For the Conservation Curious

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Caribbean Conservation March 20, 2017

Filed under: Uncategorized — newdomino @ 1:23 PM
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I arrived home from a week in St. Kitts to see over a foot of snow on the ground. That was quite a rude awakening. It made me long for the warm, breezy days on the beach, watching the palm trees gently sway. St. Kitts is a beautiful place and a welcome respite from the winter blahs, but there were a few things that made me pause.

Monkey Business

St. Kitts is home to vervet monkeys (also known as African green monkeys), which ended up there via colonists from France and/or England sometime in the 17th century. I saw many of these monkeys roaming free along the beach and in the mountains. I also saw them in cages along the roadside, where signs said to pay a donation for taking a photo. There were also men walking the public beaches with baby monkeys in diapers. They charged tourists for a photo op with the monkey on their head.

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One of our cab drivers (you need to rely on these guys to get just about anywhere on the island) told us that the baby monkeys are stolen from their mothers (who are tranquilized) when they are very young so that they then “attach” themselves to their human captors. Most people are unaware of this, so I want to share that anyone who pays for a photo with these monkeys is helping to fuel a cruel practice. Give your kids a better gift than that. The Animal Rights Foundation of Florida also says that these monkeys are rounded up and shipped to the U.S. for animal testing. They offer humane solutions for keeping the monkey population in check. Visit their website for more info.

Dwindling Corals?

One day we spent an hour snorkeling near shipwreck bay, toward the southern portion of the island on the Caribbean side. I’ve only snorkeled one other time in my life – near San Juan, Puerto Rico, so I can’t vouch for home bad or good the snorkeling was there. I loved it anyway, as I saw myriad species of fish, a few different types of sea urchin, and a few lonely coral. It was the lack of corals that I found unusual. I wondered why that was. Walking along the beach later on, I noticed a lot of dead coral pieces, including whole brain corals and large pieces of staghorn corals. It was a bit disheartening. St. Kitts is not alone in experiencing coral bleaching and death. The Ocean Agency tracks global coral bleaching events. Their website does not paint a pretty picture. The bleaching is due to several factors, among them ocean acidification from climate change. Now may be the time to visit extensive corals like the Great Barrier Reef, as they may lose their splendor in the future.

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Staying Optimistic

I am a pessimist by trade but I’m trying to keep an open mind to the fate of islands like St. Kitts. They have some national parks, eco centers, and eco-tourism that are helping to preserve beautiful places like their rain forests, rocky shores, and beaches, as well as protect the many bird and reptile species from introduced predators like the mongoose. I added six new bird species to my life bird list (out of 10 total species), and probably would have had a few more if I was better at identifying bird calls. St. Kitts’ landscape was dominated by sugar cane as recently as the early 2000s. It is slowly growing back into a more natural state. If people continue to care about the land and all the creatures and plants that inhabit it, hopefully it will continue to thrive and impress tourists and natives alike.

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All photo by Jessica Sprajcar Aiello, 2017.

 

 

Have You Met My Friend Charley? February 19, 2015

I gaze at the black and white plumage of an eider duck on my laptop background. I look at my daily planner and see the red head of a woodpecker. I turn around and on my wall I see a poster swimming in bright colors and shapes of animals and plants galore. These are all works of one my absolute favorite artists, Charley Harper.

Charley Harper is known for his modern interpretations of animals, especially birds. I discovered his art while working for Gorman Heritage Farm near Cincinnati, his hometown. He did a series of posters for Gorman Heritage Farm and its parent organization, the Cincinnati Nature Center.  I fell in love with the sharp lines, simple details, engaging colors, and diversity he put into each of his images.  Even with such minimal detail I could tell what each species was. His designs challenge the imagination but not in a completely abstract way.

Charley also designed posters for the National Park Service and Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania. He illustrated the Golden Book of Biology too. Prints, mugs, and other knick knacks with his artwork on it can be viewed and purchased at http://www.charleyharperartstudio.com. I have a wish list a mile long there!

