This Thing Called Courage

Monday, June 29, 2009

Boycott Petland!

(A message from the American Humane Society)

Dear Joe,
As you might remember, The Humane Society of the United States released the results of an eight-month investigation in November showing that pet store chain Petland Incorporated is the nation's largest retail supporter of puppy mills.
Our Puppy Mills team has been working hard in the months since that exposé was released, and today reveals disturbing new revelations about Petland.
The investigation revealed at least two Petland stores in Florida, the Orlando East and Largo stores, still buying puppies from the facility linked to Kathy Bauck, who was convicted on three counts of animal torture and one count of animal abuse in March. We also found some Petland stores still buying from at least two other puppy mills that we filmed and identified as part of our initial investigation.

Our team conducted an intensive six-month search of public records in multiple states and tracked shipments of puppies from massive commercial brokers to more than 95 percent of Petland's domestic stores. We revealed once again that the store chain is misleading customers about dealing with a special selection of breeders. Instead, Petland's franchisees buy most of their dogs from puppy mills either directly or indirectly through large-scale wholesalers, like Hunte.

This deceptive behavior continues to harm both animals and consumers. More than 600 people who purchased dogs from Petland have already contacted us about the class action lawsuit Petland is currently facing. If you haven’t already, please tell us your story if you bought a puppy from Petland.

We’ll continue to keep the pressure on Petland to join other national pet store chains that refuse to sell dogs from puppy mills, until the company does the right thing for animals.
Thank you for your continued support in our campaign to stop puppy mills.


Wayne Pacelle
President & CEO
The Humane Society of the United States

Friday, June 26, 2009

Joe and Fionn's Excellent Adventure

WHEN PEOPLE TELL ME THERE'S NOTHING TO DO, or that nothing much happens in their life, I tell them to take a walk, preferably a long one. And keep the eyes and ears open. You might just save a life. So many things happen on our daily walks that I could easily spend half the day writing about each one. Yesterday was just such a case in point. The sky was brightening and the sun was flitting in and out of the clouds when we embarked-- the first time we'd seen the sun in at least a week: reason enough for a walk. We have various routes that we take around here, each one calibrated for different lengths. Yesterday we felt like a good stretch of the leg, as my grandmother would call it, so we opted for a six mile walk-- down the Fellsway, over by the Stone Zoo, around Spot Pond, and then back up the Fellsway again to home.

Whenever we pass the zoo, I always have to laugh, as invariably there will be small children on the other side of the fence from us. As they pass the jaguar and Mexican Crane (both of whom we have a salutory relationship with as we walk by, they looking, us waving) the children stop what they're doing to say, "Look,a dog!" and nevermind the exotic animals they could look at instead. It's all the same to children-- one thing in this fresh new world of wonder is as startling and noteworthy as another. Fionn was already hot and panting as we passed the two-mile mark, so he tried to pull me down a wooded path that leads to the edges of Spot Pond. At first I resisted this (I had hit a good stride by then) but then changed my mind, turned back, and let him pull me (he's surprisingly strong) down this little-used path, almost choked with poison ivy. Of course I was wearing shorts, and the trifoliate ("leaves of three, watch out for me") leaves brushed up against my bare shins and calves lovingly as we passed through. Fortunately I don't seem very susceptible to its bubbling, itchy charms. Fionn plunged into the water, and took a little doggie-paddle swim as he gulped water. This pleases me mightily. For the first year or two of our association together, Fionn avoided water like the plague. "Just throw him in," one of my brothers advised at the time. "He'll get used to it and grow to love it." That, of course, would have made him panic further, and so instead we just would walk by water quite a bit, and then the warm weather came, and little by little he discovered this strange fluid stuff could cool and refresh. We continued along, then, after this quick pause, rounded a bend, climbed the hill by the Botume House (the headquarters for the North Region of the DCR (Department of Conservation and Recreation) then hit a long straight unshaded stretch, during which we were fully blasted by the suddenly hot and searing sun. Then another rise in the path, a twist of a corner, and the path enters thick pine woods, and that wonderful hot tang piney smell has at you. Heaven, and it was at least ten degrees cooler in here. At this point one is so high in elevation, the Boston skyline appears in the distance, wedged between the trees. A lovely dichotomy. Now you come upon Quarter Mile Pond (and one recalls the local joke, How Long is Quarter Mile Pond?) and yesterday there were two eldery brothers (clearly there were brothers) fishing there. Lovely people. The far side of the pond's fallen logs are replete with sunning turtles on a day like yesterday, painted turtles and snappers taking the sun. It's in this same pond that we've spotted, over the years, eider ducks, mergansers, herons, and mallards, as well as one couple whose species I couldn't identify-- always a good thing, for mystery is the sister of wonder. Then you come out into the parking lot for the Flynn Skating Rink, where a few trails running through this eastern part of the Fells converge, most notably the Hemlock Pool Trail and the Cross Fells Trail. It was while we were traversing the far end of the parking lot that we espied a beautiful painted turtle, with wandering on his mind: he was on the edge of the sidewalk, and heading onto the parkway, which is four lanes, with a grassy and tree-planted meridian separating east-bound from west-bound. Not so good! As we watched, the turtle tumbled over the curbing's edge, and we noted, as we hurried along to help, the on-rushing traffic. In the old days all these parkways had wonderful signage reminding people of the names of the parkway, as well as the delightful admonition, FOR PLEASURE VEHICLES ONLY. As a child, I often wondered what exactly this meant: was one supposed to turn around if you were having an argument in the car? Could you not take these roads if you were on your way to work, say? Or a dental appointment?

At any rate, when we reached the edge of the road, the painted turtle-- a healthy specimen, about salad-plate size-- was on his back, struggling against the hot macadam to right himself. This we did for him, but then-- much more quickly than I would have thought possible-- he scooted right out into the middle of the road, before we could snag him! There was only one thing to do, and that was to step out into the Boulevard ourselves, and escort him across, bringing the onrushing traffic to a halt. Surprisingly, no one beeped or cussed us out. Perhaps they were all pleasure vehicles. Once the turtle reached the high curbing at the other side of the road-- a barrier he found insurmountable-- we snatched him and picked him up. (see pic) This he didn't especially care for, and he began thrashing and squabbling and waving his head and arms and legs every whcih way, movements that only further enflamed an already over-stimulated Fionn the Dog, who all this time was leaping off the ground, trying to get a snatch. Talk about multi-tasking-- Fionn by the leash in one hand, the freaking-out turtle in the other, on-rushing traffic, and, of course, a suddenly fiercely itchy pair of calves.

I decided I would put the turtle in Quarter Mile Pond, which we had passed some time ago, so we hiked at a double-time rate back in the direction we had just come from, walking along the edge of the Parkway. By this time the turtle had decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and he had decamped-- head, arms, legs and all-- into the cozy confines of his shell. But the second we reached the woods again-- boing! Out he came, flailing away like crazy again, thus re-exciting Fionn. Now we were headed downhill to the edges of the pond, going through mossy pine woods replete with slippery ledge, slippery from the week of rain we'd just had. Apparently Fionn was ready for another plunge-drink into the water, and, just in case I wasn't, he began to yank like a 40-mule team-- not a good thing when one is going down the proverbial slippery slope. You can probably guess, dear reader, what happened next; but when we fell, we were careful to keep the right hand upraised, so the turtle ensconced therein would come to no harm. He didn't, and once we uprighted ourselves, I placed him at the edge of the pond, and from there he took off into the water like a shot: there was absolutely nothing slow about this turtle. As I always say, there's nothing like field experience to refute old chestnuts.

This accomplished, we breathed a sign of satisfaction, wiped ourselves off, then climbed the woodsy hill and resumed our walk. I marveled at the synchronicty of things: if Fionn hadn't dragged me down the path to the pond earlier in our walk, we would have reached the turtle too late-- or too early-- to rescue him, and there would have been one less salad-plate sized Painted Turtle in the world-- a sad thing. We rouned the corner and plunged down Elm Street, past Wright's Pond, and then reconnected with the Fellsway again. From here it's two and a half final miles, all up-hill. Fionn used to get confused at this point, and stop, and pull his mule routine, not understanding that the quickest way home was in front of us, rather than behind us-- but now he gets it. The sky put on quite a show as we gained altitude-- while it was gleaming blue to the east of us, the west was darkening, as billowing black clouds puffed onto the sky-stage. I doubted we'd make it home before the deluge, so we increased our cadence to a quick double-time. How the sweat rolled off us! But as we approached the top of the second hill, we espied in the near distance an ambulance; then a fire engine roared onto the scene; then a state police car came zooming by us, bells and whistles fully engaged. They were all pulled over at the side of the wooded road, right at a trail ("The Pickeral Path," say the maps) that a lot of local urchins use when they go swimming in Spot Pond. We said a silent prayer that no one had drowned. It wasn't that-- a carful of youths had somehow driven into the woods here, and the driver, still wedged in his seat, was unable to move his neck. Not so good, and we wish them the best. Finally, just before reaching Friendly's again, we passed the deep thickets where The Fellsway West and North Border Road intersect: and calling from the depths of these was the unmistakable, liquid trill of the wood thrush: signoreen-- signorina he always seems to be singing to me. Heaven, and the perfect farewell to our excellent adventure. Go and do likewise, I say!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

With Rebels on the Run, Columbia is for the Birds

(from today's Wall Street Journal; to see slideslow, go to

LIBANO, Colombia -- In March, government agents shot and killed a notorious guerrilla chief known as Comandante Mauricio. His unit, called the "Bolsheviks," had rampaged through the countryside for years, kidnapping, extorting and murdering.
Last month, a new group moved into Mauricio's old turf. Its leader, Steven Hilty, wore a khaki shirt and a fedora. He signaled his cohorts for quiet, scanned a tree line and then zeroed in on a target with his binoculars.
"That's it -- a yellow-headed brush-finch," Mr. Hilty told his fellow American bird-watchers. The finch is one of the more unusual birds in Colombia, which has 1,871 bird species, more than any other country.
As Colombia finally gains the upper hand in its decades-long struggle against Marxist guerrillas, bird lovers are marching back into parts of this avian paradise which were only recently no man's lands. Birding tours are proliferating, reserves are sprouting up in former combat zones, and ornithologists are discovering new species and reacquainting themselves with ones not seen in years.
Until the past four or five years, only a handful of foreigners who were "un poco locos" -- a little crazy -- dared to go birding in Colombia's war-torn valleys and jungles, says Angela Gómez, managing director of EcoTurs, a Bogotá birding tourism agency. Now, with the government's recent success in killing or capturing key guerrilla chiefs, EcoTurs is on track to do about 20 birding tours for foreigners this year, compared with five in 2006, when it started its business.
Birdquest, a Lancashire, England-based tour operator, started coming back to Colombia in 2007, after a seven-year hiatus. Pete Morris, who has guided three Birdquest tours to Colombia in the past two years, says he now often feels safer in Colombia than in some of the more established destinations such as Venezuela or Peru, where petty crime can be a problem.
Perhaps the biggest news in local birding circles is the return this year of Mr. Hilty, known as the dean of Colombia bird specialists. Mr. Hilty hadn't conducted a tour in Colombia since 1986, the same year he co-authored "A Guide to the Birds of Colombia." It was also a time when Colombia was disintegrating into a battleground, vied over by guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries and the country's army.

