The Colors of Faoilleach

We’re in the middle of faoilleach – the Gaelic season comprising the last three weeks of winter and first three weeks of spring. Before you groan over the absence of green, and wish yourself in the lime lighting of a June forest, take time to notice and celebrate other colors that hint to the great awakenings of spring.

Magenta

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Beneath their pearly coats, the emerging catkins (spikes of single-sex, drooping, petal-less flowers) of the pussy willow glow magenta. Their presence is a cherished ritual of the seasons, Sigurd Olson writes, “In a world seething with mistrust, suspicion and clashing ideologies, pussy willows may be vital to the welfare of man and his serenity”.

Burgundy

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Look for the deep burgundy color in the male catkins of speckled alder as their flowers begin to develop. As the male catkins begin to expand, the color brightens. Eventually the burgundy shifts toward yellow as the pollen develops. Note the smaller scarlet female catkins nubs above (these will transform into the cone-like structures that persist throughout the winter).

Ivory

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Ivory hairs gleam in newly opened shadbush buds. They help insulate the flowers from spring cold snaps. Soon clusters of 5-petaled propeller-like white flowers will emerge. The flowering time is an important seasonal clock – marking when shad swim upstream to spawn (hence the name) and the period when colonists who died over the winter were buried, hence another name—serviceberry.

Auburn

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Look for the bursting auburn flowers of silver maples lining streets and rivers, especially noticeable against a bluebird sky. This fast-growing and short-lived species carries its male and female flowers separately, although sometimes on the same tree.

Silver

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Catkin tips shine silver as they emerge from flower buds of trembling aspen. Male and female catkins are found on separate trees. Despite millions of fluffy seeds produced, strict germinating constraints limit the success of these seeds. Thus aspens rely on root sprouting clones to earn their title of most widely distributed tree in North America.

Crimson

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Spring sun vividly reddens Red Osier Dogwood in early spring. The brilliance of color, generated by anthocyanin pigments in the bark, is determined by light intensity. In shaded areas, its stems and branches still grow, yet in greener tones.

If you’re impatient for the mints and emeralds, limes and jades, you can force the color. Simply place a twig in a jar with water near a window and be comforted by the return of green that will reveal itself outside in time.

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Ellen Gawarkiewicz is a first-year graduate student in the Field Naturalist Program.

For the Love of Bees

Hive of Activity. Photo credit: Gabe Andrews

Oh How She Glows

In Yellow, She Glows. Photo credit: Gabe Andrews

We want cheap groceries, strawberries in March, and impeccable lawns. We strive for dominion over the web of life, especially our domesticated crops and the pests that threaten them. Bees get caught in the middle of it all. Habitat homogenization and the increased use of pesticides –particularly neonicotinoids – have contributed to the decline of our pollinators, and bees have been hit the hardest. There are practical implications for this loss. We could talk about the $15 billion that honeybees contribute to the U.S. crop economy, or about the food on our fork (of which 1 in 3 bites requires insect pollination) [1]. Undoubtedly, California’s profitable almond industry – a crop entirely reliant on honeybee pollination – would crumble overnight with the complete loss of honeybees. But with the disappearance of these proficient pollinators we risk much more than a painful sting to our economy; we jeopardize our humanity.

Bees offer us creative inspiration. The hive and its workers give us metaphors persistent in everyday language. The brilliant construction of hexagonal honeycomb encourages architectural marvels that promote efficient design (circles, pentagons and octagons leave wasted space; triangles and squares –with their greater relative circumference –lack the storage capacity of hexagons) [3]. The cooperative society inside a hive emboldens us to become better humans. The careful collection of nectar reminds us to slow down and taste the sweetness of a good day. As worker bees gradually transform nectar to honey, they teach us fortitude and patience. Though these lessons are in shorter supply with a decline in apian educators, our individual and collective actions can keep them from disappearing altogether.

