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Everyone grew up watching cartoons in which elephants were shown to run away in absolute terror at the sight of a mouse.

It made for some good television, but it was hardly accuracy. As I do recall, The Simpsons parodied this old convention by having an elephant eat a live mouse– which is about as accurate as the elephant shrieking in fear at the sight of a rodent.

However, there is a small creature that elephants do fear.

As you saw from that clip, African savanna elephants will avoid the sound of buzzing bees. I have heard of these elephants knocking down trees to eat the leaves, and I have heard of them digging down to the water table in the desert in order to get a good drink and a mud bath.

But I have never heard of them raiding bee hives for honey.

We all know that African honey bees are very aggressive when aroused. In the Americas, introduced African bees have hybrid with European domestic honey bees and have spread throughout Latin American to the Southwestern United States and Floriuda. These are the “killer bees,” which do kill people every year.  When I was a kid,  the killer bee had not yet arrived in the US, but we were told that they were coming and soon would take over the whole of the United States. Of course, it was later determined that they couldn’t live in any place that had a real winter, so their range will forever be confined to the milder parts of California, the Desert Southwest, most of Texas, the Subtropical South, and Florida.

But such aggressive bee-havior, must have some effect upon the elephants. Even with their thick hides, the aggressive stinging swarms must be too much for them.

One of the real problems facing elephants in Africa is that human population continues to expand, and these humans are forced to settle in regions that are within core conservation areas for a wide variety of wildlife. Elephants are known for their opportunistic foraging habits– and their heightened levels of aggression toward people who disturb them. So elephants and poor farmers are not natural friends. Elephants kill many people every year, and they eat a lot of crops– not a trivial issue when so many people in Africa are going hungry.

So last year, it was proposed that African villages use the elephants’ fear of bees to solve this problem. High-voltage electric fences will keep elephants out of settled areas, but it is not a practical solution at all. Many regions in Africa have poor access to electricity, and setting up and maintaining the fences is quite costly. However, setting up “bee fences” is far more practical.

So the first experimental bee fences were put up this year.  Bee hives were established along the perimeter of cultivated fields at 17 farms in Kenya that had long suffered elephant raids.  Within the test area, the elephants stopped 97 percent of their attempted crop raids when they heard the bees buzzing.

This is truly an amazing discovery, and what’s more, the bees themselves will produce honey that the farmers can use for themselves or sell at profit. An electric fence does nothing but expend resources, but a bee fence could generate its own revenue. They also are useful in pollinating crops, and they can be set up in virtually any part of Africa where elephants occur.

Lucy King, a researcher at Oxford University, has been the main force behind these studies, which underscore the need for practical solutions to real conservation problems.

It is one thing for those of us in the West to rock back on our heels and whine about how the various African governments won’t do anything to save their wildlife. Such whining makes certain Westerners feel good about themselves, I guess.

But if we are actually to come up with real solutions to these problems, the human development part of the problem must be considered.

Westerners can say all they want about saving the elephants, but no one in the West will ever have most of their food and income taken by elephants. No one in the West is ever going to face an elephant attack or bury a loved one who has died at the hands of a pachyderm.

We can say all we want.

But unless we think about the needs of the people who actually live there, we will never be able to save the elephants.

Do you think any government can turn a blind eye to an animal that is that much of a threat to small farmers just to placate the demands of relatively wealthy Westerners?

Lucy King is putting her conservation values in action. She is trying to find real solutions to these problems.

And it will take many more people like her throughout the conservation movement to really make a difference for endangered and threatened species.

We have to be concerned about people if we are to save wildlife.

We ignore this element at our own peril.

 

 

 

 

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When I was growing up, I spent a large part of my summers at the beach. My aunt and uncle had a condo on the Outer Banks, and my family used to spend three weeks a summer there. We would go when school was out for the summer, and then we would go again for the Fourth of July. We would make a final trip before school started again. It was a way to spend the summer– part of it in the bucolic countryside of West Virginia and part of it only sea-salted air of the Outer Banks.

