Gavin Van Horn: Shagbark Thoughts

Center for Humans and Nature:

Small places, small encounters. We start where we are, with what is available to us. An iridescent bird who has learned to seek bread from human hands is not a bad place to begin. Which reminds me of the wise words of writer and lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle. There’s a moving chapter entitled “The Extinction of Experience” in Pyle’s memoir of childhood exploration, The Thunder Tree. There he notes that when people think of extinction, they often think of rare species—Javan rhinos and Bengal tigers. Animals that are large or furry, or a combination of both, draw the lion’s share of our attention. As important as big, charismatic species are, Pyle sets his sights on something closer to home. He expresses concern over a potentially more devastating loss, “the extinction of experience.” This type of extinction is more subtle, occurring at the scale of the neighborhood, and therefore less appreciated and harder to detect. Rarely is ink wasted on headlines about this type of extinction. One season a copper-colored butterfly flutters by, the next year it is gone, cool concrete substituted for purple coneflower.

These small disappearances could be characterized as lesser losses. After all, in Chicago there are the forest preserves, many miles of lakeshore, innumerable municipal parks. Even if we get to those places only once in a while, the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet or Nat Geo Wild allows the exotic to burst into our living rooms. For Pyle, this way of thinking reflects the slow erosion of intimacy with so-called throwaway landscapes.

Tom Jacobs: Mother Nature

Pacific Standard:

“Mother Nature” is a rather antiquated way of referring to the natural world. It seems ridiculous to anthropomorphize something so huge and diffuse, let alone to assign it a gender. But new research from China suggests that reviving this image could inspire people to act in more environmentally conscious ways.

”Our results show a robust implicit association between women and nature,” writes a research team led by Ting Liu of Nanjing University. “The metaphor ‘Mother Earth’ builds on this association and leads to increases [in] one’s connection with nature, which in turn leads to increases in pro-environmental behavior.”

The results suggest that anthropomorphizing nature as a mom “could be a relatively low-cost but useful strategy in environmental promotion.” They suggest that ads or public-service announcements promoting green behaviors should consider including elements “such as a female face and body characteristics” to reinforce the connection between nature and femininity.

The paper.

Jason Daley: The Dragonfly Migration

Smithsonian Magazine:

The green darner dragonfly, Anax junius, embarks on a rigorous, multi-generational migratory relay race up and down North America every year that largely goes unnoticed, according to a new study published in the journal Biology Letters.

Dragonfly experts knew that the common emerald green and blue insects migrated, but tracking the jet-setting three-inch-long insect is tricky. The slender insects are too small for radio trackers and don’t travel in easy-to-spot swarms like monarchs or birds. To bring the details of the dragonfly’s journey to light, researchers consulted 21 years of data collected by citizen scientists and analyzed more than 800 green darner wing samples collected over the last 140 years from museums, reports Susan Milius at Science News.

Nithin Coca: Lessons from Japan's Reforestation


Nishiawakura’s landscape may look natural, but in fact it’s the result of a large-scale tree-planting initiative. During World War II, huge swaths of forested countryside were cut down to provide energy for Japan’s war efforts, according to Marten. After the war, a booming demand for timber, primarily to aid in reconstruction, resulted in even more forest loss. When the government began reforesting, it did so in a way that prioritized things other than biodiversity, and today the country is paying a steep price both ecologically and financially.

As momentum grows around the world for reforestation, due in part to the need to sequester carbon, Japan’s experience can inform countries like China, Pakistan and India, which aim to plant millions of trees in the coming years after decades of deforestation due to economic growth, expansion of agriculture and demand for wood as a fuel.

Veronique Greenwood: The Beauty and Wonder of Duckweed

New York Times:

Kay Nietfeld/DPA

Kay Nietfeld/DPA

Duckweeds are humble-looking plants whose tiny, brilliant green globules spangle ponds all over the world. Some duckweeds are the smallest flowering plants in nature.

