Great Balls of Birds

Posted by admin on November 15, 2013  |   No Comments »
European Starling  Credit: Gary Mueller

European Starling
Credit: Gary Mueller

One of my friends phones every so often, as she commutes home from Salem, Oregon to Portland, to describe the enormous flocks of birds that change shapes in the sky. “They’re starlings,” I tell her. The Willamette Valley is not the only place the mesmerizing murmurations of starlings occur. In fact, starlings are not native to the Americas; they are native to England. Today, another friend sent a link to a 4 minute video by a British wildlife photographer who describes his wonder that the birds’ communication allows them to create these evolving formations.

Some time ago, a videoof a young woman’s experience watching the starling flocks (flock appears at 0:24 sec. in this 2-minute film) in a very different environment was featured as was part of a blogpost from my favorite Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. The accompanying blog post explains the phenomenon and points readers several research articles. As you computational biologists might suspect, the starlings relate to their “nearest seven neighbors.”

Whether you love the birds, the mathematics, or the surprise, the murmuration is a lovely phenomenon.

An Unusual Woman on Pribilof Island Seals

Posted by admin on November 12, 2013  |   No Comments »
An Inspiring Diary

An Inspiring Diary

First person accounts of experiencing wildlife allow us to imagine what scientific papers never convey: the sight, smell, touch, sound of the animals which most of us never encounter. Libby: The Sketches, Letters & Journal of Libby Beaman, Recorded in the Pribilof Islands 1879-1880 is an astounding experience of a year in one of the most remote places on earth by a woman of unusual sensibilities and observational abilities.

While I look for her diary on seals themselves, I recommend that you consider taking an armchair trip to a unique environment in a unique time, just after the purchase of Alaska.

the bachelors–and the matkas live on the abundant sea life in these waters. They have no defenses. Twice we’ve seen Orcas chase them right up against rocks in the surf and swallow them….After the mating season, which will last until the end of July, the harems will break up…and…there will be even greater motion on the rookeries. Finally, when the freezing boorga blows out of Siberia about the end of August, all the seals will swim away…until the following spring, when again they will come back in the same order–the bulls first, then the bachelors, then the cows, and finally the pups.

The Pribilofs

The Pribilofs

Among the many observations made by Ms. Beaman is that “pelagic pirating” created a threat to the herds reestablished after the Russian “depredation” of the seals in the region.

So fascinating is Beaman’s account that I’ve begun a search for “The Seal Book,” which is a separate diary with observations about the seals’ behavior.

Four Wings = Super Chicken?

Posted by admin on October 18, 2013  |   No Comments »

Feathered Dinosaur

Credit: Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

Figuring out how present-day species evolved is not chicken feed. It’s lots of digging–literally and figuratively–through museum specimens, published work, and new finds. New technologies give us tools to figure out who is related to whom. Nevertheless, many questions about bird evolution remain. The idea I was not prepared for was that progenitors of birds had four wings.

This blog posting from Greg Laden blew my mind. I’d never heard of or imagined four-winged birds. Laden’s blog unearthed a long-suppressed cartoon theme song, “Call for Super Chicken.” After all, wouldn’t a bird with four wings be “super?”

The trouble with a great blog post is that it creates a need to know more. Who knew an early “bird” flew like a biplane? Turns out that Ed Yong did. He crafted a consumable version of a paper published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, including an idealized picture of the four-winger for our friends at National Geographic.

By the way, I’m excited to have discovered Greg Laden, evolutionary biologist. After all, anyone who’s seen a bird eat a monkey in the wild is cool in my book. And I’ll be following Ed Yong’s writing too.

What evolutionary pathways make your wings quiver? Discuss.

Are Pythons and the Everglades a Stand [Slither] In for All Invasive Species?

Posted by admin on September 14, 2012  |   3 Comments »

Along with other bloggers–most notably DotEarth’s Andrew Revkin at the New York Times–I’ve been thinking pythons as a result of the enormous and egg-laden female widely-reported as captured in the Everglades.  Revkin’s post discusses scientists’ efforts to minimize the effects of this particular invasive species in the unique and much-visited environment.  By this morning, Emma Maris, author and invasive species pundit had expressed a different opinion: Let the pythons be.  Another way to look at this debate is to substitute “Asian carp,” or ” Wakame kelp and Northern Pacific seastars,” anglers find washing up in Oregon’s coast aboard tsunami debris. In other words, invaders can change economic realities, and it doesn’t take generations to feel the impact.