Humble Bumble

The Humble Bumble. Photo credit: Gabe Andrews

Many already stand –smoker in hand – ready to save the bees. Hobby beekeeping has gathered momentum, pollinator-friendly gardens are on the rise, and even the federal government has perked its ears. Organic agriculture has grown by 250% since 2002, a sign that consumer decisions have driven the market away from pesticide reliance [4]. All of this comes as welcome news to honeybees, but their step-sisters haven’t received nearly the hype. With all the attention placed on domesticated bees, wild bees continue their downward spiral. In the Northeast alone, close to 25% of bumblebee species (Bombus spp.) have disappeared or declined throughout their range [5]. Hopefully we can target our efforts more broadly to protect all genera of bees.

We know that habitat loss severely influences pollinator decline; our porches and backyards cover once-wild ground, but let’s keep our vision on the present for a minute. Landscaping with native plants is a great way to attract and support your local bees (not to mention reduce your mowing commitment). When the time comes for pruning, the hollow twigs of some goldenrods (Solidago spp.) and coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) make great homes for orchard (Osmia spp.) and small carpenter (Ceratina spp.) bees. Wooden boxes filled with holes serve a similar purpose for larger bees.  Don’t forget to leave pockets of bare soil for ground-nesting bees (Colletes spp.). Minimizing pesticide use could help keep bees from dying, but habitat and food will give bees a chance to live.

Watching and keeping bees is more art than science. With this mindful craft comes patience, awareness, and imagination, but you don’t need a honeybee hive to enjoy such an experience. Yes, bees are essential to the health of our economy, our planet, and the diversity of our dinner plate. A world without almonds and apples would be a shame. But to live without the unwavering brilliance of such humble insects would be a tragedy.

Gabe Andrews is a first-year graduate student in the Field Naturalist Program at UVM. 

[1] Hopwood, J. et al. (2012). Are neonicotinoids killing bees? A review of research into the effects of neonicotinoid insecticides on bees, with recommendations for actionThe Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

[2] Williams, G.R. et al., 2015. Neonicotinoid pesticides severely affect honey bee queens. Scientific Reports, 5, p.14621. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/srep14621.

[3] Mathis, C.R. and Tarpy, D.R. (2007). 70 Million years of building thermal envelope experience: building science lessons from the honey bee. Available at: https://www.cals.ncsu.edu

[4] USDA Office of Communications bulletin April 15, 2015

[5] Vermont Center for Ecostudies: Bumble Bees

 

Restoring the American Elm

An arborist harvests flower buds from an American elm in Charlotte, Vermont. Photo credit: Gus Goodwin, The Nature Conservancy.

The flower buds from Mrs. Waters’ elm tree are 35,000 feet up in the stratosphere on an express flight to Ohio. The goal is to get them there before they dry up. When they arrive, scientists will lay them on wax paper, collect their pollen as it falls from the stamens, and use it to hand-pollinate the flowers of Ohio elms that are receptive and waiting in the lab. These buds may be the key to restoring the American elm to dominance in the floodplain forests of the Eastern United States, a focal project of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and floodplain ecologist Christian Marks.

The buds’ progenitor, a four-foot diameter American elm in Charlotte, Vermont, named Henrietta, has beat the odds. Located merely a stone’s throw from four other elms, all of which have succumbed to Dutch elm disease (DED), Henrietta is noticeably larger and healthier. Though she (also a he—American elms bear “perfect” flowers, with both male and female parts) has signs of DED on two branches, the remainder of the tree is healthy enough to produce flowering buds, a luxury that the sick elms around it cannot afford. Normally, trees exposed to DED die within a year of exposure[i]. That this one has not– and that it continues to flower—suggests it may possess some degree of resistance.

After scientists cross-pollinate the Vermont and Ohio elms, they will tend the branches until they set seed. When the seeds mature into small, wafer-like samaras, evolved for wind dispersal, the Ohio scientists will airmail them back to Marks (wind dispersal by mechanized means) who will then grow them to seedlings and plant them in one of TNC’s floodplain forest restoration preserves. But that’s not all. What’s to say those young seedlings won’t succumb to the same fate as their not-so-fortunate relatives?

