Biodiversity: How Wonderful

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It is incredible because it has water, has a reasonable temperature, a protective atmosphere, and solid ground amongst other things.

A unique facet of Earth's supremacy in the known cosmos is it's biodiversity, or richness and abundance, of species. Maybe you take biodiversity for granted when you walk out your door to grab the morning paper and see a well-cut lawn, shady apple blossoms, and that darned neighborhood cat. Stop for a moment and really take in everything that you can see from your doorstep - wherever that may be.

Bacteria, viruses, fungi, and algae, and protozoans cover, penetrate, and consume everything in your sight. Your lawn and landscaping are probably comprised of over twenty plant species including grasses, trees, flowering plants, and leafy plants alone. Butterflies, ladybugs, houseflies, praying mantises, roaches, ants, bees, wasps, fleas, and ticks fly, jump, and scuttle about. Insects make up a huge portion of our Earth's biodiversity - part of the reason you never think twice before swatting that pesky mosquito. If you're looking to the sky, you might see 5-15 bird species, depending on how hard you're looking, and how far from the equator you are. If you're lucky, you can look in some bushes, under tree roots, or in your drainage ditch and find a couple of reptile or amphibian species. Come back at night (we're talking ~2-4am here) and you might catch a glimpse of some of the mammalian fauna living in very close proximity to you. Raccoons, foxes, coyotes, mice, voles, rabbits, cats (though not necessarily native), and rarely cougars or wolves might be digging through your trash or scurrying through your yard and marking their territory. Hey, they were probably there thousands of years before you were.



And last but not least, you. If you are reading this post properly, you are most likely a human, Homo sapiens. You may not care that much about that, but consider your evolutionary ancestors, primates in Africa and Southeastern Eurasia. Isn't it incredible how you live where you do, when your ancestors lived where they did? Without cars, airplanes, or trains, they populated all seven continents and took reign of terrestrial Earth as we know it.

If that wasn't a bit shocking, well, it shouldn't be. If you live in North America, you only experience a fraction of the total diversity of our planet. Additionally, if you followed through with the thought experiment I just laid out, you've not even stepped out of a human civilized habitat. Forests, swamps, grasslands, river systems, and the ocean contain more species than you could count in your lifetime (probably more than 10 of your lifetimes, if you tried from day one until you were on your death bed - obviously unreasonable).

So what? If you've been under the weather, maybe you haven't heard about the deforestation of our tropical forests, bleaching of coral reefs, and algal blooms killing millions of fish across our wonderful planet. In short, these are bad for the preservation of biodiversity. Reducing and fragmenting forests kills species (roads in the Amazon wreck major havoc on the ecosystem).

I've been reading E.O. Wilson's The Diversity of Life, and will comment on this further once finished. In the meantime, know that Wilson makes a claim in complete confidence that biodiversity is our planet's most valuable and most abused resourced. If I help one person think about that for a while, I've succeeded with this post.



FYI: School at SU started about five weeks ago, and boy howdy if it isn't picking up. I update this blog periodically, and the intervals between posting will become more and more erratic throughout the semester. Nevertheless, expect the same or greater numbers of articles on average posted over time. Thanks for reading :)

Article: Now Hiring Governmental Fact Checker on Python Populations

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I recently read this fascinating article posted on Tampa Bay Online.

If I told you it was an article about reptiles in the Florida Everglades, I'll give you three guesses as to what the article is about. Due to grossly over-inflated media attention, you probably guessed it's an article on invasive Burmese pythons.

From what I've gathered by reading the article, U.S. government agencies are estimating the number of burmese pythons in the Florida everglades to be between ~1,000 and ~200,000 (two degrees of magnitude apart!).

Seriously?

What I hope to draw to your attention in this post is not that burmese pythons are good or bad in the Florida everglades, but that governmental biologists need some fact checkers before pulling on the "statistic crank."

Given the amount of media attention and governmental recognition the issue has received, an accurate (and hopefully conservative) estimate of the number of Burmese pythons and their ability to reproduce is necessary to maintain a non-nuisance level of this species.

A final word: always ensure you can be a responsible, long-term exotic pet owner before making a purchase or taking your neighbor's pet alligator off their hands. It's good for the environment!

