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NATURE'S BLUEPRINT

Tag Archives: ecology

Jason

Dragonflies and their ancestors have survived on Earth for over 300 million years. Fossils show that ancient dragonflies had wing-spans of over 28 inches (70 centimeters). Today there are more than 80 different species that occur throughout the West.

The name dragonfly comes from the Greek word for tooth, likely because of their very impressive chewing mouthparts. Dragonflies are harmless to humans. They have an unwarranted reputation that has instilled fear into people.

There are about 5,500 different species of dragonflies worldwide. Some are as colorful as birds and butterflies with iridescent, metallic green and crimsons.

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a bird's eye view

Costa Rican forests are teaming with biological diversity. There are four exquisite forest types found in Costa Rica: clouds forests, Caribbean rainforests, Pacific rainforests and dry forests.

Costa Rica has an area of over 19,691 square miles (51,000 square kilometers), it is smaller than Nova Scotia. Yet, it contains an awesome diversity of animal and plant life.

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Devil's Postpile, California

Story ran in Huffington Post September 20, 2010

The common raven, the world’s largest crow, is one of the cleverest birds on the planet. One of 113 birds in a group called Corvids, its intelligent qualities are comparable to human beings and attributable to what ravens have learned from their parents.

Contrary to the cursory glance – which, at best, most people afford the raven – they aren’t black. Rather, they have a greenish, blue or purple sheen. A full-grown raven can weigh almost 4.5 pounds.

They are expressive, with a combination of voice patterns, feather erections and body positions. They communicate anger, affection, hunger, curiosity, playfulness, fright and incredible boldness.

How is it possible to achieve all these qualities?

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Giant Squid filmed in Pacific, January 8, 2013

Giant squids measuring in excess of 60 feet and weighing a whopping 1,275 pounds are the most mysterious and the least known gigantic critter on Earth.

Cephalopods – from the Greek “head-footed” – have at least eight arms, and this includes all octopuses; cuttlefishes and squids have two additional tentacles that they can shoot out to capture prey. Chambered nautilus – the most primitive of all living Cephalopods have as many as 90 arms.

There are 40 genera of squids with somewhere between 600 and 700 species. All are equipped with claws, hooks, suckers, giant axons and complex lidless eyes similar to “higher” vertebrates (animals with spines), sharp beaks like parrots and some have lights all over them.

All squids have suckers on their arms and tentacles, some possess retractable claws and most are outfitted with fearsome toothed rings.

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Story ran in Huffington Post September 30, 2010

There are billions upon billions of creatures in the 7-mile deep oceans. Amongst them live the supremely graceful, beautifully designed, super-predator and most feared animal on Earth – Carcharodon carcharias or great white shark.

Of the 368 species of shark great whites are the most awesome and dangerous, and the largest game fish in the world.

Great white sharks are not the largest fish or the largest shark. The largest shark is a whale shark, a tropical plankton eater. Great whites, however, are considerably larger and heavier than any other predator shark.

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The best thing about summer is going outdoors. The west-coast is a magical place for hiking with your family or friends and it’s exceptional camping country too.

In 1986, Wayne Topolewski – a classmate in Forestry at University of British Columbia and I visited the westside of Vancouver Island about 12 miles northwest of Port Renfrew in search of massive Sitka spruce.

We hiked into the Carmanah Valley an extremely lush rainforest, which receives almost 13 feet of rainfall each year, and marveled at what we found; the biggest trees we’d ever seen. We measured some and they were equivalent to 30-storey sky-scrappers.

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Cali juniper

Trees are the most successful, long-lived forms of vegetation on our planet. Some are tall like the redwoods or massive like Sequoias while others are exceptional water conservationists.

Pinyon pines fall into the latter category as they have carved out a niche on the edge of deserts occupying an astounding range of over 75,000 square miles in the American southwest.

The Spanish named them pinyon or nut-bearing pines because of their very large, wingless seeds. Pinyon seeds are popular in salads and pesto.

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The monarch of the wilderness giant coastal grizzly bears depend upon salmon in order to bulk-up and hibernate for over 6 months of the year. In turn, the nitrogen from the salmon carcasses is crucially important for the streamside vegetation which re-absorbs it and keeps the circle of life spinning.

Recently, while traveling on the eastern seaboard I was asked by school children where the most remarkable remaining wild forests in North America were located? My answer: British Columbia.

The land base of British Columbia is astounding 209 million acres and it contains picturesque fjords, jagged peaks, glaciers and more than 70 percent of the 409 species of birds and 163 species of mammals known to breed in Canada – it’s biologically rich; and the critters depend upon forests for their habitat.

In fact, globally forests recycle rain, create oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide, hold soils in place and control the flow of water to our rivers, which in many cases feed our oceans. Ultimately, forests provide us with the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink and over 7,000 medicines to keep us healthy.

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California Lutheran University Climate Change student assessment of Earth Dr Reese Halter's class

The amazing whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) reach ages in excess of 1,000 years old. It lives in the harsh environs of the Rocky Mountains and has cooperatively co-evolved with a bird – known for its extraordinary memory – called the Clark’s nutcracker.

White bark pines can reach heights of 65 feet, but more usually they are recognized as a stunted multi-stemmed tree. Named after its whitish bark with scaly plates on older trees, its needles grow in bundles of five and egg-shaped, sticky-with-resin purple cones, take two years to ripen. The wingless seeds are large and filled with high concentrations of fats and proteins. Cones mature in late August, but do not open widely enough for the seeds to fall out. If the seeds over-winter in the ripened cones, by springtime they become moldy and turn rancid. So how does viable seed get out of white bark pine cones?

Clark’s nutcrackers belong to the 113-member group called the Corvids. Corvids have unusually large brains compared to all the other 10,000 bird species. They eat some insects and occasionally a bit of carrion.  But it’s their chisel-like bills that are specially adapted to ripping into white bark pinecones and with precision extracting the large protenacious seeds. These seeds, as a primary food source, enable the throaty squawks of resident Clark’s nutcrackers to live year-round in the otherwise inhospitable environment of the Rocky Mountain alpine (above tree line).

This is a story of a mutual relationship between bird and pine, offering insight into the marvels of Mother Nature. Together, Clark’s nutcrackers and white bark pines build high elevation ecosystems.

Nutcrackers start to feed on white bark pine seeds in mid-August. They chisel into the purple, pulpy cones and extract seeds, one at a time. They store the seeds in a sublingual pouch in the floor of their mouth, underneath the tongue. This pouch can hold as many as 80 seeds. The August and September seed harvest must sustain the birds and their offspring, for the coming 10 months.

The Clark’s nutcrackers then carefully deposit the seeds, one at a time and up to 15, 1 inch deep into the soil. Occasionally these caches are close to the tree where the harvest took place, but more often it’s up to 6 miles away. Seeds are buried in open areas and in recently burned-over high-elevation forests. Some of those openings remain windswept during the long winter months. Others can have over six feet of snow covering the cache and I have observed Clark’s nutcrackers burrowing into deep snowpacks to retrieve white bark seeds.

One bird can cache up to 98,000 seeds in over 30,000 sites. About half those seeds will be recovered by Clark’s nutcrackers. Multi-stemmed white bark pines denotes a cache was not retrieved and that several or more seeds sprouted at the same time and have grown together.

How does the Clark’s nutcracker locate all of its caches? Experiments have clearly demonstrated that these birds, like other Corvids, have excellent memories and in fact remember where they placed the seeds. They use a system of triangulation to reference where caches are located. That is, they use a tree, stump, rock, log or other landmark and remember the angles between the caches. Their memories, especially long-term, are remarkable, since they are able to recover seeds some 10 months after storing them. They must also use other cues to assist them because snow modifies the landscape.

White bark pine seeds are also an important food source for ground squirrels that also live full-time in the alpine of the Rocky Mountains. They too harvest the cones and take them to large caches called middens. In addition, ground squirrels raid Clarks’ caches and relocate seeds.

In the autumn and occasionally the springtime, black and grizzly bears raid ground squirrels middens. I have watched bears gingerly extracting the delectable white bark seeds. Prior to hibernation a sow must add about 7 inches of fat around her tummy or 99 pounds of body weight, in order to give birth – while she’s hibernating – to cubs. So the white bark pine seed is a very important food source for many different big and small alpine and subalpine animals.

Soon after the spring snow-melt, white bark pine seeds germinate and grow 8 inches deep tap roots. White bark pines require full sunlight – they are shade intolerant and cannot grow under other trees. White bark pines change the micro-climate, causing warmer winter and cooler summer under their cover. Over time, openings along the high elevation landscape are filled in by white bark pines and clumps of young trees form new forests high in the mountains.

In time, Englemann spruce, which require some shade, seeds itself into the under-story of the white bark pine forests. Other tree species like subalpine fir follow soon thereafter.

Some trees die young and their wood serves as a decomposing base to feed bacteria, fungus and wood boring insects, which assist in the breaking down of wood and making new soils. Other, like old white bark pines, become victims to pine bark beetles and die but remain standing upright for another 100 years. Woodpeckers, nutcrackers and other cavity-nesting birds use these trees for roosting and nesting. These forests are occasionally used by big game animals like mule deer. In the autumn, finches, siskins and crossbills forage in the Englemann spruce treetops.

In the wild, Clark’s nutcrackers can live for 12 years. They can fly at speeds of 30 miles per hour carrying a load of seeds than can exceed 20 percent of their body weight, for distances up to two miles. About 22 species of high elevation pines worldwide depend on a dozen or so Corvids to help disseminate their seeds, create forests and habitats for many animals.

Eventually, one hot and muggy summer afternoon a bolt of lightning ignites the forest. The assiduous Clark’s nutcracker will return to replant the forest, feed other animals, and recreate the tenacious forested mountain ecosystems of Rocky Mountains.

