Archive for the ‘Insights and Visions on the State of the Earth’ Category

All About Bark

Friday, July 20th, 2018

rough and smooth bark

 

Anyone who regularly reads this blog knows that I am in love with trees.  They are marvelous beings in a great many ways.  And most recently, I have been musing on a particular aspect of trees–their bark.

I wonder why there are so many different types of bark.  Why do some trees, like the beech, have smooth bark?  Why do others, like oaks and hickories, have thick, furrowed bark?

Then there is color.  Why are most trees some shade of brown or grey?  And why do some trees have bark of a different color, like the white of a birch or the green of a palo verde?

Of course the overall answer is that the 60,000+ tree species in the world have all evolved to adapt to particular, local environmental conditions.

But I am curious to know more about the differences among trees’ bark, and how the bark of each species is uniquely suited to help that species thrive. So I decided to do a little research, and it turns out that bark is as incredible as the rest of the tree!

All Bark Does It

Despite its many different looks, bark serves  the same essential functions for all trees.

Bark protects a tree’s internal living systems from the outside world–from extremes in temperature, from loss of moisture, from fire and rainstorms, from disease, and from insects that could damage or even kill a tree.

Bark is more than what we see.  Just inside a tree’s outermost surface is a layer of inner bark that also plays an essential role.  Called the phloem, the inner bark circulates nourishment throughout the tree.  This ‘food’ is the product of photosynthesis–that process by which leaves take in sunlight and carbon dioxide and transform them into sugars that feed the tree.

The Smooth and Rough of Bark

All young trees have smooth bark.  And some species keep that smooth bark their entire lives.  Other species, however, develop rough, furrowed bark with age.  As a tree grows–as that thin layer called the cambium just inside the inner bark adds living wood to the tree every year (think tree rings)– pressure is exerted outward against the bark.  And it is how the bark responds to this pressure that determines whether the outer bark will remain smooth or will become rough and furrowed.

For example, beech bark responds to the internal pressure of growth by expanding.  The bark of a beech tree grows slowly to accommodate the new, growing wood inside.  At the end of a beech tree’s life, it has the very same bark it started out with, only more of it.

But rough-barked trees, like oaks and hickories, respond to pressure from the growth taking place inside by splitting into vertical pieces.  And as the outer bark splits into sections, a new layer of bark forms inside.  This process is repeated again and again as the tree continues to grow, resulting in the rough, deeply furrowed bark of older trees.

Smooth vs Rough: Different Benefits

Smooth bark can help a tree with photosynthesis.  While photosynthesis is typically the leaves’ job, smooth bark is dotted with small openings that take in carbon dioxide from the air to generate additional food for the tree.  In times of defoliation, due to disease or drought, this added photosynthesis can help a tree stay healthy.  Bark photosynthesis tends to peak in early spring and late fall, when there are no leaves shading the bark.

If you’ve ever wondered about the dark, horizontal lines on birch bark, or the diamond-shaped marks on an aspen trunk, or the raised, white dots on spicebush bark, these are all lenticels, openings that allow carbon dioxide to enter the tree.

Rough bark offers a different kind of protection.  Trees with rough bark are much better defended against fire than are trees with smooth bark. All over the world, rough-barked trees in especially fire-prone areas develop even thicker bark than they do in less fire-prone regions.  The bark of Scots pines and black oaks, for example, are extra thick in regions where fire occurs frequently.

And the ridged, furrowed bark’s greater surface area contributes to an even temperature inside the tree.  The thickness of rough, furrowed bark also provides protection against injury from outside.

Bark Color

Most bark is some shade of brown or grey, which experts say is largely because the many chemical substances in the bark, when combined, create a dark color.  Think of the brownish color that results when different colors of paint are spread over one another.

But what about trees with white or green bark?

