FROM THE VICE PRESIDENT
Campus research efforts now expend more than $67 million annually.
A rundown of science stories during the past year
THE OUTER LIMITS
New University research center studies the edge of human endurance.
THE ROOTS OF SOCIAL INEQUALITY
Digs in British Columbia offer a groundbreaking view of hunter-gatherer societies.
Research reveals another public health threat from asbestos contamination.
A young UM researcher studies flying rhinoceros beetles in Taiwan.
The Milltown Dam removal allows trapped sediments to travel.
How do prey species react when predators are returned to ecosystems.
THE NEW NOTE-TAKING
UM develops new software to aid college students.
A UM legal scholar reveals Constitution's original intent.
FLIP THROUGH CURRENT ISSUE
Cover: Jeff Cincoski, a triathlete and UM employee, puts a research bike through its paces in a 100-degree, temperature-controlled room at the Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism.
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It can be lethal in the wild
By Deborah Richie Oberbillig
|The better to eat you with: UM researcher Joel Berger, shown here holding a lion skull (one of many predator skulls decorating his office), studied the wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park and how moose had to relearn their fear of the carnivores.
In Montana’s grizzly country, hikers call out, “hey bear!” as they round each bend. Backpackers hang their food from trees and sleep with senses attuned to rustles and snapping twigs. Similarly, in a city known for crime, people avoid walking down dark alleys. They double lock doors and install alarm systems.
“No matter where you are, there’s something to fear,” says Joel Berger, UM’s John J. Craighead Chair, professor of wildlife conservation and a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. Fear is a common denominator among humans and wild animals alike, affecting behavior and culture.
His 2008 book, “The Better to Eat You With: Fear in the Animal World,” reads like a thrilling adventure tale in forbidding winter terrain ranging from Yellowstone and Alaska to the Russian Far East and Mongolia. Here’s a passage about reading the collar number on a protective mother moose as part of his research in the Tetons:
“Suddenly, a huge dark object rushed me. Her speed was explosive; ears were down, nape hair fully pilo-erect. Light momentarily reflected from an object on her neck. Ahh, the collar – number zero, one zero.”
Yet, woven throughout such hair-raising escapades are scientific questions whose answers Berger hopes will improve our ability to restore missing predators to ecosystems and to save animals from extinction. For more than a decade, Berger investigated these four inquiries:
1) Do prey species remember their enemies?
2) If they don’t, how do they learn about them and avoid extinction?
3) Is there a culture of fear?
4) How do we take the answers to the first three questions and do more for conservation?
Berger started assessing fear as a behavioral trigger 18 years ago when he lived in Africa studying rhinos and sharing an adrenaline-filled life in the bush with his wife and their 19-month-old daughter, Sonja.
“When it was time to come back to North America, I thought about what questions would be useful to ask that would build on my work in Africa,” Berger says. He readily admits that he also was looking for exciting research to rival his time among rhinos, lions and hyenas.
“Most scientists use the lab, but for me my lab is everywhere,” says Berger, who today has a bit of the look of a classic 19th-century explorer, complete with mustache and flowing long gray hair.
Not surprising, his search took him straight to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons, where plans were under way in the 1990s to reintroduce wolves. The perfect experiment unfolded: a predator-prey study before and after their return. How would the elk, moose and bison react?
“People were concerned that if you put predators back in a system, the prey would be blitzed because they wouldn’t know how to respond,” Berger says.
He focused on the reaction of prey and soon realized he needed to look beyond Yellowstone to seek answers. Berger chose four species: elk, moose, bison and caribou. In each case he was able to pinpoint comparable landscapes where these animals lived with and without wild predators.
To study elk with predators, he headed to the Russian Far East, where Siberian tigers hunt for wary elk (called red deer), as well as moose. In Alaska, he investigated both moose and caribou that proved to be quite savvy to wolves. In Greenland, he tracked caribou without predators that showed no sense of fear, and in far northern Alberta’s Wood Buffalo National Park, he pursued bison that were preyed on by wolves.
He’d found his dream job – tracking animals that could devour or trample him in far-flung landscapes with subzero temperatures. They also were places of rare beauty that Berger records in passages such as this one about the Kolumbe River Basin of Siberian Russia: “I walked on moist tussocks and entered a thicket where water ran powerful and clear. I filled my water bottles. The air was soft and the light gentle. A kingfisher flashed past.”
Into such realms, Berger lugged tapes and a machine to play the calls of ravens, howler monkeys, hyenas, lions, tigers and wolves. He added the sound of running water for good measure. Sometimes he enlisted field assistants to help note the reactions of prey – lifting heads, length of vigilance, no reaction or fleeing.
