Thursday, June 27, 2013

Readers Write In: What is this Mysterious Juvenile Crowned Snake?


Hi David,

If the kids I had ID this snake were correct it may prove a little more difficult.  They said it was a certain variation of a common snake.  At the time we were renting a double wide in a golf community until our house could be finished just after moving to Florida.  It was in Lake Alfred, Fl.  This little guy came searching thru the grass to me one morning.  I got a couple pictures to try and see just what he was.  I was impressed by the colored crown upon his head.

George D.
Auburndale, FL

Readers, please help George identify this juvenile snake. The key to its identification is the shape that George noticed on its head. Although the rest of the color and patterning of this snake will change as it ages, the pattern on its head will remain, conclusively revealing it as a ...

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Readers Write In: What in the World Is This Skeleton-thing?


David,

You gave me some good feedback regarding a rattlesnake I ran across a few weeks back, so I thought I'd give you another challenge.

Attached is a photo of a skeleton (I think).  Here are some details:

·         Altadena, California on a property next to the San Gabriel Mountains about 10 miles north of Los Angeles.  Altitude about 1600 ft.
·         Found clinging to a vertical pole on my neighbor’s (Mimi) front porch patio umbrella.
·         Length 3-4 inches.

Thanks,

Bob M.
Altadena, CA

  Unfortunately, I haven't been as helpful to Bob about this thing as I was when he came across a Southern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus) a few weeks ago. Are those ribs? Legs? My guess is some kind of centipede exoskeleton but I am summoning the distinguished readership for their opinion. Please make sure to alert any entomology aficionados that you know to help us out.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Readers Write In: What is this Mystery Roadkill Snake?

Found this flattened skin and rob cage on yesterday's walk and wonder what it was.  I believe this is the underside.

Andy W.
Venice, FL

Readers, this snake is not as readily identifiable as some of the recent identification requests we have received, but I believe in you. The key is in the patterning and coloration of the back. Please help Andy figure out what he found.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Trip to This Side of Paradise (Lower Alabama) and a Brief Discussion on Null Models in Ecology

By Brian Folt

    One of the perks of being a graduate student is that I have a somewhat flexible schedule (or so I like to think). For example, a few weeks ago, I was hanging out at home on a Tuesday night when my neighbor, another Auburn graduate student, asked me if wanted to join him on an impromptu trip to south Alabama the following day for some field research. At first, I was a bit hesitant, and the usual excuses crossed my mind (E.g., “Man, I don’t know, I’ve got a bunch of work to do”). ….But then I started thinking about all the incredible wildlife I could possibly see on a trip to the Lower Coastal Plain of Alabama. Thoughts of beautiful long-leaf pine forests, magnolia floodplains, and cypress swamps came to mind, the homes of incredible animals such as Gopher Tortoises, Indigo Snakes, Black Bears, Bobcats, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Black Swamp Snakes, or Rainbow Snakes. Whoa, giddy up, ¡vamos!

    In short sequence it was 5 AM Wednesday, and Jeff and I are leaving town, truck loaded with gear and to-go cups full of black coffee, hoping that my boss won’t drop by my empty office that day. We cruised through central Alabama, stopping briefly in Greeneville for the Shoney’s breakfast buffet (a tradition), and we quickly arrived in the Conecuh National Forest. It was a cool morning with clear skies and temperatures around 80˚F. We set out to accomplish our work, wistful to discover and encounter interesting natural history.


    Unfortunately, however, this trip would include neither Indigo nor Rainbow…but we did find practically the next best thing, a big female Pine Snake (Pituophis melanoleucus)! It was the first time I have observed this large and beautiful species in the field. Pine Snakes are thought to be associated with pine forests, where they eat a lot of Pocket Gophers (Geomys pinetis) and Cotton Rats (Sigmodon hispidus).

    Eventually, we scooped the snake up to measure length, identify sex, and to see if she had eaten recently. After a few minutes of holding her and marveling at her beauty, however, I was startled out of my reverie when the snake poked the back of my hand with her (apparently) pointed tail. “Hmmm…that’s strange, because I thought that behavior was typical of snakes that eat slimy food. That’s what Dave said on the blog,” I mused to myself. We have previously discussed this behavior on this blog in relation to the myth that ‘snakes will stab people!’ But, equipped with our natural history knowledge and field observations in mind, we hypothesized [in the comments] that some snakes may actually use pointed tails to detain and consume their favorite but slippery prey items, and that this behavior may be advantageous and adaptive for said snakes. With that hypothesis in mind, one would not expect this behavior from a Pine Snake, a species well known to dine on hairy mammals. 

    About half a century ago, our natural history hypothesis that some snakes use a pointed tail tip to detain slick prey would have fit the bill in the ecological community. In those days, ecological research typically occurred as follows: workers went out into the field, collected data, observed patterns, and wrote natural history papers describing and hypothesizing about what they saw. In our case, we described a pattern between snake tail poking and species that consume slippery prey, and we hypothesized that it is an adaptive behavior.

    This descriptive approach, known as induction, was more-or-less the status quo in those days, and much knowledge was generated about the ecology of plants and animals. However, in 1970s and ‘80s, some ecologists began to question the logical basis of their research, and the field underwent a progressive revolution. Folks finally began to realize that, in many cases, the pattern observed in the field was often no different than a pattern produced by random chance! Which is not very meaningful. To remedy this issue, researchers began to develop and implement new models that evaluated whether data were significantly different than expected by chance. As with all progress, these new ‘null models’ were resisted by some parties, and this topic was battled particularly fiercely by the community ecologists [perhaps notably while trying to understand whether competition between species influences what species persist in ecological communities]. 

    At this time, workers were forced to shift from simple interpretation of patterns to a hypothesis-testing approach (deduction) that often considered null models. In large part, this paradigm shift was spearheaded by a dominant group of faculty and graduate students at Florida State University, led in chief by Daniel Simberloff and Donald Strong. These guys were particularly visible, vocal, and hardnosed, both in the literature and at national meetings. While the slightly infamous reputation of this stalwart group quickly acquired them the moniker of the ‘Tallahassee Mafia’, these workers had a profound and lasting impact by challenging and improving the status quo in ecology. They helped turn ecology away from a descriptive and inductive science to a more rigorous and deductive method. 

    Anyway, allow me to reel this rant back in a semi-circle; returning to poking snakes, slippery foods, and our hypothesis. As we left the extremely diverse long-leaf pine communities of Lower Alabama that afternoon, I dozed off and on in the passenger seat, thinking on animal ecology, randomness, and null models. 

    Allow me to propose an alternative hypothesis, LAW readers: What if this morphology and behavior is not adaptive, but merely random? We only identified a handful of species exhibiting this behavior, which is quite paltry considering the total species richness of snakes (>3,500 species). Most of the snakes we mentioned are thought to be distantly related to one another (i.e., in different families; Rainbow Snakes: family Xenodontidae; Brown Snakes: Natricidae; Thread Snakes: Leptotyphlopidae, etc.). 

    Instead, what if tail poking behavior is randomly distributed through the snake world; and what if it randomly occurs on a few species that eat slick, slippery food? 

    Can we test our hypothesis?



Further Reading:


Means, D. B. (2006). Vertebrate faunal diversity of longleaf pine ecosystems. The longleaf pine ecosystem: ecology, silviculture, and restoration, 157-213 DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-30687-2_6

Strong, Jr., D. (1983). Natural Variability and the Manifold Mechanisms of Ecological Communities The American Naturalist, 122 (5) DOI: 10.1086/284164

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Seagulls in the Ecosystem - Guest Post -


Via Flickr: Photo Credit
     Anyone who has had the pleasure of living near or visiting a coastal region has most likely encountered a Seagull (i.e., a bird within the Laridae family) at some point. It’s important to note that there really isn’t such a thing as Seagulls. Because the creatures spend the majority of their time on land, bird purists refer to them simply as gulls. Seagulls are easily identified by their grey or white bodies. They sometimes have black markings on their wings and heads. Like their appearance, their negative reputation precedes them. The purpose of this article is to evaluate that negative reputation that Seagulls have acquired over the years.

Via Flickr: Photo Credit

Seagulls AKA “Flying Rats” 

     Seagulls are often referred to as “Flying Rats with Wings.” Rats are most often perceived as dirty, diseased creatures 
that invade homes and then nest inside while scavenging for food. Whether that reputation is deserved is a subject for another paper. What matters is that comparison stirs negative emotions in the uninitiated hearer. While Seagulls are not viewed as disease carriers, they are viewed as massive collections of thieves, a reputation that they tend to share with rats.

