Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dove City

Tucson, Arizona must be the Dove Capital of North America. There are at least four species that can be seen now, and throughout the warmer months, right in the heart of residential neighborhoods.

There is, of course, the ubiquitous “rock dove,” better known, if only dismissively, as the domestic pigeon, Columba livia. Native to Europe, but domesticated around the globe, this species can form large flocks of multi-colored individuals. The standard plumage is shown here. They are not unattractive birds really, especially when the light reveals the iridescent nature of their neck feathers. Still, the most obvious and obnoxious result of their presence is their excrement. Lack of rains to wash away this mess means that the guano can breed all manner of pathogens, easily stirred up by wind gusts. Further, many of the electrical and telephone wires in Tucson stretch directly above the pedestrian sidewalks. I’d really like to strangle the idiots who designed and installed this arrangement.

The next most abundant member of the family Columbidae is the almost equally widespread mourning dove, Zenaida macroura. These are sleek, handsome birds, generally very tolerant of humans approaching them closely. Their nuzzling behavior during courtship is also endearing. I spotted this female on her nest in Greasewood Park, a city park on the very western edge of Tucson. You do find mourning doves in those natural habitats where apparently the pigeons fear to tread.

Perhaps the most elegant of our local doves is the white-winged dove, Zenaida asiatica. Despite the name, this is a decidedly native species, but it only strays north of Mexico during the warmer months, usually appearing in Tucson sometime in April, and leaving again in the autumn. I know it is spring when I see my first white-winged dove. They are striking in flight, as that narrow, white edge to their wings at rest becomes a broad white band as they fly away from you. They occur all over town in a variety of settings, but are perhaps most obvious when perched atop a blooming saguaro cactus, their heads buried deep in the flowers as they sip the rich nectar.

Last, and appropriately least, is the diminutive Inca dove, Columbina inca. They resemble small mourning doves at first glance, until startled, when they take flight from almost under foot, making a distinctive noise with their rapid wingbeats. The rusty red patches on the wings immediately identify them when they go airborne. At rest, the scaly appearance of their plumage helps you to recognize them. Kenn Kaufman says that he has rarely seen this species outside of cities and towns. Indeed, this pair was in a “utility easement” (read “alley”) between and behind houses in my own midtown neighborhood.

Who knew that such diversity could be found amongst what many consider “trash” birds? I’m delighted to learn that Tucson holds some secrets that only the persistent observer can decipher.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

World Malaria Day

My standard answer to the question “What good are mosquitoes?” is “Ask a Plasmodium.” The quip is both flippant and profound. Plasmodium is the parasitic organism that causes malaria. It cannot complete its life cycle without the help of certain mosquitoes. We tend to collectively frame other living things by their relevance to ourselves only. Today, on World Malaria Day, I challenge you to think differently, and ask if deadly tropical diseases like malaria can be eradicated without rendering extinct either vectors or microbes.

Many parasitic diseases have driven human evolution over the eons. Sickle-cell disease is our unfortunate evolutionary answer to malaria, but who knows what future immune responses might be, and how they will become encoded in our genes?

Diseases can also have an impact on ecosystems. African sleeping sickness, caused by parasites called trypanosomes, and transmitted by the infamous tsetse flies, is a case in point. Wildlife is essentially immune to trypanosomyasis, but in livestock the parasite manifests itself as “ngana.” Avoiding the disease and its vectors is largely what has driven the nomadic lifestyle of certain indigenous tribes. Cattle are moved with the fluctuating “fly belt” to territory not occupied by tsetses. This seasonal migration has allowed livestock and grazing wildlife to co-exist on the savannah to a much greater degree than would be the case if ngana was eliminated. Subsaharan Africa would become, more or less, one big cattle ranch without the fear of flies and disease.

Our response to human mortality factors in general has left a long trail of unintended consequences, and we should be cognizant of the potential to repeat those mistakes. Please, by all means purchase a net or two to insure the safety of those in remote villages that risk nightly exposure to bites from malaria mosquitoes. Continue to contribute to organizations seeking to end poverty across the planet through improved housing, water quality, and education. We need to be both generous and cautious human beings.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day!

