The space between humans and cougars

Lions_painting,_Chauvet_Cave_(museum_replica) (1)

Panel of Lions, Chauvet Cave. Museum Reproduction. Licensed under Public Domain.

Two hundred feet above the lush Ardèche River in the south of France lies the barely visible entrance to a cave slotted between massive limestone cliffs. Narrow passageways connect multiple chambers that, once illuminated, reveal the unmistakable walls of Chauvet Cave, used 32,000 years ago by early humans who adorned this cave in paintings. The most famous panel: sixteen lions pursuing a herd of bison.

While the culture that painted these walls is long gone, and the species of lion depicted extinct, Chauvet Cave displays Paleolithic evidence of fascination with large feline predators. Did these people revere the formidable cave lion, fear it, or consider it sacred? Why did they feel compelled to illustrate these creatures in such lifelike detail when simply staying alive required most of their effort?

As we contend with the possible re-colonization by cougars, Puma concolor, of the eastern half of the United States, these ageless questions rise again. Why is our relationship with big cats so fraught, and why do we find them so captivating?

Underwater Panther, National Museum of the American Indian. Licensed under Public Domain.

Underwater Panther, National Museum of the American Indian. Licensed under Public Domain.

Native American tribes had specific and varied perceptions of cougars, ranging from fear to worship. Hopi tribes, dwelling in high Arizona desert, considered cougars fierce guardians of their people. Cheyenne tribal mythology tells the story of women suckling cougar cubs like children so that they would grow up and kill deer for the tribe to consume. Pueblo tribes historically boasted a band of hunters called “cougar men,” who used a cry that mimicked the cougars’ caterwaul. Tribes living in the Great Lakes region feared the underwater panther, a mythical monster with the body of a panther, the scales of a snake, deer antlers, and feathers of birds of prey. The underwater panther was a harbinger of death in some cultures; in others, its tail had healing powers. The skill and beauty of this animal inspired vivid stories and traditions in native cultures, casting the cougar as a fierce hunter, a strong guardian, and a worthy opponent.

While many Native American cultures respected cougars, European settlers took a more singular opinion of the animals, steeped in religious mistrust and a fear of large predators. When exploring Florida in 1565, M. John Hawkins wrote that, “there are lions and tygres as well as unicorns; lions especially.” In 1634, William Woods recounted to the New England Prospect that “some likewise being lost in the woods have heard such terrible rarings, as have made them much agast; which must eyther be Devills or Lyons.”

Elusive as unicorns and howling like devils, cougars did not stand much of a chance in the face of settlers imaginations. The Damned Thing, a short story written by Ambrose Pierce in 1893, casts the cougar as an invisible killer, unseen to the human eye, detectable only as it passes through grass. Aggressive hunting of cougars and their prey, along with deforestation of cougar habitat, decimated cougar populations in the eastern United States, extirpating them by 1881. Like exorcising an evil spirit from the body, European settlers eliminated what they could not comprehend.

Referenced as a “glamorous killer” by The New York Times in 2013, we now know much more about how these true carnivores live. Contributing to its near-mythical status, a single cougar once took 15 sheep overnight from one ranchers’ flock in Wyoming, seizing an opportunity for easy picking. When hunting, they use ultrasonic hearing, stalking prey and pouncing from close range. They aim to break the neck of their target from behind. If unsuccessful, cougars will literally go for the jugular. Cougars do not eat all of their prey at once—rather, they cache it, cover it in leaves and duff, and come back to feed intermittently. Family or pack cooperation while hunting is rarely observed, with the exception of mothers hunting for their young. That telltale grimace captured in photographs on many a cougar indicates the use of their “vomeronasal” organ on the roof of their mouths, an olfactory adaptation that helps them track prey. Surprisingly, there have only been around 100 attacks on humans, and 20 fatalities in the U.S. and Canada since 1890.

After a long absence, some evidence points to a resurgence of cougars in the Northeast. Sue Morse, a naturalist who studies predators in Vermont, proposes that the cats making the push eastward are transient tomcats and younger males, looking for a home territory as populations increase in the west. Reforestation and the reestablishment of a prey base in the Northeast over the last 400 years has enabled cougars to return. Since the late 1990s, cougar sightings, scat, and paw prints have been recorded in multiple eastern states and provinces, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Brunswick, West Virginia, Vermont, and Quebec.

