Archive for the ‘SciSun’ Category
Considering some recent….experiences…we’ve had while hiking, maybe it’s time to re-fresh and re-post a story about something that you, really, don’t want to see when it’s fresh. Yet…
We’ve all been there. Walking along, enjoying a pleasant day, when on the ground right in front of us is a big pile of dog poop. Or you discover a cat has decided your freshly-planted flowerbed is the perfect place to use as his private toilet. So we step over it, or pick it up, or reason that in the long run it’s fertilizer that might even be beneficial to our garden. After all, what harm could come from a few pets pooping in the environment.
Well, a lot of harm. Because the diet of our cats and dogs has changed over the generations they’ve lived with us, they’re not the same animals as the wild wolf or bobcat. As species, dogs and cats have been domesticated – lived with men – for tens of thousands of years, and in all that time their behavior and possibly even physiology – basic physical processes – have changed to they can better live with humans and enjoy the food and shelter we provide. (Some pet cats like to think they’re still wild, but they’re just fooling themselves). So the wild diets these species historically ate have been replaced with canned animal-and-grain-by-products, and crunchy-beef-flavored-kibble-bits. While most many of the ingredients in pet food is good quality (‘rendered-meat-meal-slurry’??), there are lots of other things in there, including chemicals and preservatives and artificial colors and assorted additives and even parasites and diseases carried over from some of the food sources – that cats and dogs have over time become tolerant of, but like all contaminants eventually pass through the body and end up somewhere.
And that somewhere, if it’s on a hiking trail – or edge of the sidewalk (to be washed away! Into our water systems) – or dumped from a litter box onto the ground – can cause a lot of problems for the environment:
> Modern pet food is so extra-rich in nutrients, it can cause algae blooms if it enters a stream, lake, or other water system. Algae plants (generally green or blue-green algae named cyanobacteria), always present in a healthy aquatic ecosystem, thrive on the excess nutrients and grow out of control until they block sun and oxygen from reaching deep into the water. If the thick concentrations of algae continue, all life in the lake could die.
> Dog and cat poop can carry multiple parasites and diseases that might not harm the pet but could be passed on to other animals. Infectious organisms usually need host animals to survive until they are transmitted to their next unsuspecting victim. And most of these diseases and parasites can affect humans, causing anything from flu-like symptoms to temporary changes in the brain to death.
> The Environmental Protection Agency – the US Government Department responsible for tracking and controlling many hazardous materials – has classified dog and cat waste as an dangerous pollutant, joining the list of oil spills, chemical toxins, and other things that require wearing a HAZMAT suit to clean up.
You can imagine what photos would go with this story. So here’s a totally unrelated picture of a Kodiak brown (‘grizzly’) bear exploring his home. Of course he’d probably eat any cat or dog he found pooping in his territory.
So whenever your dog does ‘his duty’ remember to pick up the poop, and at home bury the waste in approved containers that dissolve the material or seal in bags and place in the trash. It doesn’t help to leave poop to ‘naturally’ decompose on the ground – eventually the organic waste will break down, but leave behind any pathogens and chemical contaminants. Plus it will probably kill your lawn. If you have a cat, train him to go in the litter box; then it’s up to you to remove the poop and place in the trash. Despite how smart your cat might be because he learned to use the toilet all by himself (!), approximately 50% of all Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris) – an Endangered Species – have been found infected with Toxoplasma gondi, a parasite which needs to pass through the intestines of cats to survive. (In humans, this is the same parasite that can cause brain defects). And those cats are not pooping into the ocean by themselves. The only way eggs of this infectious protozoan could have reached the sea is by flushed water flowing through our city sewers and into the rivers that eventually go to the ocean. Taxoplasma eggs can live up to a year, and typical water treatment used in our cities won’t kill these microorganisms.
Dog and cat poop on the sidewalk; trail; lawn; or even flushed down the toilet isn’t just an inconvenience, it’s an ecological hazard that could pollute the water, leave toxins on the ground, and pass on parasites and disease. While picking up poop might not be the most satisfying time you spend with your pet, it’s part of being a responsible pet owner, and is a small way to care for the environment and wildlife. It’s only natural.
