Friday, January 24, 2014

Friday Roundup: This Week's Wildlife Links (January 24th, 2014)

A plague of snakes: but they're the victims.

Scientific American selects the best animal stories of 2013.

Spotting and photographing a crocodile in Singapore is big news.

Meanwhile, efforts are underway to conserve crocodiles in Venezuela.

If sardine populations on the West Coast continue to crash, they could bring everything else down with them.

Whales and dolphins are collateral damage in our taste for seafood.

It can be tough to be a reptile. Here's a specialized parasite that lives in their lungs.

How you might doom a species by trying to save it.

Shark long thought extinct found in a Kuwait fish market.

Are some of those extinct Galapagos tortoise species really extinct?

Komodo Dragons, from National Geographic. Komodo Dragons, eating a dolphin. Because hey, lizards may need to get social too.

Population of critically-endangered rabbits a South Africa nature preserve.

More on that recently discovered species of tapir in Brazil.

Did I miss something interesting? Let me know below.

Don't miss a post: Click on this link to subscribe to the blog today! 
Looking for more? Follow me on Twitter.
If you would like to support this blog and if you're going to be shopping on Amazon anyway, please get there by following this link.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Hognosed Snakes: Goofy Opossums of the Snake World --A Guest Post Comic--

Hi all-I have long enjoyed the work of today's guest artist and was very pleased when he expressed interest in working on artwork to help people appreciate how cool snakes are. I hope you enjoy the following comic by Ethan Kocak; if you do, let him know below! -Dave.

About the Artist: Ethan Kocak

I'm an illustrator and cartoonist interested in the natural world in general and herpetology specifically. I have kept and bred many reptiles over the years, including my beloved pair of New Caledonian Giant Geckos (Rhacodactylus leachianus) and Axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum). I hold a B.S. in Media Arts and Animation and have an endless fascination with biology, evolution and life science, which I try to use to inform my art. I am most known around the web for writing, drawing and otherwise cobbling together the herpetology-themed webcomic "The Black Mudpuppy" which is about an Aztec god trapped in an axolotl salamander and forced to do good deeds against his will. I also sometimes write herpetoculture pieces for the Wandering Herpetologist website. I believe conservation and education are very important, and I hope the medium of comics might be able to help with outreach.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Friday Roundup: This Week's Wildlife Links (January 17th, 2014)

There has been a lot of wolf talk recently, and not just on this blog:

California prepares for the return of the wolf.

Debate continues over whether Maine is wolf habitat.

While California and Maine discuss, wolves have been creeping back into Missouri.

Over in Europe, wolves are doing fairly well, "After an absence of 70 years, the wolf is back in the Guadarrama hills and breeding just 40 miles from Madrid."

In other news:

When people think they see penguins in Hawaii, what common bird are they actually looking at?

Lions are nearly extinct in western Africa.

A symbol of the range returns home: restoring Bighorn Sheep in Utah.

There has been a lot of news recently about a permit to hunt Black Rhinos being sold. Can trophy hunting really help conservation?

The fight to save the Hellbender.

How studying ocean currents may help eel conservation.

Bolivian Blue Macaw refuge doubles in size.

A long read about the recent death of a Costa Rican sea turtle advocate.

Narwhal smuggling ring busted.

Did I miss something interesting? Let me know below.

Don't miss a post: Click on this link to subscribe to the blog today! 
Looking for more? Follow me on Twitter.
If you would like to support this blog and if you're going to be shopping on Amazon anyway, please get there by following this link.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Cougars and Wolves in the East: Why Many Don’t Want Them Back ---Guest Post---

    In my last post, I addressed the question of whether there was biological room for cougars and wolves in the eastern United States. And the resounding answer was YES. I finished that post with the second most important question regarding the return of these species to the East: Is there sociological and political “room” for their return?  Would we, as a dominant species, allow them back? Obviously, we need to examine the reasons why we may not want them to return.

    Cougars and wolves were once present in the eastern United States in healthy numbers, indicating that the native people living here at least tolerated these predators. As a result, a peaceful coexistence existed among the three top predators for eons. Though the native people occasionally killed these animals for fur, they did not have bounties on them, they did not try to eliminate them from the landscape, and they did not live in fear of them.

    In contrast, our European ancestors came from lands where large predators had long ago been virtually eliminated and where there had evolved countless stories and children’s tales expounding the ruthlessness, the diabolical cunning, and the danger of these animals (at least of wolves). European cultures have often viewed wolves as competitors for wild and domestic prey. In addition, wolves in Europe appear to view humans more as food than their North American cousins (perhaps because of endless wars and hundreds if not thousands of human corpses left strewn on the landscape). As a consequence, our ancestors came to the shores of what is now the U.S. with a hardwired attitude that the only good wolf, or any other predator, was a dead wolf…period. And the war began.

    The efforts of our ancestors to rid the eastern U.S. landscape of wolves and cougars has been well-documented. There were bounties, trapping, public hunts, and poisons, whatever means they could take to eliminate these animals. All because they feared that wolves and cougars would attack and kill them or that they would attack and kill their food sources, either domestic stock or wild ungulates such as deer and elk. The eradication efforts were very successful. Each eastern State has documented and heralded the demise of their “last” wolf or cougar.

    Now many of us want them back! Were our ancestors wrong? Should we not fear for our lives? Will they not decimate our wild and domestic prey? I will address the first concern in this post.

    Though we see a lot of guessing and second guessing about whether or not wolves and cougars reintroduced to the eastern U.S. would attack and kill us, the facts do indicate that yes, this is possible. I think it is safe to say that some humans in North America have been attacked and killed by these animals in the last century. But, a lot of things kill us. 

    What we really need to consider is 1) given the fact that wolves and cougars can kill people, what are the chances that you as an individual would be attacked or killed by a wolf or a cougar? and, 2) how do these chances or risks compare to other risks we face, often willingly, in our lives? If the risk of bringing back these top predators is higher than we are willing to take for other risks we freely face, then yes, it is a sound argument against reintroducing these animals. If, however, we freely face or are exposed to other risks much higher than being attacked and killed by wolves or cougars, well, then the fear argument becomes moot.

    So, what are the risks? Let's examine the risk of being attacked and killed by a cougar because the risk from wolves is exceedingly smaller (if cougars don’t present a significant threat, neither would wolves). Between 1990 and 2008 there were seven total deaths (around 0.4 mortalities per year) due to a cougar attack in the western U.S. This is unfortunate for the people involved, but how does this compare to other risks we take?

    For this comparison, I will leave out the more common risks of driving and smoking, which kill hundreds of thousands of us yearly, but do note that we willingly take the risk! I will limit my discussion here to other animals, wild and domestic, that we accept in our midst. It turns out that black bears, ole Smoky and Yogi, kill around 1.5 people a year (the equivalent of 27 people) over that same eighteen year period. Yet we are willingly accepting them back into the East. 

    Domestic dogs, yes Rover and Shep, kill over 25 people a year (or over 400 during the above time span). That is 60 times more than from cougars, yet we don’t see any effort to eliminate dogs!

    As deadly as our family pet is, it is still far from the most deadly (and socially acceptable) species roaming the eastern landscape…that honor belongs to the White-tailed Deer! Yes, Bambi! Every year deer kill around 120-130 of us, men, women and children. How do they do it? Well, some unfortunate people are actually physically attacked by deer but the majority of the mortalities are because of deer running into our cars, or vice versa. 

    So, during the 18 years when seven people were being killed by cougars, around 2,000 people were killed by deer. Are not these deaths as tragic as those seven killed by cougars? Did not their families mourn their loss as much? We hear about the seven and argue against having cougars in the East for safety reasons. Yet we do not see an effort to rid our states of deer. We do not hear people arguing that it is just too dangerous to have deer around and they should be shot on sight. We do not hear that the blood of all these victims is on the hands of those hunters and game agencies who brought the deer back. We accept the risk. Could we not also accept the miniscule risk we would face by reintroducing cougars to the eastern U.S. to benefit ecosystem integrity? It is also worth wondering how many of these 2,000 people would have been saved if we had cougars and wolves on the landscape to keep deer numbers down.  The fewer deer, the less accidents.

    Another way that deer indirectly maim and even kill us is through Lyme disease. Deer ticks, feeding off of abundant deer populations, are the known transmitters of this disease to people. In the Northeastern U.S., over 14,000 people are infected with Lyme disease each year. From 1999 to 2003, there were 23 deaths resulting from Lyme disease. Yet the Center for Disease Control lists Lyme disease as a rare event and should not be of concern! During the same period, there were only three deaths from cougars across the entire western states. How would the CDC rate this threat? Close to non-existent!

    Again we can ask how many of these thousands of people would have been spared infection and even death if cougars and wolves existed in the East. Bringing cougars and wolves back to the East might actually result in a NET saving of human lives!

    I could go on with more comparisons, such as the 55 people per year killed while hunting or 750 deaths per year from riding bicycles. Or, more significantly, the 50 + children who die each year because their parents willingly encourage them to participate in school athletics. Are these deaths not as tragic? Yet we do not hear a hue and cry about stopping hunting or riding bikes, or disbanding all school athletics. We are willing to take the risk. If we are willing to take these and many more even greater risks in our lives, are we not willing to take one that is by all objective standards not even a risk at all?   

    So you see, the human safety issue regarding the return of cougars and wolves to the East is indeed a moot point. It is a red herring. Our forests need their top predators and we risk little to ourselves in bringing them back. But how about our cows and sheep? Won’t they kill them? And what about the deer, did I not just say that bringing these predators back would lower deer numbers? Is that something we want? Does not deer hunting bring in millions of dollars a year to state coffers? As I mentioned, this is the core of the second argument people use for not bringing back cougars and wolves; I will address this in my next post.

About the Author: 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 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.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Why Writing About Exotic Species Got Me Called an Activist Fraud

    A few weeks ago I wrote an article that appeared in Slate Magazine about how biologists try to tell the difference between species that are exotic and those that are invasive, using some of the exotic reptiles that have been found in South Florida as examples. I basically summarized the scientific consensus on exotic reptiles in Florida so that people could have a better understanding of the issue. It was a piece I used to expand on a blog post I wrote detailing problems with an earlier story in Slate suggesting Green Anacondas had invaded Florida. I wrote what I did because I thought the fear-mongering article about Green Anacondas was based on inaccurate and misleading information. A well-informed general public that appreciates wildlife is more likely to be interested in their conservation; it’s why I participate in science outreach and why I created this blog.

    Overall, I've been very pleased with the response to my article and received some great feedback. But, to my surprise, I have also provoked some outrage and personal attacks.

    Some of the exotic species now established in Florida, like Burmese and African Pythons, are probably there because of the pet trade. It is simply the most likely explanation. Any news about these animals having negative effects on native ecosystems reflects poorly on the pet industry. Many people already think that nobody should be allowed to own large and potentially dangerous snakes and negative press just fuels the fire. As a result, some people associated with the industry tend to get touchy when they see something about invasive species in the news. The pet industry should have been thanking me for rebutting the
 viral, sensational story about anacondas in Florida, but because I described some of the reasons biologists are concerned about invasive species, I became a target for the pet industry, instead of a champion. How ironic!

    A particularly egregious example occurred on the Field Herp Forum, where one poster accused me of being an “activist fraud posing as a credible scientist” and provided some unconvincing arguments about why the information in my Slate article was misleading. The evidence for my animal activism was of course very thin. To respond to all of the intended points there is to give them validity, so I won’t, because they’re not. But I encourage you to check these points out to better understand how some people respond to information about invasive species. In any case, I think anyone has to try really hard to get outraged about my evidence-based article.

    There was some concern voiced there, however, that my article was too sensational and hyped up the danger of invasive reptiles. For example, the same individual suggested that I used an absurd analogy when I asked readers to picture a Komodo Dragon 
(Varanus komodoensis) so that they can better imagine a Nile Monitor (Varanus niloticus). Presumably I did this because a Komodo Dragon is a large dangerous creature and I wanted everyone to be afraid of Nile Monitors.

    I would venture a guess that just about everybody knows what a Komodo Dragon
is, but does everyone also know what a Nile Monitor looks like? Probably not. However, they are both large monitor lizards in the same genus. Is it really absurd to ask the general public to picture a well-known large lizard to better understand what a different but closely-related large lizard might look like?

    An alternative could have been for me to write, “If you want to know what a Nile Monitor (Varanus niloticus) looks like, picture an Ornate Monitor (Varanus ornatus)”. Effective outreach that is not.

    While I was being labeled an “activist fraud” on that forum, another organization took the opportunity to suggest that I wrote my article as part of a scheme to get government grant money for python research.

    The United States Herpetoculturist’s Alliance (USHA), an organization that claims its mission is “conservation and education about the captive breeding of reptiles and amphibians” posted my Slate article on their Facebook page with the following caption:

Meet David Steen, another arm chair python "expert" trying to put his hand in the till for government grant $$.”

