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How much is a Kirkland’s Warbler worth?

What is the monetary value of a California Condor?

Once of the significant changes that is being made by the current presidential administration to the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) is to take the economic considerations of a project or a impacted species into account. This will mean that if a particular project could generate a lot of money, it might be able to move ahead even if it destroyed an endangered species. Also, if measures to save a particular species are expensive, they may be ignored in favor of a profitable project.

This is a terrible change.

Protecting a species should be undertaken simply for its own right. If that is expensive, so be it. If it is difficult, so be it. If it is unprofitable, so be it!

Economic considerations have no place in deciding which species to save and whether or not some species to go extinct. Period.

If economic considerations do become part of the endangered species conservation decision making process, we will all have to answer the two questions that I began this post with. Many industries will be working hard to put dollar amounts on species, and to make sure those values are as low as possible.

Here is a short video from Beau and the Fifth Column, a youtube content creator I like, on the subject.

Let’s talk about the Endangered Species Act, Chickens, and Painters….

And here is a link to written testimony by Dr. Jane Goodall to the U.S. House of Representatives on the value and importance of the Endangered Species Act.

Dr. Jane Goodall to the U.S. House of Representatives

One result of adding economic considerations into conservation decisions will be more extent species. And this during an ongoing extinction crisis.

 

 

 

 

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In 1982, the year I was born, there were only 22 California Condors alive in the world. Those 22 birds were all that remained of a population that once spanned the western US, and bits of Canada and Mexico. The Condor population plummeted as a result of lead poisoning, hunting, habitat loss and pollution.

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Geographic range of the California Condor in the 1880s

By 1987, the world population of California Condors was 27 birds. Since the causes of the California Condor decline were distinctly human activities, it only seemed appropriate for humans to step up and attempt to fix what they had broken. To that end, the 27 birds were captured and taken into a captive breeding program run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The goal of that captive breeding program was to first raise Condors and establish multiple captive breeding populations, and then to establish multiple wild populations. It was an ambitious plan.

Over the last 37 years, the program has overcome countless challenges from figuring out how to hatch condor eggs, to how to raise babies that will grow into wild adults, to teaching those young adults to find food. California Condors are not fast breeders. A pair will only lay one egg each year, and they sometimes skip years. The young birds take several years to grow and gain full independence, and will begin to breed after about five years. It has taken extensive amounts of money and time, but success after success have become realities.

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An adult California Condor

A small number of captive breeding populations were established in zoos raptor breeding facilities. In 1992, Condors began to be released into the wild. Additional releases established small populations in California, Arizona, Utah, and Mexico.

Now a new milestone has been reached. In March of this year, the 1000th California Condor chick has hatched since 1987 when the captive breeding population was initiated. This brings the living population to around 500 individuals, since numerous chicks, juveniles, and adults have died in the last 37 years. The 1000th chick hatched in the wild to a pair of Condors living in Zion National Park in Utah.

A population of 500 individuals is still not big enough to be out of danger of extinction, and as such are still protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act. But it is certainly a wonderful accomplishment, and the 1000th chick born is also a occasion to be celebrated. Hopefully, the California Condor population will continue to grow, and the amazing birds, the largest in North America, with their 9 foot wingspans will be circling 15,000 feet over our heads in greater numbers and across greater areas as the next 37 years unfold.

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I spent the 4th of July weekend camping with my family at one of my favorite spots. Domingo Spring in Lassen National Forest. I first visited this site during my graduate school work where I was recording the calls of Evening Grosbeaks, and I have returned regularly ever since. The campground, set among jumbled piles of volcanic rocks and large conifer trees, is immediately beside a wet meadow that Domingo Creek runs through. Near the entrance of the campground is the source of Domingo Creek, and the campground’s namesake, Domingo Spring. This spring is one of the few places I know of where one can drink right out of the land. In my mind, that makes this a very special spot, indeed. We also drove to Willow Lake for part of one day which was lovely. Willow Lake has a floating sphagnum bog where a couple of native species of carnivorous plants grow wild.