Anthropomorphizing a Species 

     Much of the common perception of Seagulls is the result of human’s assigning human traits and belief systems on a species that is incapable of such moralistic belief systems. Humans as a species have a negative view of thieves. Thieves are often portrayed as a lazy and dumb individual who is incapable or unwilling to provide food in a respectable manner; while there are other perceptions of thieves, the characterization of the Seagulls in “Finding Nemo” align with the stupid thief. In the movie the Seagulls are portrayed as dumb birds that are incapable of much more than droning the word “mine” over and over again as they chase anything that they perceives is food.

     The fact that vacationing humans are commonly victims of Seagull’s kleptomaniac nature does not inspire the willingness to stop anthropomorphizing the bird long enough to discover that the Seagull might actually be necessary members of our ecosystem.


Other Animals and Scavenging 

     We as humans don’t tend to mind if other animals consume our food. Ducks and Geese are regularly fed by children all over the United States. Many households put out birdfeeders for passing birds. Seagulls on the other hand do not wait for humans to grant permission. If Seagulls did cater to humans we would probably be more willing to overlook the fact that they eat human food. Humans prefer that the animals receive food when we say they can.


Seagulls and Kleptomania 

     It’s important to realize that Seagulls are kleptoparasites. All that really means is that Seagulls do not reserve their kleptomaniac behavior to humans. They will steal bits of fish from feeding whales just as readily as they will pluck a chip from your plate.

Via Flickr: Photo Credit

Seagulls and Scavenging 

    Seagulls penchant for scavenging can actually be viewed as a public service. They do not reserve their scavenging to 
stealing from other animals. Seagulls are known to scavenge what humans think of as garbage. They are often found consuming organic litter and the dead corpses of animals that humans are too lazy or too busy to dispose of. They are willing to eat from garbage cans or landfills. In a world with a rapidly building landfill, any creature that is willing to consume the garbage that we discard is a necessary addition to our ecosystem.


Seagulls and Other Food Sources

    Seagulls do not survive solely off scavenging and stealing food from other creatures. Seagulls eat insects, fish, and eggs. The fact that they consume insects keeps the insect population in check. Seagulls are natural pest control for farmers and gardeners. Today we are not as reliant on “natural pesticides” due to the large supply of pesticides, but not all farmers are willing or able to use pesticides on their crops. Without pesticides crops are vulnerable to insect that could devour entire fields of crops. The folklore of Salt Lake City, Utah tells of an event called the Miracle of Gulls. It is called the Miracle of Gulls because in 1844 Seagulls saved the settlers’ lives by consuming the crickets that were ravenously eating the crops. Without the Seagulls they would not have had enough food to survive the winter.

    Seagulls are notorious thieves. They tend to steal from anything that has food, but that does not mean that they are evil creatures that should be eradicated. We should not underestimate the importance that Seagulls and other creatures with negative reputations have on the environment.


Ernie Allison is a bird enthusiast who grew a burning dislike for Seagulls after one pooped on his bare shoulder. Years later he began to study birds and realized that the enthusiastic shriekers weren’t all that bad. His writing is supported by birdfeeders.com.

Monday, June 17, 2013

After the Devastation: Is There Hope For Large Wildlife Conservation Following Mountaintop Removal?


Photo by biotour13 via Flicker and a Creative Commons License

    What if the future of biodiversity conservation isn't in National Parks and protected areas, but in abandoned places? The played-out farm fields or remains after mountaintop removal for a seam of coal. Those overused and now typically overlooked parcels of land that saw a brief boom in human utility, and are now largely forgotten by both conservationists and the rest of the modern world.

    Make no mistake; after such drastic alterations to the land, these places are scenes of ecological devastation denuded of nutrients, flora and fauna. In some places whole mountains are moved and watersheds are lost. To bring it back to its normal condition (while sometimes mandated by law) is unrealistic. We will never get back the complex web of life that existed there. For example, following the slicing off of a mountaintop to fill an adjoining valley, we will need to give up hope for sensitive stream salamanders. In contrast to Aldo Leopold's vision, at these sites it is impossible to keep "all the pieces" after such blunt and single-minded tinkering. 

