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”.

I am DONE, South Dakota! No more “one-finger waves”!!!

Country "one-finger wave"

A photo of me giving my LAST one-finger wave as a truck goes by. NEVER AGAIN SOUTH DAKOTA!! YOU ARE NOT WORTHY!!!

We’re nice in South Dakota and the Midwest in general.  We’re polite! We’re neighborly! We’re friendly and approachable!! We’re not like those big-city folk, people who won’t look you in the eye when they pass you on the street. Heck no!! We’re GOOD folk!!

There’s definitely anecdotal evidence of that friendliness. It generally is true, when you’re in a store, a restaurant, etc., people are usually relatively polite and friendly.  It even manifests itself while driving.  Ever since I grew up and started driving in southern Nebraska, I’ve been a steady practitioner of the “one-finger wave”, the acknowledgement of a passing car with a quick raised finger.  It’s not expected while driving in the big city…you know…intimidating, scary places like Sioux Falls.  However, I drive a lot of gravel roads, and when you approach a car on a country road, the one-finger wave is almost obligatory.

We’re GOOD people in Nebraska and up here in South Dakota! That’s what people like to tell themselves anyway.  In reality? Not so much.  Yes, there’s a thin veneer of politeness, a fragile shell of general friendliness that perhaps you don’t find as much in a New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles.  But that’s all it is…a veneer, a facade, covering up the same human flaws that are found no matter where you go. In fact, it’s pretty obvious to me that there’s a level of hate, of bigotry, of intolerance that goes beyond anything I felt while living in Washington DC.  It’s pretty obvious that the veneer of “Midwestern nice” does NOT extend beyond the superficial, to anything that actually benefits society as a whole.

Let’s face it, where I grew up in Nebraska, and now living in South Dakota, where we’ve been for 24 years, the political climate is very “red”. It’s conservative as hell, with Congressional reps who are conservative Republicans, Governors who are conservative, state legislatures that are conservative. There are some more liberal pockets within the likes of Lincoln, Omaha, or Sioux Falls, but overall? They’re not even states where politicians really even have to campaign.  If you have “Republican” after your name, you’re going to win here, period.  I’m as liberal as can be, and we just had a Senate and House race this past November.  To be completely honest, I don’t remember the NAMES of the two Democratic candidates that ran in those races. Why? They’re irrelevant.  They’re just a formality, but there’s no real chance they’d win.

It’s the long-standing political climate which is why I say the politeness, that “Midwestern nice”, is all a facade.  To put it more succinctly, it’s complete bullshit.  It’s VERY evident from a political standpoint, in terms of who people vote for, what side of an issue they support, the crap that’s written every day in the local “voices” section of the local paper.  That niceness?  It ONLY is offered in superficial, meaningless situations…such as when passing someone on a country road. The reality is much uglier.  What do those who are “Midwestern nice” really stand for?  Intolerance, selfishness, and greed certainly are given much higher priority than any real, meaningful level of “nice”, of caring for your fellow man.  Let’s take Obamacare and what’s happening in Washington right now with the effort to “repeal and replace”.

In a state like South Dakota, a program like Obamacare isn’t viewed from the standpoint of how it helps the sick and the poor.  It’s not measured in terms of lives saved. No, when discussed in a state like South Dakota, the ONLY thing that matters is 1) the fact that the federal government has some role to play in it, and 2) the cost to a taxpayer and government taking “their” money. Because it’s a government program, it’s inherently bad…period. Just like in other red states, even when a “freebie” comes along like the offered Medicaid expansion from Obamacare several years back, it’s turned down without a second thought by our Republican state government, simply based on ideology.  Never mind the fact that THOUSANDS of poor and sick South Dakotans could have been covered.  No, it’s a government program, and even worse it was a government program offered under a liberal (black!!) President.

I’m done, South Dakota.  I’m done helping to perpetuate the myth of Midwestern “nice”. For a region that wraps themselves up in a warm, fuzzy facade of religious belief, conservatism, and friendliness, your actions certainly speak otherwise.  You can’t consider yourself Midwestern “nice”, yet throw a fit when government dares to tax you for programs that benefit society as a whole.  You can’t can’t be Midwestern “nice”, yet express your bigotry and racism towards anyone who’s not a white, Midwestern “Christian”. You can’t be Midwestern “nice”, yet place your own greed and selfishness above helping the sick, the poor, the needy.

Confederate Flag in South Dakota

My now MODIFIED “one-finger waves” are reserved ONLY for people like this, the wonderful, “Midwestern nice” house I pass on the way home from work. You will DEFINITELY get a very special, one-fingered wave every day I drive by. As for the rest of South Dakotans I pass by? You’ll get no such “kindness” any more.

In short, you can’t consider yourselves to be Midwestern “nice”, but ACT the way that South Dakotans typically act. What’s become ABUNDANTLY evidently over the last few months since the election is just exactly WHO South Dakotans are, and it sure as hell isn’t Midwestern “nice”.

I’m done with the one-finger wave on a country road.  Sorry, dude driving that pickup towards me, with your shotgun in the backseat, your “Make America Great” bumper sticker, your barely concealed hatred and bigotry…you will no longer receive any such kindness from me.  I now reserve my “special” one-finger waves for very special circumstances, such as the “good Midwestern folk” who live in this house I pass every day on my way home from work (photo on the left). At least you’re not hiding what you are!  More than most people I meet around here, you are VERY open in representing what Midwestern “nice” really means.


Fish in a barrel…

Bald Eagle -  Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A mature Bald Eagle hanging on a tree branch overlooking the Missouri River, below Gavin’s Point Dam on the Nebraska/South Dakota border

I usually spend part of New Year’s Day birding.  I admit one of the reasons?  Often my Nebraska Cornhuskers are playing in a bowl game that day.  In recent years (decades?) they have been too stressful to watch, particularly in a bowl game.  Hence, going birding gives me a reason to avoid seeing/hearing about the game. (Yeah, I know, that’s messed up..).

I missed New Year’s Day this year, going a day late!  I don’t go down to Gavin’s Point Dam on the Nebraska/South Dakota border all that often, perhaps once a year.  But it is a good place to bird in the fall and early winter.  The most obvious attraction are Bald Eagles.  Taking photos of Bald Eagles at Gavin’s Point Dam in winter truly is like shooting fish in a barrel at times.  Not only are there good numbers around, but they’re often perched in a strip of trees that’s squeezed in between the Missouri River and the road, on the Nebraska side.  With the steep bluff and cottonwoods lining the steep shoreline, the eagles like to hang out on branches that overlook the water, giving them an opportunity to swoop out and capture a fish (or sometimes unfortunate waterfowl) found right below the dam.

I have a lot of Bald Eagle photos,as they truly are a pretty easy to find species in South Dakota, but I would guess that about half of my photos are from the Gavin’s Point Dam area.  I didn’t stay long yesterday, only hanging around the dam area for about an hour or so, but as always, I was able to get a few Bald Eagle photos.  There were about a dozen hanging around, along with a few very big groups of ducks in open spots on Lake Yankton below the dam.  A nice first birding trip for 2016!

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