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My brother birding Domingo Spring

The days we spent camping were filled with birds, a lake visit, walks throughout the surrounding meadows, lots of cooking over the fire, singing, talking politics, reading the Declaration of Independence on the 4th of July, drawing, and so much more! One bird encounter that was really wonderful was our neighbors in the campground. A pair of Cassin’s Vireos had a nest about 25 feet up a ponderosa pine tree at the edge of our campsite where four nestlings eagerly gobbled down each of the insects their parents delivered. Many Western Tanagers, including a lot of newly fledged birds, were also around this year.

The full species list for birds included: Mallard, Common Nighthawk, Anna’s Hummingbird, Turkey Vulture, Great Horned Owl, Black-backed Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, White-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Western Wood-Pewee, Stellar’s Jay, Common Raven, Tree Swallow, Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, House Wren, American Robin, Cassin’s Vireo, Evening Grosbeak, Purple Finch, Cassin’s Finch, Song Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Orange-crowned Warbler, MacGillivray’s Warbler, and Western Tanager.

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My daughter holding a Pacific Tree Frog

We also had some nice herpetological encounters. I caught a small Mountain Gartersnake, and my wife and daughter caught a Pacific Tree Frog. Oddly, we did not see any gartersnakes are Willow Lake. In the past we have often seen them swimming in the lake as they hunt for minnows in the water, sometimes around our feet. This year, the water was much more turbid that it usually is (a result of the fairly recent snow melt?), and maybe this made the water less appealing as hunting grounds for the snakes that are pretty visual predators.

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Mountain Gartersnake

Mammals we saw included Mule Deer, California Groundsquirrel, Golden-mantled Groundsquirrel, Douglas Squirrel, and Allen’s Chipmunk.

I very much look forward to the next time I return to Domingo Spring to enjoy the mountains and drink from the rocks.

 

 

 

Homosexuality has been observed is just about every species it has been looked for. Transgender animals are not as widely known, but may just be a matter of looking for them.

There are certainly some animal examples that are various forms of transgender animals in nature. One is the California Sheephead (Semicossyphus pulcher) which is a fish that is born female, and then can become male later in life. Another example is found in the Green Frog (Rana clamitans) that reverse sex in response to various external factors, and this has been observed in other amphibians as well. But both of these examples are in lineages of animals that are pretty distantly related to us humans.

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Photo of two lions one is male sex (left), one is female sex (right), but both display male characteristics.

Well, research published a couple of years ago in the African Journal of Ecology is an example much closer to us. In a paper by Gilfillan et al. from the University of Sussex, five lionesses in Botswana have been observed to grow manes, regularly roar and scent mark, mount other females, and display other very male-like behaviors such as killing the cubs of rival prides which females lions just about never do but is very common for male lions.

This is a mammal we are talking about.

Lions that are female in body, but male in behavior.

In the wild.

Still think being transgender is unnatural?

Transgender Flag

The United Nations (UN) announced last Friday, the 10th of May, 2019, that almost every country on earth has agreed to a legally binding plastic waste pact. This agreement will mean that several thousand different types of plastic waste will be tracked. This means that countries will have to monitor and keep track of plastic waste within and beyond their boarders.

Related imageThis agreement sends a strong message to governments, industries, and consumers that the issue of plastic waste cannot be ignored. This is a good thing since plastics in the environment have become a huge problem. There are gigantic rafts of plastics floating in the oceans of the world (at least one is the size of the state of Texas). There is plastic scattered along every road, in every river, on every beach. A recent dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench (the deepest dive by a submarine ever) even found some pieces of either metal or plastic trash as the sub scanned to bottom.

Image result for plastic in the oceanWe humans need to stop flinging our trash all over the world. The wide-spread agreement on this need as evidenced by the wide-spread by-in to the plastic waste pact is encouraging. Unfortunately, one of the few countries that did not agree to the pact was the USA. I very much hope that my country will turn around on this stance.

 

A news story has been circulating a fair bit in the past couple of weeks. This story has been picked up by numerous news and science outlets. How it is being reported and explained is just plain misleading and inaccurate.

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The Aldabra Rail is a subspecies of the White-throated Rail.

Here are a few titles that show how the subject is being covered.