    As I drove down to start our research project in the coal fields of Buchanan County in southwestern Virginia I was prepared for sadness. Everything I had read suggested that the area had the two telltale signs of ecological disaster that are seen again and again in the most threatened biomes from the Amazon to the tundra - the recurring pairing of powerful international energy conglomerates with economic depression in the local community. Indeed, Buchanan is one of the poorest counties in the state, a full 7-hour drive from the counties to the northeast near the nation's capital that comprise some of the highest per-capita income counties in the US. And this is happening even when coal, oil and gas companies are still active, bringing jobs to the area. When the coal fields and gas wells play out, as they inevitably will someday, what is left? In a single word: Elk. 

    Today usually thought of as a species of the western US, elk once occurred across most of the continental US - from the redwood coastal forests of California, across the central Great Plains, and into deciduous forests of the eastern seaboard. Yet by the early 1900's, they were largely extirpated over most of the eastern US. Sporadic attempts to restore the species have occurred over the past several decades in Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee, as well as in pockets of habitat in Kentucky and Pennsylvania where local landowners are open to restoring one of eastern North America's largest and most charismatic mammals.

    Increasingly, despite the growing human footprint, lands are becoming available for elk restoration. Throughout the southern Appalachian Mountains, relatively large tracks of open land that used to be mining sites are being restored and released from federal bond requirements, providing novel re-engineered ecosystems that are available for the right group of visionary and like-minded individuals. One such group is the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, whose Virginia "coal fields chapter" has spearheaded local support to bring back elk. At the same time, forward-thinking politicians have heard of the money from elk viewing and hunting that came into local communities in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Kentucky following restoration attempts - vital resources for a land and economy in transition, and it turns out, fertile ground for conservation action. 

Elk release site and conditioning pen where they are monitored as they
 acclimatize to their new surroundings prior to release in Virginia
    For a biologist, the start of any wildlife research project in a new system begins with a flush of excitement as you shake hands with new partners and get away from the computer to sketch up research plans on the tailgate of a pickup truck. Yet coming from Montana, as I looked around from my vantage point atop a reclaimed strip mine near the town of Grundy with its matrix of roads and planted non-native trees and grasses, I could still not get past my preconceived notion that this place didn’t look like any elk habitat I knew. Worse, it contradicted all I had been taught about conserving sustainable, harvestable populations of large wild animals. Large species are typically thought of as among the most difficult to restore, having comparatively larger home ranges and thus requiring larger protected areas. Yet experiences in restoring elk to abandoned coal fields in Kentucky show that elk reintroduced into the central Appalachians do well, growing at rates that rival the more famous, robust populations of the western United States.

    We waited at the peak of a now flat topped mountain until sun set and the elk moved out of the forest on the steep valley edges and onto the plateau. As they came into view, I saw that each elk was marked with a color-coded and 
numbered tag in each ear and loaded with a bright orange, two-thousand-dollar GPS tracking collar around its neck. Precautionary monitoring devices placed on the animals by Virginia state wildlife officials to make sure the elk stayed put. I found myself asking circular questions, like: Do these intensively tracked and managed elk now released into a man-made ecosystem more closely resembled livestock than wildlife? What is the threshold for “wild” in wildlife? Yet as the elk began to come closer and graze warily on the early spring growth, I was entranced by their movements and tense with fear of spooking them, a feeling normally reserved for the rare wolf encounter in Yellowstone or a pileated woodpecker on the bird feeder in the back yard. It was a reminder of that critical, conscientious mental divide most humans have while being around wildlife as opposed to domesticated animals. 

    After dusk, when our eyes could no longer make out the silhouettes of elk in the spotting scope, we headed down the mountain. As we crept down the old gravel switchback coal road back to the blacktop, rather than leaving this scene of former devastation with a feeling of loss and pessimism, I was filled with a feeling of hope and optimism. If we have learned anything over the past 30 years since the advent of the field of conservation biology, it is that to bring back large mammal species we need to focus less on the postage stamp parks, and more on larger-scale ecosystem conservation and restoration. Further, over the long term in such a dynamic and changing ecological world, species conservation undoubtedly will be a shell game of finding areas to conserve and restore species while they are going extinct elsewhere. The elk restoration efforts in southwestern Virginia tell us that there is much to be gained from not only trying to stay one step ahead of human encroachment by attempting to lock up protected areas, but also by following in the footsteps of mankind to pick up the pieces.


