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Posts Tagged ‘Ecology’

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Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis). Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Knight.

There is a small lizard that lives all across the western USA that has a superpower! The lizard is the Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis) and the superpower is that it can kill Lyme Disease. This is not a new story, by any means, but it is a great one. It is also a reminder that there are amazing things to discover in our back yards, and that we gain amazing benefits from unlikely parts of the natural world.

So, the story is this. A person in Connecticut is about 100 times more likely to get Lyme Disease than a person in California. Why is this true? This was a puzzle for scientists and public health specialists.

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Female Black-legged Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis). Photo courtesy of Innovative Pest Management.

Many possible ideas have been examined. Is it because there are more ticks in Connecticut? No, there are lots of ticks in both states. Well, only certain species of tick can carry Lyme Disease, so maybe those species occur in Connecticut but not California. No, the species of tick, members of the genus Ixodes, occur in both states. Ok, where do the ticks get Lyme Disease from, maybe the reservoir for the disease is only found on the east coast, but not the west. Nope, the disease is commonly found in many species of mammal, deer particularly, and these animals are found all across North America. Well, maybe people in the two states are not getting bitten at the same rates for some reason. No, the numbers of bits per 100,000 individuals is about the same. But, for some reason, when a person is bitten by a tick in California they very rarely get Lyme Disease.

It turns out that this is because most ticks in California (and I am talking about the members of the genus Ixodes that can carry Lyme Disease, here) don’t actually carry Lyme Disease very often. They can, but they generally don’t.

An entomologist at the University of California, Berkeley (Robert Lane, Ph.D.) figured out why they don’t back in the late 1990s. It turns out that one of the common hosts of ticks in the western USA are Western Fence Lizards and Western Fence Lizard blood contains a protein that kills the Lyme Disease causing organism (a bacteria called Borrelia). In lab tests, Borrelia bacteria that was placed in mouse blood would survived for about three days, but Borrelia bacteria that was place in Western Fence Lizard blood died in one hour! (On a bit of a side note, when I was a kid my family and I actually did some field collecting for this project. When we went hiking in the east bay hills, we would save the ticks we found on ourselves or the dog and take them in to UCB.)

So what happens is that any time a tick bites a Western Fence Lizard, the blood that the tick drinks kills off all the Borrelia in its system. If that tick then goes on to bite you, it has no Borrelia to pass on to you and you do not get Lyme Disease. Pretty cool, right? One of the big, unanswered questions is what protein, exactly, in Western Fence Lizard blood is so lethal to Borrelia?

So, next time you see a Western Fence Lizard say thanks for the Lyme Disease protection. The next time you find a tick on you, don’t panic because it probably has been drinking blood from a Western Fence Lizard and so has no Lyme Disease to give you, unless you are back east in which case you should probably watch for possible Lyme Disease symptoms.

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There are currently ten state conservancies operating in California. Each of these state agencies was established to promote and protect a certain part of the California landscape that was deemed by the California legislature to be of particular importance. All the state conservancies operate within the California Resources Agency. Each conservancy is under the guidance of a board of directors that is comprised of a range of individuals who represent federal, state, and local agencies and NGOs that advise each conservancy’s staff on how to accomplish their core mission. Since I started working for one of these conservancies a few months ago, I thought it might be interesting to introduce the whole set. So here they are, in order of when they were created, the California State Conservancies.

1. The California Coastal Conservancy was founded in 1976. It’s mission statement is “…to preserve, protect, and restore the resources of the California coast, ocean, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Our vision is of a beautiful, restored, and accessible coastline, ocean and San Francisco Bay Area.” This agency is tasked with managing the 1,100 miles of coastline that runs from Oregon to Mexico. In 2014, their operating budget was around $8 million.

2. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy was founded in 1979. It’s mission statement is “…to strategically buy back, preserve, protect, restore, and enhance treasured pieces of Southern California to form an interlinking system of urban, rural and river parks, open space, trails, and wildlife habitats that are easily accessible to the general public.” To accomplish this, the SMMC owns or manages thousands of acres from the Mojave Desert to the Pacific Ocean.

3. The California Tahoe Conservancy was founded in 1984. It’s mission is “…to restore and sustain a balance between the natural and the human environment and between public and private uses at Lake Tahoe.” Since its founding, it has acquired over 6,500 acres in the Tahoe Basin, and has worked to control invasive species, improve water quality, and restore forests and wetlands in the Tahoe Basin. In 2014, their operating budget was approximately $9.5 million.

