University of Wyoming professor crawls in bear dens, wrestles Komodo dragons

2013-09-25T17:00:00Z 2013-09-25T17:47:30Z University of Wyoming professor crawls in bear dens, wrestles Komodo dragonsBy CHRISTINE PETERSON Star-Tribune staff writer Casper Star-Tribune Online

Accurately measuring the body temperature and heart rate of a sprinting Komodo dragon isn’t easy.

Feeding it a thermometer is doable. Hide it in some meat and let the 9-foot, 200-pound lizard scarf it down.

The issue is making it run in a controlled environment.

“We would look at their running costs,” Hank Harlow said. “What is their cost of motion?”

The answer could ultimately lead to the conservation of the world’s largest lizards by helping locals know what kind of habitat the dragons need to survive.

Which is why Harlow, a University of Wyoming professor and researcher, needed to take the dragon’s temperature.

“We would get a piece of goat meat on the end of a rope and then just start running.

“You don’t want to trip, you know? They’re right behind you. But as long as you can run faster than they can, then you’re fine.”

All of Harlow’s projects start with questions. Some are about how to help save a species. Others look at how a species’ unique characteristic could help humans.

Those questions have led him into black bear dens in the middle of winter and ice breakers in the Arctic. They may soon take him to the jungles of Borneo.

Harlow has not only uncovered countless new findings about some of the planet’s rarest species, he has pioneered bear hibernation research that could help humans heal and preserve muscles during a coma or bed rest.

Harlow, 70, is retiring – sort of. He has worked at UW for 32 years and wants to try something different, which means leaving the university and his position as director of the UW and National Park Service Research station. It doesn’t mean a life of leisure. In December, he heads to a teaching job in Australia. More research could follow, because he still has questions.

A teacher

Harlow is one of those rare scientists who knows all of the big words and complicated ideas, but explains them in an interesting, digestible way. He talks about research on black-tailed prairie dogs’ kidneys with the same enthusiasm he tells a story about sneaking into a bear den.

In 2012, UW gave him the George Duke Humphrey award, the highest honor given to faculty.

“He’s a great people person and also a great storyteller. You’re not just getting facts, you’re getting it from a perspective that adds intrigue,” said Diane Debinski, a professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology at Iowa State University who works with Harlow in the summer.

Understanding how animals survive can ultimately help people survive better, Harlow said.

Harlow started by working in a foundry in east Los Angeles during college. In 1969, after three years in the Navy, he went back to school studying amphibians and reptiles and ultimately finished his Ph.D. at UW.

“Some people are very good researchers and not good in the classroom, and vice versa,” Bill Gribb, a UW geology professor, said. “It’s a very small percentage of faculty that can combine them.”

Harlow can, Gribb said.

Like that time his students thought he shattered a live, frozen frog on the classroom wall.

Harlow was lecturing on amphibians and freeze tolerance. Some animals – mostly frogs – can essentially freeze in the winter and thaw in the spring because of water outside of their cells.

To help illustrate his point, Harlow brought a toy frog into class and put it in a bucket of ice, telling them he’d leave it there overnight to freeze. Students figured it was a real frog.

His lecture continued the next day.

“He would go into this huge explanation of the math involved and how their bodies survive. Students are bogged down in details and scribbling notes and he would say if the frog had a sudden impact, it would shatter,” said Clark Cotton, one of Harlow’s former graduate students.

At that moment, he would pick up a piece of ice and hurl the ice against the classroom wall. Students would scream, sure their professor had just killed a rare, frozen frog as a demonstration.

It was a lesson they would likely never forget, Cotton said.

A researcher

Think about this: You’re terribly wounded in a car wreck. Instead of waking up from a coma with a full bladder, a broken body and atrophied muscles, your urine has been cycling through your body, healing your wounds and keeping you strong.

It sounds like the basis for a comic book character. Harlow and other researchers are making it a reality.

As with all of his research, Harlow started with a question: How do bears stay strong during hibernation?

The answer required something nearly as crazy as playing come-and-get-it with a Komodo dragon. Harlow crawled into bear dens armed only with anesthesia and a mag light. He needed to test a bear’s muscle strength before and after hibernation.

“If they charge to get out of the den, you just pop them on the nose with that mag light and get back, and then jab them in the shoulder with the needle,” Harlow said.

And then wait 15 minutes for the sedative to kick in.

Harlow found that a bear loses only 18 to 20 percent of its muscle strength during hibernation. A human would lose up to 70 percent during the same period.

“Bears don’t pee during hibernation. What we found they do, it’s called urea recycling,” he said.

A bear’s urea, the waste product in urine, is broken down into pneumonia, made into new amino acids and sent back into muscles.

Urine keeps the beast strong.

Harlow believes those principles could transfer to humans.

“We have all of the machinery,” he said.

But don’t take Harlow’s word for it. Harlow has been working with Paul Iaizzo, a physiologist and professor in the department of surgery at the University of Minnesota.

“I was sitting in my office, and I got a phone call. ‘Hi, this is professor Hank Harlow … how would you like to study a population of individuals that don’t lose any muscle strength even though they’re immobilized for four to six months?’” he said. “I said that’s awesome.”

Within a few years, Harlow and Iaizzo added a few more researchers to their team and 15 years later they are still working. Iaizzo is using a bioacid produced in bears that he hopes could keep human organs healthier during transplants. Minimizing trauma to an organ during transplant could increase success rates.

He believes figuring out a way for people to maintain muscle mass and heal during bed rest is still attainable.

“I never would have gone down this pathway if he hadn’t called,” Iaizzo said.

A collaborator

For the past 20 years, when he wasn’t crawling in dens, darting polar bears or wrestling Komodo dragons, Harlow called Grand Teton National Park home.

He is the director of the University of Wyoming National Park Service Research Station in Grand Teton National Park. It is one of the few university research facilities in a national park. The station gives hundreds of scientists each year a home base while they study the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Harlow spends five months a year living at the research station hosting up to 60 scientists, artists and researchers at one time. He doles out grants, hires interns and gives researchers a place to interact with each other.

Work varies from beaver movement and mercury in forest fires to bumble bee declines and butterfly populations.

He understands how important it is for scientists to work together. Much of his research, such as testing black bear strength, required help from other researchers.

He will miss the camaraderie of the research station when he retires, but, it’s time to do something new. Instead of learning to sail or spending more time with kids, Harlow will go to Australia for six months.

He hopes to stay and study the sun bear. It’s one of seven bear species in the world, and is in desperate need of conservation. It lives in tropical jungles, eats fruits and insects and spends most of its time in trees.

Harlow has questions about sun bear survival only the creature can answer.

Reach Open Spaces reporter Christine Peterson at 307-746-3121 or Follow her on Twitter @PetersonOutside.


Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(1) Comments

  1. tkellogg
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    tkellogg - September 25, 2013 7:23 pm
    Dr. Harlow was one of my favorite professors when I was a wildlife student at UW. I remember the frozen frog demonstration well. My personal favorite was when he brought a hibenating prairie dog to class and we passed it around.
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