Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Welland Canal ... and other thoughts about lamprey

Today marks the anniversary of two events with lasting implications for the natural history of large freshwater lakes in eastern North America. On this day in 1824, ground was broken for the construction of the Welland Canal, intended to become a bypass around Niagara Falls and allow cargo ships to move freely from Lake Ontario (which has direct access to the Atlantic Ocean) into Lake Erie (which then allows access to the North American interior as far west as Duluth, Minnesota).

And on this day in 1829, the Welland Canal was completed. Although it was modified on a series of occasions over the next several years, it was on this date that free movement upstream from the St. Lawrence River into the heart of the continent became possible. And not just for ships, mind you, but for everything else that lived in Lake Ontario.

Unfortunately, this also meant Sea Lamprey (Petromyzon marinus). Sea Lamprey are one of a handful of jawless fish that feed as adults as ectoparasites, attaching to the bodies of thin-scaled bony fish (such as Lake Trout), rasping wounds with "toothed" oral muscles, and feeding on body fluids seeping out of the wounds. Sea Lamprey, native to Lake Ontario but unknown from Lake Erie westward, colonized the interior lakes through the Welland Canal. Over the course of about 100 years, their populations grew to the point where they had decimated many of the inland cold-water fisheries, causing enough damage to inspire a massive control program.

The life cycle of Sea Lamprey is complex. Adults swim up certain rivers and streams to lay their eggs. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae settle down where the sediment is sandy-to-silty, burrowing tail first with only their mouths and gill chambers exposed into the water. Here they live for several years as filter feeders before eventually metamorphosing into ectoparasitic adults and migrating downstream to a larger body of water (such as Lake Erie).

The only control method that seemed to be effective was the use of a chemical, 3-trifluoromethyl-4-nitrophenol, aka TFM. When applied into the water of the breeding rivers and streams, TFM killed the filter-feeding larvae. (While much debate swirled around the use of TFM, there is no debating its effectiveness at controling lamprey.) By the early 1960s, more than 130 years after the completion of the Welland Canal, the controlled use of TFM final brought lamprey populations under control in the Great Lakes.

The Welland Canal. Another example of unintended ... and long-term ... consequences.

Postscript: I can't help but add a coda to this story. The success of controling Sea Lamprey in the Great Lakes with TFM has been used to justify the control of Sea Lamprey in Lake Champlain, a large freshwater lake on the border of eastern New York and western Vermont whose outlet connects to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence River. By the 1980s, lamprey attackes on freshwater fish in Lake Champlain had grown so severe that a coalition of federal, state, and special interest group advocates successfully lobbied for a TFM program in lamprey breeding rivers flowing into the lake. The primary argument was that Sea Lamprey entered Lake Champlain following the contruction of the Champlain Canal, connecting Lake Champlain southward to the Hudson River, in 1823. Thus, just as Sea Lamprey were successfully controlled with TFM in Lake Erie following their accidental establishment, so too should Sea Lamprey be controlled with TFM in Lake Champlain. What worked for controlling an exotic species in one location could and should be used to control the same exotic in another location.

There's just one problem with that concept. Sea Lamprey are not exotics in Lake Champlain.

They are irrefutably native, and the ability of agencies to shape public and court opinion to the contrary is a marvelous example of the power of words to create perception, and the risks of not knowing enough about the natural history of one's region.

Prior to the explosion of Sea Lamprey in Lake Champlain in the 1970s and 80s, they were typically described as a native species. This language began to change, however, as their effect on game fish like Lake Trout increased. Press releases and government brochures began to describe Sea Lamprey as "native, or possibly exotic," then as "exotic, but possibly native," and then as simply "exotic." When asked to justify the conclusion that they are exotic, the answer typically invoked the argument that they were not recorded in Lake Champlain until after the completion of the Champlain Canal. Interesting correlation, but hardly evidence of causation, given how little was recorded about the natural history of aquatic ecosystems in Vermont and New York prior to the 1840s.

In any event, now that the Sea Lamprey was "officially" an exotic species, it became justifiable to wage chemical warfare on them. Afterall, they were exotic, and shouldn't be there in the first place. The fact that TFM is also lethal to other forms of aquatic life, including the rare aquatic salamander called the mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus) was unfortunate, but that's just the price that needed to be paid to control this exotic pest.

Of course, if one REALLY wanted to learn whether or not Sea Lamprey were native or exotic to Lake Champlain, one could easily imagine a simply study that could answer this question. In fact, the study is so simple and so obvious that generations of my students, when posed with the question of how to determine the Sea Lamprey's status, always came up with the answer within 5-10 seconds: make a genetic comparison of Sea Lamprey from Lake Champlain with those in Lake Ontario and the Hudson River. Surprisingly, it wasn't until 2005 until someone thought to make such a comparison. And completely unsurprisingly, at least to me and many others, the results conclusively showed that the Lake Champlain populations of Sea Lamprey are too distinct from those in the Hudson River to have been recent colonists, but rather, were native.

Of course, the response of the pro-lamprey control lobby was predictable. When confronted with evidence that their straw-man argument was false, they began the rhetorical side-step shuffle. "Well," they said, "it really doesn't matter whether they are native or exotic. They still need to be controlled."

In fact, that may well be true. Blind warfare against exotics and blind acceptance of natives no matter what the circumstances are both foolish propositions.

What has my BVDs in a bunch on this issue is not that state and federal agencies would try and control a native species. Its that by ignoring the real natural history of this species ... and in fact manipulating the perception of the natural history of this species ... these agencies blinded themselves to looking at what was really going on. The search for the cause of the lamprey's increased depredation in game fish was derailed from the start: they were exotic, end of story. By not knowing the truth, simplistic solutions (dump poisons into the rivers) could be promoted and enacted without serious exploration of the real causes. Yes, the increased rate of depredation was real. I don't doubt that. But unless the true status of lamprey is recognized, then the critical question could never be asked: If Sea Lamprey are native, why is the rate of depredation increasing now?

I don't know the answer to that question, nor at this point does anyone else. Have we critically altered the biotic communities in the lake? Altered sedimentation or nutrient loading via rivers and streams? Altered influx of air-borne pollutants? All of the above? Something else entirely? Only future work will untimately answer these questions.

My point is this: We could never answer these questions until we asked them. And we could never ask them until we got the natural history right.

So perhaps the biologists who now say that it doesn't matter whether or not the Sea Lamprey are exotic are right, but only on a superficial level. It matters a great deal when it comes to asking the right questions.

Earlier in this post I mentioned that the fact that Sea Lamprey are native was unsurprising. You might well ask why. It is simply this: Geologists have known for decades that up until about 10,000 years ago, Lake Champlain was actually a salt-water arm of the Atlantic Ocean called the Champlain Sea. This sea drained and became a small freshwater lake only after two millennia had passed since the retreat of the last glacial ice sheet from this area and the Earth's crust could finally rebound in elevation. Ten thousand years ago this region not only had open access to the Atlantic Ocean, it was the Atlantic Ocean. Sea Lamprey had to have been present, and no rational argument has ever been advanced as to how they could have been wiped out only to successfully recolonize via the Champlain Canal.

Natural history is not just telling Just So Stories about nature. It's knowing the history of where one lives. That history is written in the rocks; it's written in each species' genome; it's written in the landscape carved by glaciers, cut by axes, and broken by plows. Ignore any part of that history and not only will you fail to find the correct answers, but you will fail to even ask the correct questions.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Quote of the day

Where do the highest mountains come from? I once asked. Then I learned that they come from out of the sea. The evidence is inscribed in their stone and in the walls of their summits. It is from the deepest that the highest must come to its height.

Friedrich Nietzsche, in Also Spracht Zarathustra (1883-91)

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Keeping an eye on mercury

Mercury kills, and its presence in the environment is an indicator of potential trouble on the horizon for all species, including humans. Anthony DePalma reports in the NYT on a study recently released by the BioDiversity Research Institute on increased levels of mercury in Bald Eagles in the Catskill Mountains region of New York.

We've known for quite a few years that mercury was a problem in the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada. Charlie Driscoll and his colleagues, working under the umbrella of the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation, reviewed the existing data on mercury deposition in the Northern Appalachian ecoregion and showed that mercury levels here routinely exceed human and wildlife health thresholds. Chris Rimmer, at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, and his colleagues reported in the journal Ecotoxicology in 2005 that even an upland species like Bicknell's Thrush, which inhabits high elevation forests in the Northern Appalachians during the breeding season, has levels of mercury in its blood in excess of accepted health thresholds.

The presence of mercury in a species like Bicknell's Thrush is particularly disturbing. While still not acceptible, mercury in Bald Eagles is at least understandable. Ionic forms of mercury deposited in aquatic ecosystems are converted into methylmercury (a form that causes severe neurological damage and death) by bacteria; methylmercury is then bioaccumulated up through the aquatic food chain and eventually gets incorporated into the tissues of Bald Eagles, which eat a lot of fish.

But Bicknell's Thrush? Either this upland songbird eats far more aquatic insect larvae than previously understood (and methylmercury is bioaccumulating in these short-lived insects to a much greater extent than previously believed) or there are terrestrial pathways from ionic mercury to methylmercury that we don't fully understand, which means that more species are susceptible to mercury poisoning than we thought.

Either way, it's not good news. And neither is the fact that mercury levels are on the rise.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Quote of the day

Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.

Attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Photo archives from LIFE magazine

Matt Celeskey over at The Hairy Museum of Natural History blog reports that LIFE magazine and Google are making millions of photos from the LIFE photo archives available on line. As a kid growing up in the 50's and 60's I remember LIFE being an early window into a world far larger than I could have imagined on my own, so the magazine will always hold a warm place in my heart.

Among the photos are some real gems of natural history ...

including the Colorado River in 1875 ...

... Roger Tory Peterson with an osprey at its nest ...

... and Yosemite Valley.

Cruising the archive is like a walk through time from the 1860s to the 1970s.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Mountain pine beetles decimate western forests

Jim Robbins writes in the NYT about the mountain pine beetle infestation sweeping through pine forests in western North America.

In Wyoming and Colorado in 2006 there were a million acres of dead trees. Last year it was 1.5 million. This year it is expected to total over two million. In the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, the problem is most severe. It is the largest known insect infestation in the history of North America, officials said. British Columbia has lost 33 million acres of lodgepole pine forest, and a freak wind event in 2006 blew mountain pine beetles, a species of bark beetle, over the Continental Divide to northern Alberta. Experts fear that the beetles could travel all the way to the Great Lakes.

Dendroctonus ponderosae is native to North America, so this isn't an example of the all-too-common story of "exotic species gone wild." Instead, it seems to reflect the growing reality of just how far out of balance our relationship with the land has become and how long we will have to live with the reprecussions of our poor choices.

Foresters say the historic outbreak has several causes. Because fires have been suppressed for so long, all forests are roughly the same age, and the trees are big enough to be susceptible to beetles. A decade of drought has weakened the trees. And hard winters have softened, which allows the beetles to flourish and expand their range.

Fire suppression during the 20th century and climate change in the 21st (owing its momentum to the Industrial Revolution that began in earnest in the 19th). I fear that this will be a common refrain for the next several decades. It's a good example of why a precautionary principle guided by ecological knowledge is so important. It will be thousands of times more difficult to pick up the pieces on this kind of collapse than to have prevented it in the first place.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Quote of the day

Much that is good and all that is evil has gathered itself up into the Western Gull. He is rather the handsomest of the blue-mantled Laridae, for the depth of color in the mantle, in sharp contrast with the snowy plumage of back and breast, gives him an appearance of sturdiness and quality which is not easily dispelled by subsequent knowledge of the black heart within. As a scavanger, the Western Gull is impeccable. Wielding the besom of hunger, he and his kind sweep the beaches clean and purge the water-front of all pollution. But a scavanger is not necessarily a good citizen. Call him a ghoul, rather, for the Western Gull is cruel of beak and bottomless of maw. Pity, with him, is a thing unknown; and when one of their own comrades dies, these feathered jackals fall upon him without compunction, a veritable Leichnamveranderungsgebrauchsgesellschaft. If he thus mistreats his own kind, be assured that this gull asks only two questions of any other living thing: First, "Am I hungry?" (Ans., "Yes.") Second, "Can I get away with it?" (Ans., "I'll try.")