Michonne Says: Who would have thought there was so much to say about poop. I’d rather think about the flowers and berries and good things that go in, and not think of anything that comes out.
Humans think we’re pretty special. But other than the combination of our hands (which other animals have – from apes to squirrels); and large brain (that might even be larger and more complex in whales and dolphins); humans miss out on a lot of talents and abilities other species take for granted. Many animals are faster than the average human; can run, swim, and fly longer and further (humans, of course; can’t fly at all); have better hearing and sharper eyesight; and have learned to use resources in ways that allow for a thriving life now, without destroying what might be needed in the future. A skill humans are still struggling with. But aside from obvious differences, many animals hold hidden abilities that, by human standards, mirror the powers of any super-hero.
What we would see as a rather bland brown and grey owl becomes bright red under UV light. They just don’t want humans – or mice – to know how magnificent they are.
As far as we know, no animals can use time-travel or freeze rays or control others’ minds only through the power of their thoughts (although sometimes dogs seem to come close to achieving that one. OK, just one more treat). While heat- or x-ray vision isn’t something any animals seem to possess, many species have far greater ability to distinguish the color spectrum than humans could ever dream of: Some types of snakes and other reptiles can see infrared light, colors in the spectrum longer than reds, the highest colors humans can see; many insects depend upon shorter ultraviolet (or UV) light to help direct them to flowers; and it’s been recently discovered that some birds – particularly berry- and fruit-eating birds – not only possess UV abilities, but can adjust the structures in their eyes according to the time of day and surroundings. Special pigments, picked up through foods, are metabolized into the eye in ways that allow birds to adjust to higher or lower light waves, almost as we would use a camera filter or sunglasses. It’s not known if the birds actually choose how to apply these ‘filters’, if the effects can be varied or are constant, or even if the effect is temporary or long-lasting. What has been noted, however, that as the birds vision shifts, it also becomes more cloudy and unfocused. Because you can’t wipe your glasses on your sleeve when the filters are on the inside of your eyes.
Michonne Says: Flowers come in all colors and I’ve never known any marmot who looks through inferior lights or light spectumms or any of those other things in this story. But of all the flowers to eat the purpley ones are usually very tasty, so they must be those ultra-best-violet ones.
Ten-thousand pounds of trout is one big trout. Yet that’s what the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) is about to release into Northern California waterways within the next few days. Although not one, really large trout (which would be about the size of an elephant), but thousands of far smaller, hatching trout that weigh about half and pound each. These Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) come from nearby fish hatcheries, both government- and privately-owned ‘fish farms’ that raise millions of baby fish each year, all eventually transferred to lakes, rivers and waterways.
While many of these fish eventually are caught by fishermen and end up as someones breakfast or dinner, others who are lucky or smart enough not to be fooled by plastic worms can live ten or more years; grow up to 50 pounds; and become the parents of hundreds of offspring. Unless, in their best efforts to avoid sportsmen the fish are eaten by bears. Or raccoons. Or birds. All of which are reasons thousands of fish have to be re-stocked each year and for job security, being a fish-farmer might be a good choice.
Fish stocking often includes a brief, but exciting, water-park slide.
Fish-stocking (or planting) is usually scheduled twice per year, in the Spring before summer heat raises water temperatures; and again in the Fall, so the fish have a few winter months to grow. But due to the California drought which is slightly less severe this year, fish are being moved into lakes and rivers to encourage and support the local fishing industry (someone’s got to buy all that bait), and fulfill the Fish and Wildlife Departments responsibilities of not only protecting and preserving wildlife and wild places; but providing recreational opportunities for outdoorsmen and adventurers. Although the fish would probably prefer we all stay home. They’ve got enough to worry about with the bears, raccoons and birds all ready and waiting for fish buffet.
Michonne Says: Phooey. Who would want to live in the water and be wet all the time? And where would you sleep because there’s no place to dig or even if you did make a hole water would fill it up. To me, none of this seems like those fish planned very well.
Birds, fish, mammals and even insects migrate, at different times of the year, following various patterns and usually in response to changes in the weather or available food. Within every general group of animals (officially called a phylum), there’s at least a few species that regularly exchange a cool climate for warm; forests for grasslands; or north for south. Of all life on earth, plants and trees would probably be the least expected to move to another location. (Although that does help explain the saying ‘picking up your roots’). But in many Sierra Nevada forests, trees are moving – and not just swaying in the breeze, but for them, moving to a better neighborhood where they’re not looking for less traffic or quiet neighbors, but in a struggle of life and death.