Everybody now: “Happy Earth Day to you….Happy Earth Day to you….Happy Earth Day dear plan-et….Happy Earth Day to you (and many more)!” What does this occasion mean to you? We don’t get the day off to celebrate, but is there really a more important “holiday?” At one point I was making and sending Earth Day greeting cards to friends and family. Think Hallmark would like to latch on to that idea?

Everyone knows the history of Earth Day, that the first one occurred on April 22, 1970, at the height of the environmental movement. It experienced a bit of a renaissance with the 20th anniversary celebration in 1990, and hasn’t slowed down too much since.

I wonder, however, if the meaning of Earth Day has not changed drastically since its inaugural debut. The first one seemed to stem, in part, from a genuine concern for the welfare of other species and the habitats that support them, while today’s Earth Day is steeped in self-centeredness rather than altruism. Things have deteriorated globally to a point where there is serious concern for the welfare of our own species, Homo sapiens. We still covet mostly the cute and cuddly endangered species, and yet refuse to acknowledge that we, too, are animals. Looming over everything is the specter of global climate change, which seems to be accelerating as we speak.

Another aspect of Earth Day that has changed radically is the commercialization of the day. Most local events are supported financially by institutions and companies seeking to raise their own profile or improve customer relations, whether they are truly “green” or just greenwashing. Here in Tucson there are at least two large public events. A grassroots version was initiated a few years ago to protest the official city event, sponsored by Raytheon, a large local Department of Defense contractor known mostly for its manufacture of missile systems. How can the irony of that escape anybody?

Please, share your own sentiments, good and bad. Tell me how you practice “Earth Day every day,” as the slogan goes. I look forward to learning from you.

Monday, April 20, 2009

From the "Duh" File

Duh. That was my reaction to the column “Ask Marilyn” in yesterday’s edition of Parade magazine (April 19, 2009, page 12), the popular newspaper insert. Her “Know it All” sidebar talks about the effects of hunting and fishing on wildlife populations. American and Canadian researchers have apparently determined that hunting the largest and fittest specimens, and keeping only the biggest fish, is detrimental to the breeding success of animal populations. No kidding.

It does not take a genius to figure out that human hunters are a poor facsimile of natural predators like cougars, wolves, and bears that take mostly weak, sickened animals, and also cull calves and the young of other prey species. That is pretty basic knowledge, and it follows that purging the elite from the gene pool is going to have an adverse effect on the collective health and fitness of game animals.

Unfortunately, Homo sapiens has backed itself into a corner. We have largely eliminated natural predators from ecosystems, in part because we do not wish to become prey ourselves. We also graze herds of livestock that represent an economic investment for which we try to limit losses as best we can. The absence of large predators has meant a corresponding increase in prey animal populations that we then treat as “competition” for “our” resources, be it forage for cattle and sheep, or the vegetable garden we planted for our family’s needs. Well, folks, we can’t have it all.

Three things must change. First, we have to re-configure our hunting and fishing regulations. Second, we have to learn to accept some risks, like losing livestock to predators now and then. Taking simple precautions, and continuing to invent non-lethal predator deterrents can solve this second problem. Lastly, we have to look at what we think we own, and realize most of it is a shared resource with other organisms. There is no business model in nature, and the sooner we learn this, the better. After all, we can change our mindset much easier than a predator can change its diet.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Moving (temporarily) to Massachusetts

Today I accepted a temporary position as a Laboratory Assistant at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I will be sorting and identifying invertebrates from samples taken in an ongoing survey of forested watersheds, for a total of twenty-eight weeks beginning in late May or early June.

The project is a joint effort of the Department of Natural Resources Conservation at UMass, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

I am quite excited by this opportunity, but a bit apprehensive, too. I still have to find a place to live, for example. Any help in that department is most welcome. I don’t have enough time to pack-up all my belongings (including my large insect collection), so will be maintaining my Tucson residence while I am away. The “new economy” seems to translate to the “nomadic economy.” Lots of short-term work available in my field, but little permanent employment. I am still extremely grateful, mind you.

This blog and Bug Eric will be maintained as best as I am able in the coming weeks and months, but your patience is appreciated during the transition period. Oh, and feel free to recommend a good laptop, too, as it looks like I’m going to need to get one.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Culture as Spectacle

Ecotourism is becoming increasingly popular, but in tandem with the benefits can come costs to the indigenous peoples that occupy the same areas as the wildlife that visitors flock to see. It occurs to me that, too often, we treat those “other” cultures as a form of wildlife, too, and this needs to stop.

