On February 19th, 2018 we learned about

A runny nose’s excessive boogers are made in our body’s best interest

It’s only been three days since my son’s nose started getting snotty, but that’s long enough to make you wonder why, and how, all this mucus keeps coming out of his nose. At just shy of five-years-old, he’s technically able to handle a tissue himself, but not to the point where he can be expected to be effective in his booger management. Coupled with the sore throat and cough of a nasty cold virus, all this mucus-production feels like a bit of a curse. Of course, it’snot— it’s simply our body’s way of purging pathogens that are trying to take up residence in our respiratory tract.

On any given day, your sinuses are doing double-duty at a minimum. They warm and moisten air before it gets to the sensitive tissue in our lungs, plus captures junk that we don’t really want to be inhaling in the first place. That can be dust, dirt, pollen and of course, viruses and bacteria. Ideally, the layer of mucus that coats the inside of your nose and sinuses is enough to capture these potential irritants, moving the sticky stuff back down your throat with hair-like structures called cilia.

Purging pathogens

As my son’s clogged nose can attest, sometimes things get through. There’s likely to be some resistance in your mucus from benign bacteria, but your immune system revs up when a pathogen start penetrating cell walls in your nose. Proteins called cytokines are released, which then activate T and B cells that will attack the pathogen directly. To help in that battle, the lining of your nose swells and increases its booger production, hopefully creating enough mucus to grab and flush the offending pathogens out of your body. Unless of course you’re five, in which case you’ll probably get the contaminated snot on your hands and spread it far and wide, infecting everyone around you. (Not that we hold that against you, son!)

From the outside, this all looks like a runny nose. The excess fluid in the swollen mucus lining can lead to gross, drippy discharge in a condition known as rhinorrhea. Sometimes the extra mucus just clogs things up, making us feel horribly congested in the process. You can blow your nose to help with that, but violently trying to force the boogers out of your face can actually damage the cilia that help move mucus around. It can also end up sending pathogens deeper into your sinuses, kicking of new infections. So even though a drippy nose is annoying, it’s actually working as intended.

External influences

Of course, sometimes your nose is drippy when it doesn’t need to be. For instance, cold weather can trigger a runny nose in healthy people, albeit for very different reasons than described above. In those cases, the air is probably cold and dry enough to make your mucus linings activate in an effort to keep air properly warmed and moistened on its trip to the lungs. That can lead to extra fluid in your nose that then starts dripping out. Alternatively, there’s a chance that moisture in the air is condensing just inside your nose, forming noticeably large droplets that feel like snot.

Finally, crying can lead to a runny nose because eyes are just filling the place with fluid. As tears drain into your nose, they soften the layer of mucus that’s always present enough to start flowing. That way, your emotional moment can feel a bit sticky too.

My third grader asked: Is the runny nose you get from cold air the reason we call it a ‘cold?’

Basically. A “cold” was first used to describe illness in the 1530s, long before anyone knew to look for the rhinovirus or coronavirus that was actually causing a person’s symptoms. The resulting infection felt enough like the unpleasant effects of being chilled that it easily described what was wrong with someone, even if it did lead to confusion about what actually causes the illness (mostly.)

Source: Why Does Your Nose Run When You’re Sick? by Alexandra Ossola, Popular Science

On February 12th, 2018 we learned about

Unintended weight-loss is a consequence of astronauts’ weightlessness

Weight loss in microgravity is unavoidable, in more ways than one. Most directly, anyone on the International Space Station (ISS) will feel weightless thanks to their orbit around the Earth. They’re never in a position where the Earth’s gravity can noticeably pull them “down,” meaning they’d weigh zero pounds if they tried to stand on a scale. However, once astronauts get back to Earth’s surface, NASA’s medical staff has found that they have lost weight in another sense, having lost as much as 10 percent of their overall body mass. This has raised concerns about how people might spend extended amounts of time in space without putting their muscle, bone and cardiovascular health at risk.

Astronauts aren’t eating enough

As it turns out, weightlessness may be contributing to astronauts’ weight loss. On earlier visits to space, astronauts were asked to fill out weekly surveys about what food they were eating, although it’s suspected that those answers weren’t terribly accurate. Astronauts on the ISS are now prompted to record every snack and meal they eat on touch-screen app, giving medical staff on Earth a much better sense of how much food is consumed in space. The resulting pattern is that astronauts unconsciously eat less in space, probably thanks to being weightless all the time.

