I never expect to see a snake.  When I do, it’s momentarily alarming (yes, I still have a tad bit of residual herpetological fear) and then unexpectedly delightful.  Recently, I spied a Smooth Green Snake (Opheodrys vernalis) hanging out in the grassy border of a local rail trail.

This small green to light brown snake with the creamy-colored underside is native to the Nearctic region ranging from Canada to

Smooth Green Snake
Photo by Sgbrown56 on Dreamstime

the highlands of central Mexico.  They are best known for their group-living arrangements, called hibernacula.  These are groups of 100 to 150 individual snakes cohabitating.  Hibernacula have been found in Minnesota and Manitoba.  They may exist elsewhere too but this isn’t well-documented.  (Ok, I’m kind of creeped out again.)

In Maine, Smooth Green Snakes are a secure, or relatively abundant, species. They are found in the meadows, wetlands, marshes, bogs, farmlands, and the abandoned fields that comprise a fair amount of the state.  With this kind of habitat adaptability, I would have thought that they were a prevalent and secure species everywhere.  Wrong again.  

Next door, in New Hampshire, they are listed as vulnerable. In the northwest corner of Indiana, the only place where they are found in the state, they are in decline.  Similarly, they are considered imperiled in Ohio, Montana, and Wyoming.  They are most likely gone from Missouri.  Surprisingly, a quick check of the IUCN Red List reports that they are of least concern globally. 

This is curious.  Does local extirpation signal a declining ecosystem?  Sometimes yes, but sometimes there are other reasons.

We know that extirpation results when the local environmental conditions can no longer the species.  Some of it is driven by human activities but not all.  Heat waves, glaciation, and even volcanic activity can result in such dramatic changes in the ecology.  

While habitat loss and pesticides are often cited as the reason for the snake’s population decline, there may be other factors at play.  Little research seems to be done on this species, as it neither threatens humanity nor offers great benefits other than eating some pests.   Sadly, it may just disappear before we know much more about it.  And we may never know why.

Source:

An excellent resource to learn more about species’ status – https://explorer.natureserve.org/Taxon/ELEMENT_GLOBAL.2.103123/Opheodrys_vernalis

Noise created by humans often disrupts normal animal or bird behaviors.  Just consider the consequences of human noise pollution. Disrupting ocean life is but one example.  Sadly, the negative outcomes are well documented in whales, dolphins, and other sea creatures.

A team from California Polytechnic State University and Boise State University wanted to understand the role of naturally occurring soundscapes on the behavior of other animals.

This team, led by ecologist Dylan Gomes, tested a hypothesis that natural sounds influence where bats and birds live and forage. Bats and birds were chosen because they are sound-dependent for critical behaviors such as communication, navigation, and hunting.

To test their hypothesis, the team created rushing whitewater sounds where gentle

Stream in Pioneer Mountains
Photo by Robert Crum on Dreamtimes

streams typically flow. They chose 60 study sites within the remote Pioneer Mountains of Idaho and set up the equipment.  Then they generated the noise, varying loudness and audio frequency.  

The results showed that both volume and pitch (frequency) impacted the bats’ and birds’ ability to go about their duties.  Pitch is important because it may mask or overlap with birdsong, as an example.  Consequently, subsequent increases in either decibel (for volume) or kilohertz (for pitch) caused both species to decrease their foraging behavior.  Some bats and birds even move away from the study sites.  The violent rushing river sounds appear to have been too distracting to continue life as usual.

Birds that stayed in the area were less efficient foragers. They harvested fewer insects.  In comparison, some bats were a bit more adaptable and made adjustments. They shifted from listening for their prey to using echolocation.  Despite this shift in behavior, foraging success still suffered.

More studies are warranted but if these species are this sensitive to natural sounds perhaps we have underestimated the impact of our noise-generating activities. 

For another example of naturally occurring noise impacts on a species, check out this earlier post about the waterfalls and the frogs.  https://comfortmewithnature.com/nature-in-the-news-unexpected-nature/

Sources:

Article at Cal Poly site – https://calpolynews.calpoly.edu/news_releases/2021/May/birdsbats

 Research paper about this research – https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-22390-y

 

@CalPoly   @BoiseState  

Anyone deeply interested in a subject quickly discovers the specialized vocabulary associated with the topic.  These topic-specific terms are intended to provide specificity and clarity.   However, they frequently end up being used to exclude beginners or those who are casually interested in the subject from delving too deeply into the interests of those who are “serious.”

Let’s remove the mystery around some of those terms right now. 

In the 1970s, environmentalists Raymond Dasmann and Peter Berg used the term “bioregion.”  This word defines a geographic area that has unique natural features, such as localized plants and animals or distinct geological formations.  Their concept of a bioregion also recognizes that people are factors in the ecological equation.  

Consequently, a bioregion is also defined by the inclusion of local cultures.  Specifically, this reflects what local populations need to live and how they will interact with the natural resources around them.   Keep in mind though, not everyone agrees with this definition.   There are other interpretations as well. Some definitions are broader and suggest a more nature-positive approach.  Others are more narrow or neutral.  

Lately, “bioregionalism” has become aligned with the green economy movement.  This is a lightning rod concept in some circles.  Historically, it was the inspiration for the Earth First! militia. Again, a polarizing notion.   (Note, I do not condone violence nor destruction, even for the sake of environmental protection, which I obviously support.)

Politics aside, ensuring that our natural systems are available now and for future generations seems like a sensible thing to do because ultimately we depend upon them. More moderate conservation management and government agencies use the term to designate different types of areas.  It is a somewhat useful term but has many limitations. The One Earth organization provides additional information about what they describe as the 185 discrete bioregions distributed globally.  

For more information, refer to this source:  https://www.oneearth.org/bioregions-2020/

While bioregions may be valuable for government entities, they may be too encompassing, lacking local specificity for the person who wants to best understand their community.  Therefore, a future post will explore the concept of ecoregions and we will get a bit closer to home. 

Sources: 

For more information about Dasmann and Berg’s bioregionalism — ” Reinhabiting California,” published in The Ecologist in 1977

When reading the almost perpetual stream of stories about loss and devastation in the environment, it can get rather disheartening.  Sometimes we just want to know that there are some wins out there, right?  Today, we highlight three such wins, one each from the continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe.  

The first story comes from Sri Lanka.  In 1982, the last known Sri Lankan legume tree (Crudia zeylanica) died.  It was officially declared extinct in 2006.  However, in 2019, a single legume tree was discovered when planning for a new road.   Conservationists, Buddist monks, and the general public rallied to save the tree.  The monks took the special step to ordain the tree, declaring it taboo to cut it down. 

Since then, several more of the trees have been found because people were actively searching for others.  Researchers have also successfully germinated some of their seeds to produce offspring.   There is renewed hope for this tree.

Thanks to @Mongabay News for bringing us the story.

Next, we visit (virtually) the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The poverty rate in this country ranks it amongst one of the poorest in the world.  Yet, it is considered one of the richest in natural resources, including diamonds, gold, and oil.  Sadly, it has been plagued by regional wars, political instability, ongoing Ebola epidemics, severe food insecurity, and what the Human Rights Watch calls a dire humanitarian situation. 

On the other hand, the DRC has an incredible national park, Virunga, which is home to three types of great apes – the mountain gorilla, eastern lowland gorilla, and eastern chimpanzee – as well as hippos and forest elephants.

In 2010, oil exploration began within the park and a significant oil reserve was discovered.  Despite the financial pressures, local communities chose to participate in listening sessions regarding the impact of drilling in the park instead of jumping at the opportunity. 

Earlier this year, the community members determined that drilling was not in their best interest.   The fragile ecosystem of the park was too important to destroy. In a translation from the French text, the community stated, “…in no case will we agree to be divided for personal interests to the detriment of community interests. We ask the president to cancel this order.”  

Let’s hope that the will of the people can sustain. 

Thanks to the Network for the Conservation and Rehabilitation of Forest Ecosystems (@reseau_cref) for tweeting the news. 

Lastly, we head to England for one more step in the right ecological direction.   

An area known as the Solent, on the south coast of England, was once the largest self-sustaining native oyster fishery in Europe.  Then, the area became overfished, polluted, and congested with invasive species.    

As you most likely know, oysters act as a natural water filtration system, ingesting pollutants, removing many from their surrounding habitat.  So, a collaboration of scientists, conservationists, fishers, and other local businesses seeks to reinvigorate the area by adding five million oysters to the Solent waters over the next several years. A major oyster breeding program is underway.  Other planned restoration efforts would further encourage biodiversity within the waterway.   

We will check in periodically with the Blue Marine Foundation (@Bluemarinef)  to see how this is progressing.

If you know of recent, additional environmental success stories that need a broader audience, feel free to send them along.  Let’s do our part to get the word out!

Sources:

Sri Lankan legume tree — https://news.mongabay.com/2021/03/hope-blooms-for-an-extinct-sri-lankan-tree-that-reemerged-under-threat/

Virunga National Park, DRC and local communities — https://reseaucref.org/nous-ne-voulons-pas-de-lexploitation-du-petrole-dans-le-parc-des-virunga-previennent-les-communautes-de-vitshumbi-et-kanyabayonga/

Solent Oyster Restoration project — https://nativeoysternetwork.org/portfolio/solentoyster/

Most of us have heard the tale that Norse explorers named “Iceland” intentionally to dissuade others from taking the land.   They also called a different icy island “Greenland” to encourage explorers to look in that direction instead.   Perhaps the Norse knew something we didn’t?

The story begins during the Cold War, when the US Army established Camp Century in northwestern Greenland, as part of Project Iceworm.  Their mission was to install a network of nuclear missile launch sites that could survive a first strike. (Ironically, a nuclear reactor also powered the station.  Wasn’t that a vulnerability?) 

As cover for this super-secret nuclear project, US Army scientists began deep drilling into the ice in the name of scientific exploration.  In 1966, they extracted a fifteen-foot-long sample from nearly a mile down.  

Initially, a military base in New Hampshire received the sample. Next, the core went to Dr. Chester Langway at the University of Buffalo. Dr. Langway had led the project at the dig site.  As time marched forward, new, deeper samples were collected in Greenland and elsewhere. The Camp Century core was no longer in high demand and was shipped to an ice repository at the University of Copenhagen for storage.  Then, the sample was “lost.”  

The core was rediscovered in 2017 when the Copenhagen team was moving samples to a new freezer.

Since then, an international team of scientists comprised of Andrew Christ and Paul Bierman of the University of Vermont, Joerg Schaefer at Columbia University, and Dorthe Dahl-Jensen at the University of Copenhagen, together have studied the sample.  It included not just soil, as was expected, but also unique fossilized plants and other biomolecules.

Their results show that at least part of Greenland must have been ice-free sometime within the last million years, perhaps even as recently as a few hundred thousand years ago.   The organic matter suggests that there was a time when Greenland was covered with forest, possibly fir and spruce trees, as well as lichen and moss.

Unfortunately, this finding signals yet another dangerous outcome as a result of our growing climate crisis.  Greenland’s ice sheets have previously melted without the influence of human activity.  It is likely to do so again under the current conditions.  When it does, the oceans will rise sufficiently to flood coastal cities. 

The University of Vermont team included a short video to explain the connection to this research:  https://youtu.be/Ota2-eEN41w 

Sources:

Background on Camp Century – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camp_Century 

Rediscovering the core – https://www.uvm.edu/uvmnews/news/secrets-under-ice

Findings from the core – https://www.uvm.edu/uvmnews/news/uvm-scientists-stunned-discover-plants-beneath-mile-deep-greenland-ice

Scientific paper – https://www.pnas.org/content/118/13/e2021442118