News of the Wild

From the February/March 2010 issue of National Wildlife

  • Hannah Schardt
  • Jan 15, 2010
Cancer-Free Mole Rats: It’s In Their Genes

As if their stunning good looks weren’t enough, naked mole rats have another reason to consider themselves lucky. Despite the nearly hairless rodent’s extraordinarily long 30-year life span, no mole rat has ever been observed with any kind of tumor. Researchers at the University of Rochester believe they now have an explanation: good genes. The study found that a gene in the mole rat’s cells stops the cells from proliferating when they become too crowded. This means that a potential tumor’s growth is cut off before it can even start.

Naked mole rats are unusual in several other ways. They live together in sprawling underground communities of workers and queens—more like bees than other rodents—and do not appear to age until very close to the end of their lives. Researchers plan to continue to study the mole rat’s genetic makeup to investigate whether their cancer resistance might be applicable to humans.

Can You Hear Me Now?

A tropical butterfly famous for its bright blue wings is getting attention for a less flashy part of its anatomy. Scientists at Britain’s University of Bristol have discovered that the blue morpho butterfly, found in Central and South America, has a tiny ear located at the base of its wings. Other butterflies are known to have different sorts of ear structures on their forewings and elsewhere, but the blue morpho’s ears appear especially well-suited to distinguish between different pitches, an ability that may help alert the insect to impending attacks from birds.

Saving Bats from Wind Turbines

Researchers looking for a greener way to power the grid have long considered wind energy a promising technology, with one major caveat: Winged wildlife—birds and bats—are injured or killed when they fly too close to the power-producing turbines. But a new study from the University of Calgary has found a way to reduce bat deaths from wind turbines by as much as 60 percent without significantly reducing the energy generated.

Bats are more likely to fly when wind speeds are low since they are not built to battle high winds. And turbines generate nearly all of their power in windy conditions. A previous study had found that many migratory bat deaths at wind farms are caused by a precipitous drop in air pressure near the turbines’ blades, which injures the mammals’ lungs. The new research, conducted at 15 turbines on an Alberta wind farm, finds that slowing the turbines to almost a complete stop when winds are low could save bat lives without a significant economic impact.

For Bears, Minivans Provide Reliable Meals

This will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever traveled with toddlers: A new study finds that when searching for a snack, black bears in Yosemite National Park prefer to break into minivans—often strewn with juice boxes, crackers and other treats—to all other vehicles. The study notes that bears “forage selectively in natural environments;” researchers aimed to find whether they show similar selectivity in areas affected by the presence of humans. After examining 908 vehicle break-ins by Yosemite bears, they determined that only minivans were broken into at a disproportionately high rate—7 percent higher than would be expected. The researchers suggest several possible explanations: Minivans may smell like food; families may leave large amounts of food overnight; the vans may simply be easier to break into. Or, the study notes, a few rogue bears may have developed a taste for the vehicles’ contents—most of the minivan break-ins appear to be the work of between two and five individual bears.

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