Yellow-headed Brush-finch
Mr. Hilty, who works for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours of Austin, Texas, became spooked that year after a birding excursion in which he encountered charred military vehicles that had recently been attacked by rebels. On the same trip, he nearly walked into an ambush Colombian troops had laid for guerrillas. "This is foolish," Mr. Hilty concluded, and began looking for birds elsewhere.
Caution was justified. In 1995, a British soldier working in the Bogotá embassy was kidnapped by the largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, while birding in the countryside. He was freed in a police raid four months later. In 1998, four American bird-watchers looking for the rare Cundinamarca antpitta instead encountered a FARC comandante named Romaña, who took them prisoners.
In hindsight, say birders, the best thing to happen to Colombian birding was the ascension in 2002 of conservative President Álvaro Uribe. With U.S. backing, Mr. Uribe took the offensive against the guerrillas by increasing the size of security forces by about 30%. Last year three top guerrilla leaders perished, while surviving rebels were driven deep into the jungle.
Todd Mark, one of the four American birders captured by the FARC in 1998, still isn't convinced that Colombia is safe. Falling into the hands of guerrillas, he says, "is not something you would ever want to happen to you." Mr. Mark was held captive for more than a month, and forced to make long marches over harsh terrain; one of his birding companions, a 63-year-old woman, fell down a hillside, suffering a broken hip and punctured lung. One of the four captives escaped, and Mr. Mark and the other two were eventually released.
The U.S. State Department, which maintains a travel warning on Colombia, says guerrilla groups are still active in the country. Kidnappings, while having "diminished significantly" since the start of the decade, are still a danger, says the agency.
Some Colombian birders acknowledge that there are parts of the country that aren't safe but insist it's now possible to see lots of birds without coming anywhere near the danger zones.
The abundance of Colombian birds -- about 50 more species than second-place Peru -- is partly a consequence of the variety of habitats provided by the Andes Mountains, which split into three distinct ranges in Colombia.
Another Colombian asset is a dedicated group of local birding enthusiasts, who in 1998 formed the nonprofit conservation group, ProAves. The organization has created 15 birding reserves and launched a host of conservation projects, such as training former combatants as forest rangers. Now, ProAves ornithologists are taking advantage of the relative tranquility of the countryside to find new species, like the Santa Marta screech owl, discovered in 2007 in a mountainous area once rife with gunmen.
ProAves also worked to woo back Mr. Hilty. Originally scheduled to do one Colombian tour this year, Mr. Hilty says he added three more due to enthusiastic response from birders. Among the small group accompanying him on a recent trip were a married pair of Washington, D.C., federal workers, a retired school psychologist and a California restaurateur named Karen Clarke. "My husband isn't thrilled I'm here," she said. But Ms. Clarke said she had faith in Mr. Hilty, and a determination to add to the list of 3,000 different bird species she's seen.
The expedition started at Chingaza National Park, where the FARC in 2002 tried unsuccessfully to dynamite a dam and cut off water to the nearby capital of Bogotá. Such is Colombia's birding richness that even a stop at a roadside restaurant near the park yielded a treasure: a glimpse of the rare silvery-throated spinetail.
The next day the birders visited Tabacal Lagoon, in another region where guerrillas have been rooted out. Mr. Hilty heard a trilling coming from some bushes, pulled out his microphone and taped it. Then he played back the tape. Fluttering out into the open, attracted by the sound of its own voice, was a seldom-seen rosy thrush-tanager, with its telltale large beak and stripe over the eye.
But just as the birders were getting on a roll, they were halted by some interlopers, a troop of about 25 Colombians out on their own nature hike. "Hello, my friends," one of the trekkers ventured in English, loud enough to scare off any birds that remained.
Write to Matt Moffett at

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Archeologists Announce Oldest Musical Instuments

(from today's Boston Globe)

By Carolyn Y. Johnson, Globe Staff June 24, 2009
We all knew that Stone Age humans were hunters and gatherers. But sculptors and flutists?
Archeologists announced today that they had unearthed the oldest musical instruments ever found -- flutes that inhabitants of southwestern Germany laboriously carved from bone and ivory at least 35,000 years ago.
The find suggests just how integral artistic expession may be to human existence: Music apparently flourished even in prehistoric days when mere survival was a full-time endeavor.
The instruments were found in a cave, amid bones from bears and mammoths and flakes of flint from a Stone Age tool shop.
"There were certainly, you know, the Michelangelos back then, who were the highly talented people for carving masterpieces. But the Michelangelos also had to hunt and butcher and chip stones and do all sorts of things," said Nicholas Conard, professor of early prehistory at the University of Tübingen, who led the work described online in the journal Nature today.
The discovery is the latest in a string of archeological finds -- including a sculpted female nude -- that reveal that early modern humans had a sophisticated cultural and artistic life.
"Emotionally, you can look at this thing and recognize yourself; you can see this is a flute, you can imagine yourself playing it, you can imagine yourself making it. It's esentially a connection between us and people who lived 35,000 years ago," said Edward Hagen, an anthropologist at Washington State University Vancouver who was not involved in the research.
"To see this early in the archeological record suggests it might be a fundamental aspect of human nature. ... It does at least hint that music lies close to our foundation of common humanity."
There are numerous theories about why music emerged. Charles Darwin thought that music might give individuals a better chance of attracting mates and reproducing. Others believe it is a way to demonstrate a group's strength and unity. Some think that music may be a byproduct of the evolution of other cognitive abilities, such as language.
The discovery of the flutes does little to settle this debate, since many musical traditions -- such as singing -- wouldn't have been preserved in the archeological record. But it does demonstrate how established music was, especially since the flutes were mixed in with other remnants from daily life, which indicates to scientists that they were used in many contexts.
Just a few feet away from the bone flute, researchers discovered one of the oldest examples of figurative art -- the sculpture of a woman carved from mammoth ivory, which was announced earlier this year. Excavations have also unearthed an array of other art, including carvings of mammoths, cave lions, and mythic half-animal, half-human figures.
The flutes were made by modern humans, who evolved in Africa and spread across the world, arriving in Europe around 45,000 years ago. Radiocarbon analysis by two laboratories indicate that the flutes are at least 35,000 years old, and given their distribution in the excavation, Conard estimates that they date back to about 40,000 years ago.
The artifacts may provide clues as to why modern humans made it to the present day and Neanderthals did not, scientists said. Neanderthals, another species of early human, also lived in Europe and overlapped with modern humans but ultimately went extinct. Over a decade ago, an archeologist discovered a 43,000-year-old bear bone that was thought to be a Neanderthal flute, but other scientists have cast doubt on this claim.
A culture rich in figurative art, sophisticated adornments, and music does not directly result in better hunting or more successful reproduction, but music in particular might have had an indirect effect, providing better social ties or improving communication, according to Conard. The flutes are also tangible evidence of modern humans' innovative talents.
"There is something analogous to a cultural arms race between the [Neanderthals] and the moderns," said Conard. "Neanderthals had perfectly good behavioral strategies, but tended to be culturally more conservative, and modern humans were more flexible and creative."
That creativity is seen in the flutes. The most complete flute was excavated in a dozen pieces last September. Fashioned from the wing bone of a griffon vulture, the flute is about nine inches long. Fine lines chipped into the bones were likely used as measurements to ensure that the five finger holes were spaced appropriately, the researchers concluded, and musicians likely played the instrument by blowing through V-shaped notches carved in the top of the flute.
Researchers also found evidence of technologically advanced flutes made from mammoth ivory. In the same cave, they discovered two fragments of ivory flutes, which would have been constructed by splitting a piece of mammoth ivory, hollowing out both halves, carving the finger holes, and sealing them back together. Another portion of an ivory flute was also discovered at a different, nearby site.
Other instruments have been unearthed in France and Austria, but are no more than 30,000 years old.
To Ofer Bar-Yosef, a professor of prehistoric archeology at Harvard, the making of flutes by early modern humans in Europe seems analogous to the innovation seen among early Americans, who "created socially and technically a new society which is different from what it used to be back home. ... What happens to a population -- they get into a new environment, something triggers them to think about a new invention."
Since the five-hole flute was dug up last year, an experimental archeologist working with Conard has built a replica out of a griffon vulture bone and is learning to play it.
"The first thing he sent me is this rendition of the Star Spangled Banner on the oldest flute in the world," Conard said. "He hasn't really learned it yet. It sounds very rough."