Simply because plants were never intended to move from one location to another, they have evolved and adapted to living their lives in one place, for good or bad. While individual trees aren’t traveling across forests and fields (you can tell the forest through the trees by which trees are walking toward you), in some mountainous areas living has become such a challenge that new seedlings are finding more success at higher elevations; and where existing populations of trees have already established themselves at the highest levels, new seeds are moving – or we should say, being moved by birds and squirrels and other animals – to untested areas. Due to climate change, wildfires, logging and other human development, some of the most familiar Sierra trees including mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana); red fir (Abies magnifica); and western white pine (Pinus monticola) are disappearing among the northern Sierra, foreshadowing ecosystem changes that will effect every species that lives in or depends upon a healthy, established forests anchored by food-and shelter-providing trees.
Oakley always wins ‘King of the Hill’. Because he ‘s lived at the top for the past 100 years.
And what of the young trees, on their way to new and exciting adventures in places those old, know-it-all trees don’t understand? (“When I was your age we never had voice-chat!). Now, it’s uncertain. The state of all Sierra vegetation is being studied by government and academic specialists, yet it’s too early to tell if individual trees, and ultimately forests, can succeed at elevations and in micro-climates so unlike their origin. Because plants – evolved and adapted to live in one place for generations – can’t get up and move any time they feel like it.
Michonne Says: This story doesn’t fool me, everyone knows trees can’t move from one place to another. But trees can slap you on the side if the wind is winding and makes the trees dizzy so a low branch hits you while you weren’t even looking and just minding your own business. I wouldn’t know for certain but that’s what I’ve heard.
Mothers have quite the responsibility. Wildlife mothers, in particular (mothers of animals that are wildlife. Not necessarily mothers of children that act wild) have to make decisions and choices based upon the safety, protection, health and well-being of their children, while constantly aware of dangers from field and sky: From predators looking for an easy meal; to other members of the group who may not want babies around; to, now more than ever, pressures of a human world where cars, poisons, unsafe discarded food, backyard dogs and cats, and even other children (of the human type) are constant concerns that to wildlife are just more threats in a world already threatening. And animal mothers have to deal with all of it, without the help of a minivan, take out dinners, synched schedules, self-help books or even a convenient coffee bistro on every corner.
On our hikes, nature walks or even in own back yard we might come across young animals such as baby birds; rabbits; even deer who look so small and lonely and vulnerable and abandoned, we just want to help. What kind of mother would leave her babies alone, anyway? These modern wildlife mothers just have no idea how to care for a family. But temporarily leaving their young alone is not only the best way for many wild animals to care for their offspring; it’s the way generations of these species have lived and succeeded in a world that was dangerous long before they had to contend with human development and urban and suburban environments and people who want to help ‘abandoned’ babies yet are doing more harm, than good.
Although clearly told by her mother to ‘Not move from where I left you’, Fionna the Fawn couldn’t help sneaking into the neighbors’ pool.
While by our standards mothers who leave their children might be considered as poor role models (“Do what I say, not what I do!”), this ‘bad’ mothering is a wildlife adaptation that helps hide young animals from predators and draw attention away from the newly-born and toward the adult parents who are better equipped to evade, outrun, or outfox a fox or other predator. Wildlife mothers can leave their babies, safely hidden in tall grass, among shrubbery, or in other thick vegetation for hours or even a day, but always return to feed, care for, and check on the children. Young that seem abandoned and lonely are actually sitting quietly waiting for mothers’ (and sometimes fathers’) return, acting upon thousands of years of evolution and possibly doing just what mother tells them to. (Why human children don’t naturally sit quietly and do what their parents tell them to do, we don’t know.). Many wildlife young even have specialized camouflaged fur and feather patterns, make only soft sounds, and lack any strong odor which helps them hide. Again, just the opposite of human children.