For Marks to know that Henrietta is a stalwart, he must subject her offspring to a potentially fatal injection of DED when they reach one inch in diameter. Though it will be some time before we find out if Henrietta is truly resistant, the offspring of buds collected from other trees in 2011 and 2012 are approaching the requisite diameter for testing. And while “absolute resistance” is the stuff of science fiction, previous studies conducted through Guelph University in Canada found a heightened level of resistance in 25% of lab-pollinated offspring reared from large, healthy elms[ii]. Marks is hopeful for a similar (or better) result from his Vermont/Ohio crosses, which were selected not only for their size, but also for their proximity to elms that have succumbed to DED.

If Marks and his colleagues succeed in cultivating a DED-resistant American elm, this stately canopy tree may eventually be restored to its position in the highest strata of the floodplain forests in the Eastern United States and Canada. And though we may not be alive to see it regain canopy dominance, we can celebrate that the elm’s capacity for water uptake may reduce the severity of future flooding events, bald eagles may return to nest in its branches, and our children will once again walk to school beneath trees for which many American streets were named.

Perhaps this dream begins with the plump red buds bound – at this moment – for Ohio.

American elm flower buds. Photo credit: Gus Goodwin, TNC.

[i][ii] Christian Marks, personal communication, 9 March 2016.


Hannah Phillips is a first-year graduate student in the Ecological Planning Program. She is grateful to Christian Marks, Gus Goodwin, and The Nature Conservancy-Vermont, for welcoming her on this outing, to Mrs. Waters for offering samples from her tree, and to Chea Waters Evans for cleverly naming the tree Henrietta (after Henrietta Lacks).


Green Mountains Walking

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The Green Mountains of Vermont, as seen from Jay Peak. Photo by from the nek. Image licensed under creative commons by wikipedia.com.

Eight hundred years ago, the Japanese Zen master Dogen wrote, “The green mountains are always walking.” I was instantly taken with the truth of his words. Of course the green mountains (and the Green Mountains of Vermont) are always walking! How could they not?

Dogen didn’t know what I know about mountains. Plate tectonics wouldn’t exist for another seven centuries. Unlike Christianity, an ancient earth did not violate accepted Buddhist cosmology, but I doubt he was thinking of the fossil record. Perhaps Dogen was inspired by the inherent vulcanism of his native landscape, where fire spewed from the earth in a continual spasm of creation. Or perhaps he felt this was a useful illustration of deliberately looking outside of the normal, everyday mindset. Whatever the reason, as a naturalist and a reader, I wholeheartedly agree with him. Even though it defies our usual sense of the world, the mountains are walking.

What does it mean to fully know the Green Mountains’ walking? 480 million years ago, the movement of the North American continental plate began a collision course with a volcanic island arc in the midst of the ancient Iapetus Ocean. Over the course of the next thirty million years, the Green Mountains arose out of the jumble of continental crust, hardened lava and silty ocean mudstone, squeezed by the intense heat and pressure into schist. The geological record is peppered with such mountain-building events, taking place on a time scale almost too vast for our minds to contemplate. By human standards, mountains don’t walk, they crawl at a pace so slow a snail looks like a speed demon. And yet—the mountains are moving still.

In the case of the Green Mountains today, that movement is mostly downward, in the form of erosion, as wind and water dig out chunks of rock and sediment. As trivial as these forces might seem in the short term, over time, the mountain ranges can dissolve, sometimes even faster than they formed. For the Green Mountains of today, it’s less walking forwards or backwards in space, and more like running in place.

Of course, Dogen wasn’t talking about the Green Mountains of Vermont when he penned those lines. He may not have even meant “green” mountains—in Japanese, the character he uses, ao (青) can be used to mean blue, green or some subtle variation in between. I find it fitting that Dogen’s language neatly encapsulates the variation in the the Green Mountains I see on the horizon— shimmering blue through fog in the distance, deep rich green closer up, especially at the higher elevations where the darker evergreen conifers overtake deciduous trees.

Why should we even care about the mountains’ walking? For Dogen, it offers a true test of our understanding. Beyond words and phrases, beyond preconceived ideas, the true nature of the world beckons, just waiting for us to look closer and study it. As a naturalist, slowing down to see the mountains walking takes me out of the normal human scale of time and into the older, grander, cosmic story. In my mind, the mountains rise and fall as with a time-lapse camera, millennia pouring away like so many grains of sand, and the mountains flow, just as Dogen insists that they do. From the perspective of walking mountains, ordinary human difficulties no longer seem so challenging. The mountains, by their very nature, remind us that what we think we see is only a part of a larger, ongoing story.

