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Posts Tagged ‘climate change’

Samaras

samara

The lawn maples drop their samaras now, when May is ratcheting up in its verdant splendor.  The fruit of the maple is a one-winged angel, and it falls in a great twirling as the wind catches it a bit as spins down to the lawn below.

Later on, the mower’s blades will chop the samaras asunder. No sapling will rise from the seeds.  The maples will cast their leaves out toward the summer sun and bask in the sweet feeding of summer photosynthesis.  Maybe a storm will cause one to fall and die, for these are old silver maples that have been growing here so stately as edifices upon the lawn.

And when they do die, they will die without issue. Thousands upon thousands of samaras they have drop into the May breezes, and not a single one has brought forth a sapling, much less a tree.

All lawns are a war against growing. The grass must be kept cropped short, especially after a week’s worth of raining. Shrubs must be pruned back.  Dandelions and crabgrass must be extirpated at all costs.

But the trees and the shrubs and the short grass grow nicely in our tolerance. We marvel at this beauty and maybe even lie to ourselves that it is natural and complete to have such things surrounding our homes.

Without humans, though, there would be no lawns. There would only be prairie and steppe and forest and desert. The plants would grow and die according the precepts of rain and sun and the munching maws of the herbivores.

We tolerate no such insolence from the flora and foliage. We cultivate it all, but we tolerate what we feel is aesthetically pleasing.

In this same way, we tolerate a grizzly bear loping lonesomely on the distant ranges of the Bitterroots or a wolf trotting with purpose across a frozen lake in Northern Minnesota.  Much of the Lower 48 is cultivated or paved or in some way civilized, but we allow these wild beings their place. Just as we let the maples grow tall upon the lawn, though, we don’t let the grizzly come sneaking back into Nebraska or want the wolf prowling outside of Cleveland.

Such is nature in the Anthropocene.  This era is the era in which man is not just the dominant species on the planet, but it is the era in which man is the driving force behind almost everything that happens here.

Yesterday, I read that the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere exceeded 415 parts per million.  That level has never been experienced so long as Homo sapiens has existed on as a species. It hasn’t been known in 3 million years.  That was during the Pliocene, when there were no wolves or brown bears.  So their species will have never experienced such a thing before either.

The excess carbon dioxide comes from humanity’s various enterprises, all of which are designed to make life possible for the 7.5 billion people who live or try to exist upon this heating, crowded orb.  In our current incarnation, we behave as extraterrestrials. We can live our whole lives without glimpsing anything wild, and we no longer know about the plants and animals that live near our homes.  We are strangers to much of it.

And yet we also live as if we are supernatural. We can clear a forest. We can dam up a river. We can irrigate the desert. We can make a species extinct if we want to, or we can save it. We play the games of an ignorant deity, not knowing or even attempting to consider the consequences of our actions.

But with all this power, we have allowed ourselves to become as sessile as barnacles. We are fixed to our homes. We are fixed to our cities and towns, to the property we own or rent.

And in our desire to export and trade, we have built great concrete habitats to ourselves, many of which lie cloistered hard up against the coast, so the ships can come and take a load or bring in some goods from a far distant shore.

But unlike barnacles marooned in low tide, we will not greet the rising saltwater as a life source. We will be inundated.  We will build up flood walls, but the warming world we’re about to encounter makes the sea levels rise too much for us to construct that many barriers against the coming floods.

AT that point, we will know we’ve messed with nature too much, and its tolerance for our picayune existence will be at an end.  We will be the samaras ground up in the mower blades.  We will be the maples standing tall upon the lawn, eventually crashing to the ground without any issue.

The hope is that we listen to those who know, who have studied, who have learned and deciphered and shun those who wish to deny what is coming.  In this era, which I have sometimes called “the electronic dark age,” denial and misinformation can float its way across the world before facts can even stand a chance at being known.

This is the era in which people cannot tell truth from fiction, and truth very often sounds like what you want to hear or makes you feel good.

I watch the samaras twirl down from the lawn maples, knowing fully well what their fate is. They lack brains to know what is coming. They fall upon the lawn in innocence and grace.

But humans can know. It’s just that too many of us don’t want to know, and too many wealthy interests want us not to know.

But the tides are rising as surely as the mower blades crop the grass and render away the maples’ fruit.

 

 

 

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Northern and southern flying squirrels are interfertile species. I did not know this.

And just as the coyote is a major threat to the red wolf through hybridization, the southern flying squirrel is a threat to the northern species.