So while any ‘abandoned’ wild baby is cause for our notice; it’s not necessarily cause for our attention. An animal that has been left for more than a day may require assistance from a qualified wildlife rehabilitator; and a baby bird, fallen from its nest, would need a helping hand to place it back in its home (the baby won’t be neglected because a human has touched it. That’s an old wives tale, probably told by an old wife who wasn’t a mother). Generally, the best way to help wildlife young is to leave them alone; keep a respective watch for return of the parents; and enjoy the sight of wild nature overcoming the challenges of living a wild life in a human-centered world. Because while a good wildlife mother might seem to ignore her children; only a bad human mother will interfere with the wildness that surrounds us all.
Michonne Says: My mother always watched us to be certain we didn’t get in trouble and If we went too far way she’d call us back and then we’d never hear the end of it. When I was a baby I didn’t think the world was all that dangerous but now that I am older I see you have to be very careful and always watch for trouble, no matter where adventure takes you.
Prior to the 20th Century, rivers throughout America ran freely: From their source headwaters; through forests and meadows, across prairies and sometimes underneath deserts; coursing toward the oceans while carving majestic canyons and molding the landscape; providing water and homes for countless fish, birds and other wildlife. The rivers were neither stopped nor faltered by any obstruction or barrier but surpassed and pushed through anything in their path. The rivers reserved all their energy for themselves, occasionally flooding farms and defeating towns to show humans who, really, is the boss. Selfish rivers. But beginning in the 1890s and continuing through the first half of the 20th century, humans took on this imposing power of uninterrupted water through the construction of hydroelectric dams; structures that, by channeling water flow and harnessing the power and strength of water provided tens of thousands of megawatts of electric energy to power the growth of cites and provide basic electrical power to rural communities. Take that, rivers.
While this all generally worked out fine for humans, hulking cement structures re-routing and blocking natural river flow was neither useful, not helpful, to wildlife: Fish, including Salmon and Trout (family Salmonidae) who need large stretches of turbulent water to thrive were restricted or populations cut off; wetlands were flooded or drained, the loss of homes to species from insects to mammals and vital to migrating birds who had fewer places to rest along flights of thousands of miles; and dams brought about changes in the amount and speed of flowing water (literally, the ‘ebb’ and ‘flow’), creating downstream basins holding millions of gallons of water in artificial lakes while upstream ecological communities suffered from water loss.
Dams can lead to stagnant water and unregulated algae growth. This can’t be good for anybody.
Crossing the border between California and Oregon lies the Klamath River. For centuries one of the main water sources for Northern California (the second largest river in the state) and a significant part of Oregon, the river continued unobstructed as Lewis and Clark charted a path to the Pacific Ocean; pioneers followed the Oregon Trail toward a better life; and 49er’s searched for gold. Local Native Americans believed the river was holy, balancing their lives with the river flow. But due to continued growth and development by the 1920’s dams were being built across the Klamath – by 1960 a total of four complexes providing power and regulating water resources to the benefit of man. Not so much to the benefit of anyone else.
While hydroelectric power is important, so is a healthy environment. Last month, the U.S. Department of the Interior; U.S. Department of Commerce; dam management company PacificCorp; and the states of California and Oregon entered into an agreement to remove all four dams on the Klamath River by 2020, resulting in one of the largest river restoration efforts in the country. Working with Native Nations; local communities; non-profit organizations and other interested parties, this agreement will work toward providing more equitable water resources to farms, ranches, and communities; allow for water recreation such as rafting and fishing; and perhaps most importantly, restore the river and river basin to its natural ecology. While this is a huge and hugely expensive project, the true cost can’t be measured in dollars but in the salmon who once again will be able to freely migrate to the ocean (and back!); flocks of birds who find a safe refuge in river-created marshes; and the numbers of people who just enjoy a peaceful afternoon sitting under a tree by the flowing water. And the only dams to be seen are built by beavers whose goal isn’t creating electrical power for televisions and computers and to light up the night sky; but just to keep the water from washing away their house.
Michonne Says: These ‘dams’ make water so there’s even more of it in one place? I don’t think I like that. Water’s best when it just passes by and maybe you can get a drink but then it doesn’t stay around. Then things could live in it and who knows that that could be. It’s best to leave that kind of water to bears (who like the fish) and striped-tail-night-mask raccoons (who don’t know better).
