Thursday, August 27, 2015

So You Say You Saw A Black Panther? Here’s Why I Don’t Believe You. ---Guest Post---

A Black Panther (i.e. a melanistic Jaguar).
Photo by Bruce McAdam.
    Black panthers have been part of modern lore in the United States for more than 100 years, despite the lack of any compelling evidence of their existence. As executive director of the Cougar Network, which is the only research non-profit that studies cougar range expansion in North America, I am frequently sent photos of misidentified felines and also often hear stories about black panther sightings. So for exactly this reason, the Cougar Network adheres to a scientifically rigorous standard to ensure that cougar observations are legitimate. Specifically, we want to see photos, tracks, DNA evidence, or video of the animals under consideration; we simply can’t accept sighting data because it’s often unreliable. And this isn’t to say people aren’t seeing a cougar when it’s reported to me – based on research I’ve done, we know they are recolonizing the midwestern part of the U.S. – it’s just that we can’t verify anything based on a story alone.

    However, black panther sightings are a little different than sightings of a regular old cougar – reporting something like a black panther is more akin to reporting Big Foot or the Loch Ness monster – outside of the rare instance of an escaped pet or a zoo animal, I’m quite skeptical. If black panthers existed in the wild in the United States, we should at the very least be seeing them killed on roads. For example, only one male (frequently photographed) cougar inhabited a small area outside of LA until it was just recently killed by a car. But we don’t see black panthers as road kill at all, ever. For that reason alone, I maintain skepticism when I hear black panther stories. But that’s not the only reason:  

    There is no compelling evidence that a single wild “black panther” has ever existed in United States. The largest cat in the United States, and in fact the fourth largest cat in the world, is the mountain lion (Puma concolor) – also known as cougar, catamount, painter, and in Florida, panther. Adult cougars are about 120-150 pounds, have tawny or brown coats, and with the exception of the endangered Florida panther population and a few solitary and long-distance travelers, live in the western part of the country. Cougars have been hunted for centuries and are one of the best-studied animals on the planet, yet there has never been a cougar documented displaying melanism. Melanism is a genetic variation that results in excess pigmentation turning the coat entirely black, and this variation just isn’t part of a cougar’s genetic make-up. So, you see, there has never been such thing as a black mountain lion.

Black Panther (i.e., a melanistic Leopard). 
Photo from Wikimedia.
    So, when most of us think about a black panther we’re actually envisioning either a melanistic jaguar (which live in South America) or a melanistic leopard (which live in Africa or Asia – think Bagheera from “The Jungle Book”), both of which are huge cats with black coats. These are the only animals that legitimately fit the “black panther” description and they simply don’t live in the United States (it is true that jaguars are native to North America and a couple of individual animals may still be hanging on in extreme southwestern United States, but in modern history these animals were restricted to the southwestern extent of the country so we can’t use them to explain why people see Black Panthers). And any cat in the United States that’s even close to being large enough to be confused with a leopard would be a cougar – and they’re not black. So why are people absolutely convinced that’s what they are seeing?

    It turns out perception isn’t entirely objective. In other words, your brain is messing with you. Remember “The Dress” – the viral phenomenon that hit social media earlier this year? This is a perfect example of what I mean when I say perception isn’t objective. I can almost guarantee if you talked about The Dress, you found at least one person who saw an entirely different color than you did. That’s because the color you see, as it turns out, depends on context. Some of us were primed to see the dress in a daylight setting, making it look white with orange trim (that was me!). Others could only see it as dark blue because their eyes were primed to view it as being indoors or in a darker setting (the actual color of the dress was blue). This Wired article does a great job explaining this phenomenon. Similarly then, photographs of animals in the trees, bushes, or shadows look a lot darker than they do when they are in broad daylight; and sightings of “black panthers” early in the morning or late in the evening are caused by the low lighting and shadows cast at that time of the day. All this might seem obvious, but this simple fact is more deceiving than you’d think. Our brains are quite good at tricking us into seeing something we’re not. And if that’s the case, then what are these people seeing?

