Story last updated at 12/9/2009 - 11:50 am
An article about the wonders of a dog's nose prompted a message about an example of that fine tool at work in Alaska. Jeff Smeenk of the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Palmer Research Center shared a story of two dogs that found both of his daughters as they were hiding in a grassy field. The dogs tracked the girls after sniffing a fingerprint each of them had pressed into a glass microscope slide.
Tom Osterkamp was the designer of the experiment to determine whether the scent from only a person's fingerprint might be enough for a dog to find that person. Osterkamp, a professor emeritus at the Geophysical Institute who has provided much column fodder over the years on his specialty of permafrost, now lives in Missouri but journeys to Palmer in the summer to continue some permafrost research. Another of his passions is training dogs.
While in Palmer last summer, Osterkamp asked Smeenk's two daughters, Nicole, 14, and Katie, 11, to each pinch a different glass slide for about 20 seconds, leaving behind oils dogs can detect with their amazing noses. Osterkamp then instructed the two girls and two of their friends to walk different pathways extending like spokes from a wheel for about 75 yards across a lawn.
The girls hid for 15 minutes while Osterkamp readied his dogs - Bitsy and Stormy, two Labrador retrievers, and Max, a Rottweiler. He let each dog sniff just one slide, representing the fleeting touch of one girl.
Osterkamp released the dogs one-by-one, first bringing them to the girls' departure point and alerting them to the starting point of the four different pathways. Bitsy, the 11-year old Lab, trailed Katie without hesitating. Max and Stormy tracked the other girls for a few seconds before honing in on Nicole, whose fingerprint they knew.
After the experiment, Osterkamp concluded that the residue from the oil of one fingerprint is sufficient to allow a trained dog to follow its nose to someone. He has also watched his dogs track people based on the scent they have left on rocks, coins, matches, and letters sent through the mail. In some cases, he says, people don't even need to touch anything; by wiping a paper towel over a surface close to someone, Osterkamp can collect enough scent to allow a dog to track that person.
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A few people replied to a recent story on Anna's hummingbirds. Cynthia Toohey of Crow Creek Mine in Girdwood wrote a letter describing how she has fed rufous hummingbirds there for the better part of the last decade. Last spring, she watched from her window as at least six pairs of hummingbirds brought their newly hatched chicks to her feeders, which she fills with a mixture of one cup of sugar to four cups of water.
"What a sight," Toohey wrote in a letter. "We were sure we were only feeding one nest-full. What a surprise."
Bev Hoffman of Bethel also wrote, describing a late August phone call she received from Bethel elders Elias and Bernie Venes. The couple found a hummingbird in their greenhouse, flying amid their geraniums and tomato plants.
Hoffman drove to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Bethel and picked up biologist Brian McCaffery. They then drove to the Venes's greenhouse, and McCaffery captured the hummingbird with a net. He identified the bird as a young male Anna's hummingbird.
"Sibley's field guide indicates that their most northwest occurrence is Anchorage, but the (Birds of North America) account mentions Anchorage and Dillingham," McCaffery wrote in a story that appeared in the Delta Discovery newspaper. "So, our bird would not be the first for western Alaska, but is the first confirmed record for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta."
This column 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.