The white bark of the birch reflects the sun’s rays.  While one might think that a tree of the cold north, like the birch, would do better to absorb, rather than reflect, the sun’s warming rays, that actually is not the case.  If birch bark were to absorb the sun’s rays on a sunny winter day, that warming, followed by the extreme cold of the northern winter night, could cause rapid fluctuations in the temperature of the birch’s cambium.  Such fluctuations between warm and very cold could result in cell death and severe injury to the tree.  So white birch bark serves a protective role.

birch bark 

And what about the greenish color of the palo verde? Unlike the bark of many smooth barked trees that plays a secondary role in photosynthesis, the bark of the palo verde is the tree’s primary source of photosynthesis.  Palo verde bark is filled with chlorophyll, which makes it green.  Photosynthesis through the palo verde’s bark accounts for two-third’s of the tree’s photosynthesis, with the leaves playing a much lesser role in the process.

palo verde

 

Other Protective Features of Bark 

Certain trees, smooth and rough barked-trees alike, ‘exfoliate’ or shed bark.  Consider the peeling birch.  Or the shagbark hickory with its long, vertical strips of bark that seem to hang loosely from the trunk.  Or the sycamore that sheds hunks of curled bark.

shagbark

This exfoliation may serve different functions for different trees.   The horizontal curls visible on a peeling birch prevent mosses and lichens from establishing themselves on the bark, preventing the clogging of lenticels, which would interfere with photosynthesis.

But when it comes to how the shagbark hickory and sycamore benefit from exfoliation, I could find no solid explanation, only speculation.  Tree experts believe that exfoliating may rid trees of aphids, harmful fungus, and bacteria.

Bark’s chemical composition often plays a protective role too.  Birch bark, for example, is high in volatile oils.  These oils make birch bark so waterproof and resistant to decay that tubes of old birch bark can sometimes be found on the forest floor, even after the wood inside has rotted.  And the bark of black cherry exudes a bitter almond scent which deters browsing animals that might damage the tree.  Oak bark contains tannin, an astringent substance that is toxic to insects.

Barking Up the Right Tree

Tree bark is truly incredible.  Just like trees themselves.–April Moore

 

 

 

 

Night-Night Birdie

Thursday, March 1st, 2018

junco 

     Where do the birds go at night?  Late on winter afternoons, when all the juncoes, chickadees, and titmice I’ve watched flitting about during the day are nowhere to be seen, I wonder where they’ve gone.

I remind myself of Holden Caulfield, the teen-aged narrator of the 1950s classic novel CATCHER IN THE RYE.  Holden worried mightily about the ducks who disappeared from the pond in New York’s Central Park when winter set in.  Where did they go?

Although a worry wart by nature, I don’t exactly worry about our local birds during winter nights.  I am confident that, even if I don’t know what the birds are doing at night, they do.  Despite my late afternoon wonderings, the birds generally show up the next day.

But I am curious.  So I did a little investigating to find out what our avian neighbors do on winter nights.  It turns out, no surprise, that birds who spend the winter here have a number of strategies for staying warm on cold nights.

Many birds roost for the night in the cavities of trees.  One such bird, our perennial neighbor the chickadee, finds–or excavates– a roosting cavity in a dead tree.   And unlike nuthatches and titmice, who crowd into a tree cavity with their fellows, chickadees invariably spend their nights alone, even when temperatures plunge.  I got a thrill one morning when I walked up the hill below our house and suddenly noticed right in front of me a chickadee popping out from a hole in a small dead tree.

And woodpeckers, who made many of those tree cavities in the first place, can always excavate a new one if they don’t find an existing cavity that suits them.  Wrens also roost for the night in tree cavities. Or they may spend the night in a tangle of vines, in a stump, or even in some human creation like a planter or a  garage.

Other bird species will never enter a tree cavity, no matter how low the temperature.  But many of them do spend their nights in trees.   Goldfinches and cardinals, for example, burrow deep into conifers, gathering with their fellows, to seek protection from wind and predators.  A stand of evergreens is more popular with these birds than a single conifer in the open.  The density of multiple conifers offers greater protection.