Certain results proved surprising. The bison in Wood Buffalo National Park barely blinked when wolf howls were played, but when the shaggy beasts heard lion roars they raised their massive heads, as if registering a sound from their Pleistocene past. Berger cannot be sure if that reaction stemmed from the acoustic quality or from the bison’s ancestral connection.
Moose in Alaska grew watchful when hearing the croaks of a raven, a bird closely associated with wolf packs. If he hit the wolf howl recording, they fled. However, the Teton moose prior to wolf reintroduction showed no reaction to either wolf howls or raven croaks.
When wolves did return to the Yellowstone ecosystem, the elk and moose initially did not register instinctive fear. The wolves trotted up to elk and moose as easily as tourists snapping photos of the big animals on the roadside. But fear soon set in. Elk as herd animals passed that information horizontally to one another, whereas the solitary moose translated fear vertically to the next generation,
While bison remained oblivious to Berger’s wolf howl playbacks in Yellowstone before and after wolf reintroduction, that does not mean they were not aware or changing behavior, he says. Overall, the results of his long-term study point to Yellowstone’s prey forgetting their predators, but fairly quickly learning about them. The culture of fear appears present, too, as elk and moose modified and passed on their fear-driven behavior. Berger notes that now moose in the Tetons have learned to stay closer to roadsides as safer zones from grizzly bears. Armed with this knowledge, how does fear then play a role in conservation?
“The behavior is fun to observe, but it is more than just fun,” Berger says. “What we find out about by being on the ground and by watching animals is that we have a chance to get to the table.” That table is wildlife conservation – adding behavior into the mix when assessing survival of offspring, causes of mortality and critical habitats to protect.
“Look at exotic species,” Berger says. “If the prey haven’t evolved with these introduced predators, they can’t avoid them.”
Apparently, wildlife that lack ancestral connections to a predator often fail to learn how to survive when confronted with a never-before-known enemy. The trail of destruction ranges from introduced red foxes destroying native fauna of Australia to the non-native brown tree snake wiping out birds in Guam. In the past 500 years, more than 80 percent of mammal extinctions were on islands where species had little knowledge of predators.
“Innocence can be fatal,” Berger writes in his book.
The lessons he sees for conservation? Look to the ancestral past as well as to the present and add fear-based behavior into the equation when planning to save species and restore ecosystems by returning a missing predator.
“The way of the world is to lose the large carnivores, not to add them,” Berger says.
But in the restoration of wolves to Yellowstone he sees both a success story and hope for the future. Indeed, hope appears to guide Berger’s work as a wildlife professor and researcher.
Today, he pursues musk ox in Alaska’s Arctic, “trying to get a better handle on whether they can persist with climate change.” His other quarry is the saiga, a swift and endangered mammal of Mongolia that is the ecological equivalent of the pronghorn. Berger’s fieldwork on pronghorn in Wyoming played a key role in a conservation initiative, “Path of the Pronghorn,” aimed at preserving a long migration corridor between Grand Teton National Park and winter range in the Green River watershed. The future of the rare saiga hinges on a similar need to conserve its migration route.
Berger is UM’s first John J. Craighead endowed professor in wildlife biology, appointed to the prestigious chair in 2007. Craighead, now in his 90s and living in Missoula, remains a giant in the field of both research and conservation. He and his twin, Frank, set a high standard for combining field research, cutting-edge technology and communication to conserve wildlife around the globe – from grizzlies to birds of prey. John Craighead led UM’s Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit for 25 years.
The endowed chair was made possible by many donors to the University’s “Invest in Discovery” campaign and championed by the unrelenting efforts of Dan Pletscher, director of UM’s Wildlife Biology Program. Berger arrived with an impressive portfolio. He’s the author of five books and more than 100 peer-reviewed articles. He spent seven years as senior scientist for North American programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City, following a long career based at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Berger joins equally accomplished UM colleagues known for globally significant research, yet firmly anchored in this region and committed to their students. As you might imagine, when you put them together in one room sharing investigations, questions and solutions to conservation crises, the atmosphere nearly sparks with electricity.
“The University of Montana is unquestionably the best place to be if you’re interested in conservation biology,” Berger says.
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|When wolves were first reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, they trotted up to elk and moose as easily as tourists snapping photos of the big animals on the roadside. (Wildlife photos by Joel Berger)
|Berger, UM’s John J. Craighead Professor, works to collar a tranquilized musk ox in Alaska.
|After decades without wolves, moose in the Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks needed to rediscover their fear of the pack hunters.