Three Biologists Follow the Path Less Traveled (cont'd)


There is a fine art to handling tiger sharks. Lethal at either end, they can kill or maim with a crunch of their jaws or a flip of their tail. Yet when Mike Heithaus lies awake at night, it isn't the hazards of handling the sharks that steal his sleep.

A marine biologist, Heithaus has learned that a little care goes a long way. Tiger sharks can be dangerous. But their preference in meat leans toward sea turtles and other marine life, not man. The big danger is that a shark, which may weigh half a ton and run 18 feet long, will thrash while in tow alongside his outboard.

What does keep Heithaus awake are the mysterious journeys of the creatures of Shark Bay, a pristine stretch off Australia's western coast. Sharks are the major player in that aquatic ecosystem, but sea snakes, manatee-like dugongs, green and loggerhead turtles, and dolphins also cruise the waters.

As a doctoral student at Canada's Simon Frazer University, Heithaus' research challenges are in part demographic: he wants to know where sea life congregates and in what numbers. But it isn't enough just to count the creatures. A simple census won't solve the deeper mystery of what drives the sea life to come and go--a complex formula that includes food supplies and the weather. It's like asking why people cluster in New York, but not in rural Ohio. There may be hundreds of reasons.

Heithaus has a working theory. He figures sea life operates much as we do. "Animal behavior models borrow incredibly from economics," he says. "People make decisions almost exactly the way that animals do. For years people have done economic models of how to maximize money-making ability. In animals that often translates into finding food."

There's also the risk factor, where sea life again acts like humans. "Often the animals that go into high-risk habitats are close to starving," says Heithaus. "If you've got no money and can barely put food on the table, you're a lot more likely to go out and do something risky."

That's simple enough. But in Shark Bay, as elsewhere, the devil is in the details. "The central goal of my work is to find out why animals are distributed the way they are," he says. Since Shark Bay is a system in which the main characters come and go, the question isn't easily answered. Sometimes, for instance, the sharks are there, sometimes they aren't. Where they go, no one knows. "For all we know, some are swimming to Indonesia or over to Africa," says Heithaus. Nor does anyone know how sharks find their way back. One theory holds that they are able to navigate by sensing slight changes in the Earth's magnetic field, much as we find our way by recognizing landmarks.

"I started out asking why the dolphins are where they are," says Heithaus. "To do that you have to look at both food supplies and predators, such as the tiger sharks. But the sharks don't often eat dolphins. So why are the tiger sharks there?"

To answer nature's deeper questions, Heithaus has mounted the aquamarine equivalent of a long police stake-out--one that will last for years. He is aided by the latest high-tech gadgets, including seaworthy camcorders called Crittercams that are clamped on the dorsal fins of sharks. The camcorders were developed by the National Geographical Society, which featured Heithaus' Shark Bay research on its "Explorer" television show this spring.

Oberlin was the starting point for the training that is helping Heithaus unravel the life of Shark Bay, particularly Professor Roger Laushman and other mentors in the biology department. Four years of swimming under coach Dick Michaels taught teamwork and endurance, with practices at 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.--classes and weight-training were sandwiched in-between.

"Swimming gives you the discipline to work to exhaustion and then keep working," says Heithaus, who won multiple All-American honors. And although he doesn't remember when exactly he decided upon his life work, he predicts that it was well before he could walk. "All my life I have been around the water, be it swimming competitively, poking around a local stream or fishing on the ocean, and I have never considered doing anything else. My mother has said she thinks that it all started when I caught a fish in my diaper when I was about 1 year old."

The best part of his job, he says, is working with fascinating animals in such an amazing place. "I get to wake up, roll out of bed, walk to the beach, and decide whether I'm going to spend the day watching dolphins, catching tiger sharks, or jumping off the boat to catch turtles. I can't believe I get paid to do this! Of course, there is also a lot of satisfaction in figuring out how things work--it's a lot like finally finishing a huge puzzle."

Others, he says, usually ask about the adventure surrounding his work. "People have sometimes described what I do as an extreme sport." Indeed, dangers abound. A 300-pound loggerhead turtle can snip off a finger with ease. The sea snake, usually quite docile, is among the most lethal creatures on earth if it bites. And sharks are sharks. Though they usually are calm when Heithaus and his crew fit them with camcorders, he finds it never hurts to play it safe with creatures that can tear your arm off.