Many birds roost for the night on a high branch, up against the trunk, which holds more of the day’s warmth than do the branches.  And roosting up next to the trunk makes it easier for a bird to detect the vibrations caused by a predator climbing up the trunk.

I think the most dramatic tree roosting habits are those of crows.  While we see and hear many crows where we live, I only occasionally see them late in the day.  However, I do remember seeing them in other places, late on a winter day, swooping in noisily from all directions into a single tree or into two or more neighboring trees.   With a great deal of commotion, hundreds of crows flutter among the branches, settling in for the night.

And some birds do not spend their winter nights in trees at all, but roost closer to the ground.  Cardinals, finches, and blue jays retire on winter nights to dense thickets of vegetation.  Tangles of briars, grape vines, and brambles seem to be enough to make them feel protected.

Juncoes also roost near the ground, in shrubs and other low plants.  I read that they like steep hillsides.  Why this would be true I don’t know, but my own observation suggests it may be true.  Early and late on winter days I often notice juncoes flitting about the steep hillside by our house, in and around the forsythia or a euonymous bush and among dry leaves and weeds.   Juncoes may also roost in open buildings and sheds in stormy weather.

Clearly, the birds I see all winter where I live are well-adapted to cold nights.  I am always happy to learn more about the habits and strategies of these gorgeous creatures I love and admire so much.–April Moore

 

 

How Pain Can Be Turned to Joy

Monday, February 5th, 2018
photo by Ira Shorr

photo by Ira Shorr

Just over a week ago I joined with about 150 people for a bracing plunge into the Potomac River near Washington, DC!

No, we were not insane.  At least not mostly.  We were raising money for the organization international climate leader Bill McKibben calls “the best regional climate organization in the world,’  the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN).

All of us ‘plungers’ had reached out to family and friends, asking them to support our plunge by making a donation to CCAN.   And collectively, we raised more than $125,000, enough to make a difference.

Fortifying ourselves and each other with whoops and hollers, we all charged out into the frigid river.  And it was our willingness to discomfit ourselves by plunging into the cold water that inspired our friends and family to make their own sacrifice (in financial form), in the service of a cause we all believe in. 

What a joyful day that was for me!  And a great gift to me to be able to experience such happiness, especially in relation to climate change, which is one of my greatest pains.

Grief about what we’re doing to the earth is my all-too-frequent companion.  I anguish over the fact that we are in the process of condemning our children and those who come after them to a life that is much harder than ours because the planet on which they live has become destabilized.  It breaks my heart to know that we are in the middle of a huge wave of extinctions, caused, in part, by global warming.  And then there is the deep frustration I feel because Donald Trump has made our country the only one on earth that is not part of the Paris climate accord.

All those sources of pain!  But the earth is my beloved, so I feel duty-bound to do what I can to protect this incredibly wonderful home of ours.

And here is the small miracle, the grace in this dilemma.  By acting with others to protect my beloved, the earth, I gain relief from the pain.  That’s the meaning of the joy I felt in our Polar Bear Plunge.

I have learned that I feel great when I join with others to do something about that which is causing us all so much pain.  Our shared pain is the motivator that brings us together.  And then we share the joy of being part of a team, a team that takes effective action to safeguard the planet we love.

However much of that happiness comes from making a contribution toward winning the battle for our climate, and how much comes from our camaraderie, this I know:  at least for me, joining with people to do something constructive changes the whole experience of confronting what is so painful for me to see.

And this emotional alchemy–turning pain into joy–can be a gift for many who, in these days, are feeling pain at what they see happening now in America, with Donald Trump as President.

These are indeed difficult times, when so much on which our climate, and also our democracy, depend is getting battered and may even be up for grabs.  So I  encourage anyone who is feeling that kind of pain to use it to become a force for good.  Joining with others in effective action will not only move the world in a good direction, but it will also lift your spirits.–April Moore

I would like to acknowledge my husband Andy Sschmookler, for contributing valuable insights that helped shape this piece.

