Archive for the ‘research’ Tag

SciSun: Looking at the World with Rose Colored glasses   Leave a comment

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.

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.

Posted August 14, 2016 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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SciSun: It takes a Vole-age   4 comments

Life for threatened or endangered species is, understandably, uncertain and any setback or challenge that other, more established plants and animals can overcome could be the end of endangered species that might exist in only one area, consist solely of one population, or otherwise be at the brink of extinction. The Amargosa Vole (Microtus californicus scirpensis), a small mammal living in the California/Nevada desert, is one such species because every vole – estimated at less than 100 remaining in the wild – lives in just a few miles along the Tecopa Lake Basin and the Amargosa River. And as this area is prone to drought; flooding; off-road driving; and earthquakes, the status of the vole is truly on shaky ground.

Yet in the middle of December, an historic collaboration took place that turned weed-infested and in-hospitable land into the perfect vole habitat, possibly turning the corner for success of the species. In the restoration of half an acre of privately owned land (which might not sound like much – less than a third of a usual city block. But as an average vole is only about five inches long and typically home-bodies, that’s lots of room in vole-scale), representatives from the Amaragosa Conservancy; BLM (US Bureau of Land Management); the Shoshone (Native American) Village; the Nevada Conservation Corps; local laborers; and one student conservation intern; with the support of a grant obtained from the California Fish and Wildlife Service; worked together to recover and re-create historic bulrush (wetlands) habitat, which, hopefully within two to three years will grow and establish into marshland habitat suitable for voles; habitat which, although on private land, is set aside for environmental conservation and eco-tourism. And where, you ask, will these voles-without-a-home come from? For years, scientists have been re-creating, as best as possible, vole habitat inside research and holding facilities, where a small population of voles has survived. While not the best situation – plastic pipes and hay-covered floors aren’t exactly a voles preferred lifestyle – young vole pups have been born and many survive into adulthood.

Amargosa vole measurement BLM

“For Christmas, all I asked for is a pair of custom-fitted earbuds. I didn’t know that would require full body measurements.”


The fate of a small mammal in the desert doesn’t seem to matter much, even taking into account any unique qualities, or special environmental niche, or other ‘reasons’ to save a species. The Amaragosa Vole isn’t particularly compelling, like the Elephant, Polar Bear, or Condor, and most of us will probably never even see a vole or be anywhere near their home. But in the protection of one species, it’s being demonstrated – and lessons learned – that the work and interests of many agencies, communities, programs, individuals, and villages can come together for the benefit of all (a type of working together only recently attempted; as many groups and individuals, even when striving toward he same goals, have often set out on their own rather than asking, or accepting, help). Aside from saving a unique and rare species, if that’s one of the results of collaboration, communication, and partnership, it’s something even one little vole can be proud of.


Michonne Says: All these men came together and made homes for the little voles? That seems like a lot of men because the voles are really, really small and men are really, really big. I guess men helping is good, but I hope I never need men to make a home for me. It’s better if the men just don’t change things in the first place, then they won’t have to go back later and make them right.

SciSun: Black Fry Day   Leave a comment

Unless you’re an ichthyologist (people who study fish), or a pescatarian (people who eat fish), most of us never, really, think much about these finned fellows; they’re just under the water, an environment (and world) most of us know little about. Unless it’s on the menu or represented as some sort of fearsome ‘monster’ on television or in movies, fish usually cross our thoughts about as much as they cross a road (actually, in Asia the Walking Catfish [Clarias batrachus] does briefly come out of the water to cross roads. Which will give you something to think about). But placing the ‘monster’ label aside (humans often identify anything we don’t understand as a monster), fish have much more to fear from humans and our human world, than we normally have to fear from them. Unless you’re swimming among a group of shark, barracuda, or piranha. Or choke on a fish bone during dinner.

Baby fish are called fry. (This has nothing to do with the ultimate fate of many of these fish, which makes the name disturbingly ironic). And life for a baby fish, usually an inch or less in length, is filled with dangers seen and unseen: Water current sweeps you away; small leaves, branches and debris, disregarded by other animals, become hazardous challenges; and just about everything, from birds to frogs to other fish, want to eat you. Chemicals in the water, both naturally-occurring and artificial can disrupt a fishes’ sensory and nervous system; run-off and turbulence resulting in cloudy or muddy conditions can disorientate or suffocate. Water temperature is vital; any significant change hotter or colder means death. Some fish can only survive within a temperature range of about 20 degrees.

