For the Conservation Curious

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Mighty Mammals February 28, 2014

Over the past week or so I have watched a fascinating BBC documentary series called “The Life of Mammals,” thanks to my Netflix subscription. I was a zoology major in college so I like to think that I know a lot about the world’s animals… and maybe I do, compared to the average person on the street. But this series has shown me that there are so many weird and wonderful mammals out there that I couldn’t possibly know them all. From the cute numbat in Australia that looks like a striped squirrel with one of the longest tongues I’ve ever seen, to the wide variety of antelope on the African savannahs, the world’s mammals are amazing.

So I thought I would highlight a few of the interesting Pennsylvania mammal species here. While they may not be as unique as the egg laying echidna or duck-billed platypus, they have their own special features that make them just as important.

Water shrew – The BBC show actually featured this tiny creature in the episode on insect eaters. What makes the water shrew so interesting are its fur and feet. The fur is so densely packed that it is water-proof. That’s good because the water shrew hunts for insect prey underwater. When the water shrew dives air bubbles are trapped in its fur, helping it stay buoyant. As soon as it leaves the water all it takes are a few shakes to get the water out of its fur. The feet are partially webbed and have special hairs on the ankles, aiding the water shrew in swimming. Talk about an animal perfectly adapted for its lifestyle!

Porcupine – Everyone knows that porcupines have “needles” that can hurt you if you get to close to them, but did you know that those quills are modified hairs? And porcupines cannot shoot those quills at you… you must touch them in order for them to come loose. A porcupine can have over 30,000 of them! The name “porcupine” is Latin for “quill pig” – quite an apt name. Porcupines have an appetite for wood, usually, but have been known to eat plastic and metal too. Our state park and forest staff have had to replace many signs and structures across the state thanks to porcupine damage!

Flying squirrels – Did you know that Pennsylvania is home to not one but two flying squirrel species? We have both Northern and Southern flying squirrels. Where their territories overlap, the more aggressive southern one may bully the northern one and steal their home. How rude! Flying squirrels can’t actually fly, but they use the large flap of skin between their front and hind legs as a sort of hang-glider, launching them from trees for as far as 150 feet. Few people see flying squirrels as they are small and nocturnal, but I was lucky enough to see one on a dying sugar maple in my parents’ front yard many years ago. Perhaps it was nesting inside the rotting tree? It was a sight of a lifetime, that’s for sure!

my flying squirrel
Drawing by Jessica Sprajcar

Pennsylvania is home to just over 60 species of mammals, although many of those are very rare or uncommon. And did you know that Pennsylvania was once home to wolverines, badgers, lynx, mountain lions, wolves, moose and bison? Unfortunately all those mammals are now extirpated from the state, but perhaps one day we will see them again? Deer, beaver and river otters are all mammal reintroduction success stories to gain hope from.

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Winter Floods are no Joke February 21, 2014

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 12:45 PM
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Will the snow ever go away? That’s what a lot of people are thinking these days. In the ten years I have lived in the Harrisburg area I have never seen so much snow accumulate over one winter. Sure, we had a February blizzard or two in years past, but nothing like the piles of snow and ice that dominate the urban landscape right now.

I think people’s biggest concerns right now are: Where all this snow and ice is going to go once it melts. Will it cause significant flooding downstream? And what will happen to the rock salt, cinders and gravel that is now trapped in the ice, leftover from over-zealous public works staff?
Those are reasonable concerns that I will try to explain here.

According to a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine by Joseph Stromberg, on average the U.S. uses 137 pounds of salt per person each year to keep roads and sidewalks free of ice – that’s 22 million tons! His article goes on to say the following:

“A group of scientists that tracked salt levels from 1952 to 1998 in the Mohawk River in Upstate New York, for instance, found that concentrations of sodium and chloride increased by 130 and 243 percent, respectively, with road salting the primary reason as the surround area became more developed. More recently, a study of a stream in southeastern New York State that was monitored from 1986 to 2005 found a similar pattern, with significant annual increases and road salting to blame for an estimated 91 percent of sodium chloride in the watershed.”

That can’t be good for the environment, and it’s not. Scientific studies have shown that the chloride in rock salt negatively impacts amphibians, fish, plants and other aquatic organisms. The salt can dehydrate trees, particularly those in urban areas along sidewalks and parking lots. Plus the dried salt may attract deer to roadsides (they lick it for its nutrients), creating more traffic hazards. Occasionally the salt may enter drinking water wells too, although that is very rare.

What can be done to improve this situation? Municipalities are beginning to try out new combinations of salt and gravel, salt and water, salt and sugar beet juice, and even salt with cheese brine. Whatever works, especially if it’s safer for everyone. They are also varying the timing of salting. If you put down salt prior to a storm, rather than during or after, it is much more effective and less likely to wash away with the melting snow and ice.

