Strange But True: You might just need a little bit of tree time

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Q: "Ah, go climb a tree," you say. Who might actually take you quite seriously?

A: Teacher Tim Kovar for one, who climbed his first tree in Nebraska at age 4 and is still climbing. These days he can be found at his school "Tree Climbing Planet" in Oregon City, Ore., teaching researchers, elementary school students, the elderly and more, reports interviewer Rachel Nuwer in Scientific American magazine. A master instructor, Kovar has scaled more than 5,000 trees worldwide, including in every U.S. state except Alaska; he's also been hired by biologists and entomologists to gather treetop data or to set up rigs for safe ascents.

Technically, tree climbing is rope climbing, using a rope, saddle and other suitable gear. Usually, Kovar says, the hardest part is getting the rope in place: "For most trees in temperate forests, you can throw the first line up, but for really tall trees in tropical forests, you need to use a slingshot or a bow and arrow. It once took me three days to set a rope in a giant Ceiba tree in Panama."

As for dangers on the job, in the tropics some 90 percent of animal life occurs in the canopy, with ants, scorpions, spiders and snakes using branches as highways. "I was once 140 feet up in a tree in the Brazilian Amazon when a swarm of bees flew in. I've also had thousands of ants crawl down my climbing rope. When that happens, all you can do is descend."

Kovar says his favorite tree to climb is an oak tree, getting 40 feet high and setting up a hammock. "Just chilling out gives me a much deeper connection to nature. That's what I like to call tree time."

Q: What's the story behind the wild white giraffe, and why might animal lovers be concerned?

A: This may be the first documented case of an adult wild giraffe turning white over time, says Zoe Muller at the Rothschild's Giraffe Project, as reported in New Scientist magazine. She observed the change in this particular Kenyan giraffe over six years and now suspects that a skin infection brought on vitiligo, where the skin gradually loses its pigment. (Interestingly, the condition can also affect humans, including perhaps Michael Jackson.)

Fortunately, the giraffe is "alive and well" and seemingly unaffected by its ghostly skin color. What happens, however, if it reduces the animal's camouflage? Muller fears that should the infection spread, it could have "a serious impact upon the survival of the Rothschild's giraffe subspecies, of which there are only 1100 left in the wild."

Q: People don't wear their emotions on their sleeves, but where might they actually "wear" them?

A: On their breath. Scientists are now able to gauge a film's emotional tenor from the chemicals exhaled by the audience with each sigh and scream, says Cassie Martin in Science News magazine.

German atmospheric chemist Jonathon Williams measured air samples collected from 9,500 moviegoers who watched 16 different film genres that included "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," "Walking with Dinosaurs" and "Carrie." Their findings? "Certain scenes, primarily those that had people laughing or on the edge of their seats, had distinct chemical fingerprints." For example, during screening of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," CO2 and isoprene emissions consistently peaked at two suspenseful moments. Still needed are more data "to make robust connections between human emotion and chemical emissions."

Eventually marketers might be able to quickly measure the air during consumer testing to see how people feel about products. As Williams concludes, "we have scratched the surface and it's made a funny smell," he says. "It's something to investigate."

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at sbtcolumn@gmail.com.


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