Evolution in the blink of an eye…

Prairie Deer Mouse - Peromyscus maniculatus bairdii

The cool thing about science and nature is that interesting stories are all around us. The tiny Deer Mouse, shown here, has overcome long odds, with the vast majority of its historical habitat gone. However, through some remarkable, fast-track evolutionary adaptation, they’re now able to cope with their new world. Photo by Gregory Smith.

It’s been a busy last week, without any time for birding or photography.  Or blogging, for that matter. I was down in Nebraska for a few days, mixing work and pleasure. The “pleasure” part was my fantasy baseball draft in Omaha Saturday.  Our fantasy league is likely one of the longest running leagues in the country, going back to 1985 during our freshman year in college, when fantasy baseball was still very new.  What’s great about it is that many of the original league members are still participating! It’s great fun, not only the draft itself, but catching up with old college friends.

The “work” part of my Nebraska trip was participation in the 2017 Great Plains Symposium, on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Much like the baseball draft, the symposium too was like stepping back in time, as I reconnected with some of my old college professors who were participating in the symposium. The focus of the symposium was “Flat Places, Deep Identities: Mapping Nebraska and the Great Plains”.  I gave a talk one some of the work I’ve been doing, mapping past, present, and potential future landscapes in the Great Plains.  It was a great symposium, a little different kind of crowd than I’m used to.  Given the work I do, most of the conferences and symposiums I attend deal with the physical sciences. This conference melded mapping, history, socioeconomics, and other social sciences that I’m not exposed to as much.  It was quite fascinating, particularly hearing about the history of Nebraska, using maps to help tell the “story” of change over time.

As part of the symposium “goodies”, participants were given a copy of The New Territory, a quarterly magazine that focuses on Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.  I admit I’d never heard of the publication before. The content fits quite well with the focus of the symposium itself, with many human interest stories about the geography and people of the region. As a physical scientist, one piece caught my eye though. entitled “Evolution in the Cornbelt“, by Conor Gearin. The story focuses on the Prairie Deer Mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus bairdii), a common little fellow from the Great Plains that feeds on the tiny seeds of grasses and weeds in the prairies.

Researchers at Iowa State and Purdue University were curious how a species so adapted to life in the Great Plains has been able to thrive, given that >99% of the original tallgrass prairie in the region has been plowed under, converted to agriculture, urban land, or other man-made land uses. The grass and weed seeds the Prairie Deer Mouse had historically fed on were much more sparsely distributed than they were 200 years ago, yet the species is still quite common.  They started field work to assess the distribution of the nice, including setting up artificial nest boxes that the mice could use for habitation and food storage.  The results astounded the scientists.

Prior to beginning the work, it was assumed that deer mice populations would be the highest in “edge” habitat, areas such as grassy ditches, fencelines, or other “boundary” conditions where remnants of their traditional food sources may still be found.  However, they quickly found that the highest populations of deer mice were often right in the middle of very large corn and soybean fields, far from any traditional food source.  Clearly, Prairie Deer Mice had adapted to an agricultural setting, and were feeding on man-raised grains and pulses. The question was, how could a tiny mouse that was so well adapted to eating tiny grass and weed seeds shift gears and start feeding on corn and soybeans?

The researchers found historical deer mice in historical museums, creatures that had been preserved with taxidermy. Anatomical comparisons with Prairie Deer Mice from today found some stark differences.  The older specimens were well adapted to feeding on tiny seeds, with small mandibles and jaws that didn’t open very far.  The modern specimens had 1) significantly longer lower mandibles, 2) structural changes that allowed their mouths to open wider, and 3) larger upper mandibles. Accompanying the larger mandibles were more robust “hardware” for linking bone to muscle, with beefed up jaw muscles that enabled the tiny mice to feed on much larger food items than they had historically.

In the blink of an eye, geologically speaking, Prairie Deer Mice had shown measurable, obvious evolutionary adaptation in response to their new environment and food sources.  The researchers found high densities of deer mice in the middle of corn and soybean fields.  Some inevitably will succumb to the mechanical tools humans use to turn and manipulate the soil, but with such a rich, dense, bountiful food source, the mice had quickly evolved to fill the new ecological niche and feed on corn and soybean waste.

For a scientist like myself, I’m completely dumbfounded by the sheer ignorance of those who doubt science…who doubt climate change is real…who doubt in evolution.  The actual empirical evidence is overwhelming, conclusive, and “in-your-face”, for those who bother to open their eyes to the world around them. It’s a fascinating story, and the writer (Conor Gearin) did a great job not only summarizing the research, but telling it in a true story-teller’s fashion.  To me, this is exactly the kind of story, and writing style, that could perhaps help to turn the tide against the anti-science wave that seems to be cresting in the U.S. right now. Great story, and The New Territory really looks like a publication that’s worth subscribing to or picking up if you get a chance.

Grand River National Grasslands, Harding County, South Dakota

Expansive grasslands of the Grand River National Grasslands, in Harding County, in far northwestern South Dakota. Grassland habitat like this is greatly reduced in the Great Plains. However, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for one species, the Prairie Deer Mouse, who evidently can do quite well without an actual “prairie”.

Meteors in your Gutter, Pollinating Crops with Drones, and more science news – Week of March 12, 2017

This week, let’s try something novel…science news, sans politics.  It seems that politicians in this country have decided we can live without science, so for one week, I’ll try a “news” post where science avoids politics.

Long-horned Bee - Melissodes

A Long-horned Bee, doing what bees do best…collecting nectar and in the process, distributing pollen. If one Japanese researcher has his way, we could soon be using drones to augment nature’s pollinators. A personal comment…let’s hope this never comes to pass.

Who Needs Honeybees when we have Drones? — A first…TWO drone-related stories in one week! While the story above about using drones to acoustically sample birds may seem practical, I admit I don’t see much of a future for this application!  Eijiro Miyako, a chemist in Tsukuba, Japan, was trying to make an electricity-conducting gel in 2007, an endeavor that wasn’t working. His concoction was stored, until 8 years later when he dropped the jar while cleaning out a drawer. Miyako certainly thinks differently than I do, because upon cleaning up the sticky substance, he wondered, “could this be used to pollinate plants”? The decline of honeybees and other pollinators is well-noted, something of potentially devastating consequences to not only natural ecosystems, but to our very survival, given the need to pollinate crops.  Miyako started working with methodologies to pollinate crops, starting out by coating ants with his sticky gel to see if their movements would attract and distribute pollen. It kind of worked, but didn’t seem practical, so he eventually started working with drones.  The drones have a fuzzy material that collects pollen and can redistribute it when the drone brushes up against another plant.  His eventually plan? Build a fleet of 100 or so drones, use GPS and artificial intelligence, and set them loose in a field to pollinate the crops. Well…I guess we all need dreamers, and given how science works, who knows what practical application may come of Miyako’s work?  But hey, how about instead of developing drone pollinators, we instead focus on preserving the natural pollinators we have now?

Norwegian Gutters Clogged with Meteors!! — Jon Larsen, a Norwegian jazz musician, has an interesting hobby.  He’s devoted much of his free time in recent years to looking through material in gutters, downspouts, and drains, searching for extraterrestrial visitors.  Tons of material from outer space enters Earth’s atmosphere every day, much of it microscopic. Larsen has searched through debris in urban settings in search of these microscopic visitors.  His passion has been published in the journal Geology, with a paper that discusses the identification of over 500 “large micrometeorites” from rooftops and other urban settings. Larsen has learned the typical characteristics of micrometeorites, stating “Once I knew what to look for, I found them everywhere”.  Next time you’re up on the roof, cleaning leaves out of those gutters, do it with a smile and a sense of wonder, because it’s extremely likely that you’re cleaning up cosmic debris along with those leaves.

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index - Great Britain

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) for Great Britain, showing relative “greenness” of vegetation at the time. Researchers are studying linkages between NDVI, tree ring width, and volcanic activity to see if vegetation is responding to pre-eruption conditions. Potentially, such changes could be used to help predict an eruption.

Predicting Volcano Eruptions from…the greenness of trees? — I believe this is a poorly written article, but the premise behind it is VERY cool for a scientist like myself who works with satellite imagery.  The title of the story is very poor and somewhat misleading, stating “Can tree rings predict volcanic eruptions”? The story focuses on the work of scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research. In 1973, scientists noted an anomaly on satellite images along Mount Etna’s flank, a streak of trees that were greener than normal.  With satellite imagery, we can measure a “Normalized Vegetation Difference Index”, a measure of live green vegetation.  NDVI measurements in 1973 satellite observations were high along a streak on the volcanos flank, and less than a year later, a flank eruption occurred right along that very streak.  These scientists hypothesized that measuring tree rings from 1973 would also show an anomaly, and thus the title of this story that tree rings could “predict volcanic eruptions”.  However, the actual results showed no difference in tree ring width during that time frame. Given the relationship between tree ring width and how “good” a year a tree has had, I can see why continued research is warranted to try to find relationships between increased NDVI greenness, and tree ring width, and see if other areas have experienced changes prior to a volcanic eruption.  As it is, there’s not much in this initial research that proves a strong linkage.

Spying on Birds with Drones — On-site surveys of birds is a time-intensive and potentially expensive endeavor if trying to systematically survey birds across broad regions. Researchers at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania investigated the use of drones for conducting acoustical surveys of birds. They tried flying a drone and extracting acoustical information from a recorder on the drone, and found that the method was able to sample bird presence for about as large a region as a human observer performing a survey.  They have some kinks to work out, primarily related to the noise of the drone masking some of the low-frequency bird noises (think cooing of a Mourning Dove), but they believe technological innovation will soon make drones quieter and more efficient at sampling bird acoustics. I admit I do kind of roll my eyes when I hear people talking about trying to use drones for photography, and for science applications, because in many cases it seems like a stunt more than an actual practical application.  Gettysburg College may be proving me wrong, as this actually does sound like an interesting use of drone technology.

American Chestnut - Wild Survivor

One of the VERY few wild, mature American Chestnut trees left in the wild. Trees such as this may be resistant to blight, and are being used in efforts to develop a blight-resistant stock for eventual transplantation in the wild. Genetic modification is also being done to introduce Chestnut Blight resistant genes in tree stocks.

American Chestnut, Returning to a Forest Near You? — I often wonder what it would be like to travel back in time, to visit locations before they were touched by man. In the United States, the entire eastern half of the country was once dominated by forest land. While forest cutting started in earnest in the 1800s and even earlier in some locations, remaining deciduous forests by 1900 were still populated by 3 to 4 billion American Chestnut trees. It is estimated that one-quarter of trees in the Appalachians were American Chestnuts.  The American Chestnut was a prolific nut producer, with mast from the trees supporting deer, turkeys, bears, and other wildlife, including the now extinct Passenger Pigeon.  In 1904 a fungal blight was discovered, a disease that eventually wiped out nearly every wild American Chestnut. Asiatic Chestnut trees were imported into the country, but with them came an Asian bark fungus that was lethal to American Chestnuts. The disease spread rapidly, killing every American Chestnut tree in its path.  It is now estimated that fewer than 100 trees of any size are left in their former range. Root systems of surviving trees still send up shoots, but the blight infects the trees as they mature, resulting in practically no American Chestnut stems over 10-years old in the wild.  This story is focused on efforts to genetically modify the American Chestnut to include resistance to the blight. 30 years of research has resulted in the introduction of a gene from wheat that makes the trees able to withstand the blight. They hope to gain approval to publicly distribute the trees within 5 years.However, it will still be a long process to repopulate Eastern forests with American Chestnut. The researchers want to cross-pollinate the blight resistant trees with native wild tree stock. Half of the offspring will be blight resistant, and genetic diversity will be much improved over the current research tree stock.  We’re at the start of a VERY long process to restore the tree to the wild, but hopefully our great-great grandchildren will be able to enjoy the same Eastern forest trees that existed prior to 1900.

10 years until “Snowball Earth” — I admit my scientist side geeks out when I read a story like this, as it’s just so cool to think of the physical changes that have, can, and will again happen to our Earth.  Of course the absolutely catastrophic consequences for mankind put a bit of a damper on that excitement!  Harvard scientists have pinpointed the circumstances that led to “Snowball Earth”, a period about 717 million years ago where the Earth was covered in ice from pole-to-pole.  Models suggest that the climate destabilization that plunged the Earth into polar hell could have happened in a blink of an eye in geologic time. Massive volcanic eruptions back then could have ejected enough aerosols into the atmosphere in just a 10-year period to initiate the rapid freeze.  Don’t worry, it’s not a single volcanic eruption that’s capable of such a long-term change, but instead the kind of massive eruptions that mankind hasn’t experienced in our history. 717 million years ago, it was a string of volcanic eruptions across what’s now Canada and Greenland that set off the freeze.  As I said, from a scientific standpoint, fascinating to think what could happen, but it also points out the fragile balance of our climate system.  “Snowball Earth” happened because of runaway cooling and feedbacks that amplified and accelerated the cooling, primarily with increased ice increasing reflectance of solar radiation in a self-reinforcing feedback loop.  Right now we’re playing a game of “chicken” with our climate system, doing the exact opposite, and removing that ice in a self-reinforcing feedback loop that’s amplifying warming.

Snowy Bison

The Bison, invasive species that forever changed North America! Well, if we were around about 150,000 years ago, they would have been considered an invasive species, one that transformed grassland ecosystems of North America.

Bison Contributing to Mammoth Decline?  — OK, my chosen title here doesn’t reflect the purpose of this research, but after reading the story it did make me curious…did Bison contribute to the decline and eventual extinction of the Mammoth? The story used DNA analysis to establish that the ancestors of North American Bison first arrived between 130,000 and 190,000 years ago.  As the story notes, in this case, Bison were the invasive species, rapidly colonizing North America and forever changing the grassland ecosystems of the continent.  It does make me wonder…if not for the establishment of the Bison as a primary grazer in North America, would the Mammoth and other North American megafauna have been better positioned to withstand climate change and the establishment of man? Interesting story, and a story that shows that not all “invasive species” are those that are introduced by mankind.

Managing Diabetes with your Sweat — Especially as a family that deals with the consequences of Juvenile Diabetes, we’re quite familiar with the frequent finger prick to check glucose levels in blood. Researchers in South Korea have developed a prototype glucose sensing and insulin delivery device that looks like an arm cuff.  Instead of measuring blood glucose, it measures glucose in sweat. It’s not just these guys, there are also other researchers who are looking at measuring glucose levels in tears. There certainly have been many technological advances and devices for testing and treating diabetics, innovations that are certainly welcome! I just wish there were some real advances on actually treating the disease, and not just the symptoms.

First video EVER of elephant-sized creature…it’s 2017 folks!!

I find it so fascinating how little we know about our own planet.  From a scientist’s perspective, it’s awe-inspiring.  It’s the realization that after centuries of scientific discovery, there’s still so, so much we have yet to discover.  Consider the video below (from the Washington Post):

A video of three whales swimming around…big deal, right?  Well, yeah!!  One of the largest creatures on the planet, and yet it’s a species that has only been SEEN by a handful of human beings.  Never before has video such as this been taken.  The True’s Beaked Whale is a mystery, an animal that’s thought to spend over 90% of it’s life submerged beneath the ocean’s surface. Natacha Aguilar de Soto, a marine biologist with the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, has studied beaked whales for many years, spending months at sea but yet rarely ever seeing ANY beaked whale species, much less a True’s Beaked whale.

However in 2013, a friend sent de Soto a video from the Azores that had been taken by science students on an excursion. The 46-second video above shows 3 adult or sub-adult beaked whales, casually swimming near the surface before slowly swimming out of the frame. De Soto was stunned to see the video of a creature she’d only hoped to see some day.  Using the video evidence, information from dead stranded whales that have been found, and other rare sightings, de Soto published a paper in the journal PeerJ that provides new insights on True’s Beaked Whales. A True’s beaked whale has never before been tagged, but other beaked whale species have been documented diving to over 9,800 feet below the ocean’s surface, the deepest and longest dives of any mammal on the planet. At this stage, so little is known about True’s Beaked Whales that overall population size and trends are unknown.  The article above however points out the dangers to similar beaked whales.  A Culver’s Beaked Whale, a close relative, was recently found dead with over 30 plastic bags in it’s digestive tract, and military sonar has also been implicated in the strandings of similar whales. The video was invaluable for the research, as beaked whales in general are so rare, that even general appearance and distinguishing between species is difficult. The research also hints at the possibility of True’s Beaked Whales actually being two different species, one in the northern Atlantic and one in the southern Atlantic. As deSoto states:

“We don’t know how large the populations of True’s beaked whale or any other species are,” said Aguilar de Soto. “The populations could decline and we would never know.”