I want to show you a small sampling of his artwork here so you can fall in love with his art as I have.  His art speaks to the interconnectedness of nature, the beauty of each living thing, and a belief that nature inspires art and vice versa.

**All images are work done by Charley Harper. Please give him his due!

 

October 30, 2014

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 11:15 AM
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On October 3 I blogged about going to the Czech Republic. Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend that trip now, but the reason for that is a good one. Starting on November 10, I will begin a new job as Senior Analyst with Marstel Day, an environmental consulting firm headquartered in Virginia. I have a feeling this job will keep me very busy, so my blogging may slow down, at least initially. I just wanted to let you all know that.

In honor of tomorrow being Halloween, I want to blog about bats. Bats are wonderful creatures that are misunderstood and under-appreciated for a variety of reasons. Hopefully I can show you that bats are valuable and important components of the ecosystem, well worth protecting.

In Pennsylvania, there are nine common species of bats. These are: the most common one – the little brown, the big brown, the Eastern pipistrelle, the tri-colored or pygmy, the Northern long-eared, the endangered Indiana, the small-footed, the silver-haired, the red, and the largest one – the hoary bat. According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, one individual bat can consume up to 500 insects per hour or more than 3,000 insects in a single night. Think about that when you’re sitting outside on a hot summer night, fighting off the mosquitos. Bats are a natural mosquito control. Bats also eat those pesky stinkbugs that like to invade your home and eat from your veggie garden. How nice is that?!

Bats fall into two categories, those that overwinter in caves and those that migrate south when it starts to get cold. Big brown bats are the last bats to enter hibernation in caves, buildings, mines and storm sewers. Hoary bats, on the other hand, migrate south for the winter. During nice weather you may find bats roosting under loose tree bark, under house shutters, or in man-made bat boxes. You might also find bats roosting in your attic. If so, do not be alarmed. Look to the Penn State guide, “A Homeowner’s Guide to Northeastern Bats and Bat Problems,” to learn tips about bat-proofing your home. Once all openings are sealed except for one, let the bats escape at night, then seal the final opening. Consider building a bat box near your house to provide them a nice alternative.

Bats are not doing very well throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada, so they could use our help. Cave bats like the endangered Indiana and the little brown are dying out in record numbers due to White Nose Syndrome (WNS), an invasive fungus that weakens the bats and until they die from starvation or predation. This syndrome was first documented in 2006 in New York, showing up in Pennsylvania in 2008. According to the National Wildlife Health Center, they have documented an approximately 80 percent decline in bat populations in the northeastern U.S. since the syndrome was discovered. They go on to say that it is very unlikely that those species of bats affected by WNS will recover quickly because bats have only one pup per year. We can help them out as much as possible by staying out of caves, especially during the winter, and disinfecting your shoes and gear after being in a cave, to limit the spread of the fungus.

Bats are busy little insect-eaters that also help pollinate flowering plants. They may not be adorable like a rabbit or kitten, but they can and should be appreciated for all they do for us and the environment. The next time you freak out about a bat flying overhead, instead think, “Hey, thanks for eating those mosquitos!”

(Photos: USGS)

 

Why Do Animals Migrate? October 27, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — newdomino @ 12:30 PM
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I just realized this post was in my “draft” box. It was written nearly two years ago, but the message is still timely, so enjoy….

Since I just moved from one state to another I started thinking about animal migrations. Why do they do it? What motivates them to expend the time and energy required for a long distance migration? The answers are both obvious and subtle.

First of all, what is a migration? The Natural History Museum of the United Kingdom says it is “a journey with a clear purpose from one area to another, often following a well-defined route to a familiar destination, and often at a specific time or season.” However, they go on to say that there is no universally accepted definition and it’s not always easy to tell a true migration from something else. We tend to think of birds flying south for the winter as a migration, but there are many other species that migrate as well.
Migration is usually fueled by the search for food. Birds fly south to find insects, fruits and seeds that they can’t find in their more northerly habitats during the winter and caribou migrate across the tundra searching for fresh grasses. But animals may migrate for a host of other reasons including to find shelter, like the monarch butterflies flying to Mexico, searching for a mate, like male sperm whales, or fleeing an overcrowded habitat, like Norway lemmings. Even some human cultures still migrate to find fresh food for their livestock and avoid harsh climate conditions.