Living in space dulls appetites in a few different ways. Your muscles need to work less in microgravity, and are thus consuming fewer calories every day. Over time, this can contribute to muscle atrophy, giving you even less muscle tissue to feed at each meal. It’s also suspected that microgravity affects how well your stomach’s stretch receptors can do their job. As organs tend to be reshaped without the constant tug of Earth’s gravity, astronauts’ stomachs may start signaling that they’re full earlier in meal, even if they haven’t hit their nutritional needs for the day. Finally, most of the food on the ISS is carefully packaged in sealed containers, food doesn’t have a chance to stimulate appetites like it does cooking on the stove at home. This isn’t to say that there are no food smells on the ISS— seafood gumbo was actually banned by mission commanders because of its lingering odor. Then again, anyone in an open office probably knows how uninvited fish smells don’t do much for one’s appetite.

Fish and fitness

It’s unfortunate that seafood smells have been a problem, because seafood may be one of the easier ways for astronauts to help keep their bodies healthy in microgravity. Crew members that eat more fish have been found to retain more bone tissue, which is likely thanks to the omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood. The benefit seems most pronounced in astronauts who also skip other kinds of meat, clearly indicating that astronauts should eat a lot of sushi. The second element towards keeping one’s body fit has turned out to be exercise. Some residents of the ISS have managed to avoid unintended weight-loss, and their six-day-a-week exercise program has probably helped keep their muscles and bones in shape, countering the atrophying effects of microgravity.

Source: Astronauts lose weight in space, and it might be because their food is literally floating around inside them by Mary Beth Griggs, Popular Science

On January 30th, 2018 we learned about

Thinking with our body and getting hungry with our brain

Cognition occurs in the brain. Millions of specialized neurons send signals to each other, processing stimuli and sending out new commands to our bodies that help us understand and interact with the world. Of course, this system seems to be overridden when we’re feeling particularly hungry, in which case a lot of rational thinking seems to go out the window until we satisfy our tummy again. While there’s obviously no neurons working directly in our digestive tract, researchers studying the relationship between thought and physiology are finding some interesting dynamics that may help explain how we might sometimes find ourselves ‘thinking with our stomach.’

Figuring things out with physiology

As one of the larger-brained animals on the planet, humans generally deride the idea of being guided by hunger or other biological needs. However, researchers from the University of Exeter argue that a complex, calorie-hungry brain isn’t necessarily every species’ best option. Many animals do quite well using things like hunger as a sort of analog for memory in the brain. If an animal feels especially hungry, it doesn’t need to do a lot of complex analysis to know that its needs aren’t being met in its current environment, and so either its location or behavior needs to change. In this model, physiology can step in to motivate animals to seemingly smart choices, reducing the amount of calorie-hungry gray matter an animal needs to survive.

Stressed cells seek sugar

This isn’t to say that our brain plays no role in making choices in our lives. Indeed, tests with mice have shown that brain activity may effectively override physiological needs under the right conditions. The mice had brain cells in their paraventricular hypothalamus, which are associated with social stress, artificially stimulated. When offered different foods rich in either fat or sugar, the mice overwhelmingly binged on carbohydrates, beyond any dietary need for that much starch. With the similarities between human and mouse brains, this is likely tied to the concept of ‘stress eating,’ where we load up on foods even though we don’t necessarily need them. It’s a good reminder that neither our stomach nor our brain operates in isolation, and that what may feel like a choice or craving is probably the result of interactions between multiple systems in our body.

Source: Gut instinct makes animals appear clever by University of Exeter, Phys.org

On January 28th, 2018 we learned about

Human digestive tracts can handle eating insect exoskeletons

A mouth full of canines, bicuspids and molars is enough to prove that humans are omnivores. We’re not as specialized at slashing flesh as a tiger may be, but our teeth and jaws can handle a lot of different kinds of foods. However, chewing is only the beginning of the story, as we don’t necessarily have the means to digest everything we can swallow. Some fiber, for instance, can get broken down by bacteria, but without multiple stomachs like a cow, won’t provide a lot nutrition for us. One supposed gap has recently been closed though, as it turns out there’s nothing stopping us from eating, and benefiting, from eating insects.

Insects are covered in tough exoskeletons made from a substance called chitin. This gives their bodies a tough outer shell that was thought to be impervious to our digestive system. Nobody argued that our teeth couldn’t crack a beetle’s shell, but that once it was swallowed it would be a relatively inefficient source of nutrition that would basically need to be passed through us. Even insectivorous species of bats are known to pass a fair amount of chitin in their poop, suggesting that only a small portion of a bug can actually be used as food.

