Dicromantispa interrupta

Dicromantispa interrupta

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Snakes as Cockroaches

My main phobia is katsaridaphobia, the fear of cockroaches. Can’t stand ‘em. Heart goes all a-flutter. I become a drama king.

Oh, I know they are among the cleanest of animals and they certainly won’t contaminate me. Too, they don’t carry diseases that can affect me. And I am fully aware that they do their darndest to help clean up the kitchen and my hairbrush – without eating too much of the good food, either – and are thoughtfully discreet enough to come out only when I am in bed and blissfully unaware.

It is my mom’s fault. She would get platter-eye syndrome at the very sight of a roach and try to corner it so it could be more easily smashed with a rolled-up newspaper. And then, having no alternative escape route, the poor little bug would take flight and head directly for momma’s face. It could have been funny but for the blood-curdling screams. After all, I was young and impressionable, but come to think of it, momma never did learn not to corner them.

I do the best I can to overcome this great tragedy in my life. I once thought that catching and handling cockroaches barehanded would do the trick, but no… Learn to accept them? Tried that, but no… Fumigation? Admittedly, that has become a sad fact of my life.

Reactions to my katsaridaphobia vary widely. Some people – generally my fellow sufferers - fully support me. Bless them. Conversely, roach lovers get all agitated up, remind me of things I’ve known for 50 years, forget that I am sensitive, hassle me, and even try to save me. Roach scientists just patiently wait for me to calm down and then eagerly ask if I collected a sample. Sierra Clubbers rant on my foggers. The Cockroach Fuhrer comes out of the woodwork and threatens my mice (how many of you remember the Cockroach Fuhrer?). The horror.

Snakes are the cockroaches of a dear friend of mine, so I fully sympathize with her feelings. She will always have my support.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Cottonmouths are not what they sometimes seem!

In one of herpetologist Dr. Bruce Means’ books – I forget which one – he details how he deciphered what actually occurs when it appears that a water moccasin, or cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorous), attacks a person on shore. It is too longish a little story to place within a Facebook reply, so I am going to paraphrase it here for ready reference. Obviously, you should read Bruce’s books rather than rely on this or any other second-hand account of his adventures, not just to keep the facts straight but also because his books are fascinating!

While walking along the edge of a lake one day, a cottonmouth suddenly came downhill straight toward Bruce moving about as fast as a fat serpent can go! Startled, Means jumped back and watched as the snake dove into the water and disappeared. Whew! THAT was a close call! But Bruce had beaucoup experience with snakes in general and water moccasins in particular, so the appearance of an attack didn’t wash. Giving the situation some thought, he concluded that the snake was actually just trying to escape but that he was inadvertently blocking the route to its refuge. Hmmm… How to test this?

Ahah! He got it! He began wearing snake boots – just to be safe about it! – as he took his walks around the lake, and being also intellectually armed for the next encounter, he sacrificed his body as bait to test his hypothesis in the finest tradition of inquiring minds. Sure enough, the same thing happened on another day, but this time he was scientifically prepared if not emotionally detached, and this is what he saw on this second rodeo:

The cottonmouth suddenly found a giant predator (Bruce) standing directly on top of its well-worn path leading from its comfy sunning spot to its aquatic habitat. Panic set in! Desperately, the snake launched itself toward safety, blundering right between Means’ legs. Paying no mind to the giant’s snake-booted limbs, it continued pell-mell into the water and had its escape. “Whew! The giant didn’t get me THAT time!” 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Detection of Advanced Fusion in Distant Planet Atmospheres

Consider the possibility that a sentient species on a planet in another star system acquires advanced fusion technology. That is, they can not only fuse hydrogen atoms together to make helium and useable energy, but also gold for self-enrichment or rare and heavy metals for machines like cars, planes, and space ships. After some period of time, their fusion industries might overweight their atmosphere in these heavier metals relative to pre-industrial background levels. If we construct sensors that can measure elements in distant planetary atmospheres, then would this be a way to detect advanced alien civilizations?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Seahorse Key Rookery Abandonment

There’s a mystery a-cooking in the cays of Cedar Key. 