 

 

Mad for Orchids

Sunday, August 27th, 2017

    Who knew that orchids are the world’s largest plant family?  Ten percent of all plant species are orchids!  

    I had always thought of orchids as exotic, even rare plants.  Until recently, that is, when my friend Laura invited me to watch a fascinating nature show with her, PLANTS BEHAVING BADLY.  What a title!  How can a plant behave badly? 

     Well, according to David Attenborough, the show’s host and one of my heroes, the title alludes to tricks some orchid species employ to lure the pollinators they need.  Certain conniving orchids draw in their pollinating insects with a promise of sex or food, and then fail to deliver.  

     A plant that promises sex?  

     Attenborough introduces us to the bee orchid flower.  The flower structure of this orchid greatly resembles a female bee.  So when male bees emerge from the ground after hibernation, eager to mate, many of them think they’ve spotted what they’re looking for in the orchids nearby.  

     Clasping the flower in a passionate embrace, the male bee is disappointed when he realizes that this is not a female bee after all.  When one or two more attempts to mate with flowers on the same plant result in failure, he flies off to try his luck with another orchid plant nearby.  

     So the bee’s disappointment is the orchid’s success.   When the bee gives up on an individual orchid plant and tries other orchid plants nearby, he spreads pollen more widely, a practice known as cross-pollination.  Cross-pollinations makes for greater genetic diversity   than does self-pollination, where the pollen remains on the same plant.  That clever orchid!

     And false promises of food?  Unlike most orchid species, which draw pollinators by producing nectar that they love, some orchids only appear to offer nectar.  Certain orchid species have evolved shape and coloring that strongly resemble the shape and coloring of orchid species that do offer nectar.   These trickster orchids fool insects into thinking they have found a source of nectar.  

     Not finding any nectar in the orchid flower, the insects quickly move on to another nearby plant.  This orchid strategy of disappointment again results in success for the plant!  It has tricked the insect into cross-pollinating.  What a trick to play on unsuspecting insects.

     While about a third of orchid species practice some form of deception to bend pollinators to their will, says Attenborough, most orchid species do deliver the nectar (but maybe not the sex) their pollinators are after. These thousands of orchid species have developed a vast range of features that include hairs, tails, horns, fans, crests, even teeth and warts–that are very attractive to the particular pollinators who have evolved with them.

     Perhaps the most astonishing orchid-pollinator match known, Attenborough tells us, has quite a history:  In 1862, Charles Darwin was sent an orchid from Madagascar.  Called Angraecum sesquipedale, this beautiful, star-shaped orchid had a nectary a foot long!  (The nectary is a tube, at the bottom of which is the nectar the pollinator wants, along with pollen the orchid wants the pollinator to take).

     Darwin was incredulous!  What insect could possibly have a proboscis long enough to pollinate such an orchid! Darwin surmised that there must be a moth that does have such an absurdly long proboscis.  But he never found the orchid’s pollinator. 

     Twenty years after Darwin’s death, in 1907, a moth was discovered in Madagascar that had a proboscis about as long as the Angraecum sesquipedale‘s nectary!  But it was not until 1992, 85 years later, that this moth, Xanthopan marginii praedicta was actually observed pollinating the orchid.  Attenborough treats us to thrilling night-time footage of the giant moth unfurling its incredibly long proboscis and inserting it into the orchid’s foot-long nectary!  Also wonderful, we see the photographer, the first to catch the action on film, dancing in joy!–April Moore

 

Stink Bugs 101

Friday, July 28th, 2017

stink-bug-1_wide-26d7617b282911366218978fd09f025a765c9dd9-s900-c85     

     It’s summer now.  But fall will be here soon, and with it the dreaded annual stink bug invasion.  

     Not very many years ago I had no idea what a brown marmorated stink bug was.  Now I am all too familiar with these hard-shelled, shield-shaped, repulsive little critters.

