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Archive for August, 2007

frontispiece.jpg Had enough of death, frostbite, and crevasses? Fortunately, halfway through the Worst Journey, Cherry surprises us with a flash-forward to the British Museum of Natural History:

And now the reader will ask what became of the three penguins’ eggs for which three human lives had been risked three hundred times a day, and three human frames strained to the utmost extremity of human endurance.

Let us leave the Antarctic for a moment and conceive ourselves in the year 1913 in the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. I had written to say that I would bring the eggs at this time. Present, myself, C.-G., the sole survivor of the three, with First or Doorstep Custodian of the Sacred Eggs. I did not take a verbatim report of his welcome; but the spirit of it may be dramatized as follows:

FIRST CUSTODIAN: Who are you? What do you want? This ain’t an egg-shop. What call have you to come meddling with our eggs? Do you want me to put the police on to you? Is it the crocodile’s egg you’re after? I don’t know nothing about no eggs. You’d best speak to Mr Brown: it’s him that varnishes the eggs.

I resort to Mr Brown, who ushers me into the presence of the Chief Custodian, a man of scientific aspect, with two manners: one, affably courteous, for a Person of Importance (I guess a Naturalist Rothschild at least) with whom he is conversing, and the other, extraordinarily offensive even for an official man of science, for myself.

I announce myself with becoming modesty as the bearer of the penguins’ eggs, and proffer them. The Chief Custodian takes them into custody without a word of thanks, and turns to the Person of Importance to discuss them. I wait. The temperature of my blood rises. The conversation proceeds for what seems to me a considerable period. Suddenly the Chief Custodian notices my presence and seems to resent it.

CHIEF CUSTODIAN: You needn’t wait.

HEROIC EXPLORER: I should like to have a receipt for the eggs, if you please.

CHIEF CUSTODIAN. It is not necessary: it is all right. You needn’t wait.

HEROIC EXPLORER. I should like to have a receipt.

But by this time the Chief Custodian’s attention is again devoted wholly to the Person of Importance. Feeling that to persist in overhearing their conversation would be an indelicacy, the Heroic Explorer politely leaves the room, and establishes himself on a chair in a gloomy passage outside, where he wiles away the time by rehearsing in his imagination how he will tell off the Chief Custodian when the Person of Importance retires. But this the Person of Importance shows no sign of doing, and the Explorer’s thoughts and intentions become darker and darker. As the day wears on, minor officials, passing to and from the Presence, look at him doubtfully and ask his business. The reply is always the same, ‘I am waiting for a receipt for some penguins’ eggs.’ At last it becomes clear from the Explorer’s expression that what he is really waiting for is not to take a receipt but to commit murder. Presumably this is reported to the destined victim: at all events the receipt finally comes; and the Explorer goes his way with it, feeling that he has behaved like a perfect gentleman, but so very dissatisfied with that vapid consolation that for hours he continues his imaginary rehearsals of what he would have liked to have done to that Custodian (mostly with his boots) by way of teaching him manners.

Some time after this I visited the Natural History Museum with Captain Scott’s sister. After a slight preliminary skirmish in which we convinced a minor custodian that the specimens brought by the expedition from the Antarctic did not include the moths we found preying on some of them, Miss Scott expressed a wish to see the penguins’ eggs. Thereupon the minor custodian flatly denied that any such eggs were in existence or in their possession. Now Miss Scott was her brother’s sister; and she showed so little disposition to take this lying down that I was glad to get her away with no worse consequences than a profanely emphasized threat on my part that if we did not receive ample satisfaction in writing within twenty-four hours as to the safety of the eggs England would reverberate with the tale.

All in all, it’s reminiscent of the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the forklift driver takes the Ark into the depths of that endless warehouse.

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ninn1s.jpg Lt. Belgrave Edward Sutton Ninnis was also out sledging in Antarctica in 1912, and having a hell of a time of it, too. But he was a thousand miles from Scott’s hut on Cape Evans.

Ninnis was on Sir Douglas Mawson’s expedition to survey Adelieland, a slice of Antarctica south of Australia. Ninnis helped handle the expedition’s huskies and became one of Mawson’s two most trusted men. Just 25 years old and, as the picture illustrates, cute as a button, Ninnis was adored by Mawson, who called him “Cherub.”

