Does a red fox have fur or hair? The answer might be, both!

The hair on the elk hide I was examining was a winter pelage, thick and somewhat coarse even when smoothed with the grain. It was up to four times thicker than an elk’s summer coat. I measured the hairs on the back and found that they were about two inches long but those on the neck and rump stretched to three and a half inches. As I parted the hairs and looked in vain through the forest of shafts for the skin below, I noted that the hairs were far thicker in diameter than human hairs. Although I couldn’t see it, I knew that inside each hair was an air-filled chamber that helped to insulate against the coldest temperature. This was the inspiration for synthetic insulating fibers.

Hair is a defining characteristic of mammals. Hair is assembled largely of the protein keratin; the same hard substance also makes up skin's epidermis, feathers, horns, hooves, claws and fingernails. Each hair has three layers: the outer cuticle of shingle-like overlapping flat cells and covered with a single molecule deep layer of lipid which waterproofs the hair, the cortex containing the keratin in rod-like conformations, and the medulla, an airy open and rather disorganized center.

Hair grows from a follicle buried deep (one sixteenth of an inch) in the dermal layer of skin. There are 20 different cell types associated with a follicle and the production of a hair. Through a complex interaction between hormones, neuropeptides and immune cells, hair follicles determine which kind of hair to grow. That is why you don’t have eyelashes on the top of your head.

I wondered how this elk hair differed from say, hairs on insects. The answer was simple. Hairs on insects, more properly called setae, are not made of keratin, but rather, chitin. Chitin is nitrogen-based, not a protein.

Hair comes in many forms. Human hair has been classified into as many as 14 different types. Whether we have straight, wavy or kinky hair depends on the hair’s cross section. Round hairs produce straight hair, elliptical cross-section hairs produce wavy and curly hair and very flat hair produces the tight curls of kinky hair.

There are three basic types of hair: sensory, ground and guard hairs. Sensory hairs (vibrissae) include whiskers that animals use for perceiving their environment. Ground hairs are soft under hair for insulation and guard hairs are longer coarser hair for protection. However, hair has been modified in a number of ways. For instance, porcupine and hedgehog quills are modified hairs as are the protective scales on a pangolin.

What about fur? Scientifically, fur is hair. There is no difference. We often think of fur as being soft and supple, but why then when it is on the dog or cat is it fur and when it is left on our furniture is it hair? The word, fur, first came into use in the English language as a verb meaning to line or trim a garment with animal hair. Since animals with softer hair were preferable, the word fur became associated with animals such as mink, marten and fox.

Hair follicle density varies greatly by species. Sea otters hold the record with up to one million follicles per square inch of skin. In comparison, a dog has around 60,000 hair follicles per square inch and a human more fortunate than I has 100,000 hairs on their head.

With most animals such as the elk I examined, hair grows to a pre-determined length. Here, finally, humans win. We have the ability to grow the longest hair with the 2015 record being 18.43 feet long—nearly as long as a giraffe is tall.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho