Archive for the ‘nature’ Category

Salamander Hunt


Spotted salamanders are one of several New England amphibians that use regeneration as a survival mechanism. (Credit: Tom Tyning)

— by Joseph Caputo and Nuño Dominguez

A trip through conservation land with wildlife biologist Scott Smyers becomes a lesson in evolution. Why does the complex salamander regenerate while its close cousin, the frog cannot? When wouldn’t it be a good idea to regenerate? What does this mean for humans?

For more on Smyer’s conservation work in Central Massachusetts, vist the Friends of Waschusett Mountain Website.

Posted by Joseph, under nature  |  Date: December 16, 2008

Invasive Species in Your Backyard


Didemnum lahillei

The invasive sea squirt Didemnum lahillei. Credit: USGS Woods Hole Science Center

The phrase invasive species is a relative term. Almost everything has been invasive at one point. The house sparrow that sits at your bird feeder – an unwanted gift from English sailors. The green seaweed that coats the Massachusetts seashore – an Atlantic hitchhiker.  A species is invasive when it can’t coexist with the native creatures, whether by stealing food or shelter.

With climate change on the loom, species are going to get a whole lot more invasive as they migrate to warmer or colder regions. This poses not only an environmental risk but a health risk as well, especially if the traveling critters happen to be mosquitoes, for instance. In a few centuries, the phrase “native species” could be obsolete.

New England has it’s own share of invasive creatures. Here’s a list of four in our backyard:

The Sea Squirt (Didemnum lahillei)

This tubular sea squirt, an underwater resident of the Pacific and Europe, has overtaken spots on the  seashore ranging from Maine to Connecticut. It first grabbed the attention Cape Cod residents in 2003, when the Boston Globe reported sea squirt colonies carpeting the water off Georges Bank, hindering scallop fishing.

Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis)

This green beetle has been causing all sorts of havoc in the Middle States since turning up in Detroit in 2002. Originally from Asia, the bug has killed millions of ash trees, the main staple of its diet, and is heading for the Northeast. A few days ago, the Associated Press reported the use of a wasp to hunt and kill the pests, a quick and environmentally friendly solution to an agricultural disaster.

Norway Maple (Acer platanoides)

According to a member of EarthWorks, an ecological awareness organization located in Greater Boston, one familiar site on the streets of Boston is also an invasive species – the Norway maple.  The tree, a favorite for the streets of small towns and cities, easily wins the resource battle against native North American trees like the red maple or native oaks.  The article’s author advises against planting them in your yard.

Phragmites (Phragmites australis)

Anyone who has been to a salt marsh has seen these long reeds sticking out from the sand dunes. Their red stalks making an attractive backdrop against the blue water. But in areas full of protected plants like Sandy Neck Beach on Cape Cod, phragmites, native to Europe and Asia, can be a real nuisance. According to a WCAI report, residents and conservation organizations have to schedule regular “mowings” to keep these grasses at bay.

Posted by Joseph, under nature  |  Date: July 9, 2008

Massachusetts Updates Endangered Species List


Four-toed Salamanders have something to celebrate. Since 1983, these wetland creatures have been listed as a special concern on the Massachusetts List of Endangered, Threatened and Special Concern Species, but not for long.

A proposal to remove the salamander from the list is one of ten changes to be heard this Wednesday at a public meeting in Greenfield. Researchers are confident of the decision after surveys documented 240 salamander populations across 148 towns, a steady growth from previous years.

Over 700 plant and animal species are on the list, but not always because they are endangered. Sometimes there is just not enough information to declare their populations secure. For instance, the Coastal Plain Apamea Moth, will be taken off the list because it has not been seen in Massachusetts for over three decades.

“There are a lot of things we really don’t know,” says Henry Woolsey, Program Manager at the National Heritage & Endangered Species Program. “Certain taxonomic groups, like birds and mammals, are much better known than others. We just do not have enough knowledge as to what should/shouldn’t be on the list.”

