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In this issue:

Car Talk
No Breakfast for Bambi
Sea Urchin Summer

Car Talk

In a recent Batman movie, Robin, the Caped Crusader's young sidekick, begs to take the Batmobile out for a spin. "Chicks dig the car," he observes. But it's not just chicks--everyone digs the car. Who wouldn't want a bat-winged coupe with a jet engine and an on-board computer that can answer your questions and follow spoken commands? But that's just fantasy, right?

Illustration by Jim Paillot
Illustrations by Jim Paillot

Maybe not. New Hampshire police officers will soon be driving a new kind of patrol car that has a lot in common with the Batmobile, although this year's model lacks the menacing style and jet engine. The new cruiser is the product of a UNH research project called Project 54, after the '50s television series "Car 54, Where Are You?" The car has a built-in computer that responds to simple voice commands, freeing up the driver's hands so he or she can focus on the road.

The $7 million prototype, unveiled in August, incorporates voice-activated technology, wireless networking and embedded mobile-computing equipment. Officers can use spoken commands to operate equipment such as lights, sirens and radio or to retrieve motor vehicle information from a database. The computer keeps an audio and video log of all cruiser activities and uses a global positioning system (GPS) to keep the dispatch center informed of the cruiser's location at all times. The equipment required for each cruiser will cost less than the $4,000 police currently pay for a cruiser laptop.

UNH researchers Bill Lenharth '74G, '78G, director of the Research Computing Center and associate research professor in the electrical and computer engineering department, and Tom Miller, a professor in the same department, have been working with the New Hampshire State Police to develop this technology since 1996. The research is funded by a three-year, $3.5 million annual grant from the United States Department of Justice. The grant is shared by the UNH researchers, the New Hampshire State Police and a master's program in justice administration in the College of Liberal Arts.

"This technology offers several important features," says Lenharth. "Currently, when state police officers get on the radio to ask for information, they are all calling the same headquarters, so there is radio congestion, which can result in information delays. And if they are cut off from their radios, they are very isolated. With this system, they can get data on their own in seconds without using the radio. In addition, the voice control will improve safety, since officers won't have to take their hands off the wheel or eyes off the road when they are in pursuit. And the GPS system is a great safety feature when an officer is in trouble."

After working with models for more than a year, the researchers received their first police car--a 2000 Crown Victoria--in November. They are currently outfitting it with the new technology. The goal is to have six cars equipped with the system and in troopers' hands before May.

"I've been at UNH for 22 years," Lenharth says, "and this is the most exciting research I've worked on." New Hampshire State Police Executive Major Fred Booth has a similar assessment. "This is not being done anywhere else," he notes. "It's our state university and state police, but the technology developed in Project 54 will benefit law enforcement agencies nationwide."

--By Danielle Mosteller

No Breakfast for Bambi

Few things register higher on the "warm and fuzzy" scale than a deer or two browsing in your backyard. "Why not buy an extra bag of apples?" you ask yourself. Pretty soon, you're putting out sacks of feed on a regular basis, and before you know it, your backyard is a mecca for the local deer herd.

Illustration by Jim Paillot

Feeding deer seems like a simple act of kindness, but it has the potential to change a deer's behavior, nutritional balance and energy reserves. It can even decrease the animal's chances of winter survival, according to Peter Pekins, associate professor of natural resources, who has studied the bioenergetics of white-tailed deer for more than 20 years.

"In northern New England, winter is the limiting factor of the deer herd," Pekins says. "In the fall, most adult female deer store enough fat to survive roughly 90 days of snow cover, which diminishes food quality and quantity. Supplemental feed's influence varies with a winter's length and the occurrence of late-season snows."

Pekins and UNH graduate student Matthew Tarr studied the winter ecology habits of wild fawns, which are most susceptible to the rigors of a New Hampshire winter. They captured 10 fawns at supplemental feeding sites, fitted them with radio collars and kept track of them for several weeks.