I had visited this subject privately, when I began thinking of Native Americans, and how they have been so stereotyped, in both positive and negative ways, and how, ultimately, any stereotype is a negative because it so limits one’s perspective.

I was prompted to think about this again while viewing an installment of the PBS series Independent Lens, which aired a documentary called Milking the Rhino on April 7, 2009. Kenya and Namibia were the two sites profiled, each with issues surrounding the sharing of wildlife and land between tourists and native tribes.

Historically, White colonials in Africa prohibited natives from hunting wildlife, a resource that indigenous peoples were dependent upon, in part, for food. Instead, game safaris allowed White hunters to shoot trophy animals. Later, creating national parks meant relocating tribes wholesale. Sound familiar?

Today, many tribes earn their livelihood through farming, and grazing livestock, which are equally unwelcome pursuits in many wildlife preserves. Ecotourism services have sought to balance this effect by employing tribespersons as guides, interpretive naturalists, liaisons with the scientific community, and as workers in the hospitality industry of lodges and camps build for tourists; and by growing food crops in gardens to be shared with the locals. Still, resentment boils over.

A filmed discussion between the lead government official in charge of Namibian game parks, and the woman in charge of the ecotourist lodge, was telling. She was protesting that the local tribe would essentially turn its village into a “curio shop” in order to sell souvenirs to her visitors. “This is not what [my clients] expect” she intoned emphatically. Her message was clear. Visitors expected tribal peoples to behave naturally, just like the other animals they came to see.

Well, why shouldn’t the tribe be able to exploit the tourists? Seems the least they should be allowed to do in exchange for being exploited themselves. My mind drifts to what I imagine will ultimately happen to tribal customs and rituals. A choreographer from Broadway will be sent to Papua New Guinea to instruct the tribes in how to properly execute their native dances. Don’t forget the wardrobe assistant, either.

The tragedy, as I see it, is that in the act of providing entertainment services to tourists, tribes are corrupting their customs, stripping the meaning from their rituals, and we all lose when that happens. There is no reverence in culture as spectacle, no sacrifice demanded of passive observers. It is us westerners who need to change our expectations, and recognize our arrogance.

For more on Milking the Rhino, and to participate in the ongoing online discussion, please visit the Independent Lens website.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Big Bad Giant Cane...No, Giant Reed!

I wanted to publish a blog entry on giant cane, a plant that has been deemed an invasive species here in Arizona, but could only find glowing descriptions of that native bamboo, with no state west of Texas being in its range. Silly me, I got confused between giant cane, a largely beneficial domestic grass, and giant reed, apparently the epitome of foreign evil.

Who can fault me? As if the common names aren’t confusing enough, even the genus names are nearly identical: Arundinaria for giant cane, and Arundo for its reed counterpart. The similarities seem to end there.

Giant reed, Arundo donax, is thought to be native to east Asia, but has been so widely cultivated, for thousands of years, in that region, southern Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East, that its point of origin is difficult to ascertain. The plant was (surprise, surprise) imported to North America as an ornamental from the Mediterranean. It arrived in Los Angeles sometime in the early 1800s. Its popularity ensured its spread, and it now occurs in feral populations across most of the southern U.S. north to Missouri and West Virginia.

What is a wetland plant doing in our Arizona desert? Deep roots can reach water tables near the surface of even ephemeral watersheds. Once established, two- to three-year-old stands of giant reed are remarkably drought-resistant. North American populations reproduce via rhizomes that sprout clones stretching over several acres in some cases. The rhizomes themselves can assume the form of dense mats over a meter thick. Flooding events break off chunks of those mats, and carry the species to new territories downstream.

Giant reed appears to have almost no redeeming qualities. Unlike the native cane, giant reed is not palatable to livestock or wildlife. It is, in fact, full of vile, poisonous compounds like cardiac glycosides, sterols, and alkaloids.

