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)


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.


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.


Lyme Disease is on the Rise July 24, 2014

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 12:45 PM
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In my last post I talked about making wine drinking habits more environmentally-friendly. On a somewhat related note, last night I watched the documentary, “Somm”, about a bunch of guys preparing for the Master Sommelier test. The movie has nothing to do with the environment but I found it fascinating. If you’re into wine, I highly recommend the film. It is amazing the breadth and depth of knowledge they need to have in order to pass.

But now on to the real purpose of today’s blog…

Let’s talk about Lyme disease, a subject possibly near, yet not so dear, to my heart. Two weeks ago I went on a camping/backpacking trip in north-central Pennsylvania. When I got home I pulled three deer ticks and one dog tick off my legs. How nice! This past Sunday I started to feel extremely fatigued and sore. The next day I had a bad fever, chills and achy joints. If this was January I might chock it up to the flu, but I had a flu shot this year and I haven’t had any coughing, runny nose or anything like that. It all seemed so strange. Could it be Lyme disease, I wondered?

Lyme disease is caused by bacteria found in some deer ticks, also known as blacklegged ticks. Other kinds of ticks like dog ticks cannot transmit Lyme disease. Deer ticks are tiny, especially the nymphs (the life stage when they spread the disease most frequently), which are the size of a poppy seed, so finding them on your body, especially if you are particularly freckled, can be difficult. Approximately three percent of tick bites result in Lyme disease. The tick must remain attached to you for at least 36 to 48 hours in order to transmit the bacteria to your blood stream. So if you have been outside lately, it pays to check for ticks and remove them as soon as possible.

Common symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, headache, fatigue and a bull’s eye shaped skin rash called erythema migrans. If left untreated, the disease can cause joint pain and arthritis that recurs through the years.

According to the PA Department of Health, there were 5,758 recorded cases of Lyme disease in Pennsylvania in 2013, which is an all-time-high for the state. Pennsylvania is also one of the top states in the country for Lyme disease cases. One reason for these statistics is the state’s high number of white-tailed deer, particularly in suburban areas. Deer ticks spend part of their life on white-footed mice, then graduate to living on much larger mammals, preferably deer, but a passing human can work for the tick in a pinch. If you have mice and deer in the area, chances are good that infected deer ticks live there too. Watch out!

When I stopped by my doctor’s office to have blood drawn for the Lyme disease test, she said that in years past she would only diagnose one person each year with the disease, but that she’s already had four cases this year. Will I be the fifth? I hope not, but then again knowing what ails you is better than being in the dark. If this isn’t Lyme disease what the heck is it?! Wish me luck.

And next time you’re out enjoying a hike, don’t wear shorts like silly, old me. Sure it was hot out, but from now on I’ll take sweating over possibly getting more tick bites. And while I’m not a huge fan of bug spray, especially the pyrethrin that works so well at keeping ticks away, I may be more open to its use from now on. Better a little chemical exposure than having to take 30 days of extremely strong antibiotics that can cause severe allergic reactions to sunlight (this happened to my boss a few years ago – it looked like she has flesh-eating bacteria on her skin!).

Want more information on Lyme disease? The CDC has a very informative page at


Threatened, Endangered, Extinct: What Does it all Mean?! July 30, 2010

There is a lot of scientific terminology out there; how can anyone know what it all means? I work in the conservation field and sometimes even I am not 100 percent sure what all the terms means in relation to the commonness or rarity of a species, so I will try to give a brief summary here… 

When talking about threatened, endangered and extinct species, it helps to know whether you are discussing it from the state, federal or international perspective, because each may have slightly different definitions and regulations.  In terms of the U.S. federal government, some species fall under the Endangered Species Act.  Richard Nixon created this Act in 1973 to protect “imperiled” species from extinction caused by human development and economic growth.  The term “imperiled” is more commonly referred to as “endangered” and it signifies a species that could become extinct – i.e. completely die out on the planet.  

Once a species is put on the federal list it doesn’t mean that it will stay on there forever.  A conservationist’s ultimate goal might be to restore a species and its habitat to such an extent that the species is no longer endangered or threatened.  When that occurs the species is de-listed and loses some of the protections afforded to it by the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The bald eagle and gray wolf are examples of animals that were once on the brink of extinction, but thanks to conservation efforts, bans on hunting and pesticide laws, are now rebounding enough.  Species can also be “downlisted,” meaning that the threats against them have lessened, so they go from a status of endangered to threatened. 

While every state must obey the federal rules that apply to animals under the ESA states can also have their own versions of ESAs that cover other plants and animals.  California, for example, has their own ESA – the most comprehensive of all state acts (it’s modeled after the federal act).  Any threatened or endangered species in the state is protected under those regulations.  Their Department of Fish and Game works with developers, land owners and others to try to lessen the negative impacts of shopping mall, housing development, road construction, etc. on the listed species.  

My home state of Pennsylvania, on the other hand, does not have its own ESA.  There are “jurisdictional agencies,” however, that can create their own regulations protecting threatened and endangered species from harm.  The Pa. Fish and Boat Commission, as an example, has a list of protected reptiles, amphibians and fish – if the Commission catches someone hunting, trapping or otherwise harming these species they will be fined and/or put in jail.  The same goes for mammals and birds.  Unfortunately there is no state list of protected plants and insects in Pa.  If a developer wanted to build an industrial park on a field of endangered sedge, they could do so with no penalty or required mitigation.  State agencies still try to work with the developer to prevent this from happening but there are no legal “teeth” to it – it can only be a suggestion, not a requirement. 

Extinction is forever; you might have heard that phrase before.  While the statement is generally true, sometimes you hear of a supposedly extinct species, but then a few individuals are found, out of the blue.  The indri, a large lemur on the island of Madagascar, is one such species, as is the ivory-billed woodpecker, which some people claim to have seen in recent years in Arkansas.   I like to hope that there are enough pockets of good habitat in the world, away from the hands of man, where these so-called extinct species can continue to live on.  Sadly some species are truly extinct… the dodo bird and passenger pigeon are two well-known examples.  We can’t get those creatures back unless cloning on a Jurassic Park scale ever takes place. 

When you hear the word “extinct,” it typically applies on a global scale, but some species are locally-extinct (meaning that they have disappeared in a given area but more may survive elsewhere).  This is also referred to as “extirpation.”  Then there are the species that are “extinct in the wild,” meaning that the only remaining individuals of a species are in captivity, like the Hawaiian crow, Scimitar Oryx and Barbary lion.  Zoos may do captive breeding to increase the population with the hope of releasing some back into the wild, but that won’t be possible for every species.  Some have no habitat to go back to, like the red-tailed black shark.  This small freshwater fish, common in the aquarium trade (I had 2 growing up!), is extinct in the wild.  Dams on rivers in Thailand are the main blame for the species’ extinction, and unless someone removes the dams, there is little change the fish could ever be reintroduced.  

When you get down to it, this terminology encompasses the breadth of species out there, our impacts (both positive and negative) on them, and the need to conserve what we can.  For as John Muir, one of the fathers of the conservation movement, once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”  If we lose an endangered species to extinction, it may affect many other species as well.