Category Archives: nature

Photo Post – Bald Mountain and Proud Lake

I spent some time this weekend hiking and kayaking in two State Recreation Areas. Both Bald Mountain and Proud Lake have tons of opportunities to explore pockets of wilderness with minimal intrusion from the everyday world. The weather was gorgeous. I couldn’t have asked for a better day to get out and about. Rather than babble on any more, I’ll share just a few photos.

White Water LilyProudLkKayak 20130906 45

Great EgretProudLkKayak 20130906 17

Garter SnakeBaldMountain 20130905 21

MossBaldMountain 20130905 28

The last one isn’t from the two excursions this weekend. It’s from the storm we had last week. I snapped a few shots before the rain started coming down.
Storm 20130901 45

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Amur (Siberian) Tigers Killed by Canine Distemper Virus

I’m sorry that I’m running behind on the blog this week. Thursday was occupied by a big project that I’ll start discussing in a post later on Sunday.

I’ve mentioned before that nature and conservation are important to me. Sometimes, my profession and my passion for conservation overlap. The article I’m linking is an example of that intersection. It’s a sad occurrence.

Canine distemper virus, which can infect not only dogs but animals like raccoons and foxes, has spread into a massive area in Russia. The virus has been responsible for the death of several Siberian (Amur) tigers, which are a highly endangered species. Apparently, the tigers have come into contact with the virus in part by hunting and killing domestic dogs. This is the result of encroachment on the tiger’s habitat by human settlement.

This cross-species infection is another example of the adaptability and easily altered behavior of some viruses. The canine distemper vaccine may pose a danger to these tigers if it were given, and there’s no vaccine designed for cats of any kind to protect against canine distemper. It’s a tough dilemma in deciding how to protect these rare and valuable tigers.

The full article can be found here.

An additional article with lots of overlap but some additional info can be found here.

790px Harbin Siberian Tigers

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Thursday News – Dolphins Have Names?

The BBC covered a research project that looked into some interesting vocalizations by bottlenose dolphins. It seems that dolphins may create a unique vocal noise to identify themselves — a name! — when they communicate with other dolphins.

Here’s a link to the article.

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Thursday News – Baby Rhino Birth

Ethan, the Montgomery Zoo’s new baby Indian rhinoceros, represents a milestone birth not just for Alabama but for his species: He is the first calf of any rhino species to be born and thrive in a U.S. zoo as a result of assisted reproductive technology. But to his mom, Jeta, he’s just her baby, of whom she’s very protective.

Read more at the Montgomery Advisor online site.

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Every 13 or 17 years, an insect called a cicada will emerge from a long sleep underground. It’s actually part of their life cycle to remain dormant for that long of a time. While this summer’s brood will not hatch in Michigan, there are cicadas that emerge each year in addition to the really big broods that hatch every 17 years. These are the bugs that make that really, really loud and long buzzing/humming noise every summer. They typically emerge in April, May, and June.

This article explains that they’re mostly harmless to pets; not toxic, don’t bite.

If you happen to see one, they’re both interesting and grotesque all at once.

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Review of Yard Toxins & Bee stings

Last May, I wrote a post about backyard toxins that pets could be exposed to. Now that we’ve had a good run of warm weather, I’d like to put up a link to that post to help remind everyone what to be cautious of.

Backyard Toxins and Hazards from May 2012

One of the things that I left off that list was bee/wasp/hornet stings. When a pet is stung by something, it’s called an envenomation. The venom comes from the stinger and an associated gland. It’s not really a bite (though some wasps/hornets can in fact bite). In the case of most bees, the sting means the death of the insect, too. Yellowjackets and wasps can sting multiple times.

The swelling and pain from the sting itself isn’t usually life-threatening. However, the sting can set off a massive allergic reaction that can be life-threatening. I highly encourage you to speak with your veterinarian about what you can do or give immediately after a sting. I can’t make a recommendation here on the blog for a medication or a dose for a medication, even if it’s OTC. Contact your vet and know ahead of time what to have on hand and what to do. It may save you a trip in to the vet’s office.

If your pet has been stung and the stinger is still in the skin, DO NOT grab it with fingers or tweezers. The little gland full of poison is like a sac on the end of the stinger. If you squeeze it when you’re trying to pull out the stinger, you’ll push more venom into your pet. Use a credit card or another piece of rigid cardboard or plastic to scrape the stinger out of the skin.

You can apply an ice pack. One of the sources I checked also said that a weak mix of baking soda and water may help decrease the pain.

If your pet shows weakness, difficulty breathing, or lots of swelling in places that were not stung, you need to see an emergency vet or your own vet immediately.

Be safe out there!

450px 3A wasp 2007 04 25

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Thursday News

Here’s a link to a great article by National Geographic about the ability to bring an extinct species back to life, and whether we should.

The notion of bringing vanished species back to life—some call it de-extinction—has hovered at the boundary between reality and science fiction for more than two decades, ever since novelist Michael Crichton unleashed the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park on the world. For most of that time the science of de-extinction has lagged far behind the fantasy. Celia’s clone is the closest that anyone has gotten to true de-extinction. Since witnessing those fleeting minutes of the clone’s life, Fernández-Arias, now the head of the government of Aragon’s Hunting, Fishing and Wetlands department, has been waiting for the moment when science would finally catch up, and humans might gain the ability to bring back an animal they had driven extinct.

“We are at that moment,” he told me.


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Sunday Post Early – Altruism

I’ll be out of town tomorrow, so I saved up an interesting topic that we can get started on this week and continue at some point in the future.

Understanding our own social behavior, ethics, and morals is a monumental challenge. Human behavior is complex, to say the least. We can still learn a great deal about our own social conventions by examining the behavior of animals.

There have been a few articles (in Nature, Smithsonian Magazine, and online) recently that deal specifically with our tendency to identify altruism. Altruism, the act of helping others, is something that seems to be understood by human babies as young as 3 months. It’s fascinating to consider.

This article talks about a study and what it may imply about our own behavior. Have a look. I’m curious about what you’ve observed from your own pets or other animals. Do you think they understand altruism?

Here’s the article.


Filed under behavior, communication, ethics, human interest, nature

Necessary Evil?

Domestic pets are frequently spoiled by their owners. Schedules are set to include walks and play time for dogs. Cats often have climbing trees and other toys to play with. We interact daily to enrich their lives and to keep them happy. It’s an instinct on our part to care for our pets’ emotional and behavioral needs just as much as their physical needs. Most pet owners are so well-suited to this relationship that doing the right thing comes naturally.

Our relationship with non-domestic animals isn’t always so easy. Wild things are far enough away from our suburban lives that we don’t think often think about them. It isn’t easy to look at the links we have to the natural world and understand that we are responsible for its preservation. While I believe that “pet people” are more likely to understand conservation efforts, it’s still not an immediate connection the way our pets are.

Zoos occupy a spot between our yards and the greater wilderness. There are very few people that haven’t been to a zoo. The chance to be close to exotic wild animals captures our attention easily. We’re very aware, somehow, that looking eye to eye with a lion or tiger in safety is a rare event. Whatever part of our own survival instinct that survives tells us that is a wild animal and it will eat you if it can! That moment of connection between human and wild may well be enough to encourage a person to support conservation efforts. Zoos, aquariums, and preserves serve as an inspiration.

Captive animals also ignite very, very strong opinions about animal welfare. The stark truth is that we have confined an animal to a given setting for the remainder of its life. Very few zoos are able to release animals into the wild, so the survival of certain species is unfortunately limited to a captive population. We do need to acknowledge that maintaining a captive population in a zoo can provide breeding stock for programs that may in fact be able to release animals back to the wild. I believe that’s a minority of cases, though.

This leaves us in a quandary. If we accept that zoos serve an important function, then we accept that there will be animals in captivity. If we accept that this “ownership” brings the same responsibilities that owning our own pets does, then we have a very clear directive. We must care for the emotional, physical, and mental well-being of zoo animals.

Caring for those needs is easier said than done. I’m honestly not sure if a tiger would chase a laser pointer, but I’m certain that stalking and chasing are natural activities for a big cat. We’re obligated to find a way to provide an opportunity for that behavior. Thankfully, zoos have come up with a lot of great strategies for the well being of the animals. If we accept that zoos are providing for the animals appropriately, then we can accept that a zoo is a “necessary evil.”

I want to briefly raise the topic of non-human primate captivity. The great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans) are creatures with intelligence we still don’t fully understand. Some of them exhibit the very foundations of our own humanity. They serve as outreach for conservation in a way that none of the other animals can, thanks to their immediately recognizable human-ness.

The apes’ habitats are shrinking, they’re hunted for non-food reasons, and they’ve been exploited miserably. We must confine them to highly secure exhibits in zoos to prevent their escape. Their intelligence makes care for their emotional and mental welfare a massive challenge. Thankfully, here too, zoos are working on clever solutions. (Remember the iPads for orangutans news post a while back?)

Certainly with all captive animals, but especially with the great apes, we have a massive responsibility to ensure that they are as well cared for as possible. I think we can improve what we’re already doing. As with most issues such as this, publicity and marketing will have to play a role. Without public support (including financial support), zoos and similar facilities will not be able to meet the needs of the animals.

Although we can’t pet the tigers at the zoo, their needs are no different than those of the ten pound cousin using your couch as a scratching post. It’s an easy thing to realize that, and to take steps to help spoil the 400 pound tiger just as thoroughly. It’s the least we can do.

Detroit Zoo 20101003  022

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Thursday News

Treating infections is one of the most widely known aspects of medical practice. Humans and other animals are in a constant and highly variable relationship with the microscopic world inside and outside our bodies. Bacteria help us digest and use our food, but they can also cause life-threatening infections. Dealing with the bad bugs often requires an antibiotic, a chemical that kills the bacteria. Finding new antibiotics that can be brought to the market as a safe, effective treatment is a long, expensive, arduous process. As a result, we don’t see too many new antibiotics.

Scientists have discovered a small molecule in the bloodstream of the giant panda that has antibacterial properties. The pandas make this small chain of amino acids (a peptide) naturally and it circulates in their body. Interestingly, it kills bacteria very quickly — more quickly than the drugs and molecules we already know about. The hope, of course, is that we can find a way to make this available to help humans and other animals. Scientists are working on making this peptide in the lab so that wild pandas can be protected.

This is another example of why research into the natural world is far, far more important than it might at first seem. Nature has a great deal to share with us about elegant solutions.

Here’s the link to the article. (It’s pretty short.)

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Predators and Prey – The Natural World’s Lessons

I’ve talked about my connection to nature and my profession in a previous post. What I didn’t mention is that my interest in the natural world hasn’t decreased over the years. I’m still fascinated by books, documentaries, and research. Recently I had a reason to look up the definition of predation – as in, predators and prey. I quickly found the very basic definition I needed, but I ended up spending hours reading about the intricate interactions between predators and prey. While it may seem academic to the average pet owner, two things make this relevant. First, those of you reading aren’t “average” owners — you’re far more inquisitive and dedicated than that! Secondly, the predatory and predator-avoidance behavior we see in nature is also found in our domestic animals. I’ll share the tip of the iceberg with you.

Predation is, very simply, the killing and consumption of another organism for food. This can be something very obvious: Lion eats Zebra. However, if the zebra munches the grass enough that that particular plant dies, is it not also a predator by definition? The lines are a little fuzzy sometimes. Overall, however, we see that most ecosystems are a network of connections between sources of food and consumers of food. Plants supply herbivores which supply predators. Predators at the very top of the food chain – man, lion, shark, wolf – are called Apex predators. Apexes aren’t preyed upon by anything else.

These food webs are an interesting balancing act. If there isn’t enough grass to feed the zebra, they starve, and so do the lions. However, if there aren’t enough lions, the zebra grow out of control and eat too much grass, which then crashes their population again. If there are too many lions, they eat too many zebra, which decreases the number of lions eventually, and allows more grass to grow to rebuild the zebra population. Scientists call this “top down” or “bottom up” control in an ecosystem. If any of you are familiar with the wolf and moose populations on Isle Royale, it’s a perfect example of how the various species influence one another. To tie this in to a topic we see daily, consider the influence that outdoor cats have on the population of rodents and birds.

Hunting behavior by predators has four basic phases:

Detection, or finding prey.

800px Catstalkprey

Attack, or chasing after prey.

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Capture, or catching the prey and preventing escape.


Consumption, or eating what has just been caught.

Wolverine Predconsumpt

Predators have evolved to have body structures that support these behaviors and ecological niche. As I mentioned with the Cheetah Running video on Thursday, adaptations like front paws that can rotate, forward-facing eyes, and agile bodies all help.

Herbivores, on the other hand, have evolved to *avoid* all of these behaviors. It’s an evolutionary arms race to see which animal can outdo its prey/predator. Herbivores have specific adaptations to avoid the stages of predation.

Avoid Detection: Camouflage to blend into the environment, color patters that make it hard for a predator to pick out an individual (zebra stripes), and avoiding the time and place predators frequent.

Detroit Zoo 20080927 9

Avoid Attack: Colors to warn the predators of poison. There’s also a neat behavior in which an animal like an antelope will bounce vertically while running away. Scientists believe that this signals to the predator that the prey is extremely healthy and strong physically, and not worth the energy to chase down/kill.

Springbok pronk

Avoid Capture: Outrunning the predator, fighting back, and finding cover or refuge.

645px Ctenomorpha chronus02

Avoid Consumption: Armor, spines, chemical defenses, shedding a non-vital body part, and playing dead.

1024px 60 lionfish

Those are the basics! Next time you’re out and about in nature or the zoo, watch for these behaviors and adaptations! You’ll be surprised how easy they are to recognize.

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