Sunday, May 27, 2012

Our animal neighbors are quite diverse

As featured May 19, 2012, on

After years of living in close proximity or at the very least, sharing the same aquifer, you should probably ask yourself how well you really know your neighbors.
Perhaps you think you know them pretty well already, but indulge for a moment if you would, while we run through a few names just to be sure.
There's Dasypus novemcinctus, Cynomys ludovicianus, Geomys arenarius, Perognathus flavescens, Dipodomys ordii, Lynx rufus, of course, oh and let's not forget that contentious Taxidea taxus.
If those names aren't ringing a bell, maybe you know them by their aliases: The armadillos, black-tailed prairie dogs, desert pocket gophers, plains pocket mice, Ord's kangaroo rat, the bobcat family, and that cranky badger bunch.
Actually to an overwhelming degree, the neighbors are rodents, most specifically, mice, with a couple dozen different species of the little fuzzies sharing our chunk of dirt.
But there's also more than half a dozen kinds of bats, not to mention squirrels, skunks, porcupines and a host of other mammals tucked somewhere out in all that tall grass around us, with probably a 6:1 ratio of edible species for each of the carnivore types that knock around these parts, and that's not even counting the flying and slithering occupants.
Turns out cattle are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to our region and even though more often than not the visual from the road is a sea of black and white bovines, the animal kingdom in our neck of the woods is really quite a bit more diverse.
It's so diverse, in fact, you have to wonder where all the critters live when there doesn't appear to be anything to hide behind for miles in any given direction.
Yet hide they do, and well enough that most of us will never see a water mongoose, but the water mongoose is among us — even as water deprived as we are — and it's been counted and mapped.
Making the Census look like child's play, a bunch of web developers and scientists from leading universities and biodiversity groups put their heads together and created not just a world-wide critter Census, but an interactive map that puts the animal kingdom on record.
Taking Google map technology to an all new level, creators aggregated scientific data from all over the world and put it together, making it possible to explore critter populations anywhere on the planet, run searches, download reports and follow links to species information pages.
Just to put in perspective the magnitude of what the Map of Life has accomplished in the short time it's been up and running, the names of almost 72,000 species of amphibians, birds, mammals, reptiles and fish have added to the map, supported by literally millions of records that have been cataloged for users to view.
For example, who knew we had a significant bat population in common with Portugal, or that despite obviously drastic differences in geography, Sweden has badgers too.
And while most every continent seems to have more rodents than any other mammal, if you're looking to go where the mice don't, Siberia might just be the best bet, because — while they do have flying squirrels, chipmunks, lemmings and voles — the mice and rats don't appear to like the cold anymore than anyone else.
Interestingly enough, mapping all the critters across the globe doesn't just cast a spotlight on diversity, ironically, it also shows the similarities and somehow makes the neighborhood seem a little bit smaller.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sorry Bees

As I was writing this week's column on beneficial insects (Clovis News Journal:, I hesitated while making a "bad bug" list, knowing it was iffy territory because all insects have a vital role in the natural world, and therefor they are all beneficial on one level or another.
Even flies, which are undeniably gross and annoy us, provide the critical service of performing waste disposal by aiding in the decomposition of biological materials (go maggots!)
And bee's, who I also named to the "bad bug" list, not only give us honey, but are great stewards of their neighborhoods by pollinating plants and making our gardens healthy and beautiful.
Truthfully, even though some of their characteristics may land them on a "bad bug" list, an insect's impact on people and the environment needs to be weighed case-by-case. An angry bee hive = bad, a happy bumble bee carting pollen from one side of your garden to the other = good.
I was reminded of the distinctions when a reader who had seen the beneficial insect column this week sent me a link to a story about a recently discovered solitary bee in the Middle East, the Osmia avoseta (take a minute to read the story, complete with cool photos.)
The closest thing to true flower faeries our world will ever see, the hard-working mothers of this species cut pieces from colorful flower petals to create little petal-mache cocoon nurseries bound together with nectar as cradles for their young.
These sweet, bee-made flower tubes are beyond beautiful in their perfection and the mother bee puts them together with the utmost care and attention to detail.
I will admit, reading about the flower artistry, I cringed.
Bees are not all bad.
In fact, I like bees (from a distance) and have even sat and watched in fascination as lumbering bumble bees go from flower to flower in the garden.
On the flip side, having been the recipient of my share of stings and because a buzzing hive is high on the list of instinctually terrifying items, I have also congratulated preying mantids when I saw them with wasps clasped in their pincers.
But in recognition of their contributions, I will apologize to the flies, because I am sure as heck glad somebody does that job, and I will also apologize to the bees out there because I know they work hard and give us much sweet beauty, but at the same time I will say I can't completely regret the fact the hunters view them as delicacies, at least in the areas where I tend to spend time.
When it comes down to it, bugs are just one of nature's balancing acts and like it or not, wherever there's a little yang, you gotta have a little yin.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Children see the best part about being an animal

As featured May, 11, 2012, on

The wind giveth and it taketh away.
At any given time around here you’re likely to be on one end or the other of the wind equation – losing or receiving property.
Sometimes the gifts are large, for instance the wind might decide you need the neighbor’s blue plastic kiddie pool more than they did, or their patio umbrella or trampoline.
And then other times it's just papers and cups, bags and boxes.
In recent weeks one such wind delivery stood out from the others. Plastered to the fence like a flyer on a bulletin board, its defiance of gravity was quite the attention getter and it was just begging to be read.
Leaning closer, neatly penciled sentences greeted from the tattered backside of a school worksheet.
“I would like to be a tiger because they have a beautiful stripe. They are hunter(s). They are strong.
I would like to be a whale because they have a big body and swim.
I would like to be a aunt because they are very tiny. I would like to see their world.”
The simplicity of it struck immediately.
“If you could be any animal what would you choose?” It's a question that most of us have been asked at one time or another, but it's without a doubt a question best answered by a child.
For an adult mind, the question can easily becomes more a process of elimination than a creative exercise.
We grownups would automatically evaluate the downside of being a tiger – eating every meal ultra rare, being chased by angry villagers and watching our social circle shrink as we climb the top 10 list of endangered species.
And we know that being the size of a whale with no arms and legs – something we spend much of our mid-to-later years trying to fight – makes getting beached a real possibility. Not to mention having barnacles stuck to your skin has to itch and getting knocked around by ships and possibly harpooned is no way to live.
And of course some days we already feel like ants as we get in our cars and drive to work, but the reality of living a life of fealty in a dirt maze, just a cog in a machine that supports an over-fertile matriarch, is taking it a little too far. That and the thought of getting excited about broken pre-licked bits of candy, spilled milkshakes and partially eaten sandwiches is just plain unappealing.
In fact none of the lives animals live seem all that appealing. Wolves get tranquilized and relocated while they sleep, dogs get fleas, birds have to eat worms, hungry bears become targets, fish get stuck swimming in polluted water, horses have to carry people... the list goes on and on.
Children, on the other hand, are blessed by not seeing any of that. They see things not as they are, but how they should be – through the lens of ideals, not reality.
But perhaps with a little tweaking, the answer to the question can be as simple for adults.
How about any animal, as long as it's not grown up and still gets to see the world the way it should be.

Note to the teacher who gave this assignment: The student forgot to put their name on their paper, but they told the truth when they said it blew away. Please give them credit for their homework.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mothers in animal kingdom have different methods

As featured May 4, 2012, on

They build homes, hunt, stand guard during nap time, comfort, nurture and scold.
Sometimes they are the most gentle spirits, other times the most ferocious defenders and often a little of both.
Throughout the animal kingdom, mothers come in all shapes and sizes and approach their responsibility from a multitude of angles.
While humans will celebrate their mothers in a week, the majority of moms on the planet just do what they do with no thanks, even though all of them give of themselves to inspire life.
There are the long-haulers like the orangutan who spends the longest giving up to 10 years to their kiddos and then the turtles who “set it and forget it,” dropping their eggs and never looking back.
The differences in methods are sometimes a little shocking.
For example, the thought of peeking out at the world from behind two rows of sharp predatory teeth is anything but a comforting idea for most of us, but it's one of the best cradles in the world if the teeth belong to your alligator mom.
And while the sight of them sends some people screaming to their therapist, the most cozy place in the world to sleep is nestled in the back hair of your mother – if you're a wolf spider that is.
Or imagine having hugs times eight like only the original Octa-mom can do, and not without great cost to her. After using her appendages to tirelessly defend her young until they hatch, she is so tired, the mother octupus often dies because can't even defend herself anymore.
As if it weren't enough that they use their own bodies as portable cribs or blankets, these ladies feed, doctor, teach and play with their children, getting them ready for the day when they will have to go out into the big bad world.
In the meantime, they protect them, whether it's the cheetah that fights to the death, the skunk who ignores embarrassment and deploys the stink cloud or the bird that fakes a broken wing to draw a predator away from the nest.
And of course there's the human animal, who uses bathtubs and strollers and automatic rocking cradles and for whom a grueling foraging experience is probably a long line at the grocery or a cluttered pantry, but who, for all their conveniences, is unrivaled in the animal world when it comes to the length of time they parent and the complexity of the job.
Midnight bottles become peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bedtime stories turn into long discussions about life and somewhere in between there's all the laundry and sports events, skinned knees and first cars.
Sure, they don't have to fight off attacking bears, or run down an antelope for dinner, or lead their young 50 miles to find water, and don't pre-chew their youngin's food (with the exception of a recent revelation by Alicia Silverstone who vouches for the technique) but they do invest a lifetime.
So maybe next Sunday when you take Mom to lunch, in addition to thanking her for all the mac and cheese over the years, it's also a good time to thank her for not having a hairy back, or for correcting you with “the look” instead of sinking her teeth in, or for not getting stink all over you when she was trying to keep you safe.
What the heck, even on the off chance she did do those things, take the time to say thanks anyway.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Bunnies have hand in heating up Earth