I am not a person who sunbathes. I don’t think we humans are meant to be walruses, hauling our bodies onto the shore and letting the sun beat down on us. I am a beach comber, and I have always been interested in what animals use the littoral zone. I am pretty good at identifying the shorebirds of the North Carolina coast, and I have seen sea turtle tracks that reach from the surf to their nesting places on the beach. However, to get to really experience these things, I would always walk as far as  I could from the public bathing areas and the resorts. Only the intrepid would ever go so far, for the sand flies and mosquitoes tended to be rather strong at certain points during the summer and narrow barrier islands are rather hard to negotiate during high tide.

I have seen lots of interesting things wash ashore.

I remember walking along the beach during what we call “spring break” in the US. It actually happens in the late winter. In fact, it was snowing in West Virginia when we left. However, the beach in winter can be a remarkable place. I saw lots of cormorants diving among the waves. I also watched large numbers of brown pelicans dive into the water. Now, in the summer months, I rarely saw cormorants, and the number of pelicans diving from the sky was much lower.

But that was not the most interesting bird I saw on that trip.

I saw a dead white bird that had washed ashore in a raft of seaweed. When I approached it I could see it was a northern gannet, a bird I had only read about but had never seen. It was too bad that I had come across a dead specimen rather than a living one.

But even that bird wasn’t the most interesting thing I’ve found while beach combing.

One summer I was walking along the coast early in the morning. The tide was out, but at the narrow points on the beach the surf was beginning to come in. The surf was starting to nip at my heels as I passed the public bathing area.

As soon as I was through, the beach opened up in all its white sandy glory. Joggers were running down the coast. Some of them at the far end of the island were but tiny specs.  The sea breeze was blowing gently. The gulls were lining the shore, while the turns squabbled over their position on the beach. A skimmer hovered over the surf, occassionally lowering its thick bottom jaw into to the water to troll for small fish. All was as beach on the Outer Banks should be.

As I walked on, I saw a grey shape looming ahead. I noticed a mother and a daughter stopping to look at it. They had baskets full of shells, and I assumed they had found some interesting shells around that grey lump of flotsam or jetsam.

I continued on, keeping my eye peeled for the dolphins I had seen the day before. They were Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. I had often seen them foraging just a few yards off shore.  The day before the dolphins had come in really close. I surmised that there had been a shoal of small bait fish close to the coast that day, and the dolphins had cornered them up against the beach for easy picking.

As I kept walking, I noticed that the grey lump had a tail. In fact, the tail had a fluke, just like a dolphin. Could it be a dolphin that beached on the shore?

I  hastened my pace. I did not full out run, because I knew that if I started running towards the shape, it would definitely draw attention to it. So I kept walking, just at quicker pace.

When I got close enough to the grey lump, I realized that I had come across something really interesting. It was a cetacean. And unfortunately, it was quite dead.

However, it was not a bottlenose dolphin.

It head was thick and rounded, much more like a whale than any dophin I had seen. Its bottom jaw was tiny by comparison. Its jaw was lined with thick, sharp teeth.

I knew what I had come across. A few months before, I had purchased a guide book to the marine mammals of North America. I had learned that there were three species of sperm whale. One was the cachalot, the great whale that grappled with giant squid many fathoms down below the surface. It was the species immortalized in Melville’s Moby Dick.  The other two were much smaller. The one most common on the East Coast is the pygmy sperm whale, and it is better known for being a light shade gray and a more conical head shape. The other species of sperm whale is also small. It is called the dwarf sperm whale. It has a squarer head and darker coloration. It also has a larger dorsal fin in proportion to its body size.

I knew that I had come across a pygmy sperm whale. I was quite surprised. I ran back to tell my parents, who followed me closesly back to the whale. By then a crowd had gathered aroud the whale. And suddenly found myself like George Costanza, an impromptu marine biologist. I explained the taxonomy of the species and how it was related to the bigger sperm whale that everyone knows. I explained how its jagged teeth helped it catch squid, which are its primary food source.

I suppose someone from Marine Fisheries collected the animal. It wasn’t there when I went on my afternoon excursion down the beach.

The whale had a large gash on its head. I had guessed that it had been cut by teh propeller of a boat, which had mortally wounded the whale. It had then staggered in closer to shore, hoping that coming closer to shore would keep the sharks at at distance.