Review - "Zoo: Animals in Art"

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"Zoo: Animals in Art" by Edward Lucie-Smith is a neat little coffee table-type book succinctly reviewing depictions of non-human animals in human-made art.

By categorizing groups of images and works into categories such as "Water World" and "Microcosmos," the author organizes the books contents into an easily-digested format.

I compliment the Lucie-Smith's variety of animal species (and inclusion of imaginary beasts) portrayed on a huge variety of media. Cats, fish, elephants, and butterflies alike are portrayed on canvas, tapestry, ming vase, or Roman floor mosaic. Additionally, the stretch of time period works were pulled from was expansive, ranging from 10,000 BCE cave paintings to roughly 1997 (a year before the book's copyright date).

While the book excels in some areas, it's hard not to notice a few flaws. Notably, the "superwide" style format forces the author to crop and zoom in on images strangely. This sometimes left me wondering what the rest of the image contains - quite frustrating! Interestingly, neither South American, aboriginal, or native American artwork made much of an appearance at all. If going for the all-over approach, some digital art pieces would have felt welcome.

Overall: 4/5

I'm including a few of my favorite pieces (some are images by artists whose works are in the book, but the image itself is not included):

Flowers That Fly. Oil on canvas, 46" x 66", Leonard Koscianski, 2008.
Carl Hammer Gallery, Chicago.

Cat Catching a Bird. Pablo Picasso, 1939.

Umbrian Chair. Ditz, 1987.

Parlour Iguana. 40" x 30", Kendahl Jan Jubb. ~1990s

Chameleon: from Lives of the Animals. Alfred Brehm, 1892.

Some Hope for Hunted Sea Turtles

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According to an Associated Press article by David McFadden, the Bahamas recently banned the sale or catch of any species of marine turtle.

Culturally popular for human consumption, sea turtles have required this sort of legal protection for too long. The five species of sea turtle inhabiting the waters of the Bahamian waters are listed as either endangered or threatened species. Previous to the bill, only the Hawksbill was afforded any legal protection from harvesting or hunting.

According to an ecoworldy article by Derek Markham:
The new regulations prohibit the harvesting, possession, purchase and sale of turtles, their parts and eggs, as well as the molestation of marine turtle nests, effective September 1st, 2009.
To get to this landmark legislation, several conservation groups played active roles, including: Oceana, The Bahamas Sea Turtle Conservation Group, and The Bahamas Marine Resources Department



According to the AP article, this legislation is unpopular with some proponents of preserving Bahamian culture. Fortunately, according to Jane Mather, co-chairwoman of The Bahamas Sea Turtle Conservation Group, ninety percent of Bahamians do not want sea turtles killed.

The penalties for breaking the ban are not currently determined.

Beautiful Anuran Photos From Vietnam

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Wildlife photographers' challenges are many: know a species, be there, avoid disturbing the species, use the right equipment, and prepare for failure. In my case, failure is simply avoided by taking several photos, but you can't always use such a low-effort solution.

Sometimes you have to go to great lengths to get the right photograph - like going to Vietnam.

I encourage you to experience beautiful frog photos by clicking here.


Additionally, if you have any wildlife photos you feel the whole world needs to see, send them to me at halla(at)southwestern.edu and I'll see what I can do for you.

Bella Gaia - Be Amazed

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Be not afraid to find yourself in awe:


1800s-Style Wild Goose Chase

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I recently read this neat article by Craig Lemoult via NPR and got to thinking about fanatical naturalists.

After much creative thinking about what it would be like to search for invisible animals, mythical beings, and possibly-extinct species, my ending stance reads: Go get 'em!

Leopard Gecko Birthday Cake!

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For the man who has everything, give him a leopard gecko cake on his birthday.

The cake was inspired by my own pet leo, Bob.
Here he or she is:

PETA mustn't know about this ;)

Here are some older birthday pictures of
my mom's nifty animal cakes (I'm nine in this first one):

And a dolphin, too!

If you like cakes or laughing until your belly hurts, check out this awesome blog.

The Slow Death of Taxonomy

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I recommend reading this fascinating article from the New York Times written by Carol Kaesuk Yoon.

Taxonomy is dying, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Thanks to Dr. Jessica Hellmann for sharing this article with me.

Squishy Octopus Maneuvering

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Review - "The Fascination of Reptiles"

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The Fascination of Reptiles by Maurice Richardson is nowadays innaccurate and historical, at best.

