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Exec's Blog dgregg on 01 Jun 2009

Goats on DOT payroll?

Here’s an interesting news item from Maryland. They are experimenting with goats to mow highway verge in a wetland inhabited by bog turtles. Mowers would be tough on the little fellas, you see (the turtles, not the goats, well they’d be tough on goats too but they’re fast enough to get out of the way). Link to news article at TerraDaily

I’ve always thought there’s something not quite right about using mowers to restore grasslands created by colonial era animal husbandry. If we’re managing grasslands for rare plants and animals that found homes there in the colonial past, we should use authentic management techniques or risk failure…not all lands of grass are grasslands. The only problem (not the ONLY problem, of course but one main problem) with using “authentic” grassland restoration methods is the recent advent of coyotes throughout our area. In the old days, sheep were choice mowers and once southern New England was predator free they could be loosely managed on land with poor soils, lots of rocks, or that were too steep for other agricultural pursuits. Coyotes have forced a profound change sheep husbandry making them not the idea land clearence agent they once were. They have to be tightly fenced, brought in at night, actively guarded, etc, all of which increases the cost and decreases the likelihood that a land owner will be able to sustain the effort long enough to have the desired result. Hopefully we will learn more about making and maintaining grasslands that work like the grasslands of yore with livestock that is coyote resistant—cows, goats, llamas, and donkeys. A friend of mine once suggested buffalo and elk as a good mix of grazers and browsers for maintaining coyote infested grasslands. He might have been right but I think he also was biased as he was an old big game hunter. Each non-sheep alternative has ups and downs and characteristics of its activity or care that may effect the resultant grassland ecosystem in subtle ways. We have quite a lot to learn before we can be successful Colonial era farmers.

Exec's Blog &Natural History dgregg on 26 May 2009

Marine Life Ethnohistory

Someone recently asked me why some plants are considered invasive while others, that arrived here earlier (after all they all arrived here from somewhere else because RI was once all glaciated), are considered native. You can give ‘em the usual cliche about how it’s invasive if it is reproducing outside its normal range to the detriment of native species, but even the least astute could pretty quickly respond that every organism reproduces to the detriment of something.  Hopefully, you’re not making assumptions about a pristine time zero before Europeans came because of course Native Americans modified the environment, too, so you end up thinking about time-depth and speed of change. Since my training is as an archaeologist, this is pretty much my natural state, but in this case it seems generally appropriate.

Once your brain is in “deep time depth” mode, you start to ask all sorts of new questions. There have been a couple of very interesting research projects recently that take that perspective in looking at the state of fish stocks and the degree of degradation in the marine environment and I recommend them. The first, which was in the news quite a bit when if first came out, is by Scripps Oceanography graduate student researcher Loren McClenachan and appeared in Conservation Biology. She looked at the fish in photos of Key West charter boat catches back through time and was able to show just how great has been the change in species and size into the present.  Here’s a link to the Scripps press release about the paper, or look it up in CB if you have access to it: Scripps Release

A whole raft of research on deeply historical fishing trends was recently announced by the Census of Marine Life. By using a wide variety of ancient sources, a number of researchers were able to reconstruct marine life trends back to classical times. Here’s a link to a news story about the research: Historic Fishing Reconstructed

In the interests of full disclosure (and in a self-serving bit of marketing),  you might be interested to know that RINHS helps to facilitate the Census of Marine Life by administering grants for some of its activities. Just another example of the good work made possible by your membership dollars! (If you’re not already an RINHS member, click HERE for information on how you can help make great research possible!)

Education &Exec's Blog &News dgregg on 04 Feb 2009

National Research Council Reports on Informal Science Education

The National Research Council of the National Academies recently announced the release of a report on the efficacy of non-classroom (sometimes called “informal”) science education. Although under development for some time, this release is pretty timely stuff with the new Obama administration having promised to put science back in its rightful place and Congress considering various versions of No Child Left Indoors legislation. In my brief read of a pre-release version available on line (see link below), I’m not sure that the conclusion–that worthwhile science learning can take place in non-classroom situations, be they formally or informally organized–is either startling or particularly useful by itself. In a world of extreme financial resource scarcity, it would have been much more useful to have a strong conclusion about the relative efficiency of non-classroom versus classroom science education. Of more apparent value is the considerable effort made by the authors to provide guidance on evaluating non-classroom science education program outcomes. Quantitative evaluation of informal education is notoriously difficult and the lack of positive, objective “metrics” has been a stumbling block to those trying to increase support for such programs. New directions with regard to program assessment would, therefore, be useful. But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself:

Link to NRC Report on Science Education

I’m interested in your thoughts. Please leave comments below.