But then I began to wonder about the dolphins. Perhaps the dolphins had been attracted to the whale’s distress cries and had come to its aid. Maybe they hadn’t bunched up a shoal of bait fish against the beach after all.  Perhaps the propeller had damaged the whale’s melon, and it couldn’t find its way back to deeper water. Or maybe its brain was damaged, and it went to shore to die. The dolphins could have been trying to lead the whale back to deeper water.

My suspicions were furth substantiated when I read about this Indo-Pacific bottlenosed dolphin in New Zealand. This dolphin had helped a female pygmy sperm whale and her calf that came to close to the shore. The dolphin guided the whales back away from the beach and into deeper water. Perhaps that was what the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins were doing that day in North Carolina.

So a pygmy sperm whale is the most interesting thing I’ve found on the beach. It’s not the Montauk Monster, but it was far more interesting.

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As I have mentioned on Retrieverman, I absolutely love this book. It is the best book I’ve ever read on dogs, and I also love it that the main dog subjects in the book are breeds with which I have some familiarity– Labs, goldens, and border collies. The author’s dog is a stray retriever of one of the following permuations: Lab/golden cross, Lab/redbone hound cross, or golden/redbone hound cross (which is what I think he was).

“Merle” was discovered on the San Juan River in Utah. He was a feral dog that lived on  the game he killed and what food he could cajole out of tourists. When he discovers the author’s rafting party, he decides that he wants to stay with the author. He almost says to the author “You need a dog, and I’m it.”

The dog is taken to the author’s residence in the wilds of Wyoming. The small of Kelly allows the dogs to roam off-leash, provided they learn to leave livestock alone.

Because of this freedom, the dogs are given a lot of opportunities to socialize with each other and with people. Further, the dogs develop an understanding of the natural world around them, which is very useful for a nature writer.

The author is brought to many interesting insights because of Merle. He notices that Merle tends to sniff the front tracks of the pronghorn more intensely than the hind tracks. When the author shoots a pronghorn, he sniffs the front hooves and back hooves to see if he can discern a difference in their odors. He discovers that the front hooves smell more strongly of sage than the back ones.

Later, while on a long hike in the mountains, Merle stops and looks into a stand of pines. When the author stops and does looks in the same direction that Merle does, he sees a grizzly bear lumbering out of the trees.

Because Merle grew up in such a rich environment and then was allowed to use his intelligence and instincts as a “free-thinking dog,” that Merle develops very good manners with people. His innate people reading skills, which all dogs possess, have been heightened because of his freedom.

Merle’s intelligence begins to reach another level, though, and this finding is one of the most controversial in the book. Merle is taken to the chiropracter regularly. The chiropracter has a full-length mirror that covers an entire wall. One day, the author sees Merle look at the mirror and then look back at him. Then the dog drops to the floor and begins doing behaviors that look like he can tell that the mirror is his reflection, wriggling his paws from side to side and rolling over. He does this with his eyes focused on the mirror. Now, dogs have never officially passed the mirror test for self awareness, but if this finding were true, then we can say that dogs are self-aware.

Today we think dogs ought to be under our control all the time. They must obey us at all times, or they will become “dominant.” Either that, or we believe that they are stupid animals that are controlled entirely by conditioned responses. Thus, we keep them under our controll all the time in order to better control their environments. Both of these theories are depriving dogs of their innate natures, which partially that of the wolf and partially that of a very strongly humanized animal.

I wish we all could live in places where we could give our dogs some modicum of freedom and allow them to interact with their own kind and us in more natural ways. But lacking such liberal dog laws in most areas, we need to ensure that off-leash areas still exist. Because of all the animals we live with, the dog is one of the most complex.  New research is showing how much domestication has turned the dog’s mind into something more like  of people. They have evolved advanced cognitive abilities that we have not seen any other non-human species, including the great apes. It is only now that we have really started to appreciate how amazingly intelligent dogs are. It is time that we kept them with a deep appreciation for this intelligence.

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In ascending order:

3.  The Javan Tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica) This tiger subspecies lived on the Indonesian island  of Java. The last recorded specimen was spotted in 1972. However, the distinct pug marks of three Javan tigers were identified in 1979. Officially, this subspecies has been considered extinct since the 1980’s.

