Birds Ablaze

By Hannah L. Robbins
BU News Service

Once I saw a bald eagle burst into flames. I was in Neah Bay, a town on the Makah Indian Reservation nestled in the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, Washington watching the bird swoop down over the marina, a two-foot-long flat fish dangling from its talons. As the bird abandoned the water and flew over the street, the flopping fish touched a live power line. A jolt of electricity traveled up the fish to the bird and stopped it midflight. Red flames instantly engulfed its body, and the bird dropped to the street below.

When I relayed the story to a local contact, his eyes grew wide and his expression somber. “This is a serious thing,” he said to me. “This bird has allowed you to witness its death. We need to get some drums, and some face paint. We must honor this moment with a ceremony.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Naw. I’m just messing with you. Those damn things are everywhere.”

Image Credit: Ron Peterson
Image Credit: Ron Peterson

By sheer numbers alone, bald eagles are taking over Washington’s seas and skies– a trend facilitated by their federally protected status. Conservationists hail the bald eagle’s recovery as a success story for the Endangered Species Act. Yet some fear an ecological backlash. As bald eagle populations continue to grow, they threaten to disrupt the tenuous ecological balances that characterize sensitive communities.  There is little conservationists can do, however, because of the eagles protected status. The bald eagle conundrum exposes weaknesses in current policy and poses new challenges to conservationists.

The history of bald eagles on the Olympic Peninsula is well-known among Washingtonians. Since moving to the western edge of the peninsula in the early 1900s, logging companies have targeted old growth trees like Douglas fir and Sitka spruce. Bald eagles often make homes of these trees, where they can construct nests weighing more than 1,000 pounds in the strong, sturdy branches.

In addition to cutting down vital habitat, logging companies sprayed DDT throughout the forests to prevent insects from infesting the wood. The chemical blocks calcium absorption, making egg shells weak—too weak, in some cases, to support a developing embryo. The pesticide wreaked havoc on bald eagle populations throughout the US in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1963, only 417 breeding pairs of bald eagles remained in the lower 48 states.

In response to that destruction, the US Government took action, banning DDT in 1972, and protecting the eagle and its habitat as part of the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA). State governments took action as well and all but five of the contiguous US states put bald eagles on their state endangered species list. Washington listed the bald eagle as “threatened.” The ESA protects threatened species- those that are likely to become endangered-in the same way it protects endangered species. The bald eagle’s populations began to rise; and when its population neared 20,000 breeding birds in 2007, the US Department of Fish and Wildlife removed it from the endangered species list.

The rising number of bald eagles tugs hard on the Pacific Northwest’s ecological web. Having a greater number of apex predators creates additional stress for prey populations. Shorebirds like common murres, rhinoceros auklets, and cormorants are particularly vulnerable in the Pacific Northwest ecological web because their populations are already declining due to habitat loss, gill netting and pollution. Bald eagle predation adds one more weight to their already weakened thread.

Perhaps more troubling, is the devastation bald eagles do to nesting communities. Bald eagles have run rampant on Washington’s Protection Island, a National Wildlife Refuge set aside in 1982 specifically to protect seabirds. When bald eagles first arrived to the island, they flew over the cormorant colony, swooped down and took the young out of the nests. Sometimes they would even attack adults.


Image Credit: Kevin White and the National Park Service.
Image Credit: Kevin White and the National Park Service.

“They are like big bullies” said Dr. Jim Hayward of Andrews University, who studies seabirds on Protection Island. Hayward noticed that over the years, bald eagles gradually took over cormorant nesting sites. Eventually the cormorants left the island. Now fifty to sixty abandoned nests remain, vestiges of a once vibrant seabird community.

On Tatoosh Island, just off the northwestern tip of Washington state, the sight of a bald eagle can induce panic among common murres, another local seabird. When bald eagles fly over nesting sites, the murres take to the air for safety, leaving their unguarded eggs vulnerable to other aerial predators like gulls and crows.

This threat is not unique to the Pacific Northwest. In Maine, which boasts the greatest density of bald eagles in the northeast, the birds prey on baby cormorants, gulls, loons, and great blue herons.

While the Endangered Species Act has brought back important species from the brink of extinction (grizzly bears, whooping crane, gray whale, and gray wolf to name a few), it has its weaknesses. Zeroing in on one species can have consequences that reverberate throughout the ecosystem. The other seabirds, for example, are collateral damage of conservation efforts that focus on meeting the environmental needs of one species, the bald eagle. As such, this approach may not be the best moving forward.

The single-species conservation approach is a relic of 1960s science. Back then, science giants like Robert T. Paine studied the effect one species would have on an entire ecosystem. Paine, for example, plucked sea stars from rocks, tossed them to the ocean, and watched biodiversity decline in areas where the sea stars were absent- from this study Paine coined the term “keystone species.” Such was the scientific mindset around the time when congress enacted the Endangered Species Act, originally the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, (consequently, 1966 was the year Paine published his findings from his sea star experiment). Yet, science has evolved.

An Ochre Sea Star. Image credit: NOAA
An Ochre Sea Star. Image credit: NOAA

“There was a growing understanding in the science community that the species by species approach is ultimately insufficient and not terribly efficient,” explained Joni Ward, North American Director of Conservation Science for The Nature Conservancy.

Nowadays, ecologists recognize the complex network of interactions not only between many species, but between species and their environments. This, in turn, has influenced how some organizations approach conservation. Rather than focus on one species, they focus on conserving an area or landscape. The Nature Conservancy, for example, has been using this landscape-based approach for 15-20 years. They look at a given region and use science to understand what is there, what should be there, and how that landscape might reasonably change over a given time period. The Nature Conservancy defines its conservation goals within a given area based on that data.

This approach is becoming so widespread that government agencies have moved toward landscape-based models. In the marine world, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls this approach ecosystem-based management.  “The idea of ecosystem-based management is definitely a guiding principle,” said Ed Bowlby, Science Coordinator for Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. “All agencies, both state and federal, have totally accepted that, or adopted that, or are going to adopt it.”

The Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (OCNMS), which encompasses over 3,000 square miles of ocean off the northwestern coast of Washington state, including the seaward hunting grounds of bald eagles uses this new approach to conservation. It protects the ecosystems that the eagles rely on. By protecting the ocean ecosystem, OCNMS indirectly protects all seabirds.

While the ideology behind ecosystem-based management is strong, enforcing policy based on it is extremely difficult. The sanctuary is large, about the size as Puerto Rico, and policing the waters would require a fleet of ships that would be both a financial and logistical nightmare. The system is complicated, and Bowlby reiterates the maxim: “There is no easy solution.”

Perhaps that is why we cling to a single-species approach. It is easy to grasp, and people can actually track “success.”

Legislation, like ecosystems, is made up of its own threads. Cultural, ecological and even economic values intertwine in a tapestry of legislative framework. As species like the bald eagle start to have a greater and more devastating impact on their ecosystems, scientists and lawmakers must think of new ways to weave these threads together. For now, their challenge is to untangle the thread without unraveling the entire system.

Giant Cats, Reptiles, and … White-Lipped Peccaries?

Sony Salzman
BU News Service

White-lipped peccary ©siwild

A hog-like creature called the white-lipped peccary dashed through the Brazilian rainforest. Tracking the signal from the animal’s radio collar tagging device, a team of wildlife conservationists was not far behind. Their mission is to preserve the rainforest, and that’s why they’re tracking the strange mammals that live there.

On this day, however, these ecologists were distracted from their peccary quest when they stumbled upon a sandstone cave. Inside the cave, they found ancient human paintings. Archeologists later confirmed that these painting were scrawled by hunter-gathers between 6,000 and 2,000 BC.

CavePainting ©Liana Joseph:WCS

The ecologists, members of the Wildlife Conservation Society and a Brazilian NGO called Instituto Quinta do Sol, acted quickly and professionally after this accidental discovery.

“Since we often work in remote locations, we sometimes make surprising discoveries, in this case, one that appears to be important for our understanding of human cultural history in the region,” said Dr. Alexine Keuroghlian, researcher with WCS’s Brazil Program said in this press release.

In fact, this discovery was made in 2009. The story is just now coming to light because all members kept quiet until archaeologists were able to assess the paintings and publish a paper in Revista Clio Arqueológica.

Keuroghlian studies white-lipped peccaries because the herd’s movements through a rainforest indicate how much that rainforest has been affected by human activities like deforestation and hunting. When Keuroghlian came upon the paintings, she contacted a local archeologist named Rodrigo Luis Simas de Aguiar,

Keuroghlian and the other ecologists kept mum about their discovery for four years, which allowed the archeologists to conduct their work away from the preying eyes of sight-seers, or worse, looters.

What Aguilar and his partner Keny Marques Lima found is remarkable. Possibly painted up to 10,000 years ago, some of the cave drawings actually depict a northeastern Brazilian artistic style. The cave is in central Brazil, and also reflects some drawings in the expected central Brazilian style. These cave paintings have expanded the view of regional differences among early hunter-gatherers.

The ancient paintings depict some geometric shapes and figures. Mostly, the people there painted animals – giant cats, armadillos, deep, birds and reptiles. The ancient Brazilians, did not, however, draw a single white-lipped peccary.

Anal Paste: Twitter for Hyenas?

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Rohit Varma.
Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Rohit Varma.

By: Sara Knight
BU News Service

To mark the boundaries of our yards, most people plant hedges or construct fences. Hyenas, on the other hand, use paste – an oily, waxy, yellowish substance secreted from their anal glands.

Last fall I spoke with evolutionary ecologist Kevin Theis about his fascination with hyenas and his time spent tracking their various cliques as they roamed about the Kenyan Masai Mara National Reserve. During his time there, Theis became particularly interested in the hyenas’ scent-marking behavior.

Many mammalian species take advantage of their odiferous excretions – usually glandular goop, urine, or feces – to stake a claim to their territory. This behavior is known to biologists as “scent marking.” Hyenas mark their clans’ territory by extruding their anal pouch and dragging it along the ground, leaving a pungent paste trail behind them. Theis also suspects they use paste to communicate more nuanced information like fertility or advertising social status.

To determine the true nature of paste messaging, Theis first needed to identify what paste is exactly.Through a chemical analysis of the anal paste of hyenas from four different clans, Theis found that each group had a distinct “perfume” – allowing individuals to rapidly recognize if they were in a friendly or rival clan’s territory.

He also found that the waste products of microbial communities living within the hyenas’ anal pouches are responsible for paste’s distinctive odors. Each clan’s signature scent results from the unique composition of microbial species shared among that social group, meaning hyenas rely heavily on their resident cooperative microbe species for social communication.

Theis is continuing his work from the department of microbiology and molecular genetics at Michigan State University, where he aims to “elucidate the mechanistic roles bacteria play in the scent marking systems, and thus social lives, of solitary and social hyena species.” Read his blog here.

Dust to Dust: Considering Natural Burial

Your view
Your view
Photo courtesy of Flickr user knfk

By: Sara Knight
BU News Service

As far as we know, everyone dies. After you die your loved ones will most likely hand you off to a very professional-looking, somber stranger. This stranger will deal with your corporal remains either by the pickle-and-primp method or by crisping you in an oven that reaches up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Should the former method be chosen, your orifices will be padded with balls of cotton and sewn shut. While the blood drains from your body, the gloved and masked stranger will systematically pump you full of noxious preservatives. After your corpse is plumped full of these carcinogenic chemicals, you will be washed with poisonous fungicides and insecticides, dabbed with rouge, and stuffed into an outfit of your loved ones’ choosing.

Your body will be put into a polished metal and wood coffin and lowered deep underground into a secure, cement vault. The grounds around your vault will be regularly clipped, watered, and sprayed with pesticides. Or, if your loved ones went the “cleansing fire” route and chose cremation they will receive an urn full of what will be called your “ashes;” in actuality it is the pulverized gravel left over from your charred bones.

Embalming, the pickling method described above, coupled with the dressing, storage, funerary services, and burial can easily cost from $10,000 to $12,000, cremation $1,500 to $4,000. Both are not only costly, but ecologically harmful. Both are also entirely unnecessary.

Traditional burial and embalming require huge amounts of energy in the form of fossil fuels and manufacture of toxic chemicals, an absurd testament to inefficiency. Embalming, though not legally required, often serves a purpose as a preservative to give far-flung family members time to travel to bid the body of their loved one farewell. However, embalming does not accomplish anything a good rest in a refrigerator could not.

Mark Harris, an environmental author and proponent of alternative burials, said that 75 percent of all caskets are made with metal. We put this highly durable box into a deep pit that is lined with concrete – a “vault.” Vaults were created to prevent cave-ins should the coffin begin to degrade. They also protected a loved one’s remains from skullduggery.

Harris puts the waste into perspective in his book Grave Matters: “A typical 10-acre swatch…contains enough coffin wood to construct 40 houses; nearly 1,000 tons of casket steel; 20,000 tons of vault concrete; and enough toxic embalming fluid to fill a backyard swimming pool.”

"Arlington Tree" courtesy of Flickr user Mark Fischer
“Arlington Tree” courtesy of Flickr user Mark Fischer

We are taking huge swathes of land and making them useless for all but social visits to carved hunks of stone. This manicured, pesticide-treated collection of somber rocks could be meadowland, forest, orchards, or even community parks; a place where mourners might go to be reminded of the cyclical nature of life.

Fortunately, those of us who are either ecologically conscious or simply wary of the grotesqueries and indignities our bodies are subject to at the hands of a funeral director can now opt for natural burial. In a natural burial, the untreated corpse is shrouded or encased in biodegradable materials (cardboard, linen, or sea grass) and shallowly buried in hopes of becoming mulch. This mulch will nourish the local flora, including any memorial seeds planted by the grieving family.

Would you rather visit your grandfather’s oak tree or a slab of stone with his name on it? And even if the figurative permanence of a gravestone appeals, natural burial does not preclude this option – you can stake your chosen memorial on the burial site. We have green alternatives to embalming, cremation, and traditional burial; it is now time to lay those old practices to rest.





Cod Industry Threatened

New England fishermen are facing huge cuts in their catch allotments this year, cuts that might put them out of business. Deedee Sun takes us to the port city of Gloucester to see how fishermen and conservation groups are preparing.