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The Wild File


Q) Are adventure racers who go for days without sleep doing any serious harm to themselves?

Deborah Simon, Santa Fe, New Mexico

RESEARCH HASN'T revealed any permanent effects on the body resulting from sleep loss, but don't take that as an endorsement for skipping z's. Dr. Claudio Stampi, who's done sleep studies on solo around-the-world sailors at the Chronobiology Research Institute in Boston, says lack of slumber may not damage any organs, but it will render you a walking (or running) disaster. Studies show that sleepy people make careless decisions, perform routine tasks poorly, and are more accident-prone than the well-rested—all in all, a bad recipe for athletes taking on high-adrenaline sports. Stampi recommends getting no less than four and a half hours of sleep a day, and advises round-the-clock adventure racers to grab their snooze time in "polyphasic" doses (as opposed to the monophasic slumber we typically enjoy)—say, roughly 20 minutes at a time, every hour or two. Since it takes longer to become fully awake after a deep sleep, he explains, "polyphasic sleep will leave you feeling immediately more rested." Of course, anyone who thinks this method will allow him to take on that third or fourth job should think twice: Prolonged sleep deprivation, when coupled with high stress, is one of the most effective forms of torture.

Q) Mountain goats clearly are terrific climbers, but do they ever fall and hurt themselves?
Scott Anderson, Portland, Oregon

"THEY SURE DO," says Gayle Joslin, a wildlife biologist with Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. "You'll find their carcasses at the bottoms of avalanche chutes or see live ones with their horns facing the wrong way—an indication of a fall." But it doesn't happen often. Mountain goats (which, despite their name, are more closely related to African antelopes than to the domestic goat) have low centers of gravity, strong calf muscles, and extremely deft feet. Their hooves have two parts—a soft bottom pad and a hard shell surrounding it—that enable them to nimbly grip both rough and smooth surfaces in their mountainous habitat, which ranges from Alaska to New Mexico. And consider that when one of these rock jocks is seriously hurt, it's often as the result of waging a turf battle or dodging an aerial attack from a golden eagle—a predator of their young—on vertiginous slopes that would make the most seasoned climbers' toes curl. "The amazing thing," says Joslin, "is how infrequently they fall."

Q) After I've spent a day sailing, why can I still feel waves long after I come ashore?
Karen Pautz, lexington, kentucky

THE FEELING you describe is known as mal de debarquement (MDD), and it usually lasts about 24 hours, though on rare occasions it can linger for months or even years. According to Dr. Bradley Marple, an otolaryngologist (that's ear-nose-and-throat doc to you) at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, the cause is still debated, but most doctors suspect that MDD is a temporary failure of the vestibular system. This network of fluid-filled ear canals is equipped with tiny motion-sensory receptors that tell the brain which direction you're moving. In the case of MDD, it seems, your vestibular system adapts to the motion experienced on a boat or small plane—constant rocking or swaying—and your brain takes a while to readjust once that stimulus is removed. This hypothesis remains unproven, but Marple says that scientists do know how to combat MDD: No matter how sea-legged you are, don't confine yourself to bed. "Get out and trudge around," he advises. "Your brain needs to be reprogrammed, and that's more likely to happen if you're putting it through a workout."

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