2005. “It’s way, way faster than trying to measure this stuff in the field, even with an army of people,” says Ralph Dubayah, a University of Maryland researcher involved in the project. The sensor, which is mounted on a plane, sends out an infrared laser pulse to circular, 50-foot swaths of forest. Depending on how strongly the light is reflected and how long the pulse takes to come back, the researchers can determine tree heights and canopy density. After the  information is coupled with other forest facts, such as the number of good nesting trees, it will be used by ground searchers to focus on the best ivory-bill habitat.—Susan Cosier
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No Eye Chart Necessary

The senior citizen was bumping into furnishings in her home. She couldn’t find a place to sit down, or even see her food. She was deteriorating—fast. You could say she had lost her eagle eye. Cataracts are an ailment that haunts many, but for a wild bald eagle, they are a death sentence. Luckily for Alaska, a 33-year-old bald eagle at the Sunset Zoological Park in Manhattan, Kansas, there was a solution, one more than a million humans turn to every year: surgery. The procedure was a first for doctors at Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “We know cataract surgery has been performed on golden eagles, but I didn’t find any reports of it being done on a bald eagle,” says Rachel Allbaugh, an ophthalmology resident who performed the surgery with a colleague. Wild eagles can survive 20 to 25 years; captive eagles, 40. The two-hour surgery to remove the cloudy lenses was a success, and Alaska is once again eating and clearly seeing those who come to visit her.—Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell
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Bug Out

At ports across the country, patrollers are on the lookout for illegal weapons, counterfeit goods, and would-be terrorists. Now the Department of Homeland Security is employing entomologists to help protect the country from biological invaders. “We’re not scanning for insects with al-Qaeda badges on,” says Bob Androw, an entomologist with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. But they are screening for bugs that may decimate crops or trees, like the metallic-green emerald ash borer. After September 11, the border patrol duties of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service were brought under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security. In the shuffle, however, many invasive-species patrol positions were “redirected,” allowing some bugs to escape scrutiny for years. Experts from institutions like the Carnegie Museum and the Smithsonian have been working with the government for less than a year but have already discovered one potentially destructive pest, a type of Asian ambrosia beetle, not previously seen in the United States. The females bore into woody branches and trunks to lay eggs, often killing part or all of the tree.—Susan Cosier
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Swooning Swans

They may form lifetime partnerships, and males are especially protective of their partners, but swans—those icons of monogamy—get around the pond more than previously thought. DNA testing of black swans revealed that one in six cygnets is conceived “illegitimately.” Now Australian researchers are tagging the tail feathers of some 200 black swans with microchips to see who is mating with whom. “We don’t really know if it’s the males or the females initiating the copulations, or when or where they are taking place,” says biologist Raoul Mulder of the University of Melbourne. A swan’s sex life occurs on the water, and some acts of infidelity may happen at night. But special antennae on 32 females will detect microchips placed under the feathers of males. These will record the identities of their partners, when the acts occur, and for how long. This data may reveal the factors that led to a successful fertilization. Strategically placed antennae even detected one male lover courting a “married” female at the site of her nest.—Melissa Mahony
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Flying High

She wasn’t driving, but the pelican that crashed into a car on the Pacific Coast Highway last summer could have been charged with an FUI—flying under the influence. The inebriated bird was feeling the effects of domoic acid poisoning, which makes birds act a little loopy. “It’s like the birds are high,” says Lisa Birkle, assistant director of the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center, in Huntington Beach, California. During certain times of the year, algae that produces domoic acid, a naturally occurring nerve toxin, blooms in the water, providing a feast for dining fish. The acid builds up in the fish bodies and can cause birds that eat them to have a chemical reaction resulting in hallucinations and seizures. Some poisoned pelicans dive into parking lots, thinking the concrete is actually the ocean, says Birkle. The center, which treats injured animals, put a pin in the pelican’s broken toe and sewed up its webbing after the collision. The healed pelican was released within weeks of the accident, clean and sober.—Susan Cosier
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Hug a Jellyfish Today

While engineers rush to fight global warming, salps—jellyfish-like sea creatures—are already doing their part. Marine organisms exhale CO2 into the water; from there it can return to the atmosphere, adding to global warming. Under the right conditions, salps reproduce in massive swarms that eat almost everything in their path. In one study, a swarm consumed up to 74 percent of the carbon-rich phytoplankton in its area. With their incredibly quick-sinking fecal pellets, the salps sent 4,000 tons of carbon into the deep daily, the equivalent of the carbon emissions produced by 600 Americans a year. “The carbon within a fecal pellet going 4,000 or 5,000 feet down is probably not going to resurface for 1,000 or more years,” says biologist Larry Madin of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.—Melissa Mahony
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Starling Songbook

European starlings have huge repertoires of complicated songs. They may also have an ear for grammar. Researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of California, San Diego, recently taught the birds to recognize two syntactic patterns, one thought to be understood only by humans. “We thought if there’s any animal that could do it, it would be songbirds,” says Timothy Gentner, a neuroscientist who led the study. Humans insert words and clauses at the beginning, middle, and end of sentences, but so far, in all known animal languages, sounds are added only to the beginning or end of a communication. An animal might say “The seed is good” and then add “The seed is good and it’s yellow.” Humans, however, can express “Over there, the seed, that is yellow, is good.” Researchers used grammatical rules to translate starling sounds into song patterns. The birds heard eight versions of each pattern for training; once they learned them, they were tested with novel instances of the same patterns. Starlings showed they could correctly classify the novel songs according to which rules of grammar they followed. Says Gentner, “What the heck are starlings doing with this ability?” The short answer: “We don’t know.”—Melissa Mahony
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