Monday, March 31, 2014

Wild Again: The Struggle to Save the Black-footed Ferret

I once chose these grasslands over the woman I loved. It wasn’t a sudden choice, rather an accumulation of days, weeks, seasons, and years that taught me to get in my car and head to the prairie. A slow burn that led me to value a familiar place above all else.” 

So begins my new book Wild Again that documents over 4 decades of work to restore biodiversity to the prairie through the conservation of a single extremely rare carnivore, the black-footed ferret.  The ferret is a worthy totem of prairie biodiversity, because as I describe in the book: “On the Great Plains, grasses dominate the landscape. And on those grasslands, patches of prairie dogs bring the prairie alive in increased plant and animal diversity. And on some of those prairie dog colonies, the presence of black-footed ferrets best symbolizes a healthy, biodiverse piece of ground—a locality likely complete with badgers, swift foxes, burrowing owls, mountain plovers, and ferruginous hawks, some of the prototypical representatives of the prairie.”

So in this way, black-footed ferrets represent the wild heart of the Great Plains.  Through their listing and protection under the Endangered Species Act over the past 40 years, they have served as a driving force for prairie biodiversity conservation in a wave of human development.  More than that, by following their conservation in practice, you can trace the conservation ethic that has recently developed across the Great Plains.

In Wild Again, I dissect the complex conservation story of black-footed ferret recovery from near extinction in the 1970’s and 80’s, to current reintroduction efforts that take place across 8 states and Canada and Mexico.  But rather than a technical book, I tell the story of black-footed ferret conservation from a human perspective.  Conservationists across the west have devoted their lives to the preservation of this rarest of North American carnivores, and I try to encapsulate their dedication and evolving knowledge in a single up-to-date account that “is meant to be taken from the shelf to engage you, to be passed on, bent, folded and dog eared.  Take it on that next road trip to the Great Plains. Open it at a campground in Badlands National Park. Take it to the U.S.–Mexican border and crack the spine while sitting on the Chihuahua grasslands, allowing grains of prairie dust to sneak between the pages, pages that will be stained with coffee cup marks after late nights of searching for badgers, swift foxes, and perhaps even black-footed ferrets.

Still interested?  The 1st chapter is available for free here from the publisher, University of California Press. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday Roundup: This Week's Wildlife Links (March 28th, 2014)

Can you spare some change? A $10,000,000 plan to save the world's rarest gorilla.

Second Red Wolf of 2014 killed in North Carolina. What's the big deal? It's only the rarest canine in the world. Way to respect our unique heritage.

Wolves are at the gate of Paris...and getting closer.

Bangladeshi fishermen use otters to help them catch fish-but the traditional method is in jeopardy due to water pollution.

Which fisheries produce the most bycatch? And, now that you know, will you change your purchasing habits?

Due to drought, now salmon need our help to make their voyage to the Pacific Ocean possible.

The evil of the outdoor cat. Yes, even yours.

As we expand our development further into the wilds of Florida, some of the native denizens are reminding us of their presence. Human and bear conflict just north of Orlando. Same problem, different actors: conflicts between jaguars and humans in Costa Rica. The jaguars tend to lose.

Kakapos are a critically endangered parrot in New Zealand (total population about 130). Good news for their conservation, six chicks have hatched in the last few weeks. The Duggars are not impressed.

Australia poisons Dingoes to help sheep farmers. But dingoes help keep the invasive Red Fox in check.

Do you know what a Bonneted Bat is? I didn't. Endangered Florida bat sent to Zoo Miami for rehab.

Up to 70,000 kangaroos are culled each year in Victoria. Now, instead of leaving them to rot, Australia will turn them into dog food.

Meet Mshale, the un-poachable elephant. I feel like that the writing of this article may have jinxed Mshale, but I hope I'm wrong.

A broken fossil turtle bone was found in 1840. An amateur paleontologist just found the missing piece on a stream bank.

That Copenhagen zoo that killed Marius the giraffe a few weeks ago goes ahead and kills some lions.

Are you still watching Animal Planet? What's wrong with you? More evidence they abuse and exploit animals to entertain you. Oh, and that former Animal Planet host has been sentenced for trafficking those endangered Iranian lizards.

Stop calling Pronghorns antelope. More like giraffes.