Exec's Blog &Natural History dgregg on 22 Jan 2009

DNA Attacks High School Science Teacher

I’m not even that old and what I learned in high school biology class is getting VERY out of date. The New Scientist is running a fantastic article in its 24 January issue on the changes being wrought on evolutionary theory by advances in gene sequencing. Speaking for myself, at least, I welcomed this easy to understand summary of new thinking on the development and organization of life. Maybe I’m older than I think….

Link to full article at New Scientist

Exec's Blog dgregg on 16 Jan 2009

Just Desserts for a Naturalist Dad

Deer or Unicorn?

I guess it was bound to happen. What do they say? “As you sow so shall you reap”? As anyone who’s hung around with me long knows, I can be pretty tough on people who misrepresent or misappropriate species, ecosystems, or other aspects of natural history in popular media. You know, rantings and ravings every time an ad shows polar bears and penguins cavorting together. Or a few comedic penguins thrown into a scene about Santa Claus’s home life. Or how about the near-universal ignorance over what reindeer antlers look like. It is easy to find natural historical problems with TV shows that supposedly take place in New England but were clearly shot in the California hills. Or to catch shows depicting crabs with six legs, insects with eight, male worker characters in stories about colonial insects, that kind of thing. In my defense, lots of other people do this, too. Then this happened:

The other day I was walking in the snow with my just-turned four daughter when we came across deer tracks. They were old and had melted enough for the typical cloven toed print to fuse into a single round print but I knew it was a deer because of the size and spacing. Hoping to inculcate in her some of my enthusiasm for wild animals I said with exaggerated wonder, “Look! deer tracks!” She responded with a serious face, “Papa, deer have two toes, these tracks have one. These are unicorn tracks.”

I’m so proud… …wait a minute!

Exec's Blog &Invasives dgregg on 16 Jan 2009

Fight Invasives, Raise Money

Here’s an idea from Jung Seeds & Plants, a nursery outfit in Wisconsin. This picture is from the cover of their Spring 2009 catalog:

Bittersweet For Sale

Is your local land trust having a problem keeping the fields clear of bittersweet? Having trouble getting beyond a certain fundraising threshold? With bittersweet going for $16 a plant, now you can solve BOTH problems! Earn $10, $20, even $30,000 a month just by digging and mailing. Request a catalog from Jung yourself and find out how!

Or better yet, email your state representative and ask him or her why Rhode Island doesn’t have invasive plant legislation similar to Conn. and Mass. to make it illegal to sell plants that someone else is only going to have to eradicate? Is this some scheme to ensure full employment for herbicide manufacturers? You won’t know if you don’t ask.

Exec's Blog &Invasives dgregg on 13 Mar 2008

Invasive Species Mutual Aid Society

Have you ever blushed when telling someone you want to spend X dollars (where X is some large number) to control an invasive plant because of what it does to salamanders? I mean who ever even sees salamanders anyway. Well, the New Scientist recently had this news flash.

Currently wheat crops in East Africa and the Middle East are being hit hard by a new, virulent strain of an old pathogen, black stem rust (Puccinia graminis), known as Ug99. Given the limited genetic diversity of modern wheat strains, this fungus has the potential to greatly affect food production and result economic and humanitarian suffering. Turns out that the alternate host for Puccinia graminis, the one where the fungus undergoes its sexual reproductive stage, is our old invasive friend barberry (Berberis sp.). It’s not clear, at least not to me, what role naturalized barberry would really play in distributing and magnifying a Ug99 infection in the United States, but it can’t hurt. At any rate the broad distribution of barberry in the U.S. (see the USDA’s PLANTS website for a more or less complete barberry range map) will ensure that reproducing Ug99 organisms are crossed with the widest possible range of other rusts and get maximum opportunity to breed new and even more exotic versions of themselves.

Interestingly, though not surprisingly, it turns out that the highly pathogenic soybean rust (Phakopsora pachyrhizi H. Sydow & Sydow) winters on kudzu, which is one of original poster children of the invasive plant world. Read more: Soybean Rust and Kudzu. Actually, there are almost a hundred known hosts of Phakopsora pachyrhizi, including beans, peas, and clover, nonetheless, apparently few are themselves as resistant to the effects of the disease while allowing such profuse sporulation as kudzu.

