Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday Roundup-Eating Animals to Extinction and Yes, Virginia, There is a Copperhead

An Alabama Copperhead
1. This just in: News Flash. Snakes exist in Virginia. Better get them before they get you.

2. Those Who Do Not Learn From the Past... Biologists, and even conservation biologists, historically had some curious views regarding their study organisms, views that seem very odd today. The classic example, to me at least, is that of Sir Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913), a pioneering biologist. When studying orangutans in Borneo, he describes following these magnificent animals through the treetops, shooting them over and over until the large beasts finally succumbed to multiple gunshots. He killed 29 in one stay. We now know that orangutans reproduce very slowly (and are endangered); their populations decrease in numbers over time if many animals are killed. In other words, not only are the animals that are killed removed from the population, but the surviving animals don't produce enough offspring to make up for these deaths. However, Wallace never claimed to be conserving these animals, only studying them (for an excellent book on Wallace's pioneering studies, check out: Where Worlds Collide: The Wallace Line (Comstock Books).
  On the other hand (and closer to home), William Temple Hornaday was a pioneering conservationist in North America. In 1905, he founded the American Bison Society, an organization dedicated to saving the bison from extinction.

   We are already familiar with the plight of bison in the United States (although commonly referred to as buffalo, buffalo are actually a group of animals found in the Old World, including Africa and Asia). We learn early on in school about how vast herds of these animals in the midwest plains were eventually hunted to oblivion (it is hard to grasp how common these animals once were, but the mountain of skulls on the right gives you an idea; imagine the experience of witnessing a herd of this many animals).

   But, bison actually ranged far outside of the midwest plains. They were once found in New York and all along the Appalachian Mountains south to Florida. They were found as far north as northern Canada but also in central Mexico. So, although we are all told stories to make us appreciate how there were once vast herds of bison in the United States, even these stories don't come close to communicating that bison were a major part of the natural world across the entire continent. Because much of the United States is now missing bison, it's almost as if we live in a sanitized version of what nature should really look like.

  In any case, bison were already extremely rare by 1886, when William Hornaday mounted an expedition to find the animal he fought to save. Perhaps to his dismay, he realized the animals were virtually absent. But, he did not give up in his search. Eventually, he found a small group of impressive beasts clustered together, perhaps we can think of it as a tiny herd. One might imagine his elation, after struggling to find any evidence that the animals even existed anymore, to have found these animals.

  It is harder to understand his motivation behind what he did next. He shot them all. Robert Krulwich writes an excellent essay of the subject. But, he is at a loss regarding how to explain what was going on in William Hornaday's mind that day. How do you explain the inconsistency between what William Hornaday fought for and what he did? Perhaps there was a disconnect between saving the bison as a species (which is an idea) and killing individual animals (which is an action). It's crucial to realize that what we do and how we act is what makes conservation happen, not just abstract ideas.

 It's easy to assume that we wouldn't make the same mistake again. How could we ever allow a huge beast, a giant mega-herbivore, to go extinct on our watch? Well, we do it all the time. Just in the last few weeks came news that there are no more Javan Rhinoceros is Vietnam and no more Western Black Rhinos anywhere in the wild. I hope you got a chance to see them.

3. A Lizard a Day Keeps the Doctor Away? Earlier this year I spent some time in the Florida Keys while I helped out on a python research project. The nights at our peaceful beachside cabin were occasionally interrupted by a odd hiccuping-chirp from outside.  Tokay Geckos prowled the walls and the trees, calling to attract mates (you can hear one disturbing a family here). They are not native to North America, the animals we heard were probably descendants of escaped pets. This species is normally found in Asia, and it's hard to imagine this Florida pest being in trouble in its native range, but that's exactly the case. Traditional medicine suggests Tokay Geckos have useful disease-fighting properties. These claims haven't been backed up by scientific studies, but that doesn't stop people from harvesting the lizards. Fortunately, the trend was noticed early, before Tokays became critically endangered or extinct. Maybe it's not too late to change our ways.

4. Let's End on a High Note: There is a lot to be pessimistic about. But, there are still lots of fascinating animals patrolling their habitats in the wilderness and interacting with other species just as they always have. The Deep Sea News Blog provides some awesome footage of a giant ray gliding through the water and a school of yellow angelfish that rush to clean the beast. Check it out.

Relevant Scientific Articles

ROSTLUND, E. (1960). THE GEOGRAPHIC RANGE OF THE HISTORIC BISON IN THE SOUTHEAST Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 50 (4), 395-407 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8306.1960.tb00357.x

Erik Meijaard, Alan Welsh, Marc Ancrenaz, Serge Wich, Vincent Nijman, & Andrew J. Marshall (2010). Declining Orangutan Encounter Rates from Wallace to the Present Suggest the Species Was Once More Abundant PLoS ONE, 5 (8)

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