Monday, March 19, 2018

Mammal Monday -- invasive non-native mammals

We're going in a slightly different direction this week.  Usually on Mammal Monday we look at fascinating or endangered mammals.  But sometimes mammals can be what we call "invasive non-natives."  A recent article in the Morning Ag Clips about feral pigs got me thinking about this topic.  Check out this article, which discusses the issue of feral pigs and proposed solutions. 

If you're not familiar with the term invasive non-native species, here's a quick explanation.  Over thousands of years, species in an ecosystem evolve together.  An example of this "co-evolution" would be insects that begin to come out of winter sleep at about the same time that flowers begin to bloom -- this coordination ensures that the insects get nectar for food and that the plants get pollination.  When these native species evolve together, this type of coordination helps the ecosystem remain healthy.

Sometimes, new species that didn't evolve in the ecosystem are introduced.  These species are considered "non-native."  Here in the Chesapeake Bay region, we often consider any species that was introduced after Europeans arrived in the area (let's say the 1600s) to be a non-native.  Some non-natives stay where they're planted and really don't cause much trouble -- plants such as roses, tomatoes, and tulips are non-natives.  Sure, non-native species may not be the greenest option, since they require more water or fertilizer than natives and often don't provide food sources to native species, but they aren't quite the problem that their cousins the "non-native invasive" are.

Non-native invasive species are plants or animals that are introduced into an ecosystem and quickly begin to outcompete native species.  They may be a predator that eats everything in sight, such as the northern snakehead (see video below), or they could be a plant that outcompetes and kills other plants in the area (check your backyard for English ivy).  Common non-native invasives include house sparrows and kudzu, but there are many, many more.  And these species aren't just an ecological nuisance; they can have major economic impacts.  Kudzu and bamboo can cost homeowners substantial amounts once it gets into their landscaping, and the invasive stink bug has already cost mid-Atlantic apple farmers millions of dollars in crop losses.  The invasive emerald ash borer currently threatens ash trees.  Why is that an issue?  Think about America's past time -- wooden baseball bats are mostly made of ash wood. Zebra mussels were first introduced in the Great Lakes region, but have spread throughout the U.S.  The Missouri Department of Conservation estimates that this small mollusk, responsible for clogging water intake pipes and power plant pipes, fouling boat hulls, and displacing native species, will cost the U.S. billions of dollars by the end of this decade. 

But when we talk about mammal invasive non-natives (and yes, birds and fish too), animal lovers like me start to feel a little agita.  On the one hand, we don't want to allow the ecological damage caused by non-natives, but on the other hand we don't want to see animals hurt or killed, although we know these organisms must be removed to protect native habitat.  So what can a greenmomster do?  First off, never set an unwanted pet (such as a snake or fish) loose into the environment.  Check with a local nature center for proper ways to find them new homes.  Second, try to encourage native plants and animals by choosing native plants for landscaping.  Eradicating non-native species, particularly mammals like the nutria or feral pigs is a tough business.  Prevention is our best, and most humane, weapon against non-native invasive species.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Meat-free for St. Patrick's Day!

Potato and Cabbage Soup
  • 1 small head of cabbage, coarsely chopped into 1 to 2 inch squares
  • 6 yukon gold potatoes, peeled and chopped into 2 inch cubes
  • 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2  tablespoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons fresh thyme (about 1 1/2 tablespoons if you’re using dried thyme)
  • 4 cups vegetable broth
  • 2 cups water (I used a little more)
  1. Melt the butter in a large soup pot and saute the onion, potatoes, salt, and pepper for about 5 minutes
  2. Add vegetable broth and water; boil until the potato is just soft enough to mash.
  3. Using a hand potato masher, mash the potatoes in the soup until half the potatoes are mashed and half are still in chunks.  If you really like a smooth soup, instead of hand-mashing, use a blender to puree about half the soup.
  4. Add cabbage and thyme; cook until cabbage is soft.
  5. Makes about 4 servings.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Turtles rock!

I just got back from a little college touring in NC and VA.  I always enjoy going to new places and discovering murals or other public art.  Duke University is known for its beautiful chapel and gothic architecture, but here's what caught my eye at the student center:

Nothing like a turtle in a spring snowstorm!  Want to learn a little more about turtles?  Check out this previous post.