A mouse, is a mouse, is a mouse. (Actually there are over 1000 different types of ‘Myomorpha’, or ‘mouse like rodents’). But the popular image of a mouse is one that hides under your house and comes into the kitchen at night to eat cheese. Why someone would leave cheese out at night we don’t know. But while this ‘standard’ House mouse (Mus musculus) might be the most familiar rodent among all mice, the real story of ‘city mouse or country mouse’ is found among Peromyscus leucopus, the White Footed Mouse, a native species that has lived among humans for thousands of years. And today scientists are finding there are significant differences within this one species not due to centuries of evolution nor changing climate nor even geologic isolation of small populations – but from living in the city.
New York City is the most densely populated city in the United States, with over 8,500,000 people within 305 square miles. (As a comparison the Los Angeles metropolitan area is approximately 500 square miles with a population under 4 million). Also in New York you will find countless numbers of urban wildlife including coyotes; raccoons; possums; bats; millions of birds; and millions more rats and mice. Just as many New York humans are most comfortable staying within one borough – an area within the City large enough to be cities themselves – New York White Footed mice are content to live within one neighborhood. Or city park. Or vacant lot. And each of these areas – tiny mice boroughs in themselves – is showing that not only do mice (and humans) take on unique characteristics of their chosen neighborhood, but among White Footed mice is resulting in genetic differences that distinguish individual mouse populations from their cousins, still of the same species, but living in different areas of the City. Just like a resident of Brooklyn would never, ever be confused with someone from the Bronx.
“Yea, so some guy sez ta’ me he sez ‘How do I get to Carnigie Hall? I tell’m practice, lots a practice’. What’s you lookin’ at?”
Historically White Footed mice have not lived in close contact with humans, but on the edges of human development, favoring the border and edge areas of forests, fields, and meadows. These White Footed meeses (the plural of ‘mice’. We think.) prefer to remain within a small territory, seldom venturing more than a few hundred feet and when among humans hesitant to venture too far into ‘civilization’ but remaining in vacant lots, parks, and among roadside greenspaces. Scientists have long observed differences in behavior between these city-edge mice and their country-side counterparts; however only recently has the extent of these differences been uncovered. Looking at the DNA of almost 200 mice from 23 different city locations, it’s been found that the White Footed population has undergone two distinct evolutionary landmarks that forever changed, at the most basic level, the species: About 12,000 years ago at the end of the most recent ice age, receding glaciers shaped the geography of much of what is now the Eastern US, creating unique evolutionary distinctions among those species that survived the climatic changes. As the ice ages were an Earth-wide event, similar genetic changes are found in other species. But the second genetic change occurred only 400 years ago, just a moment in evolutionary time, when the area that is now New York City was shaped not by climate but by the arrival of Europeans and the resulting changes from meadows and forested land into agricultural fields, housing, roads and other development. The city mice have developed stronger, more resistant immune systems; differences in intestinal bacteria which helps the mice digest (and survive) less-than-wholesome foods; tend to be more acrobatic than the forest-and-field mice, bounding over vacant lot trash and sprinting among weedy tangles; and within each borough have become so genetically distinct from mice of other boroughs it’s possible to tell exactly in what area each mouse lives. All without checking their transit card.
These mice-sized discoveries are generating a mighty amount of work, as scientists around the world are investigating whether other urban wildlife species have developed not only behavioral changes, but evolved genetically. In this new field of urban evolutionary genomics, researchers are looking into the lives (and DNA) of urban coyotes; pigeons; rats; and other species; it’s already been noted that a certain type of Australian urban spider has evolved a larger body and greater reproductive abilities; and in the Netherlands urban birds sing louder and at a higher pitch to be heard among city sounds. Just as humans have shaped the cites we live in, it seems we’ve also shaped the wildlife that share those cities. And the louder and busier and more complex our lives become, urban wildlife are right there among us, evolving to fit into the city as they remain wild and untamed. Which, according to some opinions, is the perfect and only way to survive in the big city.
Michonne Says: Marmots try to stay away from human places but if any marmots did want to live there (and I don’t know why they would), they would probably change and be different, too. There’s that groundhoggy that the men look at for a shadow or no shadow and I think he lives near humans and they never leave him alone. That’s enough to change anybody.