However, bats, mice and various primates obviously included insects in their diets for a reason. Researchers then identified a specific stomach enzyme, known as CHIA, that helped each of these mammal groups break down exoskeletons. They then looked at various primates’ genomes to see how many copies of the enzyme-producing genes each species carried. More copies of the gene would then lead to more enzyme production, presumably to help digest more bugs.

Genetic gut-check

It became clear that some of our ancient primate ancestors ate a lot more bugs than we do. Many older primates had three copies of the CHIA-producing gene, with the record going to modern tarsiers, which carries five copies to enable its insect-rich diet. It seems that insects’ role in primate diets has diminished over time though, probably after being replaced by other plants and fruit. Still, as proper omnivores, bugs aren’t off our menu entirely— humans still have one copy of the gene needed to let us safely digest an insect’s outer shell.

This confirmation probably isn’t news to the two billion people around the world who already eat insects on a regular basis. However, it may help make people who don’t eat bugs a bit more comfortable with the idea enough to give roasted grasshoppers, or at least pulverized cricket flour. In many cases, the recipes that people use to prep their bugs add one more tool to our digestive toolbox, which is heat. Even if our stomachs are ready to handle a bit of chitin, cooking our creepy crawlies will make things that much easier.

My four-year-old said: I don’t want to eat bugs. That’s yucky, and bugs are cute!

Source: Study says humans can digest bugs, assuming they want to by Robin Lally, Phys.org

On December 20th, 2017 we learned about

Spiny orb weaver spiders somehow survive 24 hour days with a weirdly short circadian rhythm

For billions of years, our world has rotated once every 24 hours, give or take. This helps distribute heat, makes photosynthesis viable in ever hemisphere, and has set the internal clocks in most animals’ bodies to operate on the same 24-hour cycle. Circadian rhythms could once be taken for granted, as the Sun was everyone’s clock, although modern artificial lighting and high-speed travel across time zones have revealed that there can be serious consequences for our brains and bodies when things are out of sync. In this context, scientists have been baffled as to why a spider, free of distracting media devices, would have evolved to be misaligned from the world around it.

When you look at a spiny orb weaver spider, you probably won’t notice how tired it must be. They’ve got a flashy exoskeleton, with black spots on a bright white abdomen, topped off with six red, conical protrusions that make it look like a cross between a Willy Wonka candy and alien. The conspicuous arachnids sit in the middle of their circular webs all day, somehow scaring off predators but not prey. Importantly, Allocyclosa bifurca and two close relatives spin a new web each morning, which was the first clue about their unusual sleep schedule.

Compensating for a fast internal clock

Detecting jet lag in a spider isn’t obvious from first glance. Researchers were studying spiny orb weaver behavior patterns when they happened to notice an odd pattern turning up in the timing of the spiders’ rest periods. Each day, they seemed to be operating on a shortened schedule, as if their internal clocks just didn’t operate on a 24 hour clock like most animals. After monitoring spider activity in total darkness to eliminate the influence of sunlight, researchers confirmed that spiny orb weavers physiology operates on 17.4 hour day, even though that basically meant they had to constantly deal with severe jet lag to catch up to the timing of the Sun.

This schedule should lead to a lot of chaos for the spiders, both physiologically and logistically. They usually become active around dusk, moving around at night and prepping their new web a few hours before dawn. They then sit motionless in their webs during the day, moving only when prey gets stuck in their webs. If allowed to operate on their natural cycle of a 17 hour day, their brains should drive them to start wiggling around when there are hours of daylight left. Possibly thanks to exposure to daylight, the spiders apparently fight this instinct, staying put in their webs until evening truly arrives.

Researchers now want to find out exactly what mechanism is letting the spiders make these daily adjustments to their schedules, and how they’re doing so without the health problems usually seen in other misaligned animals. Presumably, they’re relying on sunlight to tell their brains when the day ends, but there are still questions about how their brains handle the misalignment without signs of harm.

Source: These spiders may have the world’s fastest body clocks by Mariah Quintanilla, Science News

On December 5th, 2017 we learned about

Your body’s circadian rhythm changes the composition of your muscle cells’ membranes

Circadian rhythms are usually associated with sleepy brains, but it looks like our muscles have a daily routine as well. As the day ticks on, researchers have found that the mixture of lipids, or fats, in our muscles regularly change, regardless of activity levels. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re likely to feel weaker or stronger at different times, but it may have implications for other parts of the body, like your liver or fat cells.

