I studied a bird that lives in camouflage, the common nighthawk. What helps it survive makes it difficult to highlight its importance — its low profile. Similarly, the world is filled with organisms that stay hidden and might disappear before we knew they existed, including plants or organisms of the microbiome.
Ecologists have a hard time explaining what’s happening on land, and even more so, in the water, to folks who haven’t spent their life studying a single animal or habitat. Now we have the air. Increasingly, we are realizing the air above is partitioned off by species. Some fly higher at different times of the day or or year. Migrating birds might fly higher than usual. Dispersing birds might move fly higher on the way to their evening roost. Species might specialize on insects that fly lower or higher. Lower flying animals might be out-competing others that are forced to flyer higher. Many factors make this space complex, and we are just starting to understand it.
It’s not often I encounter someone whose opinions diverge from mine that there is no middle ground. When I do, I know that it is not about me. We each have strong emotions about our opinions, and often the common ground can be found when we talk about the elements of survival: food, water, warmth, and the people that surrounds us.
Occasionally, common ground cannot be found because we don’t agree on how those fundamentals can be met, and our emotions take over. Are emotions or facts best used in such an interaction? I imagine it depends on the situation. This video has some thoughts on the issue.
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.
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.
Wildlife corridors are an emerging technique to make busy roadways safer for both wildlife and motorists. Need some proof on how effective they are? Check out this video featuring the endangered Florida panther and others.
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.
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.
We spend a lot of time as biologists exposing people, other scientists and the public, to the life that surrounds us that is hidden — animals that have camouflage, or mysterious internal physiology, interactions and ecological processes. One of the most difficult things to talk about are the organisms that make their living during a time we often think is sleepy, quiet, or dead — the winter. But many animals share our world even in the winter when we think our snowy slopes are free to ski. This study highlights how that affects the Canada lynx. Something to think about even during the summer.
I spent this spring cleaning up and planting in my new garden. It was tempting at times to apply herbicides to creeping plants between the sidewalk cracks and to the new flower beds I was planning for pollinators. But there are other household products that we can avoid that also have become so common, neonicotinoids. American Bird Conservancy has made this handy video explaining why.