For the Conservation Curious

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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)

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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.

 

Would You Eat an Insect to Save the Planet? August 27, 2014

In my last two blog posts I discussed eating a diet more closely attuned to vegetables and fruits, rather than meat. In the U.S., where fruits and veggies are plentiful (unless you live in an urban food desert, of course), it’s easy to live a vegetarian lifestyle. However, what are people to do in places where droughts, expensive fertilizers and lack of viable seeds make growing their foods a challenge? How can they obtain enough protein for their family members when raising livestock is a privilege of the more affluent?

If the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has its way, those people will eat more insects. And perhaps we in the U.S. will follow suit?

In 2013, the FAO published a report, “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security”. In the report they estimate that at least two billion people worldwide make insects part of their regular diet. Eating insects, known as entomophagy, is practiced from Australia to Africa to Asia, but tends to skip places like Europe and North America, aside from novelty snack items like cricket lollipops. Are we missing out on a diverse and tasty source of protein? The report notes that 1,900 different kinds of insects have been documented as being edible, from caterpillars to grasshoppers to flies and ants.

The FAO wants more people to eat more insects for a variety of reasons, but the underlying reason is this – the population continues to grow and unless we find new ways to feed people, more and more people will go hungry. Eating insects is a way to fill those hunger gaps. Insects are an inexpensive source of protein that doesn’t come with the high cholesterol, fats and other harmful substances that meat may have. If insects were grown on farms like other livestock, the environmental impacts would be much lower than those animals. The greenhouse gas emissions from insect rearing are lower, the waste generated is less damaging, the inputs needed to feed the insects are much fewer, and they can be raised on a much smaller scale than animals like cows, thus reducing the amount of land converted.

Yet how can we get past the “gross factor”? If eating insects is to take off in any way in the developed world, that is a significant hurdle to jump. Insects are viewed as creepy and dirty. They are a pest of our foods, not a food themselves. The report does address what they call the “disgust factor” and ways to overcome it. They believe that the opposition to eating insects stems in large part from the western view that eating insects is a desperate act of the very hungry, not a conscious decision of people to eat well. They note that arthropods like lobster and shrimp were once seen as “poor man’s food” in the West, but now are sought after. I’d like to point out that spiders are arthropods… so really, are we that far away from eating insects if we eat relatives of spiders?

I ate a couple meal worms once in a chili. I don’t think I chewed them, and I tried not to think too hard about what they were as they went down. It was a novelty act; something done so I could say I did it. Would I eat insects on a regular basis, given that there are so many other choices of things to eat? I’m not sure. I appreciate the fact that they are more environmentally-friendly than other sources of protein. I like that they are lower on the food chain, so they are healthier for me and don’t raise the moral guilt issues as much as I get from eating fish. But I think they would have to be highly disguised in order for me to eat them with any enjoyment. For instance, there is a product called cricket flour, made from ground up crickets. If that was added to a brownie, that might be ok, but could I eat a fried cricket, legs and all, doubtful!

If you’ve eaten insects and enjoyed it, let us know. What was it and how was it prepared? Were you on vacation overseas or somewhere in the U.S.? I’m curious to know your impressions. Thanks!

To read the full FAO report, go to http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e00.htm.

 

Know What an Invasive Species is? July 21, 2011

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 11:33 AM
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A good portion of my on-the-clock time is spent working on invasive species issues, particularly educating staff and the public on what constitutes an invasive, why they are considered “bad” and how people can help get rid of them.  Staff has taken up the cause with a lot of gusto, or at least with as much effort as they can muster given all the other natural resource management duties that have.  And some portions of the public have jumped right in to pulling invasive plants, monitoring for invasive insects and hunting invasive mammals.  But I still struggle with reaching out to the general public so they know what an invasive species truly is and why they should care about them.

To start from the beginning, let me give you a definition of what an invasive species is; it is a non-native plant, animal or pathogen that causes harm to human health, to the environment or to the economy.  Sometimes an invasive can cause harm to more than one of those segments, too.  Let’s give you some examples:

Garlic mustard grows densely along forest edges. (Photo: Jessica Sprajcar, DCNR)

  • Garlic mustard is a very common invasive plant here in the northeast.  It was brought over by colonists as an herb, it escaped from cultivation and has taken over many a forest edge, backyard and roadside.  The roots release a chemical with allelopathic properties – meaning that the plant alters the soil chemistry to benefit itself and prevent native plants from growing.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the West Virginia white is a butterfly that lays its eggs on native plants related to garlic mustard.  If it lays its eggs on garlic mustard, the eggs cannot hatch.  So garlic mustard is bad for our native plants and insects.

 

 

 

West Nile virus is spread by mosquitos. (Photo: Susan Ellis, http://www.invasive.org)

  • West Nile virus is an invasive pathogen spread by mosquitos.  It was first discovered in the U.S. in 1999 and has spread throughout much of the country since then.  Infected people can have mild symptoms like nausea and headaches or potentially fatal symptoms like encephalitis or meningitis.  While most people survive contracting the virus, roughly 10 percent of severe cases pass away, according to the National Institutes of Health.
     