But unofficially, sightings continue. In November of 2008, the body of a female hiker was found in Mount Merbabu National Park. Supposely, she had been killed by a tiger. In January 2009, a tigress with two cubs was spotted near a village in East Java.

Now, this evidence points to the very real possibility that the Javan tiger is not yet extinct. The conformation of this subspecies species would be a real boon to tiger conservation around the world.

cougar

2. The Eastern cougar (Puma concolor couguar)– The mountain lion/cougar/puma/catamount species once ranged through much of the Americas, including parts of eastern Canada and the East Coast of the US. Today, the cat has been officially extirpated from that range.  It can be found in the Western US, but the only state in the East where it can still be found is Florida, where the unique Florida subspecies is called the “Florida panther.”

Today, cougars have been sighted throughout the eastern part of North America. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have had their fair share of sitings, as has have the Appalachian Mountain states, especially West Virginia, where the Eastern Cougar Foundation is located. This species has been known to live rather close to man. A population of these cats can be found around the outskirts of Los Angeles, and many people don’t even realize that these cats live there. It is very possible for a population of these big cats to remain hidden for a rather long time. Sightings continue to be on the increase.

eskimo-curlew

1. Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis)– Now, you would know that someone with a bit of an ornithological bent would choose a bird to be his number 1. And this is quite a bird. At one point, it was probably the most numerous shorebird in the Americas. Today, it is either extinct or critically endangered.

These birds made epic migrations every year from the pampas of Argentina to the Alaskan and Western Canadian Arctic, which were its breeding grounds. These birds traveled in mass flocks that would descend upon the marshes and farm fields. Settlers called them “prairie pigeons,” because they reminded their massive flocks reminded them of the vast flocks “wild pigeons” (passenger pigeons) that lived in the East. However, their presence wasn’t welcome. Not realizing that these shorebirds didn’t eat grain, the farmers shot them as pests. They didn’t realize how many harmful insects the curlews were eating each year.

It is estimated that around 2 million Eskimo curlews were killed per year in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Such a heavy killing meant that it didn’t take long for the species to dwindle to next to nothing.

The official status on the Eskimo curlew is that it is not extinct. However, it is very rare. It was last confirmed on Galveston Island, Texas, in 1962 and in Barbados in 1963. A flock was spotted in Texas in 1981, and individual birds have been spotted in Texas, Argentina, and Canada. The latest sighting was in 2006 in Nova Scotia.

So it is very likely that a very small number of Eskimo curlews still exist.

That is quite sad when one considers how many millions of these birds there once were. It has been speculated that the massive flocks of curlews and American golden plovers were the bird species that told Columbus that he was nearing land after 65 days at sea. Thus, this bird species had a role in bringing together the Old World and the New.

Today, this species is waiting for a Columbus to find it once again.

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Lately, I’ve been into biological mysteries and newly discovered species. it was a major interest of my youth, and in this time of grad-school induced ennui, I have felt a need to return to the interests that excited me as a boy.

And if you want to find a site that has all the latest news and analysis on these topics, check out the Centre for Fortean Zoology’s blog. It’s not exactly a single blog but a compendium of blogs from their supporters and staff.

Now, as I said before, this blog will not focus merely on orthodoxy. I am interested in unusual creatures and anomalies. Some of these issues require a bit of a shift from the mainstream. I think that too much of a focus on orthodoxy will make your brain turn to mush.

And that’s why I linked to them. When I visit the main site, I very rarely find nothing of interest. It’s not so much that you have to agree with every theory, hypothesis, or postulate. It’s about approaching zoological and natural history issues with a different mindset, and if you can let yourself do this, it becomes a lot of fun to look at things from a different angle.

Unlike many of these organizations, the Centre for Fortean Zoology does follow scientific principles in their research.  They are not “believers.” They are investigators.

The Centre has its own youtube channel. It includes videos of various presentations and interviews of people interested in these sorts of phenomena. It also includes a monthly nature program (“On the Track”) hosted by the Centre’s director, Jon Downes.

Every once in a while, the blog asks its readers to identify a species. This past week, I identified this chick of a waterbird species. It is a young common merganser.