So…there are a couple of good reasons to spend time, energy, and money preventing and controlling invasive species, reasons that involve more than “just” environmental damage. Because we (humans) are so vigorously stirring a globe-sized stew of species and genes, invasives can effect real human suffering and economic hardship, even if they’re growing off in the woods somewhere where no one but the salamanders can see them.

Exec's Blog dgregg on 30 Jan 2008

Global Warming, Eek!

Today’s Exec’s Blog is about global warming and is RINHS’s contribution to Focus the Nation.

I grew up in New England, around Boston and then on Cape Cod and I have loved living in New England because of the winters. No, not for the way ten inches of new powder snow muffles the village green, nor the way the skaters congregate on the neighborhood pond, nor the tangy smell of hardwood smoke lying under the temperature inversion along the valley floor. After all, I said, “Cape Cod.” Think driving sleet instead of snow, crackling deathtraps instead of solidly ice-covered ponds, and acrid smoke of fires “burning” wet oak instead of mouthwatering maple, hickory, or butternut. No, it’s not for the Currier & Ives aesthetics that I love New England winters: I love New England winters because they reset the bugs once every 12 months.

Once you get them going, arthropods (insects, spiders, mites, et al.) have a tendency to just keep going unless and until they run into something that stops them. As long as conditions are favorable, they’ll keep on eating, growing, and breeding. For arthropods, favorable conditions are warm and humid, with lots of leafy, bushy, grassy vegetation to provide food and shelter. So very generally speaking, for any particular region the size and population of crickets, spiders, centipedes, mosquitoes, and what not is more or less determined by how much eating, growing, and breeding can be fit in between last frost and first frost. If that’s a short time, you have small bugs and not so many of them and if that’s a long time, you have lots of bugs, they’re giants, and they have plenty of time left over after securing life’s bare necessities to explore the insides of your home. It’s a bit more complicated than that, of course. For instance, arthropods’ growth and reproduction isn’t just on or off, its rate can rise and fall with temperature so a long, cold summer can be as limiting as a short, hot one. Also, you’ll probably have noticed that the short, cold summers of the Arctic don’t seem to slow down the mosquitoes any. But generally, the arthropod fauna in an area is temperate if the climate is temperate or tropical if the climate is tropical.

These same general observations apply to plants (and to rodents) as they do to arthropods. In the same way that a painter brings light into a painting by using dark, frost makes it possible for us to have variety in our flora…spring ephemerals, summer perennials, fall foliage. As with insects, frost either limits a plant’s size to the growth of one season or forces it to be woody so it can over-winter (which just makes it useful for things like firewood). A good, hard frost is truly the Great Equalizer. Without a good, hard frost animals and plants would just treat winter like intermission…pop out for a pee break and some popcorn then back in for the second act!

And that’s where global warming comes in. If I wanted to live in a part of the country where giant crickets were a regular part of my kitchen’s fauna and I had to deal with chiggers AND ticks when I went outside, I’d move to Virginia. I’ve learned to live with ticks and I like my hymenoptera small and manageable. I don’t want to live with chiggers or fire ants or malaria mosquitos or killer bees. Frost has protected us New Englanders from these things and from kudzu and God knows what. And yet with global warming, all these creatures and more have just got their tickets punched for an express trip to a quaint New England village. Doubt it? Have you experienced the chiggers now making their way around Long Island, NY?

All this interest in keeping the bugs down may seem pretty strange coming from someone with a professed avocation in insects, but there you are. Maybe I like my Nature just a little bit buttoned down, and as long as it’s Mother Nature herself who does the buttoning, then I’d say it’s a defensible sentiment. But what if we mess with Mother Nature’s natural reset button, as we seem to be with global warming? SHE’s not the one who’s going to care. She’ll just keep going with the insects and the mites and the ants and the vines. WE’RE the ones who’ll have to move north too, or learn to love our new environment…”Oh look, honey, the fire ants got the dog!”

Exec's Blog &News &Publications dgregg on 14 Dec 2007

SE Naturalist Special Issue on Great Smokies ATBI of Interest to BioBlitzers

At the office we just received a special issue of Southeastern Naturalist (Vol. 6, Special Issue 1, December 2007) devoted to papers from the March 2006 symposium on the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory that has been ongoing in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park since 1997. This is the mother of all BioBlitzes, a now 11 year effort to catalogue every species that walks, crawls, oozes, flys, slithers, grows, moulders, fulminates, contemplates, and expostulates within the 2,200 square kilometers of the park. Each chapter in the special issue presents the results of the ATBI in one taxon. Coverage in this issue includes bacteria, mushrooms, lichen, algae, diatoms, oligochaetes, ephemeroptera, plecoptera, megaloptera, trichoptera, lepidoptera, coleoptera, odonata, formica, collembola, and tardigrades. Each chapter is great reading and several really communicate well the senses of wonder and discovery that brought the researchers to the ATBI and bring many of us to natural history.