     I believe it was 2010 or 2011 when I first heard of stink bugs, of their voracious attacks on fruit and vegetable crops, of their intrusion into homes in our mid-Atlantic region.  And not long after that my husband and I began to experience for ourselves these bugs’ noisy buzzing, noxious odor, and the stains they left on curtains and lamp shades.  Gross.

     I decided recently to find out more about our unwanted, ugly little house guests.  Why do stink bugs show up every fall now, when they were unknown before?  How serious a problem are they, and will we have to put up with them forever?  

     I found that the brown marmorated stink bug is native to Asia.  It was first observed in the U.S. in eastern Pennsylvania in 1998.  The bug had apparently entered our country accidentally in packing material or machinery that had been shipped to the U.S. from Asia.

     While the U.S. is home to more than 250 stink bug species, these natives have never posed much of a problem because predators have evolved as well, and those predators keep native stink bugs’ numbers in check.  Likewise, the brown marmorated stink bug is not a problem in Asia, thanks to predatory wasps that have evolved there to eat stink bugs’ eggs.

     But the unwelcome Asian stowaway has no predators at all in the U.S.  So once introduced, the bug spread rapidly.  By 2009 the brown marmorated stink bug could be found throughout Pennsylvania, and had also reached Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Illinois.  By 2012, brown marmorated stink bugs could be found in 40 states.  And that year, there were 60% more of these invasive stink bugs in the U.S. than there had been in 2011, just one year earlier! 

     While my own experience with the stink bug is at the level of annoyance, the major impact of the stink bug’s  rapid spread and huge population growth is on agriculture.  Especially in the eastern U.S., stink bugs are going after a wide range of crops.  They start eating in the late spring, and proceed to feast on  peaches, apples, green beans, soybeans, cherries, raspberries, pears, and many more fruits and vegetables.  They are also very fond of ornamental trees and shrubs.

     The stink bug possesses mouth parts that enable it to pierce plant parts and suck out the juice.  The loss of plant fluid leads to deformed or destroyed seeds, destruction of fruiting structures, delayed plant maturation, and increased vulnerability to plant pathogens.  

     For good reason, stink bug control has become a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) priority.  But the brown marmorated stink bug is a formidable foe.  Not only does the lack of predators allow the bugs to spread and multiply, but they are very mobile.  A new generation of stink bugs can fly in after a resident population has been killed, making permanent removal almost impossible.

     And, unfortunately, the United States is proving an ideal environment for the brown marmorated stink bug.  There is no part of the U.S. where this stink bug cannot produce at least one new generation a year.  And in  warmer states like California, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, these bugs can produce as many as six generations in a single year! With overall temperatures rising as a result of climate change, reproductive conditions are becoming increasingly favorable throughout the country.  And the stink bug can survive long periods of cold as well as heat.

     Efforts to combat the brown marmorated stink bug have included the use of pesticides, but they have proven ineffective.  Scientists have looked at importing the stink bug’s natural predators from Asia as a way to keep their numbers in check here.  But introducing these wasps might result in yet another infestation.  Scientists hope that birds and other animals will eventually begin preying on stink bugs.

     Sadly, there is currently no known way to stem the increase of the brown marmorated stink bug in the U.S.  

     But at least there are steps we individuals can take to keep these bugs out of our homes in the fall, when the weather cools and the bugs are looking for a warm place to overwinter.

     Since insecticides have proven ineffective against the bugs, and may be harmful to humans besides, scientists recommend prevention.  Before fall arrives, cracks in walls, holes in screens, and spaces around air conditioners and utility boxes should be sealed.

     Despite one’s best efforts, some stink bugs will make it into the house.  And during a warm, sunny patch of winter, those who got into the house in the fall may awaken and start buzzing around.  ’Catch and release’ works okay, although if the bug is squad  a smelly emission can result.       