The story behind this picture is here. The house cat looks even
bigger than it really is because it is closer to camera than the
cougar, a camera trick called forced perspective.
    Most often it’s house cats. First of all, many of the photos I’ve seen are just too blurry to confidently identify to species. But one thing I can’t stress enough about house cats is how small they are in comparison to a cougar, which again is the only cat in the U.S. remotely the same size as a leopard. To put it in perspective, if a large house cat was measured at 12” at the shoulders, it wouldn’t even come up to the top of most car tires, which are about 16” high. A cougar, on the other hand, can be 30” high – putting its shoulders at about the height of the front hood of that same car. They’re gigantic, and I genuinely think most folks aren’t accustomed to the size difference; our search image – the way our brains expect different items to look – just isn’t calibrated to seeing that big of a cat. This might be why the majority of cougar reports I receive are from areas where cougars haven’t lived for more than 100 years. Most people in those areas (usually the eastern U.S.) haven’t ever seen a wild cougar (or jaguar or leopard for that matter) and I think excitement rises when trail cameras or fuzzy videos reveal a feline (even a large feline) in the woods.

    So what do you do if you’re convinced you saw something strange?  My advice is always to stop and think for a second: does what I just saw make sense? What else could it have been? What is the most reasonable explanation? In science, that’s what we call parsimony: the idea that we shouldn’t go looking for complex explanations when a simple one will suffice.  And if a simple explanation won’t do the trick – on rare occasions it doesn’t – then there must be mountains of corroborating evidence to back up the complex explanation.

    So if your neighbor’s cousin’s girlfriend’s dad swears up and down he saw a black panther run across the yard out of the corner of his eye at 5:30 last Thursday morning, think about it. Does that really make sense? What else could have caught his attention out of the corner of his eye that early in the morning? I’ll give you a hint: unless he lives in the Brazilian Pantanal or the forests of India, it was not a black panther.

    It was probably a house cat or a black lab.



    Michelle LaRue is a research ecologist and public speaker at the University of Minnesota, and is also the executive director of the Cougar Network, which is the only research non-profit that focuses on cougar range expansion in North America. Michelle focuses her own research on the spatial ecology of mammals and birds in many ecosystems, including cougars, penguins, seals, and polar bears. Her work has been covered by hundreds of international media outlets such as the BBC, NBC Nightly News, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, and Scientific American.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Readers Write In: Some Weekend Snakes to Help Identify


Found Aug. 19, 2015 in Lee County, Ala. under some fallen trees…

Could you please i.d. it for me? I thought it was a Southern Ringneck, but apparently I’m wrong.

Thank you kindly for your time.

Jeffrey L.
Alabama



This was taken today at Jeff State in Hoover, Alabama. Can you help me out on this one? 

Larry W.
Alabama





Hi!
Here are the two pictures I have.

Eliana H.
Florida


Readers: What Are These Snakes?
-----

Snake Identification Post Ground Rules

-Guesses are welcome and encouraged. Don't worry if you're not an expert, wrong guesses allow us to talk about how to distinguish between the various species and that's why I run these posts.

-If you can't explain why you think a snake is a particular species, go ahead and just say what you think it is. But otherwise please do let us all know how you identified the animal. If you're wrong, we can explain why. If you're right, this helps everyone learn how to identify snakes, which is the point of these posts.

-This is not a pop quiz, any kind of research is encouraged and I hope you will engage with other commenters to try to figure these snakes out. I will eventually chime in with my thoughts.

-Assume I know what kind of snake is in the picture. I run these posts because they are outreach opportunities. Please don't send me private e-mails with your guesses, include them below.

-Remember, the person that sent me the picture is probably reading your comments. Although it is frustrating to know that many of these snakes have been killed, these people do want to learn more about them. More snake knowledge will lead to fewer snakes being killed. Don't hate, educate.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Readers Write In: Feisty and Unique Snakes to Identify




Hope you can help. This little guy was seen on a hike (by my sister) in the Colorado Springs area. The is about 6 inches long and very feisty. She said he was coiled when the came across him and he repeatedly struck toward them. They stayed out of his way and continued on. :-). His range wasn't that great, I'd imagine. 

Thanks for the help!
Elizabeth H.

Colorado







Here is a snake with a unique color pattern I've never seen before and have no idea what he is. Found in central Mississippi Attala county.

JR
Mississippi










Found in Wheatley, AR.

Bethany
Arkansas


Readers: What Are These Snakes?
-----

Snake Identification Post Ground Rules

-Guesses are welcome and encouraged. Don't worry if you're not an expert, wrong guesses allow us to talk about how to distinguish between the various species and that's why I run these posts.