Amphibians Disappearing Worldwide

(From Defenders Magazine)

© Brad Wilson/Atlanta Botanical Garden
In a cloud forest in Panama, hundreds of frogs turn up dead, the life sucked out of them by a strange fungus.
In the wetlands of northwest Iowa, where hunters once collected 20 million frogs a year for their meaty legs, there is only one leopard frog left for every thousand frogs the pioneers saw.
In southern Missouri's mountain streams, scientists struggle to protect dwindling populations of the Ozark hellbender, a wrinkled, primitive salamander that can grow to two feet long.
All around the planet, amphibians such as these are in trouble. It's not just the colorful, exotic rainforest species that are disappearing, but also the common frogs, toads, newts and salamanders that people used to see in backyards across America. A third of all amphibian species are considered threatened, making them the most vulnerable group of animals in the world. By comparison, 12 percent of birds and 23 percent of mammals are threatened.
Amphibians—named for the Greek word for "double life"—are moist-skinned vertebrates that have distinct larval and adult stages. Typically spending part of their lives on land and part in water, these change artists have thrived on Earth for 360 million years. But without swift action, many scientists and conservationists believe that much of their diversity will soon vanish. An estimated 120 of approximately 6,000 known amphibian species have disappeared in the past 25 years, and another 2,000 to 3,000 species may go extinct in our lifetimes.
"It sounds like hyperbole, but really, this is the greatest conservation challenge humanity has ever faced," says Kevin Zippel, program officer for Amphibian Ark, a $50-million effort to collect critically endangered species from the wild for protection and breeding in zoos and aquariums. "The world hasn't seen an extinction crisis like this since the dinosaurs died out."
Defending Amphibians
Defenders’ international program has a new focus on the amphibian crisis, building on our 2007 report on the live animal trade, Broken Screens - The Regulation of Live Animal Imports in the United States. That report showed more than a dozen non-native amphibian species currently being imported pose risks of becoming invasive species and/or carrying diseases.
In addition to working on reforming the live animal trade, we are assessing the parts of the amphibian import business that are causing unsustainable collecting overseas. And international associate Heidi Ruffler is educating policymakers on the need to more tightly screen amphibian imports for deadly diseases, especially that caused by chytrid fungus.
Defenders is also launching a new effort to protect amphibians in Latin America, where these creatures are both diverse and threatened on a number of fronts. Defenders’ new international counsel, Alejandra Goyenechea, is assessing protections for amphibians under international laws, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and under laws in relevant countries as well.
See for more information.
The Amphibian Ark is part of a larger program, the Amphibian Conservation Action Plan, created by staff from conservation groups, universities, zoos, government agencies and others around the world. This is a broad plan to counter threats to amphibians, which range from habitat loss, disease and overharvesting to global warming, pollution and UV radiation. The estimated cost of this effort is $400 million over a five-year period.
To help raise awareness and funding for amphibians, organizers have dubbed 2008 the "Year of the Frog." The campaign kicked off on New Year's Eve with a series of "leap year" events focused on the plight of amphibians. Other activities planned for the year include a worldwide petition drive and special events at zoos, aquariums and museums. The tone of these celebrations is light, but the crisis behind it often has herpetologists speaking in somber tones.
"These are tragic circumstances we find ourselves in," says George Rabb, retired president of the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and a member of Defenders of Wildlife's board. "We either do something to give amphibians some security, or it's likely that many of these creatures will absolutely vanish from this Earth."
The most urgent problem, scientists say, is a fungus that can kill up to 80 percent of native amphibians within months of its arrival in an area. Formally known as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd for short, the deadly agent is commonly referred to as a chytrid fungus.
Biologist Karen Lips helped track the fungus' wavelike spread through Central America. In 1992, she encountered a handful of dead frogs in Costa Rica, but she didn't think much of it. Four years later, when she found 50 dead frogs at a site in Panama, she knew something was wrong. The frogs looked fine, but they didn't move, as if they had been frozen in place. "It's like they went to sleep sitting on their little rock or leaf, and they just died right there," says Lips, who works at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
The frogs died of a chytrid infection, but no one knew that at the time. The fungal disease wasn't identified until 1997, when scientists from around the world gathered to look at the organism under an electron microscope and agreed that it was the same pathogen decimating frogs from Australia to the United Kingdom. Since then, the fungus has been discovered in most of the world, with a few exceptions, such as Madagascar, New Guinea and parts of Asia, Rabb says.
The origin of the fungus is still a mystery. The prevailing hypothesis holds that it originated in Africa and spread around the globe through the export of the African clawed frog, a common lab animal once used in human pregnancy testing. More recently, trade in the American bullfrog and other species used for food and pets may have spread the fungus, but no one is quite sure how it gets around. It is unstoppable and untreatable in the wild. "We can't really track it in nature yet," Lips says. "We just stake it out and wait for it to get there."
Some amphibians appear to be immune to the disease, but others are completely wiped out. Joe Mendelson, curator of herpetology at Zoo Atlanta, compares the spread of chytrid to the smallpox epidemic that swept through Native American populations after European settlers arrived, leaving few survivors. "That's what we have with amphibians right now—groups that have survived," he says. "In southern Mexico, at one of my study sites, there are still amphibians there, but you're looking at what was left after everything else was killed."
After witnessing six or seven population crashes and finding hundreds of dead frogs in Central America, Lips is shifting some of her work to the United States. She plans to embark on a survey of frogs across Illinois to see how widespread the pathogen is there. "Honestly, we're limited in what we can do down there (in Central America), because we're running out of frogs," she says.
Such sobering realizations have led to amphibian rescue missions like one Mendelson helped lead at a site known as El Valle in Panama in 2005. With the blessing of the Panamanian government, a team of Americans and Panamanians conducted what Mendelson calls a "pre-emptive conservation strike," capturing about 600 frogs from 35 species and taking them back to facilities in Atlanta. At the same time, the Houston Zoo was building an amphibian conservation center in Panama. Within a year of the extraction, the fungus showed up at El Valle and wreaked its havoc, and "now the place is almost completely frogless," Mendelson says.
The Amphibian Ark program promotes more of these rescue operations for about 500 species deemed to be in imminent danger. Zippel says the Ark will target many species in tropical forests, where the fungus is hitting particularly hard, but it will also include American species such as the California mountain yellow-legged frog and the Mississippi gopher frog. Each species will be housed in two biologically secure facilities to guard against unexpected loss. For remote areas, commercial shipping containers can be converted into self-contained labs run on solar power. "Literally, wherever amphibians are in need, we can put one" of the labs, Zippel says.
The idea is to keep a sliver of the population alive so that the animals can be released to the wild when—or if—it's safe. "We could have the fungus cured tomorrow, or never," Zippel says. "It's really a stopgap measure, to buy us some time."
Even if chytrid fungus could be tamed, amphibians face a host of other problems. Habitat loss is still chief among them, according to a 2004 global survey. Mike Lannoo, editor of a comprehensive book about amphibian declines in the United States, blames habitat loss for the one amphibian extinction documented in the United States to date. "The Vegas Valley leopard frog was last seen in 1942. Basically, Bugsy Siegel built Las Vegas over its habitat," Lannoo says.
Of the 291 species remaining in the United States, Lannoo estimates that two-thirds are in decline. About 10 percent are at severe risk. Only a few are increasing in numbers, often because of their introduction into non-native habitats, he said. Even those species that are still common are less so than they once were, he says.
For example, leopard frogs swarmed the shores of Lake Okoboji in northwestern Iowa so heavily a century ago that hunters were able to collect 20 million of the spotted greenish-brown frogs a year. "If you go to that same spot now, which I have, what you find is a three orders of magnitude decrease. You might say there are still plenty of frogs, and that's true, but there are 1,000 times fewer frogs," Lannoo says. Swamp draining in the early 20th century killed the commercial frog industry, and later, amphibians suffered from the application of pesticides and the introduction of carnivorous sport fish such as muskies, he says.
The tiger salamander, the most widespread salamander species in the United States, is another example of a once-common species that has declined. Growing up to a foot long, the tiger salamander is secretive, spending most of its time burrowed underground. While still thriving in some areas, tiger salamanders have been eliminated in much of their former range, and a number of studies have documented sharp drops in local populations.
"The biggest factor in amphibian decline is habitat loss and habitat alteration," Lannoo says. "But as a society, the things we're doing almost universally negatively impact amphibians: global warming, ozone depletion, acid rain, applying pesticides, planting non-native species, moving fish around, spreading disease."
Adding these factors together may create the perfect storm that's killing amphibians. Threats to the Ozark hellbender salamander, for example, include habitat loss, overcollection and pollution from man-made chemicals, such as endocrine disruptors. Recently, researchers found some hellbenders infected with chytrid fungus as well.
Tyrone Hayes, the University of California-Berkeley researcher who has studied the impacts of the weed-killing chemical atrazine on frogs, says that environmental chemicals play a significant role in amphibian decline. Hayes led a recently published study that found immune system damage in frogs exposed to a cocktail of nine pesticides commonly used on corn fields. "I would never say atrazine and other pesticides are causing the global amphibian decline, but I do think they're involved by making them more susceptible to diseases that would otherwise not impact them," he says. (Syngenta, a major manufacturer of atrazine, says its studies have not found the herbicide to be harmful to amphibians. "We saw no effect on sexual development, and no effect on the general health of the animal either," says Tim Pastoor, principal science advisor for Syngenta. Although atrazine is banned in some European countries, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency re-approved its use in 2006.)
If amphibians disappear, what then? Lips' work has shown a cascade of effects in the ecosystem. Amphibians sit in the middle of the food web, so when frogs go, it affects both the things they eat and the things that eat them. Tadpoles eat algae and sediment in streams, so if there are no tadpoles, algae grow unchecked and sediment increases, leading to changes in water quality and aquatic insects. Adult frogs eat insects, so if there are no hungry frogs, some insect populations boom. And some snakes depend on frogs for food, so without their prey, those snakes may starve to death.
Amphibians also carry secrets of biomedicine that could be lost forever. Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville have discovered anti-microbial substances in the skin of certain frogs that stopped HIV infection. The Australian red-eyed tree frog had the highest levels of such virus-blocking substances. "Theoretically, there could be some kind of cream developed that could protect against HIV transmission," says Louise Rollins-Smith, a microbiologist who participated in the study.
The other selfish reason for humans to take notice is that frogs and salamanders are telling us something, says Robin Moore, an amphibian specialist at Conservation International who is helping to coordinate the worldwide amphibian conservation plan. "Amphibians are sensitive to change, and may simply be the first to go. They are sounding an alarm, an early warning that the ecosystems in which they live are not healthy," he says. "We do not know what will be next to go—birds, mammals—or us?"
Learn more about the conservation of amphibians.
Sara Shipley Hiles is a freelance writer specializing in environmental topics. She teaches journalism at Western Kentucky University.