According to Woolsey, one of the biggest challenges to tracking endangered species is money. The Endangered Species Program, part of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, does not receive any state assistance. Instead, it relies on private donors and conservation organizations.

Funding was proposed for the first time by Governor Deval Patrick last January, but was left out in the final budgets. “To document what we have right now, for future reference, is not very exciting to do,” Woolsey says. “They rather fund interesting planning or modeling studies.”

Baseline knowledge of local endangered species is increasingly important as climate change takes effect. Researchers around the world are noticing declines in plant and animal populations, but without knowing where Massachusetts is now, we can’t make comparisons later. “The purpose of the list is not to safeguard things that are rare,” Woolsey says, “It’s actually to make sure we don’t’ loose things.”

When a species is listed as endangered, and there is an active effort, numbers can be restored. Twenty years ago, it would have been impossible to see an American Bald Eagle in Massachusetts, now there are 25 breeding pairs. To restore the population, conservationists used hackery, in which baby chicks were removed from eagle nests in Nova Scotia and brought here.

“One chick doesn’t usually make it anyway,” Woolsey says. “After several years of doing this, the eagles came back to breed.” Because of these tactics, another edit to this year’s list is removing the bald eagle’s “federally threatened” label.

Piping Plover numbers are also on the rise. These small seabirds are considered threatened, but in just a few years, the Massachusetts population has multiplied from 130 to 500 pairs. Fencing off their breeding areas from predators is responsible. However, Woolsey is hesitant to declare victory just yet. The bird populations are fragile and can go quickly back to where they were. “It needs ongoing management,” he says.

The Endangered Species List public hearing will take place May 21, 2008 at 3:00 PM in the Downtown Campus of Greenfield Community College.

Photo of Four-toed Salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum) from The Nova Scotia Museum Website.

Posted by Joseph, under nature  |  Date: May 16, 2008
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On Screen: Animals Behaving Worse



Yep, animals are up to no good: They’re eating our garbage to nourish their young, stealing our newspapers to build their nests, and disturbing our sleep to call mates. Just when we think we’ve cut down enough trees or poured enough pesticides, nature’s nuisances keep coming back. What’s a human to do?

NATURE’s “Animals Behaving Worse,” which premiered this evening on WGBH, is an insult to viewers’ intelligence. Sure, we’ve all heard stories of the menacing gang of Brookline turkeys or a seagull who ran away with lunch, but it’s difficult to believe that anyone would categorize these behaviors as malicious. The documentary, however, calls these animal invasions into human territory an “all-out turf war,” which is humorous, because look around and you’ll see, if there was any battle – we won.

The film’s weakness wasn’t its footage, although some of the shots were a bit awkward and the editors went B-roll crazy from time to time, the problem was the concept. This was a human-centric film. The anecdotes, ranging from a man whose yellow support-our-troops ribbons were stolen by a squirrel and a woman who scares black bears away from human-populated zones, were meant to highlight the way animals disrupt our day to day lives.

The producer, James Donald, could have gone so much deeper. The anecdotes in the film would have fit fine in a documentary exploring how animals have and have not adapted to human expansion. Instead, the viewer was bombarded with complaints by hotel guests of of crowing roosters or margarita-stealing monkeys. Only one expert was asked for any insight into these behaviors, but rather than asking why animals do this, the interview was about how.

By calling these animals “bad”, the film avoids some heavy moral questions. If creatures are going hungry because humans have taken up all the land and food, why not let them rummage through our garbage? If an introduced species is destroying an ecosystem, is it our responsibility to get it out? Instead, we are told how invasive species like killer bees and Asian cod will affect human economics.

Human elements are necessary to make a documentary relevant and keep viewers watching, but a film with a title reminiscent of a FOX special and so little substance shouldn’t carry the NATURE brand.

Posted by Joseph, under nature, reviews  |  Date: March 23, 2008
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