Tag Archives: ecology
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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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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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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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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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.
Text © by Dr Reese Halter 2012. All rights reserved.
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In conversation with one of my mentors — cliff ecologist extraordinaire — Professor Emeritus Douglas Larson, University of Guelph
1. Claim: “I’m allergic to goldenrod”. Response: “Well you might be, but only if wasps and bees fly up your nose!! It is insect pollinated and does not have pollen that blows in the wind. People hate it because they think it causes allergic reactions. It doesn’t. It’s ragweed which has (invisible) green flowers and emerges at the same time. By the way, both are native species to North America! So -so much for biodiversity protection – when we kill these plants!!”
2. Claim: “We’re all acting like lemmings jumping off cliffs!!”. Response: “Lemmings have never committed mass suicide in the Arctic by jumping off cliffs. For one thing, most of the arctic is flat. They would have to walk a long way to find one. For another, Walt and Roy Disney staged an episode of “Worlds of Nature” in 1954 but collecting a half dozen lemmings from the Calgary Zoo. They then tossed them over the bank of the Bow River in Calgary and filmed this over and over again to create an image which has proven indelible. Lemmings DO undergo population oscillations. Lemmings DO NOT want to. And they DON’T commit suicide to help later generations.”
3. Claim: “Strong males have large harems! Response: “When one sees one male with many females, more often than not, it is the females picking the male not the other way around. Women are in charge!! They have the resource in limited supply (eggs). Males and their sperm are in surplus. The thing that looks like a male harem is nothing more than all the women lining for the same hot powerful guy. The guys are basically helpless in this. Get over it and go play hockey so the girls can tell who’s the best!”
4. Claim: “Doctors save lives!”. Response: “Lives cannot be saved and they should not be saved. All doctors do is delay the inevitable. But it is inevitable and it must be inevitable. If people lived forever, then all global resources would already be totally exhausted. It is recycling that permits new populations to live, grow, and evolve. Death fuels life. *So if there is no death, life itself is killed.*
5. Claim: “Global warming will kill the planet!”. Response: “The planet does not care about us. Even global thermonuclear war would not have killed the planet. One would simply select for radiation tolerance plants and animals like lichens and cockroaches. They would make a new planet biosphere. But it would not be killed. Global warming will kill us however. Or at least some of us! So the ultimate irony about climate change denial, is that those people are actually risking their own environment, their own families and their own money.”
6. Claim: “We can feed the world by farming the sea.” Response: “95% of the human diet is composed of three plants: rice, wheat and corn. No algae. Only protein in animals can be farmed in the sea. Because we have so strongly harvested all the wild predatory fish in the sea (food chain lengths are one or two links shorter now than they were 40 years ago), the only sea-protein that we get from the sea might indeed come from fish farms. But the planet will starve if the LAND is not looked after. Corn wheat and rice are land plants.
7. Claim: “We can colonize other planets.” Response: “The resources necessary to get 1000 people off this planet and moved to some other planet would require several times (2x to 5x) the entire GDP of the planet to achieve. Going to Mars or even the moon is a very expensive activity that will be useless in any effort to colonize another world. A tiny fraction of the resources needed to colonize ANOTHER PLANET could make this one indefinitely sustainable inclusive of humans.”
8. Claim.”A new form of human is evolving right now!”. Response: “Biological evolution has been STOPPED by modern medicine. There is no differential survival of phenotypes (forms of things) based on their genes. There can be no biological evolution without differential mortality based on genes. What DOES remain is cultural evolution. We can change our memory genes (memes according to Richard Dawkins) instantly. We are trainable. Even men!!”
9. Claim.”God will look after us.”. Response: “If GOD = luck, then no. Luck is a poor management tool. If GOD = some all knowing being somewhere in space, then no. Too risky to rely on something for which there is NO SHRED OF EVIDENCE OF ITS EXISTENCE. However, if GOD = love, hope, and work. Then yes.
10. Claim.” There is no hope!”. Response:. “Out of perhaps 500 million species that have ever evolved, and out of the 20 or so million still alive, there is only one that is willing to look after anything ANYTHING ANYTHING ANYTHING other than its own survival. Us. When attacked by other species or by the environment, most species will defend their own bodies, will defend their lives, will defend their offspring. Some will defend other members of their own species, only rarely will one see any evidence of any species defending a member of another species. And none other than us will defend habitats, environments, atmospheres, ideas, hopes and dreams. So we are fucking fantastically rare and wonderful. WE ARE HOPE. SO IF YOU LOOK AT #9. IT ALSO MEANS THAT WE ARE GOD………..
LET’S ACT LIKE IT. Professor Emeritus Doug Larson
Text © by Professor Douglas Larson and Dr Reese Halter 2012. All rights reserved.
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