Just like the canary in the coal mine of times past (miners would take a caged canary down into the mine. If the canary passes out due to invisible poisonous gas, it’s time for humans to return to the surface. There were far fewer animal rights spokespersons in those days), today fish throughout the world; and particularly freshwater species such as Salmon and Trout (genera Oncorhynchus and Salmo); have become the ‘canary in the water’, as entire populations disappear due to increasing global temperatures, isolation from diversion of rivers; and run-off from timber-cutting, farming, and other forms of land-clearing. In some areas water temperatures are already approaching the top range of these fishes’ tolerance, and any further upward creep – many scientists are projecting up to three degrees warmer in the next fifty years – would leave suitable freshwater habitat only in the deepest lakes, while most streams, ponds and even rivers remain empty. In a recent research study it was found of the 25 remaining species of America’s native trout, today 13 species occupy less than 25% of their historic habitat.

Trout jumping hatchery LG

Young trout in a hatchery practice leaping over water obstacles they may find in the wild. Possibly on their way to school.

While this is unfortunate for trout and other fish that live their entire lives in high-country, mountainous environments, salmon must return, every year, to the ocean. And without healthy and open streams and rivers that allow migration from forested rivers to the sea; as well as the return trip back to the same stream where each individual salmon was born; the entire wild salmon species could collapse. Of course, humans raise fish in hatcheries and on fish farms (must continue Seafood Friday!), but fish can’t stay on the farm forever and when grown large enough, are normally released into the wild (even fish on farms want to one day go to the big city. Where they’ll probably be eaten). Throughout these recent years of drought and oppressive heat in California, multiple hatcheries have had to be temporarily closed due to inadequate amounts, quality, or temperature of water, and the fish (those that could survive the journey) trucked hundreds of miles to alternative and emergency locations.

Not many people, it’s likely, consider baby fish as we go about our lives. When thought of as food or a diversion, fish have always been there and so are taken for granted. But as our climate changes and each of us, human and wildlife alike, encounter more and greater challenges, we might want to look at the fish who could be warning us we are moving from fry, to the frying pan.


Michonne Says: I don’t know much about fish. They live in the water which is fine for them but I don’t care for it. Racoons and Hawks and Bears and all sorts of other sharp-teeth animals eat fish, but marmots would never, ever, not even think about eating fish. Or going too close to the water. You never know what could be down there.

Posted December 6, 2015 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in ECOVIA Central

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SciSun: Final Bid   Leave a comment

Online auction sites are great places to find just about anything anyone could ever want, need, or think they need: Books and magazines no longer published; designer watches, bags, and accessories at a fraction of their retail price (just don’t ask where, exactly, they came from); replacement parts for cars and appliances – or entire cars and appliances; hard-to-find collectibles (and many not so hard-to-find, but expensive anyway); even bulk lots of storage and packaging supplies, to, we assume, pack and store all the items bought and sold at auctions. There’s so much for sale, almost no one is asking if some things should be sold – or what happens when the speed and convenience of our ever-smaller world results in environmental hazards that, once unleashed, may never be contained again.

Researchers from the University of Liverpool just released the results of a 50-day experiment in which they monitored every plant for sale through ten of the worlds most popular online auctions. While it was no surprise to find over 2,600 listings, of those over 500 are known to be invasive; and most shocking, within that group 35 are considered among the worst invasive species known. Throughout the study unique plant species were newly listed for sale every day, often identical species listed by different sellers in different countries. And, being the scientific scientists they are, searches were only performed under species scientific names, not common names; so it’s probable there are many, many more plants for sale than the study identified.

One of the Department of Agriculture's Beagle Brigade Inspectors (it's a real thing), signals a piece of luggage that smells like it could contain illegal plants.  Hopefully it's just a pair of someones dirty socks.

One of the Department of Agriculture’s Beagle Brigade Inspectors (it’s a real thing), signals a piece of luggage that smells like it could contain illegal plants. Hopefully it’s just a pair of someones dirty socks.

