Wildfire smoke is terrible for you. But what about cows?

Other animals on the farm may also be vulnerable to wildfire smoke. Horses have huge lungs – the animals were born to run and suck in a lot of air. “We don’t know for sure, but horses may be one of the most sensitive species to smoke of any mammal,” says Kent E. Pinkerton, director of the Center for Health and the Environment at the University of California, Davis. “The volume of air they’re breathing in, which is basically laden with particles in the air they’re breathing, could be really quite devastating to the horse.”

The infamous 2018 campfire that devastated the town of Paradise blanketed the UC Davis campus in smoke and gave Pinkerton and his colleagues a unique opportunity to determine the impact on another species: the rhesus monkeys. At the California National Primate Research Center on campus, the macaques live in outdoor enclosures. Just as Skibiel did with dairy cows, Pinkerton was able to monitor them while the haze rose.

He found an increase in miscarriages during the breeding season that coincidentally coincided with the smoke event: 82 percent of smoke-exposed animals gave birth, while in a normal year the average live birth rate is between 86 and 93 percent. “We actually had a small but statistically significant reduction in birth outcomes,” says Pinkerton. “We don’t know all the details or the exact cause other than the fact that it has been linked to wildfire smoke.”

In Indonesia, which is plagued by peat fires, primatologist and ecologist Wendy Erb of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been studying the effect of smoke on another primate, the orangutan. Peat fires have caused a dire public health crisis in Indonesia, where developers are draining and burning peatlands to create farmland. This is a particularly nasty type of fire because it smolders for months through high-carbon fuel, billowing towns and surrounding forests in smoke much longer than, say, a California wildfire ripping through vegetation.

Erb monitors individual orangutans in the wild by collecting urine and stool samples (yes, that means standing under trees to catch the stuff) and following them throughout the day to see how much they’re eating and how much energy they use. From the urine samples, she can determine ketosis, or whether the animal is metabolizing fat as an energy source.

She found that after smoking events, ketosis in orangutans increased significantly. “We actually saw that they were consuming more calories, but even though they were consuming more calories, they were also resting more and walking shorter distances,” says Erb. “So they’re showing this energy-saving strategy — they’re moving less, they’re slowing down, and they’re eating more calories — but they’re still going into ketosis.”

One hypothesis the team hasn’t tested yet is that the orangutan’s body mounts an immune response to the smoke blast and that it needs more calories to bolster that defense. However, this could use up calories that the animals need for other life needs such as growth, reproduction and feeding their offspring. (Of all primates, orangutan mothers spend the most time raising their children.) Conserving energy by exercising less also means fewer opportunities to socialize, which is a problem for a primate that’s already strong is endangered because it is losing its habitat due to deforestation.

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