Pythons are impressive

Three of 87 eggs from the Burmese python
Credit: Kristen Grace, University of Florida

This dialogue has not moved me past my open-mouthed admiration at the size of python eggs (larger than an old-fashioned meat ball) as well as the  87 eggs this 164.5-pound  17 ft. 7 in. female developed in the three months she was tracked.  In comparison, an average clutch of eggs for Burmese pythons is 40, according to Robert H. Robins, senior biologist at  the Florida Museum of Natural History. Just one more thing about the pythons that Robins explained: “The eggs are tended by the female, who surrounds them with her coils. ..[and] may employ ‘shivering  thermogenesis’ to regulate the temperature of the clutch of eggs. Upon hatching, the young and female part ways.”  This female, according to USGS sources, was recaptured and removed before she laid her eggs.

Is studying pythons useful?

The python was tracked with microtransmitter devices that recorded everything she did. In science, knowledge is power.  Revkin reports details from  Kristen M. Hart, a research ecologist with the survey: “The female was … in the wild for 38 days, and during this time her eggs developed. We did not know that she was fully reproductive when we put her out. We suspected she might be breeding this year based on her size and excellent body condition.” Robins also referred to  Dr. Kristen Hart of the USGS’s studies  regarding management strategies for the Burmese python. Robbins says that Hart is studying the Burmese python problem to curtail its spread. “Once a non-indigenous species is both established and widespread there is no hope of eradication,” says Robbins. “I cannot think of a single instance in the long litany of human-induced species introductions, resulting in a widespread alien population, whereby the invader was subsequently eradicated.”

At DotEarth’s discussion in the Times, Ms. Marris commented that since “pythons were likely here to stay …[and], since the Everglades will probably be underwater in a few generations anyway…we should focus on protecting areas uphill so the species we like in the marsh have somewhere to go.” The thought of pythons spreading throughout the southeast and southwestern U.S., as is possible without intervention, I have trouble agreeing with Ms. Marris on the “let the pythons spread” concent. However, I do agree with her that: “… But it isn’t the pythons’ fault. It is our fault for introducing them. ”

Python dumpers = ignorant law breakers

According to Robins, Burmese pythons have been released or escaped into the wilds of southern Florida over a great many years, likely as one unwanted pet at a time. Most python experts point to the extreme southern Everglades along the Main Park Road to Flamingo, near West Lake as where reproduction and the spread truly got going. Unfortunately, neither current nor future legislation would likely stop the dumping.

Reflecting our national tendency to use legislation rather than science or citizen action to “solve problems,” the Humane Society of the United States issued a press release on a related story, that 11-foot Burmese python is on the loose in Albertville, Ala. Of course, legislation described in this release–another ban on animal possession–originated in Florida.  Who can blame legislators for proposing to ban possession of  large predators? The problem is that we already have laws making the “release,” a polite word for dumping unwanted pets, illegal. Why add another law or regulation that pepole will ignore?

Florida Statute § 379.231 makes it illegal to release non-indigenous species in Florida, says Robins. In addition, Florida, state law requires that “anyone owning a Burmese python must possess a permit,” says Robbins. “Typically, folks willing to deal with that degree of regulation are among the most responsible owners/breeders. I would anticipate that the purposeful release of Burmese pythons is at an all-time low, but ..the damage has been done.” Robins adds, ” these snakes are firmly established and reproducing. Population growth is rapid,and following a hard freeze in 2010 that culled a great number of less-cold-hardy individuals, one can expect that the population will continue to grow.

Can pythons become the attraction to the Everglades?

” Burmese pythons have excellent camouflage and are most active at dusk, dawn, and night when visitors are few,” says Robins.
Still, these are large bodied animals …abundant in the park and much of the wilds of South Florida [making] likely that visitors to the Park will encounter the snakes from time to time. In the winter, the animals are more likely to bask in the open and be more easily seen.”