There are some good insights into why some aspects of our own Rhode Island bioblitz work well and why others don’t. For one thing, the ATBI (which for the scientists is a volunteer effort) uses up most of the community mindedness of most of the taxonomic specialists for most of the taxa, something that reflects both the size of the project and the dire state of systematics in the U.S. and worldwide right now. Of all the times to run out of taxonomic expertise, just when climate change and intercontinental transportation are putting our biodiversity into a global sized blender! Hopefully, RINHS is playing some part in supporting and encouraging the development of what nascent taxonomic interest there is out there. Hopefully, we are helping to build and support the fellowship of naturalists who are making valuable contributions to our own knowledge of All the Taxa Around Rhode Island (ATARI?)

The Southeastern Naturalist is a companion publication to the fine Northeastern Naturalist, which is a valuable resource to our natural history community, and both are published by the Humboldt Field Research Institute, Eagle Hill Road, Steuben, ME (www.eaglehill.us). Distribution of this special issue to RINHS was paid for by Discover Life in America (DLIA), the non-profit organization set up to coordinate the ATBI (www.dlia.org), and we’re very grateful for this.

Exec's Blog &Invasives dgregg on 20 Nov 2007

What keeps YOU up at night?

Okay, so Laura Meyerson, a URI assistant professor with interests in invasive species, ecological restoration, and public policy asked me what I thought were the worst invasive species in Rhode Island. She was getting ready to talk to a reporter, which explained the naive tone of the question. But it got me thinking, what would you learn if you polled various people working in the fields of ecology, natural history, environmental management and conservation, etc.? I’m not sure you’d learn much about the relative effect of various invasive species, but I bet you’d get some great information on which species have a psychological impact, why, and on whom. This could be useful for any of us engaged in public outreach or who fund raise around the invasive species issue.

And so in a spirit of exploration, I share with you a slightly annotated inventory of the baddies in my ecological anxiety closet and invite you to submit your own by commenting on this post or by emailing RINHS at info@rinhs.org. In keeping with the spirit of the original question, we’re not setting any ground rules. Folk taxonomies are to be encouraged, in fact, so list however many you want, grouped in what ever categories help you to make sense of what’s going on out there, and there are no demerits for mangling the names, latin or otherwise (I sure hope not, looking at my list).

David Gregg’s list:

My vote for worst already here, in no particular order (and excluding deep history, e.g. green crab, periwinkle, dutch elm disease, chestnut blight, etc.):
Japanese Knotweed
Russian/Autumn Olive
Japanese Shore Crab (Hemigrapsus sanguineus (De Haan, 1853))
Barberry
Asiatic Bittersweet
Hemlock Wooly Adelgid
Didemnum (spp)

Bad things that only just got here, not a clear, big impact yet:
Water Chestnut
Japanese Stilt Grass (Microstegium)
Asian Clam (Corbicula fluminea)

Bad things not here yet but its only a matter of time:
Zebra Mussel
Emerald Ash Borer
Chinese Mitten Crab
Mile-a-Minute Vine
Snakehead fish
Spiny Water Flea (Bythotrephes cederstroemi)
“Didymo” or “Rock Snot” (Didymosphenia geminata)

Bad things not here yet (or not established) but likely to get a boost with global warming
Kudzu
Lionfish
maybe Nutria
Water Hyacinth
Giant Salvinia
Fire Ant

Other bad things already here that I chose not to list as #1 but where
intelligent minds may disagree:
Ailanthus
Phragmites australis
Privet (spp)
Norway Maple
Myriophyllum (spp) e.g. Eurasian Water Milfoil and Parrot Feather
Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar)
Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata)
Porcelinberry
Multiflora Rose
Rugosa Rose
Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata (Bieb.)

Things that we’re currently ignoring but shouldn’t be:
bamboo (spp)
Chinese Silver Grass, Zebra Grass, or Eulalia (Miscanthus sinensis etc.)

So send in your thoughts. If we get a lot of feedback maybe we’ll do a more formal poll.

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