The Shocking Truth

It is well known that a certain kind of fish swims the world’s waters protected, as it were, by its very own stun gun.

Unknown, until now, is how electric fish evolved such a defense. A team of researchers led by CALS biochemistry professor Michael Sussman has established the genetic basis for the electric organ, an anatomical feature found only in fish. It evolved independently half a dozen times in environments ranging from the flooded forests of the Amazon to murky marine environments.

“These fish have converted a muscle to an electric organ,” says UW Biotechnology Center director Sussman, who began this research almost a decade ago. The study, recently published in the journal Science, provides evidence to support the idea that the six electric fish lineages used essentially the same genes and developmental and cellular pathways to make the electric organ, which fish use to communi- cate with mates, navigate, stun prey, and as a shock- ing defense. The jolt from an electric organ can be several times more powerful than the current from a standard household electrical outlet.

Worldwide, there are hundreds of electric fish in six broad lineages. Their taxonomic diversity is so great that Darwin himself cited electric fishes as critical examples of convergent evolution, where unrelated animals independently evolve similar traits to adapt to a particular environment or ecological niche.

The new work includes the first draft assembly of the complete genome of the South American electric eel. “A six-foot eel is a top predator in the water and is in essence a frog with a built-in five-and-a- half-foot cattle prod,” says Sussman. “Since all of the visceral organs are near the face, the remaining 90 percent of the fish is almost all electric organ.”

Electric fish have long fascinated humans. The ancient Egyptians used the torpedo, an electric marine ray, in an early form of electrotherapy to treat epilepsy. Much of what Benjamin Franklin and other pioneering scientists learned about electric- ity came from studies of electric fish. In Victorian times, parties were organized where guests would form a chain to experi- ence the shock of an electric fish.

All muscle cells have electrical potential. Simple contraction of a muscle will release a small

amount of voltage. But at least 100 million years ago some fish began to amplify that potential by evolv- ing from muscle cells another type of cell called an electrocyte—larger cells, organized in sequence and capable of generating much higher voltages than those used to make muscles work.

The “in-series alignment” of the electrocytes and the unique polarity of each cell allows for the “sum- mation of voltages, much like batteries stacked in series in a flashlight,” says Sussman.

In addition to sequencing and assembling DNA from the electric eel genome, the team produced protein sequences from the cells of the electric organs and skeletal muscles of three other electric fish lin- eages using RNA sequencing and analysis.

“I consider exotic organisms such as the electric fish to be one of nature’s wonders and an important gift to humanity,” says Sussman. “Our study dem- onstrates nature’s creative powers and its parsimony, using the same genetic and developmental tools to invent an adaptive trait time and again in widely disparate environments.”

And the findings may be useful to humans. “By learning how nature does this, we may be able to manipulate the process with muscle in other organ- isms and, in the near future, perhaps use the tools of synthetic biology to create electrocytes for generating electrical power in bionic devices within the human body or for uses we have not thought of yet,” says Sussman.

Sussman’s collaborators include Harold Zakon of the University of Texas at Austin and Manoj Samanta of the Systemix Institute in Redmond, Washington. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, the W. M. Keck Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Costa Rica: New trail in paradise

This past January a group of CALS students found themselves bushwhacking through a dense mountain forest in Costa Rica, crossing paths with monkeys, colorful birds, snakes and strange-looking frogs along the way.

But no worries: They weren’t lost.

As part of a service-learning course offered by the Department of Landscape Architecture, they were scouting out a new hiking trail for the Cloud Forest School, a bilingual, environmentally focused K–11 school located just outside the majestic, fog-shrouded cloud forest reserves of Monteverde and Santa Elena. The reserves are among the most biologically diverse places on Earth, serving as home to more than 2,500 plant species, 400 kinds of birds, more than 200 species of mammals, reptiles and amphibians—and thousands of insects.

“We hiked through the most wild parts of the mountain to collect GPS points of potential new trails,” says Lyn Kim, a landscape architecture senior who spent two weeks in Costa Rica as part of the Cloud Forest Studio course, as it’s called.

CALS students helped plan, map and build a five-kilometer trail through the school’s extensive grounds, which include both pristine and previously harvested cloud forest. The path, which includes resting points of special ecological interest, was designed for Cloud Forest School field trips as well as for the school’s annual fundraiser run. Creating it, however, was just one piece of a much larger effort.

“The long-term goal is to help develop some kind of meaningful forest restoration plan for the property,” says landscape architecture professor Sam Dennis, who co-leads the course along with department chair and professor John Harrington.

“We also want to help support the school’s environmental education efforts so their students can go on to jobs in the local ecotourism industry,” he adds.

Dennis and Harrington made a five-year commit- ment to the school and so far have led two groups of CALS students to conduct work there. In addition to building the trail, students have also started develop- ing classroom curriculum materials, nature guides for the property and interpretive trail signage.

The trips expose CALS students to landscape architecture’s vocational variety. “People tend to think of landscape architecture as putting plants onto landscapes, but that’s very little of what we actually do,” explains Harrington. The course gives students
a taste of environmental restoration work, commu- nity development work, and the creation of outdoor educational spaces with community input.

Kim, for one, was thrilled with her experience last January, and not just because she got to see an active volcano and zipline down the side of a mountain on her day off.

“At school we always design on trace paper and in the computer, but we never get to see our designs built,” she notes. “During our trail-building project, we got to see our work come to life.”

Kazakhstan: Dam monitoring protects water supply

Unpredictable flooding and droughts, which scientists predict will intensify with climate change, elevate the importance of dams for managing and storing water, even in places that normally receive adequate rainfall. Maintaining the world’s existing dams helps ensure that farmers will have the water they need to feed the planet’s burgeoning population.