West Virginia has a unique subspecies of the northern flying squirrel called the Virginia northern flying squirrel. It is native to the forests of the High Alleghenies.

It was once on the Endangered List. Now, it is considered Threatened.

I can tell you stories about my adventures with southern flying squirrels that will blow your mind.

I once had one in my bed!

 

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polar bear

A few days ago, I happened to mention that polar bears were actually somewhat hard to classify. They do represent a specific niche in a specific ecosystem, but they are very closely related to brown bears (European brown bears, grizzlies, and Kodiak bears are subspecies of the brown bear [Ursus arctos]). Indeed, there are populations of brown bear that are more closely related to polar bears than they are to other brown bears. (I can give you the source if you’d like. I can’t get it to link here.)

Comparison of polar and brown bear MtDNA suggests that polar bears and brown bears diverge 200,000 years ago. However, the oldest known fossil from a polar bear is 130,000 years old.

All of this evidence suggest that that a polar bear is basically a modified brown bear. It has a smaller head, larger body (although roughly equal to that of a Kodiak brown bear), sharper and more hooked claws, and a different metabolism. Only pregnant female polar bears hibernate, but all brown bears hibernate, unless they are in captivity and are fed all winter long.

Polar bears can better utilize littoral and marine environments than brown bears can. They are almost entirely carnivorous, while the brown bears are omnivores. They have become different animals– usually considered separate species.

However, their links to the brown bear as still strong enough for the two to hybridize.  In 2006, one was shot on Banks Island in the Northwest Territories, and the ephemeral and mysterious “MacFarlane’s bear,” which was documented in 1864, was probably a similar hybrid.

***

I should mention here that the term polar bear is a bit of a misnomer. Today the animal is found in areas around the Arctic Ocean, but historically the bear’s range was far more southerly. In Europe they were found as far south as Bergen (Norway) and the Gulf of Bothnia, which is an arm of the Baltic Sea.

In Sea of Slaughter, Canadian author Farley Mowat contends that the polar bears had an extensive southerly range in North America. The bears were common in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. A bear was killed in the Gulf of Maine in the eighteenth century, and supposedly one was killed in Delaware Bay in the seventeenth century. (Take that last one with a grain of salt.  Albino black bears are not unknown).

To bolster his claims, Mowat points to a large population of polar bears that were found far to the south of Churchill, Manitoba, on the same line of latitude as the city of Calgary. The bears had been undiscovered,  but they were utilizing both the land and sea for food.

Because of Mowat feels that they are a more southerly species, he no longer calls them polar bears. In the text, he calls them “white bears” or “water bears.” I think that this is a pretty fair assessment.

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Now, the polar bear is threatened by climate change. It no longer can range across the ice in the Arctic Sea for as many months out of the year as it once did. As a result, polar bears are left stranded and hungry for more months and weeks out of the year.

One wonders why they don’t start foraging like brown bears do, eating what they can find.

However, brown bears learn their foraging habits from their mothers. The knowledge of how to eat certain foods and when they are available is passed on through the generations.

Polar bear mothers have taught their cubs how to live on seals on the sea ice. That is the knowledge they pass on.

When that opportunity disappears, the bears have no way of adapting in the short term.

However, I think it will be just a matter of time before some polar bears figure out how to forage on the land. Hunger is a powerful motivator, and all bears seem able to utilize new food sources all the time.

My guess is it won’t be long before they start foraging like brown bears.

Over the generations, these bears will gradually evolve to be like brown bears again, which may be further facilitated by crossbreeding.

Then the reason for them to be different from brown bears will disappear. They will gradually meld into the brown bear soup, and they will be gone.

So the likely future of the brown bear is for it to return to its past.

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It would be very sad if the Atlantic puffin disappeared from Iceland. If it disappears there, then the more southerly colonies are in trouble. These birds do breed in the US. A breeding population exists on four islands off the coast of Maine.

Also, the Westmen Islands were named because of the Westmen (Vestmenn) who lived there. The Vestmenn were Irish who were either brought over as slaves (the traditional view) or settled Iceland on their own (the nontraditional view, which is very popular among people of Irish ancestry).

Yes, Ireland is to the east of Iceland, but the Norse who settled Iceland were from Scandinavia, which is to the east of Ireland. Thus, the Irish are “Westmen” to the Norse and Danes. It’s kind of like how we North Americans call China “theFar East,” when it’s actually to the far west in relation to us.

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