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Archive for August, 2006

Tattler avoids drowning

It’s quiet, sunset, low tide. Chains click on old bicycles along East Cliff drive. Monterey Bay is gray-blue, flat, and greasy straight from the open Pacific to the power plant stacks at Moss Landing.

The smell of krill scales the cliffs and washes over the old wooden benches where longboarders contemplate their rides. There’s only one strip of color, on the rocks just below high tide line, where a vivid seaweed clings green as lawnmower clippings.

wandering tattlerNow a piece of sea breaks loose in long scalene triangles: wings, felt-gray, sharp, unmarked. It’s a pair of wandering tattlers just back from Alaska, needling ahead on long, straight beaks, trailing dull yellow legs. They’re gray above, matte as a catfish, pale seafoam white at the belly. Amid the green, after a final flutter of their long, long wings, they’re suddenly much smaller.

Wandering tattlers are the dapper twins of this blog’s namesake, the surfbird (Aphriza virgata). Tattlers are whimsical, like their names. Surfbirds are squatter, grayer, their legs and beak shorter, their curves more bulbous, less supersonic. But both species patrol dark Pacific mudstones late in the year in Santa Cruz, quietly pursuing their business where surfers launch from reefs.

The tattlers arrive first and I’m always glad to see them. They’re like shy willets but smaller, with no wingstripe to scream at you as soon as they take off. They’re not as startlingly, cinnamonly beautiful as a godwit or a curlew, either. Tattlers are rarer, less gregarious, rewarding only those willing to bring binoculars and point them at rockpiles.

Here’s one nosing around the rocks to seaward, thrusting its beak half-open into wet sand loosened by a receding wave. The tattler spies a ripple or a wriggle and turns back to shore, peers under a rock, into the hollow cut by water draining back to sea.

It’s neglecting the very first rule of ocean living: Never turn your back. And indeed here comes a wave a-lapping now. Maybe six, maybe eight inches high, that’s still overhead on a crouching sandpiper and I don’t see how it can escape.

Perhaps that’s what the long legs are for. At the hiss of the wave pulling back from the sand, it takes two chicken-like struts up onto the rock and then those arrowhead wingtips are out, shooting in front of the foam and down the beach, a gray diamond flashing across the moss. In its wake, there’s just dusk.

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jackie chan talks to kidsThey’ve tried mass culling, plasmid-based reverse genetics, and the mysterious production of great numbers of eggs for making flu vaccine.

But in the fight against avian influenza, or bird flu, the gloves are now officially off. Jackie Chan has gotten involved. The World Health Organization, the U.N. and UNICEF developed a public service announcement in which Chan lets kids know they can get bird flu from domestic birds.

It’s an interesting move, actually: I mean, how do you warn the world at large about a disease that spreads faster than gossip? As effective as Al Gore’s thousands of slideshows about climate change have been, you don’t turn to a professional orator; you get a movie star. And you put it on television.

In a one-minute clip (RealPlayer, here), we see six elementary-school kids (of various skin tones) making origami birds with The Lightning Fisted One. They’re all flying their birds around the crafts table to the strains of Asian flute music. Chan is chatting about bird flu in the friendly tone of voice he used in the bubble bath scene in Shanghai Noon. Then he fixes the kids with the kind of look that made Owen Wilson become a better man a couple of scenes later. (“You should not play with any birds RIGHT NOW, especially IF THEY LOOK SICK, GOT IT?”)

It’s easy to make fun of Jackie Chan’s performance, since the scene is mostly talking with very little fu of any kind. His accent makes repeat viewings pretty much mandatory. He doesn’t get to deliver any flying kicks, not even one at a time. And there’s no opportunity to cunningly adapt schoolroom props into instruments for bludgeoning.

But I think this announcement is great. Chan’s sternness melts away into the same winning smile you see during the credits of his movies, and the kids laugh and peck him on the head with their birds. There’s a lesson for all us science communicators there: Find a way to make people want to listen. And give them only as much information as they can soak up at one go.

Still, I’m curious if Chan will lend a hand with other bird flu duties. I’d like to see him culling duck herds the way he kept L.A. safe in Rush Hour.

p.s. I apologize that this story is actually about a week old, but it’s been a busy period here at the scribbling headquarters.

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shearwater chick out of its burrowInvasive species are a major problem in our modern world. That’s because we’re generally happy with the way things are and less happy when some vagabonding drabcoat like a starling or a wild pig or even a smallish purple thistle moves in and starts carpeting the place. Also, frequently enough, the invaders got a lift over from us, and so we feel a lingering sense of guilt over the whole fiasco, at least those of us who haven’t made pots of money off not worrying about it.

And so it has gone with pigs, goats, cane toads, zebra mussels, nutria, rabbits, eucalyptus, kudzu, privet, tamarisk, all manner of ballast-water hitchhikers, brown tree snakes, lake trout, fire ants, house finches, leafy spurge, scotch broom, big jellyfish, uncomfortably large sea urchins. There’s even evidence we were carting fruit bats from island to island nearly a thousand years ago, for God’s sake.

And then of course there’s the original: the rat. The consummate invader has made mincemeat of island oddities ever since the first one dragged its creepy hairless tail off a sailing ship and started infiltrating nests of helpless birds (like the flightless kakapo, a New Zealand parrot the size of a toddler).

But today’s post isn’t about bad news. It isn’t about scurrilous rats with their insatiable appetite, their lust for expansion, their pyramid schemes and gleaming steel shrines to capitalism. It’s about community, faith, and grit. A small band of determined locals. And a shearwater.

wedge-tailed shearwaterWedge-tailed shearwaters nest, among other places, on a 3-acre scrap of lava off O’ahu, Hawai’i, called Mokoli’i Island, in burrows that they somehow etch into the rocky soil. Unfortunately, rats have burrows pretty well figured out, and in the years 1999-2001 exactly one shearwater fledged from all the nests on the entire island.