Measuring muscle cells

The first phase of this study simply measured the composition of lipids in people’s thigh muscles throughout the day to see if it changed on a regular cycle. Every four hours, a small muscle sample was taken and analyzed. As expected, the lipids found in a single thigh varied according to a 24 hour schedule. However, they also varied greatly between individuals, which muddled things up a bit. To try to really isolate the relationship between lipid composition and circadian rhythm, researchers decided to isolate the muscle cells themselves.

The second phase of the experiment was based around muscle cells living in a petri dish. This allowed for finer control over variables, such as the signals that would normally put muscle cells on a daily rhythm in the first place. A circadian rhythm was then simulated by exposing the muscle cells to signal molecules that the body normally produces on a daily basis. As expected, this triggered the changes in lipid composition that matched what had been previously observed in people’s thighs. To further prove the importance of this signal molecule, genes in the muscle cells that enabled sensitivity to circadian signals were blocked, and the signal molecule no longer affected lipid production.

Interfering with insulin intake

You probably haven’t noticed these changes in your muscles’ lipid production, but your liver and pancreas might have. Lipids are make up part of a cell’s outer membrane, and thus can influence how well substances can pass in and out of a cell. This balance is disrupted in insulin resistant cases of type 2 diabetes, reducing muscle cell’s ability to take in blood sugar. Knowing that the lipids that influence insulin absorption change throughout the day may enable more sophisticated treatment methods. The circadian signaling molecules in our bodies, the treatment that’s a good match for someone’s morning might not be as effective in the evening.

Source: Our muscles measure the time of day, Universite de Geneve

On October 31st, 2017 we learned about

Our brains count calories when calculating how strongly food can break our concentration

As I write this, my kitchen is bursting with muffins, cookies and of course, Halloween candy. I haven’t had much to eat this evening, which is making the candy occupy a bigger part of my attention. Researchers have found that this sense of distraction seems to be hard-wired into us, as study participants have shown that even seeing what was called a “high energy snack,” like a muffin or candy bar, breaks our attention on other tasks. It doesn’t mean that we have to surrender our self-control to every piece of candy we see, but that our dietary needs can make us more distractable if our energy levels are low.

Anyone who has made the mistake of grocery shopping on an empty stomach knows how hunger can influence your decision making. These studies then look at the moments before you leave for the store- the time when you should be focused entirely on something else. For example, when asked to listen and respond to lists of words, we all respond faster to terms that can be associated with food. This shows how potentially grumbly tummies can make a difference in activities that don’t any contextual relationship with eating itself.

Counting calories very quickly

Newer studies have found even more nuance to our stomach’s grip on our brains. While categorizing symbols based on digits or letters on a screen, test participants were randomly shown brief flashes of different foods. The food was shown quickly enough to avoid breaking people’s concentration, but there was measurable difference in how people performed immediately afterwards. If the snack shown was a “low energy” food like celery, participants weren’t nearly as distracted as they were after seeing a calorie-rich cookie. So not only do we tune in on food in an instant, but we also quickly asses just how satisfying that snack may be.

A follow-up to this test looked at how empty stomachs might make this effect even stronger. While some test participants did the test without eating, others were fed two “fun-sized” candy bars. Complicating things further, new images were occasionally shown to participants in place of the low-calorie food items. So instead of carrots or celery, people might see of people making emotionally-charged expressions, like extreme fear or disgust. Humans have a hard time ignoring anything that even resembles a face, but apparently nothing beats a cupcake if we’re hungry. People who ate candy before the test were less enthralled by the photos of food, but the hungry participants could even ignore upset-looking people in comparison to a view of cake or muffins.

Apologies to anyone reading all this before meal time. If you’re still not feeling a bit peckish at this point, it probably means that you’re still feeling well-fed. For the rest of us, there may be some candy bars around here somewhere…

Source: Sidetracked by a donut?, EurekAlert!

On October 22nd, 2017 we learned about

Brains beat brawn in your body’s battle for metabolic resources

When running a race, lifting weights or swimming laps, the last thing you should be thinking about is math problems. Or special relativity. Or how to simplify the tax code, when you last called your mother or any other topic that might require more than minimal brain power. It’s not that these topics might take you out of “the zone” and break your rhythm, but that these thoughts all require energy to process. That energy is limited, and researchers have found that your brain will take its share first, which may leave your muscles working off your metabolic leftovers.