4. The Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy was founded in 1991. It’s mission statement is “…to protect the natural and cultural resources of the Coachella Valley: the scenic, wildlife, cultural, geologic, and recreational resources that make this such a splendid place for people and all the other life forms with which we share this special place.” With only limited staff and funds, this conservancy has ensured the conservation of over 46,200 acres.

5. The San Joaquin River Conservancy was founded in 1995. It’s mission includes, “…develop and manage the San Joaquin River Parkway, a planned 22-mile natural and recreational area in the floodplain extending from Friant Dam to Highway 99. The Conservancy’s mission includes acquiring approximately 5,900 acres from willing sellers; developing, operating, and managing those lands for public access and recreation; and protecting, enhancing, and restoring riparian and floodplain habitat.”

6. The San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy was founded 1999. It’s mission is “…to preserve open space and habitat in order to provide for low-impact recreation and educational uses, wildlife habitat restoration and protection, and watershed improvements within our jurisdiction.” The area covered by this conservancy is across eastern Los Angeles County and western Orange County.

7. The Baldwin Hills Conservancy was founded in 2001. It’s mission is… “to acquire open space and manage public lands within the Baldwin Hills area and to provide recreation, restoration and protection of wildlife habitat within the territory for the public’s enjoyment and educational experience.” The Baldwin Hills are a small area of unincorporated Los Angeles near Culver City about 450 acres in size.

8. The San Diego River Conservancy was founded in 2003. This Conservancy’s enabling legislation states that… “The agency’s mission, the restoration and conservation of the San Diego River Area, is accomplished by (1) acquiring, managing and conserving land; and (2) protecting or providing recreational opportunities, open space, wildlife species and habitat, wetlands, water quality, natural flood conveyance, historical / cultural resources, and educational opportunities.” One of the major goals of this Conservancy is to create a river-long park and hiking trail that will run from the river’s headwaters near the town of Julian to the Pacific Ocean.

9. The Sierra Nevada Conservancy was founded in 2004. It’s mission states that the “Sierra Nevada Conservancy initiates, encourages, and supports efforts that improve the environmental, economic and social well-being of the Sierra Nevada Region, its communities and the citizens of California.” The Sierra Nevada Conservancy operates throughout the Sierra Nevada Mountains providing funding for projects that support it’s mission.

10. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy was founded in 2010. It’s mission is… “Working collaboratively and in coordination with local communities, the Conservancy will lead efforts to protect, enhance, and restore the Delta’s economy, agriculture and working landscapes, and environment, for the benefit of the Delta region, its local communities, and the citizens of California.” The Delta Conservancy operates throughout the legal boundary of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and Suisun Marsh by providing funding, support, and project management to efforts that further it’s mission.

 

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Tiny plastic microbeads in personal care products are washing into public waterways. — credit: Alliance for the Great Lakes

In March of 2014, I wrote a post about microbeads. Microbeads, for those who might be wondering, are tinny spheres of plastic that are added to a variety of personal care products such as toothpaste, body wash, and soap to increase the abrasiveness of the product. The problem is that these pieces of plastic are so small that they pass right through filters and water treatment plants and then flow out into the environment where they can have serious consequences. The polystyrene that microbeads are commonly made of attract a range of chemicals that bind to their surface. When a fish mistakes a microbead for a fish or insect egg, it not only gets a piece of plastic in its stomach, but also a concentrated does of the chemicals that piece of plastic is carrying.

And some of the numbers around microbeads are staggering! Researchers at State University of New York found that an average one square kilometer of Lake Ontario contained approximately 1.1 million microbeads! All these particles move through our streams, lakes, and rivers and eventually find their way to the oceans where they contribute to the massive amount of plastics floating on the earth’s oceans. These plastics continue to have environmental health effects as they move through food webs. A recent study out of Oregon State University found that approximately 90% of the seabirds in the world had plastic in their guts.

So, what to do? Well, in March of this year, Representative Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) introduced H.R. 1321 to the U.S. House of Representatives which would amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to prohibit microbeads from being added to products. It calls for the phasing out of microbeads beginning on the 1st of July, 2017. And on the 7th of Dec. the House voted on, and passed, H.R. 1321! This legislation will now go to the US Senate for a vote, and then on to the President to be signed into law.