An elephant-sized creature, one that’s shared the same planet as us for centuries, yet one that could potentially disappear without human beings ever knowing much about them.  At a time when political winds are telling one of our Federal science agencies, NASA, to stop observing the earth and instead focus on the stars, stories like this remind us how very little we know about our own planet.

Facts trump Fear: A FACT-based assessment of Mountain Lions in South Dakota

Mountain Lion - Puma concolor

A full-grown Mountain Lion on the prowl. No…no…not my photo! This is a wild animal roaming in Yellowstone National Park. You see, like 99.999% of South Dakotans, I will never see, much less photograph, a Mountain Lion in this state. That, despite Mountain Lions seemingly posing as much of a threat to human health and safety as disease, war, famine, and pestilence combined. At least in the minds of many misguided South Dakotans.

I should just avoid the internet.  My blood pressure might be greatly improved if I were able to do that. It’s bad enough that we have Orange Hitler as our president, with a bunch of mini-Hitlers running all of the Cabinet departments. It’s bad enough that the normal news outlets that I check every day, such as the Washington Post or the New York Times, are now dominated by depressing and often downright sickening news stories about how everything that makes America, America, is now being being systematically dismantled.  What’s worse is that the same “alternative facts” political world we live in has permeated EVERY facet of American life, where fact, reason, and logic mean absolutely nothing any more.

Yesterday I was on Facebook when I came across a South Dakota “gentleman”, posing with a huge shit-eating grin on his face as he held up a dead Mountain Lion that he’d just shot and killed. OK, “gentleman” isn’t the word I want to use here, but I’m going to try to stay civil in this post.  Just the facts…so let’s call him “Gentleman Joe”.  It was a BIG mountain lion…160+ pounds…and evidently shooting a BIG Mountain Lion makes Gentleman Joe some kind of hero in the minds of many who were commenting on Facebook.  Normally I’d see something like that, roll my eyes, get a little sick to my stomach at the whole thought of it, and then move on to the next post. OK, who am I kidding…If you know me, you’d KNOW I was going to respond after seeing that.  As I I scrolled down, I noticed a manifesto from “Jim Bob” (I’m sure some relationship to Gentleman Joe, if not by blood, then by ideology).  Jim Bob was praising Gentleman Joe for the great kill, going on with his thoughts about just how much safer South Dakotans were thanks to his kill.

According to Jim Bob, the Mountain Lion horde of the South Dakota Black Hills are taking over the state. According to Jim Bob, it’s seemingly impossible to go outside in the Black Hills nowadays without the imminent threat of a Mountain Lion attack. In Jim Bob’s eyes, the proliferation of Mountain Lions in the Black Hills is akin to nuclear weapon proliferation during the Cold War, and evidently, poses just as much of a threat to humanity.  In Jim Bob world, it’s not safe to wander outside in the Black Hills. Gentleman Joe was indeed a god-damned American HERO for saving a scared South Dakota populous from the Mountain Lion scourge.

White-tailed Deer Fawn - Odocoileus virginianus

Yes, this IS my photo. I know what you’re thinking…TERRY! YOU HAVE A FAMILY TO THINK ABOUT!?!?! How could you risk so much getting this close to a dangerous killer? OK…ridiculous, you say? How much threat does a lil’ White-tailed Deer pose? SCIENCE MY FRIENDS! And the numbers don’t lie. THIS creature is MUCH more likely to kill or injure you than is a Mountain Lion. If you live in South Dakota, it’s not the creature at the top of the page that is a threat to your life.

I responded with facts, providing the TRUE story of Mountain Lions in the Black Hills, and their supposed threat to health and well-being of South Dakota’s citizens. Jim Bob, clearly not accustomed to facing the world of reality, threw a few half-hearted digital haymakers in Facebook response before slinking back to his hole.  He had nothing to respond with, no evidence to back his claims.  But as he departed the digital conversation, it was quite clearly that the barrage of facts I provided did nothing to change his mind. Those facts?

There’s been a grand total of ONE…count them…ONE confirmed Mountain Lion attack IN THE ENTIRE RECORDED HISTORY OF SOUTH DAKOTA.

Even that one event, in 2008, was an unfortunate encounter that resulted from a lion defending a kill, rather than the lion actively seeking out a human being.  Ryan Hughes was ice fishing on Sheridan Lake in March of 2008 when he headed to the shoreline and came across a Mountain Lion crouched down in the cattails, feeding on a fresh kill (thought to be a fox).  When Hughes first spotted the Mountain Lion, he was a mere 5 feet from the lion and its kill. The surprised lion reacted, dropping it’s food and scratching and biting Hughes. Hughes received minor injuries, and was treated and released from a local hospital for minor scratches and bite marks.

Well over 150 years since settlement of South Dakota, and this one, chance encounter is the ONLY MOUNTAIN LION ATTACK EVER RECORDED ON A HUMAN BEING in the state. However, according to Jim Bob, it’s absolutely essential that “heroes” like Gentleman Joe actively thin out the Black Hills Mountain Lion population.  According to fearful, small-minded men like Jim Bob, it’s a matter of public SAFETY.

I have no doubt that for tiny-penis men like Jim Bob, Mountain Lions ARE something to fear (am I still being civil? OK it’s getting borderline). It’s a scary world when you’re an insecure, weak little man-child (yeah, definitely crossing the border now).  Toting a gun into the wild and blasting away at wildlife?  It’s great for boosting those testosterone levels and boosting the confidence of weak she-men like Jim Bob (I am WAY south of the border…bye-bye civility).  But stating Mountain Lion hunting must be done as a matter of public SAFETY?

Deer Collision Risk - State Farm

From State Farm Insurance, a table of the top 5 riskiest states for car/deer collisions. If only there were some natural predator capable of saving us from the Deer threat…

One attack in over 150 years, in a state that covers over 75,000 square miles. Depending on the estimate and year, recent estimates of the number of Mountain Lions in the Black Hills have varied from 200 to 400. Generally they’ve thought to have stabilized around 250 in recent years. It’s a very healthy, strong lion population, yet despite their substantial presence in an area that’s so heavily used for recreation, there just haven’t been any attacks on human beings, much less any serious injury or fatality caused by a Mountain Lion.  That fear from tiny penis she-men isn’t limited to people in the Black Hills region.  Even here at the opposite end of the state near my town of Brandon, there have been stories of fear from the likes of Jim Bob.

While permanent breeding populations of Mountain Lions in South Dakota are almost exclusively found in the Black Hills, wandering individuals are occasionally found elsewhere in the state and region, even here in southeastern South Dakota. In 2014, there were a few sightings of a Mountain Lion just north of Brandon, where I live. A lot of the reports are rather “bigfoot” like, such as a reported brief glimpse of what might have been a Mountain Lion in the headlights of a speeding car on a highway.  But according to this piece from 2014, some in the Brandon area believed that Mountain Lions were setting up shop in the region. A quote from one of the landowners just north of where I live in Brandon?

Those spottings are just a sampling of the evidence of what Heggen said is a long-running pattern of the lions, which are solitary animals, being a nuisance in his area.

Yes, Mr. Heggen. It’s a “long-running pattern” of Mountain Lions roaming the Brandon Area.  They are a long time “nuisance” here in extreme eastern South Dakota, an area that’s 90% corn and soybeans and unlikely to EVER host a Mountain Lion for any length of time. They have indeed been spotted from time to time. I even know of a guy at my work who has seen one in the area.  But as the story above notes, in 2013 there were only 6 recorded Mountain Lion sightings in the entire state outside of the Black Hills.  Only three of those were in the eastern half of South Dakota. It’s not exactly a “long-running pattern”, and it’s a far cry from Mountain Lions being a “nuisance” in the area. More quotes from the Brandon-area story:

“But we don’t have any raccoons, skunks, possums or even pheasants running around anymore. And for a while, we didn’t even see any rabbits, although we’ve seen a few smaller ones lately,” he said.


“I’m guessing they (the lions) are eating them,” Heggen said. “They aren’t scavengers like coyotes.” He said that what he fears most is having his 5-year-old son being harmed by one of the lions in their farmyard.

Mountain Lions Killed - American West

From the Mountain Lion Foundation, a graph of the number of Mountain Lions killed by hunters in the American West from 1900 to the present day. In the last 20 years, hunters have generally killed 3,000 to 4,000 lions a year. In South Dakota in 2017, Game Fish & Parks are allowing up to 60 Lions to be killed.

Once again, let’s return to the facts…ONE CONFIRMED ATTACK IN THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF THE STATE, yet people like this are evidently fearful for the lives of their families.  There are other ridiculously speculative comments in the story, such as one time some cows were spooked by something (clearly HAD to be a Mountain Lion, right?), or that one fall he didn’t see any deer while harvesting his corn (Eegads!  More Mountain Lions!!). Please spare me the anecdotal bullshit about all the poor little animals in the area disappearing, and attributing it to roving Mountain Lions. Trust me, we have PLENTY of deer, raccoons, skunks, opossums, pheasants, and rabbits running around this part of the state.  It’s hard to drive any road in the area and not notice all the road kill on the sides of the road.

I’m perhaps being a little (ok, more than a little) harsh on people like this, but as a scientist, my biggest pet peeve in this world are fearful, ignorant human beings who ignore fact, logic, science, and reason, and instead let their innermost fears and emotions rule their lives. The vast majority of people in the Black Hills, an area that may indeed have one of the highest Mountain Lion concentrations in all of North America, will never even SEE a Mountain Lion in their lifetimes, much less have an encounter or an attack.

I also realize it’s not just the fear of men (with tiny penises) that drives this hatred of Mountain Lions, and the “lionization” (ha-ha) and hero-worship of those who kill them. No, beyond the fear, it’s INSECURITY, and their need to KILL, to express their manliness, that also drives attitudes like those of Jim Bob. That rationalization that it’s up to THEM to SAVE us from the Mountain Lion scourge…that attitude certainly plays to their insecurities, and it’s a great excuse for those who just love to go out and kill things.

On the latter point, hunters in general often have a problem with predators like Mountain Lions, for the simple fact that Lions are competition for the same kinds of prey that hunters like to target. As this story from 2010 points out, Mountain Lions likely kill just as many deer in the Black Hills as do hunters. The entire anti-Mountain Lion vibe in that part of the state simply boils down to this basic statement from this story:

Some hunters don’t like the increased competition from lions, said Mike Kintigh, GF&P regional supervisor in Rapid City.

A Mountain Lion kills a deer, that’s one less deer for hunters to kill.  In the minds of “Sportsmen” who think like this, targeting Mountain Lions is a win-win proposition.  It gives hunters the chance to kill a large, challenging animal, while at the same time reducing a major predator of game such as deer and elk.How do you combat some of the “fact-challenged” rhetoric from the anti-Lion crowd in South Dakota?  Facts don’t seem to have any impact on people like this, but as a scientist, it’s quite easy to shoot down the “logic” of these folks with some basic empirical evidence and numbers.

  • ONE — Again…in the entire history of the state, only ONE recorded attack of a Mountain Lion on a human being, and that was an obvious case of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, surprising a mountain lion on its kill.
  • THREE — In all of Eastern South Dakota in 2013, there were only three confirmed Mountain Lion sightings. No, East River paranoids, Mountain Lions are not in any way a “nuisance” or any kind of threat in the 30,000+ square miles east of the Missouri River. Let’s at least keep the argument just to the Black Hills region.
  • 250 — That’s the roughly the number of Mountain Lions currently thought to be in the Black Hills. In an area of about 5,000 square miles, that puts the number at about one Mountain Lion for every 20 square miles.  That’s a high density for anywhere in North America, much less for such a heavily used area like the Black Hills.  Yet again, despite the number of lions and the potential for interaction with the thousands of visitors and residents in the Black Hills, dangerous encounters have been non-existent.
  • 5,500 — That’s how many deer may be killed every year in the Black Hills by Mountain Lions.
  • 90,000 — Roughly the number of deer killed by hunters every year in South Dakota in the 2000s…during the exact time period when researchers believed Mountain Lion populations were at all-time highs in the Black Hills, with potentially 400 individuals present.
  • 69% — Recent success rate of hunters targeting deer in the Black Hills.  Evidently the Mountain Lions have left one or two deer for human hunters.  No, hunters, Mountain Lions are not wiping out the Black Hills deer population.
  • #5South Dakota was recently ranked as the 5th most likely state for a driver of a vehicle to strike a deer.  One in 70 South Dakota drivers on average have a claim related to a deer collision.  Perhaps a little NATURAL population control would benefit South Dakotans, particularly since the risk of any negative consequence (aka, an attack) is far less than the odds of being struck by lightning.  If only there were some SCIENCE to back this up…hmmmm……
  • 155 — That’s how many lives in the eastern United States would be SAVED over a 30-year period in the eastern United States, IF Mountain Lions were reintroduced into the area.  The number comes from a detailed socioeconomic analysis of the impacts of reintroducing Mountain Lions in the East. The savings come from the reduction in deer populations that would result from the introduction of their most effective natural predator, and the resultant reduction in deer-car collisions.  The same study found that over $2 BILLION in insurance costs would be saved over the 30-year period.

Not to let something as mundane as “science” get in the way of the thinking of people like Jim Bob, but if that many lives and insurance dollars would be SAVED in the eastern U.S. by reintroducing the Mountain Lion, how many avoided collisions in the Black Hills are a result of the presence of Mountain Lions?  How many lives have thus been SAVED by the presence of Mountain Lions in the Black Hills?  If you’re doing a cost-benefit analysis, that would be XX number of lives saved, compared to…ZERO lives that that EVER been lost in the state as a result of a Mountain Lion’s activities. What? That’s all speculative you say?  Not so fast my friends, SCIENCE TO THE RESCUE AGAIN!! From the same socioeconomic analysis:

South Dakota offers a test case example of how effective this solution might be. Cougars have been slowly migrating East: They only recolonized the Black Hills in western South Dakota in 2005. When Gilbert and her team looked at mountain lion recolonization in the western part of South Dakota, they found that from 2005–2012, deer-vehicle collisions fell by 9 percent, resulting in $1.1 million in annual societal benefits for the citizens of western South Dakota. (A 9 percent reduction in seven years is roughly on par with the 22 percent reduction, which researchers think will take 30 years from recolonization.) By avoiding an estimated 158 deer vehicle collisions annually, auto insurers are already saving roughly $630,000 a year in payouts in the Black Hills.

DATA!  REAL DATA showing the decline in deer-auto accidents in South Dakota that occurred RIGHT when Mountain Lion populations were spiking in the region.

If you support Mountain Lion hunting in South Dakota, please spare us all the bullshit.  It’s NOT a safety issue.  Not to let facts spoil your storyline, anti-Mountain Lion, crowd, but from a safety standpoint, there’s absolutely no doubt that South Dakotans are safer WITH Mountain Lions than without.


If you’re going to spout off about the need to “control” Mountain Lions, skip the crap about safety.  It’s clearly about either 1) your COMPLETELY irrational fear of a beautiful creature that’s MUCH less likely to harm you than is your hair dryer, shaver, or random bolt of lightning, or 2) your desire to KILL a creature for no other reason than the enjoyment of the “sport”.

For more information, here are some of the journal and news articles mentioned in this blog post:

The anti-science movement

The Mesentery Organ

Did you ever learn about the “mesentery” organ in anatomy? I must say that until the story a month or two ago about scientists discovering the mesentery is, in fact, an organ by definition, I’d never even HEARD of it. It’s 2017…I find it absolutely fascinating that there’s so much we still don’t know. However, in a world of tiny smartphones that are more powerful than any computer that existed on the planet when I grew up, people generally take the world around them for granted. They’ve lost their sense of wonder. They’ve lost their appreciation for discovery, and for science. As a result…we get the anti-intellectual movement that seems so pervasive right now. As a result, we get a blithering idiot for a President, a man who spats the name “scientist” as if it’s a four-letter world.