We tend to think of migration as a north-south journey but that isn’t always the case. Migration can occur when an animal travels up and down a mountain at certain times of the year, called altitudinal migration, as evidenced by elk and bighorn sheep in the Rocky Mountains. They spend the winters below the timberline where there is food for them to eat, and slowly advance back up the mountain as snow melts, in order to get further away from predators. Scientists believe this type of migration will take place more often in the future as the climate changes, forcing cold-loving species to move higher up into the mountains until they can go no further. Migration can also occur when aquatic animals move up and down in the water column, called diel vertical migration. Lanternfish are one species that does this. They travel from their deep habitats to shallower water at night in order to locate prey.

Why don’t animals just live somewhere with enough food and ideal habitats so they don’t have to migrate? Just imagine if all the world’s animal species lived in those rare, ideal habitats. It would be quite overcrowded, with diseases, competition, and fighting running rampant. Animals have evolved to live in certain habitats, eat certain foods, and migrate if they need to, in order to minimize competition as much as possible and ensure the continued survival of the species. Migration is one essential tool for doing so.

 

Clear Cuts Can be Clearly Good October 16, 2014

I’ve been working on a few outreach publications related to forestry and timber harvesting lately, and it makes me think about the myriad people who have a negative reaction when they think of cutting trees. Some people are opposed absolutely to any form of timber harvesting, while others are against certain practices like “clear cutting.” I don’t come from a forestry background, so I can sympathize with them. There was a time when I believed all clear cuts were horrible and that too many trees were being cut down, but with a bit of knowledge my opinion has changed. Perhaps I can persuade you to see clear cuts in a different light, as well.

But before I begin on the merits of (some) clear cuts I want to make absolutely clear that there can be very bad clear cuts if they are done improperly or on certain sites. A lot of thought needs to go into any timber cut BEFORE any action is taken on the ground, not during or after. It essential that a properly trained, professional forester does the work. They know that once the trees are removed there will be adequate regeneration of trees from either seeds in the ground or seeds blown in from the surrounding trees. They know that there aren’t too many deer that could impede that regeneration by eating all the saplings, or too many invasive plants that could come into the clear cut and dominate the area. They know how to prevent soil erosion by using proper best management practices for their haul and skid roads and leaving a buffer of trees along streams and rivers. Only then can a clear cut be sustainable.

If a clear cut is done correctly, many good things can come from it. There are a variety of animal species that benefit from the openings made by a clear cut, as well as from the young growth forest that comes up later (more than 200 species, in fact). Endangered golden winged warbler, chestnut sided warbler, grouse, bear, and eastern box turtle are just a small sampling. The abundant sunlight that is created with a clear cut allows sun-loving tree species like pines, aspens, black cherry and sassafras a better chance to grow and thrive. They can’t compete well with tall oaks and maples in a mature, intact forest.


(Photo: Connecticut DEP)

Clear cuts might not be attractive, and certainly, compared to a mature forest in all its fall glory they’re not. But the forest that grows up in its place will be healthier and just as magnificent. All it takes is a bit of patience and understanding to see it for what it is… healthy habitat in the making.

Want to learn more about clear cuts and other silvicultural practices? Just Google the term and look for reputable source from state bureaus of forestry. There’s a wealth of information out there.

 

When is Human-Wildlife Interaction too Much? October 10, 2014

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 11:58 AM
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On the National Geographic website today I saw a post about a shark photo that has gone viral – it was taken by a school teacher, Amanda Brewer, in a cage off the coast of South Africa. The story asks whether or not these close encounters are dangerous for the sharks. Will they start to associate the smell of bait fish with humans, thus becoming less fearful of us and perhaps more aggressive? Will our actions change the natural behavior of a species? And if it happens with sharks, does it happen in other circumstances too, like when tourists swim with dolphins or manatees, or in areas with frequent whale watching boat tours?