No details, but potentially encouraging news that big cat populations are increasing in northeastern China.

Did I miss something interesting? Let me know below.


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Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday Roundup: This Week's Wildlife Links (March 21st, 2014)

My recent study about Kingsnakes and Copperheads (which I describe here) is getting some attention in the press, like here, here, here, and here. But, not everybody's convinced: check out what John Jensen thinks about the study here in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Tell him what you think about that below.

Nile Crocodile found in Florida. They've got plenty of tegu company. Move some of them Florida pythons around, and they'll find their way back.

Conservation of Thailand tigers takes dedication and cooperation when they wander into other countries, like Myanmar. Things are presumably safer for them now that one of India's most prolific tiger poachers has died.

Elephants can recognize different human languages and react differently depending on whether those languages are associated with people that have hunted or killed elephants in the past.

In the New York Times: Wolves have been brought back to Yellowstone National Park. Are we blowing their supposed ecological impacts out of proportion? Yes. No.

Moving bears around to hunt them in Romania makes things difficult when you're studying their genetics and natural movement patterns.

What to do when wolves and grizzlies are crossing a Canada road a lot? Close it.

Interesting interaction (on video) between two geckos and a hungry a snake. Is this hippo saving a wildebeest from a crocodile? It sure looks like it.

The search is one for the "loneliest whale in the world".

Ethyl the Grizzly Bear continues to wander around Idaho.

Captive breeding and conservation programs for the Sumatran Rhino are getting desperate. When is incest best? Meanwhile, another has been captured in Borneo-maybe she can help.

It's been too icy for some animals up north. Bad news for fish-eating ducks and dolphins.

We sure know how to treat our rare wildlife here in this country: Michigan cougar killed. Two men prosecuted. Florida men caught cannonballing manatees could face prison. Who killed this radio-collared Washington wolf? This radio-collared wolf from Oregon made the mistake of wandering into Idaho, where it was legally killed. How about these bison killed within Yellowstone National Park?

Ready for some good news? 

Kitten photo proof that ocelots are breeding in South Texas.

Thought to be extinct Harlequin Frog "re-discovered" in Costa Rica.

California bans rodenticides harmful to wildlife.

Did I miss something interesting? Let me know below.


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Friday, March 7, 2014

Friday Roundup: This Week's Wildlife Links (March 7th, 2014)

For the first time since 1947, a wolf was documented on Mount Hood, Oregon.

An article about some of my recent research describing how Kingsnakes might be affecting Copperhead populations.

Isopod in Japanese Aquarium doesn't eat for five years...dies.

Angler passes on World Record and instead releases shark alive.

Last week I linked to an article stating the extinct Labrador Duck may not have even been a real species. These folks disagree.

Rare White-tailed Eagle shot in Ireland. Golden Eagles making a comeback in Kentucky.

Chestnut trees might just be coming back to North America.

It's tough to be a crocodilian: pictures of an otter predation on an alligator and a python feeding on a crocodile.

Mountain Lion family caught on camera trap.

Blood, sweat, and tears. A story behind a research paper.

Funding pulled that was to help save the 100 remaining Sumatran Rhinos. Population of Javan Rhinos thought to have increased a bit. Graphic image/story of what rhinos face from poachers.

Eleven wildlife experiences that could disappear in your lifetime.

Did I miss something interesting? Let me know below.

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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Parasites in Paradise: Origins and Action

By Brian Folt

    About a month ago I was hiking through La Selva, traipsing through a gallery forest alongside a large creek, having a thoroughly pleasant morning. I was searching the flooplain for Rubber Trees, a large canopy species occurring in alluvial riparian areas which deposits a thick layer of leaf litter around the buttresses. Green Macaws squawked loudly overhead, feasting on seeds in the Almond Trees, and I took a moment to photograph a Central American Anteater that I found cruising around the understory. A really tranquilo morning in the field.

    At some point I turned a corner and was startled to see a large Black River Turtle (Rhinoclemmy funerea), calmly staring at me while basking on a sunny log in the creek. We made eye contact momentarily, briefly, for an instant, before two things happened simultaneously: the turtle ducked off the log into the water, and I dove in after it. 

