December 28, 2005
December 17, 2005
The Virunga National Park Dung Drought
29,000: The number of hippos in Virunga National Park 25 years ago
850: The number of hippos in Virunga National Park today
Hippos were once considered common in Africa, rather like bulfrogs congregate around ponds in the rural United States. But the hippos are in a very dramtic decline due to the bushmeat trade, the blackmarket ivory trade, global warming, war and disease. For the first time ever, the large herbivore is facing extinction.
And with them, many other dependent species may soon join them.
Hippos in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are on the verge of extinction due to widespread poaching for hippo teeth and meat, conservationists warn.
The park was once home to the world's largest hippo population... But years of civil war and rampant poaching have inflicted a terrible toll on the area's wildlife.
The dramatic fall in hippo numbers has resulted in a rapid decline of the Lake Edward's fish stocks, because hippo dung provides vital nutrients for fish.
"The situation is dire," said Robert Muir, the DRC representative of the Frankfurt Zoological Society in Germany. "There is every possibility that the remaining hippos will be shot and killed in the next year or two."
"Hippos are being killed by soldiers and local militia, as well as local poachers," Languy said.
"Hippos not only consume lots of grass, but they digest it and deposit it into the aquatic ecosystem, thus fertilizing it," he said.
Each hippo dumps some 60 pounds (27 kilograms) of dung into Lake Edward every day. The dung feeds microscopic plankton, which are consumed by worms and larvae. They in turn feed the lake's tilapia fish, the mainstay of the thousands of fishers who live inside the park.
"The equation is clear: Less hippos means less manure, less manure means less fish, and less fish obviously means huge problems
Check out our Frolicking Hippos podcast - a video program highlighting these playful animals!
Check out our Kenya Waterhole podcast - a video program experiencing a sunrise in Africa!
King Kong's Island Illusion
Today, I fell in love with a great ape. A twenty-five foot tall silverback gorilla, to be precise. I'll admit, I went to see the T-Rex fight scene, which went so far beyond what I expected, it was really quite amazing. But I stayed to see the love story of the beauty and the beast.
Much like Jurassic Park and its sequels, we travel once again to an uncharted jungle island packed with big beasties like long-extinct dinosaurs, giant apes, and lamp post-sized bats, all wanting to snack on any intrepid explorers that accidently or purposefully find their way there. But what's interesting from a natural history perspective is that the concept of apex predators on an island is considered unrealistic from a naturalist's point of view.
The massive star of the new movie King Kong, which opens today, effectively apes real gorillas. But the bizarre assortment of wildlife on the creature's island home seems to be from out of this world.
In the island's jungles roam a wide array of dinosaurs, including Tyrannosaurus rex; aggressive, 3-foot (90-centimeter) cockroaches; bloodthirsty car-size crabs; and, of course, Kong, a 25-foot-tall (8-meter-tall) silverback gorilla who lives alone in his mountain hideaway.
It's a world that violates most of modern science's evolutionary rules.
"Islands, even moderately large ones, are notoriously devoid of large predators," he said. "The two largest predators on Cuba are a lizard and the red-tailed hawk. The whole notion of apex predators on islands is fantasy."
Well, I'll believe that it is very unlikely that large predators like Kong would be living on an island, but still, I don't like the idea of eliminating the concept entirely.
That said, I would feel a lot less skeptical if there had been a clear food chain (smaller creatures as well as larger) on Skull Island. But still, if there was a place with apex predators, then it certainly would be somewhere uninhabited and primitive and isolated, which makes an island an ideal setting for such fantastical fiction.
December 9, 2005
Plight of the Prairie Dog
I have always envisioned that the cowboy phrase "Git Along, Little Dogies" pertained to little prairie dogs scurrying under the horses' hooves. Can't you just see that visual? Like little lemmings... Of course, I was wrong. A dogie is a motherless calf.
Yeah, I know, you're shocked. How could I possibly be wrong? Especially after I was so sure at the age of 6 that the wedding vows including being someones "awful wedded wife". My father thought my mishearing of the word lawful was so terribly funny that he decided not to correct me for the longest time!
But anyway, this is about the REAL little doggies, the REAL deservers of the title: The North American Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs.
The North American Black-Tailed Prairie Dog is an icon of the Great Plains. These little critters live in prairie dog towns. But for generations, ranchers have fought them off, claiming they eat all the grass. They make dangerous holes for animals and people to fall in and twist their legs and need to be put down! (Think Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall - only in that case, it was barbed wire, which I'm pretty sure isn't the prairie dog's fault). In short, the prairie dog is a bona fide varmint!
Anyway, nowadays only two percent of the North American Black-Tailed Prairie Dog's habitat still remains. But now nature conservationalists are finding that the prairie dog not only needs land, but it can be a key species in the fight to restore and protect the Great Plains ecosystem, to keep its native plants intact. The little doggies also perform a similar service to worms - aerating the soil, not to mention fertilizing it...
The Nature Conservancy and its Mexican partner Pronatura Noreste today announced the purchase of a 46,000-acre cattle ranch in Mexico's northern Janos Valley, one of North America's last remaining desert grasslands and home to a variety of rare animals including the world's largest complex of black-tailed prairie dog colonies.
Prairie dogs are vital to restoring the dwindling grasslands of the Chihuahuan desert. Scientists, in fact, refer to prairie dogs as the architects of North America's grasslands. Prairie dogs gnaw through woody shrubs such as mesquite that would otherwise takeover the grassland habitat.
And as burrowing animals, they excavate tons of hard-baked desert soils, increasing the grounds' fertility and improving foraging for cattle.
December 2, 2005
Snagged The Wedding Dress
Occassionally I try something on and things just click, and I know it's perfect for me.