    USHA made no effort to address any of the points I made in my article, instead they attempt to discredit me as an individual. Are they really interested in the conservation of animals or are they actually interested in protecting the right of people to own (and breed) them? Seriously, tell me what you think below.

    Do I even need to say that USHA’s claims about me are completely baseless? Based on the comments other people left on their Facebook page, I suppose I do. Here are some highlights:

"Pppfffttt ! …this guy is living proof that it's all about the cash flow !! I guess some people didn't have enough of making fools out of themselves with the big Burmese Python in the Everglades guess some just have to keep swinging hoping to make a strike."

    For the record, I’ve never made a dime related to invasive reptiles and have never written a grant proposal intending to fund any research related to invasive reptiles. So, I’m not sure how that makes me living proof that it’s all about the cash flow.*

"Clearly this guy had an agenda just look at the colorful and negative discriptions [sic] he uses sway the general public that would never be used in scientific papers…" 

    You know where I do use language appropriate for a scientific paper? Scientific papers. Colorful descriptions in an article written for the general public? The horror! What is my alleged agenda, other than science outreach? I am not quite sure.

"..... guarantee most of these so called phd biology people talking how this or that snake or lizard is so bad has never owned or did a study that goes more then a few yrs ...... these snakes and lizards are not the problem the jackasses that want to banned them are .... idc if u got a phd in this or that its all theroy [sic] out of a book and u passed a few test and spent lots of money to have phd behind ur name ..... raise, breed, and house these animals once and u will see that the senators and the unknowing (phd scientists) are the problem ...." 

    I think I’m just going to let this one speak for itself but I will point out that some people are confused about the differences between the study of captive animals versus the study of wildlife populations. There also seems to be some confusion about how one earns a Ph.D.

    One of the amusing things about USHA's post is that they used a picture of Florida Senator Bill Nelson to accompany my Slate article. A few of the commenters there thought it was a picture of me and proceeded to mock "my" appearance. Check it out (it was a posting made on January 7th).

    Obviously it is inconvenient for some people that there are populations of invasive reptiles in Florida and that these populations are influencing the South Florida ecosystem. I suspect their criticisms have very little to do with the content of my article but everything to do with the fact that the pet trade has contributed to the establishment of invasive species. It is easier to label me as an “activist fraud” or suggest I am just trying to get grant money than to address this harsh truth.

    I think this controversy highlights a common misconception. Many people that keep pets are also interested in science and wildlife conservation, but clearly these things do not always go hand in hand.

* I have since received a grant to study invasive tegu lizards.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Secretive Spotted Skunk

Eastern Spotted Skunk
By David Jachowski

    One of the rarest and most secretive mammals in North America might be a skunk. Not your average backyard, dumpster-loving Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis) that causes you to hold your breath after passing an overnight road kill on your morning commute. I am talking about the smaller and perplexingly rare Spotted Skunk (Spilogale putorius). This decoratively marked forest dweller, known in Mexico as zorillo or “little fox,” is infrequently seen within the United States, though it ranges from the Channel Islands of California to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

    As an example of its rarity, take a look at the central Appalachian region in Virginia and West Virginia. Despite being among the first places explored by natural historians in the “New World,” there have only been 64 confirmed sightings of Eastern Spotted Skunks in both states… ever! And this is not because these skunks are recent arrivals. Prior to being the 3rd president of the US, in 1785 Thomas Jefferson tallied “zorillos” proudly alongside the woolly mammoth (that at the time he thought still existed), bison and raccoon as one of America’s unique species in his influential natural history volume “Notes on the State of Virginia.” The first official record of an Eastern Spotted Skunk in Virginia dates back to a specimen collected in 1898 and housed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Over the next 115 years, sightings have trickled in, with the species going undetected in most years and never more than 1-5 reported in any one year in Virginia.

Why is it so rarely seen? 

Biologist Damon Lesmeister with a sedated Spotted
Skunk that is about to be fitted with a radio-tracking collar
    The mystery of why Eastern Spotted Skunks are so secretive is unknown, but we can gain some insights from other parts of the U.S. The only detailed studies of Eastern Spotted Skunk behavior come out of the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. There, over the course of two years, biologist Damon Lesmeister captured and tracked Eastern Spotted Skunks in the wild and found that they really loved to hang out in young forests with dense understory cover. This discovery, along with observations about what was killing some of his study animals, led him to hypothesize that Eastern Spotted Skunks select this type of habitat as a defense mechanism to avoid detection by their main predator, owls. 