Further Reading:

Wood, P., & Williams, J. (2013). Impact of Valley Fills on Streamside Salamanders in Southern West Virginia Journal of Herpetology, 47 (1), 119-125 DOI: 10.1670/11-187

Larkin, J., Maehr, D., Cox, J., Bolin, D., & Wichrowski, M. (2003). Demographic Characteristics of a Reintroduced Elk Population in Kentucky The Journal of Wildlife Management, 67 (3) DOI: 10.2307/3802704

Friday, June 14, 2013

Readers Write In: What is this Snake in my Pool Skimmer?


i FOUND THIS LITTLE GUY IN MY POOL SKIMMER A FEW DAYS AGO.  sorry about the Caps.  got stuck. We live in Auburndale, FL and a bull frog and this 6 or 7 inch snake were in my skimmer when I checked it. He seems to be more a very dark grey than black and his head is hard to distinguish from his tail.  Both seem blunt, but the jaw and mouth can be seen on very close inspection and the tail seems to have just a very slight point that the very finish of it.  He isn't the diameter of a pencil, but perhaps twice the size of pencil lead. I don't think he is a racer as they are more sleek from what I have seen. I thought I identified a roughened earth snake on the lawn once, but the color was a browner. He doesn't seem aggressive, just wants to leave, but when I let him go he started to follow me... of sorts.

Appreciate whatever thoughts you might have.

Thank you!
George D.
Auburndale, FL

   First off, kudos to George for recognizing that this is a snake. Although this animal can now be found throughout Florida and is probably encountered relatively frequently, I think that most people mistake it for a worm. Second, this is an exciting snake to identify because this is the first time it has appeared on this blog.

  So, I leave it to you, loyal readers, to help George out: what is this snake?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Readers Write In: What is this Snake in my Yard?

I found the snake in the picture in my yard. I'm just wanting to know what kind of snake it is. I live in Abbeville, SC. He appeared to be about as big around as maybe a 50 cent piece. It was much larger and longer than most of the black snakes I see in my yard. I usually just get a picture and leave them be. I would really love to know what kind it is. For size reference the blue container in picture is a standard city recycle bin.

Thank you,

Heather K.
Abbeville, SC

Readers, would you be so kind as to help Heather out by letting her know what kind of snake this is as well as how you figured it out?

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Ghosts of the Appalachians or the Missing Actors? -- Guest Post --



    When we pass through the Appalachian Mountains along its vast extent from the humid southeast of Alabama and Georgia to the cold and barren of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, we cannot help but marvel of its beauty and extensiveness.  Unlike its western cousin, the Rocky Mountains, which is a mixture of forested ranges imbedded in a matrix of lowland shrub and grass ecosystems, the Appalachians are heavily forested mountains imbedded in what is likely one of the largest forest ecosystems in the world.  One can only imagine the extensiveness of the original eastern forest, extending to the north as far as the tundra, to the south to the Gulf of Mexico and to the west until the beginning of the Great Plains.  It is this eastern “endless” forest that provided the opportunities and resources to the Earlier Americans who lived there for centuries.  It is also this bountiful forest that gave the European explorers who followed their toehold on the continent.  Rich in plant and wildlife resources, the eastern forest likely had one of the highest densities of Earlier Americans in North America.  Even today, the eastern forest continues to support the highest density of Current Americans. 

    Much has been written about the destruction of the eastern forests by early European colonists and their descendants.  However, today past abuses and scars of these earlier settlers have been covered over by an extensive mantel of young and thriving forest mixed in with verdant farmland.  In fact, the structure of the current forest ecosystem of the east is probably much like that before Europeans arrived, a mixture of open farmland and dense forest. Today, as in those earlier times, the open farmland provides areas of high productivity where many species of wildlife can find food while the forest provides shelter from the elements.  