Scientists working in Brazil have just discovered that one duckweed, Wolffia columbiana, has a surprising talent. In Biology Letters this Wednesday, the authors report that this duckweed can likely hop entirely intact from wetland to wetland by hitching a ride in the feces of birds.

Michael J. Coren: Monarch Butterflies in the West


There’s not much to be grateful for after the great Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count this year. The three-week volunteer effort in California dispatches scores of volunteers to hunt in their woods, backyards, and fields in search for the colorful migrating butterfly. This year, signs of trouble came early.

Far fewer of the insects were heading south this year, and those that have arrived did so a month late, according to Xerces, a non-profit conservation group for invertebrates. One researcher said it was the fewest monarch butterflies in central California in 46 years. Surveyors at 97 sites found only 20,456 monarchs compared to 148,000 at the same sites last year, an 86% decline. It’s possible more insects will make the journey late this year, says Xerces, but that now seems unlikely.

Curt Stager: Walden Pond's Mud




I see no whirligigs here this early in the year, but they are easy to spot on a lake such as Walden when the water is still and they can gather in close, swirling clusters. They overwinter on the bottom and emerge in spring to breed, producing new generations that grow to fingernail length within a few weeks. Each beetle uses flattened legs to paddle quickly through the thin surface film, guided by compound eyes that are each divided, with one-half aimed above the water line and one-half below. Most fish leave whirligigs alone because they leak bitter chemicals when handled, and I have seen newly stocked brook trout, brazen and ignorant from life in the hatchery, snatch whirligigs from below and then spit them back out again like slippery watermelon seeds. Whirligigs often gather in groups that help to discourage predators by pooling more watchful eyes in one place, and the whirling dances within the clusters are not as random as they seem. The individuals on the perimeter are generally searching for fallen gnats, emerging midges, or anything else edible, and they emit ripples like radar to home in on struggling prey. In adult swarms, those closer to the center are more likely to be cruising for mates, using their ripples to communicate with one another and avoid collisions.

Much more has been said and written about Thoreau’s philosopher-poet side than his naturalist side, but as a scientist I am more interested in the latter. The journals that he kept from 1837 to 1861 were so full of natural history observations that they might have become a major scientific work if he had not died of a lung ailment at age 44. He probably thought so, too. Two months before his death in 1862 he wrote a letter to a friend, saying, “if I were to live, I should have much to report on Natural History generally.”

During the winter of 1846, Thoreau drilled more than a hundred holes through the ice of Walden Pond and lowered a weighted line to produce what may be the first map of the floor of an American lake, thereby identifying Walden’s deepest point in the western basin near his cove. In August 1860, he also sent a thermometer down in a stoppered bottle to measure the layered structure of the water column, a first formal analysis of the thermal stratification of the lake. He was amazed at the temperature difference between the upper and lower layers, and he speculated on what it might mean for the resident fish. “What various temperatures, then, the fishes of this pond can enjoy,” he wrote. “They can in a few minutes sink to winter or rise to summer. How much this varied temperature must have to do with the distribution of the fishes in it.”

A great article about the stories that the mud of a lake tells a scientist.

John Timmer: How a Rare Butterfly Vanished Then Returned

Are Technica:

Humans, and the invasive species we bring with us, are frequently viewed as destroyers of ecosystems. But we alter them just as often, inadvertently picking winners and losers from among the species as we transform their environment. A paper out in today’s Nature describes a case where our actions made a butterfly species a winner but then changed the game so fast that the local population went extinct. All of this because one man died and his cattle ranch shut down.

"be not too eager to deal out death in the name of Justice ... even the wise cannot see all ends.” Gandalf, Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

One wonders if our in haste to control non-native species at almost all cost that our selection of so-called "good" species might be misplaced and unwise.


Rachel Ehrenberg: What Makes A Tree?