Although most of us don’t depend on Eveglades tourism for our living, many of us are increasingly affected by invasive species.  The Everglades story, flashy because of the animal itself, and the biblical overtones as described by Maris, could be the story of the Oregon and New England coasts.



University of Florida (2012, August 13). Florida state record 87 eggs in largest python from Everglades. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 17, 2012, from­ /releases/2012/08/120813155523.htm.

Marris, Emma 2012, August 17)  Emma Marris: In Defense of Everglades Pythons.Dot Earth New York Times. Retrieved August 17, 2012, from

Monroe, Bill (2012, August 11). Anglers, boaters are on the front line of the Japanese tsunami debris field. Oregon Live. Retrieved August 17, 2012, from

Revkin, Andrew (2012, August 15) Biologists Track Biggest Florida Python. . Dot Earth New York Times. Retrieved August 17, 2012 from

Robins, Robert H. , Senior Biologist/Collection Manager, Division of Ichthyology, Florida Museum of Natural History (2012, August 14) Personal communication.


What Happens When Birds Disappear?

Posted by admin on August 10, 2012  |   No Comments »

Accidental introduction of an alien species to Guam created a laboratory for understanding what happens when a species—in this case birds—disappear from an environment. H.S. Rogers, Ph.D., Huxley faculty fellow at Rice University, presented her discoveries at the Environmental Society of America annual meeting August 8 in Portland, OR. In the 1940’s, the brown tree snake, native to Northern Australia and New Guinea, hitchhiked aboard U.S. military planes supplying Guam airbases. By the 1980’s, the tree snakes had virtually eliminated the forest birds of Guam. However, nearby Marianas Islands, without the brown tree snake, still have forest birds. This contrast created a perfect laboratory for Rogers’ investigation of what happens when birds disappear. The effects are both cultural and ecological.

Cultural effects
The birds remain an important indigenous cultural resource in the Marianas, the Chamorro on Guam miss the birds for many reasons. An entire generation has grown up without tasting the traditional foods or seeing a native forest bird, the chichirika, (Rufus Fantail) that appears often in Chamorro stories. “The younger generation has given the name Chichirika to the non-native Eurasian Tree Sparrow,” says Rogers. In addition, Guam residents never hear forest birdsong.

Mariana Fruit Dove
Credit: Isaac Chellman

Ecological effects
Rogers’ study has also investigated the ecological role of forest birds as seed dispersers and as consumers of pests. Although the pest research is still underway, Rogers’ spider counts show population growth of 2 to 40 times the number in comparable locations on islands with birds. Her working hypothesis is that the spiders may be replacing birds as top predators. However, nothing has replaced birds as seed dispersers. Birds eating fruit seeds deposit them far away from the “mother tree.” In addition, birds’ digestive action makes seeds 2 to 4 times more likely to germinate. Loss of the birds has caused two tree species to have a lower number of  germinating seeds.

Cautionary tale for U.S. economy
Rogers’ study presents a cautionary tale. Asian Carp are eradicating native species in Midwestern waterways, pythons are changing the Everglades, and the same Styela clava (sea squirt) that has devastated the Australian and English shellfish industry is threatening U.S. East Coast shellfish beds. The tree snakes cannot be eradicated, so the forest birds will never return to Guam. The question is whether the U.S. can stop the spread of non-native species that threaten important economic icons.

Cat Adoption: Summer-time is Prime-time

Posted by admin on August 7, 2012  |   No Comments »

The Oregon Humane Society (OHS), like most shelters, faces a huge influx of young cats each spring and summer. “August is the height of kitten season,” according to shelter spokesperson David Lytle.  “Because of this, OHS, during August, offers two cats for a single adoption fee. The regular $55.00 adoption fee includes spaying, first round of vaccinations, an  identifying microchip, a collar and ID tag, a free first vet exam, and one free month of health insurance.

Credit: Oregon Humane Society

Tiva, a four-year-old domestic shorthair is one of the adoptable cats at  OHS.  This svelte 8-pound kitty is a funny, playful eye-catcher. Although she loves to snuggle and cuddle, shelter behavioral specialists caution that Tiva needs a home with older children, as she does enjoy some quiet time., a website that directs potential adoptive families to animals available from local shelters,  also provides information on  finding the right cat to adopt. Petfinder’s advice is to consider an older cat. While kittens are adorable, their care requires an extraordinary amount of time. In addition, older cats have well-formed personalities and have reached their adult size, giving you a look at your cat’s personality as he or she will likely be day-to-day. A young adult, like Tiva, is often a very good choice and has a long life ahead of her.