    To the viewer’s eye, it would seem that the eastern forests, especially the Appalachian Mountains, have returned to much of their former beauty and glory.  Even in the more populated areas of the East, the forest extends its fingers into the fringes of the cities.  It is only in the East that abandoned land quickly reverts to forest!  In these extensive forests all along the eastern seaboard, abundant wildlife, small song birds and mammals, larger turkeys, hawks, and even larger deer and bear, are again abundant in many parts of the Appalachian chain.  Though much was lost in the past, the recuperation of the eastern forest ecosystem throughout the eastern seaboard makes it a true success story, a paradise gained!  All this in light of one of the highest human densities in North America!
            

    But has the Eastern Forest truly returned to its past glory as an ecosystem?  An ecosystem is not like a museum, not just a static collection of parts, plants and animals.  It is a dynamic entity, one that constantly changes, grows, dies. All its parts have a function, a function vital to the health of the ecosystem.  The plants of an ecosystem function as extensive solar traps, each day, month, year, capturing immense amounts of solar energy.  That energy is transferred along to other parts of the ecosystem in a cascading chain of actions reaching the smallest corners, maintaining the diversity of life found there.  In each step, energy is transferred, energy is lost.  Eventually that energy passes out of the ecosystem, replaced by new waves of solar radiation.  In a true sense, the function of an ecosystem is this transfer of solar energy from one component to the next.  It is this energy transfer that keeps the ecosystem “alive”, maintaining its integrity and its diversity. 
            
    The role, then, of plants and animals in the ecosystem is in successfully performing this transfer.  This is no small task and like an elaborate play, is accomplished by a well choreographed cast of thousands, of millions, playing parts honed by millennia of co-evolution.  All this is carried out on the stage of the ecosystem, the physical, the biological props and scenery that we see.  For most of the players in this production, theirs is a dual role, they capture that energy and pass it on to others.  They are both consumer and consumed, predator and prey.  Half of the ecologically important role of prey is to be eaten by their predators.  In doing so, they pass their energy on to the next step, fulfilling their ecological mission. How this is all done is the intrigues, the sinuous plots of this elaborate play.  At each step, the predators, take the energy to the next level. Many of these predators, in turn, have their own predators, fulfilling their dual role.  That is how the system works. In each step, energy is transferred, energy escapes, leaving less energy for the next consumer, the next predator. 
            
    What is that final passage of energy within the system?  Who are the ultimate or “top” consumers/predators?  It is the largest predators, the Wolves, the Cougars, the Lions, animals that normally don’t have another predator trying to eat them.  The remaining energy that reaches them passes through their bodies, leaving the system.  These top predators, then become the critical, the climax actors in the final act of this ecological play.  It is through them this energy, initially captured by plants from the sun, flows, completing its run, its final curtain call. However, it is a never ending final call, a never ending play as new energy continues moving up, new prey, new predators, new actors, providing life, vitality, diversity to the stage of the ecosystem, the play of life. 
            
    What happens if these top actors are missing?  Can the play go on?  Can a system fine tuned over evolutionary time whose function depends on each part being connected, continue to work in the absence of its climax actors?  We have ample evidence that suggests not.  Predators in general and large ones in particular, have always bore the brunt of humans’ dislike and scorn.  Viewed as villains rather than stars in the play of life, they have always been the first to be removed from the stage.  This has happened not only in the Eastern forests but in most ecosystems in the world.  What has happened in these ecological plays when the top actors have been removed?  Without predators, the energy flow become blocked and can no longer flow upward.  The blockage of this energy flow, as with the blockage of a river or of any flow-through system, the flow backs up, disrupting the system, the ecosystem.  It concentrates in the form of excess numbers of consumers, normally prey for higher levels, and it builds up.  Like a volcano building up pressure and eventually exploding in a series of violent eruptions, destroying the mountain, increasing consumers destroy the ecosystem.  In Yellowstone National Park, removal of the Wolf led to an over population of Elk, leading to losses of plant species Elk preferred, to losses of other species dependent on these plants,  to eventual losses of Elk who starved and died under their own population weight.  Yellowstone changed from a smooth flowing river of energy to one of fits and starts, of energy blockage, a system of violent cycles.  This pattern has repeated itself many times over, the Kaibab plateau after the removal of Cougars, the Moose on Isle Royale, introduced without their predator, the Wolf.  To remove the top predators in these ecosystems was an ecological crime, committing these systems to a slow agonizing death.
           
