The Wild File

The Wild File: Outdoor Questions Answered
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Dec 1, 2005
Outside Magazine
Pop Quiz

A reader with a frontier mentality asks: What was the last place on earth to be discovered? The answer depends on what you consider a legitimate find. The last sizable chunks of land were found in 1913, when Russian explorers stumbled upon the 14,286 square miles of the frozen Severnaya Zemlya archipelago, off Siberia. More recent discoveries have also come in the Arctic, but these have been less, well, substantive. In 1978, a Danish aerial survey team found what they claimed was the northernmost land on earth, north of Greenland. They dubbed the 1,292-square-foot blob Oodaaq Island. It was added to some atlases, though it's since disappeared under the sea. Berkeley, California– based explorer Dennis Schmitt has subsequently cataloged three more sand-and-gravel islets farthe...

Wild File

Q) Why do dogs circle around before lying down?
Seth Mueller, Berkeley, California

Like wearing neckties, the spinning tendency of domestic dogs is most likely a vestigial habit. Back when Benji roamed the grassy savannas, circling was a way of matting down vegetation and chasing off fleas and other parasites. But there may be more to it. Marc Bekoff, author of the Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior, believes spinning also allows an animal to select the optimal vantage point. "Humans aren't any different," he notes. "Ninety percent of people eating alone will seat themselves so they can see more of the room." Then there's the New Age theory that Rover is aligning himself with the earth's magnetic field—a kind of poochie feng shui that improves circulation and heart rate. On this point, Beckoff isn't convinced. "I don't think anyone's measured the magnetic fields of dogs," he says.

Q) Why do waves come in sets?
Chris Barney, Portland, Oregon

It's liquid logic, bro. Winds generate waves. Steady breezes create regular rollers, while erratic squalls thrust up chaotic surges. But regardless of the initial push, the swells naturally sort by wavelength—speed divided by frequency—into sets. This process plays out a bit like cars on the interstate: Eventually a pack of Maseratis will pull ahead as the Pintos fall back. Over thousands of miles, sets, usually comprising three to 15 waves, become finely sorted. But things change fast once they approach land. According to Patrick Caldwell, an avid surfer and wave forecaster for the National Weather Service in Honolulu, Hawaii, the sets that hit beaches are defined mostly by near-shore variables like tides and the contours of the seafloor. That explains why satellite images alone can't tell you whether a given break will have surfable waves. "If a set hits a center-line shoal, the peaks bunch up in the middle like people rushing a concert stage, allowing the outer edges to speed up," says Caldwell. "That's what makes those big, beautiful triangular waves at Sunset Beach."

Q) What are the willies, and why do I get them?
Lester Feldt, New York, New York

The willies are those tingly shivers that arise when we see snakes, hear fingernails on a chalkboard, or watch previews of a Ben Affleck movie. They're part of our fight-or-flight response—an unconscious nervous-system mechanism that prepares us to kick butt or run like hell. The willies make pupils dilate (improving vision), goose bumps rise (which, when we were hairier, would have made us look bigger), as well as hearts race and breathing passages expand (so we can move faster). Spotting threatening critters spurs the reaction, as do sounds between 3,000 and 6,000 hertz, which includes human screams and, alas, squeaking styrofoam. "We respond to the same stimuli that our ancestors encountered before civilization," explains USC neuroscientist Robert F. Thompson. As for the term itself, the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins notes that it's likely derived from the slang willy-boy—which is how Grandpa might have called you a sissy.

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