Audubon.org
Get the Magazine
Contact Us


Current Issue Web Exclusives Get the Magazine Issue Archives Advertisers
Feature Articles
Editor's Note
Audubon View
Letters
Field Notes
Green Guru
Incite
Earth Almanac
Journal
Audubon Living
Birds
Reviews
One Picture

Field Notes
Technology
Horror Show
Bird Conservation
Orchids
Global Warming
Dispatches

Good Vibrations
Meaning of Life
Gecko Glue
Eating Poachers
Got My Goat
Froggy Went A-floating
Wheelies for Wetlands
Illustrations by Stephen Savage

Good Vibrations
An elephant’s trumpeting blast is a staple of those old Tarzan movies. Imagine if Hollywood knew then what researchers have found out now: The largest of land mammals also communicate through low-frequency rumbles. “The vocalizations create a ripple on the surface of the earth that elephants can interpret,” says Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, a researcher at Stanford University. Whether moving through the earth or the air, the information contained in sound waves is identical. And the ground vibrations carry much farther, so theoretically elephants would be able to talk over as much as 12 or 13 miles. They “listen” by picking up the vibration with their toes. “We weren’t sure at first how sophisticated the ability might be,” says O’Connell-Rodwell, guessing the animals might sense stormy weather or other herds running in the distance. After playing recorded rumbles through so-called ButtKickers (home theater equipment normally used to enhance a movie by shaking the house in sync with the soundtrack), she discovered that not only can elephants convey alarm, information about food, or mating calls, but they have a sort of “caller ID of the wild” and are able to distinguish known from unknown “toe talkers.”—Ted O’Callahan
Back to Top

The Meaning of Life
There may not be two of each creature, but a new online project rivals the biblical story of Noah’s Ark in its species-gathering scope. In May a collaboration of museums and scientific institutions announced a plan to create an online encyclopedia containing information about each of the 1.7 million known species on earth, including photos, range maps, and genetic data. The Encyclopedia of Life currently has about $25 million in funding for its first five years, with the initial pages expected up by mid-2008. The project will allow individuals to contribute information from multiple sources, such as technical journals and scientific organ-izations (think Google crossed with Wikipedia). Researchers will review scientific material for accuracy, but citizen scientists will have the chance to weigh in, too. “There’s been a need and a desire for this kind of information to be brought together for a long time,” says James Edwards, the ency-clopedia’s executive director. The resource is intended for the scientific community, as well as for con-servationists, policy makers, and the public. “[The encyclopedia] can inspire a new generation of biologists to continue the quest that started for me 60 years ago,” Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson said in a 2007 speech. “To search for life, to understand it, and to preserve it.” To learn more and to see demonstration pages, visit the Encyclopedia of Life.—Andrea Anderson
Back to Top

Gecko Glue
By applying sticking strategies from experts at opposite ends of the natural world, scientists are building a better Band-Aid. The reason geckos can hang on a desert cliff, even upside down, without being permanently glued to the rock is because of hundreds of thousands of splitting nano-hairs on each foot, which create reversible chemical bonds to any dry surface. Until recently scientific efforts to synthesize adhesives modeled on that process ran into trouble any time the material got wet—it peeled off like, well, like a gecko in the rain. So Phillip Messersmith, a professor of biomedical engineering at Northwestern University, and his team worked out a way to coat synthetic gecko pads with a layer of a material that mimics the underwater adhesive qualities of a protein glue mussels use to permanently anchor themselves to wave-washed rocks. “In this material we get a hybrid which exhibits wet adhesion but is also reversible,” Messersmith says. After successful lab tests, commercial development may be only a year or two away. Beyond a bandage that could stick to a badly bitten tongue, applications could range from sports grips to dental adhesives.—Ted O’Callahan
Back to Top