Many conservationists remain thrilled about the return of this fabled predator, once the most widely dispersed animal in the Western hemisphere. General understanding of cougars in the east remains limited and dominated by curiosity, but Clary Nielsen of Cougar Net, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to studying cougars, thinks that with an influx of cougars, attitudes are probably going to change. It is difficult not to worry for them, foolish as it may be to worry for an animal perfectly adapted to kill. What if what happened in the 19th century happens again, and the tides turn from fascination to vengeance?

Cougars, at a glance, are everything that humans are not. Silent, graceful, and agile, they pass through the world largely unnoticed until it is far too late for their quarry. Does our fascination with big cats stem from a desire to understand something truly wild, both frightening and beautiful? Or does our imagination, lacking in details, turn the cougar into something mythical, and ourselves into its prey? Human beings, so culturally different today from our ancestors 32,000 years ago, display an easy dominance over the animal kingdom. And yet, predators unseen still possess a certain unpredictable allure.

Photo: K Fink - NPS. Licensed under Public Domain

Photo: K Fink, NPS. Licensed under Public Domain

Chris Bolgiano, a nature writer who has written and contributed to multiple books on cougars, suggests that we anticipate their arrival because it would exonerate us from the guilt humans feel from abusing the natural world and extirpating animals like the cougar. But perhaps it is our own primal desire, carried through millennia, that longs to see cougars and their inimitable power. Both magnetic and frightening, the presence of the cougar might be the closest that we come to redemption.

Information gathered from: Keeping Track, Vermont Public Radio, Cougar NetThe New York Times, Mountain Lion: An Unnatural History of Pumas and People, by Chris Bolgiano, and The Eastern Cougar, edited by Chris Bolgiano and Jerry Roberts.

 

Lyra Brennan is a first-year student in the Ecological Planning Program

Snapping Turtles Meet Their Match

snapping-turtle-bryan-pfeifferAt first I thought the big black shape in the lane was a piece of burst tire. Then the tire held out a slow, prehistoric foot and took a step. Its long neck shifted into view as I drove by, and I realized it was a huge snapping turtle. In the few seconds I’d been watching, several cars had already whizzed past, missing it by inches. It was halfway across the first of eight lanes of traffic it would need to traverse to reach the other side of I-93.

I don’t normally cry over road kill. But a mile down the road I pulled into the breakdown lane and burst into tears. I imagined a cop stopping to help with the emergency and discovering, inside the Subaru Forester with, of course, Vermont plates, a young woman sobbing over a turtle who last she saw was unharmed.

The futility of its journey had overwhelmed me. The turtle, moving with the confident plod that has served its species for 40 million years, had looked so out of its element on the highway. It had completed only a fraction of an impossible crossing. This creature, steadfastly putting one foot in front of the other, was utterly screwed.

Early each summer, snapping turtles leave the water to lay eggs on land, traveling up to four miles from home. The one I saw last June may have been a mother looking for a good spot to dig a nest, or a young turtle dispersing from its original home range. Unlike most animals, female snapping turtles disperse over greater distances than males and keep similarly sized home ranges (eight acres on average, in the north). Some nomadic females have no home range at all; others return to the same nest site annually. Since they can retain sperm in their bodies and use it over multiple seasons, they do not need to mate every year.

This strategy has worked well for Chelydra serpentina—so well that it is the ancestor of 80 percent of all living turtles. In fact, snapping turtles have hardly changed in appearance from the earliest turtle, which evolved over 200 million years ago. In other words, proto snapping turtles had already been around for 150 million years when Tyrannosaurus rex appeared on the scene.

Having survived two major extinction events in close to their current shape, modern snapping turtles faced virtually no predators once full grown until a century ago, when the automobile was invented. Now most females living in developed areas die on roads after only a few nesting seasons. Their natural life spans, although they average 30 years, can last over 80 years. In other words, the individual I saw on I-93 could have been older than the highway itself.

This time of year, snapping turtles have buried themselves in the mud of a pond, swamp, or slow-moving stream and begun hibernation, deep enough that the mud around them will not freeze. While they often do spend the winter within their home range, they can travel up to two and a half miles away to hibernate and then return to their territories in the spring. Individuals sometimes stay faithful to a few particular hibernacula, rotating between them year after year. If a site becomes popular, turtles can end up stacked on top of each other for the winter. This group hibernation makes them vulnerable to occasional predation by otters.