I’m addicted to the internet. I read news obsessively.  I check the same websites multiple times each day, looking for the latest news and information.  That includes basic news sites, but it also includes various science websites, such as ScienceDaily, Phys.org, or some of the big journal sites such as Science or Nature.  I’m always fascinated to read about the latest discovery, the latest experiment, the latest medical trial, or other science-related information.

Evidently not everybody gets so jazzed about science and discovery. One site I check quite a bit is TheVerge, a site focused primarily on technology. They also have interesting science stories from time to time, and I recently read this article entitled “No Thanks to the New Science Thing“.  The author clearly isn’t a scientist…that’s fine…but I do find the article, and the lack of interest in science, to be a bit distressing.  It’s a microcosm of what seems to be happening to a broad swath of Americans, where science, where discovery and awe, are no longer an important part of what makes us Americans.

I “get” some of the sentiment in the story.  The author, Elizabeth Lopatto, focuses on a few science-related stories, beginning with a story of the discovery of “Zealandia”. Zealandia is a 5-million square kilometer area in the south Pacific that includes New Zealand and New Caledonia, but the rest of the region sits under the Pacific Ocean. Because of the geological characteristics of the area, it rightfully could be called a continent.  As the scientists state, “If you could pull the plug on the world’s oceans, then Zealandia would probably long ago have been recognized as a continent.”

The author of TheVerge story is having none of it. To her, the discovery of Zealandia would only potentially be of interest to geologists.  To her, because the new potential continent only is about 1/10th land, it’s NOT a continent, and the story of its discovery isn’t very exciting.  She goes on to mention other discoveries that don’t meet her standards for “scientific discovery”, specifically, the “downgrading” of Pluto from planet status, or the discovery that mesentery is truly a “new” human organ.  To the author, each of these stories are minor discoveries, not worthy of awe, not worthy of the general public’s attention.  To her, they are stories manufactured by the scientists themselves, and aren’t major standalone news stories.

What happened to the America that was caught up in discovery, in scientific achievement, in the simple AWE that comes with new knowledge?  The space race that captured the imagination of the world, the awe and wonder of watching Jacques Cousteau’s adventures (something I LOVED as a kid!), the excitement over the first Space Shuttle launches? What’s happened in the years since?  In a world where the combined knowledge of the entire world is just a keystroke away, have we become so completely numb to scientific achievement that we can’t appreciate discovery for the sake of discovery?

The existence of the mesentery, tissue in the intestinal area, has been known for centuries.  However, it wasn’t considered an organ by definition, until recent research on the tissue. I personally find it fascinating that there are still things we don’t know about the human body.  I find it fascinating we can find a whole new continent under the seas, in the year 2017. This author evidently doesn’t feel the same way, nor evidently do many Americans, given the anti-science mood from many of those on the right.

So here I sit on an uncharacteristically warm South Dakota winter’s evening, sitting at a desktop computer that’s a technological marvel, periodically checking my even more incredible tiny-computer-in-a-box in my iPhone, the warm glow of a LED lightbulb in the lamp by my computer, blogging about people who evidently have no appreciation for the marvels around them.  For me…PLEASE, scientists…tell me about the mesentery!  PLEASE…tell me about a new underwater continent that’s been found! PLEASE…tell me the reasons why you don’t think Pluto qualifies as a planet. I find it all quite fascinating.

And am also a little sad to see so little appreciation for science by so many of my fellow Americans.

March for Science, the “Harry Potter” crab, and more – Science, nature, and other news

Science, nature, environmental, and other news from the week.  Click on the story title for an external link.

March For Science

March for Science, coming to a city near you in a little over 2 months. Here’s hoping the march provides that “spark” that’s been missing between the American public and the scientists that serve them.

Planning continues for April 22nd March for Science — The “March for Science” is still scheduled for April 22nd, a grassroots effort to highlight the role of science within American politics and society.  The march has its roots in the backlash against the ghastly, anti-science tirades made by the Trump administration since the election, but as this story notes, the march is about the American public, and not the scientists themselves. This article from the Chronicle for Higher Education is focused on Caroline Weinberg, one of the March’s organizers. As Weinberg notes, there’s currently a disconnect between scientific research and the people in society whom that science benefits.  I couldn’t agree more with that statement, as scientists sometimes are QUITE terrible at communicating the value of their research to the public.  It’s easy for the public to understand the potential societal benefits of medical research, for example, but much more difficult for them to understand why investments in other scientific fields are societally relevant.  Personally, I am mixed on the March.  As a scientist, as a truly ANGRY scientist who is fed up with both the politicization of science, and with the anti-science attitude that has pervaded an entire major political party of the United States, I want this march to have every bit as much of an impact as the Women’s March held just after the inauguration. On the other hand, I view the March with a bit of trepidation.  We have a child as our President, an insecure, narcissistic man who must have a penis the size of a paper clip, given his tendency to angrily lash out at any entity that dares criticize himself or his actions.  Given Trump’s tendency to angrily push back when he himself is pushed, I fear that the march may end up doing more harm than good, in terms of the short-term political implications.  Despite any potential short-term impact, here’s hoping the march DOES inspire a longer-term engagement between the public and the scientists that serve the public.  Here’s hoping the march helps to reignite the PASSION Americans once held for science.

Solnova Solar Plant - Spain

The Solnova Solar Plant in Spain, an example of the massive global trend in the movement towards renewable fuel sources.

Solar power economics trump Trump — In just a few weeks after the inauguration, it’s quite clear that we already have what’s likely going to be among the most environmentally hostile administrations in history, even “besting” the dark conservation years of Ronald Reagan.  Anne Gorsuch Burford, EPA head under Reagan for nearly 2 years (and mother of conservative Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch), was famed for slashing nearly one-quarter of EPA staff, greatly reducing enforcement of Clean Air Act regulations, severely cutting legal action against environmental polluters, and populated EPA staff with big business executives from the very companies the EPA was supposed to be monitoring.  As bad as Reagan and Gorsuch Burford were…Trump’s team could very well be headed down an even darker path. On the energy front, Trump has vowed to slash Department of Energy funding, with a strong push for older, fossil-fuel energy sources as opposed to continued investment in renewables such as solar and wind power.  As this story notes, however, the very economics of solar energy may end up “trumping Trump” in the end. Costs for solar power now rival those of natural gas, and are cheaper than coal or nuclear energy.  Over two-thirds of new energy production in the U.S. in 2016 was from wind or solar, and with economics continuing to dictate the shift to renewables, even an environmentally hostile administration is unlikely to slow the trend.

Using Rabies to Kill Cancer — Brain cancers can be notoriously difficult to treat. The blood-brain barrier is protects the brain from nearly all pathogens, yet that same protective effect also restricts cancer treatments from reaching cancerous cells in the brain.  Scientists have long known that the rabies virus had the unusual capability to “hijack” nerve cells and use them as a means to bypass the blood-brain barrier.  Now they are using fragments of the rabies virus to coat cancer-fighting drugs, or even create new particles that mimic the characteristics of the rabies virus, enabling them to bypass the blood-brain barrier and reach cancerous brain cells.  The work is in its infancy and there are still many hurdles to overcome before such treatments could be used to treat persons inflicted with brain cancer, but it’s a great example both of the ingenuity of scientists, and the potential biological value of even one of our most feared pathogens.

Cactus Wren - Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus

A Cactus Wren on a blooming Saguaro cactus. A moderately sized songbird such as the Cactus Wren may be able to cope with heat and dehydration somewhat better than smaller songbird species, but they are still potentially threatened by rapidly changing climatic conditions.