Knowable Magazine:

Thomas Ramsauer/Shutterstock

Thomas Ramsauer/Shutterstock

If one is pressed to describe what makes a tree a tree, long life is right up there with wood and height. While many plants have a predictably limited life span (what scientists call “programmed senescence”), trees don’t, and many persist for centuries. In fact, that trait — indefinite growth — could be science’s tidiest demarcation of treeness, even more than woodiness. Yet it’s only helpful to a point. We think we know what trees are, but they slip through the fingers when we try to define them.

Trees don’t cluster into one clear group: They emerge in multiple lineages and have adopted multiple strategies to become what they are. Take longevity. A classic example of the Methuselah-ness of trees is the current record-holder, a 5,067-year-old great bristlecone pine that grows high in the White Mountains of California. (That tree was almost 500 years old when the first pyramids were built in Egypt.) Scientists speculate that the hardy bristlecones owe their endurance largely to location: They avoid fires that sweep through lower elevations and pests that can’t stomach the harsh terrain of the subalpine zone. The giant sequoias, a short way down the mountains from the bristlecones, take an entirely different longevity tack. These beasts — their trunks can be more than 30 feet across — live thousands of years, fighting fire and pestilence with thick, resistant bark and plentiful in-house repellent compounds.

Some 400 miles to the east, a spindly wisp of a tree has both the bristlecones and the sequoias beat when it comes to lifespan — through another strategy altogether. The quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) — a tree you can wrap your arms around that rarely grows taller than 50 feet — excels at sending up new shoots from its base. This results in giant stands of “trees” that are, in fact, one genetic individual connected beneath the ground. A Utah colony of quaking aspen is estimated to be 80,000 years old. Neanderthals were around back then.

Speaking of Neanderthals, what makes a human?

Nina Leopold Bradley: Sense of Place

The Aldo Leopold Foundation (previously published in The Leopold Outlook)

Today I speak to you of my own experience, my own deep attachment to a particular place. This attachment happened over time, with my family, on a sand farm along the Wisconsin River – land that was neither grand nor dramatic, but mundane, humbled, and degraded. It seems to have happened by slow accrual, like the growth of a coral reef. I dwell in this place and am finally apart of this place...

On our sand farm along the Wisconsin River, I was able to get inside the scenery and the landscape. I became a living part of a living place. As we worked with family, friends, and neighbors, to restore health to the abused land, we were experiencing the slow sensitizing of people to land. We learned how to look, how to dwell and how to think about land. This was sick land but rich country for the growth of perception.

No one knew better than my father, Aldo Leopold, the joy of wild, unspoiled land. His love of wilderness was passionate and enduring. He had spent immense energy in protecting wilderness and trying to understand its dramatic complexity. He realized that wilderness was important in part so that we might retain the capacity to compare unspoiled land with lands more intensively altered by human economic activity. Leopold’s rationale for wilderness protection was not just recreational or scenic, but scientific, biological, political, economic and deeply aesthetic.

Jeff Gillies: Lake Superior's Big Wave

Environmental Monitor:

A pair of lonesome data buoys bobbing off Michigan’s storm-whipped Lake Superior shore were suddenly the stars of the state this fall when they captured the largest waves ever measured on the Great Lakes.

The buoys, near Granite Island and Munising, each recorded 28.8-foot significant wave heights during a storm that caused hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage along the coast. The record wave height exceeded the previous 27.6-foot record set by a Michigan Tech buoy near Houghton, Mich., in 2012. To give some perspective on the rarity of these types of events, waves at the record-capturing buoys only climbed above 12 feet four times throughout 2015 and 2016.

Linda Poon: Fox and Coyote Interactions in City

The Atlantic

In the wild and in the countryside, coyotes are not only bigger than red foxes, but they’re also higher up the food chain. They tend to push weaker competitors out of their territories and will even kill to protect access to limited food sources. So while red foxes exist in the same general area and may even establish homes at the periphery of where coyotes live, they rarely venture into the other predators’ domain.