On December 14th, 400 miles from the safety of camp, Ninnis hopped off his sledge to investigate a crevasse. He went straight through a snow bridge that two men and another loaded sledge had already crossed, taking six dogs, the team’s only tent, and nearly all their food to a bottom that lay far out of sight. One dog hit a snow ledge partway down and Mawson watched it die from the impact. There was no sound from Ninnis, and no hope.

Ninnis’s health had been declining in the previous few days. But they had turned for home, they were running on a slight downhill, and there were three of them to help with the pulling. The sun was shining. And then he was falling.

Scott’s team had its share of hardship and misfortune. But they fell through crevasse after crevasse and never lost a man to one. For it to happen out of the blue to young Ninnis seemed to Mawson the act of an angry god.

With no food and only a makeshift tent, Mawson and companion Xavier Mertz said prayers over the crevasse, named the glacier for Ninnis, and bent for home. On the way they ate the rest of their dogs – right down to their thyroid glands – and unknowingly poisoned themselves with dog liver. Only Mawson made it back.

It’s all recorded in Lennard Bickel’s harrowing (if oddly subtitled) “Mawson’s Will: The Greatest Polar Survival Story Ever Written.”

Don’t worry – this isn’t the start of yet another weekly Antarctic-disaster feature. I just thought it was a good week to remember all those good men who have been taken abruptly from their families.

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homer.jpgA brief article in the UK’s Sun newspaper says officials in Minneapolis may blame the recent bridge tragedy on accumulated pigeon poo. Nothing about the article seems to be kidding. And yet.

Their thesis is logically sound: pigeons, like all birds, excrete uric acid that theoretically could eat away at steel given enough time and, er, volume.

And pigeons – properly known as “rock pigeons” to birders, were originally cliff-nesters and like nothing so much for a perch as a narrow place above a precipitous drop. Bridges are lovely for this.

But let’s be honest. For anyone to mention this with a straight face, they’d better be able to point to at least one other known instance of Pigeon Doo Corrosivity Syndrome. Bridges and pigeons have been together for a long time, after all. Not to mention a swiss-cheese effect should have become evident on urban car roofs by now.

***This post is part of an anti-pigeon-defamation initiative on the part of the Scribbler. He has become aware that many people do not enjoy pigeons quite as much as they could if they approached the topic with an open mind. In fact, it might be said that some people resent them. Strongly.

But the pigeon is a noble creature, no less worthy of our appreciation just because of its pudgy body and walnut-sized head. The birds are all muscle. In a level race, they can outfly the speed racer of birds, the peregrine falcon. They are more considerate than your typical housecat, livelier than a goldfish, and cleverer than many a chihuahua or miniature terrier.

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frontispiece.jpgDown by the Beardmore Glacier, after more than 500 miles hauling across the Ross Ice Shelf, the men came up against the Transantarctic Mountains. This was the route Scott (and Shackleton before him) had selected to climb from basically sea level up to the 10,000-foot-high central Antarctic plateau. The mountains around were several thousand feet taller still. Bowers remarked:

The mountains surpassed anything I have ever seen: beside the least of these giants Ben Nevis would be a mere mound.

Ben Nevis is the highest point in Britain: about 4,400 feet. Bowers’s amazement is revealing of the whole Victorian mindset of the men. First, to throw themselves against things entirely out of scale with their prior experience; and second, to compare it all to something in Britain, however incomparable.

Part of that mindset was the assumption that Englishmen had the substance to survive anything, if they could only muster the endurance. You see it in everyone. For instance, Wilson, facing treacherous seas trapping a landing party on a remote Atlantic island:

When we first got down to the shore and things were looking nasty, Wilson sat down on the top of a rock and ate a biscuit in the coolest possible manner. It was an example to avoid all panicking, for he did not want the biscuit.

Bowers was something of a superhero even in this, the Heroic Age of Exploration. He found the tent a day after it blew away in the blizzard on Crozier. On that trip his feet were the only ones that stayed warm, and he never even used the eiderdown insert for his sleeping bag (he donated it to frozen Cherry on the way back). Snow blindness? Pshaw…

I am afraid I am going to pay dearly for not wearing goggles yesterday when piloting the ponies. My right eye has gone bung, and my left one is pretty dicky.