A long-time major seabird rookery on Seahorse Key was suddenly abandoned this spring and the cause is currently unknown. It’s all over the north Florida online news. Now comes word that seven raccoons have been trapped and relocated from the island, and the trapper believes that eight or ten raccoons were on the island when the birds fled. However, raccoons are not known to be a serious predator of rookeries, and broken eggshells found under the nests showed no sign of destruction by raccoons.

The trapper noted that these raccoons were sleek and robust and just sat and looked at him from the cages, whereas in his (and my) experience, trapped raccoons are snarling, snapping, lean wild beasts. This indicates that these particular raccoons were subsidized by humans, and together with the eggshells, were not the cause this avian catastrophe.

I camped at a state park in west Florida in the late 1970s and saw about 20 (maybe 30) raccoons and feral cats come out of the woods when the sun set and a full moon rose over the campground. Laying in my sleeping bag in the pickup truck bed, I looked out the windows of the camper top and watched them forage around the campground, kind of like watching an African savannah wildlife show on TV. Unabashed pilferers, each worked the campsite independently, investigating every camper nook and cranny like a regiment of army ants blanketing and repeatedly gleaning a patch of ground. I watched as a raccoon broke into a neighbor's ice cooler (park signs gave fair warning). One animal even tried to dig up through the steel bed of my pickup truck as I lay above it admiring its tenacity while at the same time being astonished that park staff didn't trap them out. It would have been easy to trap them out. Alas, I didn't get out and see what these scavengers would do if I walked through them; maybe they would have just sat there and watched me.

It doesn't take long to trap 10 campground raccoons and run them over to an island in the middle of the night. My best guess is that some dingbat finally got tired of them stealing from a backyard zoo (county park, farm, shelter, trash dump, hoarder...), and not wanting to kill the poor wittle things, got a holding cage and a couple of traps and a boat. 

OTOH, if you like raccoons and collect them over a period of a few years in a big backyard cage, and then get tired of having them around but can't bear to kill the poor wittle things, well then, dumping them on an island where they can't find their way back home might seem to be an option to the thoughtless.

We found a set of raccoon tracks on nearby Atsena Otie Key in 2010:

How did that raccoon get there? I just assumed it swam there, or accidentally drifted over during a storm. Seahorse Key is much further from land than Atsena Otie, so a raccoon would have to like swimming over feeding shallows against tidal currents at night. Raccoons swim just fine, although they are not strong swimmers. But I don’t know…

What if some backyard zookeeper is periodically trapping a mess of raccoons and dumping them, first on this island and then on the next? Heh, even the Seahorse Key trapper is relocating the ‘coons somewhere. I wonder where? Another island? Another stewpot?

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Are Texas Warthogs Coming?

As you may know, the USDA has been working on a national plan to control feral swine (hogs, pigs), and I did my civic duty and gave them my two cents worth. Now comes a blurb from the news media that warthogs are on the loose in Texas and, oh by the way, that’s old news. Here’s one example: tinyurl.com/ncpgwa8.

Well, maybe in Texas it’s old news. I follow the feral hog situation because of my involvement in the Emerald Pendant project, but never once ran across warthogs in my literature review. Evidently, most if not all of these burrowing barrows escaped from high-dollar sitting-duck hunting reserves, although a few may have also been released by exotic-pig faddists. Apparently, it is not common enough to be widely perceived as an invasive-exotic threat, and may not even be reproducing in Texas yet. What is its potential to become an over-abundant pest? Well, the leopard and the lion and the Lango have all been unable to control them in Africa, and their cousin, the Eurasian boar, well, you know…