To aid that effort, graduate students Charles Chang and Andrew Schreiber, both in agricultural and applied economics (AAE), have created software that can quickly and inexpensively determine a dam’s structural integrity using their algorithm and data from easily installed fiber-optic sensors, such as those already in use at the Koksarai Dam in Kazakhstan.

“Our system gives water managers a more cost- effective way to monitor the overall integrity of dams than any other technology,” says Chang. He is col- laborating with a team of engineers who developed the sensors, led by Professor Ki-Tae Chang at South Korea’s Kumoh National University of Technology. The sensors, which measure water seepage through a dam, provide real-time data the researchers are using to locate areas of erosion that could eventually under- mine the dam’s capacity.

“We’re targeting dams in developing countries, most of which are used as reservoirs for agriculture. Many of them have no solid core and are easily moved by high water pressure, or they are older dams that need maintenance,” says Chang. “We can give water managers the information they need to decide whether repairs are required.”

Up to now, notes Schreiber, “Earth dam monitor- ing has required considerable amounts of capital and labor, leaving poorer communities at a loss.”

Chang and Schreiber drew on the expertise of an interdisciplinary team to create their product. The team includes civil engineering professor Chung R. Song of the University of Mississippi and Jesse Holzer, a UW computer science graduate student. AAE professors Tom Rutherford and Corbett Grainger serve as project advisors.

“Some models of dam sustainability measure the effects of sedimentation in the reservoir, but our project goes farther by looking at the erosion factor,” says Chang. “For example, if Kazakhstan were to experience less rainfall due to climate change in the coming years, we would want to maintain a higher reservoir level in the dam for future agricultural use. But we also know that higher water levels can trigger more erosion.”

As economists, Chang and Schreiber want to help governments predict how much they need to invest in a dam to increase its capacity. And because different climate change scenarios can affect both sedimentation and erosion—the main causes of dam failure—the team will model the returns toinvestment in dammaintenance or aban-donment. “What is thebenefit to society tohave that dam rein-forced or allowed to collapse?” Chang asks.

After implementing erosion detection algorithms for earth structures in Korea and Kazakhstan, Chang andSchreiber now collaborate with pH Global,a start-up venture that creates inference algorithms for a variety of geotech- nical public amenities, such as tunnels and dikes.

“A fifth of the world’s population lives in water- scarce regions, and most dams lack monitoring capability,” says Chang. “With our algorithm and sensors, water managers can minimize costs by using less hardware and more software.”

The students may have a viable commercial product on their hands. It has drawn some attention in South Korea and France, Chang says, and several contracts for using it are already in place.

To the Ends of the Earth

In April 2011, James Bockheim led a small team of researchers to a rocky spit of land called Cierva Point, a habitat protected by the Antarctic Treaty as a “site of special scientific interest.” Home to breeding colonies of bird species like Gentoo penguins, as well as a remarkably verdant cover of maritime plants, Cierva Point is also one of the most rapidly warming places on Earth.

Bockheim and his crew were beginning another field season on the Antarctic Peninsula, the long finger of rock and ice that snakes past Palmer Station, the United States’ northernmost Antarctic research station, and curls out in the Southern Ocean (see map, page 25). They’d been deposited onshore, along with their gear, by the Laurence M. Gould, a research vessel that wouldn’t return until late May. As the ship sailed back into the frigid sea, Bockheim turned his attention not to penguins or polar grasses, but to the ground beneath his feet.

Every year there was more and more of that ground as glaciers drained into the Southern Ocean, revealing soils and bedrock that had been covered in ice for millennia. Bockheim wanted to know what was going on underneath the newly exposed surface and had brought along a soil and bedrock coring tool, a device that looks like a cartoonishly oversized power drill, to get to the bottom of it.

His crew fitted the drill with its two-meter-long impact hammer bit. Graduate student Kelly Wilhelm pointed the drill at the ground and pulled the trigger.

It wouldn’t be the first time that Antarctica caught Bockheim by surprise. Bockheim, a CALS professor of soil science, has spent his career studying polar and alpine soils. From field sites north of the Arctic Circle to mountain passes in the Andes and the dry valleys of Antarctica, Bockheim has worked to classify and understand how soils are formed in the Earth’s coldest climates.

Bockheim first set foot on Antarctic soil in 1969 as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington. Although his dissertation was on alpine soils in the Cascades, his advising professor had a project in Antarctica and invited him to come along.

“And that was it,” Bockheim recalls. “It just got in my blood.” Startled by the “peace, solitude and stark beauty,” he knew he would have to return.

Six years after that first trip, Bockheim got his chance. He had recently accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin–Madison when a call came in asking if he’d like to join a glacial geologist from the University of Maine on a multiyear research project in Antarctica’s dry valleys. Bockheim’s reply was succinct: “Absolutely.”

Over the next 12 years, Bockheim returned to Antarctica each year for a two-month stint of digging out soil profiles, collecting samples and boring holes into the continent’s surface, especially in the largest ice-free region of Antarctica, the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

It was during this time that Antarctica presented Bockheim with its first riddle. The dry valleys are a “polar desert,” a system that rarely gets above freezing and, even when it does, contains precious little water.

As in other places with permafrost—soils that stay at or below freezing for two or more years at a time—soils there are primarily formed by cryoturbation. Also called “frost churning,” cryoturbation is a process by which what scant ice there is freezes and then thaws year after year, breaking up bedrock, working surface particles down into the ground and bringing buried particles up. Such mixing is never a quick process, but in the dry valleys of Antarctica it occurs at an especially glacial pace.