Bowers meticulously planned and packed the food and gear for all the expeditions – he even cooked the books to hide away surprise rations for Christmas Dinner 1911 at the top of the Beardmore, 700 miles from the hut.

Then came 2 1/2 square inches of plum-duff each, and a good mug of cocoa washed down the whole. In addition to this we had four caramels each and four squares of crystallized ginger. I positively could not eat all mine, and turned in feeling as if I had made a beast of myself.

Christmas was Lashly’s 44th birthday, which he took rather well, all things considered:

I had the misfortune to drop clean through [a crevasse], but was stopped with a jerk when at the end of my harness. It was not of course a very nice sensation, especially on Christmas Day and being my birthday as well. While spinning around in space like I was it took me a few seconds to gather my thoughts and see what kind of a place I was in. It certainly was not a fairy’s place.

Lashly was on the last support sledge to turn around before reaching the pole. He, Lieutenant Evans, and Crean started back strongly, but the toll quickly began to show. Lashly wrote:

Crean has become snow-blind today through being leader, so I shall have the job tomorrow, as Mr Evans seems to get blind rather quickly, so if I lead and he directs me from behind we ought to get along pretty well.

Lt. Evans came very close to dying of scurvy: “This morning we were forced to put Mr Evans on his ski and strap him on, as he could not lift his legs.” But 13 days later, with Evans essentially incapacitated, he was still capable of displaying his Englishness: Lashly had a frostbitten foot and Evans, worn out and strapped onto the sledge, warmed it against his stomach.

In the end, Crean left Lashly tending Evans in a tent, and struck out for help carrying three biscuits and two sticks of chocolate for a 30 mile journey. In the end, they saved him. Back at the hut, after a supper of seal meat, Lashly wrote:

We are looking for a mail now. How funny we should always be looking for something else, now we are safe.

On the way back from the pole, Wilson kept getting snow-blind. Cherry thinks it’s because he was unable to resist whipping off his goggles at a spare moment to sketch the landscape. (The icon above is one of Wilson’s.) Then he hurt his leg:

My left leg exceedingly painful all day, so I gave Birdie (Bowers) my ski and hobbled alongside the sledge on foot. The whole of the Tibialis anticus is swollen and tight…. But we made a very fine march with the help of a brisk breeze.

Scott noted the party weakening, but hoped (somewhat blindly) for the best:

Wilson’s leg still troubles him… but the worse case is Evans, who is giving us serious anxiety. This morning he suddenly disclosed a huge blister on his foot…. Sometimes I feel he is going from bad to worse, but I trust he will pick up again when we come to steady work on ski like this afternoon.

This was five weeks before their final camp. Seaman Evans was the first to die.

Oates, who was the expedition’s horse whisperer, believe it or not, was the next to go, his foot and then his hands horribly frostbitten and swollen black. On March 17th, Scott wrote:

Should this be found I want these facts recorded. Oates’ last thoughts were of his mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death. We can testify to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaining, and to the very last was able and willing to discuss outside subjects. He did not – would not – give up hope till the very end. He was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning – yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’

Twelve days later Scott still had his chin up:

We are in a desperate state, feet frozen, etc. No fuel and a long way from food, but it would do your heart good to be in our tent, to hear our songs and the cheery conversation as to what we will do when we get to Hut Point.

We are very near the end, but have not and will not lose our good cheer. We have four days of storm in our tent and nowhere’s food or fuel. We did intend to finish ourselves when things proved like this, but we have decided to die naturally in the tracks.

At the time, Britain was the greatest nation in the world (according to Britain, anyway), and you can hear it in the unwavering voices of these men. This is why Scott’s tragedy came as such a shock to the nation. It was simply inconceivable that good English men could not triumph through sheer fortitude and good breeding.

It was the first crack in a sorrowful awakening, of England learning that the world was bigger and stronger than it. In the next few years came the First World War. And the twentieth century was just getting started.

Since then, we’ve realized how foolish it all was. Monty Python ridiculed it over and over again (the Black Knight’s “it’s only a flesh wound” is perhaps the pinnacle). And yet, as soon as they let reality intrude on their plans it took over. And now we live in a world where we obsess over our hydration status, stockpile our ClifBars, bicker over backcountry campsites, shrink from the rainwater that creeps up our jacket cuffs, and call in the helicopters when we notice the sun unexpectedly setting on us. It’s enough to make a guy wistful.