-If you can't explain why you think a snake is a particular species, go ahead and just say what you think it is. But otherwise please do let us all know how you identified the animal. If you're wrong, we can explain why. If you're right, this helps everyone learn how to identify snakes, which is the point of these posts.

-Assume I know what kind of snake is in the picture. I run these posts because they are outreach opportunities. Please don't send me private e-mails with your guesses, include them below.

-Remember, the person that sent me the picture is probably reading your comments. Although it is frustrating to know that many of these snakes have been killed, these people do want to learn more about them. More snake knowledge will lead to fewer snakes being killed. Don't hate, educate.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Readers Write In: A Mystery Snake Lurking Under the Dock, and more...

This snake lives near our dock at Lake Oconee in Greensboro, GA.  I have guests that often use our home and they are very concerned that this a venomous snake. I have done my homework, but can't seem to tell for sure. After what he's doing to that fish I don't want want to take any chances!  

Thanks. 

Ellen W.
Greensboro, Georgia




My wife and came across this snake during our afternoon walk yesterday afternoon.  I identified it as a young copperhead but I understand young cottonmouths can have similar markings.  Can you tell from the photo which it is?  The snake was about 12 inches long.  I am located on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Thanks,
Steve R.
Ocean Springs, Mississippi





Sorry the picture isn't the best, my father took it.

Melissa S.
New Jersey


Readers: What Are These Snakes?
-----

Snake Identification Post Ground Rules

-Guesses are welcome and encouraged. Don't worry if you're not an expert, wrong guesses allow us to talk about how to distinguish between the various species and that's why I run these posts.

-If you can't explain why you think a snake is a particular species, go ahead and just say what you think it is. But otherwise please do let us all know how you identified the animal. If you're wrong, we can explain why. If you're right, this helps everyone learn how to identify snakes, which is the point of these posts.

-Assume I know what kind of snake is in the picture. I run these posts because they are outreach opportunities. Please don't send me private e-mails with your guesses, include them below.

-Remember, the person that sent me the picture is probably reading your comments. Although it is frustrating to know that many of these snakes have been killed, these people do want to learn more about them. More snake knowledge will lead to fewer snakes being killed. Don't hate, educate.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Philadelphia's Secretive Nocturnal Wildlife --Guest Post--

    My partner Gigi and I arrived just after dusk with our peanut butter, lawn chairs, and hot ginger tea in a thermos. I walked to the old Norway maple across the path and spread peanut butter on the bark. Then we sat back and waited. We were confident that, despite the gloom, we could just make out small shapes should they appear on the tree, which was good; fruitlessly staring at trees in the dark is no way to spend a Friday evening. 

    I can’t say exactly what moved me to track down a southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans), but I do think it was the Fairmount Park Natural Lands Restoration Plan that moved me to action. The document, from 1999, lists species for Philadelphia’s park system based on then-current surveys and on historic records. According to those historic records (up to 1942), southern flying squirrels were, “of uniform abundance.” 

    That sounded like a challenge. I’ve been hanging out in these parks for 10 years and I hadn’t seen one of these “uniformly abundant” squirrels. But then flying squirrels are nocturnal, and I hadn’t gone out much at night. Whether due to actual or perceived danger, we urbanites tend to avoid our evening forests. 

    I was willing to brave the dark woods, but where to start? Philadelphia is blessed with a large network of forested parks. The Haddington Woods tract is a current focus of ecological restoration work, and it’s near where I live. So I rode my bike to the trailhead, locked up, and entered Haddington Woods. 

    I didn’t walk very far. Maybe a hundred yards in, I chose a gnarly Norway maple that had lost one large limb about ten feet up and wore a thick, hairy poison ivy vine around the trunk. I spread some peanut butter – the internet’s bait of choice for flying squirrels – on the bark in two patches as high up as I could reach, closed up the jar, and walked back to my bike.  

    The next day when I rode back to check the tree, the peanut butter was gone. Indeed the ridges of the bark where I had spread it had been chewed down, presumably to get whatever had soaked in. I kept feeding my new friend over the next few weeks. I couldn’t make it out every day, but I reapplied the bait when I could, and it kept on disappearing. 