The resulting material didn’t exactly fit what Bockheim knew to be the generally accepted definition of soil. While the weathered substrate had been eroded and deposited in layers over millions of years, it often looked more like a combination of loose pea gravel and sand. What’s more, only lichen and mosses were found growing in it, not the “higher plants” usually considered a prerequisite for soil status.

But to Bockheim, that requirement was a relic of soil taxonomy’s tendency to classify soils based on what human uses they could sustain, like crop production or road building. In Antarctica, such endeavors were a moot point.

In a 1982 paper published in the journal Geoderma, Bockheim made his first mention of these polar soils in the scientific literature. The journal’s editor, anticipating pushback from other soil scientists, urged him to first define the word “soil” for his readers. Bockheim produced a definition similar to the existing one, with one small change— “higher plants” were nowhere to be found. It was the opening salvo in a scientific debate that would simmer for more than a decade.

By 1987, after 12 uninterrupted years of spending field seasons in Antarctica, Bockheim decided he needed a break. He was tired of leaving his wife and five young daughters back in Madison for two months at a time and wanted to stay closer to home. While the move shifted his focus to the forest soils of northern Wisconsin, Bockheim continued to publish papers on his research on Antarctic soils.

Then, in 1992, the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) took note of Bockheim’s argument that the existing classification system didn’t do polar soils justice. He was asked to lead a committee discussing the need for a new order of soil. The result, after a few years of lively debate, was the addition of Gelisols, or “permanently frozen soils,” to the USDA catalog of soil types.

“These soils were far away, poorly researched, and people thought they might be insignificant because we couldn’t grow anything on them,” says Bockheim’s colleague, CALS soil science professor Alfred Hartemink. “But with time came knowledge, and it was recognized that this is a large part of the world, and soils were being classified there incorrectly.”

The soil classification system had been set at 10 distinct orders of soil for so long, Hartemink says, that the change “was a bit like adding another month to the year. But Jim was able to build that body of knowledge, consolidate it and pull it off. That was an immense deal.”

It was an impressive first half of a career. In fact, it would be an impressive list of accomplishments for any scientist’s entire career.

But Bockheim isn’t just any scientist. He has spent 20 tours of scientific duty in Antarctica, 19 field seasons in the Arctic Circle and several in alpine ecosystems across the world’s mountain ranges. He recently returned from a two-month trip to South America, where he’d received a Fulbright grant to teach classes on Antarctic soils in Chile and a special invitation to teach a similar class in Brazil. During that visit he took a side trip to the Andes, where one of his graduate students deployed tiny temperature probes, called thermistors, into the frigid soils.

Even in more domestic climes—say, the stairwells of King Hall, home of the Department of Soil Science on the UW–Madison campus—Bockheim bounds down the stairs from his office to his lab. “Fit college students sometimes have a hard time keeping up with him in the field,” says Kelly Wilhelm, who has spent two field seasons with Bockheim in the Antarctic.

That energy carries over into the more cerebral part of his profession. Bockheim has authored 170 scientific articles, and his work is cited by other scientists at a rate almost unheard of in soil science circles.

“Jim wrote three books in two years,” notes Hartemink. “Who does that? Most scientists write one every five, maybe 10 years. I can’t think of anyone else who could do that.”

The books—Soil Geography of the U.S.A., Cryopedology and The Soils of Antarctica, the latter two coming from the publishing house Springer within the next year—promise to serve as definitive works in the field.

So it’s not just fit college students who can’t keep up. Bockheim is considered by many to be one of the top cryopedologists—scientists who study frozen soils—in the world.

Ironically, after all of his painstaking work describing how polar soils had come into their ancient, frozen state and, quite literally, putting them on the map, many of the Gelisols Bockheim had worked to have reclassified began changing—their defining characteristics melting away.

“We’re literally losing these soils,” says Hartemink. “There are soils disappearing just like there are species disappearing.”

The question now is: What happens when the world’s “permanently frozen” soils begin to thaw?

Bockheim first began asking that question nearly 20 years ago, when he again received an offer he couldn’t refuse. This time, however, it was an invitation to study the opposite pole.

In 1995, after several years focused on his growing family and the soils of Wisconsin, Bockheim returned to polar soils, assuming command of a project focused on permafrost 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle, near Barrow, Alaska. Knowing where different soil types were located and how they’d gotten there, Bockheim knew, was the first step in trying to predict what they’d do as they warmed.

Understanding the fate of permafrost in a warmer world may be one of the most crucial pieces of the climate change puzzle. For millennia, the hard layer of frozen soil has contained vast amounts of carbon and methane, which contribute to greenhouse gas levels when they are released into the atmosphere. As Earth warms, so does this soil, pushing the permafrost line deeper and freeing up more and more soil to release carbon and methane via processes like erosion or microbial activity.

In 2004, the New Zealand Antarctic program was starting a mapping project and wanted Bockheim’s expertise to help add Antarctic soils to their efforts.

Bockheim jumped at the chance to reconnect with the continent he’d first fallen for, but Antarctica surprised him again. The place he returned to looked nothing like the one he remembered.

Handheld GPS devices didn’t exist during Bockheim’s first foray into Antarctic fieldwork in the 1970s. Scientists instead relied on landmarks like mountain peaks, glaciers or snowbanks to lead them back to their annual field sites. Bockheim’s team relied on snowbanks that dotted the dry valley landscape, set down in distant, less arid eras. Using aerial photographs and topographic maps, the team could work out roughly where each site was located.

But 30 years after those pictures had guided him, they’d been rendered obsolete by more than updated technology. “I had taken a picture of snowbanks from the helicopter in 1975,” Bockheim recalls, “and it’s just by chance that, when I went back in 2004, I took a picture from the exact same spot in the air. But the snowbanks were gone.”