The common warthog is a savannah grazer, which means it prefers grasslands to forests and focuses on eating graminoids, but also eats roots, tubers, berries, nuts, crops, insects, eggs, and carrion. For sure, it will eat any herp it runs across. These are exactly the same foods that feral hogs eat. The warthog lives in sounders, like feral hogs, but unlike them is said not to occupy territories. If the latter is true, then warthog sounders could be more difficult to trap with the whole-sounder approach than feral hogs. One obvious biological error in the article cited above is the idea that warthogs are not nocturnal like feral hogs. Actually, hogs are indeed naturally diurnal, but become nocturnal where humans hunt them. There is no reason to believe that warthogs would not similarly adapt the shroud of the night. The warthog can occur in densities of up to 77 per km2, or 1 per 3.25 acres, but a more typical density is 1-10 per km2, comparable to American feral hogs.

The warthog’s gestation period is 5-6 months, far longer than that of the feral hog, so while the latter can have two or more litters per year at 4-8 young each, the warthog has only one litter of 2-4 young per year. If warthogs become established and strong control efforts are used on them, would the number of litters per year and number of young per litter increase in the face of significant control pressure? Research shows that feral hogs become more fecund when hunted and trapped, so warthogs could easily follow suit. The genes are almost certainly present in warthogs, as humans have bred super-fecundity into domestic pigs, dogs, sheep, and chickens, among others. Warthog birthing occurs at the start of the rainy season, which happens at variable times throughout the warthog’s native range in Africa, so it would probably adapt to American rainfall seasons.

On the bright side, drought and hunting with dogs can extirpate the warthog locally. Furthermore, the warthog does not have subcutaneous fat and its hair is sparse, so the warthog suffers in the cold; hence, the burrows. However, sparse hair and absent fat layers are possibly controlled by a single or few genes each, and if one (set) is the only thing keeping warthogs from breeding in the US today, then a single mutation could be a game-changer. Environmental stresses can force mutations.

There are two species of warthogs in Africa: the common and the desert, or Ethiopian. I don’t know which one is on the hoof in Texas, but the native landscape of the desert warthog is arid brushland and thickets, which sounds a lot like the Texas Hill Country. Regardless, there appears to be potentially suitable habitat in Texas and Mexico for both species.

The prospects for extirpating warthogs from Texas appear favorable. First, outlaw their importation, breeding, keeping, and hunting. Second, send in specially trained professional exterminators/hunters using every reasonable trick in the book (e.g., hunting with warthog-trained hunting dogs, Judas warthogs, whole-sounder trapping, and aerial surveys and shooting). Third, fold warthog concerns into national and state monitoring and public education campaigns.

Perhaps the USDA should focus a sufficient chunk of its national swine control resources on warthogs before they become as abundant and destructive as feral swine. USDA could fund genomic research on the potential for mutations that enable subcutaneous fat and/or denser hair. Research into the likelihood of warthogs acclimating to a nocturnal lifestyle may be warranted, although I think that can be assumed. Cage experiments could be done to see if warthogs can over-winter and reproduce in parts of America that rarely if ever freeze, such as north Mexico and the southern-most tips of Florida and Texas. Would warthogs burrow more deeply in American freezing zones than in no-freeze African zones, and if so, would that protect them sufficiently here? How deeply does fencing have to be buried to keep warthogs from successfully digging under and out? Even if the warthog is not territorial in arid and semi-arid environments, perhaps it would become so in wetter climates like east Texas and south Florida. Are there any other non-African locales where warthogs have been released, and if so, what has been the experience of local control efforts? The Mexican government might want to participate in any or all such research.

I reject the argument that their current status in Texas indicates that we should not make a meaningful effort to extirpate warthogs right now. I believe that their shaky toehold plus our experience with feral swine give us reasons enough to nip warthogs in the bud.