     Like many people, I throw stink bugs into the toilet.  That approach is less than satisfactory, since stink bugs are good swimmers, and some can make it to the side of the toilet bowl, where they crawl up to the rim.  Some people recommend keeping a bucket of soapy water at the ready and throwing bugs in.  I have not yet tried that approach.

     Sometimes during stink bug season, when I am reading on the couch in the evening, I keep a bowl of water, covered by a plate, on the end table beside me.  When I hear a loud buzz or spot one of those ugly critters on the lamp shade next to me, I grab it (not too tightly), lift the plate, plunge the bug into the water, and put the plate back on top.  The plate protects me from having to look at the bugs in the water, and it also ensures they can’t escape.  The next morning, without looking too closely at my catch, I toss the water and the dead bugs outside.

A FEW STINK BUG FACTS

  • The brown marmorated stink bug can be distinguished from other, noninvasive, stink bugs by dark and light bands on their antennae and by dark and light bands on the top outer edges of their abdomens. 
  • Between May and August, female stink bugs lay 20-30 eggs at a time under a leaf or on a plant stem.  
  • The bug’s stink glands are located on the bug’s underside, between the first and second pair of legs.
  • Adult stink bugs live from several months to a year.
  • While stink bugs are more annoying than harmful to humans, the odor can produce an allergic reaction in some individuals who are sensitive to the odors of cockroaches and ladybugs.  If a stink bug is smashed against exposed skin, dermatitis may result at the point of contact.–April Moore

 

 

 

 

The Strange History of Birds

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

 

     A dramatic expansion in genetics research capacity has enabled scientists to learn some surprising things about birds and their evolutionary history.

     Using new DNA research techniques, scientists have gained knowledge that turns traditional groupings of bird species upside down.  For example, field guides typically grouped bird species by observable similarities like size, color, and habitat.  But the new research shows that living bird species may be far more genetically similar to birds that seem very different than they are to species that seem similar.

     Recent research reveals that falcons, for instance, are more closely related to parrots than they are to hawks, even though they look much more like hawks.  And flamingoes, it turns out, are more closely related to pigeons than they are to almost all other waterbirds!

     The new bird research, according to Science News, was conducted by a consortium of 200 scientists from around the world and funded by the Chinese genetics institute BGI and other sources.  Findings suggest that many bird species that appear closely related are not examples of close ancestral relationships after all.  

     Instead, such bird species’ similarity is the result of convergence over time.  These different species evolved in different parts of the world.  But they developed in some of the same ways because they occupied a similar environmental niche.  With similar environmental forces operating in these species’ distant niches, birds in far distant areas developed some of the same characteristics, even though they are not related genetically.

     Sorting out which modern bird species are truly related to one another and which are not had long posed a problem for researchers, explains ornithologist Shannon Hackett of the Field Museum of Chicago.  An avian ‘big bang,’ she explains, took place around the time dinosaurs went extinct and sent many lineages ‘flying’ off in different directions.  

     Before current genetic research techniques became available, it had been hard to figure out which fossils belonged with which emerging group, Hackett explains.  In fact, many scientists believed it would never be possible to sort out which birds were truly most related to which other species.

     One fascinating aspect of this new research is that parrots, songbirds, and humans, for that matter, have converged on very similar genes involved in vocal learning.  In fact, birds may prove to be a useful species for further insights into human speech disorders.  The usual medical research species–monkeys and mice–don’t learn sounds as birds and humans do.–April Moore 

 

 

 

 

Amazing Rocks!

Saturday, December 6th, 2014

On a recent hike in the Shenandoah National Park with my friend Kathy, we saw some rocks that were truly amazing!  They were unlike any I’d ever seen.

A sign along the main trail directed us to a side trail that would lead us to an unusual rock formation called columnar jointing.  We took this side trail down a steep hill, past a massive rock.  It was only when we turned to look back up at that rock that we suddenly understood why these rocks were not to be missed!