Eating Poachers
The Bengal tigers of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve in India’s West Bengal state are alleged man-eaters. Yet even this frightful reputation doesn’t keep poachers away. As of 2001, the reserve was home to as many as 271 tigers. No one knows how many tigers are killed for their bones, organs, and skins annually, but dozens of poachers have been arrested in the reserve in recent years. Now it looks as if crocodiles may be coming to the aid of their fellow fearsome creatures. Since the late 1970s about 400 captive-bred saltwater crocodiles have been released into the reserve’s swampy mangrove habitat in an effort to conserve the species. India’s forest officials are crediting the growing number of crocs with helping to scare off tiger poachers. Still, the crocodile-guard concept leaves some cold, especially nearby villagers, who are concerned about dangerous animals escaping from the reserve. Conflict with the area’s wildlife reportedly caused more than 20 local deaths during a recent five-year period. “Crocodiles might deter some from venturing into the forest,” says Anurag Danda, an India-based conservationist with the World Wildlife Fund. “But the breeding and release program has had an impact on the human population as well.”—Andrea Anderson
Back to Top

Got My Goat
It’s been called the “green menace” and “the vine that ate the South.” Now the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, has followed the lead of other municipalities by using an eco-friendly alternative to herbicide to combat kudzu, the pesky, invasive vine originally planted—disastrously—to control soil erosion. All the way through Chattanooga’s mild autumn, a herd of goats contracted from a local farmer grazed contentedly on Missionary Ridge. Officials say it was difficult to use heavy equipment safely on the steep slope and that as a result the kudzu was threatening to block the traffic tunnels that cut through the ridge. The goats have been at it for two seasons already and have done such a stellar job that the University of Tennessee recently sponsored a “goat browsing academy,” teaching goat husbandry to farmers in hopes of getting more of them interested in becoming “goat contractors” for the city. Unable to resist, a local songwriter recorded a new version of the famous country song “Ode to Billy Joe,” changing the title to—what else?—“Ode to Billy Goats.” (To read the lyrics and listen to the song, click here.)—Hilda Brucker
Back to Top

Froggy Went A-Floating
They may not have sailors’ mouths, but some frogs certainly have their sea legs. For years scientists hypothesized that South American frogs reached Central America and the Caribbean by traveling over land bridges. Now new research shows that they in fact reached greener forests by floating on rafts of vegetation. “That’s the punch line of this study—that they were floating on ocean currents and did not walk across the continents,” says study coauthor Blair Hedges, an evolutionary biologist at Pennsylvania State University. By sequencing DNA samples from more than 300 species of frogs collected over three decades, the researchers found that the amphibians traveled for weeks on flotsam as large as a mile in diameter before reaching their new homes about 30 million years ago. Now the race is on to fill out the family tree before more animals disappear because of habitat destruction and disease. Hedges is hoping to add 100 species to the database by next year.—Susan Cosier
Back to Top

Wheelies for Wetlands
Terry Forrette has been an avid motorcyclist for more than 40 years. It wasn’t until Hurricane Katrina struck his Louisiana home, though, that the 56-year-old Harley-Davidson rider became a fervent advocate for the state’s dwindling wetlands. This summer Forrette combined his interests on a three-month, 16,500-mile journey around the perimeter of the United States on his Road Glide (his Harley model), raising awareness about his home state’s wetlands. “My primary passion is to help others understand their importance and the threats they face,” says Forrette, who works as a motiva-tional speaker at respiratory care conferences and business meetings. About 1,900 square miles of Louisiana wetlands—an area roughly the size of Delaware—has been lost since 1930, partly due to levees that prevent the natural movement of water and soil. This has Forrette and many others con-cerned, since the wetlands help protect New Orleans and other inland areas from tidal surges and support the Gulf Coast’s energy and transportation industries. They’re also vital to millions of migrating waterfowl. “This is not a Louisiana issue. It is really such a national issue,” says Val Marmillion, one of the coordinators of America’s Wetland Foundation. For more information, visit Riding the Rim. —Andrea Anderson
Back to Top

















Change of Address | Jobs at Audubon Magazine | Media Kit
Get the Magazine | Audubon.org |
Contact Us