This book is a decent read for the only the most enthusiastic herpetologist.

Reptiles is written from the author's personal experiences as a herp enthusiast, with a fond eye focused on all things reptilian. Species descriptions and anecdotal accounts of reptilian behavior swap places back and forth covering the snakes, lizards, turtles, crocodiles, and alligators. The author's emphasis is extrordinarily heavy on appealing to an assumed-British audience. For example, whole chapters are devoted to the very few British reptiles, while mere paragraphs are allotted to a slew of Indonesian or South American treasures.

A common theme in Reptiles appears to be the author's unrelenting obsession with the degenerative features found in skinks, legless lizards, and burrowing snakes. Truly, it was obnoxious. Evolution does not have a goal or purpose - get over it!

A common flaw in the field of herpetological description is its lack of mention for ancestrally-related reptilians - birds. A mention or two of birds, or even dinosaurs, would make me smile a bit.

Illustrations by Shaun Milne are cute, but you can't help but wonder about their accuracy at times. Some sense of scale in the plates and drawings would have been appreciated.

Chapter topics: Classification and Evolution, The Living Ancestor, The Lizards: Suborder Sauria, British Lizards at Home, The Marvellous Chameleon, The Snakes: Suborder Serpentes, Pythons and Boas, Poisonous Snakes [2 chapters], British Snakes at Home, The Chelonians: Tortoises and Turtles, The Crocodilians, Some Reptiles of North America, Herpetologists I Have Known, Reptiles In Captivity, and An Anthology of Reptilian Belles-Lettres.

Overall: 2/5 - a fun read, but not particularly useful or entertaining

Bill Nye the Science Guy on Amphibians

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More Bill Nye. This time he hops around like a frog and gets impassionate about the difference between reptiles and amphibians. Enjoy!



Review - "Niko's Nature"

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Niko's Nature, by Hans Kruuk, is the most impassionate biography I've read to date - regardless of the subject's occupation or importance.

Kruuk sucessfully orchestrates compelling accounts of the life, personality, and famous research of the Maestro (Tinbergen's affectionate title bestowed by his graduate students).

For those not in the know, Niko Tinbergen was one of the four men awarded a Nobel Prize in 1973 for his contributions as a founding father of the science now referred to as ethology, or animal behavior (before his work, ethology had a different meaning amongst zoologists and biologists). His field work studying gull and tern behavior laid the foundation for his concepts and theories of modern ethology.

Although Tinbergen's work has been criticized, reviewed, and revised, and occasionally dismissed throughout the years, his influence spans wide. It is not difficult to admit that without the alliance of Niko Tinbergen with his equally-renowned collegue and friend, Konrad Lorenz, the field of modern ethology would probably look nothing like how it does today.

A recipient of several distinguishing awards and honors, one of Tinbergen's greatest honors is to have such a well-written and interesting biography in his namesake. Kruuk, one of Tinbergen's Ph.D. students during his Oxford teaching years, gives a very personal account of the Maestro's being and presence. One of the most difficult things to put into words is an accurate account of someone's personality, especially from an early age to their death.

Lively photographs and pictures are icing on the cake. Every single image is relevant in its placement within the book. Included are several of Tinbergen's own photographs and drawings which is a plus, considering that photography and drawing were two of his best-known skills (along with ice skating, writing, and film-making in his later years).

Any student of ethology, biology, or underwater basket weaving should get a copy of this book and read it. Be inspired by the life of a great researcher and understand the awe that can be inspired via superbly-composed nonfiction.

Overall: 5/5 - Probably worth a second read; good addition to your bookshelf

Field Trip - To the Forth Worth Zoo!

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My family took a trip to the Fort Worth Zoo just after school was out. Rather than drone on and on about a zoo many of you have never visited, I'll post some pictures. For larger images, click on the thumbnails.














Review - "Ecological Consequences of Artificial Night Lighting"

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What I expected: A dry account of scientific literature on the title's namesake.

What I got: Way more than that.