I love finding out which new species have been discovered or which ones that have been declared extinct have suddenly been found again. That’s why I regularly visit the site.

I am very grateful to the Centre for linking to my post on the Lazarus lizard, and I hope that you will visit their site and find as many interesting things there as I have.

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Farley Mowat is a Canadian author and conservationist. He perhaps best known for his book Never Cry Wolf, which was made into a lovely Disney film. However, this book has been greatly pilloried by wolf biologists, for Mowat suggested that wolves were living largely on small prey and not killing caribou during the denning season. Of course, some of those scientists created a bit of a straw man and said that Mowat was saying that wolves were living exclusively on mice. However, it is true that Mowat never observed the wolves as intensely as the book suggests. Most of what he knew about wolves comes from the Ihalmiut people, an Inuit people who lived on carbiou meat. These people had a deep respect for the wolf, and one of their religious stories is told in the book. In fact, Never Cry Wolf came right after Mowat’s People of the Deer was published. This book was actually about the plight of Ihalmiut people, who were being driven off their native hunting grounds and “civilized” by the Canadian government.

Mowat wrote a great many children’s books, like Lost in the Barrens, Owls in the Family, and The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be.  The last two are based upon his childhood pets growing up in Saskatoon. (If you’d like to read the real life stories of both check out Mowat’s memoir Born Naked.)

However, my favorite books of his are both of partial historical research. One of these is the Sea of Slaughter. This book is a compendium of Western man’s destruction of “animate creation” in the northeastern part of North America. It includes some interesting speculations. One of these is that bison once ranged to the Atlantic Coast of Canada but were decimated by the Portuguese seeking “buffle hides.” Another is that polar bears were once found as far south as Boston, and one was killed in Delaware Bay in the eighteenth century. He also claims that the St. John’s water dog (it looks something like a Labrador) is actually a dog belonging to the Beothuck people of Newfoundland, but most mainstream histories and archaeological evidence suggests otherwise. However, it is possible that the Newfoundlanders who had the black water dogs were not Beothuck.

And that brings me to my other favorite Mowat book.

In 2000, Mowat published a book of speculative history on the first Europeans to settle the New World. He had previously argued that these were Norse. He even wrote a book on the Norse in North America called Westviking that predated the scientific acceptance of the Norse in Newfoundland at the L’Anse aux Meadows site.

In this book, however, Mowat argues that the first settlers from Europe were the descendants of the ancient Pre- Indo-European peoples of Scotland– the ones who built the brochs. He argues that these people were always referred to by the prefix Alb or Alp. They escaped to the mountains when the Indo-European arrived. Thus, the mountains in the middle of Europe were called the Alps. The hills around Rome were called Alban Hills, where a city called Alba Longa was located. As you may know, Scotland was once referred to as Alba, which, Mowat speculates, is the Gaelic renaming of the land that they conquered. The Picts had previously conquered the broch builders, and the Gaelic-speaking Dalriada Scotti from Ireland had conquered them.

The Broch-builders are called Albans in Mowat’s work. Their main task is to collect walrus tusks, which they sell to European markets. As they move west in search of walrus rookeries and to escape the Picts, the Gaels, and then the Vikings, they come in contact with Iceland, which Mowat says they call “Tili,” and then Greenland and then Newfoundland. They eventually are driven from Greenland and Tili and then are cut off from Europe.

He uses lots of saga, lore, and speculation in this book. I don’t know whether it is true, but it is very interesting. He argues that the Albans call Newfoundland Albania, and that the vikings often referred to this land as such. One viking actually goes to this Albania, where he meets people riding horses and worshipping in Christian Churches. (The other Albania is mostly Muslim and was during viking times).

But where did these people go? Mowat argues that a group of natives who have been pejoratively called “Jackatars” are actually descendants of these broch builders. They are generally thought of a people of mixed French and Mi’kmaq heritage. He thinks they are also part Alban. He implies the black dogs actually came from Scotland originally. (Of course, we actually do know that golden retrievers come from Scotland and descend from St. John’s water dogs.)

I don’t know whether any of Mowat’s theories in that book are true. The theories are almost impossible to prove. However, it is so beautifully written and beguiling that one almost wants to believe. This book is called Farfarers: Before the Norse.

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