  But Heithaus isn't in it for an adrenaline high. He wants to find out how things work, a tall order in a field where the answer to one question may open a can of worms. "Really, what makes science work is curiosity and caution," he says. "Every time you get an answer, dozens of other questions crop up."


Most everyone has come across one of those curious volumes of bird paintings--each portrait so studied, so detailed, so carefully posed that it would seem that the feathered subjects willingly sat through a series of portrait sessions. If you pause for a moment, you might wonder who paints them. How do they get the birds to sit still? Or you might ask why anybody bothers. After all, a photograph should do just as well.

For answers, we turned to Kristin Williams. She has been at it for 18 years, often perched on catwalks just under the glass dome of the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, where she's been dubbed the "spider woman" for her nimble work 30 feet above the ground. She says the pay is often low and the work can be hazardous and endlessly frustrating, thanks to the birds, who don't sit still unless they have been stuffed or preserved in a jar of alcohol.

"I've been pecked, dive-bombed and attacked," says Williams. "I've been approached by curious hummingbirds eager to sample the cadmium red on my palette. I've had paint tubes punctured and water containers upset. Pencils and paint brushes have a way of vanishing. Occasionally, the paintings themselves become the objects of bird assaults. One painting was torn from my grasp by an aggressive curassow and flung into a fountain. One particularly annoying bird named Igor ran across my wet palette and then across my painting, leaving behind a trail of multicolored footprints."

These are the things that happen on a good day. At least she has a live bird to paint. But more often than not, she must turn to the strange world of specimens, stuffed birds found in the collections of natural history museums, or dead birds floating in a jar of preservative. Then her job gets really challenging. The colors are often misleadingly dark in the pickled birds, and the stuffed birds may have been misshapen during the preservation process. For example, the tail may have been pushed in, which could lead an illustrator to think that the tail is shorter than it really is.

So Williams uses both, hoping the stuffed sample will get the colors right, while the pickled birds will be properly proportioned. She also uses photographs, videotaped segments from televised nature programs, or videos she has taken herself. But why bother to paint anything? Why not rely on photos if you need a picture?

Ironically, photographs are usually not as accurate as professional portraits. Wildlife photographers operate on a catch-as-catch-can basis, snapping pictures of birds in the wild.

Often photographers only capture the birds at odd angles or in poor lighting before the bird disappears into the brush, not to be seen again. "You're the slave of the moment with photographs," says Williams.

If bird watchers had to rely solely on photos to identify birds, they might make the wrong identification. A carefully posed painting can get everything right--the colors, the proportions, and the facial and body features. A painting can emphasize small features that are crucial to identification, such as subtle markings that might not show up in a photo. And that's the point. Without accurate pictures, there would be no accurate bird counts. Without accurate bird counts, scientists can't determine whether a species is thriving or vanishing from the earth. In other words, those curious books of bird portraits underpin much of the science of bird ecology.

Williams entered her profession with a degree in biology and scant wildlife art training. That's to be expected. "My field is so odd," she says. "It's not like people go to school in ornithological illustration." But she was at loose ends after leaving Oberlin. She had no idea what to do with her biology degree. With time on her hands, she volunteered at the National Aviary, a facility that had a first-rate collection of live birds but a second-rate system to help visitors identify what they were seeing. Williams began creating 5-by-8-inch portrait identification labels, a task that soon turned into a paying job that stretched over ten years as the aviary found funds to pay her. The aviary work led to work on two portrait anthologies--birds of the West Indies, and birds of Missouri, the latter venture still under way. Her next project will deal with birds of the Midwest.

It's not an easy way to make a living. In the tradition of artists through the ages, Williams lives from job to job, from commission to commission. But as the years pass, she has compiled a body of work that will help scientists determine whether our planet's bird life is flourishing or going the way of the dodo. And that serves the same purpose as canaries in a coal mine. If the birds perish, the rest of us won't be far behind.
DOUG MCINNIS is a freelance science writer. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Popular Science, New Scientist, and other publications.
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