Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

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.

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.

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.