Desert birds at risk from climate change — A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy for Science finds that climate change may have a devastating impact on some desert bird species in the coming decades, particularly smaller species such as Lesser Goldfinch.  Higher temperatures increase water needs for birds, particularly as they pant in response to temperature stress. Climate change may make parts of some species range “thermally inhospitable”, with birds potentially succumbing to heat stress and dehydration after just a few hours of exposure at extremely high temperatures.  Geographic population shifts are likely to occur as the climate changes, with birds moving to more hospitable locations, but with human-induced climate change, we are currently embarking on a grand, global-scale experiment on the ability of habitats and their inhabitants to adjust to changing climatic conditions.

Crab named for Harry Potter, Severus Snape — A newly identified crab species off the coast of Guam has been given the honor of being named after a pair of characters from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books.  Harryplax severus is the new scientific name for the species, in honor of Harry Potter and the much maligned, and loved, Severus Snape from the series. A great name for an enigmatic, little understood, newly discovered crab species!

Monarch Butterfly populations take a tumble — Populations of the much beloved Monarch Butterfly have taken a hit over the last year, due to the one-two punch of declining milkweed habitat on their summering grounds, and winter storms that have taken a toll on their wintering habitat in Mexico. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Mexican government measure the winter habitat area used by Monarch Butterflies, a quantitative estimate that serves as a proxy to overall population  health.  2-years ago, Monarch populations hit an all-time low, with only 0.67 hectares of habitat used for over-wintering.  Populations rebounded over the last 2 years, but the harsh conditions this year has results in a loss of over 25% of winter habitat area actively being used.


One of our two spaniels, “Oscar”. According to science, we should have similar personalities to Oscar! He is certainly a beautiful, gentle soul, mirroring the traits of my son and wife! And yet he also has a quirky, neurotic, hard-to-understand side that perfectly mimics his troubled “father”.

Dogs mimic their owners’ personalities — New research from Austria claims that dogs and humans can pass along personality traits to each other, with human beings taking on the carefree, relaxed attitudes of dogs with those personality traits, and dogs adapting the anxiety characteristics from a stressed owner. For any dog owner, it’s not exactly a surprise that dogs are “sensitive to their owner’s emotional state”, but this study actually used measurements of cortisol, a “stress” hormone, to quantify the relationship.

Our planetary footprint shows no bounds — There’s little that frustrates me more than those with a strong religious belief who doubt that mankind even has the capability of significantly altering our planet.  You’ve complete imbeciles like Senate loser James Inhofe who seem hell-bent on ignoring every piece of science that may fall into their lap, with Inhofe doubting in climate change because he doesn’t believe man can affect change at such a massive scale. For idiots like Inhofe, only a god has the capability to have such far-reaching planetary impacts. For scientists, it’s obvious mankind has had such a massive impact on the planet as a whole that we may be in a new geologic era, the “Anthropocene”, characterized by massive environmental change as a result of anthropogenic activity.  This story notes that our effects on the planet extend even down to the deepest ocean trenches, where amphipods from 10,000 kilometers below the ocean’s surface have been found to have extremely high concentrations of PCBs and other man-made, organic pollutants.  It’s tough to deny mankind’s influence when creatures many hundreds of miles from any human settlement, at the bottom of the ocean, are poisoned by our activities.

Human’s driving climate to change at 170X the natural trend — Related to the story above, more evidence of mankind’s massive influence on our environment.  A new study by Australian National University finds that volcanic activity, changes in solar activity, and minor orbital fluctuations have influenced the Earth’s climate over the last 7,000 years, but the impact of mankind’s activities has been 170 times more pronounced than these natural forces. Climate-change deniers have tried to attribute the startling climate trends in recent decades to natural forces, but there’s little scientific evidence to back them. The Australian National University study is just one more nail in the coffin of climate-change deniers (a coffin that’s already been nailed shut for many years now).


Composite image of Jupiter’s moon Europa, from the Galileo and Voyager missions.

Searching for life on Europa — A science mission that even our science-hostile Congress is behind…searching for life in the Solar System.  NASA has preliminary plans to send a probe to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Europa is a cold, hostile place on the surface, covered in ice, but it’s a different story under the surface.  The tidal pull of Jupiter’s gravity is thought to provide an energy source that produces a thick sub-surface liquid ocean.  Cracks on the relatively smooth surface of Europa are evidence of the sub-surface water reaching the surface.  NASA believes they can potentially detect life on the moon by landing a probe on one of these surface breaches, digging down several centimeters into the surface ice, and using multiple instruments to detect microbes or organic signs of life.  Alas, the estimate is that the actual landing is 14 years from now, in 2031, but the proposed mission could finally answer the question of whether there’s life outside of the Earth.

Biggest volcano on the planet discovered — It’s 2017.  We’ve had extensive, periodic, repeating satellite coverage of the earth’s surface for over 40 years.  We’ve seemingly visited every corner of the earth’s terrestrial surface, and have increasingly mapped vast swaths of the hidden world under our oceans. The days of exploration and geographic discovery may seem to be in our far distant past, but as this find shows, there’s a lot we still don’t understand about our home planet.  Scientists from the the U.S., U.K., and Japan have discovered what is currently the largest known volcanic system on the planet.  “Tamu Massif” is a volcanic complex in the north Pacific ocean, about 1,000 miles east of Japan.  The tallest reaches of the volcanic remnants are more than a mile below the ocean’s surface, but the volcano itself covers an area nearly the size of New Mexico.  It’s thought to have last erupted over 140 million years ago, and is a shield volcano similar to the Hawaiian Island volcanoes. Mauna Loa in Hawaii is considered the world’s largest active volcano, with an area of around 2,000 square miles, but that’s a tiny fraction of the size of Tamu Massif which comes in at over 120,000 square miles.


Predicting that next winter finch irruption

Pine Siskin - Spinus pinus

A Pine Siskin, a regular but unpredictable visitor in winter in South Dakota Research shows that southward irruptions of boreal finches such as Pine Siskins may be predicted from recent seasonal climate records.

Not a lot of time this week to blog, as I’ve been in pretty intense meetings all week for work.  However, it was through those meetings that I became aware of this interesting research paper.  Birders are always wondering when that next great “irruption” of boreal bird species will occur.  On occasion, boreal finches such as Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and Crossbills will move southward in great numbers from their boreal forest stronghold.  The thought is that such irruptions occur when poor “mast” production occurs, with lower conifer seed numbers than normal.  The birds thus move southward in search of food.

It’s not just boreal finches that are subject to occasional southward irruptions.  One of the greatest birding experiences of my life was during the huge boreal owl irruption into northern Minnesota over a decade ago, when Great Grey Owls and Northern Hawk Owls were seemingly “dripping off the trees”.  Those irruptions are thought to be due to a similar driving force…a loss of a primary food source…with periodic crashes of small rodent populations driving the owls southward in search of food for the winter.

The paper below (click to see it) gives an assessment of climate data to potentially predict when a finch irruption would occur.  The species studied here is the Pine Siskin, but the authors note that it may also apply for other boreal finch species that depend on conifer mast.  Cool study…

More coming next week!  Given I’m still in meetings the rest of the week and have family obligations all weekend, it’s likely the next blog post won’t come until Monday!  Click below for the study…

Predicting finch irruptions with climate information

Time to edit the website again…

Hoary Redpoll - Carduelis hornemanni

A Hoary Redpoll in my crabapple tree. For now, I can still count a Hoary Redpoll as its own species, as the AOU committee decided to hold off on a proposed action to merge Hoary and Common Redpolls into one species. Which means for one more year, I can proudly proclaim that I’ve had a rare Hoary Redpoll in my yard.

It’s damned hard trying to keep up with all the official changes on the American Birding Association’s (ABA) North American birds checklist! The ABA list is generally based on the checklist from the American Ornithological Union (AOU).  Every year, the AOU Checklist Committee considers formal proposals to change the checklist, with recommendations coming from scientists who have published research and other materials that may support a checklist change.  Every July The Auk (the journal for the AOU) publishes the changes for the year.  And every year, I either ignore those changes, or spend several months delaying any related changes to my website.