Katherine Hale is a first-year student in the Field Naturalist program.

Fire in the Swamp

Lake Drummond, at the center of the Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia. Photo by Jessie Griffen

Lake Drummond, at the center of the Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia. All photos by Jessie Griffen.

Tannins color the swamp water a rich, dark brown.

Tannins color the swamp water a rich, dark brown.

Coffee-colored water peels away from our boat, sending ripples across the glass surface of Lake Drummond. The ancient cypress trees begin to dance as our wake bends their reflections. We’re crossing this hidden, undeveloped lake at the center of a once-vast wetland stretching from southern Virginia across a million acres into North Carolina. Now the Great Dismal Swamp is reduced to (a still impressive) 110,000 acres, hemmed in by development. We have this otherworldly, placid coffee lake all to ourselves on an unseasonably warm December day.

 

As we approach the other side of the lake, the shoreline landscape changes abruptly from dense swamp to a vast swath of burnt toothpicks. In the past ten years, two massive wildfires have swept through the Great Dismal Swamp. The most recent fire in 2011, Lateral West, consumed 6,500 acres and burned for 111 days, despite 12.5 million dollars expended in suppression efforts1. Not even the torrential rains of Hurricane Irene could squelch the fire.

Yet the swamp is inundated for half the year. Its organic soil, peat, is 85-95% water in its natural saturated state, and well known for its ability to retain moisture. How can a peatland burn?

Fire, it turns out, has been a natural process in the Great Dismal Swamp for hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years. Peat, composed mostly of decaying plants, contains a lot of carbon—read: fuel for fire—compared to other soils. It’s so rich in carbon that high moisture content does not necessarily prevent combustion. Dry it out, and the whole swamp basically becomes a tinderbox. The water table in the Great Dismal Swamp fluctuates seasonally, normally falling below the soil from July through November. Lightning can ignite surface fires that smolder for months in the soil. Many of the plant assemblages in the Great Dismal Swamp actually depend on fires to persist. Lake Drummond likely formed from a massive peat fire1. But that’s not the whole story…

The shoreline of Lake Drummond changes abruptly to reveal a vast burn scar, a remnant of two large wildlifes that have seared the swamp in the past ten years.

The shoreline of Lake Drummond changes abruptly to reveal a vast burn scar, a remnant of two large wildfires that have seared the swamp in the past ten years.

In May 1763, George Washington visited the Great Dismal Swamp for the first time and saw opportunity where its first colonial discoverer, William Byrd, famously saw a “horrible desert…toward the center of it no beast or bird approaches, nor so much as an insect or reptile exists.” Washington invested in the swamp and began a long history of ditching and draining it for agriculture and logging.

Today, 158 miles of logging roads and ditches traverse the swamp, severely altering its natural hydrologic cycle. Parts of the refuge that were once seasonally saturated have been drained, and when peat is left dry for too long, it transforms to a granular, oxidized state that will not re-saturate, even under flooded conditions. Centuries of logging have left a legacy of fuel for fire in the form of slash. Add hotter, drier weather patterns to the mix, a few strikes of lightning, and the resulting blaze will be visible from space.

As climate patterns increasingly shift, what role will peatlands play in the global carbon cycle? In many peatlands, inundation slows the rate of decomposition, and carbon-rich organic soils slowly build up. The organic soils in the Great Dismal Swamp, for example, are over 51 inches deep in places. Many scientists view peatlands as an important carbon sink because they store carbon below ground for long periods of time. When peatlands burn, they release the stored soil carbon into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases, and peat fires often smolder for months, reaching deep into the thick peat—the Great Dismal Swamp lost over a 39 inches of organic soil in some areas in the 2011 fire2.