William Leon Dawson, in Birds of California (1923)

Which reminds me of a poem I wrote once while waiting for a ferry in Australia ...

“First Precept of Food Webs”

Dark-eyed vulture with one question—
Do I have food?
In the eyes of the Great Spirit I am only that.
I am not yet edible,
and the vulture flies away.

Steve Trombulak (2000)

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Monday, November 17, 2008

The Restigouche: A wilderness endangered

Eastern North America has wilderness. Oh yes; we've got wilderness.

This video was produced by friends and colleagues of mine at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). The fight to protect wild nature in the Northern Appalachian/Acadian ecoregion goes on.

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Removing the damn dams

Felicity Barringer reports in the New York Times on an agreement recently made by the federal government, Oregon, California, and the private company PacifiCorp, which generates electricity, to remove four dams on the Klamath River. The details are sparse and the time line is all but certain, but I can't help but smile whenever I hear discussion about dam removal.

The widespread damming of the American West over a period of nearly 100 years has done incalculable damage to the West's aquatic ecosystems and native fish. The control of water has been at the heart of the struggle for control of the West, and up until the 1990's, wild nature was always given the short end of the stick. But little by little, nature is being given a chance to reclaim its wildness and run a little more free. Slowly, water diversion is being forced to give way to water conservation, and dams are being removed.

John Muir, one of the founders of the modern environmental consciousness, died broken hearted. He and the Sierra Club lost its battle to prevent the construction of O'Shaughnessy Dam, completed in 1923, which dammed of the Hetch Hetchy River flowing west out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, just north of Yosemite Valley. Muir said,

Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.

When I was a kid growing up in California, and spending as much time as I possibly could in the Sierras, the removal of O'Shaughnessy Dam was the Holy Grail of the local conservation community, ranking high on the list of "Not in My Lifetime" impossibilities, right up there with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of apartheid, and the election of an African-American to the U.S. Presidency.

Somewhere, John Muir is surely smiling. Dam removal on the Klamath. Maybe, just maybe, restoring the Hetch Hetchy is not so impossible afterall.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Quote of the day

The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.

William Beebe, in The Bird (1906)

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tools and resources?

Know of a site on the web that other practitioners of natural history should know about? Species accounts, visualization tools, current information about trends and conditions, and webcams ... and the list goes on. Share your favorite sites with others by posting a comment. We'll add as many as we can to the Tools and Resources bar on the left for easy access.

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Thursday's Open Thread

Open threads are an invitation for the readers to reflect and share their thoughts on single topic. Today's question ...

How did you become interested in natural history?

The floor is now open.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Quote of the day

Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries — stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region.

Herman Melville, in Moby Dick

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Year of Birding Strenuously

Yesterday marked a milestone for me: indeed, self-imposed and of no real consequence to what I do even today, but a milestone nonetheless. Yesterday, at 4:35 pm, in the dying light of a cold New England day on an obscure dirt road near my house, I saw a flock of eight Short-eared Owls hunting low over a hay field. I had gone out there on a tip from a fellow birder who posted on our state-wide birding discussion list (VTBIRD) that he had seen them there the day before as dusk was creeping in. I raised my binoculars to my eyes, hoping that I would find them before it became full-on dark, and I saw them in an instant. Graceful, quiet, impressive as hell, especially because of their (to me) surprising numbers. I watched them for about 30 minutes, never trying to get too close for fear that they would fly off to a different field. Eventually, even with the almost-full moon in the sky, it was too dark to see even their distinctive wing markings, so I called it a day and went home.

But as magnificent as they were -- and I cannot overstate just how magnificent they were -- that is not why yesterday was a milestone. Those Short-eared Owls represented the 150th bird species that I had seen this year in Addison County, where I live. I had successfully hit a target that I had set for myself at the beginning of the year: I wanted to see 150 species of birds in my local area this year.