Ever since I started my website more than 15 years ago, I’ve been working on having individual species pages for each species seen in North America.  Especially when a new species is added, I try to keep up and edit my checklist and summary pages, but I admit I’m behind in doing so.  If it’s simply adding a new species (for example, if an exotic species is now established enough in the U.S. that the AOU considers it a new, permanent species in North America), it’s easy enough to add a page.  I’m fairly caught up with those changes. What’s a major pain in the butt is trying to keep up with the “order” changes.  Every year, they make changes in the official “order” that species are listed in the checklist. The AOU checklist is presented in a “phylogenetic order”, using DNA and other information to “rank” species according to their origin and where they are on a evolutionary tree.  Basically, more “ancient” species are listed first, while species more recent in origin are listed last. On my pages, for example, I still have finches “ranked” very near the bottom.  However, in recent years finches have received a “promotion”, and are now higher on the phylogenetic order list.  It’s a major change moving things around on my master species page, thus the order changes that have occurred in recent years are those changes least likely to be represented in my checklist and species pages.

Here we are in mid-December, a mere 5+ months since the latest updates, and I’m finally taking a peek at the changes.  Looks like I have more work ahead of me on my website, particularly if I want to update the checklist order.  Some highlights of the changes for the year:

  1. Scrub Jay species — I have a new species on my life list, thanks to a new species split!  The Western Scrub-Jay has been split into two distinct species, the California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica) and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii). The California species is found from Baja California northward into Washington state, and is darker with richer colors, while the interior species is found in the dry interior of the southwestern U.S. and is paler in appearance.  When a species is split like this, it’s sometimes hard to know which of the new species you’ve seen, but fortunately I have photos of the former Western Scrub Jay from both California and Arizona, meaning I’ve seen (and photographed) both new species!
  2. Leach’s Storm-Petrel split —  The Leach’s Storm Petrel has been split into 3 distinct species.  Given a pelagic species such as a storm petrel isn’t exactly native to South Dakota, it’s not one I’ve seen, but alas, it still means a needed change on my website.
  3. Changes in scientific names — I won’t pretend that I understand why scientific names of species are sometimes changed.  Most of the changes this year are for shearwater species, but I saw they also changed the Sandhill Crane from Grus canadensis to Antigone canadensis. 
  4. Substantial changes in the phylogenetic order — Of course.  Sigh.  A hard one to keep up with, and once again this year, these are changes I’ll likely ignore on my website. Especially once you’ve been birding for a while and have used the same field guide for years, it’s tough even in your own mind to mentally adjust to a different “order” of species.
  5. Redpoll species — My “best” yard bird without question was a Hoary Redpoll that showed up 3 or 4 winters ago. That winter was the only winter I’ve ever even had Common Redpolls in my yard, but one day my son looked out at several redpolls on our thistle feeder and asked “what’s the white one”?   It wasn’t exactly white, but there was a Hoary Redpoll that was very obviously different than the Common Redpolls around him.  For years it’s been speculated that the Hoary Redpoll really isn’t a different species, that it’s just a plumage variation.  The AOU committee decided for now to hold off on lumping the two into one species, so for now, my best yard bird still holds!!

Scientists find it’s all about you…

Nebraska Ice Storm

A semi full of grain partially folded in half from a wreck, near Ceresco, Nebraska on December 16th. A cold, wintry hell of a drive, through snow, wind, and freezing rain. For many people? It’s an experience that would likely reinforce their own personal disbelief in climate change. As this scientific study highlights, even in a globally connected, digital world where news and information flows freely, we truly are living in our own little personal bubbles. We seem incapable of accurately weighting the importance of an event, placing much more importance on personal experience than even established fact or collective experience of others.

We had a very interesting weekend. Our “Christmas” with family down in Nebraska was scheduled for this weekend, but Mother Nature wasn’t going to make it easy on us.  We were in a winter storm warning Friday, but managed to make it out-of-town and head south before the worst of the snow hit.  We had to deal with freezing rain in Nebraska, though, which was followed by bitterly cold temperatures.  It wasn’t quite as bad down while we were down in Lincoln, but back home in Brandon we hit -24 below Sunday morning, the coldest we’ve been for several years.  To further reinforce the “winter” theme of the weekend, when we arrived back home, we found our furnace had conked out at some point, and it was 48 degrees in the house!

An interesting and memorable weekend due to the weather, something which scientists say is likely to have a strong impact on my feelings about climate change! In a recent study, scientists found that an individual is much more likely to “believe” in climate change if they live in a location that’s experienced a lot of record high temperatures, and are more likely to discount climate change if the weather is cold and they’ve experienced low temperatures.  It’s not exactly earth-shattering research, not when supposedly well-educated and informed politicians themselves are often guilty of looking out the window and declaring climate change to be a hoax whenever a wintry event occurs.  To me it highlights a bigger picture story however…the importance of “me” and the biologic difficulties with altruistic behavior.

I saw a meme on Facebook today that focused on empathy and Republicans.  It provided several examples of noted Republicans who were strongly against issues such as LGBT rights, stem cell research, and gun control measures…until a son or daughter of theirs came out as LGBT, until one of their loved ones became desperately sick, until one of their family was a victim of gun violence.  I’m incredibly cynical about any Facebook post.  It doesn’t matter whether some meme or story leans towards liberal or conservative views, many (most?) of them are pure fiction.  I don’t know how true some of the claims were in the meme I saw today (for example, one part of it stating Nancy Reagan was against stem cell research, until her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s), but the general point of the meme certainly hit home today (a crappy day where a misogynistic, narcissistic, childish, PIG of a man was supported by the Electoral College).  People are VERY good at ignoring an issue unless it affects them personally.

It’s not just Facebook posts that I’m cynical about…I admit I’m as cynical as any person you’re ever likely to meet.  Ironically, in a blog post where I’m focusing on the role of “self” and a person’s own experiences in dictating your personal beliefs, it’s my own personal experiences that are a major reason I’m such a cynic. I’ve been on this planet for just north of 50 years now, 50 years of personally witnessing the selfishness, greed, and lack of empathy among my fellow human beings. At the small scale…the interpersonal relationships and interactions that occur among people on a daily basis…human beings generally DO seem somewhat empathetic, even kind and caring.  Most of the time when dealing with another human being one-on-one, there’s at least a thin veneer or respect that’s usually present, with “manners” and social customs dictating little gestures such as saying “hi”, holding a door open, helping someone up when they’ve fallen, etc.

That all goes to hell at larger scales, when we’re not dealing directly with another human being, but instead are acting in some “aggregate” mode.  Politics is a great example.  Let’s say Joe Redneck is in line at a grocery store, and the clerk is someone he thinks may be LGBT.  In the vast majority of cases, even Joe Redneck is generally going to be civil.  Face-to-face-, one-on-one, we’re simply much more likely to be civil, to be empathetic and kind.  What happens though when Joe Redneck votes on LGBT-related issues?  What happens in a group setting, when Joe Redneck is surrounded by others in the Redneck clan?  That civility is much more likely to disappear.

Empathy and caring for others is even much more likely to be forgotten when there’s some personal impact on an individual, no matter how minor that impact may actually be. Expanding health care coverage for other Americans?  WHOA…how’s that going to affect MY taxes or MY health care costs?!?  Climate change?!?! WHOA…why should I worry about someone 50 years from now, when a climate policy has even the slightest potential of harming economic growth NOW?!?!  Increasing funding for schools?  WHOA…if I have to pay more in property taxes then I won’t be able to get that new cell phone!!  The relative impact is often grossly exaggerated in cases such as this, with people unwilling to make the tiniest of sacrifice even if the payoff for others promises to be substantial.

Am I reading too much into this study on people’s attitudes towards climate change?  I don’t think so.  As I’ve stated out here many times…we’re animals.  We’re driven by the same biologic needs as any other animal on the planet. What’s first and foremost on our minds is nearly always going to be our own personal well-being and happiness.  Americans in particular seem to be extremely efficient in rationalizing the world around them to fit a personal worldview that is first and foremost focused on personal prosperity and happiness.  We all live in our own personal bubbles, rationalizing the world around us in such a way that minimizes guilt, minimizes any feeling of responsibility for others, and maximizes our own personal happiness and well-being.

