Shuttered Natural History Museums Fight for Survival
But creative scientists vow recovery and move research and public programs online
By Elizabeth Pennisi
A few months ago, retirement was the furthest thing from David Thomas’s mind. “Then the world went upside down,” recalls the archaeologist from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. In March, the coronavirus pandemic forced the museum to close its doors. No more school groups thronging the interactive exhibits, no more corporate dinners or lines of international tourists waiting to pay $23 a head to marvel at fossils. The museum’s income plummeted 60%.
Leaders first asked for early retirements. By early May, they had sliced the staff of 1100 by 20% and furloughed an additional 250 staff members. Many full-time employees now work 3 days a week, mostly from home. Thomas opted to retire early, along with four of the other 38 curators. “It was the right thing to do,” he says.
Around the world, natural history museums are shuttered and reeling. Last week, the California Academy of Sciences announced it was furloughing or laying off 40% of its staff. “We will recover, but there is no doubt that we will be in some ways a different institution,” says Peter Roopnarine, a paleontologist there.
Museums’ reliance on revenue from ticket sales and events makes them among the first scientific institutions to feel the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I worry about the long-term health of all natural history museums and the collections that are in our sacred trust,” says Shannon Hackett, an ornithologist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. “It will be very challenging for some museums to reopen at all,” adds Scott Cooper, who runs Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
But the crisis is also spurring museums to adopt or expand practices that, though they may not restore lost revenue, are keeping the public engaged and research ticking along: an online biodiversity contest, public discussions on Zoom, a web- cam streaming captive corals. Curators are also expanding and refining digital collections that are accessible to both the public and homebound researchers.
“We are seeing more changes in the museum industry at this moment than we could push people to make previously,” says Julie Stein, director of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington, Seattle, whose own institution has been devastated. The Burke Museum had opened a new build- ing in October 2019 and was “headed for record-breaking revenue,” Stein says—until the entire campus shut down on 6 March.
Some museums, including the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., have dodged financial cliffs thanks to government support. The Natural History Museum, London, stayed afloat with emergency support from the U.K. government, but furloughed half its staff until the end of June. Similarly, the Field Museum has thus far avoided layoffs thanks to a cash re- serve and the federal paycheck protection program, says President and CEO Richard Lariviere. But 30% of the museum’s income comes from tickets and related activities, and $17 million is already lost. Given that cases of COVID-19 have yet to peak in Illinois, Lariviere doubts the museum will open this summer, and worries he will be forced to make layoffs.
Some university museums managed to avoid layoffs now, but may pay a price later if university budgets shrink. Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology will likely not reopen as quickly as stand-alone museums, says Di- rector Jane Pickering. As they worry about the future, re- searchers are also distraught because they can’t pursue their current research. Travel restrictions have brought fieldwork to a screeching halt—and with it, the addition of more specimens to collections. The American Museum of Natural His- tory alone has canceled 100 expeditions. And researchers can’t get into buildings to analyze existing collections. “We have been cut off from our collections, facilities, and colleagues,” says Anjali Goswami, a paleobiologist at the Natural History Museum, London.
One trend accelerated by the crisis could help: efforts to digitize natural history collections. At Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, staff working from home have been busy enhancing the millions of records in the museum-wide database, for example adding latitude and longitude coordinates to specimens thus far identified only by location names. “There’s a tremendous amount of data locked into collections,” says Kirk Johnson, director of the National Museum of Natural History, where detailed digital images of pressed plants in the herbarium allow researchers to scrutinize them from afar. “We are now shining the light on the dark data of museums.”
Rebecca Albright, a coral biologist at the California Academy of Sciences, is study- ing the mysteries of coral spawning; only one other research team has been able to get the corals to reproduce in a lab setting. Recently, Albright identified just the right conditions, including water temperature and lighting that re-create changing day length and the cycling of the Moon, to prompt spawning. When she learned that she couldn’t be in the museum at the key time, she and her colleagues set up an infrared webcam. “We never set up a camera before because we didn’t need to,” she says.
The live-streaming camera allowed them to catch spawning in the act on 22 April, Earth Day—and made a big splash on the web. “If we had missed this, we would have had to wait a whole year,” Albright says. The corals now have 1.6 million followers.
Other scientists have refocused their research on the pandemic itself. Roopnarine previously studied how nature recovered from mass extinctions. Now, he is re- purposing his computer models of eco- system recovery to evaluate how various employment schemes may get economies back on track as lockdowns ease. “Our work has never been more relevant than it is now,” he says.
Many see the pandemic as an opportunity for change. “I’m doing more public programs than ever—in virtual formats,” says Sabrina Sholts, a biological anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History.
To engage the public in research, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the California Academy of Sciences in April enlisted thousands of citizen scientists in a global biodiversity effort called the City Nature Challenge. Participants gathered thousands of images of birds, insects, and other wildlife in more than 250 cities to help researchers study urban ecosystems.
The pandemic itself is inspiring new directions. Leonard Krishtalka, director of the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum, wants museums to expand their focus to include microbes and viruses.
At the National Museum of Natural History, Sholts was already thinking along those lines when she pulled together a temporary exhibit inspired by the 2014 Ebola epidemic. “Outbreak,” which explores how pathogens spread between animals and people, opened 2 years ago. After COVID-19 erupted, the exhibit was replicated online, with a digital version in half a dozen languages; a DIY kit has already been adapted in 41 countries and 30 U.S. states and territories.
“We are in the process of reinventing what natural history museums are for,” Johnson says, speaking by phone to a reporter as he walked past the darkened halls of the Outbreak exhibit. “Museums can play a much more impactful role than they have in the past 50 years.”
Science. June 5, 2020
Keeping tabs on neighborhood wildlife may hook you on all the action
By Julian Avery
Washington Post, May 25, 2020
Watching wildlife outside your window can boost your mental well-being, and it’s something lots of people have been doing a lot more of lately.
Maybe you’ve been wondering if you’re seeing one persistent gray squirrel or a rotating cast of furry characters. Maybe you’ve been thinking about which birds are passing through for the season and which are townies who stick around all year.
As a wildlife ecologist, I’ve learned to pay attention to patterns that show me what the animals outside my window are up to, and I usually know which individuals are my regulars.
Whether you’re spying on animals in a city, town or rural area, with a little background knowledge, you too can keep tabs on the private lives of your neighborhood critters.
Seasonal shifts change the players
For many species, winter is a time when individuals compete less with one another and gather in large groups.
For example, eastern cottontail rabbits congregate around areas with plenty of food and places to escape to. Birds form large mixed-species flocks, which help them better find food and avoid being hunted. They even form temporary allegiances as they forage together, following specific individuals who help determine where the flock goes.
As the season changes to spring, migratory species start arriving. A steady parade of individuals moves through the neighborhood. As animals transition to their breeding season, plumage and appearances may change as they work to attract mates. For many species, defense of a piece of land becomes an overriding concern.
During the summer months, adult animal numbers stabilize, and the drive to establish a territory means you’re likely to have the same individuals active outside your windows for the majority of summer.
A territory is a chunk of habitat. Its size will vary depending on the amount of food and breeding resources it holds. A territory with few trees, for example, may need to be bigger to hold enough forage for the animal that owns the turf. Territory sizes for different species can range from the size of a large kitchen table (common lizards like green anoles and skinks) to an area greater than 120 football fields (a raptor such as the Cooper’s hawk). The cool thing is that animal home ranges are governed by their own needs and often do not follow the lines of human fences and alleyways.
I like to think of animal territories as quilts that drape over your neighborhood. For some species, like anoles, the squares in that quilt will have many small and intricate pieces, and you could fit many quilt pieces within each individual human property boundary. Some of those pieces will even overlap other patches.
Small songbirds will have quilt patches that span several human properties, though they may use specific parts more than others. Larger species will have quilt patches that cover entire neighborhoods with one territory.
If you’ve become familiar with the animals in your neighborhood, chances are you’ll see some of the same individuals again year after year. Eastern cottontails are likely to live up to three years in the wild, and they stay in the same general territory throughout their lives. Even the young have a tendency to stay close to their birth place.
Researchers have recaptured gray squirrels year after year in their original territories. On average, these critters survive about six years and can live longer than 20.
Birds also have long lives and will often stay in the same territory year after year. However, when eggs don’t hatch or young die in the nest, some birds may choose a new territory the following year. This means there can be high turnover in your local bird network if the local habitat is unpredictable or full of urban predators.
Birds that don’t migrate and stay in residence year-round, like chickadees, often have a tendency to stay in the same area, which means you’ll be seeing the same individual birds outside your window across seasons.
Some species will have territories that don’t overlap much at all. For others, the overlap can be extensive. This means that generally during the breeding season, you could be watching many gray squirrels visiting outside your window. There may also be a couple of male cottontails, but probably a single female because they tend to not overlap with other females.
Maybe you’ll spy the same pair of cardinals along with a reliable pair of chickadees. If you’re watching closely like I was the other day, you may get lucky and catch another male cardinal from the territory next door trying to flirt with your female, at least until her mate realizes what’s about to happen. That is a clue to the invisible lines birds have drawn between their own domains.
When it comes to smaller animals, like lizards and insects, all bets are off for how many unique individuals are present outside your window. But you can expect more of everything as the number of native plants increases.
Tips for watching
If you’re interested in trying to keep track of particular wildlife friends through the window, try to watch for identifying marks. In my research, I attach colored bands to bird legs or mark the scales of turtles and snakes so we can figure out how many exist in an area. Many animals have enough individual variation that you can keep track of them using their natural unique marks and scars. Squirrels can have torn ears or injured tails, lizards can have unique scars or healed injuries, and birds can have subtle differences in color or pattern.
Also try paying attention to the maximum number you see at any one point. Where do they go after eating or basking? You may get lucky and spy a nest or resting place. See if you can spot other individuals coming from different directions and territories.
At my house, we had a nest of rabbit kits born under our deck. I thought there was only one surviving newborn because we never saw more than one offspring. Two weeks later, there were three babies foraging simultaneously in the yard, and it became clear that they’d previously been taking turns coming out of hiding.
If you start watching closely, I think you’ll find so much drama happening in your neighborhood that you may get hooked on the action.
Julian Avery is assistant research professor of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Pennsylvania State University. This article was originally published on theconversation.com.
Spotted lanternflies pose a threat to plants' photosynthesis
By Mary Stickley-Godinez, May 25, 2020, The Daily Progress
The adult spotted lanternfly is a beautiful moth-looking creature, silvery gray with charcoal highlights and bright red accents.
Covid-19 is not the only thing that has come to us from Asia. Nor are Asian hornets.
In the past few years, the Mid-Atlantic region has been tracking another pestilence. Unfortunately, in an age of worldwide commerce, we should expect more and more pests and diseases to traverse the oceans and take up new residence in a region that lacks existing predators to keep these interlopers in check. The result is often an explosion of population and rapid expansion into new territories.
Such is certainly true of the spotted lanternfly. This creature was traced to have entered the country around 2012 via the port of Philadelphia through an egg mass that was on a shipment of ornamental stone. Those eggs hatched, and the young quickly found trees and shrubs to feed on. They quietly spread into neighboring counties but were not noticed at first. It is believed they stayed up in the tree canopies until populations reached a point where they ran out of prime real estate and moved downward to trunks and ground in multitudes of biblical proportions.
The adult, in the leaf hopper family, is a beautiful moth-looking creature, silvery gray with charcoal highlights and bright red accents. Juveniles look like little long-nosed frogs that, depending on their age, are black or red with white polka dots. I actually find them to be rather cute.
Egg masses look like smears of pale yellowish clay or concrete and contain 30 to 50 eggs each. They are laid on any smooth-trunked trees, stones or even vertical man-made surfaces. They hatch at this time of year, and the juveniles quickly scamper out along branches, poke their straw-shaped mouth parts into the stems, and start drinking sap. They will feed and grow until July-ish, when they will mature into adults. Adults mate and start laying eggs, which will winter over and start the cycle again next spring. Because they are so new to the area, not only are natural predators absent, but our native trees and shrubs are not equipped to handle the onslaught.
The loss of sap dramatically weakens the plants — so much so that they are dying of other diseases or weather extremes that usually they could easily resist. Another problem comes from mold. When sucking insects drink in sap, there is too much sugar for the animals’ metabolisms to process. Therefore, they poop out the excess in a sticky, sugar-filled liquid called “honeydew.” Under lanternfly-infected trees, this substance spatters down like rain, soaking the surfaces of everything beneath the plant. Other insects, like ants and bees, will feed on this. Thus, you might notice them hovering around, looking like they are foraging in areas lacking flowers.
Which brings us to the mold. “Sooty mold” is a fungus that only grows on honeydew. It is quite distinctive and is a fabulous indicator of sucking insects on your plants. It also usually causes no problems to any plants it might grow on. But in the case of the lanternflies, there is so much honeydew that the sooty mold grows in a thick mat, covering everything. It is so thick that it blocks the plants’ abilities to carry out photosynthesis.
Add to all this the varieties of plants the insect attacks, and we now have a major problem. The ailanthus tree, or Tree of Heaven, is a host plant for the creature, even in its native land. And, thus far, lanternflies first colonize those plants when they invade new areas. But from these trees they spread out into other trees and shrubs.
They especially love grapes and are causing major losses in the wine industry. They also feed from apples, peaches, plums, cherries and apricots. And in the ornamental industry, they can be found on maples, magnolias, walnuts, birch, willows, lindens, sycamores, hickories, black gums, sassafras, service berries, poplars and ash trees.
Spotted lanternflies have spread into the eastern counties of Pennsylvania. In Virginia, there is also a colony that has established in Winchester. Adults hitch rides on vehicles and packaging, and they are also spread by accidentally moving items that have egg masses on them. The Virginia State Extension service is watching carefully for them in other areas of Virginia. If you see an insect that might be one of these, please contact your local Extension office to report its location.
