ScienceShot: 'Landscape of Fear' Not Impacting Yellowstone's Elk

  Fear is a pretty universal emotion. But where does it come from? And what’s it like to truly be fearless? Researchers tried to answer the first question in 2011, when they tested a human patient, known anonymously as SM, who did not experience fear. SM had lesions on her amygdala, a part of the brain thought to be key to our experience of fear. They exposed her to snakes and spiders, took her to a haunted house, and had her watch scary movies. She showed—and felt—no fear. That settles it, the researchers thought—the amygdala is key to the human fear response.    Then, in 2013, some of the same researchers tested SM again. This time, they had her inhale CO2, an experience that causes a feeling of asphyxiation. SM didn’t stay calm. Instead, she had a panic attack, just like the other subjects in the experiment, both of whom also had damaged amygdalae. The findings made it clear that the amygdala isn’t the only part of the brain that processes fear—and that fear really is a universal emotion.

Fear is a pretty universal emotion. But where does it come from? And what’s it like to truly be fearless? Researchers tried to answer the first question in 2011, when they tested a human patient, known anonymously as SM, who did not experience fear. SM had lesions on her amygdala, a part of the brain thought to be key to our experience of fear. They exposed her to snakes and spiders, took her to a haunted house, and had her watch scary movies. She showed—and felt—no fear. That settles it, the researchers thought—the amygdala is key to the human fear response. Then, in 2013, some of the same researchers tested SM again. This time, they had her inhale CO2, an experience that causes a feeling of asphyxiation. SM didn’t stay calm. Instead, she had a panic attack, just like the other subjects in the experiment, both of whom also had damaged amygdalae. The findings made it clear that the amygdala isn’t the only part of the brain that processes fear—and that fear really is a universal emotion.

Dan Stahler

Who's afraid of the big bad wolf? Not elk in the Greater Yellowstone area of Wyoming and Montana. That's the contention of a new study that disputes the notion that Rocky Mountain gray wolves, which were reintroduced into the region in 1995, have turned the once peaceful area into a "landscape of fear." After the wolves' return, scientists noticed that the aspen trees and willows began to recover, while elk numbers declined. Researchers attributed the trees' new growth to the wolves, because the elk could no longer blithely feed; they had to be vigilant and on the move. That added stress, some suggested, could also cause female elk to have fewer successful pregnancies, which would account for the elk population's dropping numbers. But a new study published online today in Ecology Letters suggests that the elk aren't that stressed by the wolves. After tracking both species in the region for three winters, and recording elk behaviors as wolves approached, the scientists argue that elk haven't dramatically altered how or where they feed. Only when wolves approach an elk within 1 kilometer (which happens on average about once every 9 days), as in the photo above, do elk pay close attention. The scientists also collected data on female elks' body fat and pregnancy rates and compared these to 19 other populations in the northwest that aren't hunted by wolves—there was no noticeable difference. Still, wolves do affect the elks' numbers in one way: They eat them.

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