    How about the Appalachian forests?  Is the cast of ecological players complete? Unfortunately, the East is also missing its star performers, Wolves and Cougars, having been long killed out by our well-meaning but misguided ancestors.  All that remains are the ghosts of these past performers, apparitions that seemingly appear periodically but are of little substance.  Regardless of all these ghostly sightings, real or otherwise, the cold fact remains, the Wolf and Cougar are ecologically extinct in the Appalachians.  In the absence of these actors, the stage is set for a different script.  Without Wolves and Cougars, their main prey, White-tailed Deer, have returned with a vengeance, in many eastern states numbering in hundreds of thousands to millions of animals.  Each of these individuals ravenously eat around 1,500 pounds of plants per year.  As a result, the eastern ecosystems are time bombs waiting to explode.  Some have already; after years of excessively high deer densities, forest flowers and animals dependent on them are disappearing.  As importantly, tree seedlings, the forest of the future, are also vanishing under the constant chewing of millions of deer.  The ecological fabric of the Appalachian ecosystem is unweaving before our very eyes.  What we see in the verdant, seemingly vibrant forests is a façade hiding a rapidly decaying stage of life, burdened by too many prima donnas.  What we see is not an endless play of life but a short-lived tragedy doomed to failure.

    The fact is clear, the Appalachian play is missing its star performers and an ecological disaster is unfolding on the stage.  Can the ending of this play be changed by bringing back the stars?  Can it be as simple as that? Scientifically, the answer is a resounding yes.  However, before society agrees, many questions need to be answered.  The first of which is: can Wolves and Cougars still survive on the modern stage that is the Appalachians of today?  If so, what are some of the dangers, if any, of them coming back.  After all, aren’t they large and dangerous animals???  If we agree that they should come back, how do we as a society help them back?  These and many more questions I hope to address in future posts to this blog.


John Laundré

I was born and raised in the Midwest (Wisconsin) and received my bachelors and masters degrees there.  I received my PhD from Idaho State University in 1979.  Since then, I have been working in large mammal predator-prey ecology for over 30 years and have studied predators and their prey in the western U.S. and northern Mexico.  My experience includes working with cougars, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, deer, elk, bison, and bighorn sheep.  I have conducted one of the longest (17 years) studies of cougar ecology and behavior to date and have published over 15 scientific articles both on this work and work conducted in Mexico.  I am the originator of the concept of the landscape of fear that proposed that fear of prey for their predators drives many, if not all ecological processes.  The one important aspect of this concept is that predators become instrumental in maintaining the balance between prey species and their habitat, not so much by killing their prey but affecting how they use the landscape.  I am the author of the newly published book, Phantoms of the Prairie: The Return of Cougars to the Midwest that looks at the phenomenon of cougars actually moving back into the Great Plains region of the U.S.  I am currently living in Upstate New York in Oswego where I am an adjunct faculty member at the SUNY Oswego and also active in issues concerning cougars in the Northeast.  I am the vice president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation whose goal is the eventual re-establishment of viable cougar populations in the Eastern U.S.



Want to Learn More?

Laundré JW (2010). Behavioral response races, predator-prey shell games, ecology of fear, and patch use of pumas and their ungulate prey. Ecology, 91 (10), 2995-3007 PMID: 21058559

RIPPLE, W., & BESCHTA, R. (2004). Wolves and the Ecology of Fear: Can Predation Risk Structure Ecosystems? BioScience, 54 (8) DOI: 10.1641/0006-3568(2004)054[0755:WATEOF]2.0.CO;2


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

It Depends on Your Point of View: “A Water Moccasin Tried to Get in My Boat” (Guest Post)


    Besides the myth that Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus, on right) bask in trees along waterways and plop into boats and the unfounded legend that Cottonmouths are aggressive and attack people, the next most common misconception about the Cottonmouth is that they try to “get into” boats. At first glance this may appear to be a variant of the “falling into boats” myth, but that legend is very easy to explain away due to the behavior of non-venomous watersnakes (genus Nerodia). Non-venomous watersnakes frequently bask in trees and can be observed plunking into the water, which probably spawned the legend. Cottonmouths very rarely do this. I’ll even grant you the possibility that a non-venomous watersnake may indeed plop into your boat if you spend time along the water’s edge, although they usually fall into the water well before you get near them. I know this because I’ve been canoeing Southern streams since I was a little boy.


