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May 1998

Why Do Fireflies Glow?

Plus 24 other round-the-campfire brain stumpers every nature buff should know.

13. What’s munching on my boots and canoe paddles during the night?

Deer, mice, marmots, and porcupines are attracted to salt deposits, including dried sweat on gear and clothing. Another source that will attract wildlife is the salt left after urine has evaporated. So avoid doing your business on delicate plantlife, especially in alpine areas where salt-seeking goats, sheep, or deer may chew plants and paw the ground to get at the salt.

14. Why do animals migrate?

For the same primal reason you drive straight to your favorite pizza joint after a week on the trail: “basically to follow food sources and the other amenities of life,” explains Fellows. “They make maximum use of their habitat by going to where they can obtain the requirements of survival and reproduction.” Annual migrations can be measured in hundreds of yards (bighorn sheep moving down from subalpine zones in winter) or tens of thousands of miles (arctic terns winging 20,000 miles between polar regions).

15. Is there a natural bug repellent?

According to Bjostad, nothing found trailside is as effective as that old standby N, N-diethylmetatoluamide, or DEET. Some folks swear by oil of citronella, which can be purchased commercially. The only organic bug-beater found in the backcountry is mud.

16. How do I get rid of skunk odor?

The best way to eliminate the funk is to avoid skunks altogether. But if you do get sprayed, washing clothes and gear in a diluted solution of an off-the-shelf douche preparation will do the trick, swears Dave Fellows, a wildlife biologist at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown, North Dakota. The staff there even washes their trucks with it. (Wouldn’t you love to see the expression on the checker at that grocery store.) How about tomato juice? That solution is only temporary at best, Fellows says.

17. And how can I tell when a skunk is agitated enough to spray?

Skunks only spray when surprised or cornered, offers Marsha Sovada, a wildlife biologist at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, so give them a wide berth. If you are caught between a skunk and a hard place, the animal will first raise its tail. Some skunks will also stamp their front feet before letting loose.

18. Can a porcupine throw its quills?

That’s a myth, Dr. Stone says. “Despite all the stories, a porcupine’s quills are firmly attached. They can, however, erect their quills by muscular contraction, similar to piloerection (goose flesh) in humans when skin gets cold. A naive dog may come home with quills stuck in his nose, but that’s from direct contact, not an airborne assault.”

19. What are those coyotes howling at?

One reason coyotes howl “is to announce their presence in a territory to other animals,” says Dr. Stone. “In this way they can avoid potentially lethal confrontations and secure exclusive rights to the resources in that territory.” They also bay to indicate their social rank within a pack or to communicate danger from predators such as cougars or wolves.

20. How do I tell the difference between a black bear and a grizzly?

You certainly can’t tell by color, because “black” bear hues range from charcoal to cinnamon. If you’re anywhere outside of Canada, Alaska, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, you’re most likely out of griz country. But just in case, grizzlies (and their cousins, brown or Kodiak bears) are usually significantly larger, boast a pronounced shoulder hump, and have larger ears and long claws.

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