In cities, though, it looks like they’re learning how to get along. That’s according to Drake’s latest study published in the journal PLOS One. Over the years, foxes and coyotes, like so many other wild species, have settled in the city, and they’re inevitably here to stay. Some animal species have adapted to thrive amid the human-dominated landscape of high-rises, fragmented green space, and heavy traffic. Now, at least in the case of these two wildlife predators, they may be changing their behavioral instincts to coexist with each other—thanks in part to the abundance of food.

Richard Conniff: Wildlife in an Urbanized World


we know almost nothing about what ecologist Meredith Holgerson at Portland State University calls “these cryptic changes happening” as humans occupy and alter a landscape. For her doctoral research at Yale University, she looked at the effects of suburbanization on wood frogs in 18 ponds in the prosperous Connecticut suburb of Madison. The area around the ponds had developed largely with two-acre zoning, allowing for survival of “pretty good red maple swamps and vernal ponds,” says David Skelly, a professor of ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies who oversaw the research. But chemical analysis of the ponds demonstrated that, along with other changes, the wood frog larvae were getting as much as 70 percent of their nutrients from materials leaching out of septic systems. “It suggests,” says Holgerson, “that tadpoles and other pond organisms are made up of human waste.”

The consequences of that remain unknown. But it also suggests that we may change the entire nutrient flow of an ecosystem, cause eutrophication, or introduce hormone-disrupting drugs or other chemicals in our waste — and still imagine that we live in a relatively intact habitat.

Bill Donahue: Aging with Intention


Heinrich examining a raven’s skull. (Jesse Burke)

Heinrich examining a raven’s skull. (Jesse Burke)

In 1951, when Bernd was 11, his family wrangled passage to the U.S. and landed in western Maine. They planned to grow pota­toes. Instead they were taken in for a summer by a kind family, the Adamses, whose ramshackle farm was a mess, a melange of dogs and cows and chickens and broken tractor equipment. To Bernd, the place was paradise, as he writes in his 2007 memoir, The Snoring Bird, recalling the adventures he shared with the two eldest Adams kids, Jimmy and Billy. The boys built a raft out of barn wood and spent countless hours watching baby catfish and white-bellied dragonflies. The Adamses taught Bernd English. He killed a hummingbird with his slingshot. He ran around barefoot and shirtless.

Bernd Heinrich is now 77 years old and the author of 21 books. The vaunted biologist E. O. Wilson speaks of him as an equal, calling him “one of the most original and productive people I know” and “one of the best natural-history writers we have.” Runners also revere him, for his speed and for his 2002 book, Why We Run. “He was the first person of scientific stature to say that ultramarathoning is a natural pursuit for humans,” says Christopher McDougall, author of the 2009 bestseller Born to Run. “He did the research himself, in 100-plus-mile races.”

Fascinating story of Bernd Heinrich's interesting and productive life.

BBC: Painted Lady Swarm


Painted Lady Butterfly

Painted Lady Butterfly

Scientists at the National Weather Service (NWS) first mistook the orange radar blob for birds and had asked the public to help identifying the species. They later established that the 70-mile wide (110km) mass was a kaleidoscope of Painted Lady butterflies.

Forecasters say it is uncommon for flying insects to be detected by radar. “We hadn’t seen a signature like that in a while,” said NWS meteorologist Paul Schlatter, who first spotted the radar blip.

Painted Lady Butterflies were very abundant this summer in Minnesota.

Diana Gitig: New Hypothesis about Declining Monarch Butterflies

Ars Technica

Anurag Agrawal ... has written a book about them called Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and Their Remarkable Story of Coevolution. Monarches and their sole food source, the toxic milkweed plant, provide a great example of coevolution. Monarch caterpillars are born on milkweed leaves, where their mothers deposited them as eggs. They grow fat eating the plant. They are not pollinators; the milkweed gets nothing out of the relationship. In fact, the plant goes to great lengths to fight the monarchs. Milkweeds exude latex (the “milk” responsible for the eponym), which contains a noxious chemical cocktail suspended in the sticky rubber. A newly hatched monarch caterpillar’s teeth and feet can, and often do, get easily mired. “More than 60 percent of monarchs died in the burst of latex that accompanied their first bites into the plant,” Agrawal tells us. “Less than 10 percent make it to full size.”