But this doesn’t get to the heart of the matter – the sheer magnitude of the snow and where it will end up when it melts. That’s a trickier issue. If our days warm gradually, the snow and ice should be able to melt slow enough to be absorbed into the ground and carried off by streams and rivers without causing major flood events. However, if we have numerous warm, sunny days in a row, possibly followed up with rain, that could spell trouble. If you live in an area that experiences periodic flooding, make sure you have an emergency plan, just in case.

Building our homes and businesses in floodplains is never a good idea, but people like to live with a view of water, so there’s no way around it. All we can do is be prepared, design those structures with flooding in mind, and stay as safe as possible. Be careful out there, everyone!

 

Nature is Your Valentine February 14, 2014

This week’s blog is inspired by a quote from Thomas Jefferson. The past president once said, “If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.” I think this is very appropriate for today’s date – Valentine’s Day. On this love it or hate it holiday, many people are thinking about something they want – love. Whether you’re in a relationship or not, love plays a very important role in your life.

Valentine’s Day centers on romantic love, but I want to focus this blog post on a different form of love. I want to write about a love of nature. Think about all that nature provides for us: the oxygen we breathe, the clean (we hope) water we drink, the food we eat, the raw materials for the products we buy and use on a daily basis. Without a healthy, productive natural world we would be limited severely in what we consume and how we thrive. Yet how many people think about nature and say to themselves, “I love nature?” Perhaps more people should!

Jefferson said we must be willing to do something we’ve never done before in order to get what we want. If we want nature to love us, by providing us with abundant natural resources and healthy environments that improve human health, we need to do something new. We need to pay more attention to nature, listen to what it is saying to us, and treat it with more respect. Just as you would treat your significant other, nature deserves the best too.

What does that mean? Nature is talking to us, even though it doesn’t have a voice. It tries to converse with us through freak weather events, species’ extinctions and temperature extremes. If only we would be more open to listening. So on this Valentine’s Day, instead of buying a dozen pesticide covered, imported roses or a box of corn syrup-filled candies, make a point to open your ears and eyes to nature. It is a Valentine that is worthy of your love, and one who will return it ten-fold to you if you’re willing to try something “you’ve never done” before.

 

Green Infrastructure is Great February 7, 2014

I’ve been thinking about green infrastructure a lot these days. Part of my job involves the promotion of natural storm water management practices for municipalities, homeowners and other land managers. Go to www.pasustainablelands.org to learn more about what I do. I am excited to see videos like the one created by Penn State about all the wonderful green stormwater projects Philadelphia is doing. I highly recommend you watch it at www.waterblues.org. It is very inspiring.

Last week I attended a storm water management workshop for municipal officials. The presenters mentioned both traditional “grey” management solutions like dry basins and pipes, as well as greener alternatives like rain gardens, swales and porous pavement. The engineer was hard pressed to hide his excitement for the traditional structures. It’s what he was taught in school and probably what he focuses much of his time on still today. That frustrated me a bit. This was a workshop put on by a well-known environmental advocacy organization, so to have a presenter who clearly preferred the old, less environmentally friendly practices was a bit of a surprise to me.

When they did talk about the green stormwater solutions they did an ok job with it, but they did leave some things out. My colleague raised her hand and spoke at length about the role and value of trees in green stormwater systems, something the presenters left out completely. According to American Forests, a single, mature tree can absorb up to 100 gallons of water per day (depending on the species). Think about the flood reduction benefits, not to mention pollutant filtration and all the other benefits of trees for air quality and human health! Trees are amazing and an overlooked feature of things like rain gardens and swales. We need more trees in green stormwater management projects! Here is a great publication talking about the benefits of trees to stormwater management: http://www.fs.fed.us/psw/programs/uesd/uep/products/11/800TreeCityUSABulletin_55.pdf.

At lunch I sat with a few borough and township managers and public works staff. We talked about their experiences dealing with storm water problems and whether or not their municipalities use green infrastructure. One borough guy said that some residents thought the tree pits and rain gardens looked “weedy”. This is all a matter of education (explaining that native plantings don’t always have a manicured look, and that’s ok; making sure the benefits of those features are known) and maintenance (if the beds aren’t weeded and properly mulched of course they may grow actual weeds. You could sense the misgivings he had about these green features. But when I drive through this borough, when all the flowers are in bloom and the trees are leafing out, I see the beauty that wasn’t there two years ago. It just takes time. People resist change.

The worst part of the workshop came when a representative from the township supervisors association stood up and expressed his distrust of green infrastructure. He said they are costly and take too much to maintain. I wish I had the gumption to stand up at that moment and counter him. After all, think about how much more expensive it is to install large pipes underground than to install some rain gardens on the surface. And think about how costly it is to have to dig up and replace those pipes when they fail. For a rain garden, you may have to replace plants as they die, add mulch from time to time, and pull some weeds, but if they are installed correctly they will take very little expensive, time intensive repairs. To me green infrastructure is a budget-friendly solution when looked at in the long-term. Just ask the city of Philadelphia. Instead of spending $8 million on grey infrastructure solutions to meet EPA requirements they spent $2 million over several years to meet the same requirements through green infrastructure. That sounds like cost savings to me!