 

 
 
 
 

Zebra mussels growing on a native mussel. (Photo: Randy Westbrooks, http://www.invasive.org)

 

  • Zebra mussels are tiny mollusks that arrived in the Great Lakes in boat ballast water.  These fingernail-sized critters have since spread to rivers in the northeast and beyond, as boaters take their watercraft to new lakes and rivers in the name of recreation.  Zebra mussels, and their kindred – quagga mussels – have caused at least $5 billion (yes, with a “b”) worth of damage to the Great Lakes area between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.  These invasive mussels also kill our native mussels by smothering them and they are such effective filter feeders that they leave little phytoplankton for other bivalves and young fish.
 

 

 

 

To me, those are all serious impacts to our lives and the health of our environment and seem worthy of some thought.  But I get the sense that still, most people out there have no idea what an invasive species is.  How do I get people to care more about them so that they can identify a few of the more troublesome species and take the effort to try and get rid of them (or at least let an agency like mine know so that we can try to help)? 

I look to you for ideas!

 

What in the World is an Invasive Species ? October 25, 2010

Today I read a great, quick article on www.Governing.com about research that is looking to turn invasive plants into biofuel.  It got me thinking about the whole subject of invasives and wondering whether most people have a good idea of what they are.  I’d be curious to have your feedback – when it comes to invasive species, what do you know?

The federal definition of an invasive species is a species (plant, animal, disease) that isn’t native to the area that causes or is likely to cause harm to human health, to the environment or to the economy. Whether a species is or isn’t native to an area is usually determined by looking at historical records – if it existed before colonists arrived, it’s native. If it arrived since then, it’s non-native or exotic.  Not all non-natives are invasive, though. If you think about many of our fruits and vegetables, they originally came from somewhere else, but they don’t grow out of control and take over forests and meadows. They stay where they’ve been planted.

Invasives, on the other hand, grow like wildfire.  One Japanese barberry shrub can become dozens upon dozens as birds and people spread their seeds. One emerald ash borer can become thousands as people move firewood from state to state.  Invasives are such a concern to me and the rest of the conservation community because they out-compete our native plants for space, and our native animals for food.  They grow so densely that they can block trails and access to stream and river banks.  The cost of trying to rid ourselves of these invaders runs into the billions of dollars each year. 

An invasive shrub - Japanese Barberry

What makes something invasive? Well, typically they reproduce quickly or produce abundant amounts of seed.  Purple loosestrife, for instance, can produce millions of seeds per plant per year!  Many invasive plants can also reproduce vegetatively, meaning that they send out underground rhizomes (root-like) that sprout new plants. Cut down a Tree-of-Heaven and you’ll have dozens of little sproutlets in its place. Invasives can grow pretty quickly too; mile-a-minute vine and kudzu can grow up to a foot a day in some parts of the country!  Plus they usually don’t have any natural enemies trying to feed on them; that puts them at a competitive advantage over our native species.  If you’ve ever seen a streambank covered with Japanese knotweed you’ll notice that there are very few insect chew holes on the leaves. Japanese beetles (you guessed it – another invasive!) are one of the few insects in the U.S. that will bother trying to eat it!
 
What does all this mean for the average Pennsylvanian? Well, no matter whether you own a piece of land or not, you can do something about invasive species.  It boils down to planting species that we know are not invasive.  The easiest way to do that is choose natives.  The second easiest way is to look at www.invasive.org and make sure the plants you’re planning on buying aren’t on their lists.  Many nurseries and big box retailers still sell plants that are considered invasive in some parts of the country. Know what to look for and avoid.  If you have pets, especially the reptile and amphibian kind, do not release them into the wild.  More likely than not they’ll die, but a few may survive and become and invasive nuisance. Pythons are doing it in Florida; red-eared slider turtles are doing it here in Pa. 

An invasive tree - Norway Maple

 
Don’t move firewood from place to place. This is one major way invasive insects travel from state to state, wreaking havoc to trees along the way.  If you’re out hiking or mountain biking, brush of your boots and tires before going somewhere else. Otherwise invasive seeds can hitch-hike on your gear.  Cleaning of boats and fishing tackle is also important to cut down on the spread of aquatic invasives like zebra mussels, rock snot and hydrilla.
 
Some people ask why we bother with invasives.  Some are well-established, they cost a lot of money to control, and after all – aren’t human beings the ultimate invasive species? Well, yes I guess we could be considered an invasive. I’m sure the countless extinct plants and animals would call us that if they could.  But because we have the ability to think and act it, shouldn’t we try?  Yes, invasive species control can cost a lot of money but the cost of inaction is far greater.  The economic damage to our crops, timber industry and health from invasives is much higher than the control costs.  And yes, some invasive species are pretty common by now, since for decades they were allowed to spread uncontrolled, but now that we know their negative impacts, if we can act, why not try? 
 
Want to learn more about invasive plants? I highly recommend: http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/forestry/invasivetutorial/index.htm.  For invasive animals (including insects) and pathogens (plus additional info on plants), check out www.invasive.org.