The Wild File

The Wild File: Outdoor Questions Answered
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(Illustration by Jason Holley)
Photo: Illustration by Jason Holley

Q) Are there any species besides humans that wage war?

Pop Quiz

A fretful angler wants to know, DO PEOPLE REALLY CATCH BATS WHILE FLY-FISHING?
Yes, they do. A quick and disturbing visit to online fly-fishing chat rooms reveals dozens of crepuscular anglers who've hooked bats—plus others who've snagged seagulls, snapping turtles, and their own earlobes. According to Barbara French, science officer at Bat Conservation International (BCI), a bat's radar is easily tricked by your whipping caddis imitation. What to do if you get one on the line? BCI encourages you to reel the squeaker in, wrap it in a soft material, and try to remove the hook with pliers before putting it in a box and toting it to your local animal control unit for rabies testing. (If you just cut the line, the hooked bat will die and likely be found by a human or ...

Richard McKilligan, Bronx, New York
In Walden, Thoreau describes a fierce battle between red and black ant colonies near his little UnaNaturalist shack: "On every side they were engaged in deadly combat, yet without any noise that I could hear, and human soldiers never fought so resolutely." That may be an anthropomorphic assessment, but it's not far off. According to myrmecologist (ant geek) extraordinaire E.O. Wilson, ants are the most warlike creatures on earth, with colonies often engaging in long-term conflicts. What Thoreau witnessed was likely a slave raid, in which the red ants were stealing black ant pupae to raise as workers. Chimpanzees and spider monkeys are the only other species known to invade neighboring territories to attack their own kind. The hostilities can last for years, though they play out more like feuds than wars. "There are striking similarities between chimp patrols and the type of raiding that happens in some human tribes," notes Yale primatologist David Watts. "But unlike people, the chimps don't know how to make peace."

Q) How many stars are visible to the naked eye?
Elizabeth Graham, Pittsfield, Illinois
According to David Crawford, executive director of the International Dark-Sky Association, in the perfect spot, with no atmospheric interference or light pollution, you'd marvel at about 2,500 points of light. That's how many stars register a 6.5—the dimmest most humans can see—or brighter on the apparent magnitude scale, which dates to the ancient Greeks and scores stars backwards from –27 (the sun) to 28 (visible only with the most powerful telescopes). On average, though, even on the clearest night in a primo location, you'll count only 2,000, thanks to air molecules and airborne particles that scatter and absorb light. Move into a suburb and you're down to about 250 visible stars; in Central Park you'll log a few dozen on a very good night. For top-notch gazing in the continental U.S., head to a southern Utah locale like Bryce Canyon National Park, where clean, dry air and moderate altitude can make thousands feel like billions.

Q) Why do aging men get profusions of hair on their backs, ears, and eyebrows?
sandi roberts, oakland, california
Grandpa's shih tzu eyebrows are the result of a complicated genetic unfolding that afflicts many—though not all—male geriatrics. As men age, receptors on some hair follicles can become increasingly sensitive to androgens, the male sex hormones. So even while hormone levels drop, as they typically do in seniors, resulting in hair loss on the scalp and other areas, follicles in specific spots can go into overdrive. The location and degree of sensitivity is determined by your genes, though the fuzz often erupts on the eyebrows, back, ears, and nostrils. Researchers have yet to uncover any adaptive advantage to the new growth. "Maybe it wards off pollutants," muses Robert Norman, a Tampa, Florida–based geriatric dermatologist. "I wonder if the same hair shows up on old mummies."

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