During August, your OHS adoption fee also includes a second cat at no additional cost. OHS  always encourages people to adopt two cats. “Felines crave attention and stimulation, so when left alone they can be naughty,” says Lytle. “If you adopt a pair of cats that are compatible, they’ll keep each other entertained and out of trouble.” Petfinder’s library of articles emphasizes the importance of having space to adopt two cats and ensuring that the two felines are compatible. Reviewing these articles, you’ll learn more about cats, whether you’re a beginner or a veteran.

Adopting the right cat for you.


If you feel you need to justify your adoption, consider this: Pet companionship is a powerful force for comfort and stability in a world that seems a bit upside down.  Studies show that the simple act of petting your devoted companion lowers your blood pressure and stress hormones.

The Mayo Clinic on pets and health.


Friends Help Friends Faster: Not Just a Human Trait

Posted by admin on August 1, 2012  |   No Comments »

Credit: Giyarto / German Primate Center

Friends react faster when a friend calls for help than when a stranger calls, according to study results released July 31. Makes sense, except that the subjects in the study weren’t human.  They were crested black macaques (Macaca nigra). Dr. Antje Engelhard, working from an Indonesian field station near Mt. Tangkoko, tested the reaction of group members to alarm calls that macaques make when they see a python. (Pythons are one type of snake that eats macaques.) The alarm call of a macaque attracts other macaques to help drive away the predator. Analysis of video-recordings made by the researchers showed that friend macaques react faster than stranger macaques. Englehard concludes that social bonds are more important than kinship in cooperative defense against predators.

Credit: Google Maps and Shannon McKown

Macaques discover and mob a python. Watch carefully for the python!
This is a natural situation, caught on camera.
Here researchers play a pre-recorded alarm call
from a friend of the macaque in the video.
Here researchers play a recorded alarm call from a macaque
that is not friendly with the macaque in the video.
Note to all macaques: I am your friend! Seriously, getting a sense of scale in the videos is tough. FYI, those bad girls are 11+ lbs. with big ole’ canine teeth.

Here’s what you need to know: Male crested macaques weigh about 22 lbs., about twice as much as the average female, according to the Primate Information Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In Tangkoko, on the island of Sulawesi, these primates travel in groups “varying from 27 to 97 individuals.” These macaques mainly eat fruit, but they also consume seeds and leaves, flowers, and pith (center portion) of many stems, as well as fungi, bird eggs, birds, lizards, and frogs.

Note to self: Always serve what the macaques like when throwing a dinner party for them.



  • German Primate Center (2012, July 31). Friends help more promptly, at least in monkeys. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 1, 2012.
  • Cawthon Lang KA. 2006 February 2. Primate Factsheets: Crested black macaque (Macaca nigra) Taxonomy, Morphology, & Ecology<>. Accessed 2012 August 1.

Update: Green Turtle

Posted by admin on June 29, 2012  |   No Comments »
Credit Oregon Coast Aquarium

Sea Turtle Undergoes Treatment

Jim Burke, Director of Animal Husbandry, and his team at the Oregon Coast Aquarium have been busy tending to the 135 lb. Green turtle that washed up near Moolach Shores last week. The turtle’s body temperature was 58 degrees.  That, and the slow heart rate, as well as the lack of trauma to the turtle’s body, led Jim to conclude that the turtle was a victim of –wait for it—hypothermic stunning. More about that in a few paragraphs.

The turtle’s blood was shipped to Kansas because –well– not everyone knows how to do reptile bloodwork. The report, as expected, showed severe dehydration; also, some other indicators looked “wonky.”