    The importance of avoiding predators is backed up by studies in the Channel Islands off the coast of California where the main predators of Spotted Skunks are not owls, but the Channel Island Fox (Urocyon littoralis). Here, following restoration of Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) in the mid 1990’s, Channel Island Fox populations crashed, allowing for a 10-40 fold eruption in Island Spotted Skunk numbers. In other words, the eagles ate the foxes that were predators of skunks, but they left the skunks alone. The take-home message is that we know Spotted Skunks can be victims or benefactors of complex interactions with predators higher up on the food chain, and that being hard to find is an advantage.

Have you seen a Spotted Skunk? 

    Throughout its range, we still do not really know if the species is actually in danger of extinction, or if it is just really hard to find. If it is in danger, we need know what limits its numbers and how to improve its status. In the Eastern U.S. in particular, is the skunk harmed by habitat alteration and associated depredation by owls? Or is it foxes? Might there be a disease at play?

    In an effort to learn more, I am working with colleagues at Virginia Tech to collect observations and study Eastern Spotted Skunks. Every sighting and story helps us fill in a little bit more information about this secretive and uniquely American mammal, so regardless of where you live (or have lived), we would love to hear your Spotted Skunk stories. If you live in the Appalachia region and want to become a more active part of our citizen science team, consider volunteering to set out a trail camera. More details can be found on the website

As American as apple pie 

An Eastern Spotted Skunk doing its
signature warning handstand, often
the last line of defense before
expressing its scent glands.
    Did you know that skunks as we know them are unique to the Western Hemisphere? The word "skunk" is a variation on the Algonquin word "seganku," picked up and modified by New England colonists in the 1600's. In the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, there are two skunk-like species called “stink badgers.” However, the Americas are the hotbed of skunk diversity, containing the Striped, Hooded, Hog-nosed, and Spotted Skunks. So the next time you pass a road-killed skunk, take time to identify it to species. If it is a Spotted Skunk, please send us an email. If it is a Striped Skunk, you can still hold your breath - but please don’t close your eyes to what Thomas Jefferson saw as a uniquely American trademark.

Want to Learn More? Check out these Scientific Articles:

Gompper, M.E., & Hackett, H.M. (2005). The long-term, range-wide decline of a once common carnivore: the eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius).   2005, 8, 195-201 DOI: 10.1017/S1367943005001964

Jones, K.L., & et al. (2008). Sudden increase in a rare endemic carnivore: Ecology of the island spotted skunk. Journal of Mammalogy, 89, 75-86 DOI: 10.1644/07-MAMM-A-034.1

Lesmeister, D.B., & et al. (2012). Landscape ecology of eastern spotted skunk in habitats restored for red-cockaded woodpeckers Restoration Ecology, 2012, 267-275

All photos appear courtesy of Damon Lesmeister.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Anacondas, Crocodiles, and Pythons on the Loose in Florida -My New Article Appearing in Slate

Hey Living Alongside Wildlife Readers,

You may remember a recent post I wrote about why I didn't think we needed to worry about Green Anacondas in Florida. Well, I was just given the opportunity to write more about which big predatory reptiles actually should keep Florida biologists up at night. Please click through, share the article, and show some love there. Maybe I'll have the opportunity to reach that audience again. Here's the first paragraph.

Some of the world’s biggest and deadliest reptiles have been found in the United States where they don’t belong, including Nile crocodiles, Burmese pythons, and green anacondas. In fact, all of them have been found in Florida alone. The swampy wilderness of south Florida is hot, muggy, and a great spot for reptiles from all over the world to settle in and get comfortable. You might think that it would be difficult for a beast from the jungles of Africa, Asia, or South America to find its way to Florida, but it’s not. In fact, a few hundred of them may have been in the cargo hold of the last airplane you flew on, either smuggled, shipped here legally for the exotic pet trade, or as stowaways. If they escaped, any of them could end up wreaking havoc on native ecosystems and contributing to the $120 billon worth of environmental damage that non-native species cause in the United States each year. Or, they could end up doing nothing at all. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for biologists to tell what risk a non-native species might pose to the United States before it is too late...