Florida Manatee

Ninety-Four Year Old Congressman Arrested for Protesting Big Coal

(For those unfamiliar with it, Mountaintop Removal consists of just that-- the removal of mountaintops (chiefly in West Virginia) to mine coal, an amazingly destructive practice that poisons forests, streams, rivers, and the creatures thereof-- including humans.)
By Byard Duncan, AlterNet

Here's what Jeff Biggers, author of "The United States of Appalachia," is seeing at a peaceful demonstration against mountaintop removal mining in Sundial, WV:
UPDATE: 2:30 EST: 94-year-old Ken Hechler, the legendary West Virginia congressman who has been battling mountaintop removal since 1971 was arrested in a non-violent protest with NASA's celebrated climate scientist James Hansen, actress Daryl Hannah, Michael Brune, the executive director of Rainforest Action Network, and Goldman Prize winner Judy Bonds. Vietnam veteran Bo Webb, and dozens of other coalfield residents were arrested by crossing onto the property of leading mountaintop removal coal mining company, Massey Energy--purposely trespassing to protest the destruction of mountains immediately above the Coal River Valley community.
In the face of recent Obama administration actions to regulate and not abolish mountaintop removal, which has wiped out 500 mountains and destroyed historic communities, the action launched a yearlong national campaign to bring mountaintop removal to an end.