Then I go home and show Shane, and sometimes they don't quite click anymore, but sometimes they do. Lucky for me, this happened on Friday when I was trying on potential wedding dresses. I wasn't particularly relishing the experience and so I had been putting things off, but as the date gets closer and people bug me about what is and isn't done yet, I have felt the pressure to do SOMETHING.
So I tried three dresses on (yes, total) All were various degrees of green, since I had decided on either a green or a copper colored gown (I refused to wear white at my graduation, why should I start now?). The third one was the charm. I called Shane on the cell and he said I should bring it home for inspection. Well, it passed and I've called my mother and so now I can post it here for all and sundry!
It's an A-line gown with a looped bodice band and looped wrap waist. The first two purple dresses are the actual style I decided on, but there are no green versions online so I have added the third picture so you can see what color I've chosen.
Designer: Jessica McClintock
Sleeve Length: Strapless
Hemline: Floor length
Fabric: Satin-Finished Silk (Charmeuse)
December 1, 2005
Otter Says: I Was Here First
Here in the Monterey Bay, we have a lot of sea otters. It's like the shared mascot for Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. The Monterey sea canyon which cuts into the bay is a marine sanctuary, and while we certainly have a fishing industry, we also have conservation programs. We do not have oil rigs sitting off our coasts. We do not have Wal-Marts either, at least in Santa Cruz County. But yes, we have quite a few otters. I can reliably walk down to the Capitola or Santa Cruz or Monterey Wharf, and see at least one. Usually within about 75ft. I can always see them frollicking in the kelp beds, but those are farther away.
But while we consider the sea otters fuzzy friends, it appears that some people in Southern California (heathens!) consider them furry fugitives. Shellfish divers of SoCal can't seem to handle the "natural competition" with the local otters.
Now, just so we're clear, this is not like a herd of locusts or anything. The West Coast once supported several hundred thousand sea otters. But we hunted them for their fur and by around 1900, there were only about 50 left, all in Big Sur. Through conservation efforts, there are now approximately 2,700 Southern Sea Otters living off the coast of California, mostly in the Monterey Bay and other marine sanctuaries. Although the otters populations are focused in several key areas, wildlife officials have also tried to have several diverse populations, especially after the wreck of the 1989 Exxon Valdez and subsequent oil spill was estimated to have killed more than 2650 otters (this is likely the Northern Sea Otter).
But the resurgence of otters upset the fishermen and they didn't like the otters stealing "their" catches and making shellfishing more difficult. In 1987, the Fish and Wildlife Service passed a ban on wild otters living in the coastal waters south of Santa Barbara. Otters living in this region would be caught and moved to a safer, more fisherman-friendly location - like Monterey.
And thus began the otter translocation program - biologists would track otters, sneak up on then while they were sleeping, catch em, and ship them off to Northern California. This was not a comfortable process for the otters. Unfortunately, some of the otters didn't play along. Surprising scientists, these smart marine mammals became.... you guessed it - furry fugitives! Phoky is one such crafty, dare I say trixy, otter - outsmarting his two-legged adversaries left and right.
When Sanders, a biologist, finally captured the critter at Southern California's Anacapa Island, he shipped Phoky north to Monterey under an ambitious federal program to preserve otters while protecting shellfish divers from natural competition.
But within six months, Phoky was back in forbidden waters. He was one of dozens of otters that surprised government biologists at almost every turn. Now, it seems, officials are throwing in the towel.
In an admission that the slick-furred creatures refuse to respect boundaries imposed by man, authorities want to officially abandon their otter-relocation policy.
"This concept of taking animals and putting them in one place and expecting them to stay where we want them ... wasn't really working," said Sanders, 44, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.
Biologists had thought the otters would stay near San Nicholas, which has plenty of food and is surrounded by deep water that is hard to swim across. Even if the otters wanted to leave, it seemed improbable that they had the navigation skills to do it -- especially since they were taken to the island by plane.
"We flew 'em out there," Sanders said, "although we didn't blindfold them."
The otters didn't play along. Some swam up to 200 miles to return to native habitat along the Central Coast.
Fishermen and seafood processors say federal officials never did enough -- and complain that lobster and urchin fishing could be devastated if otters continue roaming Southern California waters.
After waiting for an otter to fall asleep, wildlife crews would sneak up beneath it with a propeller-powered craft manned by a diver and snare it in a net. The otter then would be flown in a chartered plane or driven hundreds of miles to a Northern California beach for re-release. Some died from the stress.
Total cost: $6,000 to $12,000 per otter.
But before officials can catch an otter, they have to spot it. One recent day, as part of the agency's fall otter survey, Sanders spent two hours near the University of California at Santa Barbara, peering through a telescope at a kelp bed where something resembling an otter had been seen the day before.
Sanders perked up when a potential otter bobbed near the surface, but it turned out to be a harbor seal. Or a log. Lots of things look like otters.
"You get these harbor seals that fake you out," Sanders said.
Sometimes, though, Sanders catches a break -- as in the incident he refers to as "the drive-by sighting."
Years ago, Sanders got a call from a lifeguard who had been cruising along coastal Highway 101 near Ventura when he spotted what he thought was an otter. Sanders was incredulous, but decided to follow up.
It turned out to be Phoky.
A few weeks ago, Sanders and other wildlife officials marked the 15th anniversary of Phoky's first capture near Anacapa. Phoky, though, didn't make it to the celebration. He had better places to be.
Last Sanders heard, the otter was rumored to be in Mexico.
More at: CNN:Otters winning battle of wits
You can find these and other wildlife photographs I've taken on my old photo blog.