    The turtle, visible through the relatively clear waters, paddled away from me furiously. However, I was equipped with a few summers of childhood swim lessons, and my doggy-style stroke proved too mighty for the turtle. I pinned it to the creek bottom, and then I hoisted it out of the water. Soaked from head to toe, I pulled us from the creek, and took a moment to admire the animal. He was a handsome male, as identified by the concave plastron (bottom shell segment) and the large, thick tail that marks that sex. I thought about what I knew of the animal’s natural history: the species is largely herbivorous, spending time foraging along the water’s edge and in adjacent floodplains for plant matter. But not much else is known about the species ecology, because it has rarely been studied (there is only a single published paper on the species). 

    I then figured ‘There’s no time like the present’, so I pulled some gear from my pack and set about working up the turtle. I took a few measurements (carapace length, mass, tail length, etc.), marked the shell with a unique code for future re-identification, and recorded the capture location. I then patted him on the back and fondly returned him to the creek. 

    Over the course of the next two hours, my search for Rubber Trees evolved into a search for turtles, and I proceeded to nab four more Rhinoclemmys that day. I worked methodically down the creek, capturing any more turtles I observed. As before, each animal was marked with a unique combination of notches in the marginal scutes. Each notch corresponds to a number value, and the notch values add up to an identifying number that is unique to each individual. Using this method, individuals can then be identified during future captures. (Shout out to Turtle Guru Jim Godwin for showing me the ropes about turtle mark-recapture methods in 2012).

    After searching a 600 meter stretch of the creek, I eventually called it quits and headed back to the station, covered in more mud than when I entered the field that morning, but also equipped with more knowledge of Black River Turtles. I have since returned to the creek during the odd free hour over the last few weeks, continuing the impromptu project to study the turtles. I’ve now marked 42 individuals in the study area, and I’m beginning to get a good understanding of the species’ population structure here at La Selva. 

    During recent searches I’ve recaptured over 40 percent of the individuals that I marked during previous sampling efforts, which is exciting because these data allow me to estimate the species’ population density in the study area. This turtle has been historically collected by Amerind communities in lowland Caribbean Costa Rica for food and religious ceremonies, and the species likely continues to face negative pressure from humans. However, since La Selva is a largely protected from negative human influence (e.g., turtle consumption for food), the data collected here are important because this population may serve as reference ecological conditions in the absence of negative anthropogenic effects. 

    But maybe while I was out catching turtles I got a little more than I bargained for, because now my skin is playing host to a party of parasitic worms

     The particular worms I contracted are known as cutaneous larval migrans, a common name for nematodes of the hook worm family (Ancylostomatidae). The larvae occur in soils and sandy substrates and opportunistically parasitize vertebrate animals such as dogs, cats, pigs, etc., which are the natural definitive host. The worms then occupy the lungs and intestines and reproduce by passing eggs outside the host through the animal’s feces. However, humans are an incidental host: young parasites will opportunistically try to infect humans, but are unable to pass through all the way through the skin into the body. Instead, these worms become trapped in the dermal layer and ‘wander’ around, causing intense and unpleasant itchy lesions as they go. Unless treated, larval migrans can occur in humans for weeks before dying. 

    I’m not sure how I picked up the worms. Maybe I contracted them up while running around the creeks here in chase of River Turtles. Or it’s possible that they found me during my primary line of work, which involves substantial time digging around the leaf litter in the forest, often on my hands and knees. 

    Fortunately I got my brothers on the horn and they gave me fairly detailed directions on medication approaches: I needed to 1) visit the pharmacy to buy some anti-helminthic drugs (Thiabendazole, Albendazole, or Mebendazole), 2) take 400 mg each day on a full stomach for five days, and 3) probably not dive chest deep into muck after turtles. A quick visit to Wikipedia confirmed the first two bits of their advice (...or did they read the Wiki first?), so I saddled up and headed to visit the farmacia in town. 2500 colones later (<$6 US dollars), I had a remedy in hand, and I began my war against worms. I took the pills on a full stomach regularly, and the itchiness subsided quickly (including chigger and mosquito bites, nice secondary perk). A few days after finishing the Albendazole, most of the worm lesions cleared up nicely. I was fairly pleased/relieved to be returning to a state of quasi-cleanliness in the absence of parasites (!!!). Little did I know my new experiences with tropical maladies had not come to an end. 

Ever had parasitic worms? If so, which one, and where did you get it? Share your story in the comments below.