USDA spent a million bucks on an experiment to control feral pigs in New Mexico. Let me say that again, “A million-dollar experiment…” I think it was worth it, too, and believe that a program to eliminate warthogs from Texas costing less than a million bucks might be a bargain in the long run. I would also support passing the cost of warthog control onto Texas sitting-duck hunting reserves, as they are certainly the fount of the problem.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

From Ditch to Creek

I previously posted two reports about erosion control measures taken on my North Carolina house lot driveway. One was to this blog on September 12, 2010, about the stream crossing culvert (tinyurl.com/pt82u5r) and the other to my On Rappel blog on October 29, 2013, about the driveway ditch efforts (tinyurl.com/omgb8ve). The goals were to control erosion while simultaneously creating potential landscaping water features. I really won’t have time to do any serious landscaping until the house is built, but my efforts seem to have paid off. I hope this is apparent in the following before-and-after photos.

This is what the stream culvert crossing looks like now:

But this is what it started out looking like:

Ugly! You can see a lot of dirt exposed, with stream banks cut nearly vertical. I used a shovel to “bevel” the sides a little by removing the loose dirt and taking the overhanging root mat back away from the stream a foot or so on each side to reduce erosion. (Incidentally, there were a couple of ringneck snakes in the undersides of the root mat). I then placed small logs along both banks in the hope that not only would they retard the tendency to wash out the culvert but also provide a substrate upon which ferns, mosses, liverworts, and other plants could take root in and armor the ground:

The idea was that plants would grow on and between the rotting logs and form a web of roots extending back into the creek bank dirt. Indeed, the first photo shows that the plants readily took root in the logs.

Driveway ditch erosion was of equal concern, and since the driveway runs straight up the hill, so do its flanking ditches. This is part of the west ditch right after I added short split logs to create riffles and pools (and after a rain):

And this is what it looks like today:

You cannot hardly even see the ditch anymore, as it has silted in and the split logs are completely buried. Much of the initial storm water now sinks into the grassy, sediments in and beside the ditch, and what does runs off will sheet flow until reaching an open-top culvert (bottom of photo).

This is the east ditch right after construction:

After several years of vegetative growth, the east ditch looks even better. It gets more runoff than the west ditch, which keeps silt from clogging the ditch, although leaf litter sometimes has to be cleaned out as is evident in the foreground:

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the results. 

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Northern Red Salamander

I am back in North Carolina for the warm months and preparing to start construction on my mountain house. While clearing the house pad of trailers, tools, and trash over the last few days, I have run across some cool critters. Scrap boards were set on the ground next to the portable sawmill so Uncle Ralph and I could mill logs without slipping in the mud. These had to be moved. I knew from previous experience that untreated wood set an inch or two in the ground was good resting/hiding habitat for the northern red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber ruber), so I kept an eye out for them. Sure enough, a 6-7 inch long specimen had burrowed under a grounded board, so I snagged it and this is the best pic of the lot:

After wrestling with an unsatisfactory photo setup with the last red salamander I caught here, I had been giving some thought to upgrading my salamander photo setup. But, having done nothing so far but cogitate, this new Sally required immediate construction. First, I drilled small holes in the bottom of a $2 plastic salad bowl and then lined it with a mat of sphagnum moss scalped from a rotting log:

Placing it in the bowl amongst the moss, new Sally settled right down and let me take a dozen or so pics. The previous Sally squirmed around throughout its photoshoot, but that was probably because the bowl was bare glass and Sally had no place to hide. Perhaps Sally feels more secure in its native element of leaves and moss. Whatever, this time was different. After the photography was completed, I placed the bowl in the ground within an old stump hole in the heavily shaded forest:

And then camouflaged the blue plastic with detritus:

The plan is to leave the bowl in the ground where it will incubate in a natural Appalachian forest environment. Hopefully, the sphagnum moss will live and grow in the bowl well enough to look like a moss-covered hollowed-out stump and be good for small-animal photography.

Also note, while disassembling and burning a cord or so of sawmill scrap, two copperheads, a ringneck snake, a blue-tailed skink, a slimy salamander, and an American toad were uncovered and released unharmed. Only the smaller copperhead was photographed but technical issues prevent me from retrieving the pic, so this older image of a copperhead on that wood pile will have to do: