Harsh winter kills Dutch wildlife

February 25, 2009

As a followup on my post on human intervention in the food web, our Dutch correspondent JP reports that the harsh winter has killed a third of the animals in the Netherlands’ Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve. The Oostvaardersplassen is an interesting place – after the land was reclaimed from a lake (a “polder“) in 1968, managers introduced wild Heck cattle and Konik horses to prevent dense vegetation from taking over waterbird habitat. Now the Oostvaardersplassen “represents a wetland ecosystem that is not unlike those that would have existed on river banks and deltas previous to human disturbance.”

Twelve hundred of the estimated thirty-six hundred cattle, horses, and deer have perished from winter starvation. Scientists and managers have deemed the deaths normal. According to this poorly Google-translated article (which I quote directly since the translation is hilarious):

According to State, which administers the area, this is not to panic mortality of touch. “There are also many new animals born,” says forester Hans Breeveld. “The animals that no longer will make, we and we deliver them from their suffering.” The animals are ‘no additional winter food. With the support of the Cabinet and the Lower House is a few years ago agreed that nature are going to go in the Oostvaardersplassen.

Ecologist Frans Vera, at Wageningen University, supports this approach. He is a mortality of 30 percent not shockingly high. “Even though the 50 percent, then it’s good to do. Earlier that 25 percent is considered quite normal.”

However, according to JP and to the equally poorly translated comments, people are not very happy that the government is letting the animals die. They see the Oostvaardersplassen as more of a zoo than a wild space, since the terrestrial park of park is 1900 ha, or only 7.3 square miles. As one commenter says (again, poorly Google-translated):

Eight legal arguments and totally obsolete. There is no question of a chance to draw what is in nature or occurs. There is too little habitat that these animals in the harsh winter fully enclosed zitten.

So are these animals wild or are they in a zoo? And what then should be the human responsibility? Personally, I think the managers are doing the right thing to maintain a healthy population within the park’s carrying capacity. But similarly to the NJ dolphins, it’s hard to sit back and watch animals starving to death. I suspect issues like this will become more and more common as we enter…dum dum dum….THE MANAGED WORLD.

Thanks, JP!

The Managed World: A Tale of Two Trophic Troubles

February 18, 2009

Macquarie Island, before and after cat elimination. (From 80 Beats at Discovery Network)

There is no place on earth, no matter how remote, untouched by humans. We are mighty: we can trawl the deep, explore the South Pole, and fish every single island in the South Pacific. But as every young nerdling knows, with great power comes great responsibility. The Managed World is an occasional series in the Oyster’s Garter that explores the hard choices that come from a human-dominated world.

Most food webs look more like a tangled web than the Great Chain of Being – since predators eat each other and most animals eat more than one prey species, their relationships are complicated. But sometimes changing the population of a single predator can bring the entire ecosystem down like dominoes. It’s called a trophic cascade.

The New York Times has two examples of humans changing the populations of key species, and the consequences that result. The first took place on Macquarie Island, a small island between Australia and Antarctica. Like on many isolated islands, the native birds evolved without predators and live in burrows. Introduced cats were eating the birds and running amuck. So researchers embarked on an intensive cat-elimination program. Sounds good so far – kill the kittehs, save the birds.

Elk feeding. (NYT)

The only problem is that there are also introduced rabbits and introduced plants. With no more cats, the rabbits bred like rabbits and ate all the native plants. Introduced plants took over the bare slopes and prevented the native birds that this was all supposed to help in the first place from nesting in the best burrowing sites.

The second involves a lawsuit over feeding elk in Jackson, Wyoming. When elk were depleted and starving at the turn of the century, people started feeding them. Now Jackson has an elk overpopulation that eats all the native willows and breeds disease (that can then be passed on to cattle). But if the lawsuit wins, stopping the elk feeding would cause a kind of economic cascade – there’s an entire tourism economy built around the easy-to-find elks. And while unnaturally large populations of elk breed disease amongst themselves, starving elks stealing cattle feed would pass disease, too. So nobody knows what to do. (I don’t suppose anyone wants to introduce more wolves? They’re proven to control elk and I bet they’re good for tourism!)

The conclusion: it is  very, very hard to predict (as Donald Rumsfeld would say) the unknown unknowns. There’s a million stories like these – even Lyme disease in the Northeast is thought to be connected to a trophic cascade with wolves, deer, mice, and ticks. To end with a slight non sequiter, this is why I’m leery of geoengineering. If we can’t even properly manage the ecosystem of 21-mile-long Macquarie Island, I worry that the cure for global warming could be even worse than the disease.

TGIF: Interspecies Valentine

February 13, 2009

For never was a story of more woe, than this of Moosiet and her Octopo.

For more strange and well-designed V-Day cards, check out Dooce’s collection.

Thanks, Anna!

Let the lost NJ dolphins die – and focus on what really matters

January 27, 2009

Yesterday, in an article with the spectacularly dull headline “Officials and Scientists Debate the Criteria for Rescuing Animals,” the Washington Post summarized the debate over NOAA’s decision not to rescue a group of 16 dolphins in a NJ river. The dolphins swam up the river in the summer, but didn’t leave when the water iced over and the fish left. Three died and the rest have disappeared, either making it back to the ocean or drowning under the ice.

I understand that’s neat to see wild dolphins in the Jersey ‘burbs, and that it’s tough to watch a sympathetic and charismatic animal slowly die. But the natural world isn’t Seaworld with happy Shamu doing happy jumps for happy kids – adorable animals die all the time. Sometime they starve to death because the parents have two chicks and only ever intend to feed one. Sometimes they get swiftly decapitated. Sometimes they get their tongues ripped out by other cute and charismatic animals, and die a slow and horrible death while their helpless mother watches.  If animals die for natural reasons, like if they swam up a river and didn’t leave even though they could have, then that’s the way it goes.

I find it especially insane that David DeGrazia, the chair of George Washington University’s philosophy department, is quote in the WaPo article as saying:

“We should regard them to having the same moral entitlements as we have,” DeGrazia said. “Even if they’re not human, we’re talking about individuals who matter a great deal, who are in distress.”

Seriously? So will we start prosecuting male dolphins for kidnapping and rape? Or defending harbor porpoises from being beaten to death by rampaging dolphin mobs?

If you care about dolphins – and I admit that while I profess a distaste for charismatic megafauna, I squeal like, well, a dolphin when they surf our bow wave – you should stop wasting your time yelling at NOAA about its eminently sane marine mammal rescue policy. (NOAA will indeed rescue them if they’re endangered or if the danger is human-caused). I also think that getting tied up in Western imperialist knots over that gory Japanese dolphin hunt is a waste of time – while a couple thousand dolphins are killed every year, bottlenose dolphins are not endangered and it’s just one hunt once a year in one place. That single hunt is hardly going to prompt McDonald’s to start selling Filet-O-Flipper.

Instead, here’s some massive worldwide problems that threaten dolphins everywhere – not just 16 in New Jersey and 2,500 in Japan:

  • Extinction. The Yangtze river dolphin is extinct, and the vaquita (a tiny coastal porpoise in the Gulf of California) will be next – unless efforts to keep them from drowning in fishing nets succeed.
  • Pollution. Mercury levels in dolphin flesh are so high that the Japanese dolphin hunt might end itself. That’s  good for those particular dolphins in the short term, but mercury threatens their long-health of marine mammals everywhere. Fight against coal power plants and for renewable energy.
  • Entanglement with fishing gear. According to the National Marine Fishery Service, this is the most common way that small marine mammals are killed by humans. Advocate for controlling & eliminating gill nets and drift nets, and for more responsibility in controlling ghost nets.

Of course, these are hard – way harder than helicoptering some soon-to-die dolphins out to sea – and probably wouldn’t make a good movie at Sundance. Such is life. So let those misguided 16 dolphins perish as nature intended, and let’s focus on saving millions more.

Related: The Southern Fried Scientist has a sense of porpoise.

Mandelbrot the fractal teddy-bear

January 12, 2009

This week’s strange plush creature is relatively normal, if you don’t mind strange clonal tumor-growths. Meet Mandelbrot the fractal teddy bear. Wudda! (Via Boing Boing).

Unfortunate knitted creatures

December 23, 2008

Loyal readers know of my love for dark and warped plush toys. But these…these are masterpieces. Sick, sick masterpieces. (Also, apparently not for sale, alas.)

Via Martini-Corona, who really should just take over the whole blog

Gender-ambiguous polar bears on ice

December 6, 2008

The San Diego Zoo polar bears are getting a big pile of ice to play in today. From the press release:

Kalluk, Tatqiq, and Chinook will have their own winter wonderland tomorrow, December 6! Snow Day at the Zoo, presented by WowWee AliveTM Cubs, brings mounds of shaved ice as a special treat for the Zoo’s polar bears. See the fun in person or on our Polar Bear Cam!

But don’t expect to be able to tell whether the bears are boys or girls.

Why is it so difficult to distinguish boy polar bears from girl polar bears? Because they’re so furry. The polar bear penis is similar to a dog’s: It is nublike, with a baculum (a bone) that extends when the animal is excited. But long hairs cover polar bears’ reproductive organs, making it hard to determine gender by sight alone. (Even scientists who observe polar bears having sex may find that fur obscures the penis.)

Yes, this entire post is an excuse to type “nublike.”


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