Science Magazine – Evolution Brings Extinct Island Bird Back into Existence

Smithsonian Magazine – How Evolution Brought a Flightless Bird Back from Extinction

CBS News – An Extinct Bird Species Has Evolved Back into Existence, Study Says

From these titles, and from the bodies of the articles themselves, readers would think that the same species of bird existed at some point in the past, went extinct (as in died out completely), and then re-evolved!

That does not happen.

Here is what actually did occur.

The small atoll of Aldabra is a pretty spectacular spot. It is very remote. It is quite beautiful. It is home to a bunch of unique animals found no where else on earth. It has one of the longest fossil records on any island in the Indian Ocean.

That fossil record includes a lot of the animals that have called the atoll home over the past few million years. One of those animals was the Aldabra Rail. This rail was a small flightless bird that was probably found hunting through reed beds along the edges of water. The Aldabra Rail went extinct about 136,000 years ago at about the same time that global sea level was rising and submerging oceanic islands like Aldabra. After a few thousand years, sea level dropped and Aldabra became an exposed island once more. Not long after that fossils of a rail on Aldabra start showing up again.

There are a couple of possible explanations. One is that some remnant population of the Aldabra Rail hung on, some how, and did not die. These were flightless birds, so it is not clear how this might have happened, but perhaps a small population managed to survive on a floating raft of vegetation long enough to reach an exposed bit of land. This seems like a very long shot. It is much more likely that the Aldabra Rail simply died out completely. It went extinct.

The other possible explanation is much more likely and widely understood and accepted, and it is this: the Aldabra Rail went extinct when the atoll went under water. Then after it re-emerged, a group of birds likely from the same parent stock of the original Aldabra Rail re-colonized the atoll (quite probably from Madagascar). This new group of colonizers eventually became flightless and filled the same, or very similar, ecological niche as the original Aldabra Rail.

This is a process called iterative evolution and it is pretty rare. The definition of iterative evolution is: the evolution of similar or parallel structures in the development of the same main line.

But iterative evolution does not produce the same species twice. It may produce similar species, but to produce the same species twice would require starting with the same gene pool twice. The group of birds that first colonized Aldabra, and became the Aldabra Rail 1.0, had a unique combination of genes to work with. The group of birds that later colonized Aldabra, and became the Aldabra Rail 2.0, had a unique combination of genes to work with. Those two combinations of genes may have been similar, but they were not the same. Therefore the decedents of those two groups would not be the same.

I really think that the implications of how this story is being reported is really misleading and possible even damaging.

Misleading because they imply that a species can evolve twice. To go back to the definition of  iterative evolution, it the evolution of “similar or parallel structures…” Similar or parallel structures are not the same as identical species. Two rails that evolved at different times in the same place and that are both flightless, are not the same species.

Damaging because there is weight to the idea of extinction. Extinction is forever. It means that an entire evolutionary lineage has ended, and any potential future that that lineage may have had is gone. If the idea of extinction becomes an impermanent one, it looses its urgency and tragedy. People may well not worry about extinction as that species can just re-evolve. No harm, no foul.

Again, no species can ever occur twice. Once a species goes extinct, that is it for that evolutionary lineage. Even if some other lineage emerges that is close, it will not be the same and will not have the same evolutionary trajectory or potential.

When reporting on science, I feel strongly that the ideas behind the science should be accurately represented. I think it is especially distressing when the sources of the misrepresentations are otherwise reputable sources for science.

I hope the current Aldabra Rail has a long future filled with descendants, and I mourn the loss of the previous rail of Aldabra and the lineage it might have left behind, but never will.

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A view of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) has produced a video called Restoring California’s Great Estuary that explains the EcoRestore initiative which is one of the big, state-wide efforts that is aiming at restoring some fairly significant amounts of habitat to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Being that I work for a State agency called the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy, this is something that I pay a lot of attention to. But there are a lot of reasons that everyone who lives in California, and many people who live outside the state, should also be interested in this video. A large portion of the people, farms, ranches, and industries in California rely, at least in part, on water from the Delta. That fact alone should make efforts like

Also, I work with many of the people featured in this video including my boss, Campbell Ingram. Seeing talented people that I know talking about an issue that I care about makes this video that much more appealing to me, but that probably won’t have much impact on you.

Enjoy!