Some University of Hawai’i researchers enlisted the help of concerned locals and started an e-rat-ication campaign in earnest. By May 2002, the team had scattered 354 blocks of poisoned bait, captured 18 rats, and could find no lingering ratty traces on Mokoli’i.

That same year the island’s shearwaters produced 126 young. For those of you who are impressed by large percentages, that’s a 37,800 percent increase (over the previous annual rate of 1/3 of a shearwater per year). The next year the tally went up another 50%, to 185. The researchers also noted, though a bit less scientifically, a definite increase in tidepool animals, native plants, and an endangered grass after the rats were removed.

There you are, some good news for a change. Now, if we could just get the rats out of the other 33.3442 billion acres (not counting Antarctica) of land on the planet.

Images: thanks to the University of Hawaii’s Project Ant (a whole other story in itself) and the USGS… and in other shearwater news: last week we found out that the sooty shearwater flies 40,000 miles in a lazy figure-8 around the Pacific every year, the longest animal migration yet documented.

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creeping bentgrassIt’s happened, just like the hippies said it would.

A genetically modified grass has drifted off an Oregon golf course and hybridized with some closely related local grasses more than two miles away, New Scientist reports. The grass, called creeping bentgrass, is a kind popular with greenskeepers for its ability to form short, dense mats that look a lot like Astroturf.

But as we learned in Caddyshack, maintaining the perfect green is a nonstop headache. The solution: genetically modify the grass so it’s resistant to Roundup, a popular pesticide. That way, you can dispense with any actual weeding and just soak the place in Roundup. Voila: creeping bentgrass everywhere.

But did they stop to think that grass is wind-pollinated and grass species hybridize more frequently than genres of music? Uh, no. They just told the FDA everything would be fine and kept planting.

Now the FDA is asking for an environmental impact statement, presumably so they can take swift action. Beginning after the drafting, review, comment, decision, and appeals processes have concluded.

Anti-GMO rallies produce lots of news footage involving people who dress up as ailing monarch butterflies or Frankenfood and dance like Deadheads. These protestors draw the derision of coolly efficient molecular biologists who say, rightly, that there is a third world out there starving and it doesn’t have time for our organically grown middle-class fears.

But of all the objections to GMOs, this is the one that has always bothered me:

When we make GMOs we make something new, and then we lose the ability to stop making it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a full-day’s vitamin A in your rice (although allowing the gene-tinkerer to “own” the new breed ought to be abhorrent to pretty much anyone with a genome). There needs to be a compelling reason to tinker: Feeding the hungry, yes. Creating a designer golf course that loves pesticides, not so great.

It took us 30 years to realize that DDT was a mistake (our enthusiasm for it was so great that DDT chemist Paul Muller won the Nobel prize in 1948). At least DDT doesn’t have the ability to draw energy from the sun coupled with a single-minded drive to replicate itself.

This story isn’t exactly ocean or bird related, but it makes me mad as hell. Personally, I’d rather just have Astroturf golf courses.

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red grouse courtesy Game Conservancy TrustA shortage of red grouse on British moors is leading to plans for cancelling the 2006 shooting season this year, for the second year in a row. At present, it’s not clear what England’s landed gentry will do for their suppers.

And what will they do for the rest of the day, for that matter? Grouse season, normally kicked off on the so-called Glorious Twelfth of August each year, provides a welcome diversion from the monotony of shooting clay pigeons, pheasants and partridges. Or blasting rabbits staked to the ground, waking the neighbors, getting bras off debutantes and jumping over matchbooks. (Oops, now I’m just being a twit.)

After a few good chuckles about dukes having to dip into their kipper stashes to get through the year, I got interested in the serious side of this story. Grouse hunting is indeed a sport of the privileged – think Dick Cheney types in tweed instead of cybernetic skin. Exclusive enough that the working class get their chance only by trading a day of grounds work for a day of hunting.

Grouse shooting is big business in the U.K., netting more than 17 million pounds on 350,000 bagged grouse in normal years. But 2004 saw a reduced hunt and in 2005, with numbers at their lowest in 50 years, no one hunted. The plan was that grouse numbers would skyrocket while the guns sat in their cases and gleamed, and everyone would be eating roast hen by 2006.

So why haven’t numbers come back? Much of the grouse decline has been attributed to a fascinating (or icky, you decide) worm called Trichostrongylus tenuis. It’s a gut parasite that spends much of its life eating, er, the teeming denizens of the grouse-poop ecosystem. When a strapping young T. tenuis is ready to see the world, it crawls up the dew-covered heather and enjoys the view from the farthest-out, tenderest sprigs. Where it’s promptly eaten by a red grouse. In the grouse’s gut, which is sort of like a nightclub without the fancy lights, the worm sexes mix freely and … pretty you’ve got even more tenuis larvae ensconced in the poop-covered moors.

Gameskeepers have been battling strongylosis for more than 100 years. The British Game Conservancy Trust even has a position paper on strongylosis control (thanks to them for the red grouse image by the way). Apparently, a couple of mild winters in a row coupled with cold, wet Junes have allowed the strongylosis situation to run out of hand. And the weird weather has also led to more ticks on the runabout, and late snowfalls freezing out little grouse chicks in the high elevations.

But wait a tick! By Jove, I’ve heard this sort of thing elsewhere. Strange weather patterns repeating themselves. Mild conditions prompting insect populations to increase through the winter. Not enough to convince a jury, perhaps. But call it a hunch, I’d say there’s more to this case than a few bored earls with nothing to shoot at. We’re on the trail now Watson, and warming to the case.

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