Submitted by Charlene Uhl
Community Commentary/Opinion: Nature connection –
a vital mental health resource during the COVID-19 crisis
CAROLYN SCHUYLER, Monday, May 18, 2020 Charlottesville Tomorrow
A woman wearing rubber gloves sits near the Rivanna River at Riverview Park on Thursday, March 19, 2020. The warm weather drew many community members to parks and forests as the area adjusts to growing fears about the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nature is currently receiving a surge of media attention as an antidote to the emotional challenges of the current COVID-19 crisis. It is good news in a time of alarming headlines. The rich sensory experiences nature provides are proven to help in the recovery from stress. A 2020 literature review of studies determined that just 120 minutes of nature exposure a week contributes to improved wellbeing. Wilderness immersions are not required to receive the benefits. Research has found that nearby nature in schoolyards and neighborhoods promotes emotional resilience. Even window views of trees and green landscapes buffer against the ill-effects of stress.
As the pandemic has triggered a historic rise in mental health problems, now more than ever we need restorative green spaces to invite play and nature connection. A University of Pennsylvania study found that “greening” urban lots reduces rates of depression in urban neighborhoods. Adding benches, inviting signage and small gardens can transform small underused urban areas into destinations for “green microbreaks” to boost mood and reduce mental fatigue. Working to improve green areas is a timely public health project given the relative ease of maintaining social distance outdoors.
With extended school closures and play equipment off-limits due to COVID-19 risk, it is particularly important to create neighborhood play areas that give children outlets for creativity and exploration. Providing a collection of rocks painted to look like animals or piles of branches for fort building is a start to welcoming children and families into green areas. Rotating signage suggesting running games or encouraging a scavenger hunt may encourage new engagement with open lawns. The time and minimal expense needed to create special outdoor play spaces is worth the investment not only for the joy they provide. Nature play creates a foundation for academic success by fostering stronger attentional focus, increased creativity, and emotional self-regulation.
Over the last two decades, play has steadily declined as childhood has moved indoors and in front of screens. COVID-19 has exacerbated this trend with worsening consequences for children’s wellbeing. In an effort to protect time for play in childhood, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has long declared play an international human right. Every community must assess whether children’s right to play is adequately protected through access to quality neighborhood play spaces and allocation of time for child-directed play. Given the disparities in access to play spaces and green areas in our community, counteractive efforts are critically important in helping all children to thrive.
Locally, several organizations are working to create and maintain restorative natural spaces, outdoor play areas, and greenways that are the building blocks for public health. The efforts of the Piedmont Environmental Council, Albemarle County and Charlottesville Parks and Recreation departments, Ivy Creek Natural Area, Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center, Tree Stewards, The Grove, McIntire Botanical Garden and Wildrock are essential in this time of rising mental health needs.
Nature connection has always helped people find solace, inspiration and joy in hard times. COVID-19 has helped us to see how much we need our community green spaces and the organizations that promote and protect them. In the pandemic recovery and rebuilding period ahead, green spaces must be fully appreciated as critical social determinants of health.
Carolyn Schuyler, LCSW, is founder and executive director of Wildrock, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting nature play for health and happiness. During the pandemic, Wildrock has offered timed trail walks at its Blue Ridge Foothills Nature Play and Discover Center. Wildrock works collaboratively with local nonprofits and public schools
“It’s certainly surprising,” says Lars Chittka, a behavioral ecologist at the Queen Mary University of London, who was not involved. “We’re only at the beginning of exploring this phenomenon.”
Researchers at ETH Zürich chanced upon the discovery when they noticed curious bite marks on leaves while studying how bees respond to plant odors. They had added bumble bees to a research greenhouse and observed them cutting holes in the shape of half-moons. What was going on? At first, the researchers thought the insects might be feeding on fluid from the leaves, but the bees didn’t stay long enough to get much. Nor did they appear to be taking any part of the leaves back to their colonies.
A key observation—that bumble bees from colonies with less food were more avidly damaging the leaves—suggested another goal. The researchers wondered whether the damage triggered the plants to flower sooner, providing pollen to the hungry pollinators. After all, some plants speed up their flowering when they are stressed by disease or drought because these threats provide an incentive to reproduce sooner. But no one had ever shown that a pollinator can stimulate flowering. “I thought it was a long shot,” recalls Mark Mescher, an evolutionary biologist at ETH Zürich who co- led the research.
The researchers set up a greenhouse experiment with black mustard (Brassica nigra), a crop they had been studying. Ten plants were put in mesh bags with bumble bees that hadn’t eaten any pollen for 3 days; they proceeded to nibble five to 10 holes in each plant. On average, those plants flowered after 17 days; undamaged plants that had not been exposed to bumble bees took an average of 33 days, the researchers report today in Science. In a similar experiment, tomato plants sped up their flowering by 30 days. “The magnitude of the effects is huge,” Mescher says.
Hunger seems to be driving the bees: Another lab experiment showed that pollen-deprived bumble bees cut about four times as many holes as bumble bees that were fully fed. When the researchers put potted plants and a colony of bees on a roof at the ETH Zürich campus in early spring, before flowers were blooming, the bumble bees cut holes in the leaves. But as spring progressed, making more pollen available, the bees made fewer new holes. The researchers also noticed two wild species—red-tailed and white-tailed bumble bees—puncturing leaves, suggesting the behavior may be widespread. “That was superexciting,” says Consuelo De Moraes, a chemical ecologist at ETH Zürich who co-led the research.
To find out whether the leaf damage alone triggers the plants to flower sooner, the researchers cut similar-size holes in leaves. Those plants flowered earlier than controls, but not as early as the ones bitten by bumble bees. An intriguing possibility, Chittka says, is that bee saliva might contain chemicals that prompt flowering—similar to chemicals in the saliva of plant-eating insects that prompt plant defense responses. The researchers hope to investigate that idea and to study chemical signaling inside the plants after they are bitten. “It would be a horticulturist’s dream if you could find some relatively low-cost biochemistry that would actually speed up flowering,” Chittka says.
But researchers are still puzzled about how such behavior, which may also benefit the plants by attracting early pollinators, evolved. It’s unlikely worker bees learn the trick: They live only 1 month and wouldn’t have enough time to see the results of their handiwork. If the behavior is instinctive, it’s hard to understand how it would have started, Chittka says. What initial benefit, for example, would damaging leaves have brought to the bees? Finally, to help their own colony (rather than distant ones), bees would need to keep their nibbling close to home. “For all of this to somehow have come about by evolutionary trial and error process,” Chittka says, “it’s surprising.”
Posted in: People & Events doi:10.1126/science.abc9348
A new study reported this week by evolutionary ecologist Lynn Adler at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Rebecca Irwin of North Carolina State University, with others, suggests that flower strips – rows of pollinator-friendly flowers planted with crops – offer benefits for common Eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) colony reproduction, but some plants do increase pathogen infection risk.
As Adler and colleagues point out, pollinator declines affect food security, and pollinators are threatened by such stressors as pathogens and inadequate food. Bumblebees feed on pollen and nectar they gather from such plants as sunflower and milkweed. But bumblebees are also likely to acquire a gut disease pathogen, Crithia bombi, from some of these plant species more than others, the authors note.
Until now, the effect of plant species composition on bee disease was unknown, they add. Study details appear in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In earlier work on flowers and bee infection, Adler explains, “We evaluated 15 plant species by putting the same amount of C. bombi on each, letting a bee forage, and then seeing whether and how bad an infection it developed. We used that to designate plant species as ‘high- or low-infection’ for this study.” Low-infection plants include sunflower and thyme; high-infection plants include swamp milkweed and purple loosestrife.
Read more at University of Massachusetts Amherst
Thu 21 May 2020 06.30 EDT
Deer, bobcats and black bears are gathering around parts of Yosemite national park typically teeming with visitors.
Earlier this month, for the first time in recent memory, pronghorn antelope ventured into the sun-scorched lowlands of Death Valley national park. Undeterred by temperatures that climbed to over 110F, the animals were observed by park staff browsing on a hillside not far from Furnace Creek visitor center.
“This is something we haven’t seen in our lifetimes,” said Kati Schmidt, a spokesperson for the National Parks Conservation Association. “We’ve known they’re in some of the higher elevation areas of Death Valley but as far as we’re aware they’ve never been documented this low in the park, near park headquarters.”
The return of pronghorns to Death Valley is but one of many stories of wildlife thriving on public lands since the coronavirus closures went into effect a month and a half ago. In Yosemite national park, closed since 20 March, wildlife have flocked in large numbers to a virtually abandoned Yosemite Valley.
More than 4 million visitors traveled to Yosemite last year, the vast majority by way of automobile. On busy late-spring days, as visitors gather to see the famed Yosemite, Vernal and Bridal Veil Falls, the 7.5-mile long valley can become an endless procession of cars.
But traffic jams seem a distant memory as the closure approaches its two-month mark. Deer, bobcats and black bears have congregated around buildings, along roadways and other parts of the park typically teeming with visitors. One coyote, photographed by park staff lounging in an empty parking lot under a rushing Yosemite Falls, seemed to best capture the momentary state of repose.
A handful of workers who have remained in Yosemite during the closures, who have been able to travel by foot and bike along the deserted roadways, describe an abundance of wildlife not seen in the last century. “The bear population has quadrupled,” Dane Peterson, a worker at the Ahwahnee Hotel, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s not like they usually aren’t here … It’s that they usually hang back at the edges or move in the shadows.”
Similar behaviors have been documented in other national parks including Rocky Mountain, in Colorado, and Yellowstone, in Wyoming. “Without an abundance of visitors and vehicles, wildlife has been seen in areas they typically don’t frequent,” said the National Park Service spokesperson Cynthia Hernandez, “including near roadways, park buildings and parking lots, spending time doing what they usually do naturally: foraging for food”.
The human-free interregnum is rapidly coming to an end, however, as the park service ramps up its phased reopening. While Yosemite, Death Valley and a number of other California national parks remain closed, on Monday, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks – which collectively received nearly 8 million visitors in 2019 – reopened their gates for the first time since late March. To protect visitors and staff, the park service has hired seasonal workers to disinfect high use areas and installed plastic barriers at tollbooths, visitor centers and permit desks.
But few if any protective measures have been put in place for wildlife. The consequences of the reopenings
may be especially hard on young animals born in the calm of the closures, according to wildlife experts.
“Individuals who have lived in the national park area will likely readjust pretty quickly to the return of recreators after quarantine,” said Lindsay Rosa, a conservation scientist with Defenders of Wildlife. “But newcomers, particularly juveniles born this spring, may take a bit longer to learn since they haven’t yet had the opportunity to encounter many humans.”
Visitors to the re-opened parks should be particularly wary of amphibians, says Rosa, many of which are beginning their migration to breeding grounds. “[For them], roads remain a particularly fatal obstacle.”
By Erik Stokstad
May 20, 2020
A deadly virus is spreading quickly among wild rabbits in southwestern North America, threatening populations and possibly endangered species. Last week the virus, which causes a hemorrhagic disease, reached Southern California. “The outlook right now is so unbelievably bleak,” says Hayley Lanier, a mammologist at the University of Oklahoma. “We’re
simply left to watch the wave spread out and worry about imperiled species in its path.”
Rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus first spread worldwide in the 1980s, devastating domestic rabbit populations in China and Europe. It raced through Australia, where feral rabbits had flourished after being introduced in the 18th century. Populations began to recover, but then a new strain emerged in France in
2010 that also kills wild species.
Strains of this new pathogen—rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus 2 (RHDV2, also called L. europaeus/GI.2)—are more prone to recombination, which could explain the broader range of hosts, says Joana Abrantes, a researcher in virus evolution at the Research Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources in Portugal. The new strain is less deadly in adults, but unlike its predecessor it also kills young rabbits. After the virus hammered populations in the Iberian Peninsula, killing 60% to 70%, two predators that depend on rabbits also declined: the Spanish imperial eagle by 45% and the Iberian lynx by 65%. Both types of RHDV are extremely infectious. They also persist in the environment, surviving in dead animals for at least 3 months.
Predators and insects can spread it through their feces. The virus is now poised to spread throughout North America, says Robyn Hall, a veterinary virologist and epidemiologist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, where RHDV2 sped cross-country in 18 months between 2015 and 2016.
The virus was first detected in North America in 2018, in domesticated rabbits in Canada, followed by three U.S. states, but not in wild species. In early March, biologists in New Mexico began to find dead wild rabbits. One of the first known victims was discovered by Gary Roemer, a wildlife biologist at New Mexico
State University (NMSU), Las Cruces, while walking his Chesapeake Bay retriever in the desert. The dog “never catches jackrabbits, they’re just too damn fast,” he says. But the rabbit must have been sick and weak, he guesses. Since then, Roemer has found 18 carcasses in 1 half-square kilometer.
Biologists and wildlife veterinarians in neighboring states were on the alert and began to receive reports of multiple dead rabbits in many locations. “This is very, very unusual and what happens when we have a disease that is brand new to the landscape,” says Anne Justice-Allen, a wildlife veterinarian with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “We would never see tularemia or plague spread like this in rabbits.”
She has sent several carcasses to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC), which is helping with necropsies and preparing samples for genetic testing. Because RHDV is a foreign virus, only a high containment laboratory run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Plum Island off the Massachusetts coast is allowed to test for the virus. USDA has sequenced genomes of RHDV2 samples collected from 2018 to the present, according to a report submitted to the World Organisation for Animal Health on 5 May. The viral strain in the southwest—the same strain has been found in both domestic and wild rabbits there—differs from samples from other U.S. states and Canada, which suggests a single introduction to the desert region.
The genomes will be published as soon as possible, a spokesperson told ScienceInsider. Knowing more
about the strains, and possibly their virulence, could help biologists know what kind of impact to expect in wild populations,Justice-Allen says. Challenge experiments, in which rabbits are intentionally infected with the virus, would also help. In 2017, researchers at the Plum Island lab showed that RHDV2 can kill
eastern cottontails, a wild species, but experimental infections are not planned for other wild species.
Concern for endangered species
In the meantime, USGS has warned that all North American species of lagomorph—which include rabbits, hares, and distant relatives called pikas—could be susceptible. Biologists fear the virus could have an especially negative impact on some species that are already struggling. Overall, just two species of North
American lagomorph are considered stable; the rest are declining because of threats such as climate change or habitat degradation from livestock grazing. Other species are not well enough studied
to know their status, Lanier says.
Species of particular concern include the pygmy rabbit, which has populations at risk, such as those in Washington state. The virus is already affecting species in northern Mexico, a center of lagomorph diversity that is home to rare and endangered species such as the volcano rabbit and the Davis Mountains cottontail. “We are very concerned,” says Jesús Fernández, a mammologist at the Autonomous University of Chihuahua, Chihuahua. “We believe that [the virus] can pose a serious threat.” Fernández and
colleagues have been telling local cattle ranchers they should burn any rabbit corpses they find, bury them 1 meter deep, and report any with bloody faces. Fernández and colleagues are organizing sampling work to figure out which species in Mexico can be infected and how the populations are faring. A future worry
is that if rabbit and jackrabbit populations plummet, coyotes may hunt cattle instead, which might cause ranchers to use poison to kill the coyotes. Poisoned carcasses could in turn endanger scavengers such as eagles and vultures.
Roemer says there are not a lot of data on rabbit populations in the U.S. Southwest. He has done surveys in three parts of New Mexico for several years and hopes to find funding to determine the impact of the virus on rabbits and their predators. He and other researchers would also like to know whether certain species
act a reservoir for the virus, which could lead to it becoming endemic. “There’s so much we don’t know that it is extremely difficult to make a prediction,” says Matt Gompper, a wildlife ecologist at NMSU.
Could a vaccine help?
If the virus does become established, some researchers hope a vaccine might help protect populations. Commercial vaccines for domestic rabbits, available in Europe, can’t be used in wild species because they must be injected. “The stress induced by animal capture and manipulation is often lethal,” Abrantes notes.
And the vaccines are made from inactivated infectious viruses, which raises concerns the vaccines themselves could spread problematic pathogens.
Four institutions in Portugal are working on a different approach. Project Fight 2 aims to develop an oral vaccine for RHDV2, incorporated into bait, for the wild rabbit populations of the Iberian Peninsula. The project, which began in October 2018, has a budget of about €120,000 to develop a prototype vaccine
based on viruslike particles that mimic viruses without being infectious. The group expects initial results on the effectiveness by the end of 2021. If successful, it could take two to three more years to license the vaccine, they say.
One drawback: Like the vaccines for domestic rabbits, boosters will be necessary every 6 months, and cost could be an issue. Robert Dusek, a wildlife biologist at NWHC, sounds a note of caution: “That’s a long road to go down and pretty expensive.” Carlos Rouco, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Córdoba, is
also skeptical. He says the best hope is to prevent the introduction of the virus. “I don’t consider myself an alarmist person, but the virus is unstoppable.” Once it reaches a population, managers should try to reduce other stresses on the population, such as supplying water if necessary. A certain percentage of the population should be resistant to the virus, he says.
In Arizona, Justice-Allen has her hopes. “We are still seeing live rabbits in areas where the outbreak has been going on for more than a month. So that is reassuring.”
Posted in: Plants & Animals
By Linda Duncan
The topic of my student presentation for my Master Naturalist class was the Shenandoah
Salamander. Unable to present the class with a live specimen I created a Papier Mache’ sculpture, about
15 times larger than the actual Shenandoah Salamander. Read about the Shenandoah Salamander (an endangered species) and Linda's creation of Sal (Here)
By Margaret Renkl
Contributing Opinion Writer, New York Times
May 18, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET
NASHVILLE — One day last fall, deep in the middle of a devastating drought, I was walking the dog when a van bearing the logo of a mosquito-control company blew past me and parked in front of a neighbor’s house. The whole vehicle stank of chemicals, even going 40 miles an hour.
The man who emerged from the truck donned a massive backpack carrying a tank full of insecticide and proceeded to spray every bush and plant in the yard. Then he got in his truck, drove two doors down, and sprayed that yard, too, before continuing his route all around the block.
Here’s the most heartbreaking thing about the whole episode: He was spraying for mosquitoes that didn’t even exist: Last year’s extreme drought ended mosquito-breeding season long before the first freeze. Nevertheless, the mosquito vans arrived every three weeks, right on schedule, drenching the yards with poison for no reason but the schedule itself. And spraying for mosquitoes isn’t the half of it, as any walk through the lawn-care department of a big-box store will attest. People want the outdoors to work like an extension of their homes — fashionable, tidy, predictable. Above all, comfortable. So weedy yards filled with tiny wildflowers get bulldozed end to end and replaced with sod cared for by homeowners spraying from a bottle marked “backyard bug control” or by lawn services that leave behind tiny signs warning, “Lawn care application; keep off the grass.”
If only songbirds could read. Most people don’t seem to know that in this context “application” and “control” are simply euphemisms for “poison.” A friend once mentioned to me that she’d love to put up a nest box for bluebirds, and I offered to help her choose a good box and a safe spot for it in her yard, explaining that she would also need to tell her yard service to stop spraying. “I had no idea those guys were spraying,” she said.
To enjoy a lush green lawn or to sit on your patio without being eaten alive by mosquitoes doesn’t seem like too much to ask unless you actually know that insecticides designed to kill mosquitoes will also kill every other kind of insect: earthworms and caterpillars, spiders and mites, honeybees and butterflies, native bees and lightning bugs. Unless you actually know that herbicides also kill insects when they ingest the poisoned plants.
The global insect die-off is so precipitous that, if the trend continues, there will be no insects left a hundred years from now. That’s a problem for more than the bugs themselves: Insects are responsible for pollinating roughly 75 percent of all flowering plants, including one-third of the human world’s food supply. They form the basis of much of the animal world’s food supply, as well. When we poison the bugs and the weeds, we are also poisoning the turtles and tree frogs, the bats and screech owls, the songbirds and skinks.
“If insect species losses cannot be halted, this will have catastrophic consequences for both the planet’s ecosystems and for the survival of mankind,” Francisco Sánchez-Bayo of the University of Sydney, Australia, told The Guardian last year. Lawn chemicals are not, by themselves, the cause of the insect apocalypse, of course. Heat waves can render male insects sterile; loss of habitat can cause precipitous population declines; agricultural pesticides kill land insects and, by way of runoff into the nation’s waterways, aquatic insects, as well.
As individuals, we can help to slow such trends, but we don’t have the power to reverse them. Changing the way we think about our own yards is the only thing we have complete control over. And since homeowners use up 10 times more pesticide per acre than farmers do, changing the way we think about our yards can make a huge difference to our fellow creatures. It can make a huge difference to our own health, too: As the Garden Club of America notes in its Great Healthy Yard Project, synthetic pesticides are endocrine disrupters linked to an array of human health problems, including autism, A.D.H.D., diabetes and cancer. So many people have invested so completely in the chemical control of the outdoors that every subdivision in this country might as well be declared a Superfund site.
Changing our relationship to our yards is simple: Just don’t spray. Let the tiny wildflowers take root within the grass. Use an oscillating fan to keep the mosquitoes away. Tug the weeds out of the flower bed with your own hands and feel the benefit of a natural antidepressant at the same time. Trust the natural world to perform its own insect control, and watch the songbirds and the tree frogs and the box turtles and the friendly garter snakes return to their homes among us.
Because butterflies and bluebirds don’t respect property lines, our best hope is to make this simple change a community effort. For 25 years, my husband and I have been trying to create a wildlife sanctuary of this half-acre lot, planting native flowers for the bees and the butterflies, leaving the garden messy as a safe place for overwintering insects.
Despite our best efforts, our yard is being visibly changed anyway. Fewer birds. Fewer insects. Fewer everything. Half an acre, it turns out, is not enough to sustain wildlife unless the other half-acre lots are nature-friendly, too.
It’s spring now, and nearly every day I get a flier in the mail advertising a yard service or a mosquito-control company. I will never poison this yard, but I save the fliers anyway, as a reminder of what we’re up against. I keep them next to an eastern swallowtail butterfly that my 91-year-old father-in-law found dead on the sidewalk. He saved it for me because he knows how many flowers I’ve planted over the years to feed the pollinators.
I keep that poor dead butterfly, even though it breaks my heart, because I know what it cost my father-in-law to bring it to me. How he had to lock the brakes on his walker, hold onto one of the handles and stoop on arthritic knees to get to the ground. How gently he had to pick up the butterfly to keep from crumbling its wings into powder. How carefully he set it in the basket of the walker to protect it.
My father-in-law didn’t know that the time for protection had passed. The butterfly he found is perfect, unbattered by age or struggle. It was healthy and strong until someone sprayed for mosquitoes, or weeds, and killed it, too.
The hornets, which are over two inches long, were first spotted in the state in December last year, and generally become active in the spring, researchers from Washington State University said in a post published in early April. "They're like something out of a monster cartoon with this huge yellow-orange face," Susan Cobey, a bee breeder at WSU's Department of Entomology. "It's a shockingly large hornet," added Todd Murray, a specialist in invasive species at the university.
While generally not aggressive towards people or pets, the hornets can attack if provoked, officials say, and have killed humans in extreme circumstances. In 2013, between July and October, the insects killed 41 people and injured 1,600 in Shaanxi province during a particularly bad hornet season, the BBC reported.
Their main target, however, is the hives of honeybees, which they attack and often will destroy, largely by decapitating the bees in the hive, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA).
"Asian giant hornet attacks and destroys honeybee hives. A few hornets can destroy a hive in a matter of hours. The hornets enter a "slaughter phase" where they kill bees by decapitating them," the department said. "They then defend the hive as their own, taking the brood to feed their own young. They also attack other insects but are not known to destroy entire populations of those insects."
Scientists are keen to make clear that people should be extremely cautious around the insects. Such is the threat posed by the giant hornets that the WSDA has an entire web page devoted to reporting sightings of the insects and instructions on how to trap them. The site displays a large red banner warning people to be careful near them. (Washington State Department of Agriculture)
"Don't try to take them out yourself if you see them," said entomologist Chris Looney from the WSDA in a blog post on the WSU website. "If you get into them, run away, then call us! It is really important for us to know of every sighting, if we're going to have any hope of eradication."
(blog entry submitted by Charlene Uhl)
Trippy documentary celebrates the wonders and possibilities of the fungal kingdom
(published in Sierra magazine, May/June edition)
By Wendy Becktold
When he was young, Paul Stamets had a severe stutter that left him dreading social interactions. As a result, he spent a lot of time looking down at the ground. What he saw there piqued his curiosity and started him on a journey that continues to this day.
The documentary film Fantastic Fungi: The Magic Beneath Us (playing in select theaters and available to rent or buy via fantasticfungi.com) chronicles Stamets's journey and the object of his fascination: mushrooms and their fungal networks. Stamets, now a world-renowned mycologist, calls mushrooms "the grand molecular decomposers of nature," whose function is to regenerate forest and field by breaking down organic matter.
Thanks to the time-lapse, high-speed cinematography of director Louie Schwartzberg, viewers witness this process up close. Mushrooms sprout from leafy debris, rise out of fallen trees, and latch onto the body of a dead rodent, then devour it. Schwartzberg perfected his technique by leaving a camera rolling 24/7 for the past four decades in his home studio (the close-up nature scenes are actually filmed indoors).
But Fantastic Fungi is as much about what happens beneath the surface, hidden from human view. A mushroom is the fruiting body of a fungus, most of which grows underground as a mycelium, a tangled mass of threads that absorb nutrients from the environment and can stretch for hundreds of miles. Stamets believes that vast networks of mycelia form a kind of consciousness, functioning something like the brain of the planet. His mission is to discover how this system communicates with the ecosystem around it and what, exactly, it's saying.
Starting to sound a bit out-there? For sure, Stamets is an unconventional figure with some unusual ideas. He also, despite having never formally trained as a scientist, holds five patents for biopesticides, all of which make use of fungi's natural defenses to repel termites, wasps, and other pests. Turns out that fungi produce enzymes to ward off competition for food and that these can be harnessed by humans to fight not just insects but also diseases. The best example is penicillin, but the potential for future discoveries is enormous. "We have barely tapped into the fungal genome," Stamets says.
Fantastic Fungi is an ambitious film with threads that, like mycelia, stretch in many directions—science, history, medicine, spirituality, and modern-day environmentalism. According to Stamets, mushrooms are a kind of environmental cure-all that can detoxify soil and even be used to clean up oil spills.
A broad cadre of academics and other experts (including food writers Michael Pollan and Eugenia Bone) appear on-screen to extol the wonders of the fungal kingdom. We learn that fungi emerged from the ocean 4 billion years ago to generate the soil that made terrestrial life possible (a lava bed in South Africa hosts a mycelium fossil that is 2.4 billion years old—the oldest record of a multicellular organism). The film also delves into the theory that certain mushroom varieties' hallucinogenic effects may have catalyzed changes in the human brain that led to the development of language.
Fantastic Fungi examines the impact of psychedelic mushrooms in modern times too, pointing to research that suggests they have untapped potential to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer's disease, and alcoholism. In perhaps the most moving sequence, terminally ill patients recount how ingesting psilocybin, a chemical found in psychedelic mushrooms, in carefully supervised settings helped them find peace in the face of death.
The 1.5 million species of fungi dominate Earth in ways humans still barely understand. When we trash our forests, Stamets warns, we risk losing not just potential cures for disease but also a primal connection to something far bigger than us. Fantastic Fungi is an invitation for a shift in consciousness—one we need to undergo if we are to save ourselves from destruction. After all, fungi have survived all the great extinction events. Most likely, they'll survive the next one, even if we don't.
Washington Post, April 15, 2020
RIO DE JANEIRO — It's not easy being a baby sea turtle, hatching into a human's world. Curious children, leashless dogs, oblivious joggers: The dangers are many. Some never complete their postnatal dash to the ocean.
But in recent days, environmentalist Herbert Andrade has watched hundreds of baby turtles mosey their way toward the water along Brazil’s northeast coast, unmolested by people or pets, unencumbered by anxiety. The beach is empty. People, fearful of catching and spreading the coronavirus, are inside. But outside, Andrade sees a natural world blooming.
“The whole world is under risk,” said Andrade, environmental manager for the city of Paulista. “But this was a moment of happiness. It was a feeling that nature was transforming itself.”
For centuries, humans have pushed wildlife into smaller and smaller corners of the planet. But now, with billions in isolation and city streets emptied, nature is pushing back. Wild boar have descended onto the streets of Barcelona. Mountain goats have overtaken a town in Wales. Whales are chugging into Mediterranean shipping lanes. And turtles are finally getting some peace.
Buffalo walk on a mostly empty highway in India last week. (Getty Images)
While some stories of animal invasion that have gone viral have been fake — turns out elephants didn’t get drunk on Chinese corn wine and pass out in a tea garden — the apparent resiliency of the natural world is leavening a global tragedy with brief moments of wonderment. For people. And, apparently, for animals, too.
“The goats absolutely love it,” said Andrew Stuart, a resident of Llandudno, Wales. He saw the goats stroll into town one recent night, and has watched since then as they’ve availed themselves of its offerings. They’ve munched on windowsill flowers. Convened in parking lots. Strutted down emptied streets.
“They keep coming back, multiple times per day, 10 to 15 of them,” he said. “They’re taking the town back. It’s now theirs. Nothing is stopping them.”
But beyond the short-term benefits that human quarantines have brought the animal kingdom, conservationists say the pandemic could be an opportunity to push for more environmental protections and create a safer world for animals. An infrequently uttered word is beginning to sneak into conversations among conservationists and animal rights activists.
“I am hopeful,” anthropologist Jane Goodall told The Washington Post. “I am. I lived through World War II. By the time you get to 86, you realize that we can overcome these things. One day we will be better people, more responsible in our attitudes toward nature.”
A growing body of research has suggested that the risk of emerging diseases, three-quarters of which come from animals, is exacerbated by deforestation, hunting and the global wildlife trade, particularly in exotic or endangered species. One of the major vehicles for the transmission of novel diseases from animals to humans are wildlife markets, in which exotic animals are kept in cramped and unsanitary conditions. They have been linked to both severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Now countries around the world are under growing pressure to act. China, whose insatiable demand for animal parts drives much of the global wildlife trade, has taken the extraordinary step of banning the consumption of wild animals, and may do the same for dogs. Vietnam, another country with a large demand for animal products, said it intends to follow suit.
The U.N. biodiversity chief has called for a global ban on wildlife markets. So have 60 members of the U.S. Congress. More than 200 of the world’s leading conservation groups have asked the World Health Organization to take action against the wildlife trade. A World Wildlife Fund survey of 5,000 people in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia found 90 percent supported government closures of unregulated wildlife markets.
“Humans are extraordinarily selfish,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Brookings Institution scholar who studies wildlife trafficking. “If they start dying, they will start taking actions to minimize their dying. The most impactful and consequential legislation always comes after the health risks.”
The impacts of the closures and crackdowns, if they persist, will be global, undercutting the demand that fuels illegal wildlife trafficking, an illicit trade valued at more than $23 billion annually. The ripple effects of enforcement in Asia could be felt as far away as Latin America, where jaguars and turtles are hunted and killed to meet demand in China.
“Asian traders call it the Latin tiger,” Felbab-Brown said. “They are using jaguar bones and teeth to produce elixirs. . . . It’s picked up a lot in Latin America.”
Mountain goats roam the streets of Llandudno, Wales, last month. The goats, who live on the rocky Great Orme, are occasional visitors to the seaside town, but a councilor told the BBC the herd is now drawn by the lack of people and tourists. (Christopher Furlong/AFP/Getty Images)
But analysts say the pandemic also heightens potential dangers for animals. Poverty and hunger, exacerbated by lockdowns and disruptions in food supplies, may drive more people to hunt.
“And that’s okay,” said Joe Walston, a senior official with the Wildlife Conservation Society. “If people are put in a position of poverty, and we have failed providing economic alternatives, they should be able to do that.”
More concerning, advocates say, is the possibility that people could abandon their pets, out of the mistaken fear they can spread the virus, or because they can no longer afford to feed them.
“It is more likely to increase pet abandonment,” said Marco Ciampi, president of Brazil’s Humanitarian Association of Animal Protection and Well-Being. “And the fake news is terrible. But even with this, animals will be in a more safe position, if we listen to the call of animals: ‘We are here, and if the environment is friendly, we are friendly, too.’ ”
“It’s an amazingly magical moment,” he said. “There are peacocks in the streets.”
Bruce Borowsky, a videographer in Boulder, Colo., was walking through the main pedestrian strip of the college town last week when he experienced that magical moment. Up near the top of a tree, beside a building, he spotted a mountain lion, asleep, back paws hanging down. Down below, Pearl Street, which normally teems with restaurant patrons, shoppers, and University of Colorado students, was a “ghost town.” Nothing was waking up the mountain lion anytime soon.
“I’ve lived in Boulder for 30 years, and I’ve never seen a mountain lion before,” Borowsky said. “And I’m a filmmaker and am outdoors constantly. Animals are sensing that people aren’t around much and are coming out more.
“We’re waiting for the bears to come out of hibernation and see how brazen they get.”
Along Brazil’s northeastern shoreline, Andrade is also seeing sights he has never witnessed. He has cared for endangered sea turtles for more than a decade, and has seen all sorts of calamities befall them. Artificial light along the beach especially confuses the turtles. They mistake it for the water’s reflection, wander off toward it and die along the way.
“For every thousand,” he said, “only one or two reach adulthood.”
For years, he has tried to teach people about the fragility of baby sea turtles — an ongoing effort he compared to a boxing match. He has erected protective areas around their nests. He has held events to show children why they’re special. Life was getting better, safer for turtles. But nothing compared to this: an empty beach.
For him, the beauty of it ached.
“It was a surreal sensation,” he said. “You see nature living out its role in this way. . . . Things fit together. We saw nature birthed without human interaction.”
By Amanda Heidt
Science, Apr. 8, 2020 , 1:45 PM
Monarch butterflies raised in captivity rarely survive the species’ grueling, nearly 5000-kilometer migration. Now,
researchers think they know why. When the insects were raised in indoor cages, they grew up paler (an
indication of poor health) and 56% weaker (as measured in a grip strength test), researchers report today in Biology Letters. The reason may be that, although most butterflies survive when raised in captivity, only the strongest survive in the wild, The New York Times reports. The researchers don’t discourage hobbyists from raising monarchs, but they say it may not be the best way to restore dwindling populations around the globe.
