Science & Environment

Genetic study sheds light on Northwest’s extinct woolly dogs, and how Taylor Swift shook the earth

By Jes Burns (OPB)
Jan. 22, 2024 2 p.m. Updated: Jan. 29, 2024 11:30 p.m.

Five of the top illuminating, inspiring and just plain cool Pacific Northwest science stories from “All Science. No Fiction.”

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Natural history illustrator Karen Carr created this full-body forensic reconstruction of a woolly dog based on a 160-year-old pelt in the Smithsonian's collection as well as archaeological remains.

Natural history illustrator Karen Carr created this full-body forensic reconstruction of a woolly dog based on a 160-year-old pelt in the Smithsonian's collection as well as archaeological remains.

Courtesy Karen Carr

Tracking Pacific Northwest woolly dogs

Before being displaced by Europeans, the Coast Salish people of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia had a unique weaving tradition. The specific techniques and designs still persist with modern-day Indigenous weavers, but one of the materials traditionally used is no longer available — dog wool. The Coast Salish bred and kept “woolly dogs’' that had a long and crimpy undercoat and were sheared like sheep. The uniquely Pacific Northwest breed is believed to have gone extinct early last century.

Now researchers at the Smithsonian, in partnership with members of Coast Salish nations, have pieced together the genetic history of the breed. Their source was a 160-year-old pelt of a woolly dog named “Mutton” that had been donated to the Smithsonian Institution by the dog’s keeper.

Through genetic analysis, they found the breed became distinct up to 5,000 years ago and have a shared history with other pre-colonial dogs from British Columbia and Newfoundland. The scientists also identified the 28 genes likely responsible for the prized woolly coat.

A variety of factors are thought to have contributed to the extinction of woolly dogs. The disruption of Indigenous cultural traditions through disease and displacement during colonization are high on the list. Without people carefully shepherding the breed, woolly dogs would have mixed with other dogs until their distinct traits were lost.

The paper was published in the journal Science and can be read here.

Readings from a seismograph near Lumen Stadium show the difference in shaking created by the Seahawks celebration in 2011 and a Taylor Swift concert in 2023.

Readings from a seismograph near Lumen Stadium show the difference in shaking created by the Seahawks celebration in 2011 and a Taylor Swift concert in 2023.

Courtesy Jackie Caplan-Auerbach/Western Washington University

(Taylor) Swift quake

Back in 2011, Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch made a crazy, multi-tackle-breaking touchdown run, helping the team win an NFL playoff game. The hometown crowd’s reaction to the late-game score was so loud that it registered on a nearby seismograph as a small, localized earthquake. It was dubbed the “Beast Quake.”

Well, do you know what’s more intense than Beast Quake? A Taylor Swift concert.

According to researchers at Western Washington University and the University of Washington, Taylor Swift’s Seattle concert at Lumen Field this past summer produced shaking 2.5 times stronger than the Beast Quake — the equivalent of a magnitude 2.3 earthquake. Using videos sourced from Swifties at the concert, the researchers were able to determine that the main source of the strong, low rumble was the 70,000-person crowd’s synchronized jumping and dancing. Dancing and jumping on the same beat produces a stronger signal than the randomized movements of sports’ fans cheering for a play.

The researchers also looked at other concerts at Lumen Field last summer and found that the only event to beat out Taylor Swift was the Ed Sheeran concert. The strongest localized earthquake happened when Seattle rapper Macklemore came on stage to perform a song.

The results were reported at the December American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

Keerti Kappagantula and her colleagues developed highly conductive copper wire in bulk.

Keerti Kappagantula and her colleagues developed highly conductive copper wire in bulk.

Courtesy of Andrea Starr/PNNL

Making a better electrical wire

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Copper is one of the most common metals used in electrical wires — it’s flexible, durable, and relatively cheap. Best of all, electricity flows through copper easily, which makes it really efficient (there’s less energy loss due to electricity being converted to heat). This efficiency is important because it reduces the amount of electricity we need to generate to power all of the things we use.

Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are trying to make copper even better. They’ve manufactured a copper wire that includes a tiny bit of graphene — the same stuff that’s in pencil leads, but flattened so it’s only one atom thick. The mixture improves the flow of electricity through the wire. It also reduces how much the flow is affected by changes in temperature. Basically the new copper mix transports electricity more efficiently than plain copper as it heats up.

PNNL says electric vehicle motors could operate 1% more efficiently with the new wire. And the innovation could help reduce electricity use across the board if used to deliver power to homes and businesses.

Find out more about their work in the journal Materials and Design here.

More sleep = better brain health

More and more evidence is coming out linking poor sleep quality to memory and cognitive decline as we age. One theory is that sleep is the time when our bodies clear cellular waste products and toxic proteins from our brains. If we don’t get good sleep, then the plumbing gets clogged, potentially leading to dementia and neurodegenerative conditions (like Alzheimer’s disease).

Researchers at the University of Washington, the veterans affairs medical centers in Puget Sound and Portland and Oregon Health & Science University are buttressing what we know about the sleep-brain connection. In a 20-year study of more than 800 older adults, they tracked sleep quality and brain function as the subjects aged.

In line with previous research, they found that people who slept less than seven hours per night had more than 3 times higher risk of losing cognitive function.

But they also found something new: people whose sleep duration fluctuated often over time saw a similar increase in risk. This suggests that settling into a healthy and steady sleep regimen in middle age could pay dividends for brain health when you’re older.

The research can be read in JAMA Network Open here.

Oregon State University researchers projected forest carbon sequestration based on data from the McDonald-Dunn Research Forest in the Oregon Coast Range.

Oregon State University researchers projected forest carbon sequestration based on data from the McDonald-Dunn Research Forest in the Oregon Coast Range.

Courtesy Steve Lundeberg/OSU

Maximizing forest carbon sequestration

When loggers first descended on the Pacific Northwest, the motivations were mostly economic. As more and more forests were cut, we started thinking about the impact on ecosystems and made adjustments. In recent decades a third major consideration has entered the fray: carbon sequestration to slow human-caused climate change. Trees pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turn it into wood as they grow.

The best ways to achieve these goals have been a topic of debate. But now forestry researchers at Oregon State University have some answers about which logging practices and rotations can help Pacific Northwest forests maximize carbon storage.

Using projections based on data from the Oregon Coast Range, they found that the optimal carbon-storage rotation between clear-cuts depends on how conducive the land is to tree growth. At locations that support fast tree growth, cutting the trees down at 60 years (after doing some light thinning at the 40-year mark) maximized carbon uptake from the atmosphere. But on slower-growth sites, the best option is to wait 80 years while thinning a couple times along the way. In general, you need to wait longer for carbon storage on less productive sites where trees grow more slowly.

Read more details about the findings in the journal Forests here.

In this monthly rundown from OPB, “All Science. No Fiction.” creator Jes Burns features the most interesting, wondrous and hopeful science coming out of the Pacific Northwest.

And remember: Science builds on the science that came before. No one study tells the whole story.

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