Because monarch butterflies are disappearing. They have experienced a 75-percent drop in their numbers over the past 25 years, and a number of reasons for this decline have been suggested. One is that their overwintering grounds, already quite small, are being threatened by logging, hunting, cattle grazing, and climate change.

But the prevailing idea is that monarchs are disappearing because milkweed is disappearing due to urbanization, the expansion of agriculture, and especially the indiscriminate overuse of herbicides enabled by the advent of herbicide-resistant crops. Monarch caterpillars have nothing to eat, this idea goes, and so they die.

Despite the popularity and the appeal of this hypothesis, Agrawal does not buy it.

John Myers: Protection of 13 miles of Lake Superior Shoreland

Pioneer Press:

The Nature Conservancy of Canada announced this week that it has acquired more than 13 miles of pristine Lake Superior shoreline in Ontario just across the Minnesota border on the way to Thunder Bay. The nonprofit conservation group said they paid $6.4 million in U.S. funds — from government, conservation groups and private contributions on both sides of the border — for the North Shore property.

The 2,500 acres of nearly undisturbed boreal forest is home to bald eagles, nesting peregrine falcons and rare Arctic and alpine plants. It also includes cliffs, cobble beaches and stretches of open bedrock. Included in the purchase is Big Trout Bay, the last undeveloped, privately owned bay on Lake Superior between Duluth and Thunder Bay. A U.S. owner had proposed to develop the property into 300 cabin lots which had been approved by the local township.

Joanna Klein: Australia's Pink Lake

New York Times:

This is very much a real, natural phenomenon that occurs all over the planet. It’s what happens when the only thing living in a supersalty lake is a single-celled, salt-loving microbe that makes pigments called carotenoids.

“It’s the equivalent of having a desert, pink lake right in Central Park,” said Mark Norman, a conservation biologist for Parks Victoria, which manages the lake. “It’s quirky and fascinating, and I love it when natural systems do something that is so large scale that it just blows everybody away.”

The lake turned pink last week, and is expected to return to its normal color when the weather cools down and rains return for Australia’s winter, which starts in June.

James J. Krupa: Geronimo’s Pass and Jackrabbits

Center for Humans and Nature:

Five miles to the south, a three-strand barbed wire fence marked the United States-Mexico border. Somewhere out there, hidden in clumps of tobosa grass, a white-sided jackrabbit was hunkered down in a depression it had scraped into the hard earth for a scant bit of shade....I sat on my truck’s tailgate in the shade of the general store, waiting for the long shadows of the Peloncillo Mountains to the west to fill the valley, telling the rabbit it was time to forage.

Adam Frank: Wildness


Chris Winsor/Getty Images

Chris Winsor/Getty Images

For [Gary] Snyder, the answer is about inclusiveness:

”So we can say that New York City and Tokyo are ‘natural’ but not ‘wild.’ They do not deviate from the laws of nature, but they are habitat so exclusive in the matter of who and what they give shelter to, and so intolerant of other creatures, as to be truly odd. Wilderness is a place where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and nonliving beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order.”

Thus, for Snyder, the wild is not about pristine landscapes. Instead, it’s about landscapes that are rich and diverse enough to be interesting for everybody, human and non-human alike. He writes: “When an ecosystem is fully functioning, all the members are present at the assembly. To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness.”

Gary Snyder noted that many folks are alienated from their place and that they "don't even know that they don't know the plants" of their environment. I've asked lakeshore residents and the only plants they know are the ones that the government has blacklisted (Eurasian milfoil, curly-leaf pondweed, etc.). I find it sad that folks only know the ones that the government has labeled 'bad/evil' and they don't appreciate the beauty of those plants and those that are indigenous to their area or lake.