The downhill side of the giant rock face looked like a bundle of hexagonal columns, all sliced crosswise to similar but not identical lengths.  The hexagonal shape of each column was so distinct that these rocks looked like crystal formations.  Here is a photo I took of the rocks:

columnar jointing

Like many hikers before us, no doubt, Kathy and I were intrigued by these rocks and wondered how they had been formed.  So a few days later, I did a little research.

Apparently, these rocks are well-preserved cooling columns from major lava flows that occurred some 570 million years ago.  At that time, two tectonic plates began to spread apart along a system of rifts thousands of miles long.  Molten basalt from deep inside the earth rose through these rifts, spilling out onto the earth’s surface in vast quantities that eventually covered more than 4,000 square miles.

As the liquid basalt cooled, it solidified, forming very angular, polygonal cracks similar to those found in drying mud.  Under the right conditions, these cracks can extend many tens of feet and produce a structure that looks like long, polygonal columns of rock, which geologists call columnar jointing.–April Moore

 

The Magnificent–and Elusive–Snow Leopard

Friday, October 10th, 2014

 

Briefs_Castner2-300x210 copy

     When the great writer/naturalist Peter Matthiessen died earlier this year, I read a tribute to him that piqued my interest.  Having noticed his book THE SNOW LEOPARD on numerous friends’  bookshelves over several decades, I  decided now was the time to read it.

     What an extraordinary book!  Published in 1978, the book chronicles Matthiessen’s trek along the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayas a few years earlier, along with conservation biologist George Schaller.  While Schaller was on a mission to learn more about the mating habits of bharal sheep, Matthiessen’s journey was personal and spiritual.  Both men longed to catch a glimpse of the snow leopard, a predator of the bharal that had been spotted by westerners only twice in the preceding 25 years.

     While neither Matthiessen nor Schaller did see a snow leopard during the two months they walked the rugged Himalayas, they did come across prints and scat left by the animal.  Indeed, it would have been next to impossible actually to see the snow leopard.  

     Below is a beautifully written description of the extremely elusive animal from Matthiessen’s book:  

“By firelight, we talk about the snow leopard.  Not only is it rare. . . but it is wary and elusive to a magical degree, and so well camouflaged in the places it chooses to lie that one can stare straight at it from yards away and fail to see it.  Even those who know the mountains rarely take it by surprise:  most sightings have been made by hunters lying still near a wild herd when a snow leopard happened to be stalking. . . .

“The snow leopard is usually found above 5000 feet and occurs as high as 18,000 feet.  Though nowhere common, it has a wide range in the mountains of Central Asia, from the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan eastward along the Himalaya and across Tibet into southern China, and also northward in the mountains of the USSR and west China to the Sayan Range, on the Siberian border of Mongolia. . . 

“The typical snow leopard has pale frosty eyes and a coat of pale misty gray, with black rosettes that are clouded by the depth of the rich fur.  An adult rarely weighs more than a hundred pounds or exceeds six feet in length, including the remarkable long tail, thick to the tip, used presumably for balance and for warmth, but it kills creatures three times its own size without much difficulty.  It has enormous paws and a short-faced heraldic head, like a leopard of myth;  it is bold and agile in the hunt, and capable of terrific leaps;  and although its usual prey is the blue sheep, it occasionally takes livestock, including young yak of several hundred pounds.  This means that man would be fair game as well, although no attack on a human being has ever been reported.

“The snow leopard is the most mysterious of the great cats;  of its social system, there is nothing known.  Almost always it is seen alone;  it may meet over a kill, as tigers do, or it may be unsociable and solitary, like the true leopard.” 

THE SNOW LEOPARD TODAY

The book left me wondering how snow leopards are doing today, 40 years after Matthiessen’s trek.

I did a little research and learned that yes, the snow leopard is endangered.  Fewer than 7,000 are believed to exist in the wild.  Despite the remoteness of their range, these animals have been threatened by poaching and by the overhunting of the animals on which they prey.  But perhaps the greatest long-term threat to the snow leopard, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is global warming, which could result in a loss of  30% of the snow leopards in the Himalayas.  

But there is good news too.  Protective efforts by international conservation organizations, like the WWF and the Snow Leopard Conservancy, together with governments and local communities in the snow leopard’s range have been effective.

For example, conservation groups facilitated a joint effort among Central Asian nations to create a large protected area for snow leopards that spans parts of China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.  And China and Pakistan are cooperatively managing adjacent natural reserves in their two countries. 

Also, with international help, 55 villages in Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains and 65 villages in northern Pakistan have recently formed committees to protect snow leopards and safeguard other natural resources.  These committees have deployed almost 200 volunteer rangers who monitor snow leopards and their prey and enforce anti-poaching regulations.
Even the monks of remote Buddhist monasteries in the snow leopard’s range are getting into the act.  They are preventing poaching by patrolling the forests near their monasteries. – April Moore

 

 

 

 

 

 

Putting Population in Perspective

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

 

I remember the late 1960s and early 70s, when the issue of overpopulation first gained widespread attention.  Paul Ehrlich sounded the alarm with his popular book THE POPULATION BOMB;  environmentalists and others warned that the human population was simply growing too large to be sustainable.  Well, since that time, the earth’s human population has more than doubled! We are now past seven billion and climbing.

It seems clear to me that our inability to keep our human numbers in check threatens human health and well-being, not to mention the very survival of many other species with whom we share the planet.

I am posting here today a link to an accessible, informative research graphic called The Effect of Overpopulation on Public Health   

This vivid, easy-to-understand presentation was sent to me by Earth Connection reader Emily Maynard, who helped prepare it for MPHonline, a website that provides information on Master’s degree programs in Public Health.–April Moore

 

 

World Population Day

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

       I recently read a statistic that I could hardly believe.  Every day, the world’s population increases by 227,000 people!  

     227,000!  That’s like adding a mid-sized city every single day.  And this 227,000 figure is not the number of births each day;  it’s the number of births minus the number of deaths, or the net increase.  

     I am thinking about world population because tomorrow, Friday, July 11, is World Population Day.  This annual observance was established by the United Nations in 1989 as a vehicle to build awareness of population issues and the impact they have on the environment and on development.  The United Nations Population Fund encourages governments, non-governmental organizations, institutions, and individuals to organize educational activities to mark the annual event.

     Why July 11?  That was the day in, 1987, when the global human population first reached five billion.  The Day of Five Billion attracted so much interest all around the world that the UN and population educators joined together to create an annual occasion to focus the world’s attention on the challenges posed by population growth.

Global population growth is truly a fascinating phenomenon.  Long, long ago, when humans lived in bands of hunters and gatherers, the population was small and stable.  Then, with the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, more food became available and the human population began to grow.  Then came the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s.  With expanded agriculture and life-saving medical advances, the human population started to increase exponentially.

Consider the following:

  • About 8,000 BC when farming began, the global population was about 5 million.
  • By about 1 AD, 8,000 years later, the population was about 200 million.
  • About 1800 years later, by 1800 AD, the human population reached its first billion.
  • By 1930, just 130 years later, the population crossed the 2 billion mark.
  • By 1959, a mere 29 years later, the population had grown to 3 billion.
  • By 1974, only 15 years later, the world population reached 4 billion.
  • In 1987, 13 years later, there were 5 billion of us.
  • The 20th century began with 1.6 billion people and ended with 6.1 billion.  
  • Most of the population growth throughout history took place in a single century!
  • Today, the global population is 7.2 billion.  

Population growth rates are falling throughout the world.  But because of rapid population increases in past decades, the number of people in their childbearing years is very high.  Thus, even with a low birth rate, the actual number of people will continue to grow for several decades.  Demographers call this phenomenon ‘demographic momentum.’

Demographers predict that population could grow to 9 billion by 2050 and then stabilize.–April Moore

 

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