While due to privacy concerns no information can be gathered on the number of actual sales associated with these listings, it’s safe to believe the sellers would not be trying to sell something that doesn’t have buyers. And while it’s against the laws of most countries – including the USA – to import or transport non-native biological specimens (plants, flowers, seeds, leaves and parts included), no one is going to stop and check every package coming through the mail; and there are fewer laws regulating what items are shipped from a country, compared to what’s (technically) allowed to come into a country (the ‘out of sight out of mind’ rule). So every day, the Passionfruit (Passiflora edulis) – highly invasive in tropical areas – might be purchased and planted by a Florida retiree looking to add a colorful vine to his backyard; a Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), classified in the US as an invasive might show up in someones landscape – or neighborhood vacant lot; and throughout the world people bid on the most frequently listed species of all, Desert Rose (Adenium obesum), native to Africa but its behavior and living requirements largely unknown to the typical North American gardener and auction-bidder. As has been shown time and again, once an invasive species becomes established it’s impossible to completely be rid of them and restore the original ecology (tumbleweeds, we’re looking at you). Through the continued virtually unregulated global trade of what many consider ‘harmless’ garden flowers, the result could be a final bid for our native environments.


Michonne Says: If the flowers are bad I don’t want to eat them. But how would you know they’re bad? Maybe they look bad or smell bad or have spiney parts on them. I’ll just try to eat just the plants I know. It’s too much to think about.

Posted October 11, 2015 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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The Hare Minimum: Back-Pack   Leave a comment

Though fearsome in legend, the endangered Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) can be shy and wary, particularly when they are alone or in unknown territory. Which is why the recent appearance on wildlife tracking cameras of a single wolf in northern California has been an unexpected discovery – and why researchers are eager to learn more about this loner who is only the second wolf to be confirmed in the state since 1924.

In 2011, ‘OR7’, or ‘Journey’ the wolf was the first of his kind seen in California since 1924. Once thousands of wolves made their homes within virtually every California environment – from the oceans to the mountains, the desert edge to the deep forest. But largely due to misunderstandings of the potential danger wolves were to livestock and humans, within a relatively short time all wolves in the state had been killed or forced into other areas. When ‘Journey’ arrived on the scene, searching for new territory he could call his own, researchers hoped he might be the key to wolves re-establishing their homes in the state. For months ‘Journey’ was tracked, followed, and photographed as he traveled thousands of miles within northern California – he had been fitted with a radio tracking collar in Oregon, so he was relatively easy to follow – but eventually, he returned to his home state and is now the Alpha Male of the Rogue Pack in southern Oregon. (Maybe if he hadn’t been tracked and followed and photographed so much, he would have stayed in California).

So earlier this summer when a different wolf appeared (who has no radio collar, tag, or yet even an official name – but let’s call him ‘Eastwood’, because he travels alone), researchers were excited to see if this individual would decide to become a California wolf (not to be be confused with ‘California Girls’). But in a complete surprise, just last month other wildlife cameras photographed a group of seven wolves, two adults and five pups – none of which appear to be the single ‘Eastwood’ wolf seen earlier this summer! Named the Shasta Pack, these newest animals are believed to be an extended family – two parents and their pups; and it’s possible ‘Eastwood’ might be another adult attached to this same pack. Because the pups were probably born in California, they are likely to remain in the state and may become the first California native (wolves) in over 90 years, forming the foundation of many more wolf families, and a healthy and balanced environment.

Michonne Says: Well that’s all fine for the wolves I guess but I don’t like the sound of it. It’s one more thing to think about. And when you’re a little marmot, there’s already enough things to think about!

Grey Wolves, you'd think, would be grey.  This pack is more brownish-black.  Maybe from being in the California sun.

Grey Wolves, you’d think, would be grey. This pack is more brownish-black. Maybe from being in the California sun.

Posted August 23, 2015 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in The Hare minimum

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SciSun: The Foolish and the Brave   Leave a comment

Mice, generally, aren’t known for their bravery. ‘Run away to live another day’ is probably a motto they live by, for as long as they live; because, in natural conditions, most mice live less than two years. It’s not their fault; the behavior of individual mice, within the mouse world, probably ranges from timid to adventurous (who else would be brave enough to try and take all that cheese); yet compared to other larger, stronger, and less preyed-upon animals, mice are unfortunately toward the bottom of the predator-prey scale. Which makes it unusual to see mice all over the world confronting their main adversaries – primarily cats – in confident bravado and what seems to be a complete loss of fear.