"I am not a politician; I am a scientist and a citizen," said Dr. James Hansen. "Politicians may have to advocate for halfway measures if they choose. But it is our responsibility to make sure our representatives feel the full force of citizens who speak for what is right, not what is politically expedient. Mountaintop removal, providing only a small fraction of our energy, should be abolished."
As a massive turnout of state troopers and hundreds of protesters pour into the Coal River Valley, here is today's scene for the historic nonviolent direct action and march in West Virginia: A 2.8 billion gallon toxic coal sludge impoundment behind the earthen Shumate Dam hovers just a couple of football fields above the Marsh Fork Elementary School, while massive mountaintop removal blasts boom daily within a few feet, and where hundreds of concerned parents, families and citizens from around the country have gathered to call to an end to mountaintop removal--for the sake of the children, the coalfield communities, and the Appalachian mountains.
You can follow Biggers, a HuffPo blogger, here throughout the day.
To find out how you can help stop big coal's abuses, click here.
© 2009 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.View this story online at:

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Rare Whooping Cranes Breed in Wisconsin

(At one time, back in the '40's, there were only about 15 of these magnificent birds left. The movie Fly Away Home demonstrates how the technology of leading birds in an ultralight plane, to re-teach them migration, was first developed. There are now about 600 Whooping Cranes.)

NECEDAH, Wis. — A pair of whooping cranes that produced a chick in 2006 that now migrates between Florida and Wisconsin has done it again.
Experts say the chick hatched June 14 or 15 at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. The existence of the chick wasn't confirmed until last week because of dense vegetation.
Researchers trying to save the endangered cranes have worked for nine years to create the migratory flock. The group Operation Migration has trained the cranes to make the Wisconsin-to-Florida trip by leading them in an ultralight airplane.
The chick born in 2006 was one of two that the parent cranes hatched that year. The other was killed by a predator.
On the Net:
Operation Migration:

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Mulberry Time, Strawberry Time

IT'S THE TIME OF YEAR WHEN THE SEASONS CURVE INTO SUMPTUOUS BOUNTY. Little swollen white knots are appearing in the secret apexes of my cauliflower plants. The woods out back have become impenetrable mysteries, plumbed at night by fireflies. The milkweeds in my front garden are four feet tall and thick with balls of still-unopened blossoms-- any day now and this whole section of Main Street will be drenched in their sweet smell. If you grow it they will come, and butterflies by day and these bizzare hummingbird moths at night go wild around the plants, gorging on its nectar. And, while I don't grow them myself, it's the time of year when the luscious red strawberries (they must be native!) come into season. Pick up a quart at Verill Farms in Concord or Sun Valley Farms in Lexington. Bring them home and let them come to room temperature. Shove your nose into them as if they were a bouquet-- heaven!!!! Eat them with your fingers, then lick your fingers of the juice. It's the only time of year I eat strawberries-- those Chernobyl strawberries from California the size of tennis balls are a very poor substitute.

Which is all by way of speaking about my lunch today. Freshly pulled dandelion greens and baby spinach, in a salad with sliced strawberries, walnuts, and warmed goat cheese-- mmmm mmm good. For dessert, a freshly baked apple cider doughnut with crushed strawberries on top. My oh my. No, it'll be at least anbother month before the queens of the home garden, the tomatoes, are ready, but in the meantime we have our fresh greens and strawberries. That will do! Oh, I've failed to mention the huge and ancient Mulberry tree, just outside my back door, which must be as old as this house (1855). It was trimmed two years ago and I've never seen so many mulberries on it as this year-- the tree is almost drooping with them! The birds know this, and the tree is stiff with our feathered friends in the early mornings, and I sneak out and have my breakfast on the back stoop, with the bird song dripping on down. I harvest only the Mulberry windfalls, and these number in the hundreds, and this afternoon I'm baking a Mulberry tea bread, which tells my tongue that it's mid-June. One of the best things about having a garden is, it grounds you to the cycle of seasons. It isn't a certain day and certain month, burdened with a name and number, but rather-- strawberry time. Mulberry time. Milkweed time. And aren't we the lucky ones, to be alive in the midst of it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Time to Substitute Hemp for Oil

(this is from today's AlterNet News Service)