Of course Bockheim wasn’t caught completely off guard by these developments. Like any scientist studying the poles, he knew that temperatures over the last four decades had been rising. In fact, at Antarctica’s Palmer Station, the mean annual air temperature was up three and a half degrees Celsius. In winter, the mean temperature during that span had risen nearly 10 degrees Celsius, or 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Even so, the magnitude of the observed changes was startling. “There was water everywhere,”

Bockheim remembers. “I’ve got a whole shelf of field books and I take notes on things like the weather and conditions. In December it would always still be extremely cold.”

During his first 12 years working in Antarctica, he says, “there was always a stream in one of the valleys and maybe some smaller lateral streams that would run in the warmest time of the year, from mid-December to mid-January. But when we went back in 2004, it was so warm that there was just water everywhere, even on the high mountain slopes. There were wet patches of snowmelt coming down the slopes.”

Where areas on the Antarctic Peninsula had once thawed for two months of the year, they were now above freezing for up to five months. That warmth and the water had rejuvenated processes like the pattern of ground freeze from cryoturbation, Bockheim recalls. There was highly developed soil becoming exposed.

The only thing that was as he had left it 17 years prior was Bockheim’s own energy and enthusiasm for Antarctic fieldwork.

Malcolm McLeod, now a soil scientist with the New Zealand–based institute Landcare Research, spent three field seasons on the project mapping Antarctic soils with Bockheim. Bockheim soon became McLeod’s doctoral advisor. “Because of his wealth of Antarctic experience, he was able to focus on the important bits of the soils puzzle that told a story,” McLeod recalls. “He worshiped data, and he had this line—‘Soils never lie.’”

During their project, that mantra led Bockheim to make what McLeod calls “big advances” in scientists’ understanding of how Antarctic soils form. Antarctic glaciers are “cold glaciers,” meaning they don’t melt. They advance when large chunks break off the leading edge, and they retreat by ablation, or evaporating straight from their frozen state into the cold, dry air. As a result, the Antarctic landscape has none of the usual telltale signs glaciers leave behind to provide a history of the region’s geology. Bockheim showed that soils could tell the story.

Bockheim’s wealth of experience also carried over into field camp. “His breakfast bacon and hash browns couldn’t be beat,” says McLeod. “I also remember his ‘hot towel’ dispensed airline-style each morning by dipping a paper towel into a billy of hot water.”

Nearing the two-decade mark of fieldwork in the Antarctic, Bockheim had become both an accomplished scientist and a veteran polar explorer. But after so many years in the polar desert, his mind began to wander to greener pastures.

“I’d done all my work in Antarctica in the dry valleys in the interior mountains, and I kept hearing that the peninsula was quite a different environment,” Bockheim says. “On the peninsula, it’s a whole different world. You have rain, whereas, historically, no one has ever experienced rain in the dry valleys. That rain causes accelerated soil formation and there are plants, a lot of lichens and mosses, but also there are two higher plants, one a grass and the other a member of the pink flower family.”

What would this greener landscape mean? Was Antarctic soil seeing an increase in the “active,” or unfrozen, layer of soil? Was the permafrost being pushed deeper below ground? Bockheim knew that the peninsula would be the best place to study how the warming he was witnessing was impacting Antarctica.

“So I wrote a proposal and decided to strike out on my own rather than being under someone else’s research priorities,” he says. That proposal led Bockheim to Cierva Point with a gigantic power drill in 2011. It was the reason Kelly Wilhelm was bent over the soil driving a two-meter-long bit into the ground. And it was the beginning of addressing yet another Antarctic riddle.

“We are trying to be one cog in looking at how climate change is affecting the Antarctic Peninsula,” says Wilhelm. “There are people looking at air temperature and changes in weather patterns. Other people are looking at how far south the vascular plants grow, or migration patterns of seals and penguins. But permafrost—on the peninsula, at least—has pretty much been one of the last things to be examined.”

When Bockheim headed to the Antarctic Peninsula, the only prior information his team had to go on was a soil survey conducted in the 1960s during April, the warmest month of Antarctica’s short summer. On that survey, researchers dug 40 centimeters into the soil, or less than half a meter, before hitting hard permafrost.

Bockheim’s team knew that the permafrost would now be deeper, as surface soils warmed with the surrounding air temperatures. They had prepared for the change by bringing drill bits that would bore into the soil more than four times deeper than the last known permafrost.

It wasn’t enough.

“Not one of our holes hit permafrost,” Wilhelm recalls. What’s more, the temperature at the bottom of every hole was well above freezing, suggesting that the permafrost was located several meters beyond the reach of their drill.

If soils never lie, what is the unexpectedly warm peninsula trying to say? “That is the grand unsolved question,” Bockheim says. “Based on the latitude, we expected the active layer to be thinner,” which would have meant a much shallower permafrost table. Bockheim says that the distribution of sea ice and westerly flows of air and sea- water may play a role, but—so far—they can’t explain it.

“It’s what we’re writing papers on right now,” says Wilhelm. “People don’t even know about this. It’s a pretty new thing.”

Whatever the answer, one fact is undeniable. The seasonal thaw, or “active” layer of polar soils, is increasing. That means that more and more soil near the Earth’s poles is being grown over with plants, worked over by microbes and eroded by wind and rains. In the Arctic, this activity will undoubtedly lead to the release of carbon and methane, making it a huge source of those greenhouse gases.

In the Antarctic, though, the picture is still fuzzy and may in fact produce an effect that is, well, the polar opposite. The plants beginning to carpet Antarctic soils could end up pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere instead of adding to the problem like the Arctic’s melting permafrost.