We’ve long known that the brain is an energetically expensive piece of anatomy. On a daily basis, our brains are estimated to demand up to 20 percent of our resting metabolic capacity even though they’re usually only two percent of our body weight. As a species we’ve prioritized our brains so much that babies’ heads barely fit through their mother’s birth canal, making childbirth a potentially dangerous endeavor. With this in mind, researchers wanted to see if we also favored our gray matter on a smaller time-scale, testing how athletes handled mental activity while simultaneously working their muscles.

Rowing while remembering

The study asked 62 rowers to do two basic tasks. First they rowed vigorously for three minutes. Then they did a short word-recall task that really only tested their memories. No real calculations or insight was needed. With these baselines for comparison, researchers asked participants to do both tasks at once. As you’d expect, the combined activities were harder than doing one at a time, but not to the same degree. While rowing made recalling words harder, those scores didn’t drop off as much as the rowing itself. When in direct competition for metabolic resources, it seem that muscles got the short end of the stick, as physical performance suffered 29 percent more than mental performance.

The metabolic tug-of-war in question is over oxygen and glucose. Skeletal muscles need a lot of those resources as well, but when both are in demand at once brains seem to get first dibs. As with the other adaptations our species has made to power our brains, it’s thought that a sharp mind must have made our ancestors more successful than fully-fueled muscles did. The average athlete probably isn’t worried about starving their muscles for the sake of their brain’s glucose supply, but avoiding this metabolic battle may be another reason to try to keep a clear head when you’re working out.

Source: ‘Selfish Brain’ Wins Out When Competing With Muscle Power, Study Finds by Danny Longman, Scienmag

On September 27th, 2017 we learned about

How chemistry lets us put pumpkin, orange or butter flavors in practically any food

It’s fall, which means every other item at my local Trader Joe’s now has pumpkin in it. Or the essence of pumpkin, at least. You know, that lovely cis-3-Hexen-1-ol (C6H12O) that your nose senses after you slice into a big, orange gourd to carve a jack-o-lantern. Or the always nostalgic dash of sabinene (C10H16) that you taste in a good pumpkin pie, and naturally, pumpkin tortilla chips, which are also a thing… These products probably do have their fair share of pumpkin puree, but sometimes smushed pumpkin isn’t even what we really expect to taste when offered a “pumpkin flavor” product. This isn’t really a problem either way, since really what’s going on pumpkin and other flavors is just some refined manipulation of how we perceive flavor in the first place. And probably sugar.

Compounds that are convincing to your nose and brain

You might not have anything labeled cis-3-Hexen-1-ol on your spice rack, but it’s actually one of the various compounds you’re likely to notice when you cut into a ripe pumpkin. Alongside a few other alcohols and aldehydes, the right ratios of these molecules hitting the right smell receptors in your nose will get your brain working to identify what is causing the aroma. With a pumpkin in front of you, that particular blend gets labeled as “fresh pumpkin smell” in your memory, although none of those compounds are terribly unique. When you taste (and smell) the food you eat, your brain is simply referencing memories of other times you’ve had those particular smell receptors get activated in some particular proportion.

Now, cis-3-Hexen-1-ol is a decently large molecule, but only one portion of it is needed to activate a smell receptor. Rather than have a receptor that can accommodate the entire molecule at once, your nose only really cares about the OH at the end. This is very convenient for chemists, who can attach that smell signifier to other compounds that may be more stable, cheaper or somehow easier to work with than what the pumpkins make themselves. It’s a concept that gets used in tons of different foods, with these artificial flavors often being mixed back into the foods they originated in.

Close control over foods’ flavors

As food production shifted to industrial scales in the early 20th century, manufacturers needed food that could survive longer in transport and on shelves, bring down costs, and also taste consistent from one helping to the next. As with pumpkins, oranges have had their chemistry parsed to see which molecules trigger the experience of “orange flavor,” so that it could be used in other products, as well as orange juice itself. By adding something like ethyl butyrate to orange juice, manufactures can be sure that a crop of bland oranges won’t tank their sales for a season. Similarly, diacetyl was added to products to give them a buttery taste, but the flavor association was so successful that creameries now spike actual butter with the compound, so that butter tastes more like what our brains think of as butter.