It would be encouraging to know mice have decided to stand up for themselves, won’t be victims any longer and aren’t going to take it anymore (Are you a Mice, or a man!); but regrettably, that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening. A few weeks ago we wrote about Toxoplasma gondii, a single-cell, parasitic organism that causes the often-deadly disease toxoplasmosis. In order for this organism to live and reproduce, it must spend a part of its life both inside a prey animal; and a cat. Dogs, bears, snakes, cloned T-Rexes, or other predators won’t do; just like that strange woman down the street, Toxoplasma must live with cats.

The fearlessness of these mice is not that they must sit on a narrow elevated ladder.  Nor that they must remain still as a black cat walks over them.  Their true bravery is they must perform in a show with two men dressed like this.

The fearlessness of these mice is not that they must sit on a narrow elevated ladder. Nor that they must remain still as a black cat walks over them. Their true bravery is they must perform in a show with two men dressed like this.

And if cats do anything (just what, exactly, do cats do?); is chase and eat mice, small birds, and other easy to catch animals. Feral cats (those that roam freely without a home); and cats with a home that are still allowed to roam freely have been identified as the worst offenders in the toxoplasma war: Within the two weeks that newly infected cats can actively shed the parasite (it’s all in the poop!), a single cat can distribute more than 20 million of the infective organisms, which remain viable 18 months or more waiting for an unsuspecting new host. One cat can infect thousands of animals – including humans – that come into contact with contaminated food, soil or water. Despite generations of mothers warning their children to wash our vegetables, wash your hands, and don’t put dirt in your mouth, it’s estimated over thirty percent of humans have the virus laying dormant in their nervous system. Once triggered by illness or even more frightening, a genetic marker that scientists haven’t yet identified, toxoplasmosis leads to serious illness or death.

But that doesn’t explain the fearless mouse, who, if he knew better, would be very fearful of both cats and the diseases they carry. Countless years of evolution created this symbiotic relationship between the cat and the taxo organism that permanently removes all fear from an infected mouse. Once infected, mice never fear cats again – of course ‘never’ is relative, because the goal of this single-celled manipulator is not to embolden rodents toward their main enemies, but rather to cause mice to loose all concern for danger, so it’s easier to be caught and eaten. The only way taxoplasma can complete its life cycle is in the intestines of a cat (which shows living conditions might not be all that good for the virus, either). Without a cat ingesting the current host – fearless mice – the parasite can’t live.

Just as taxoplasma has developed into an opportunistic hanger-on (which, itself, is the definition of ‘parasite’); mice, perhaps, were never intended to be brave and generations of caution has enabled countless generations of mice, rather than easy meals for cats. What benefits the cat and the taxoplasma is a liability to the mice, sheep, cattle, bird, wildlife or human hosts that become ill by the tens of thousands each year. Maybe not an example of fearlessness among mice, who once infected can’t help themselves, this is more a story of humans who allow countless cats to roam free, risking the spread of disease and illness. And that’s a decision more foolish, than brave.


Michonne Says: Marmots never wash our food, and we dig in the dirt all the time! I hope we don’t get sick from that toxi-cat sickness. And if the sickness hurts other animals, why doesn’t it make cats sick? That doesn’t seem fair.

SciSun: Frenemies   Leave a comment

As best friends go, the domestic dog (Canis familiaris) can be considered at the top of the list. For tens of thousands of years, (long before anyone was texting their BFF’s), dogs have been at mans’ side, seldom wavering in their protection, companionship, and re-assurance. Cats (felis catus), on the other hand, throughout history vary widely in their relationship with man: At times symbols of mystery and accomplices to evil; alternating with consorts among the gods and among some cultures, divinity themselves. Maybe this inequality among house pets is what’s led to the adversarial relationship between cats and dogs; or maybe it’s because dogs, seeking our best interest, know something about the felines that could be harmful to us….and deprive the dogs of their daily meals and soft beds.