By Dara Colwell, AlterNet

As the recession renews interest in the growing hemp marketplace as a potential boon for the green economy -- even Fox Business News has touted it -- hemp is becoming impossible to ignore.
But the plant's potential extends far beyond consumer-generated greenbacks. A low-input, low-impact crop, industrial hemp can play a significant role in our desperate shuffle to avoid catastrophic climate change.
"In terms of sustainability, there are numerous reasons to grow hemp," says Patrick Goggin, a board member on the California Council for Vote Hemp, the nation's leading industrial-hemp advocacy group.
Goggin launches into its environmental benefits: Hemp requires no pesticides; it has deep digging roots that detoxify the soil, making it an ideal rotation crop -- in fact, hemp is so good at bioremediation, or extracting heavy metals from contaminated soil, it's being grown near Chernobyl.
Hemp is also an excellent source of biomass, or renewable, carbon-neutral energy, and its cellulose level, roughly three times that of wood, can be used for paper to avoid cutting down trees, an important line of defense against global warming.
When it comes to hemp, environmental gains are inexorably intertwined with economic ones. The auto industry, hardly synonymous with being green but which has had the research dollars to apply new technology, can vouch for Goggin. For years European car makers have been using hemp-fiber-reinforced composite materials to replace fiberglass and in other components, such as door panels or dashboards. And now their American counterparts have joined in.
Blending hemp with plastics is not only cheaper for producers, but natural-fiber composites are roughly 30 percent lighter, which in turn leads to greater fuel efficiency for customers. And when they finally hit the junkyard, those parts partially biodegrade. Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Honda all use this technology.
Now, where there are cars, there's fuel, or these days biofuel, which has become a contentious issue as America fights for energy independence while attempting to combat climate change.
Biofuels -- fuels derived from plants -- actually are nothing new. Rudolph Diesel, who invented the diesel engine, designed his machine to run on peanut oil, and his contemporary, Henry Ford, intended his Model-T to run on ethanol, of which hemp provided the major feedstock until the 1930s. Even Thomas Edison championed bio-based fuels, suspicious of the growing dominance of the petroleum industry, which boomed after America began taxing alcohol -- as both a beverage and a fuel -- to help pay for the Civil War.
To wean ourselves off foreign oil, the U.S. heavily subsidized the corn-based ethanol industry to the tune of $7 billion in 2006, according to zFacts, a Web site run by economist Steve Stoft.
Critics argue that the production of corn-based ethanol is problematic because corn consumes more energy from fossil fuels (such as petrochemical, nitrogen-based fertilizers) than it yields, and its production has a negative impact on the price and availability of edible corn, a staple in countries such as Mexico.
In 2007, because so many farmers north and south of the border switched to growing industrial corn, the price of corn flour in Mexico skyrocketed 400 percent, sending rioters into the streets. People need to eat and to do so, they have to be able to afford food, which begs the question: How green is ethanol when it deprives folk of basic food?
"In reality, corn isn't a viable option," says Goggin, who explains that hemp, which can be grown both as food and fuel -- its seeds, harvested for protein and essential amino and fatty acids, or for oil, which is converted into biodiesel -- has roughly four times the cellulose biomass potential of corn. "Compared to hemp, which can be harvested for multiple purposes, it's very inefficient."
As biomass, hemp can be converted into fuels such as methane, methanol and gasoline, which can help curb the world's growing appetite for palm oil used to make biodiesel, and which is having a colossally negative environmental impact.
In densely populated Indonesia, companies are draining local peat swamps and clearing virgin tropical forests, home to the endangered orangutan, to make room for palm oil plantations. This alone has resulted in 2 billion tons of carbon-dioxide emissions being released into the atmosphere a year, according to the conservation nonprofit Wetlands International.
The same is happening in Brazil's biodiverse cerrado region south of the Amazon, where sugar cane and soy plantations are replacing native vegetation. Deforestation now accounts for 25 percent of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the Global Canopy Program, an alliance of rainforest scientists based in Oxford, England. Tropical forests are essentially the planet's lungs -- and without lungs, well, it's a no-brainer ...
"If all the diesel engines today were converted to use hemp biodiesel, you could wipe out world hunger while providing a natural balance to global warming" says Paul Stanford of the Hemp and Cannabis Foundation, which has worked to end marijuana prohibition and restore industrial hemp.
As hemp, which has a short harvesting period (roughly 120 days for seed), grows it sequesters, or captures, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Because biofuels emit less carbon dioxide when burned, more carbon is actually absorbed by the plants used to produce it. So, as more hemp grows, more carbon dioxide would be sucked out of the atmosphere.
"Growing hemp would improve air quality -- isn't that good enough reason to do it?" says Chris Conrad, a respected authority on cannabis and industrial hemp and who wrote Hemp, Lifeline to the Future. Only Conrad, who also teaches at Oaksterdam University, America's only cannabis college, in Oakland, Calif., knows his question is rhetorical. America is the world's only industrialized nation to prohibit the growing of industrial hemp.
That's because the Drug Enforcement Administration has historically lumped hemp in with marijuana, although the plants are different breeds of Cannabis sativa, just as Great Danes and Chihuahuas are different breeds of Canine familiaris.
While hemp contains minute levels of THC, marijuana's psychoactive ingredient (compare 0.3 in Canadian industrial hemp versus 3-20 for medical marijuana), to get high you would have to smoke a whole field of it -- but you'd probably get a headache first. Still, because marijuana has been the most politicized plant in American history, a history of smear campaigns flaming public hysteria and far too lengthy to address here, hemp hasn't escaped the association with its distant cousin.
In 1937, America passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which criminalized cannabis and levied high taxes ($1 per ounce) on medical marijuana and industrial hemp. Although growing hemp wasn't technically disallowed, the law made it prohibitively expensive, so it fell into decline.
Hemp experienced a short resurgence during World War II, when the government launched an aggressive campaign to grow hemp in the face of a severe fiber shortage. In 1944, the National Farmers Union called for the widest use of hemp within the American market, according to documents on the North American Industrial Hemp Council Web site, for hemp was always considered an essential American crop -- as American as the first pair of Levi's made from hemp fiber in 1849.
But after the war, hemp production again faded away, perhaps because the DEA has always maintained it can't differentiate between industrial hemp and marijuana, a seemingly American shortcoming.
As it stands, we can't grow hemp but we can import it, and we do, in the form of clothing, bath towels, rugs, food and car components from Canada, China and Europe, which have utilized the crop to bolster their economies. Last year, annual hemp retail sales in North America amounted to $300 million.
Our legal quandary has hurt us economically, but the environmental impact is just as great. For example, California, an agricultural giant that nets $36.6 billion dollars a year, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, is the world's 12th-largest carbon emitter and a state with a reputation for being an environmental maverick.
In September 2006, California passed Assembly Bill 32, announcing its compliance with the Kyoto Protocol, a move Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger celebrated by exclaiming, "The global warming debate is over!" But four days later, Schwarzenegger vetoed, for the second time, a bill to legalize the growth of industrial hemp, stating the measure conflicted with federal law.
If California, which grows cotton -- one of the most water and pesticide intensive crops in the world, could legally replace cotton with hemp, it could clean up the environment while supplying the domestic market with a crop that has thousands of applications. In 2005, cotton was worth $630 million to the state (although the industry is shrinking due to globalization). According to "Illegally Green: Environmental Costs of Hemp Prohibition," a report written by analyst Skaidra Smith-Heisters and issued by the Reason Foundation, hemp produces more fiber and uses half the irrigation water and nitrogen fertilizer that cotton does.
"If hemp was freed up of its legal hassles, it would encourage the business climate to implement small-scale solutions, and you would see all kinds of innovation coming from this," says Smith-Heisters.
But until industrial hemp is legalized, innovation will have to come from overseas, or over the Canadian border. "Our lack of infrastructure is a great disgrace. We were once the leader in hemp technology, and we voluntarily absented ourselves from one of the most important global resources that exists," says Conrad. "We'll keep losing and face economic and environmental collapse if we remain afraid of this plant."
Canada, which produces hemp for seeds, and Europe, which mainly produces hemp for fiber, are leading the way. At the end of May, the European Industrial Hemp Association held its sixth annual international conference in Wesseling, Germany, where experts, traders, cultivation consultants and investors met to exchange information about the latest developments concerning hemp. Of the 100 or so participants, less than a handful was American.
"It was disappointing not to see any American officials educating themselves about hemp, the struggles we're facing within the industry or for pure research-and-development purposes," says Anndrea Hermann, vice president of the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance and a Missouri native. Hermann attended the EIHA conference and hopes one day hemp won't be seen as a specialty crop, but as a staple. "The conference was an opportunity to pick great minds."
And with hemp, there's growing opportunity. Among exciting developments is hempcrete, a generic term for hemp-based building material used to replace concrete. In France, which has grown industrial hemp without interruption, hemp plaster is common due to its high insulation properties.
Hemp can be made into almost any building material, including roofing, flooring, paint, insulation pipes and bricks. In addition, hempcrete tends to be stronger and absorb greater humidity while sequestering carbon dioxide. A joint venture with U.K.-based Lime Technology, American Limetec in Chicago is the first American company to distribute hemp-lime materials.
"Europe has already proven it can get the hemp market rolling, that it's viable and that it can be done sustainability. It makes sense for us to do it, too, though it will never happen until we get started -- and we can't until the federal government makes the distinction between hemp and marijuana," says Eric Steenstra, executive director of the Hemp Industries Association, which represents the domestic hemp industry and seeks to educate the public about hemp products. Steenstra says that every man-made fiber we wear or walk in, sit on or drive and fly in, or cook with are by-products of the petroleum industry -- and all of which could feasibly be replaced by hemp.
America seems to be getting closer to getting started. To date, 28 states have introduced hemp legislation, and 15 have passed it -- although that the legislation is not uniform. Some states have authorized studies of industrial hemp and its viability as an industry, some have legalized growing it (although they still face pressure from the DEA over permits) and others have asked the federal government to relax its laws against hemp.
Eight other states (Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia) have removed barriers to its production or research. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has reintroduced the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2009 to the House of Representatives, though what happens with the bill remains to be seen. And now that the Obama administration has announced an end to medical marijuana raids, hemp advocates are hopeful their window of opportunity is finally opening.
"We're getting close to the tipping point, and a large part of that is due to the work the states are doing. They're setting a precedent, which is the federalism our founding fathers dreamt of," says Goggin. Though hemp advocates are aware that America's insufficient infrastructure -- from the lack of processing plants to the dearth of businesses actually using in hemp in their products -- will require a massive coordinated effort, their optimism is growing as they push to get the plant legalized.
"Hemp is not going to solve all our problems, but it is an important piece of the puzzle. Why not use the resources available to assist us in the process of combating climate change?" says Goggin. "To blindly scapegoat and ignore hemp is backward thinking. At this point, we need to be forward thinking."
Dara Colwell is a freelance writer in San Francisco.
© 2009 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.View this story online at:

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

10,000 Bees Land on Plane

(from the Gloucester Daily Times)

Honeybees buzz parked plane at Beverly Airport
By Ethan FormanStaff writer
June 02, 2009 05:45 am—
DANVERS — You've heard of snakes on a plane, but on Sunday there were about 10,000 bees on a plane at Beverly Airport.
A swarm of honeybees landed on the wing of a plane used for flight school training, parked on the tarmac of the airport's west side off Burley Street.
It was the type of landing the owner of Beverly Flight Center, Arne Nordeide, had never witnessed.
"I never saw anything like it," Nordeide said.
Nordeide called Danvers police, who put him in touch with a local bee removal expert, Al Wilkins of Middleton.
Wilkins arrived and used a specially designed vacuum to suck the bees off the wing and from the ground below the plane. Wilkins has relocated the bees to hives where they will produce honey.
"I thought they were crash-landed in the airport," said Wilkins, who has been removing bees from houses and structures since 1978.
Nordeide said the bees were spotted buzzing around the wing of the Piper Warrior aircraft around 11 a.m. This plane does not sit around much — it flies five to six hours a day.
"The plane had already flown around 8 a.m.," Nordeide said, "and all of a sudden, they (the bees) decided to land."
At first, the bees swarmed over the left side of the aircraft, then landed on top of the left wing. The weather was hot, Nordeide said, so that may be why they went under the wing.
At this time of year, Wilkins said, his phone is buzzing with calls to remove bee swarms, which happen when an old queen bee leaves the hive with a group of followers in search of a place to make a new nest. The queen leaves the hive to make way for a new queen about to hatch in special cells inside.
"That's how they propagate," said Wilkins, who estimated the swarm at 10,000.
Wilkins said the windy day may have forced the swarm down as it came across the airport. The queen, who is not used to flying long distances, may have stopped to rest, and the other bees congregated around to protect her. The bees usually have a destination picked out in advance.
Wilkins, the past president of the Essex County Bee Association, and his wife, Linda, live on Mill Street in Middleton, and in April their hives were plundered by a black bear. A motion-activated camera captured an image of the bear milling about their backyard. It destroyed about eight hives, costing them hundreds of dollars.
"This is replacing the hives (the bear) ate," Wilkins said of the bees he picked up in Danvers.
Wilkins, who also raises exotic birds, is not taking any more chances. He has relocated his hives from his yard to a farm in Boxford, to a location in Seabrook, N.H., and to the Essex Agricultural and Technical School in Danvers.
Staff Writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, or by e-mail at
Copyright © 1999-2008 cnhi, inc.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Rare Baby Turtles Released in SW Massachusetts

(from today's Boston Globe)
By Michele Richinick, Globe Correspondent
As part of an ongoing effort to protect endangered species, 138 baby turtles were released into the wild this morning between Pocksha and Great Quittacas ponds in Middleborough.
The Northern Red-Bellied Cooters were removed from the wild last fall and paired with educational and scientific facilities across the state as part of a program called Headstarting, which helps to accelerate growth and reduces the likelihood of death during a turtle’s first year of life.
Each year, participants from Massachusetts schools and nonprofit organizations raise the turtles in warm aquarium environments with unlimited food, which allow them to grow faster and ultimately make them less vulnerable to predators in the wild, officials said."The idea is to give the species a good head start on life," said Lisa Capone, press secretary for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. "It's also a great educational opportunity for the schools and nonprofit groups that take part."
Participants in the program release the turtles into a habitat where there is evidence of existing turtles, said Jason Zimmer, southeast district manager for MassWildlife. A portion of the turtles are always released in Middleborough, but some of the turtles are set free in ponds throughout southeastern Massachusetts.
Originally known as the Plymouth red-belly turtle, Northern Red-Bellied Cooters are listed as endangered species at both the state and federal levels and are found only in southeastern Massachusetts. They are the state’s second largest freshwater turtle, after the snapping turtle. They can grow up to 12 inches and weigh up to 10 pounds, according to the Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program. Hatchlings are usually one inch long and, like adults, they have yellow stripes on the head, neck, and limbs.
Hatchling mortality is high for the species, with intense predation on the eggs by skunks and raccoons. Bullfrogs, wading birds, and predatory fish, like bass and pickerel, also prey on the turtles.
Students from 14 Massachusetts schools and colleges participated in the program, along with Zoo New England, Museum of Science, New England Aquarium, Berkshire Museum of Pittsfield, Buttonwood Park Zoo of New Bedford, National Marine Life Center of Bourne, the South Shore Science Center of Norwell, and the Thornton Burgess Society of Sandwich.