    Everything was consistent with it being a flying squirrel, but I needed to stake the tree out to be sure. 

    So that Friday evening we set up and tried to stay quiet. Faint city sounds drifted into the woods: a far-off siren, trains running and then stopping at the El station a few blocks away. I wondered at little rustles and chirps we heard around us. Were those squirrels? Finally I thought I kind of saw something was moving maybe 25 feet up on the branches, and then a moment I thought I saw it again next to the peanut butter. “Did you see that?” I whispered.

    “I think so,” Gigi whispered back, and we kept watching carefully as a quick little shape, a little bigger than a chipmunk, moved around the peanut butter. 

    I reached for my camera to take a photo, but it wasn’t in my pocket. I had forgotten it.

    I immediately planned a second trip. My companion this time would be my daughter Magnolia, nearly three years old. My idea was to sit quietly together and snap a few photos of the cute little flying squirrel - a great father-daughter bonding trip. 

    Of course that plan was ridiculously optimistic. How long can any toddlers you know sit quietly in a new and exciting place, at night, no less? The questions began immediately: 

    “Daddy, are there owls?” (Magnolia is inexplicably afraid of owls)

    “Yes honey, but they won’t hurt you. Shhh.” 

    “Are there spookie-wookies?” 

    “No. Shhh.” 

    “Daddy, can I have that stick.” 

    “Yes, but be quiet.” 

    There were a few thirty-second stretches during which she managed to be both still and quiet, but I was sure every creature of the forest was keeping far away from us as possible. I picked up my flashlight to take one last look at the tree before we left. 

    And that’s when I saw its big black eyes staring back at me from about 20 feet up the trunk. I took a photo, grabbed Magnolia, and whispered at her to look. Surprisingly the squirrel descended towards the peanut butter (love of peanut butter overpowering fear of giant primates), and I got a photo of it at about fifteen feet up.
 
    That it only took one tree to find our flying squirrel is a good indication of their abundance. I could have gotten freakishly lucky and chosen their only home in the city, out of thousands of acres of urban woodlands. More likely, though, is that they are still “uniformly abundant.” Various species of flying squirrels inhabit forests throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. If you live near a forest in the northern hemisphere, they’re probably there too. All you need to see them is some patience and a jar of peanut butter.

    Friends were generally surprised that something as strange as a flying squirrel (These are rodents, and yet they gladly launch themselves through the air to glide from tree to tree) would be common in urban Philadelphia. Still, I bet if they did that in broad daylight we’d barely notice. An organism can be both ubiquitous and exotic as long as it does a good enough job of avoiding us.

---

Bernard Brown is a nature writer living in Philadelphia, PA. He co-hosts and produces the Urban Wildlife Podcast

Monday, August 10, 2015

Readers Write In: Are These Watersnakes, Cottonmouths, or Something Else?

Hi,

    Good afternoon, I'm an amateur photographer; most of my online photos are posted at CNN iReport under "Borgy62".

    I'm visiting my brother here in SC; and yesterday we went kayaking on Lake Jocassee, Salem, SC.  During our boating trip we came across these two snakes, both neat the shoreline. The larger (adult) snake was about 36".  The smaller (juvenile) snake, I estimate was 15" to 18".  Are they Brown or Banded Water Snakes, or something else?

Thanks, 

Hank  B. :)
Salem, South Carolina



Hi,
Found this young snake - think it's a cottonmouth, but not sure.

Thanks,
Peg
Port St. Lucie, Florida



Readers: What Are These Snakes?
-----

Snake Identification Post Ground Rules

-Guesses are welcome and encouraged. Don't worry if you're not an expert, wrong guesses allow us to talk about how to distinguish between the various species and that's why I run these posts.

-If you can't explain why you think a snake is a particular species, go ahead and just say what you think it is. But otherwise please do let us all know how you identified the animal. If you're wrong, we can explain why. If you're right, this helps everyone learn how to identify snakes, which is the goal of these posts.

-You can safely assume that I know what kind of snake is in the picture, I run these posts because they are outreach opportunities. Please don't send me private e-mails with your guesses, include them below.

-Remember, the person that sent me the picture is probably reading your comments. Although it is frustrating to know that many of these snakes have been killed, these people do want to learn more about them. More snake knowledge will lead to fewer snakes being killed. Don't hate, educate.