Photo credit – Amanda Brewer

That made me wonder… can we be so interested in seeing and learning about a species that we ultimately cause its demise? I’ve heard stories about people loving an area until it’s ruined – a popular hiking trail through a forest can become so degraded by too many people using it that the reason why people came there in the first place is destroyed. It’s easier to envision a specific location becoming degraded, but think about the behavior of an animal in a zoo. I can recall trips to the Pittsburgh Zoo in the early 80s, when the bears and other large animals were still behind bars and visitors would feed them popcorn and other junk food. Those animals no longer acted like their wild counterparts… they would pace back in forth in front of the bars, or sit up and beg for scraps. Unfortunately there are still non AZA-accredited “zoos” in the U.S. that look like that (I’ll be nice and not name names… at least in this post).

That is a very confined scenario, with thousands of human-animal interactions, so looking at it from a nature standpoint isn’t a one-to-one correlation, but I think there could be some parallels. People flock to certain places in Florida to swim with manatees. If you do a quick Google search you’ll find many companies there that offer the opportunity. The list of rules shown below is from the VisitFlorida website. How likely do you think people are to obey all these rules, or do some visitors bend them? Manatees are gentle, slow moving mammals. If they become habituated to the presence of humans the worst thing that will happen to them – and it’s bad, no lie – is that they could have more collisions with boats, possibly resulting in their injury or death. But if a great white shark becomes habituated to people, the tables are turned… it may be us that are at greater threat of death.

I love manatees, dolphins and even sharks. I love pretty much any animal I can think of, although some more than others certainly. But I can love them at a distance. If I’m going to see a manatee in the wild than I expect it to act that way, wild. The same goes for any wild creature. Let’s not love a species so much that it becomes unnatural. We have our domesticated animals for that.

 

Flying Squirrels do Exist in PA September 8, 2014

I would like to share with you some information about a fascinating creature: the flying squirrel. I was lucky enough to see one of these small, grey mammals a handful of years ago. It was late and I was standing outside my parent’s house, when all of a sudden I saw a streak across the night sky as something landed on the large, old sugar maple in front of me. I looked up and saw what I thought to be a flying squirrel, but at the time I didn’t know that we had flying squirrels in Pennsylvania. I did a Google check the next day to make sure my eyes didn’t deceive me. Yes, in fact I had seen a flying squirrel!

There are two species of flying squirrels in Pennsylvania – the northern and southern squirrels. I saw most likely a southern squirrel, as they are the more common of the two. Both species are nocturnal, meaning they only come out at night. That’s one of the main reasons most people have never seen one, and why only my active social life at the time granted me the opportunity to see one. The squirrels spend the night eating lichens, moss, fungi and other goodies, gliding from tree to tree (they don’t really fly… bats are the only mammals that can do that) at average distances of 20 to 40 feet.

Both species are a light brown color on top, with a whitish belly. It is very difficult to tell the two species apart. The northern squirrels are slightly larger, but when one is gliding quickly past you in the dark of night, chances are you won’t get a good enough look to determine its species type. Southern squirrels are generalists in their habitat preference, living in suburban areas as well as wilder areas, while the northern species, rare in Pennsylvania, prefers remote coniferous forests.

And as you might know, Pennsylvania’s confer forests are facing a serious, invasive threat – the hemlock wooly adelgid. This tiny insect attacks our state tree, the eastern hemlock, and has killed thousands of them across the state. When the hemlocks die, the northern flying squirrel loses a home. As hardwood trees move in to fill the vacant niche, so too come the southern squirrels, which carry a parasite that is lethal to the northern squirrels.

All is not bleak, though, for the northern squirrels. Researcher Carolyn Mahan from Penn State received funding from the Wild Resource Conservation Fund and Game Commission to study reforest areas of the state with red spruce, a conifer tree that the northern squirrels seem to like. Hopefully through these efforts the northern flying squirrel will be able to hang out and perhaps even thrive in Pennsylvania, able to withstand the unintended bad habits of their southern cousins.

I hope so. Not only would I like to check-off the northern flying squirrel from my mammal life list, but it’s just good to know that the efforts of dedicated people can postively impact the survival of species.