At Oregon Coast Aquarium Undergoing Treatment

Green Turtle
Credit: Oregon Coast Aquarium

Nothing can happen fast with a cold reptile.   As hydrating fluids have been given through IV’s, Jim has slowly brought the turtle’s temperature up to 74 °F, an increase of 16° in the week since the turtle was carried off the sand. (Yes, you measure a turtle’s temperature as you’d imagine–through the cloaca.)  With this turtle, everything is  about temperature. The Oregon Coast is way off the turtle’s regular path; he belongs much further south.  Jim speculates that this guy rode a “cell” of warm water north, and when the “cell” dissapated, the turtle found himself in a large body of very cold water; the result was hypothermic stunning.  (You knew I’d get back to that term, because it’s just too good.)

As much as he’d like to, Jim can’t put this wild turtle on an flight from PDX to San Diego secure a happy ending to this story, at least not yet.   First, the turtle’s health was and is extremely fragile. Hypothermia often creates lasting damage, which we’ll explore in a later update.  Second, wild animals often cannot handle the stress of captivity, even when everyone is trying to help them back into the wild. Nevertheless,  Jim hopes to see enough recovery book this chelodon on a one-way  Southwest Airlines flight to Sea World San Diego for more rehabilitation. No ideas on time frame, as we’re all on turtle time.

While we wait, can you help me with this Green turtle puzzle? After  40 minutes, I still can’t finish.  I can get the turtle, but that dang border is giving me trouble.  You might say that I’m progressing at a turtle’s pace.

More updates as we hear from Jim.  Are there questions you’d like to ask?  I’ll pass them along.

Stranded Sea Turtle Tended By Oregon Aquarium

Posted by admin on June 25, 2012  |   No Comments »

The Oregon Coast Aquarium is rehabilitating a stranded sea turtle, found on Moolack Beach in Newport last Monday night.

Jim Rice, Moolack Shores Staff Move Turtle
Photo credit: Nadine Fuller

The male Green sea turtle was was discovered by a visitor at Moolack Beach. Jim Rice, Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network Coordinator, responded and transported the animal to the Oregon Coast Aquarium for urgent care. Aquarium husbandry staff is working closely with veterinarians to improve the turtle’s condition enough to transport it to a warm water sea turtle rehabilitation facility, with the ultimate goal of release into its natural habitat.

On Tuesday, 6-26, the aquarium will again take the turtle’s temperature, begin an antibiotic infusion, apply eyedrops as well as assess the turtle’s progress. The turtle’s condition is stable, but the extent of any internal injuries is unknown. [We will publish an update on the turtle’s condition on Tuesday, 6-26 after the examination.]

Jim Burke, Aquarium Director of Animal Husbandry, said the turtle’s normal temperature is close to that of its natural habitat, about 72-82 degrees, and this turtle was found at 58 degrees. Fluids are being infused into the animal’ s coelomic (abdominal) cavity to warm and hydrate it and when its body temperature is high enough, it will receive antibiotics. We don’t know how sick [the turtle] is…We’re waiting for him to warm up and take food.

Burke said reptiles can slow their metabolism, which allows a window of time when they can be rescued, rehabilitated and successfully released. Burke speculates that the turtle may have found itself in a warm water pocket, surrounded by cold water. Once the warm water dissipates, they become hypothermic and go into a hibernation-like state, called brumation, and they can no longer navigate or survive.

The Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), is a large sea turtle belonging to the family Cheloniidae. Their common name derives from the green fat underneath their shell. Anyone who finds a sea turtle on an Oregon beach should contact the Oregon State Police Wildlife Hotline at 1-800-452-7888 to ensure appropriate transport and care of the animal.  All sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Superheroes Revealed by Science

Posted by admin on June 9, 2012  |   No Comments »

This story is one of the reasons I mix science and nature on ThisWildLife.  Without new high speed photography and thermal imaging tools, and without the scientists doing work in the field, this Nature film on hummingbirds could never have been made.

Filmmaker Ann Johnson Prum calls hummingbirds nature’s heroes.  This would not have been news to Alexander Skutch, whose brilliant book on hummingbirds explained how hummingbird’s unique method of trapline feeding works and discussed the consumption of insects by these tiny creatures.  Much of what the film shows was known, but was difficult to show.  Science of photography and computing technology has made this possible.

When you have nine minutes, please watch this feature about the making of the Nature program.  The secrets of how the photographs were made are revealed.  Then, you can catch the video itself on Nature.

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