Friday, March 9, 2018

I know it's meat-free Friday, but.....


I just had to share this interesting factoid!  Are you familiar with Canada geese?  You probably are, because they're found in many parts of the U.S. and have even become a resident species in many areas.  But look a little more closely at the flock next time -- you may see a cackling goose in the midst of the Canada geese.  This newly recognized species of goose (since 2004) looks like a small Canada goose, but is less common.  Here's some great information from the Audobon society on the differences between the two geese species.

Still wanting your meat-free Friday recipe?  Here's an oldie, but a goodie! Yukon Gold Potato Soup -- enjoy!

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Menhaden update -- the little keystone species with big impact

Menhaden are a "keystone" species in the Chesapeake Bay.  That means that they have a larger impact on their ecosystem than would be expected by their numbers -- they basically hold the food chain together, feeding larger species and eating smaller ones (algae).  For more info, check out my previous post on this little fish.

I read today that the Virginia General Assembly decided not to pass an important set of protections for this fish.  Here's the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's summary:

A critical piece of legislation to protect menhaden has failed to advance in Virginia's General Assembly.
This common-sense and necessary bill would have made required updates to Virginia's menhaden management plan to ensure a healthy menhaden population for years to come. The health of the Bay's ecology and economy depend on this fish. By not passing this legislation, Virginia has missed an opportunity to support better management of the menhaden resource and all the businesses that depend on a strong menhaden population.
While this is a setback, we are hopeful Virginia finds a path to remain in compliance with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's (ASMFC) menhaden management plan. Fish don't follow state lines, so the ASMFC process is critical for states to work together on managing fisheries. If Virginia ignores that collaborative process, it would open itself up to possible sanctions and set a dangerous precedent that threatens good fisheries management all along the Atlantic Coast.

Thank you for your support in this fight. An overwhelming number of residents and businesses expressed support for the latest menhaden management plan. With you by our side, we will not rest in our efforts to protect this critical species in Virginia.
Chris Moore
Senior Regional Ecosystem Scientist
Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

In defense of zoos

I just signed up to, once again, volunteer at the National Zoo -- this time in the Bird House.  Unlike 20 years ago, when I attended some exhibit-specific training and learned from the keepers, volunteering at the zoo now involves background checks and shots!  But I'm finished with the prelims and looking forward to starting my try-out period!  Since I've been thinking a lot about zoos lately, I thought I'd re-post about zoos:

An article in Conservation Magazine reported on research that suggests that, while zoos play an important role in conservation and species protection, they might want to try to better coordinate their efforts – more bang for the buck.  This report made me think about why it is I still love zoos.  Here’s an earlier post on the topic:
I’ve often heard people say, “I hate going to zoos.  It’s so cruel to keep the animals in cages.”  Recently, there have been news stories regarding the mistreatment of crocodiles by zoogoers in China.  Since I love going to the zoo, these statements and news storiesDSC_0144trouble me, and I rethink whether zoos should exist in our modern world.  Truth be told, I’d prefer to see zoos that don’t concentrate heavily on the “charismatic megafauna” – lions and tigers and bears, oh my!  I’d rather see animals like invertebrates, Amazonian exhibits where we work to see the sloth in a tree, or birds flying freely in large enclosures.  But let’s be honest, most folks won’t visit the zoo unless they can see an elephant or a tiger or a panda.  Despite this difference of opinion on the ideal fauna for a zoo, I believe that, when the animals are treated in humane conditions, zoos do indeed have an important role to play in today’s society.  Here’s why:
  • I’ve never seen one of those!  Most of us will not be able to travel to the Galapagos or Kenya to encounter wildlife in its native habitat.  Zoos are often the only place where people can encounter and appreciate animals other than pets and farm animals.  Schools often do not allow animals in the building and field trips to observe local wildlife are pretty much non-existent.  As Richard Louv states in his bookLast Child in the Woods, “In the patent-or-perish environment of higher education, we see the death of natural history as the more hands-on disciplines, such as zoology, give way to more theoretical and remunerative microbiology and genetic engineering.”  The zoo is one of the last homes of environmental and zoological education.  At the zoo we can hear a lion’s roar, feel a sea urchin in the invertebrate house touch tank, smell the musky smell of the maned wolf during breeding season, and even be splashed as the seals and sea lions dive into cold water.
  • What?  I can help out?  Zoos are a great volunteer opportunity for people interested in learning more than can be taught in a short weekend visit.  I was a volunteer at the Smithsonian National Zoo for over 5 years, first atbeautiful swimmer the Invertebrate House and then at the Conservation Research Center in Front Royal.  What a great experience!  Under the guidance of expert zookeepers and curators, I learned about animals as varied as the octopus, the hissing cockroach, the Przewalski horse, and the leaf-cutter ant.  I helped feed many of the animals, cleaned their tanks and enclosures, taught zoo visitors about the animals, mourned the loss of old animal friends, and celebrated new births at the zoo.  For an aspiring Dr. Doolittle, it just doesn’t get any better than that!
  • The modern ark.  Zoos serve as a last preserve for animals that have either disappeared in the wild or are in danger of going extinct.  Zoos host breeding programs for many of the world’s most endangered species.  The Smithsonian National Zoo sponsors breeding programs for the Guam rail, scimitar-horned oryx, black-footed ferret, maned wolf, and the Panamanian golden frog, just to name a few.  Scientists and students from around the world come to study the latest captive breeding techniques, as well as field biology methods for surveying animals in the wild. 
Many, although not all, of today’s zoo animals were born and bred in captivity, or cannot be returned to the wild because of injury.  When a zoo is well-maintained (see accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums) and animals live in stimulating, enriching environments, I believe zoos have much to offer.  Why not visit and support your local zoo this weekend?
Conde D.A., Colchero F., Gusset M., Pearce-Kelly P., Byers O., Flesness N., Browne R.K. & Jones O.R. 2013. Zoos through the Lens of the IUCN Red List: A Global Metapopulation Approach to Support Conservation Breeding Programs., PLoS ONE, PMID: 24348999
Goldman, J.G. 2014.  Is Conservation Work in Zoos too Random?  in Conservation Magazine 1/22/14.  Accessed 1/23/14 at
Louv, R.  2008. Last Child in the Woods.  Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.  ISBN-13: 9781565126053.  390 pp.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Mammal Monday -- pygmy hippos!

This week I'm reposting about an endangered mammal:  pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis), which is listed as endangered on the IUCN red list.  Only a hippo could be considered the “pygmy” of its species at 350-600 lbs!  This shy, solitary, nocturnal animal is found in western Africa, where it lives in forests near streams.  Similar to the larger hippo, pygmy hippos can shut their eyes and ears underwater, but their feet are not as webbed as their larger cousins.  The pygmy hippo is a vegetarian that has a stomach with four chambers to help break down cellulose found in the plants it eats.  Here’s an interesting factoid:  the pygmy hippo wanders through its range, following well-defined trails, spreading its feces by spinning its tail while defecating.  Hippos even have hairs with split ends on their tails to assure maximum “fling” of its feces!  Pygmy hippos reach sexual maturity at around 4 to 5 years of age, and gestation lasts about 6 months. The young cannot walk at first, so the mother hides the young in streamside vegetation while she feeds. 

The major threat to pygmy hippos is habitat loss due to logging, farming, and other human development, as well as political instability in the region.  This fact answers the question, “Why should we care if pygmy hippos are endangered?”  Because if they’re declining because of loss of forests and streams, that means every animal, including humans, that depends on forests and streams is also impacted.  Forest habitats help to store and clean water, as well as provide homes for many species in the local food chain. 

See a baby pygmy hippo take her first swim! 

Lewison, R. & Oliver, W. (IUCN SSC Hippo Specialist Subgroup) 2008. Choeropsis liberiensis. In: IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.2. <>. Downloaded on 10 November 2012.
San Diego Zoo.  2012.  Mammals:  Pygmy Hippopotomus.  Accessed 11/10/2012.  2006.  Hippo Singing the Lion Sleeps Tonight.  Accessed 11/10/2012.