Australia, Radio 1, National, Overnight: Superstorm Sandy

Australia, Radio 1, National, Overnight: Bees and our Environment

West Coast Truth, Radio: State of our Bees

Australia, Radio 1, National, Overnight: Great Barrier reef in Trouble

Australia, Radio 1, National, Overnight: Protecting our Oceans

Australia, Radio 1, National: Ockham’s Razor

Save the Oceans

Oceans Dying

Bees helping humankind

Save our Florida corals

Operation Bee founder testimonial

Earth Dr Reese Halter is an award-winning broadcaster and distinguished biologist. His latest books are The Insatiable Bark Beetle and The Incomparable Honeybee

Contact Earth Dr Reese Halter

Text © by Dr Reese Halter 2012. All rights reserved.

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Organ Pipe National Monumnet

The mercurial ground-dwelling roadrunner of the arid southwest U.S. is inquisitive, quarrelsome, funny, serious, playful, caring and — above all — fearless.

Because of its hunting antics, physical characteristics and general attitude toward life, the roadrunner, a member of the cuckoo family, has been given many different names including: chaparral cock, lizard-eater, snake-eater, paisano (Spanish for compatriot or fellow countryman) and corre camino (Spanish for runs the road).

Known to millions of children worldwide because of Warner Brothers cartoons, this diminutive critter is awesome. The roadrunner’s entire length is about 20 inches, half of which is its tail feather usually carried at an upward angle. The long stout legs stride at about three-and-a-half inches when walking and the gait stretches to over 18 inches when it reaches a top end running speed of over 16 miles per hour.

Both sexes have a buff colored underside with a mixture of black, bronze and buff feathers on the breast. Backs and tails are black and white with blue-green and bronze iridescence. Both possess powerful beaks with a crest on the top of their head and an iridescent patch of skin behind each eye.

When the roadrunner’s curiosity is aroused, the black and bronze-green crest feathers are raised and lowered constantly. The paisano is also known for its zygodactyl feet, which feature two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing backward. When viewing the tracks it is difficult to determine in which direction the bird is going. Native Americans considered this bird to be very spiritual and placed its tracks around the house of a deceased person. This, as the folklore has it, confused the evil spirits as to which direction the spirit of the dead had taken.

The other characteristics that Native Americans revered were the bird’s strength, endurance and fearlessness in hunting rattlesnakes.

Roadrunners are mostly carnivorous resorting only to eating prickly pear apples and sumac berries only during food shortages. Most of their diet consists of a large variety of insects ranging from locusts, grasshoppers, moths, centipedes, scorpions, millipedes, tarantulas, ant worms, spiders, and bumblebees. Though the alacrity with which the beak moves, this speedster is able to pickoff dragonflies and hummingbirds in midair.

Roadrunners also regularly eat mice, baby rabbits, horned lizards (which spit venomous blood from their eyes!), spotted whiptail lizards, garter-snakes and rattlesnakes. Usually these snake-eaters will not successfully take on diamondbacks larger than 26 inches. Sheer speed and hunting prowess enables the paisano to encircle, like a matador, and leap like a kangaroo over the top of the the rattlesnake until it finally catching the exhausted snake by its head and throwing it into the sky. This intrepid bird will continue to bash the rattlesnake on the ground, rocks, or sticks for at least 15 minutes until its prey is lifeless.

Another interesting hunting technique that roadrunners use is to drop their wings and take several steps before stopping. This is done with precision to flush insects or lizards from their hiding places.

Roadrunners are perfectly designed for the heat of the American southwest. Their nasal glands eliminate excess salt instead of using its urinary tract like most birds. They reabsorb water from their feces before excretion. During extreme summer heat adults spread their wings to allow air to flow between their open layers exposing the down of the feathers, in addition this bird will also pant to release heat.

Roadrunners are preyed upon by hawks, feral cats, raccoons, bobcats, skunks, coyotes, and during the winter they can freeze due to snap ice winter storms. And they often are found as road kill.

Roadrunners have at least 16 different calls including cooing emitted during courtship, whines by females during nest building in mesquite trees, hmms when adults enter the nest area to feed fledglings, and its most common sound, a clattering made when they rapidly rub their upper and lower mandibles together.

Like orcas rubbing their bellies on the pebble shoreline of southwest British Columbia, roadrunners enjoy dust bathing or “anting” when they come across a location where soft dirt is just right for this frivolous behavior. This remarkable little critter has adapted to and accepted human activity within its home range. It is no wonder the roadrunner was chosen to be the state bird of New Mexico.

Any creature willing to face the deadly stare of a rattlesnake, often killing the reptile only after dodging its repeated strikes, is worthy of admiration and praise.

West Coast Truth, Radio: State of our Bees

Australia, Radio 1, National, Overnight: Great Barrier reef in Trouble

Australia, Radio 1, National, Overnight: Protecting our Oceans

Australia, Radio 1, National: Ockham’s Razor

Save the Oceans

Oceans Dying

Bees helping humankind

Save our Florida corals

Grade 3 scientists Saving the Bees

Operation Bee founder testimonial

Earth Dr Reese Halter is an award-winning broadcaster and distinguished biologist. His latest books are The Insatiable Bark Beetle and The Incomparable Honeybee

Contact Earth Dr Reese Halter

Text © by Dr Reese Halter 2012. All rights reserved.

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