Yes, all of this, from a story about people’s attitudes towards climate change!  Even on a cold, wintry hell of a weekend, as a scientist and as an empathetic human being who DOES worry about his child, who DOES worry about the future…it’s very easy to see past the frost on the window and know we still face a world where climate change is a daunting issue.  It’s very easy to see, if one can just look past your own personal life and bubble, and try to empathize with the bigger world around you.  As this study hints at…that’s a step most people just are unwilling to take.

In The News – Week of December 11th

Science, nature, environment, and related news from the week of December 11th…

U.S. Department of Energy

Not a great time for DOE officials (or other government agencies dealing with climate change). First they’re asked to turn over the names of all employees who work on climate change issues, and then they are given a new department head in Rick Perry who once stated the department should be eliminated.

Department of Energy says Fuck You to Trump — In a rather chilling story from last week, it was revealed that the Trump transition team sent a questionnaire to Department of Energy officials, asking them to provide a list of all Federal employees or contractors who attended United Nation’s meetings on climate change, or had attended meetings or worked on studies that relate to the social and economic costs of climate change mitigation.  This week, the Department of Energy refused to comply, stating “Our career workforce, including our contractors and employees at our labs, comprise the backbone of DOE (Department of Energy) and the important work our department does to benefit the American people. We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department.” We have an Exxon Mobil exec slated for Secretary of State.  We have Rick Perry slated for head of DOE, an agency he once vowed to eradicate.  We have a proposed head of EPA that is an avowed climate change denier.  We have a proposed head of Department of Interior that also is a climate change denier.  And with this DOE request, we have evidence that the Trump administration will actively discriminate against climate science in the Federal government, and those who do climate change work.  There’s plenty of evidence of the new administration’s inability to live in the same facts-based world as the rest of us, but the position being firmed up on climate change is especially frightening.

Rex Tillerson, Exxon CEO, proposed for Secretary of State — And in an obviously related story, Trump formally announced his intention to nominate Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, as Secretary of State.  An oil executive, with no government experience, picked to play the key role in international relations.  What could go wrong? This New York Times piece notes that Exxon has an immense stake in our diplomatic relationship with Russia, with literally billions of dollars at stake should economic sanctions against Russia be lifted or revised.  As noted from the previous story, from an environmental standpoint, the entire suite of proposed administration officials is a complete disaster for the environmental, including stated desires to move away from clean energy towards the old days of oil, gas, and coal.  Nothing exemplifies the forthcoming disaster more than the Tillerson pick.

Dinosaur Tail in Amber

A portion of a feathered dinosaur tail, found perfectly preserved in amber. Bits of feathers have been found in amber before, but what makes this find extraordinary is the presence of 8 complete vertebrate and perfectly preserved connection structures, enabling scientists to state beyond any doubt that the tail comes from a sparrow-sized dinosaur.

Human beings hard-wired to believe blowhards — Recent research has shown that people base their belief system on personal experience, but also place a heavy emphasis on the beliefs of “confident” people that they come into contact with.  As the story notes, people’s beliefs can be swayed by those displaying confidence in their own beliefs and opinions, even in the face of contradictory evidence.  In a world where “fake news” arguably became the biggest meme of 2016, clearly this study is on the mark.  Nowadays, it’s not what you say or whether it’s true, it’s how you say it.

Feathered dinosaur tail found preserved in amber — OK, enough of the depressing news from the week.  Scientists in China have made an incredible find, with a beautifully feathered tail from a pint-sized dinosaur found perfectly preserved in amber.  The tail section is small, less than 2 inches long, but contains 8 perfectly preserved vertebrate.  Based on the vertebrate and other structures in the tail, scientists can definitively attribute the tail section as a portion of a small dinosaur the size of a sparrow. The find has also been a boon for trying to understand the evolution of feathers themselves, as there are characteristics of the feathers that are very different from those in modern birds.

“Winds of sapphires and rubies” found on exoplanet — The story itself is very interesting.  For the first time, scientists have been able to find evidence of active weather systems on a planet outside of our solar system.  Gas giant “HAT-P-7b” (a catch name) was found to have extremely strong wind patterns, an effect that was observable due to shifting patterns of monitored light from the planet. Interesting story, but the headline that was chosen reinforces a major pet peeve of mine…trying to sensationalize science. No, the winds of the planet are filled with sapphires and rubies, as the title suggest.  The atmosphere is likely made of corundum, a mineral that is found in sapphires and rubies.  I understand the desire to capture the attention of a reader, particularly given that people generally have the attention span of your typical 2-year old.  But it’s enough that the mainstream media constantly sensationalizes stories (or focuses on sensationalist material).  We don’t need that kind of mindset in the sciences.

Icefields Parkway - Alberta, Canada

Athabaska Glacier and the Columbia Icefields, in Alberta, Canada. We were there this summer, and in the 15 years from our last visit, the glacier has obviously receded quite a bit. Scientists this week “confirmed” such events are due to climate change. Duh…

Climate changes causes melting glaciers — Scientists looked at 37 glaciers and for all but 1 of them, stated that there’s at least a 90% chance that their decline was due to climate change.  Well, duh.  I need to write this kind of paper, something that restates the obvious but is sure to gather a lot of acclaim and attention.

Reindeer declining due to climate change, human activity — An extremely well-studied group of Reindeer in Russia have suffered dramatic declines of 40% in the last 15 years.Part of the problem is industrial activity within their range, which has led to changes in the migration patterns, but another issue is undoubtedly climate change.  Warming temperatures can drastically alter the environment, but can also have other unforeseen impacts. As shown in another study on caribou in North America, warming temperatures have changed the phenology (seasonality) of Arctic regions.  Melting occurs much earlier in the spring, and open water exists for much longer periods of time compared to several decades ago.  Mosquito populations have boomed as a result, to such an extent that they are having a very detrimental impact on reindeer and caribou populations. Thank goodness though we have a new incoming administration that will categorically state that climate change isn’t real and isn’t affecting anything.  That should solve the problem.


“Loligo vulgaris”, a European squid that is become much more common in waters of the North Sea. The “vulgaris” part sounds about right to me, because although I enjoy calamari, the idea of replacing tasty cod in fish-and-chips with this just seems a bit “vulgar” to me.

Do you want squid with those chips? — Alright, THIS is too much. Melting glaciers?  Whatever.  Reindeer and caribou disappearing?  Meh.  But when climate change starts to impact one of my favorite meals, fish-and-chips, THEN something has to be done!!  In the 1980s, squid were caught in 20% of surveys in the North Sea around Great Britain.  Now, squid are caught in 60% of surveys and numbers continue to increase.  As waters warm, not only are squid being found more often, but warmer water fish such as anchovies and sardines, are increasing.  The center of productivity of a fish-and-chips stable fish…cod…has continued to move north.  As the climate warms and squid become more common, you might have to replace that tasty breaded cod with some squid in your next “fish”-and-chips order.

Distracted while talking — What the hell, I’ll bring up another pet peeve of mine…cell phones and cars. I do wonder just how many accidents are directly related to distracted drivers, given how often you come across drivers weaving all over the road, people driving 15 mph below the speed limit and not even realizing it because they’re on the phone, people who sit there when the light turns green, etc.  As this new study points out, it’s not the fact that you’re using your hands that makes distracted driving such as this dangerous. Just conversing with hands-free equipment greatly reduces a driver’s perception and awareness of their surroundings.

AC/DC Logo

I can multitask! Air guitar while listening to Back in Black is perfectly compatible with simultaneously playing a board game.

Looking to put men in their place this Christmas?  Try some AC/DC!!! — We had family up for Thanksgiving, and one of the most enjoyable aspects was playing UNO and other games for much of the day.  Playing board or card games is something that many do over the holidays, and this study found a way for women to potentially dominate their male counterparts this Christmas.  Men were much more likely to make mistakes in playing board games while listening to music than were females.  The study noted that classical music had little effect on men, but playing something like AC/DC significantly decreased their performance. Interesting study, but I must take offense at the phrase of men being “forced to listen to AC/DC”. No one “forces” you to listen to AC/DC!  If I want play Sorry or Life or Clue or UNO this Christmas, well damn it, I also reserve the right to jam out to “Hells Bells” or “Back In Black” or “Thunderstruck” while I play!  Hmmm…maybe they’re onto something with this story…it is hard to play board games and do justice with my air guitar at the same time…

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