Not that I would let on, of course. That’s just not cricket.

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More evidence that everything in the universe, or at least the Pacific, really is connected. By odds too remote to be calculated, a New Zealand biologist discovered a rice-sized ID chip in the stomach of a sooty shearwater chick.

The chip traced to a chinook salmon tagged two years ago on the Columbia River, more than 7,000 miles away.

The biologists have been making the mental leaps ever since. Shearwater chicks are flightless and don’t even get in the water until after they fledge. The bird’s parent must have eaten the salmon, then regurgitated the chip into the chick along with a meal. But chinook salmon are big – way bigger than a shearwater (if there’s any justice in the world, there should be some chinook salmon swimming around right now with shearwater tags in their bellies).

Anyway, that means the shearwater must have plucked the tagged chinook out of the water back when the fish was beak sized – and carried the chip since then. That’s imaginable, since all birds have a crop – a sort of mechanical stomach where they store hard objects. It’s what they have instead of teeth. The chip could have lodged in there and then just come back out again.

And shearwaters are famous travelers. Just last year, in fact, a team of biologists made headlines when they established that sooty shearwaters take a 40,000 mile, figure-8 loop around the Pacific every year chasing an endless summer of food.

Oh, and the biologists were from the University of California, Santa Cruz. See what I mean about everything being connected?

Thanks to the KSJ Tracker for picking this one up, and nice work by the Seattle Times running this great piece of news. Image: Jeffrey Rich.

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File under win-win: research in Kenya shows that by raising tilapia, locals can reduce the population of a malaria-carrying mosquito (by a whopping 94%), then harvest the fish for the dinner table.

Spurred by the growing incidence of pesticide resistance among mosquitoes, the researchers began looking for nonchemical ways to kill the mosquitoes’ buzz. Mosquitoes spend their larval lives wiggling around in pools of water, gobbling microorganisms and hiding out in the foliage. Tilapia seem to go after them using something of a tiered approach: larger fish nibble on aquatic plants, depriving larvae of hiding places; and the tilapia fry go right after the larvae themselves. Apparently, people postulated a century ago that hungry fish should be useful malaria-fighters, but no one had checked it out numerically.

It’s interesting that many Kenyans already farm tilapia (which are native to the Nile), leading one to wonder why existing tiliapia farms haven’t knocked down the malaria problem yet. (The town the researchers studied records 2,200 malaria cases per year; globally, more than 350 million people get malaria each year, and 1 million die.)

Chalk it up to business misfortunes: when a farming operation goes under, the abandoned fishponds collect water and breed hordes of mosquitoes. The prospect of restocking those ponds and at the same time clearing them of mosquitoes suggests a worthwhile place to invest development funds.

Image: a cool stamp collection

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Pat O’Connell has a new talk show. Check Surfline.com for “Going Off with Pat O’Connell” and catch the ex-pro, who last made a Scribble appearance in connection with shifting baselines. He’ll be posting interviews with new guests every two weeks.

This week he sits down with Rob Machado, owner of the gnarliest hair in all of professional sports. The topic under discussion: Who’s going to win the surfing world tour this year? Will it be Mick Fanning, the blazing Ozzie who everyone thinks is overdue, or Andy Irons, the competitive bulldog with three consecutive titles from earlier this decade?

The result is intensely uncomfortable to watch but also, somehow, gripping. The producers put them before radio-style mikes in a darkened room. O’Connell shifts uneasily in his seat and pulls his knee up under his armpit for half the show. They cut to surf-flick outtakes whenever the tension gets too great.

Machado cuts in to make a point, then apologizes, realizing that snaking someone in conversation is kind of like stealing waves. O’Connell’s sentences start forcefully but end with an abrupt upswing, as if he’s duck diving. Machado’s are often two syllables, one of which is a chuckle.

Machado pronounces Fanning “unfadeable,” and O’Connell is all over him. “You’re kind of dancing on the line dude, it’s a yes or a no.” Machado clarifies that “unfadeable” means a sure thing. Uh, obviously?