Ecological Consequences of Artificial Night Lighting, edited by Catherine Rich and Travis Longcore, is one of the most readable, yet thorough, summaries of a specific topic within science writing that I have read to date. Beyond paraphrased accounts of the drastically-underappreciated scientific studies examining the ecological consequences of artificial night lighting, each section of the book begins with a brief account of a relevant naturalist's anecdotal experiences observing organisms in their nocturnal environment and ends with a succinct, meaningful conclusion as to where we should go from now.

It should be obvious to anyone who has lived within 50 miles of a modern urbanized human society (that means you!) that urban glow lights up the sky unnaturally. ECoANL cites a paper by Cinzano et al. (2001) which calculated "18.7% of the terrestrial surface of the Earth experiences night sky brightness that is polluted by astronomical standards." This impressive figure continues to include 61.8% of the United States and 85.3% of the European Union.


The impact of turning our planet into a giant night light is startling.

Topics included in ECoANL: Mammals, Birds, Reptiles and Amphibians (the reason why I picked it up in the first place), Fishes, Invertebrates, and Plants

On top of being a beautiful literature synthesis (at a good price), the main editors suggest reasonable and practical solutions to understanding and reducing the impact of artificial night lighting.

Overall: 5/5 - A model novel in the scientific writing community

Bill Nye the Science Guy and Reptiles

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Be on the lookout for "wild reptile parties." Haha.





Review: "Vernal Pools: Natural History and Conservation"

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"Vernal Pools: Natural History and Conservation" by Elizabeth A. Colburn is by far the most comprehensive and easy-to-understand account of the worlds's vernal pools.

What are vernal pools, you ask? Vernal pools or ponds are seasonal pools of water characterized by completely drying up seasonally. Filling up with early spring rains, snow melt, or ground water, most vernal pools dry up with summer heat.

Why care? Due to completely drying out seasonally, vernal pools are distinctly devoid of any fish species. Fish are common predators for many plants and animals, and when fish are absent, certain fauna are able to dominate. My interest is obviously centered around the fantastic breeding opportunities vernal pools offer amphibians. Because most amphibians (frogs, salamanders, newts, etc...) must lay their eggs in fresh water, lakes with fish who would eat the eggs just don't cut it. Instead, vernal pools or similar pools of water provide the stability and protection necessary for eggs to develop into tadpoles, and eventually adults.

VP methodically devotes reasonable amounts of text to each aspect of vernal pools based on their importance to the ecosystem. This was a particularly important point to me, showing Colburn's successful attempts to reduce her innate authorial biases.

This book has chapters on the following topics: Introduction to Vernal Pools; Hydrology; Vernal Pools in the Landscape: Origins, Landscape Positions, and Habitat Characteristics; Bacteria, Protists, Algae, and Fungi; Vegetation; Life History Strategies of Pool Animals, Non-Arthropod Invertebrates; Crustaceans; Insects; Water Mites and Miscellaneous Other Arthropods; Amphibians; Reptiles, Birds, and Mammals; Energy Flow, Seasonal Cycles, and Variations in Community Composition; Protecting Vernal Pools; and a nice Afterword.

Overall: 5/5 - Great and current science writing.

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in Japan

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Retrieved from: TGIF: Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in Japan

Research Bit/Field Trip - UNDERC-East

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Talk about things I'm thankful for...

For the past 10 weeks of this summer, I've been trekking around night and day through the University of Notre Dame Environmental Research Center (UNDERC-East).

My reason for making the 1,500-mile journey by train and van was a program aimed at training the ecological researchers of tomorrow. Five concentrated module weeks focus on Mammalogy and Ornithology (study of birds), Aquatic Ecology, Forest Ecology (silviculture), Aquatic Ecology, and Herpetology (sweet!)

In addition to these focused module weeks, each of 24 college students (myself included) completed an original research project using the generous facilities and wildlife provided by the station (akin to an REU).

10 weeks of ecological research in the northern hardwoods taught me a great deal about ecology, physiology, and animal behavior. More importantly, however, was a practical glimpse at the research process in action. I may comment on it further in another post, but this experience gave me the insight necessary to determine that I will pursue a Ph.D. in some topic of behavioral ecology. That insight is something unable to be taught effectively in a classroom setting, and I am thankful for it.

I recommend viewing their intuitive website for a more in-depth view of the aims, history, and research of this wonderful ecological research site.

A future post will more fully explain my successful research project conducted at UNDERC-East.

Now for some pictures (image names give a brief descriptor):









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