While most students were packing up in preparation for Fall Break, 1,000 ticket-holders joined National Public Radio’s Ira Flatow in Bailey auditorium for a live broadcast of Science Friday to millions of listeners across hundreds of NPR affiliate stations. Science Friday is a weekly science talk radio program entering its 19th year of hosting expert panel discussions and listener call-ins on current issues in science, nature and technology.
The two-hour broadcast was divided up into two discussions. Starting at 2:00 p.m., the first program followed small songbirds through their often harrowing migratory patterns, while the second half of the show asked a panel of practitioners, “What Do Vets Do?”
Some species of birds travel thousands of miles — often entirely at night — seeking warmer climates when winter weather kicks in. But, as Flatow asked, with nobody “directing traffic” how do they know where they’re going?
According to Mark Deutschlander, President of the Braddock Bay Bird Observatory and biology chair at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, birds use the North Star and an internal “magnetic compass” to find their way in the dark.
Unfortunately for many birds, this suite of onboard navigation tools isn’t enough to keep almost 80 percent of young from dying before returning to nest the following year, David Bonter, extension associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, added.
To make matters worse, birds have to cope with additional, man-made obstacles like light pollution and air traffic. Prof. emeritus Sidney Gauthreaux, biology at Clemson University, pointed out that since birds plan their trips according to seasonal food supplies, climate change “could lead to a disconnect between peak resource [availability] and when migrants actually arrive.” Hummingbirds plan ahead, he added, by almost doubling their body weight before long migrations.
Still, even the most well-prepared migrants can hit cold fronts and “energetically compromising” storm systems, especially during a trip across the Gulf of Mexico, for example. “But the remarkable thing is that birds gain enough by migrating across the Gulf that the trait persists,” Gauthreaux said, despite the mortality of extreme weather events, which can be in the order of hundreds of thousands of birds.
Staying in the realm of animal welfare and wildlife biology, the panel switched out for three practicing veterinarians and Alfonso Torres, the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Associate Dean for Public Policy.
Sarah Meixell, who owns a local small-animal veterinary clinic, alluded to the increasing prevalence of acupuncture and other alternative remedies, as well as the advent of “pet insurance” as evidence that human patients are demanding better care for their pets than when she was growing up.
And better care is hardly constrained to small animals and pets. Tom Gill owns a large animal clinic in Cayuga County and works mainly on dairy cows. In addition to providing “population medicine” in the form of herd management advice for dairy farmers, he routinely performs on-farm surgeries that, given the medical constraints of working in a barn, can be “a little bit like what [human] surgeries must have been like in the 1800s,” he said.
Gill added that despite a universal love for animals within the business, veterinary medicine is ultimately “a people business … Fluffy does not drive herself to the vet’s office.”
In fact, advancements in animal medicine may become breakthroughs for human treatment, as well. Prof. Lisa Fortier, clinical sciences, repairs cartilage and joint damage in racehorses. Since Fortier’s research is not limited by the same FDA regulations as research in human medicine, there is room for innovation. “If we can get something to work in a thoroughbred racehorse,” she said, “then maybe we can get it to work for the Chicago Bulls, as well.”
Flatow said the audience at Bailey was one of the biggest the show had ever enjoyed. The topics, he said, were perfect for the venue. The self-professed “proverbial kid who spent hours in the basement experimenting with electronic gizmos” said he’d “wanted to talk about vets for years.”
“Everybody loves science,” Flatow said. “People will talk about science at any chance you can give them — they just don’t get the chance often enough … I want to make science a topic of discussion around the dinner table. Nothing really much more than that.”