Prairies and Drought

Jim Richardson

Prairies are in trouble. According to Worldwide Wildlife Fund’s 2016 plowprint, we have lost in grasslands the equivalent of the size of Kansas in North America in the previous decade due to conversion to row crop. We wanted more corn for ethanol.

In addition to the loss of wildlife habitat, we might lose a few other things, carbon sequestration, prairie plants are sometimes capable of withstanding droughts and preventing soil erosion that might become more frequent under climate change. Check out the photo above — prairie plants have longer roots than row crops and can reach water that other plants can’t. And during times like the dust bowl, native prairie plants have the ability to hang onto the soil.

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What eats what others won’t?

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Vultures!

I have written before about vultures here, here, here, here and here. But have you seen this video? Most vultures specialize on dead leftover flesh, but the bearded vulture wants only the bones. It swallows the bones whole. According to Houston and Copsey 1994, their digestive tract might have additional acids to deal with bones and that the additional nutritive qualities of a bone-only diet make it all worth it, especially in barren landscapes with fewer carcasses to find.

 

Ospreys’ Unique Feet

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Osprey feet in action/ Photo by Wilson Chen

Osprey have something that other raptors don’t have — zygodactyl feet. These are perfectly x-shaped toes that can swing back and forth and line up with either the back or front set of toes as needed. This type of foot is found in perching birds like songbirds to make it easier to walk around a cylindrical object like a tree limb. In swifts, it’s useful for hanging onto a vertical surface like the inside of a chimney. Similarly, woodpeckers have this flexible foot to cling to trees vertically.

Osprey have another use for their feet — hunting. Osprey are specialized as piscivores. According to the Birds of North America account, fish represent 99 percent of their diet. Those toes give the osprey the ability to snatch a fish, and because the effort of taking off from water is pretty exhausting, the osprey needs additional help in efficiency. And so, those flexible toes have the ability to flip the fish in the air so that it faces forward and is more aerodynamic.

The Magnificent Opossum

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Robert Meyer‘s painting of opossums, reflecting their ancient history

Last summer, one day, I awoke very early, and as I gazed out of my kitchen window, a young opossum scurried across my yard. It was the size of a kitten and it was running toward my house where there was a gap to the sub-basement. It occurred to me in that moment that I had a family of opossums living under my house, and the mystery of why my cats stare intently into the small hole in my closet floor where the pipe chases leads was suddenly solved. It was tempting to want the opossums out.

Then my biologist brain kicked in. Opossums are perfectly unique animal in North America as the sole member of the marsupial group and they and their ancestor have managed survive here since the time of Pangea when the continents were joined. Even more importantly, they are tremendously helpful to us humans in having a prodigious appetite for ticks. For more cool facts, check this link out.