There was nothing magical about the number 150. It seemed doable (with some attention and effort), I knew it was possible given the number of bird species that have been reported for the county over the last 10 years (courtesy of Vermont eBird), and I knew that there were plenty of other birders in this region who would probably see 150 species by May alone. But I knew that a target would be fun and keep me trying just a little bit harder (hence the whole "standing on the edge of a wind-swept hay field in the growing darkness of a mid-November dusk" episode), and based on my previous years of birding here I thought 150 seemed reasonable.

No, it wasn't the number. What to me was the most exciting is that I did it in my local area. In fact, for the first time ever, I spent ALL of my hard-core birding efforts only in a small area (about 800 square miles, which when you think about it is not all that large; it's a square just 28 miles on a side). For the first time ever, I purposefully chose not to burn fossil fuels driving to distant locations to see rare European or South American vagrants, not to try and be intimate with the natural history of an entire continent but rather only with the dirt roads, woodland stands, and muddy seeps around my neighborhood. Heck, I even ignored rarities reported from neighboring Vermont counties, sticking to my mantra: Think globally; Bird locally.

And I feel like I succeeded. Yes, I hit my target of 150 with 40 days to spare in the year -- I count my years from the Winter Solstice, not from the arbitrary assignment of January 1st in the Gregorian Calendar (about which I can write another time) -- but more importantly, I feel like I have regained an intimacy with my home landscape that no amount of natural history jet-setting could provide. I've had the privilege of seeing how different farmers time the harvest of their corn and hay, how the water levels in small no-name tributaries rise and fall, and how the light reflecting off of Lake Champlain changes week by week. I feel like I know this place better than ever before.

And I feel like I found, at least for now, a compromise between my awareness of our moral responsibility to care for the Earth in deed as well as in word and my desire to simply Get Out There and witness the Web of Life in action. I am better for it. And I can't wait until next year; 160 species, here I come!

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Quote of the day

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is Imagination itself.

William Blake, in The Letters (1799)

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

Life after the 2008 election

I've been silent on this blog for the last few days. The frenzy leading up to Tuesday's election as well as the post-election euphoria, exhaustion, and inevitable catch-up on all the things I hadn't been paying attention to for so many days all took its toll on me. I still haven't completely grasped the magnitude of the event, nor its place in the long arc of personal and societal history.

As a baby boomer, I remember a great deal of what America has gone through since the end of World War II. OK, well maybe not that far back, but certainly since the time of JFK. When the newscasters announced that Barack Obama had been elected president of the United States, it was as if my entire life flashed before my eyes: LBJ, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy, Nixon, Watts, Reagan, Bush the Elder, Clinton, Rodney King, Bush the Dumber ... It was as if for the first time in many long years I allowed myself to look at where I am in time and how I got here. How we got here. I'm wondering if this is what it feels like to have suffered and recovered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

After a couple of night's sleep, I feel more awake than I have been in years, and among all the questions and ideas I have swirling around in my mind, two stand out:

1. What will an Obama presidency mean for conservation and the natural world? Will the assault on nature continue as a necessary expediency to spur economic recovery and to solidify the Democratic hold on the political center? Or will President Obama recognize that we cannot have healthy human communities with healthy natural communities?

2. What can I do to help? In his acceptance speech in Grant Park on Tuesday night, he acknowledged (wisely, I think) just how hard the tasks before us are, and he said "I need your help." I need to answer this call. Yes, I know I could cop-out and say that my work for the last several years has been an effort to help stem the tide of ecological destruction, as well as to be an effective educator and parent. But I almost feel as if I have done that while asleep. There is so much more that needs to be done, especially for the natural world. I am going to answer this question for myself. I challenge each of you to answer it ... and follow-through on it ... for yourselves as well.

So ... here's to what I hope is truly the end of our long national nightmare. The return of this great nation of ours to the rule of law and reality-based governance. Maybe there is hope for us as a species afterall.

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Sunday, November 2, 2008

Photo quiz

OK, folks. Step right up and test your powers of observation. Today's quiz has two parts:

1. What critter is this?
2. Where was this photo taken? (Bonus points for answering this question with the name of the ecoregion rather than the state.)

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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Quote of the day

It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know of wonder and humility.

Rachel Carson

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