    So, what to make of this other legend, which I’ve heard so often? The story maintains that Cottonmouths swim right for you, and try to crawl from the water and get into your boat, presumably to attack you. Again, I’ve been canoeing swamps and rivers in the South my whole life, and this has never happened to me. I’ve also studied Cottonmouth behavior for nearly a decade, and during some of that time I used a canoe as transportation through my study site. In all cases of close encounters, the snake was not coming toward me. Sometimes Cottonmouths would be swimming close by, and once a snake even popped its mouth open at me in a “gaping” display as it drifted past in the current. But I was in its realm and it just happened to be there. Had I been a less experienced fisherman, would I have thought I was under attack, and that the Cottonmouth was trying to get in my boat? Maybe, but because these stories converge on a common theme, I suspect that the story is an urban legend, and it probably happens much less frequently than most people think, if ever.
                  
    Another possibility is that non-venomous watersnakes may see boats and assume they are a big log, and try to crawl on top to bask. This explanation gives the legend an element of plausibility, which most urban legends need to persist. I admit this explanation is plausible, and I admit it’s even possible a Cottonmouth might do this, although both watersnakes and Cottonmouths are extremely wary animals that would be much more likely to bolt at the first sight of a human or a boat. But again, from the point of view of the snake, it is not trying to attack you, but instead trying to get out of the water for awhile. My guess is that if this happened to you and you gently prodded the snake with a paddle it would cruise away peacefully. But most people who tell this story say that the snake aggressively attacked the boat despite frantic attempts to dissuade them with all manner of improvised weapons (paddles, fishing rods, shotguns).
                 
    I offer my own observation of a snake that “tried to get in my boat” which may help explain the legend. I was canoeing the Flint River in Georgia, within the known range of the Cottonmouth. I observed a non-venomous Yellow-bellied Watersnake (Nerodia erythrogaster, on right) cruising rhythmically along the bank of the river. These snakes are fairly large, have a nasty temper, and can spread their head wide, which makes it look “diamond-shaped,” so they are frequently misidentified as Cottonmouths . It was tongue-flicking frequently, and slowly and purposefully undulating along the water’s edge among the roots of the undercut bank. This cruising behavior has been described in many snake species, including the Cottonmouth. They sometimes cruise parallel to the edge of some natural feature, such as the edge of a pond, or the bank of a river. A brief video of a misidentified “water moccasin” exhibiting this behavior can be seen here. Notice this snake cruising along manmade structures. If there was a boat nearby, it would likely continue foraging along its edge. A brief video and still shots of a Cottonmouth exhibiting this behavior can be seen here. This is an active foraging style used by snakes to hunt frogs and other prey, because many creatures congregate at the water’s edge. After a few minutes observing the Yellow-bellied Watersnake hunt, I decided on an experiment.

    I paddled upstream a ways from where the Yellow-belly was cruising, and stationed my canoe parallel to the bank. If it continued upstream on its present course, the snake would “come right for me.” If I was a fisherman—who often place their john boats along the water’s edge in a similar fashion—I would be “minding my own business fishing.” I waited about 20 seconds before the “water moccasin emerged from nowhere” and “came right up to my boat.” The snake then swam along the edge of the canoe, using it (instead of the bank) as its foraging path. Or, according to the legend, it “tried to get into my boat and attack me.” At the last moment, I reached down and grabbed the snake by the midsection and captured it. I had invented a new strategy to capture these quick non-venomous snakes, and had simultaneously debunked a classic Southern legend.



Sean Graham is a post doctoral researcher at Penn State University. He received his PhD from Auburn University in the same lab as David Steen. His Master’s and PhD research focused on the behavior, reproductive physiology, and immunology of the Cottonmouth. He welcomes you to share your Cottonmouth stories in the Comments below.



Want To Learn More? Check Out These Scientific Articles:

S.P. Graham (2013). How frequently do Cottonmouths bask in Trees? Journal of Herpetology

B.C. Savitzky (1992). Laboratory Studies in an Opportunistic Pitiviper, the Cottonmouth, Agkistrodon piscivorus Biology of the Pitvipers, 347-368