“In the Antarctic, with its increased land mass, increased plant cover and, presumably, increased photosynthesis, one could easily argue that it could become a sink for atmospheric carbon,” says Bockheim. And, in fact, that’s exactly what Bockheim thinks will occur—at least temporarily.

Beyond that, the man who wrote the book on Antarctic soils is content to wait and see. The soils don’t lie, but they may yet have one more surprise in store.

Keeping Track of Wolf Deaths

Tim Van Deelen, a CALS professor of wildlife ecology, specializes in the management of large mammals, including population estimation and dynamics, hunting, interaction of deer life history and chronic wasting disease—and, not least, the growth of Wisconsin’s wolf population and its effects on white-tailed deer.

As this year’s wolf hunt season opens in Wisconsin, we talked with him about a hidden and disturbing topic: illegal killing, which Van Deelen says may have increased in recent years. Much of the data on this subject, he says, comes from work by his former doctoral student Jennifer Stenglein MS’13 PhD’14, who is now a wildlife researcher with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Can you give us an idea of how wolves die?
As we know from radio collaring data, wolves die for a variety of reasons. Wolves in Wisconsin have relatively high mortality rates, and that probably has to do with the fact that they’re living on a landscape that’s much more highly impacted by humans than, say, northern Canada or Alaska. We have higher levels of wolves getting hit by cars, especially as they begin encroaching parts of central and southern Wisconsin where we have higher road densities.

Wolves are also territorial, so on the margins of their pack territories or where there are territorial disputes between packs, wolves will kill each other.

Wolves die of disease. We’ve had deaths due to parvovirus and mange. Wolves sometimes starve to death if they can’t get enough prey or if they’re old or injured and otherwise inefficient as hunters.

There’s also a fair amount of unexplained mortalities that we have from radio tracking data.

Can you elaborate on that?
We have radio-collared wolves that outlive the radio collars—that is, they outlive the battery that powers the collar—so you have a record that starts when the animal is radio-collared and ends when you stop getting signals. Understanding mortality rates at the population level requires you to make some decisions about how you’re going to treat those animals once the record stops.

Research that my graduate student has been doing suggests that a fair number of those animals are dying.

Do you suspect illegal killing?
Well, the problem with illegal killing is you don’t observe it. You can’t point to something and say, “That wolf died from illegal killing,” but you need extra mortality in the system once you explain everything else in order to reconcile the mortality rates that we’re seeing with the reproductive rates that we get from the pup counts and the growth rate that we see from the annual population counts.

So there’s a missing gap in the data of why some animals disappear.
Right. The basic population dynamics equation is very simple. It says that the number of animals born minus the number of animals dying is the net addition or subtraction from the population. If we have a population that we can count every year like we do with wolves—we count them every winter—then we can mathematically fit an equation to that growth using things like observed deaths and estimated reproduction.

When we can’t get that to reconcile, then we need some additional deaths that are unobserved to make the growth rate that we see agree with the mortality and the reproductive rates that we’re measuring.

The suspicion is that many or some of those unobserved deaths are due to illegal killing. Because from our radio tracking data we do have good estimates on the relative amounts of deaths that are due to other things, like being killed by other wolves or dying of disease or being hit on the road.

What would prompt illegal killing?
Human dimensions research done at the Nelson Institute suggests that people living in wolf range have a sense of frustration that many people think traces back to this on-again, off-again listing of wolves under the Endangered Species Act.

We went through a period where the wolves would be de-listed, or there would be movement toward de-listing, and then somebody would step in, the courts would intervene, and the wolves would become listed again.

There’s good human dimensions research in wildlife that says that attitudes toward wildlife tend to degrade when people feel like they have no options for dealing with the problems that those wild animals are causing.

When wolves are put “off limits” because of the Endangered Species Act, then people who are experiencing problems with wolves, real or imagined— their attitudes toward wolf conservation begin to degrade.

That aligns with some of the research that’s been done on this campus suggesting, among other things, that people who are interviewed in the
north say they’d be more willing to illegally kill a wolf if the opportunity presented itself. More people are saying that now than in the early 2000s. That time period aligns with the growing frustration people have experienced over de-listing.

How many unexplained wolf deaths are there?
About 20 to 30 per year, in our best estimate. That’s been from the period 1980 to 2013, where we fit the models. There’s evidence that it’s been increasing recently. By “recently,” I mean within the past five or 10 years.

Can you please elaborate?
During the early part of the growth phase of wolves in Wisconsin (1996– 2002) the wolf population averaged about 200 wolves during midwinter counts. We estimated that about 43 of these would die during the year, and unobserved deaths were likely not needed to reconcile observed popula- tion growth. During the latter part of the growth phase (2003–2012), Wisconsin’s wolves averaged about 600 wolves, and about 138 of these would be expected to die during the year. However, you would also need another 24 dead wolves to reconcile the rate of population growth observed. These 24 would include a mix of natural and human-caused subtractions, including an unknown level of illegal killing. The change from 1996–2002 to 2003–2012 suggest that illegal killing may have increased.

What kinds of conflicts do people have with wolves in Wisconsin?
Probably the most important right now are conflicts with livestock producers. We have a handful of areas in Wisconsin that are hot spots where there’s been sort of long-term chronic depredation by wolves on livestock.

That’s a real problem—and fortunately in Wisconsin, the Department of Natural Resources has a partnership with USDA Wildlife Services. They have professional USDA trappers who can go in, verify whether a calf or a cow was killed by wolves, and then help the landowners either by excluding the wolves from the territory or by trapping and euthanizing the wolves that are causing problems. They’re very professional, they’re very good at what they do, and they’re very successful.

Another problem in Wisconsin is wolves depredating hounds. These are mostly hounds used for hunting bears and smaller carnivores. If you’re running hounds late in the summer, that’s when the wolves are provisioning their pups at rendezvous sites.