Peat fires are different from forest fires as we’re used to thinking about them. They are exceedingly difficult to extinguish, and the carbon emitted by burning soil can dwarf emissions from aboveground forest. The impact can be massive—Lateral West emitted much higher amounts of carbon per unit area compared to five other fires that burned mostly aboveground plants and trees2. In 1997, massive peat fires in Indonesia released an equivalent amount of carbon to 13-40% of the average annual global carbon emissions from fossil fuels3. And most of that carbon came from the soil.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, has been working for years to restore the hydrology of the Great Dismal Swamp, and balance the benefits and risks of wildfire—an already complex task that is likely to be exacerbated by climate change. Who knew that draining a swamp could have such dismal consequences?

A final view of the Great Dismal Swamp.

A final view of the Great Dismal Swamp.

References:

  1. Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Nansemond National Wildlife Refuge Final Comprehensive Conservation Plan. (2006).
  2. Reddy, A. D. et al. Quantifying soil carbon loss and uncertainty from a peatland wildfire using multi-temporal LiDAR. Remote Sens. Environ. 170, 306–316 (2015).
  3. Page, S. E. et al. The amount of carbon released from peat and forest fires in Indonesia during 1997. Nature 420, 61–66 (2002).

Additional information gathered from The Nature Conservancy, the Washington Post report on Lateral West, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Jessie Griffen is a second year graduate student in the Ecological Planning Program. She is grateful to Dr. William Old and Levi Old for an amazing voyage into the Great Dismal Swamp.

Field Naturalist Alicia Daniel Featured in Burlington Free Press

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Alicia Daniel, Burlington’s Field Naturalist, on Long Pond. Photo by Kerstin Lange.

Suppose you were a mink in need of breakfast in Burlington.  Where would you go?

Alicia Daniel, Field Naturalist for the city of Burlington and 1988 graduate of the FNEP program, could probably tell you. Follow Alicia (and the mink) in the recent Burlington Free Press article “Burlington’s wild heart,” written by FNEP graduate Kerstin Lange.

Shadows and Sex

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Red Squirrel / © Bryan Pfeiffer

YOU DON’T NEED PUNXSUTAWNEY PHIL to know which way the wind blows. Groundhog Day ain’t about shadows. It’s about sex. Birds and rodents now begin a season of foreplay.

No, spring is not around the corner – at least not here in Vermont. Songbirds don’t rely on the vagaries of weather to calculate their breeding cycles. Instead, they schedule mating and nesting to take advantage of a reliable abundance of food for their offspring, mostly insects, which happens in May and June here at our latitude. As the days grow longer, birds do get ready to, well, um, make more birds. It’s why we’re starting to hear Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Cardinals, House Finches and other birds erupting into song on sunny mornings.

Black-capped Chickadee / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Black-capped Chickadee / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Day length is a far more reliable calendar than weather. It is not entirely clear how birds measure day length, but we do know that photo-receptors in bird brains sense increasing light. It triggers the production of hormones that act like birdie Viagra. Their sexual organs revive from a state of dormancy. So when the food is there in May, songbirds will be ready … you know, physically.

February 2 is indeed significant. It falls about halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, a period celebrated in various ways in human traditions from Paganism to Christianity. And early February is when we start to get 10 hours of daylight – February 6 this year. It seems to be a turning point for wildlife.

But why the groundhog? Couldn’t we have picked a loftier critter to represent the coming of the light? As it turns out, this rodent is indeed a worthy messenger of spring. In February, woodchucks begin to emerge from hibernation on the prowl. They need to breed soon so that females produce litters during greater food abundance in April and May. Males emerge from their burrows to find and visit with females. But many of these early encounters are merely courtship visits, which pay dividends, research suggests, when it comes time to breed a bit later. It’s sort of like another February ritual – Valentine’s Day.

Squirrels aren’t so tactful. Female red squirrels are in estrus, receptive to males for breeding, for about eight hours on only a single day during this season. And male squirrels outnumber females in the wild by as much as five to one. The consequence of this skewed gender ratio and hard-to-get females is that life during the breeding season can be, to say the least, challenging for the male. He’ll spend lots of time following her in the days before she is in estrus. Should the male be too forthcoming, too eager before she is ready, she will rebuff his advances with a swat to the face or a painful bite. (I hate it when that happens.)

And when those precious eight hours finally arrive, a male is hardly alone in this drama. He often must compete with or fight other males for her affections – actually for a copulation that might last only about 20 seconds. Out there in the trees, it’s a free-for-all. “To the casual observer, what ensues is probably best described as pure and unadulterated chaos,” write biologists Michael A. Steele and John L. Koprowski in their fantastic book, North American Tree Squirrels.

So let’s recognize the real significance of Groundhog Day. This isn’t a holiday about six more weeks of winter. It’s a celebration of romance, even if it turns out to be unadulterated, chaotic rodent romance.

Bryan Pfeiffer teaches writing in the Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning programs.

Winterizing

By Sean Beckett

winterization_bear_SB-3038One good thing about a mild winter is we avoid that familiar experience of leaving a warm house to enter the arctic interior of a frosty, morning car. Imagine sitting down in that frigid seat: Your shoulders tense and tighten like old taffy, you shiver spontaneously, and the chill leaks into your soul at the space between your pants and socks. Your heart accelerates and your blood pressure spikes. Eventually, either your mental resolve or your car’s heating system recalls you from distress.

Your rational mind knows that things could be a lot worse, so why does our very evolution invoke this intense response anyway? When hit with cold, skin receptors tell the brain to dump a hormone into our system that forces all these unpleasantries. And being cold is so intensely unpleasant because the same chemical, norepinephrine, also floods your body in times of fight-or-flight-style crisis. According to your system, this is an emergency, so your body reacts by pulling out all the stops to maintain core temperature. Veins constrict, shunting your warm blood away from the skin and extremities to prevent heat loss. Your muscles tense to double metabolic heat production, or you shiver to increase it tenfold.

This response is handy for someone freezing to death on a mountainside, but is a supreme overreaction to sitting in a cold car. The reaction is the same because an uncalibrated nervous system doesn’t know the difference between chilly air and certain death, so it plays it safe by overreacting to everything. The body is trying everything it can to maintain homeostasis (that magic core temperature of 98.6 degrees).

branches covered in snow emerge from the smooth, pristine snowpack

branches covered in snow emerge from the smooth, pristine snowpack

Fortunately, like any good piece of hardware, the human body can “winterize.” Regular and sustained exposure to cold trains the body to react more measuredly. After a couple weeks, the brain no longer pays as much attention to unhappy skin receptors. The norepinephrine dose attenuates, and with it the body’s response: Vasoconstriction diminishes, circulation is maintained to the hands and feet for longer, and body temperature can dip before shivering commences. When these responses are really needed (when it gets really cold), they feel less psychologically distracting. This is ultimately why we can wear a t-shirt on the first nice day in April, but need a jacket at the same temperature in September.

Spend enough time in the cold, and the body acclimatizes in extraordinary ways. Instead of vasoconstriction, blood vessels in an Inuit’s hands dilate: His hands receive extra warm blood so he doesn’t lose manual dexterity. Australian aboriginals, who experience near-freezing temperatures every night, can comfortably sleep nude— and actually enter a mild hypothermia to conserve energy— at temperatures that make most people shiver uncontrollably. Some of us even develop special heat-generating fat deposits (called brown fat) around the organs that we recently assumed were only found in human infants and cold-hardy wildlife. Cold temperatures activate brown fat production, and subsequent cold activates its metabolism— the body’s equivalent of stacking firewood to burn for warmth later.

We will never be able to weather the cold like a polar bear, or even like the chickadee chirping delightedly on a bird feeder at -20F. After all, we are a species of naked apes that crawled out of Africa’s tropical rift valley. So how do some of us live perfectly happily in conditions cold enough to freeze snot? Perseverance and willpower, the traits we often find backing most impressive human endeavors, are again the assets that carry us to our biological limits. So while we wait for winter to truly hit, prepare yourself with some light suffering. In a rude example of literally “no pain, no gain,” our affinity for hot cocoa and wood fires during the holidays just prolongs our discomfort once we actually make it outside. A little chill today will winterize your body for the months ahead.

Sean Beckett is a naturalist, guide, photographer, and graduate student in the Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning programs at the University of Vermont. See more of Sean’s writing and photos at www.thegreenmanblog.com

For more on winterizing yourself, check out:

The space between humans and cougars

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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.

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