Far North Science

News, research and natural acts from Alaska

April 10th, 2007
Updated April 11, 2007 @ 10:59 am

Alaska’s killer whales chow down

The elusive killer whales that roam the eastern North Pacific in search of marine mammals aren’t fussy eaters after all.

They clamp down on gray whale snouts and drown them under the waves. They munch calves. They snatch northern fur seals. They scarf down Minke and humpback whales. They chase Dall’s porpoise and seals. They even, occasionally, eat Steller sea lions.

If it’s got flippers, fur and flesh, it may be on the menu du jour, according to four recent scientific papers that compiled hundreds of field observations, video monitoring of a sea lion rookery, and sophisticated analysis of fatty acids and stable isotopes in killer whale tissue.

But these killer whales, the secretive ecotype known as “transients,” aren’t very numerous and don’t eat fish. So far, they’re keeping some secrets to themselves, like where they spend the off-season.

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April 10th, 2007

A day in the life of a spring black bear

Alaska Science Forum is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute.

Newborn black bear cubs from Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge
Federal biologists inspect newborn black bear
cubs in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge
Mark Bertram, courtesy USFWS

Imagine, for a few minutes, that you are not reading a newspaper science column. Pretend it’s springtime in Alaska, and you are a black bear living somewhere between Ketchikan and the southern flanks of the Brooks Range. You have slept fitfully for the past six months, stirring on occasion to roll over, or, if you’re a pregnant female, to give birth to cubs. Your body temperature, about 92 degrees Fahrenheit during your six months in the den, will soon rise to its normal 100 degrees.

You somehow sense that it’s time for a change. Perhaps prompting you is the persistent sunlight that strikes the snow covering your den. Maybe meltwater collecting in your nest-like bed wakes you, and reminds you of how uncomfortable you are. Whatever the reason, you nose toward the light and paw at the framework of twigs you pulled over the entrance to the den months ago.

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April 10th, 2007
Updated April 10, 2007 @ 2:14 pm

Kamchatka volcano warnings back online

A Russian volcano network that warns North Pacific airliners about eruptions has solved its budget crisis and went back online Monday, April 9, according to the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

Sheveluch Volcano produces a mushroom cloud
Sheveluch Volcano produces a mushroom cloud. Photo was
taken near Klyuchi by Yuri Demyanchuk, Levinson-Lessing
Kamchatkan Volcanological Station

The Kamchatkan Volcanic Eruption Respnse Team (KVERT) temporarily went silent March 1 due to budget cuts, increasing the risk that aircraft could have entered undetected ash clouds and experienced sudden catastrophic engine failure during a trans-ocean flight.

During the month with reduced monitoring, the Alaska warning center continued to issue alerts about Kamchatkan volcanoes, working with unofficial reports from Russian scientists, weather satellites, the FAA and Japanese flight controllers.

“There were no significant difficulties or close calls,” said Thomas Murray, AVO scientist-in-charge. “Activity was relatively quiet.”

When fully operational, the KVERT center monitors 29 active volcanoes on the Kamchatka Peninsula and gives the world a heads-up when they grow restless. An eruption can send ash clouds roiling into air traffic lanes. Having a network operated in real-time by Russian scientists with local knowledge is essential for full protection, Alaska volcanologists say, particularly during bad weather or other conditions where satellite coverage cannot pinpoint the plume.

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