As featured April 27, 2012, on

Invariably, the issue of weird weather comes up these days, especially with record temperatures set on a regular basis and extreme phenomenon rising to the top of headlines fairly often.
Global warming is the answer the experts almost always arrive at – melting ice caps at the hands of humans who didn’t heed the warnings to reduce their carbon footprint.
And you almost can’t help but entertain a little, “Uh oh, could they have been right?” thought when you step outside and realize it’s sweltering in early spring with no rain in sight. Then it dawns on you that maybe it’s time to hang our heads in shame because no matter how many times we pack our groceries in recycled cloth bags, it won’t make ice in Antarctica.
Then again, maybe scientists have been too quick to judge, too quick to lay blame on humans.
Who else though, you might ask, could possibly raise the Earth’s temperature but the all-powerful humanoid?
Yep, that’s right, fuzzy, cottontail, long-eared bunny wabbits.
What better way to disguise nefarious world warming and ice cap melting than behind a set of velvety ears, long-lashed doe eyes and a cute button nose. And speaking of velvety ears, there’s more to those funnels on top of their fuzzy noggins than meets the eye.
Sure, they act as silky accessories and even receive sounds, but what they really are is radiators.
Not only do those long ears radiate heat and direct it out through convection, they can move as much as 100 percent of a rabbit’s body heat. The radiator even comes with a built in thermostat. When the rabbit’s body temperature exceeds air temperature, the heat kicks on, according to a 1970’s study of jackrabbit’s ears conducted at the University of Wisconsin (interesting reading involving the amputated ears of Nevada road kill and wind tunnels for those who are so inclined.)
But there’s the catch. Running at a healthy internal body temperature of up to 103, there aren’t very many occasions when the rabbit radiator shuts off.
If they kept it all to themselves it probably wouldn’t even be noticeable, but rabbits produce a good bit of heat -- actually approximately 10 times the amount of body heat produced by an elephant.
Put a bunch of rabbits together, and the temperature of a room goes up.
Case in point, for years gardening enthusiasts have used them in place of man-made radiators, housing rabbits in greenhouses to keep the plants warm. And of course there was that heating plant in Stockholm that took the concept a little further and incinerated thousands of wild rabbit carcases to heat the city a couple years ago, but that's probably a story for another day.
The greenhouse application, on the other hand, could make a case for the exponential potential of rabbit radiator heat.
Of course pinning down the exact number of rabbits in the world would be near impossible, but in 2000, the USDA estimated 9.7 million domesticated rabbits in the US alone, and since that's only one country, and doesn't even count wild rabbits, it's safe to assume there are a hare more in the world (couldn't resist.)
So, hypothetically, if there were, say, 1 billion on the planet, and they put out approximately 8 BTU’s of heat (while at rest) as some estimate, that would account for 8 billion BTU’s per hour. Now give them a couple years of exceptionally high reproduction cycles, and the greenhouse gets hotter.
But alas, even though one might conclude that with their special heat release capabilities, rabbits might devise a diabolical plan to cook everybody until they have the planet to themselves, recent studies show they aren't handling the heat any better than the rest of us.
Actually, it seems they're faring worse, with at least five species identified by conservationists as being in dire straights if things don't change. From snowshoe hares that no longer turn from white to brown making them an easy target, to seaside rabbits that will lose their habitats and be wiped out if water levels rise even so much as nine-tenths of an inch, with the hotseat they're in, it makes it a little hard to blame global warming on the bunnies.
Oh well, it was worth a shot.