Further, giant reed is arguably a fire hazard, and it is for this reason more than any other that its presence causes so much consternation. Not only can it fuel a wildfire, but the plant won’t be killed in the process. There are accounts of scorched rhizome mats sprouting new shoots two feet high only two weeks after some California fire events.

So, is it any wonder that there is even a volunteer army dedicated to ridding Tucson of this botanical menace? Just check out the Tucson Arundo Removal website for more information. See also the U.S. Forest Service Plant Database, where I gleaned much of the information for this profile. Is it giant cane or giant reed? Donax, don’t tell I say.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Save Wildlife: File Your Taxes

I am probably preaching to the choir, but for those unaware of the opportunity to contribute to their state’s non-game wildlife fund, take a look at your state income tax form. It may have a “check-off” allowing you to donate a small amount from your refund (or add a little to your tax debt) to help protect non-game wildlife.

According to a 2003 survey of tax check-offs, non-game wildlife was the most popular of the many causes represented by state income tax check-offs. At that time, only Arkansas, Hawaii, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia did not have non-game wildlife check-offs. Please tell me if you know those statistics have changed recently.

State budgets nationwide have taken a beating in this poor U.S. economy, with cuts still deepening. Anything we can do to make up the fiscal deficit on behalf of wildlife and conservation will be greatly appreciated. I am well aware that many people are unemployed at this time (I am one of them!), and it is perfectly understandable if donations are not at the top of one’s priority list. Those who are able to give, however, should be encouraged to do so. What better way to celebrate Earth Day a little early?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Do You Believe in Metamorphosis?

The next time someone asks you whether you believe in evolution, you might ask them that question in reply. I know now that the phrase “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” which I learned in college biology, has been largely discredited. Still, what is metamorphosis if not evolution accelerated?

What alchemy is this that wrought frog from fish, and butterfly from worm? What kind of miracle results in such a drastic transformation over an easily observable span of time? Even the most basic understanding of metamorphosis does not lessen its magic. I am regretting that I did not take an insect physiology course while I was in college, but we no doubt know collectively more now than we did in the early 1980s.

At an informal gathering of local entomologists a few years ago, a graduate student made a presentation on metamorphosis that revealed to me some startling facts. Chief among them was the (obvious, in retrospect) idea that a butterfly starts to take shape well before the pupal stage. Inside the caterpillar, adult body parts begin their genesis as nodes called “imaginal discs.” How enchanting and appropriate is that term? Imaginal discs. The caterpillar cannot possibly imagine itself as a butterfly in the cognitive sense, but the idea that at a cellular level it most certainly does is truly fascinating. That the timing of each stage of development is regulated by “juvenile hormones” and other biochemicals is no less astonishing. The power of molecular-level chemistry is mind-boggling.

Given the complex, yet rapid process of metamorphosis, is it really a stretch to think that speciation through evolution cannot take place over an even longer span of time? It certainly seems plausible to me. The bottom line, however, is that we can no longer afford to waste time debating the merits of evolution versus creation theory. Extinction is most definitely not a theory, and unless we direct our collective scientific and theological efforts toward species salvation, it won’t matter how they came to be in the first place.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Lizard Art

On Pima Street, near its intersection with Magnolia Avenue here in Tucson, Arizona, there is a series of artworks with a local wildlife theme. The majority appear to be lizards. That is fitting because lizards are abundant here, even right in the city itself.

Near a bus stop close to Rosemont Avenue there are these two metal lizards mounted on a couple boulders. They do appear to be basking when the morning sun hits them.

On the other side of the street, inlaid in the sidewalk, is this design, a wonderfully impressionistic representation of a horned lizard that also echoes the artistic style of local Native American nations.

Another inlaid piece is this one. I’m not certain which species, if there even was one that served as a model, this is fashioned after. Tree lizards, spiny lizards, and whiptails are all pretty common, plus the introduced Mediterranean gecko.

Lastly, there is this deeply carved and painted lizard, with a scorpion companion, in a retaining wall at the corner of Pima and Magnolia. There was also a jackrabbit, inlaid in the sidewalk near by.

Public art receives its share of criticism, but there are plenty of examples, like these, of appropriate themes that reflect both the natural and cultural history of a place. It may be local art, more than any other factor, that truly gives an urban place its character and uniqueness. I don’t mind my tax dollars paying for such enchanting decorations.