Still, I think a turtle stands a better chance unconscious against an aquatic carnivore than crossing an interstate highway. I can only hope that my turtle had already laid her eggs and was on the way back to her pond. Perhaps her hatchlings, if not she herself, now lie safe in the mud, waiting till spring.

Sonia DeYoung is a second-year student in the Field Naturalist Program.

Information gathered from “Snapping Turtles” by Susanne Kynast on The Tortoise Trust website, Naturally Curious by Mary Holland, and Animal Diversity Web.

Predicting Fall’s First Snowstorm

Here in Vermont, the passage of fall foliage marks the arrival of stick season. For a smaller group of birding enthusiasts, it also marks the triumphant return of the snow geese. Every year, thousands of snow geese descend upon the Dead Creek Wildlife Refuge in Addison, seeking respite and fuel on their journey south from the Canadian arctic to the mid-Atlantic coast. This year, though, things might look a bit different.

snow-geese-lake-champlain-2013

Snow geese erupt in flight over Lake Champlain in 2013

Since the mid 1960s, the raucous arrival of thousands of honking snow geese (Chen caerulescens) through the gray October clouds has been a spectacle worthy of a field day. The geese descend from their 2000-foot cruising altitude in smooth uniformity, applying the brakes dramatically in “falling leaf” formation as they approach Dead Creek below. Landing en masse on the shore and in the creek, the air fills with a cacophony of what seem to be triumphant shouts: “Glad we made it!”

As celebrated as their arrival is in Vermont, snow geese are anything but rare. In fact, they have the distinction of being one of the most abundant waterfowl in North America[i]. Once they arrive here in Vermont, they’ll chow voraciously on the region’s finest assortment of grass and sedge roots. Or, at least they used to. Murmurs in the birding community suggest snow geese dietary preferences are changing, and their migratory patterns are changing to follow their taste buds.

This change in forage is purely out of necessity. Populations have increased dramatically over the last one hundred years, the result of a hunting ban imposed in 1916 to allow a dwindling population to rebound[ii]. And rebound they did. Although hunting reopened in 1975, snow geese are now so plentiful that food is proving hard to come by; they must find food, or they’ll starve. So, what’s on the menu? Agricultural plant remains – the most abundant food around. Some geese have become so reliant on agricultural fields for food that they are now adjusting their migratory routes to stopover in prime farmland.

Despite plentiful agriculture in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, our forage is proving inferior to that in New York. Here, nearby farmers typically harvest their corn for cow silage, which leaves little waste material left for munching. Across the lake in New York, farmers often harvest corn as a commodity, leaving the stalks behind[iii]. As a result, the number of geese visiting Dead Creek each year has declined dramatically. In 2005, ten thousand snow geese stopped over; in 2006, that number dropped to five thousand[iv]. Since then, number have held steady at three to five thousand each year, with around two thousand geese already reported for this fall[v].

A Ross's goose sits amidst snow geese in Lake Champlain in 2013.

A Ross’s goose sits amidst snow geese in Lake Champlain in 2013.

Is the geese’s absence necessarily concerning? If you’re one of the many visitors who make the annual trip to Dead Creek adorned with binoculars, puffy coats and neck warmers, their absence may make you feel as empty as Thanksgiving spent without the chattering, bickering, well-loved guests. And, if you’re a wildlife biologist, keeping the wildlife management area an attractive stopover spot for geese helps minimize damage to neighbors’ crops, increases public interest in wildlife and increases the potential for hunting (another solution to limit population growth). There is incentive to keep the birds close.

Snow goose biologists have planned for just this scenario[vi]. What to do if the snow geese disappear: plant crops to lure them back to Addison. Vermont officials have already converted upland portions of Dead Creek to agricultural fields featuring a rotating crop of corn and hay, although the geese have yet to find it[vii]. It’s a crop artillery race against New York, and the winner is by no means fixed.

While a visit to Dead Creek this fall may not yield the same giddying barrage of honking that it has in past years, that doesn’t mean they’re gone for good. If you’re in need of a weekend excursion, hop in your car, drive down to Route 17 in Addison, and train your eyes to the sky. Bring a snow-globe for good luck – perhaps a good shake will prompt a flock of one thousand geese to flutter through the clouds in the first big snowstorm of fall.

Hannah Phillips is a first year student in the Ecological Planning Program.


[i] Mowbray, T. B., Cooke, F., & Ganter, B. (2012). “Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens).” The Birds of North America, No. 514 (A. Poole, Ed.). Retrieved from The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, New York: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/514/articles/introduction

[ii] Mowbray, T. B., Cooke, F., & Ganter, B. (2012).