Also See Number of monarch butterflies wintering in Mexico down by more than half
March 27, 2020 by PamKamphuis
The Piedmont Virginian
By Joe Lowe
When it comes to abundance, the stars we see at night (approximately 5,000) shine dimly compared to the number of plant and animal species in Virginia’s Piedmont, which may exceed 20,000, although the real number — if ever known — is almost certainly larger.
If that’s surprising, it’s because the “big” species we usually see, like oak trees and deer, take up a lot more space in our minds than they do on a species roster. In reality, “small” organisms — fungi and insects, among others — represent life’s greatest diversity, numerically dwarfing their larger counterparts.
These organisms, big and small, are never far. On a short walk, we might come across dozens or hundreds. Pill bugs, sumac bushes, and crows, for example, may not seem terribly interesting or consequential, but the Piedmont’s flora and fauna — known collectively as its biodiversity — are an absolute necessity for the area’s human residents.
Working together, plants and animals keep soils fertile, pollinate fruits and vegetables, produce fresh air, keep water clean, and help regulate climate. In short, they maintain a local life-support system without which the Piedmont would be a wasteland.
Although most of the region may look like a model of rural health, we know that its plants and animals are under intense pressure. How? Because species like the Rusty-patched Bumblebee and Purple Fringeless Orchid are telling us in the clearest way possible: by disappearing.
And they are not alone. Once common birds like the Common Nighthawk, Northern Bobwhite, and Eastern Whip-poor-will are now scarce in the region. Other species are gone. Since European colonization, Virginia has likely lost 72 species. In the Piedmont, another 59 are in serious decline — more than at any other time in modern history.
Some of these species range outside of the Piedmont and their downturns can’t be blamed entirely on local changes. Their dwindling numbers are symptomatic of a much larger problem.
Human alterations to the planet have forced extinction rates into overdrive, reaching levels not seen for the last 65 million years. And if trends continue, half the world’s total plant and animal species could be facing extinction by the end of the century. This wouldn’t be a loss just for wildlife enthusiasts, it would be a loss for everyone who depends on traditional economic and agricultural practices.
Like biodiversity itself, threats to flora and fauna vary by continent and region. In the Piedmont, there are many challenges, but experts agree that several rise above the others.
Habitat Loss, Fragmentation, and Degradation
During winter, local Wood Ducks spend months living in frigid water, impervious to conditions that would send us scrambling for shelter. Even so, we dismiss the feat with four words, “They’re used to it.” But what happens when “it” — the circumstances that animals and plants are accustomed to — change? Like us, their survival depends on a few basic requirements: food, water, shelter, and space. And when these conditions – known as habitat — deteriorate or disappear, they follow suit.
In the Piedmont, this happens in several ways. The first, and most obvious, way is when habitat is destroyed for new construction.
While some counties do a better job of restricting urban expansion than others, this has not stopped forests and fields from being converted into roadside malls, roads, and residential areas.
New homes, of course, aren’t without greenspace; they have yards. But for wildlife, a well-manicured lawn, at best, offers little food, water, or shelter; at worst, it poses mortal risks when sprayed with pesticides, which kill pollinators like butterflies and bees.
Multiplied across the landscape, habitat loss has a fragmenting effect, breaking large forests and grasslands into a patchwork of small, distinct spaces. In the Piedmont, these usually take the form of isolated woodlots among surrounding farms. Although they may look fine, these forests lack the critical mass necessary to maintain long-term health. They’re susceptible to invasive species and other threats, and slowly break down as their natural communities deteriorate.
Habitat health isn’t just a forest issue. Given that farms cover much of the Piedmont, agricultural practices have a big impact on local biodiversity. Eastern Meadowlarks and many other grassland birds, for example, rely on local pasture for nesting sites. This can have deadly results, though, when fields are hayed before chicks fledge. Similarly, removing streamside forests and allowing cattle to graze and defecate in waterways is detrimental for aquatic species. The Dwarf wedgemussel, a freshwater mollusk, is already gone from Fauquier County, and eleven other mussel species are threatened in the region.
If you think you know your neighbors well after a few years, imagine the relationships local plants and animals have after living together for millennia. These connections helped form a community that has flourished, in part, thanks to a natural system of checks and balances, maintaining native populations at sustainable levels.
The Piedmont’s natural equilibrium, however, is in growing trouble thanks to the human-introduction of invasive species that don’t play by local rules. These species outcompete natives and multiply to nightmarish levels, upending the ecological fabric of our natural communities.
They come in many forms. A fungus from China, the Chestnut blight, decimated the Piedmont’s Chestnut trees in the first half of the twentieth century. More recently, insects like the Emerald Ash-borer and Wooly Adelgid have begun killing off our Ash and Eastern Hemlock trees.
Meanwhile, more than 80 species of invasive plants have besieged the Piedmont, sending destructive ripples throughout the food chain. For example, while caterpillars feast on native plants, they can starve on invasives. This means lower reproduction rates for Eastern Bluebirds and other songbirds that depend on caterpillars to feed their chicks in invasive-dominated areas.
Making things worse, invasive plants have found unlikely allies among our native White-tailed Deer. Thanks to human influence, deer populations have surged across the Piedmont in recent decades — and their impact has been dramatic. Not only do deer inadvertently spread the sticky seeds of some invasive plants, their voracious grazing threatens the health of native forests and plants.
Protecting the Piedmont’s Biodiversity
Despite the challenges, local citizens and organizations are actively working to protect the Piedmont’s biodiversity. Piedmont landowners have put nearly 500,000 acres under conservation easement, protecting it from development. But there is still more to do and plenty of ways to make an impact.
Create and Improve Habitat
Most of the Piedmont is privately owned, which means that landowners have a large role to play in protecting biodiversity. Doing so is probably easier than you think. For starters, next time you feel compelled to tidy your lawn, relax. By leaving leaves, saving snags, and mowing a little less, you can improve habitat for local wildlife. If you want to do more, remove invasive species and plant natives. Remember, when it comes to protecting biodiversity, everything counts: a single oak tree can feed and provide shelter for hundreds of species.
If you’re interested in a conservation easement or would like to improve wildlife habitat on your property, the Piedmont Environmental Council can help. If you own a farm and would like to protect streams and improve livestock health, reach out to the local Natural Resources and Conservation Service or John Marshall Soil and Water Conservation District for support. The Virginia Department of Forestry can also provide stewardship recommendations to improve the health of your woodlot.
Many organizations offer educational programs for children or adults. These include The Clifton Institute, Virginia Working Landscapes, Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, Friends of the Rappahannock, and Bull Run Mountains Conservancy. For more intensive training, sign up for the Virginia Master Naturalist training program. The Virginia Native Plant Society provides excellent online resources and the Virginia Department of Forestry offers identification guides to local trees and shrubs.
Volunteering to support land stewardship and citizen science efforts is a great way to get involved. Opportunities are available with The Clifton Institute, Virginia Working Landscapes, Friends of the Rappahannock, Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Leadership, and Bull Run Mountains Conservancy.
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