Monarchs and the Day of the Dead

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Monarch caterpillars in my South Dakota backyard

So often the animals that live their lives among us do so unnoticed and perhaps underappreciated. Occasionally, an animal infuses our cultures is such an endemic way. In Mexico, the return of the monarch butterfly coincides with the Day of the Dead, and this video from the series One Strange Rock chronicles how.

Hunters and Lead

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White-tailed deer at Devils Tower Monument

We’re still in the midst of deer hunting season in Wisconsin. Still feel unconvinced that switching to non-lead ammunition is the way to go? Here’s a testimonial by a hunter.

Injured Raptors and Roadside Trash

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Me and a young red-tailed hawk at the raptor workshop. Photo: Gretchen Newberry.

At the end of a field season back in Oregon, I decided to take a trip east, visit family, and attend a weeklong workshop on handling raptors. While in the Twin Cities, I visited the Raptor Center on University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

I took the tour and learned that many of the injured animals convalescing at this veterinary clinic had been struck by cars. The culprit? They were attracted to prey who gather alongside roads to feed on our trash.

Check out this post by Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuges on the subject. It explains that even biodegradable trash like apple cores can be a problem.

Stress and Memory

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Artist Unknown

Back when I was working with swallows in Oregon, I first learned about the connection between stress and memory. Each day, we would head out to capture swallows and take their blood. We wanted to measure stress hormone levels. First,  we needed to take the blood within a three minute window of capture to get their baseline level of corticosterone, the stress hormone in birds, and again after 30 minutes of handling to get their elevated level, as per classic methods used by physiologists (Wingfield et al., 1994).

We did this early on in the nesting period and again later with the same bird. What should come as no surprise is that the second capture became very difficult. The birds were on to us, and we would need to switch up our capture methods.

One day while driving back home, I was listening to Science Friday on NPR and heard a biologist describe the connection between memory and stress hormones. Essentially, it is to the animal’s benefit to remember stressful events in order to avoid a repeat performance. The stress hormone is a result of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal complex of endocrine system organs. The hypothalamus receives the signal that such an event has occurred and spurs the pituitary and adrenal glands’ hormones into action. The cycle of events cause the body to remember the event.

In short, the very act of intentionally stressing the birds, we made our jobs harder down the line.

Now, there’s this terrific TED Talk video that explains more, and why acute stress can counteract the recollection of memory.

Source: Wingfield, J. C., C. R. Suydam, and K. Hunt. 1994. The Adrenocortical responses to stress in Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) and Lapland Longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus) at Barrow, Alaska. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology C 108: 299-306.

Flood and Rivers

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Courtesy of Everything Wild

Here in La Crosse, Wisconsin, each year, our rainfall increases. With it, comes the risk of the Mississippi River flooding. Fortunately, we have Myrick Marsh, a vast wetland on the north side of town that serves as a buffer. Each year, the marsh fills when river levels rise, our beloved biking and hiking trails submerge, but our town remains relatively untouched by the rain. Other neighboring communities have not been so lucky.

White-Lined Sphinx Moths

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In the lower right of this shadow box depicting my South Dakota backyard habitat, a white-lined sphinx moth feeds on the Creeping Charlie. Image: Gretchen N Newberry

Back in South Dakota, one night, my friend Jerry came over to hunt some rabbits in my back yard. It was more like hunting wabbits, as the wily ones suddenly became shy. I had been telling him about the rabbits lounging near my back door, taunting my cats, and suddenly we had dreams of hasenpfeffer. It was not to be that evening, but instead we we’re treated to a once in a lifetime show. We sat quietly that evening waiting for the rabbits to appear, and instead hundreds of migrating white-lined sphinx moths emerged in the dim light and fed on my invasive Creeping Charlie, a purple flowering herb that crowds out grass and native plants. We watched their long tongues unfurl as they flitted from flower to flower, their pink underwings flashing. For years afterward, I couldn’t bring myself to mow the Creeping Charlie in hopes they would return. They never did.

To see a white-lined sphinx moth in action, check out this video.

Fish Skin Heals

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Tilapia skin used to treat a black bear’s burns. Photo courtesy of California Department of Wildlife.

Last year in the aftermath of California’s wildfires, an interesting story from the world of biology and veterinary science emerged. In order to treat wildlife with burns and get them back on their feet and in the wild before they became too stressed by or too used to human interaction, one veterinarian found an interesting treatment for burns — fish skin! Creativity in science pays off. And like in last week’s post, the aquatic comes to the rescue of the terrestrial.

The Land and Water

I spend a fair amount of time in my day job explaining why healthy streams matter to both aquatic animals and terrestrial animals (including us), and that what we do on land affects the streams. But now, according to this study, it turns out the terrestrial and aquatic food webs bail each other out during lean periods. The two halves of the same coin are interlinked in so many ways.

My Grandfather, the Conservationist

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My grandfather, Eddie, circled in red, at a Wisconsin Civilian Conservation Corps camp in 1933. Source: Newberry family photos.

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My grandfather was a conservative. This was back in the day when the concept of caring for the land didn’t divide people. In the Great Depression and World War Two, people recycled because they had no other materials with which to make things, and young men built trails and planted trees because they needed a job.

Along the way, they learned to love the land. At least that’s what happened with my grandfather, Ed, or Eddie, as my grandmother called him. He grew up the son of Polish immigrants in Kenosha, Wisconsin. His mother was a gardener, and, according to my mother, a great cook that used her fresh fruits and vegetables in her delicious food. And so my grandfather became a great gardener, and my memories of him consisted of his many hours tending his gardens and apple trees, punctuated by racist rants at other drivers.

But, he was a conservationist. In the Great Depression, he quit middle school and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and spent years in northern Wisconsin with many other young men. He never returned to school and spent the rest of his life working in factories.

The experience in the woods never left him. In the 1960s, after his kids left home, he packed up his life and moved with my grandmother to Colorado so that he could be near the mountains.  When his camping days were over after a stroke in the 1970s, we inherited his tent, a small green canvas tent. It was smelly and often damp, and it had a patch that came with a story. When he ventured out to camp with us on occasion, he would tell us the patch came after a bear attack. We never knew if he was joking.

But, he loved the soil. The gardening, the trees, the camping, all were experiences that fed his soul.

The Hidden Life of Wildlife

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Mysterious photo of early arctic exploration that has circulated the internet as a meme. Source: unknown.

As a biologist, it’s often easy to feel that your study subject lives in seclusion. After all, it is our job to reveal the hidden life of wildlife. If it had been studied before, why would be doing it?

But the truth is, such a venture can be emotionally isolating, on a personal level, but alarming when it comes to conservation. If you feel that what you have discovered goes unnoticed, and your findings have real consequences in terms of conservation, it becomes the proverbial bear shitting in the woods. If no one is around to see it, and thus care about it, did it really happen?

This recent article at the Wildlife Society’s web site explores the notion of the slow and silent decline of a species and what it means when it all happens under the radar of the general public.