The first dog to regularly associate with man wasn’t a dog at all, but a species of wolf that’s today extinct; all the ‘wolf’ of that ancient spices has, through time, been breed and tamed out so the dog of today is only a shadow of his wolfish ancestors (although it’s been said inside every dog is the heart of a wolf. Think of that every time a pocket-dog is yipping and growling at you). When man and dog-wolf first came together, our human ancestors were just learning how to become man: Exploring beyond the familiar and expanding into the unknown. It’s possible that certain types of wolves were struggling also; smaller or more timid species hoping to be un-noticed and left alone by larger, more dangerous animals. Interestingly, the cries of wolf pups, and of human infants, are very similar. Just as in the Roman legend of Romulus and Remus, possibly a wolf came across a lost or orphaned human child and, responding to the cry and rather than attacking, allowed it the comfort and relative safety of a wolf pack. (better than being alone!). Or maybe a human family group found – or took – wolf pups to raise (probably for food. Who knows how many wolves were eaten before it was discovered it might be better to have a dog guarding the cave entrance, rather than filling your stomach). In either case, both species learned it’s better to face the dangers of that prehistoric world together, rather than separately, and over time that’s developed into the relationship we share today.

And recent research has shown that is a unique, and exclusive, relationship where the dog, as a species and certainly in a one-to-one exchange, may know us better than we know ourselves. While they and we are only very distantly genetically related – dogs are far, far removed from any human ancestor – dogs are the only animal (other than other humans) who seem to understand and interpret human facial expressions, distinguishing only from the look on their owners face happy from angry and sad from sorry. While wolves see direct eye contact as a sign of confrontation, dogs seem to seek out eye contact as a way to understand the wants and intentions of the owner and often respond by changing their behavior. It’s been found that the hormone oxytocin, the same chemical naturally produced between mother and child or close friends, increases between a human and dog interaction up to 130% within the animal, and to an amazingly higher higher concentration of 300% within the human. It may be that we need the dogs more than they need us. In the same study wolves, and their owners, showed minimal increase in the hormone. And the wolves refused to look into the humans eyes. Maybe they’re self-conscious their ancestors never became dogs.

“Oh, I've closely examined your litterbox and found it very enjoya....TOTALLY DISGUSTING!”

“Oh, I’ve closely examined your litterbox and found it very enjoya….TOTALLY DISGUSTING!”

The same tests have not yet been administered to cats and their companions (as anyone who has ever lived among cats, you know they reject the concept of ‘ownership’). It’s probable there is an hormonal, chemical relationship between cats who have adopted a home, and the people who accept them. However in three separate studies, over thirty years and three different institutions, it’s been found cats may be driving us crazy. Literally. A significantly higher percentage of individuals with schizophrenia, along with other serious mental illnesses such as attention-deficit disorder, hyperactivity, and even suicidal tendencies, has been diagnosed in homes with cats than in homes cat-free. Over 50% of all people who developed schizophrenia owned a cat in childhood. While this does not directly connect the felines with mental illness, the relationship is hard to overlook and may be based upon the cat parasite Toxoplasma gondii, a devastating and potentially deadly protozoan (a single-celled, microscopic animal) that is also linked to heart and liver inflammation; childhood-development disorders; blindness; brain damage; and can be transmitted to humans through contact with cat feces. Which makes it all the more important to wear rubber gloves when cleaning out that litterbox. And a respirator. Maybe a HAZMAT suit.

It’s estimated almost 25% of the United States population has been exposed to Toxoplasma and while it’s relatively harmless to people with strong immune systems, resulting in little more than flu-like symptoms, continued research in the potential mental-disease connection are continuing. Overall, long term studies have shown humans with a connection to any pet enjoy a longer, happier, and healthier life; pet owners have a 30% lower risk of heart attack, and less incidences of loneliness and depression. Which is just what you’d expect from a best friend. You’d be crazy not to.


Michonne Says: Wolf-dogs aren’t that bad when they’re with men if the men keep them on the wires. When wolf-dogs are running loose they can be dangerous but they’re usually making all types of noise so you always know when they’re around. Cats are never with men. They’re very quiet so you never know where they are. But I think they’re up to no good.

Posted June 28, 2015 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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