In the case of the deluge of seasonal pumpkin products, we also have to accept that we’re not sure what we want to taste. While cis-3-Hexen-1-ol is found in actual pumpkins, that’s not a smell you’re really looking for in your coffee or pumpkin biscotti (which is also a thing.) In those cases, the target flavor is actually pumpkin pie, which is why recipes also include sabinene for nutmeg, eugenol for cloves, and cinnamaldehyde for cinnamon. As ubiquitous as this now seems, it’s not an easy batch of flavors to get right since one person’s perfect pie might not match the expectations of someone else. This led Jelly Belly candies to even temporarily abandon their attempt at pumpkin pie flavor, at least until they embraced the variability inherent in the task by billing the candies as their “family’s” own recipe. Fortunately for manufacturers, sugar helps smooth things out considerably, as it’s certainly a flavor that our brains remember as “yummy.”

Source: The Absurd History of Artificial Flavors by Alison Herman, First We Feast

On September 20th, 2017 we learned about

Policing and preventing the burl poaching that puts redwood forests at risk

How much would you pay for a piece of a tree’s metabolic dysfunction? What if was the shape of a wall clock or coffee table? Even if you’re hesitating, there’s enough demand for what’s essentially deformed wood that national and state park rangers have begun working with police to deter poachers. The wood, known as burls, is valuable enough that so called “midnight burlers” are sneaking into parks under the cover of night, removing portions of trees and possibly putting the forest at risk.

Twisted tissue in tree tumors

You’ve probably seen a burl at some point, as they’re not uncommon on large trees. Thanks to an injury or just exposure to infected soil, a tree will become infected with bacteria like Agrobacterium tumefaciens or fungi like Exobasidium vaccinii. The pathogen will alter the plant’s DNA, causing the metabolism speed up growth in one part of the tree, essentially resulting in a large, woody tumor. As the growth gets bigger, it can bulge out from a tree trunk, sometimes ending up with a larger diameter than the tree itself. Trees can survive with one or multiple burls for many years, although there is evidence that they’re a bit of a drain on the tree’s health, as burl-carrying trees tend to die earlier than their burl-free kin.

While the trees don’t benefit from growing burls, woodworkers love them. When cut open, burls reveal a much more chaotic, randomized structure than healthy trunk. The wood grain in a burl is swirled and uneven, often containing multiple shades of color, and can be polished for rather spectacular effect. Importantly, it’s also just very different from healthy wood, and that rarity is what’s making it valuable enough for poachers to steal, even out of State and National parks.

Blocking the burlers

California’s redwood forests have been targeted by poachers for the last few years. Morning patrols would turn up massive trees with enormous holes chopped out of their trunks. With over a hundred thousand acres of forest to patrol, there’s been little hope of catching thieves red-handed, as the poachers can cut a burl and deliver it to a buyer in a single night. The wood buyers are somewhat complacent, but aside from weird delivery hours, there hasn’t been a clear way for them to obviously know when a burl has been illegally harvested.

That might be changing though, as rangers and law enforcement have been trying new tactics to slow down the poaching. Careful mapping of which trees were attacked revealed that poachers aren’t picking the best or most hidden burls, but simply targeting trees close to the road. This has allowed rangers to better plan their patrols, reducing the amount of territory they might need to guard each night. After a tree is poached, advances in DNA analysis may soon make it easy to identify which tree a particular burl came from. By making the wood traceable, wood buyers may need to become a little more thoughtful about where their supplies come from.

Fighting for the forest

While trees generally do better without burls, preventing poachers from cutting them off is good news, especially for redwoods. While the burls represent a metabolic disorder, they’re also packed with nutrients. Losing a dense ball of nutrients isn’t great for the adult tree, but it’s also bad for redwoods’ suckers. When the young trees try to start growing, a missing burl robs them of a considerable source of nutrients, hurting the forest’s natural rejuvenation. Additionally, since many poachers are working with chainsaws as quickly as possible in the middle of the night, the cuts to remove the burls are often rough and haphazard, raising the remaining tree’s risk of new infections.

It should be noted that not all burled wood is obtained illegally. Many woodworkers harvest burls from less vulnerable species of tree, and do so in a more responsible way. As demand, and prices, rise, more midnight burlers are likely to try to pass their goods off as legitimate. At this point, it’s in everyone’s interest to make sure the poached wood is kept out of the market, and our living rooms.

My kids said: Maybe if the poachers know that they’re hurting the redwood trees they’ll stop.

That would be fantastic. Unfortunately, poaching markets seem to be tied not just to demand from buyers, but also to downturns in other parts of the economy. Chances are, many poachers feel like they don’t have a lot of choices, and a few thousand dollars for some stolen wood seems like the easiest answer.

Source: How Forest Forensics Could Prevent the Theft of Ancient Trees by Lyndsie Bourgon, Smithsonian