So, the U.S. Senate is the next hurdle. To help this bill over that hurdle, write to your senators and tell them that you want a vote on this issue, and that you want them to vote with the environment and ban microbeads from our waterways and the waters of the planet!

 

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The idea of a wetland that can move from place to place is an odd one, but in many ways it is not a new one. Basically, a walking wetland is when someone floods a piece of land and lets a wetland grow there for a while. Then, after some pre-determined amount of time has passed, that piece of land is drained and a different piece of land is flooded. A wetland is then allowed to grown on the new piece and, viola, the wetland has walked!

This technique is a lot like crop rotation schemes that have been around for just about as long as agriculture. Letting land lay fallow lets that land recharge some of its nutrients and so be more fertile the next time a crop is grown on it. Walking wetlands are just another type of rotations, but this rotation is to cover the land with shallow water. Not much water is needed to make this work. Generally, about 4 inches is the average depth! Letting the land be flooded in those 4 inches for from 1 to 4 years lets amazing things happen!

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First year walking wetland in the Klamath Basin.

For one, a lovely wetland springs up quite quickly. In the first year, the area is generally covered in grasses and other fairly short plants that only raise above the water a relatively short distance and that grow in a fairly open pattern with lots of space for shorebirds to walk around and forage. In the second year, tules and cattails grow up. This form tall and dense stands. The small open patches are preferred by a wide range of duck species though the shorebirds don’t tend to like this habitat as much. In subsequent years, some habitat modification, such as mowing, is generally needed to keep the tules and cattails at a level that still allows for birds and other wildlife species to access the wetland. Otherwise the stands of tules and cattails grow so dense that only a few species will utilize them.

Another amazing thing is that some crop pathogens that live in the soil drown. Many pathogenic microbes cannot survive a year or two of being submerged. Impressively, many beneficial soil microbes actually can survive this long underwater, so when the land is drained, the good microbes are still present and many of the bad ones are gone! This has an economic benefit because growers then need to buy less pesticides. This has an environmental benefit because grower need to apply less pesticides.

A third amazing thing is that all the birds that come and use the wetland leave their waste behind! Bird guano is fantastic fertilizer, and having a few thousand ducks, geese, and shorebirds wandering around can result in the grower needing to buy and apply less fertilizer and also lead to a boost in crop production!

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An older walking wetland in the Klamath Basin.

Along the Pacific Flyway, walking wetlands have been really pioneered in the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge along the California-Oregon boarder, which is home to the first officially titled Walking Wetlands Program. It has since also been adopted in the Skagit Valley in northern Washington state. Additionally, several groups in central California, including the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy where I work, are looking at using walking wetlands in the California Delta.

For better or for worse, setting aside habitat exclusively for wildlife use is not going to be able to secure enough land to protect that majority of species. Instead, finding ways for agriculture and wildlife to both succeed is the only way that longer-term conservation is going to be successful, and walking wetlands are a terrific example of what that can look like.

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A change is coming to a grocery store near you! Soon you will not have the option of paper or plastic at the checkout counter. This is because, last September, Governor Brown signed a state-wide ban on single-use plastic bags. This is the first state-wide ban in the country.

The ban will come into effect in two major stages. The first will only effect large stores and will begin 1-July-2015. The second stage will apply to all stores of any kind or size and will take effect 1-July-2016.

At present, it is estimated that something like 13 million plastic bags are handed out each year. All that plastic is then thrown away, if we are lucky. If we are lucky a plastic bag is thrown into the trash and ends up in a landfill. It will not brake down there for decades, at least, but it will stay put. If we are unlucky, the bag will miss the trash can and end up floating on the wind or water and end up in our streams, rivers, and eventually, our oceans. There it will again not break down for decades and instead spend its time floating around collecting toxins, many of which bind to the surface of plastics. They are then often eaten by marine animals, and so deliver that toxic payload to that animal or the animal that eats it. In this way, the toxins that the plastic carries, and the plastic itself, is accumulated up the food chain and eventually may be eaten by you or me. So, this ban is not just about saving the oceans, though it would be a great law even if that were the case, but it is about protecting our health as well.

I, for one, am happy to see California leading the way on this issue. Of course, the plastic bag industry is pretty unhappy about this ban, but if you are contributing to the decline in health of the environment then you are going to be held to account in one way or another. This way we all get to be healthier during the process.

So, don’t forget your reusable bags next time you head out shopping! Come July, you are really going to need them.

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