The research team monitored the impact of supplemental feeding on the deer's home range. They analyzed fecal samples to determine the ratio of feed to natural browse consumed, used urinalysis to gauge protein metabolism, and used novel isotopic techniques to measure energy expenditure and body composition. Twenty days later, they recaptured the deer and measured weight loss and collected blood samples to measure changes in body composition and energy expenditure. They compared this data to similar information gathered from captive deer.

"The study indicated that supplemental feeding may be beneficial in certain situations and relatively benign in others," Pekins says. "In a herd that ranged a few hundred yards from the feeding site, one fawn gained weight, which is incredible in mid-winter. At another site, the herd ranged a mile to access limited feed. Natural forage was critical to the fawns in that herd, since dominant adults ate most of the supplemental feed.

Some of the fawns monitored by the researchers clearly expended more energy than they would have if they weren't being fed. "This contradicts dogma, which holds that to survive the hardships of winter, deer must behave in a way that conserves energy," Pekins says. Having handouts available was actually detrimental to the energy balance of those fawns because their activity and energy expenditure increased as they followed dominant adults to backyards.

Pekins notes that nutrition is not the only concern when deer are being fed. Feeding sites can be reservoirs of disease and increase the risk of predation. They may even indirectly endanger the deer's habitat.

"The New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game works with timber and paper companies to manage and maintain enough winter habitat to support the northern deer herd," Pekins says. "If people draw deer away, what's the impetus to preserve this habitat? And if it's not preserved, where will the deer go when people stop feeding them? All too often, our wildlife management problems are more sociological than biological."

--Dolores Jalbert

Illustration by Jim Paillot

Sea Urchin Summer

Paula Rodgers '02, a junior marine biology major, spends several hours each week trying to trick green sea urchins into thinking it's summer, even in the middle of January. Her purpose isn't just to prove that she's smarter than the average echinoderm, but to help revitalize a declining industry on the New England coast.

Rodgers is working with professor Charles Walker and associate professor Michael Lesser '83, both of the UNH zoology department. She and other marine biology students are tending two tanks of urchins at the university's Coastal Marine Laboratory at Fort Constitution in New Castle, N.H. The tanks are in two separate rooms, hardly larger than closets. In one room, a timed lamp gives the urchins about 18 hours of light each day, the equivalent of a June photoperiod all year long. The urchins in the other room--the control sample--suffer through the short days of winter along with the rest of us.

Why go to so much trouble to confuse these prickly little critters? Because there's a large market for uni, the reproductive organs of both male and female urchins. Described by Walker as "orange mush that tastes like wet saltine crackers," uni is considered a delicacy in Japan and some European countries. It is served on vinegar rice and can be eaten fresh or processed. The best processed uni can sell for as much as several hundred dollars per pound.

Uni is graded according to the size, firmness, color, texture and taste of the urchin organs. There is only a short season each summer when the product is suitable for market. When the harvest season is over, buyers shift their attention to other parts of the world, where uni is ripe at different times of the year.

With the help of their student lab assistants, Walker and Lesser have been studying the reproductive biology of sea urchins with the goal of developing a successful land-based urchin aquaculture industry. Their project is funded by the New Hampshire Sea Grant Program, the UNH Agricultural Experiment Station and the Department of Commerce.

Walker and Lesser have discovered that light plays an important role in the sea urchin's reproductive cycle. When urchins are raised under artificial lights, timed to mimic summer daylight, the marketable period for Gulf of Maine uni is extended.

Walker says that the information provided by this project is essential if sea urchins are to be a long-term resource in New England. The urchin industry has seen turbulent times over the past 15 years, with the sea urchin population going through a boom cycle in the 1980s, when fishermen first starting harvesting them, and then a bust in the 1990s. Aquaculture may be the only way to keep the industry going, Walker says, adding that the production of premium-priced "designer" urchins is not beyond reach.

--Christine Fagan '00

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