The wolves probably interpret that incursion as an invading pack, so they would attack and kill those hounds. That happens, that’s an issue to deal with. DNR has been proactive with trying to identify those areas where depredations have occurred and might be more likely, and warn people to avoid those areas with their hounds if at all possible.

There’s a lot of talk about wolves having impacts on deer in the north. In some places, that’s probably a reality. In some places it might be more perception than reality. At a statewide scale using the harvest statistics, we just haven’t seen a real impact of wolves, but that’s sort of a coarse-filter approach.

We have two deer research projects going, one in eastern farmland and one in the northwest. We actually don’t find a whole lot of wolf predation on adult deer, which would be the mechanism by which wolves would have the most impact on the deer herd. Still, if you’re the unlucky individual whose hunting spot happens to be sitting right on top of a wolf rendezvous zone, you might not be seeing very many deer.

What would you like to see done with wolf management going forward?
One of the unique things about wolf management in Wisconsin is that we’re managing this population now at a pretty high exploitation rate—meaning that we’ve got heavy harvest seasons. Those are designed explicitly to reduce the wolf population.

Harvest management theory would suggest that there’s some danger of long-term instability. I think the most important thing that managers of Wisconsin’s wolf population need to do is keep putting efforts into monitoring the wolf population—tracking population trends, tracking the extent to which wolves live on the landscape. Those are the measurements you can use to identify some sort of instability and then be able to deal with it.

To be fair to the managers, they know that, they’re working on that. We’re collaborating with them to come up with more cost-effective ways to get the sort of information they need to track population trends.

 

Of Cows and Climate

ON A SUBZERO FEBRUARY day, Mark Powell stops his vehicle on the road a few miles outside Prairie du Sac. He’s been explaining that cows actually enjoy the polar weather—and as if to prove it, a frisky group in the barnyard across the road turns toward us and rushes the fence.

As a USDA soil scientist and CALS professor of soil science, Powell is focused on the ground beneath their hooves. A few years ago he led a survey of manure handling on Wisconsin dairy farms. He and his colleagues knew how much cows left behind—about 17 gallons a day—but had only educated guesses about the ultimate environmental impact of barnyard design. In open yards like this, says Powell, they found that 40 to 60 percent of the manure ends up uncollected. “It just stays there,” he says. In the decade since his survey, the manure challenge has only grown, both in Wisconsin and nationwide. Water quality has been the major concern, but air quality and climate change are gaining.

A few minutes later we turn into the 2,006-acre U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center farm, and the talking points all turn to plumbing. There’s an experimental field fitted to track how well nutrients from manure bond to the soil. Parallel to one barn are nine small yards with different surfaces, each monitored to measure gasses emitted and what washes out with the rainwater.

The manure pit is frozen over, but circumnavigating the complex—shared by CALS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture—we arrive at the southern terminus of the barns. Uncharacteristic ventilation ducts adorn the walls and roofline. Inside are four unique stalls that can contain up to four cows each. The manure trough is lined with trays so that each cow’s waste can be set aside for further experiments. When the cows return from the milking parlor, airtight curtains will drop, isolating each chamber.

Class Act: Energizing the Classroom

When biochemistry senior Hong-En Chen first got involved with a student organization called Energy Hub, she knew she could bring something special to the table.

As the daughter of a preschool teacher, she’d interacted a lot with young children throughout her own childhood and adolescence. While in high school she worked as a teacher and tutor in music, math and reading in both English and Mandarin at the Einstein School in Madison, a private preschool and after-school enrichment center for elementary school students.

Based on her experience, she saw an important niche for Energy Hub: The group could go out to local elementary schools and hold after-school classes about energy.

“When kids are young, they’re like sponges. They absorb a lot of information and are enthusiastic learners,” notes Chen. “When we introduced concepts about energy use, conservation and sustainability, the kids impressed us not only by handling complex material, but also by applying ideas to their everyday lives.”

As outreach director of Energy Hub, Chen got other club members on board to pilot their project, working with second- to fifth-grade students at four Madison elementary schools. Based on that experience, they applied for and received a Wisconsin Idea Fellowship grant to further develop their curriculum during the 2012–2013 school year. They created a 10-week program that is going strong this year.

Hands-on activities are key, says Chen, whether using an educational science toy like Snap Circuits to teach the concepts behind powering lights and fans, or having students divide into the fantasy cities of Greenville and Coaltown to talk about how they, as residents, would use energy from various sources to get through a day. “It was a fun way to get them thinking about the costs and benefits of renewable versus nonrenewable energy sources,” Chen says.

Chen’s thinking a lot about that topic herself. She is researching compounds for solar energy conversion in chemistry professor Song Jin’s lab. And she is considering graduate programs in materials chemistry with an eye toward working in renewable energy research.

Learn more about Energy Hub at www.uwehub.org.

Five things everyone should know about … Sinkholes

1. They exist in Wisconsin. Parts of the Badger State have bedrock consisting of dolomite, an easily fractured rock that can be dissolved by water seeping down beneath the surface soil. That erosion can create an underground cavity that becomes a sinkhole if the surface soil above it collapses.

2. But they are relatively small. The past year has been full of hellacious reports involving sinkholes: the man who survived an 18-foot fall into a sinkhole on an Illinois golf course, the Florida man who died after falling into a 60-foot-deep sinkhole that had formed beneath his home. In Wisconsin sinkholes tend to be much more tame—smaller than 10 feet across. (And, while their depth varies, most sinkholes are about as deep as they are wide.) Wisconsin sinkholes are smaller due to the bedrock found here. Dolomite is less easily dissolved than limestone and other types of rock that allow for bigger sinkholes in other parts of the world.

3. Some parts of Wisconsin are more prone to sinkholes than others. And to find them, follow the dolomite. It appears in a large V-shaped formation from Green Bay (including Door County) down to Dane County and then back up to St. Croix Falls. The map (right) shows Wisconsin’s karst, a landscape created when water dissolves rock—thus making it susceptible to such things as fissures, caverns and sinkholes.

4. Some sinkholes are not due to natural causes. A water main break can create a large underground cavity with sinkhole potential. Another cause: a ruptured tile drain, a system of perforated pipes installed beneath cropland to remove excess water from the soil. If a section of pipe ruptures (in what is called a “tile blowout”) it may draw in large amounts of soil, thus creating an underground cavity above it.

5. There’s a sinkhole on my property! First decide if the sinkhole is hazardous—and if it is, prevent access to it. Sinkholes should be filled to prevent falls and stop potentially contaminated water from flowing into the groundwater. The best way to fill a sinkhole is to use what is called reverse grading. Use large rocks at the bottom, switch to cobbles and gravel, and end with sand. Then place a seal over it using either a plastic liner or clay, followed by eight to 12 inches of top soil. Ideally the sinkhole should be slightly mounded to keep water away. The larger rocks will support the material above them and the smaller material and mounding will prevent water infiltration.

John Panuska is a distinguished faculty associate in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering and a UW-Extension natural resources specialist. David Hart is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and a hydrogeologist with UW-Extension and the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey.

Goodbye, Bug Guy

FOR 35 YEARS PHIL PELLITTERI BS’75 MS’77, an entomologist with CALS and UW-Extension, has provided patient counsel to a bug-plagued populace on everything from bedbugs to lice and bird mites to fleas.

Now 62 and set to retire in March, Pellitteri has this sage bit of advice gleaned from a long and accomplished career as an insect diagnostician: The bugs are going to win.

“The insects are in control and we’re not,” says Pellitteri. “They’ve been here since before the dinosaurs. They’ll be here after we go.”

Indeed, the task faced by the affable Pellitteri each day for all these years takes on Sisyphean qualities when the challenge he has faced is fully understood.

This is what Pellitteri is up against: According to the Entomological Society of America, there are nearly 10 quintillion insects in the world. That’s a 10 followed by 18 zeros. Experts say more than one million different species of insects have been identified. And it is estimated that as many as 30 million insect species in the world have yet to be discovered and named.

No less an expert than Edward O. Wilson, the world’s foremost source on ants and curator of Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, points out that the world’s other creatures exist in paltry numbers compared to insects. Of the 42,580 vertebrate species that have been scientifically described, Wilson says, 6,300 are reptiles, 9,040 are birds, and 4,000 are mammals. Of the million different species of insects that have been described, 290,000 alone are beetles, Wilson marvels in his book In Search of Nature.

“If humans were not so impressed by size alone,” Wilson writes, “they would consider an ant more wonderful than a rhinoceros.”

Count Pellitteri among those who would side with the ant—that is, when he is not conspiring with a caller on how to get rid of a nest of the pesky insects.

Since May 1978, Pellitteri has built a statewide reputation as the go-to expert on everything insect. In the summer months he fields an average of more than 30 calls a day that run the gamut from somebody being bitten by a mysterious insect to someone accidentally swallowing one.

Pellitteri’s fiefdom is a suite of bug-filled (most of them mounted) rooms in the CALS Department of Entomology on the first floor of Russell Labs. He has worked for years with one foot in academia and the other, through his work with UW-Extension, in the world of gardens, termite-infested homes and insect-riddled farm fields. In the entomology department he is a faculty associate, and he has played an important role over the years as a teacher and an adviser to generations of students. Department chair David Hogg calls Pellitteri “the face of the department.”

But it is Pellitteri’s self-made role with UW-Extension that has allowed him to bring his and the department’s expertise to bear on the challenges of keeping the insect horde at bay. Technically he is called a diagnostician. To the gardeners of the state, he is more fondly known as the “bug guy.”

Whatever he is called, he is beloved by those who run panicked from their gardens to the telephone or computer with news of the latest insect disaster. Lisa Johnson BS’88 MS’99, a Dane County UW-Extension horticulture educator, works with Pellitteri on the Master Gardener program and knows how much people have grown to rely on him. He is, she says, the embodiment of both Extension’s outreach mission and the Wisconsin Idea.

Coming and Going

You can tell a lot about what a community has to offer by the types of people who are moving in and the types who choose to leave.

Whether an area attracts or loses residents of a certain age group, race or gender says something about the opportunities and amenities you’ll find there, points out Katherine Curtis, a CALS/UW-Extension professor of community and environmental sociology.

Curtis, a researcher at the CALS-based Applied Population Laboratory (APL), is part of a multistate team that has developed new estimates of net migration—the difference between residents moving in and out—for every U.S. county from 2000 to 2010. The estimates are broken down by age, sex and race. Combined with similar estimates from previous decades, the new numbers offer a chance to make decade-by-decade comparisons of migration by age group from 1950 to present.

Those 60 years’ worth of estimates are available online at www.netmigration.wisc.edu, where users can graph, map and compare migration trends for counties across the nation. The site was created by APL web developer Jim Beaudoin.

“Examining net migration trends helps tell stories of regional and community character and social change,” says APL director Dan Veroff.

For example, Kenosha County’s migration signature shows the shift from manufacturing (an influx of people in their 20s) to rust belt decline (a net loss in the same age group) to suburban (a big gain of people in their 30s) as the area went through auto manufacturing’s boom and bust, then became home to people commuting to Chicago-area jobs.

At the opposite end of the state, net migration in Burnett and Vilas counties is sharply negative for people in their 20s—an exodus typical in remote rural areas—and highest for those in their 60s, as retirees settle to enjoy the lakes and forests. As a result, these counties have some of the state’s fastest-aging populations.

“When we see how these things line up over time we can get a glimpse of the future as well,” Veroff says. “This is useful for people who need to plan for providing services. It can show if a certain population is going to be stable, or decline or increase. School districts, for example, can use it to project enrollment trends.”

While net migration data has been available in the past, it used to require the skills and tools of a demographer to tease it out of large and complicated datasets. The new website eliminates that barrier, Veroff notes.

“One of our goals is to democratize data,” he says. “This effort fits squarely in that realm—making useful data available and easy to use for people in many different positions.”

Catch up with … Barbara Heindl

As a double major in wildlife ecology and biological aspects of conservation, Barbara Heindl dreamed about one day helping to save a species from the brink of extinction. Now she’s pursuing her passion as a field crew leader for the Kaua’i Forest Bird Recovery Project, a mostly government-funded effort facilitated by the University of Hawaii.
Kauai, known as “the garden isle,” is the oldest Hawaiian island and one of the wettest spots on earth, a paradise noted for spectacular mountains, canyons, waterfalls—and an array of rare native birds.

Even in the context of Hawaii, which leads the nation with 35 birds on the endangered species list, Kauai stands out. Only eight of the island’s original 13 forest birds still exist—and six of them are found on Kauai and nowhere else. Three of them are on the verge of extinction. Heindl’s organization focuses on those three federally endangered species: the akekee, the akikiki and the puaiohi (in photo left).

What do you love about your job? The areas where we work in are absolutely gorgeous, though very challenging to work in. I often describe the forest as a literal jungle gym, and more often than not it’s raining, which can make conducting surveys a mental and physical challenge—but I love it. To top it off, getting to go through all of the data we collect and using that to help inform conservation efforts is really rewarding, enough so that I don’t mind going back into the forest to get roughed up again.

What are the main threats to the three birds you are working to save? The tricky part about Hawaiian avifauna is that they are affected by many threats that all work together. The main ones are predation by non-native rats on nestlings and nesting females and diseases such as avian malaria, which is spread by non-native mosquitoes. That, in turn, has secluded native forest birds to high-elevation forest where mosquitoes are less prevalent, thus limiting the birds’ range. Native forest destruction (and increasing mosquito habitat) caused by non-native ungulates like pigs and goats, whose wallows make excellent mosquito breeding areas, is also a significant problem.

What are your team’s main activities? Primarily we are doing surveys to better understand the relationships between these birds and the native forest, as well as surveys to get better estimates on current population sizes and their threats. Right now we’re doing a lot of nest monitoring, vegetation surveys and rat work. All of our work then influences the five-year recovery plans for these birds.

Why is the survival of these birds important? These birds are found nowhere else in the world and are highly adapted to the forests on Kauai. In particular puaiohi are the only remaining native frugivore (fruit-eater) on the island and are important seed dispersers for the native forest. Akikiki and akekee are primarily insectivores and are excellent indicators for ecosystem and forest health. Other native birds provide services by pollinating specific plants that have no other pollinators. Not to mention the cultural uses by native Hawaiians. The loss of any of these birds would be tremendous both culturally and ecologically.

Learn more at http://kauaiforestbirds.org

Five things everyone should know about … Industrial Hemp

1. It’s a booming industry.  The American hemp industry generates sales of $450 million a year, according to the Hemp Industries Association—about a quarter from food and body care products and the rest from a wide array of goods, including clothing, auto and airplane parts, building materials and more. But since the cultivation of hemp is illegal in the United States under federal anti-drug laws, all hemp and hemp parts (fiber, oil, seed) used to make these products have to be imported.

2. It’s cannabis, but not the narcotic kind. Hemp is of the same plant species as marijuana, Cannabis sativa, but it is bred and cultivated quite differently. Cannabis bred for narcotic use is high in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the plant’s main intoxicant, while in hemp THC content is far lower, not nearly enough to produce a high. Also, hemp can be grown densely since the fibrous stalk is the main harvest, while marijuana plants need room to spread out and grow buds, which contain the most THC.

3. It’s been with us a long time. Hemp was cultivated in China more than 4,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest domesticated crop plants. It originated in Asia, spread to Europe, and came to the U.S. with the first European settlers. Primarily a fiber crop, hemp also was used for food and medicine. Many of the earliest domesticates had multiple uses in human societies, and hemp is an excellent example. Over time and geography, hemp cultivars found separate, specialized uses for fiber production and medicinal purposes.

4. It was huge in Wisconsin. Farmers were growing hemp in Wisconsin before it was admitted as a state, but true hemp glory came during World War II, with high demand from the military for such hemp-based products as rope and twine (eventually some 146,000 acres of hemp were harvested nationwide). The biggest growing areas were in
Fond du Lac, Green Lake, Dodge and Racine counties. An article in the Madison-based Capital Times in 1941 noted that Wisconsin produced more than 75 percent of the hemp raised commercially in the United States, and Wisconsin was referenced several times in the 1942 government-produced film “Hemp for Victory.” At one point Waupun-based grower and mill owner Matt Rens was known as “America’s Hemp King.” But after the war the crop lost much of its value, especially with the rise of synthetic fiber, and in 1970 federal drug law classified plants with any THC as an illegal substance.

5. There’s a growing push to change that. The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013, introduced in both the House and Senate, would amend federal drug law to legalize growing cannabis that contains less than 0.3 percent THC. It enjoys the support of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), among others.

Irwin Goldman is a professor and chair of the CALS’ Department of Horticulture. He is the nation’s only publicly supported beet breeder.