Bob Henke column: Questions, with help from the kids – The Post Star


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One of my favorite courses in graduate school was Physical Anthropology 650 — Primatology. The overall evolutionary perspective (the real point of the course) was interesting but I found myself more fascinated by the number of species and their range of strange and marvelous adaptations. The sheer fact that things like the mandrill and venomous slow loris exist at all is boggling but the one that left me most intrigued was the aye-aye.
The aye-aye is a cat-sized primate found only on the island of Madagascar. They are completely nocturnal, eat a wide range of insects and fruits, and have weird teeth. However, most interesting to me was the fact that the middle finger of each hand is extremely elongated and spindly. The standard explanation has been that the aye-aye uses the strange finger to reach into holes in trees to extract burrowing grubs.
I was always skeptical of this explanation. It never seemed to me that the occasional fat grub provided enough benefit to encourage this unique, bizarre and extreme development. Much of the time, the long stick-like finger is just in the way. Finally, researchers have discovered the true reason for the aye-aye’s finger.
It is designed perfectly in size and shape for the aye-aye to pick its nose.
Several times a day, the little primate judiciously roots out its nasal passages. The long finger goes in the nose, navigates the sinus cavities and reaches clear to the back of the throat. The aye-aye carefully withdraws its finger and judiciously licks off the mucus before repeating the process in the other nostril. It is felt that this behavior gets the bacteria and pathogens trapped by the nasal passage into the aye-aye’s digestive system to boost immunities.
Turns out there are 12 other species of primates that routinely pick their noses and ingest the mucus for an immunity boost. One of these is Homo sapiens, although most cultures work very hard to convince children it is gross and stamp out the practice at a young age. Perhaps this is why our middle fingers have become longer than the others …

A caterpillar is the featured guest in this week’s Sightings.
The questions so far this month have been quite disparate. Some, from younger readers, are terrifically interesting. Others, from adults, are a bit less friendly. The first relates directly to the above observations on the aye-aye.
My son says you told him it was healthy to pick his nose but only if he ate the boogers!! You are going to die!!!!
I truly do not remember telling an impressionable child any such thing. I probably would have if the subject came up, but I really think I am absolutely innocent in this instance. If he read something somewhere, I cannot be held responsible — that is just research on his part and should be commended.
From a 7th grade student named Alissa: Why are the leaves of our holly plant round and all the holly in pictures pointy?
There are a number of different holly species with a number of different leaf shapes and colors. With some holly species, the leaves are rounded, to maximize the area exposed to the sun, unless some sort of predation occurs. Damage to the leaves and stem causes another gene to turn on and its effect is to make the leaves lobed with sharp points. Try pruning your holly bush during the growing season and see what happens.
From a sixth grade student named Roger: This is my first year duck hunting. We have seen ducks and geese and a beaver and a mink. It is pretty when the sun comes up and you are sitting out there. One day we went to Lake Champlain and we did not see anything except flocks flying way up over our head. I said why weren’t they coming down to eat and one of the men said it is because they had worked the deep water all night and their bellies were full so they were just going to migrate. Is that right? I know about nocturnal and diurnal and I did not think birds were nocturnal.
Well Roger, while most birds are diurnal (active in the daytime), some birds are nocturnal (active at night) — for example, owls and whippoorwills. Some birds are both and many species of ducks and geese fit into this category. Hunters have known this but now there is some current research using small transmitters attached to the ducks’ wings that give a more complete picture. The research was in Louisiana, Illinois, Texas and California but holds true in the Atlantic flyway as well.
Ducks, especially smaller species, and more rarely geese, do sometimes feed avidly at night. In most cases, the food sought is high carbohydrate vegetation material found in open water. The nocturnal feeding seems to be a way to avoid avian predators like eagles and osprey. Owls, whose feathers do not shed water, typically do not target waterfowl in open water. It is also true that this carb-loading often takes place just before some high-stress activities like nesting or especially migration.
From Anthony who is in the fifth grade: Why do moose have webbed antlers instead of antlers like deer?
This is a great question, the answer for which keeps changing as new things are discovered. The historical answer is that it is just a mutation which happened to give some advantage in mating, i.e., the females preferred males with palmation and/or other bulls were intimidated by it. This seems to be the predominant factor in other species like caribou and fallow deer that show palmation in their antlers. On the other hand, some very recent research may lead to a different conclusion for both North American and European moose (they are called “elk” over there).
Applying some acoustic modeling techniques to moose antlers of various sizes and shapes, it appears the palmated beam gathers and amplifies sounds within a particular range of pitch. This happens to be exactly the range where the mating call of the female moose falls. The wide, flat, curving antler sections allow the bulls to hear the plaintive whine of the cows at much greater range, with sufficient clarity to distinguish different individuals, and with greatly enhanced directional detail. The palmations thus allow a bull to more quickly locate and get to receptive females; hence the genetic advantage.
Or, as I was told as a child, it could be moose were just put together from leftover spare parts …
Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.

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