But I love this attempt to inject articulate conversation into the least articulate of all sports. Only two more weeks till the next episode. Theme: Will a pro event ever be won again on anything but a thruster? Perhaps they’re working up to the Middle East.

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frontispiece.jpg This is Worst Wednesdays for real: a week has gone by, it’s 10:00 at night, and I’m just posting this now. At least it’s warm in Santa Cruz.

This day also (1 July) we were harassed by a nasty little wind which blew in our faces. The temperature was minus 66, and in such temperatures the effect of even the lightest airs is blighting, and immediately freezes any exposed part.

They wore furry balaclavas “of the greatest comfort.” Better yet,

They formed other places upon which our breath could freeze, and the lower parts of our faces were soon covered with solid sheets of ice, which was in itself an additional protection. This was a normal and not uncomfortable condition during the journey: the hair on our faces kept the ice away from the skin, and for myself I would rather have the ice than be without it, until I want to get my balaclava off to drink my hoosh. We only made 2 1/4 miles, and it took 8 hours.

Slogging forward with the sledges was the only way to get warm; it came to be the part of the day they looked forward to:

Our sleeping-bags were getting really bad by now, and already it took a long time to thaw a way down into them at night. Bill spread his in the middle, Bowers was on his right, and I was on his left. Always he insisted that I should start getting my legs into mine before he started: we were rapidly cooling down after our hot supper, and this was very unselfish of him. Then came seven shivering hours and first thing on getting out of sleeping-bags in the morning we stuffed our personal gear into the mouth of the bag before it could freeze: this made a plug which when removed formed a frozen hole for us to push into as a start in the evening.

That’s right, they thawed out their wet sleeping bags using their body heat each night. I just can’t figure out the math: at what point in the day are they actually getting back to a non-suicidal degree of warmth?

They talk of chattering teeth: but when your body chatters you may call yourself cold. I can only compare the strain to that which I have been unfortunate enough to see in a case of lock-jaw. One of my big toes was frost-bitten, but I do not know for how long. Wilson was fairly comfortable in his smaller bag, and Bowers was snoring loudly. The minimum temperature that night as taken under the sledge was minus 69; and as taken on the sledge was minus 75. That is a hundred and seven degrees of frost.

They did occasionally pause for scenery. But the cold was always ticking at them like a clock.

In the pauses of our marching we halted in our harness, the ropes of which lay slack in the powdery snow. We stood panting with our backs against the mountainous mass of frozen gear which was our load. There was no wind, at any rate no more than light airs: our breath crackled as it froze. There was no unnecessary conversation: I don’t know why our tongues never got frozen, but all my teeth, the nerves of which had been killed, split to pieces. We had been going perhaps three hours since lunch.

‘Things must improve.’ said Bill.

I remember being in Bozeman, Montana, when it dropped to minus 30 a few nights running. It was cold, and made my clothes creak in a funny way, but it didn’t seem so bad. Cherry had anticipated me by 92 years:

I have met with amusement people who say, ‘Oh, we had minus fifty temperatures in Canada; they didn’t worry me,’ or ‘I’ve been down to minus sixty something in Siberia.’ And then you find that they had nice dry clothing, a nice night’s sleep in a nice aired bed, and had just walked out after lunch for a few minutes from a nice warm hut or an overheated train. Well! of course as an experience of cold this can only be compared to eating a vanilla ice with hot chocolate cream after an excellent dinner at Claridge’s.

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frontispiece.jpg The whole point of the Worst Journey that winter of 1911 was to collect a series of emperor penguin eggs so that Wilson could describe their embryological development. At the time, penguins were thought to be the most primitive of birds. Turns out they aren’t – they’re actually so non-primitive that they not only learned how to fly but learned how not to fly all over again.

Anyway, the three men make their way to the tip of Cape Crozier, a few days before the blizzard that tore the roof off their igloo (see last week). They gawk over the edge of an 800-foot cliff for a bit, then work their way down and onto a maze of ice jumbles, piled up from a hundred thousand years of the Ross Ice Shelf pushing against Ross Island.