[iii] Alfieri, A. Personal Communication, Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. (2015, October 26).

[iv] Alfieri, A. (2015, October 26).

[v] Pfeiffer, B. (2015, October 25). “The 2015 Snow Goose Scoop.” Retrieved from http://bryanpfeiffer.com/the-snow-goose-scoop/.

[vi] Snowgoose, Swan, and Brant Committee of the Atlantic Flyway Gamebird Technical Section. (2009). “Management Plan for Greater Snow Geese in the Atlantic Flyway.” Retrieved from http://www.dnr.state.md.us/wildlife/Hunt_Trap/pdfs/2009_GreaterSnowGoose_MgtPlan.pdf

[vii] Alfierio, A. (2015, October 26).

 

Cryptic Croakers

Northern leopard frog among fallen maple leaves.

Northern leopard frog spot on with a fallen maple leaf

Hiding in plain sight

Hiding in plain sight

Imagine that you are the size of a Reese’s cup and, to many animals, equally delicious. You occupy a precarious position in the food chain; you are a danger to many, and safe from few. You dine on insects, slugs, snails and even the occasional small bird. Predators that hover above include herons, hawks, and waterfowl. Raccoons, foxes and snakes lurk behind stumps on the ground, awaiting your misstep. Water, your true home, swarms with otter, mink and bullfrogs, each hungry for their main course delicacy. How do you, a northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens), survive such an onslaught?

Many of us may think that we witness a frog’s primary defense as it jumps away. But this erratic hopping demonstrates a last-ditch effort to stay alive. Before he leaps for his life, stillness keeps him hidden among the leaves; camouflage is his best friend. Numerous amphibians employ camouflage to protect themselves from potential predators, but few excel in this department as well as the northern leopard frog. Under the cloak of camo, this frog gains the opportunity to find dinner without always becoming it.

The waning months of summer in Vermont bring about new dangers for these cryptic croakers, as they venture from the water’s edge into meadows to forage for food. Luckily, hues of green and brown underlie rounded black spots that decorate the skin in a pattern that serves function over fashion. These colors blend in inconspicuously to the fields of forbs, grasses, and goldenrods in a cloak of camouflage. This crypsis is termed background matching.

The use of background matching is not uncommon elsewhere in the animal kingdom. A white-tailed deer fawn (Odocoileus virginianus) resting on the forest floor, an eastern screech owl (Megascops asio) waiting motionless in the hollow of a tree, or a spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) hiding amongst the autumn leaves are all able to avoid detection with their special camouflage. Whether feather, fur or frog, these animals are a rare treat if your eye can pick them out of the patchwork.

With the warmer portion of fall still upon us, spend a Saturday in the meadows of the Champlain Valley and try to catch a glimpse of a leopard frog during its feeding forays. Vermont winters hit hard for these amphibians. Soon, they’ll head for the trenches with the northern map turtles (Graptemys geographica). Both of these cold-blooded critters move to well-oxygenated waters to escape the brutal winter winds and hunker down into hibernation. They begin to tuck themselves in by late October to early November, and won’t fully emerge until February or March. By then, it will be time to fatten up, find a mate, and blend into their surroundings once more.

Gabe is a first-year Field Naturalist student at UVM

Field Notes 2015: Human Nature and The End of Nature

Screen Shot 2015-09-07 at 2.31.05 PMNature is in peril. Biodiversity is plummeting. Species are going extinct 100 to 1000 times faster than normal. How many times have you read an introduction beginning that way? It’s depressing because it’s true. The ensuing article or book usually offers plenty of advice on what actions we must take to stem the tide of extinction and climate change and how to convince the uninformed public to care about it. But what about us — conservationists who already care about the deterioration of the natural world as we know it and who struggle with it emotionally? How can we find solace?

The current issue of Field Notes, the annual publication of UVM’s Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning programs, reflects on how we can continue to delight in nature even as we stare these sobering environmental issues in the face.

Read or download the issue »

The Musicality of Birdsong

From Donald Kroodsma's The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong, 2005.

From Donald Kroodsma’s The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong.

By Joanne Garton

Formal study of birdsong has long been fascinated with the who, how, and why of some of our most ubiquitous outdoor sounds. Many guides encourage new birders to learn their species by ear, listening for bird presence rather than relying on sight alone. Researchers have examined everything from a songbird’s syrinx (the bird equivalent of a larynx) to its wing morphology to determine how a bird makes its song. Ecologists have monitored bird behavior to suggest why they sing and why birdsong makes us feel happy and safe. (For further thoughts on birdsong as a cultural ecosystem service, take a look at my research proposal on the valuation of birdsong in education.)

As a student of an Applied Wildlife Management course and an avid musician and fiddler, and a complete beginner when it comes to birds, I decided to examine the what of birdsong. More specifically, I was curious about the musical what, the pieces and patterns of sound that make up a spring morning or summer evening. Do birds sing in pitches and tones like we do? Do they prefer certain keys? Do they take a breath with each phrase? And how hard could it be to learn to reproduce birdsongs? (Quite hard, it turns out). Click on the bird names that look like this to hear my renditions of some of these birds’ songs. Continue reading

A Blackpoll Warbler’s Daring Trans-Atlantic Flight

blackpoll-warbler-bryan-pfeiffer-1280

By Bryan Pfeiffer

Two wings and a prayer carry a Blackpoll Warbler on a remarkable journey to South America each autumn. Well, actually, two wings and the audacity to pull off one of the most amazing feats of migration on the planet: a non-stop, trans-Atlantic flight lasting up to three days.

With most of us only speculating for decades about this amazing journey, my colleagues at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE) today announced proof. Blackpoll Warblers fitted with miniature tracking devices took off from points in either Nova Scotia or the northeastern U.S. and flew south over the Atlantic, with no safe place to land, until reaching Caribbean islands roughly 1,600 miles away.

“This is one of the most ambitious migrations of any bird on earth,” said VCE’s Executive Director, Chris Rimmer, co-author of a research paper published today on the warbler flights. “We’ve also documented one of the longest nonstop, overwater flights ever recorded for a songbird.” Continue reading

Beyond the Jeep Road Sits Coyote — Wilderness in 2015

Southwestern desert

Southwestern desert

By Levi Old

On the first day of a 90-day expedition, our team made camp at the end of a jeep road. The afternoon sun, low in the sky, blanketed the desert’s red and orange rocks. Daylight quickly shifted into dusk. The rocks faded into shapes, and dropped shadows on slick rock in the crescent moonlight. The wind-worn surfaces that stood so vibrant in daytime were gone.

After dinner and a meeting about the next day’s plan, we embraced the opportunity to sleep out in the open. I found a flat boulder, climbed into my sleeping bag, and looked up at the night sky. The 10 students wandered around searching for sleeping spots, chatting with nervous anticipation and preparing their new equipment for a night’s rest.

“I bet this never gets old,” said Ben, 20, from Wyoming.

“Seriously,” agreed Lily from New York, “I’ve never seen stars like this before.”

I peeked over the lip of my sleeping bag and noticed the students gazing at the night sky.

The two college students traveled far from their comfortable existences to attend a three-month wilderness leadership course in the heart of the southwestern desert. Along with my colleague, I was their instructor. Around us, there was a more distinguished instructor— wilderness. Continue reading

Partial Migrants: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Outside my window, a robin pecks around in the rain. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and the forecast calls for the rain to turn to snow tonight in my Massachusetts hometown. So why isn’t this robin right now flying south toward a warm, easy winter?

American robins are facultative partial migrants: they decide each year whether to migrate

American robins are facultative partial migrants: they decide each year whether to migrate

Casual birdwatchers see robins as harbingers of spring, but you can actually find them year-round throughout much of the U.S. Based on my own observations, robins seem to stick around more now than they did twenty years ago—perhaps global warming plays a role in that trend (see November 6 post). But climate change can’t explain why some robins flee wintertime and others take their chances.

[Update: The day after publishing this post, I stumbled across an article by biologist Mark Davis saying that more robins stay in the north for the winter now because of a greater winter food supply: they happily eat the berries of several increasingly common non-native species.]

Many birds, like warblers and hummingbirds, migrate annually no matter what. Others, including robins, kingfishers, and chickadees, are “partial migrants”: within a single population in a given year, some will migrate and some will not. Backyard birdwatchers who rejoice in the first robin of spring aren’t necessarily unobservant. There are fewer robins around in winter, and those that do stay often roost in bogs and swamps instead of backyards. Each year, a robin must decide based on the available food supply whether to migrate; a snowy winter landscape can never provide as much food as the same land in summer. Some robins may even leave mid-season if the conditions turns especially harsh. Continue reading