The crests here rose fifty or sixty feet…. Our best landmarks were patches of crevasses, sometimes three or four in a few footsteps…. It was impossible for me to wear spectacles, and this was a tremendous handicap to the party: Bill [Wilson] would find a crevasse and point it out; Birdie [Bowers] would cross; and then time after time, in trying to step over or climb over on the sledge, I put my feet right into the middle of the cracks. This day I went well in at least six times.

After hours of exploring cul-de-sacs:

And then we heard the Emperors calling.

Their cries came to us from the sea-ice we could not see, but which must have been a chaotic quarter of a mile away. They came echoing back from the cliffs, as we stood helpless and tantalized.

The thin June twilight had gone. They turned and headed for the igloo. The next day they found a way through an ice tunnel:

It was a longish way, but quite possible to wriggle along, and presently I found myself looking out of the other side with a deep gully below me, the rock face on one hand and the ice on the other.

We saw the Emperors standing all together huddled under the Barrier cliff some hundreds of yards away. The little light was going fast: we were much more excited about the approach of complete darkness and the look of wind in the south than we were about our triumph….

The disturbed Emperors made a tremendous row, trumpeting with their curious metallic voices. There was no doubt they had eggs, for they tried to shuffle along the ground without losing them off their feet. But when they were hustled a good many eggs were dropped and left lying on the ice, and some of these were quickly picked up by eggless Emperors who had probably been waiting a long time for the opportunity. In these poor birds the maternal side seems to have necessarily swamped the other functions of life.

(Cherry’s explanation arises from the idea of group selection, which was very popular at the time and remained so until around midcentury.)

But interesting as the life history of these birds must be, we had not travelled for three weeks to see them sitting on their eggs. We wanted the embryos, and we wanted them as young as possible, and fresh and unfrozen, that specialists at home might cut them into microscopic sections and learn from the previous history of birds throughout the evolutionary ages.

That’s “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” for you. The team collected five eggs and killed three 80-pound adults to feed the blubber stove.

Now we found that these birds were so anxious to sit on something that some of those which had no eggs were sitting on ice! Several times Bill and Birdie picked up eggs to find them lumps of ice, rounded and about the right size, dirty and hard.

That was it: three weeks of man-hauling sledges to get here, three hours with the penguins. Cherry continues to give the impression of trailing along behind the other two like a kid brother:

In one place where there was a steep rubble and snow slope down I left the ice-axe half-way up; in another it was too dark to see our former ice-axe footsteps, and I could see nothing, and so just let myself go and trusted to luck. With infinite patience Bill said: ‘Cherry, you must learn how to use an ice-axe.’

But bumbling did have a small fringe benefit:

We found the sledge, and none too soon, and now had three eggs left, more or less whole. Both mine had burst in my mitts: the first I emptied out, the second I left in my mitt to put into the cooker; it never got there, but on the return journey I had my mitts far more easily thawed out than Birdie’s (Bill had none) and I believe the grease in the egg did them good.

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Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are perennial bad guys in environmental stories (see previous scribblings about salmon, seabirds and seafood).

Two reason they’re so perennial – despite significant limits on their production and disposal in the last three decades – are because they don’t degrade spontaneously and they become more concentrated as they move up the food chain.***

Now, PCBs seem to be disrupting vitamin A pathways in harbor seals, according to a report in Aquatic Toxicology by Lizzy Mos and colleagues. Working in British Columbia and Washington, the team caught 24 wild baby harbor seals and took blood and blubber samples. Seals with high PCB levels had less vitamin A in their blood and less vitamin A stored in their blubber.

The vitamin is an essential nutrient involved in hormonal levels and the immune system. The authors note that vitamin A has a variety of hormonal and immune-system functions, and that other studies have implicated PCBs in both reproductive failures and disease outbreaks in marine populations.

But perhaps more worryingly, the scientists seem mainly interested in using vitamin A levels as a flag. In other words, PCBs may be damaging seals in more unobtrusive ways, and vitamin A is a useful way to keep an eye on them.

Adorable image by bibianadesign.com

***As you well-informed Scribble readers probably know, this is called bioaccumulation. At each step in the food chain, animals that eat PCB-laced food store the chemicals in their bodies. By the time you get up to the kinds of animals people tend to care about – ones that are delicious or cute – the rare chemicals are concentrated enough to be toxic. All in all, it’s a useful lesson about the staying power of decisions that sound good at the time.

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