Category: Mammals

Too Many Deer: A Bigger Threat to Eastern Forests than Climate Change?

Yes, white-tailed deer are beautiful, charismatic creatures. But there can be too much of a good thing. Three Nature Conservancy authors argue that deer are now the greatest threat to Eastern forest. To address the problem means not only managing deer, but managing people. What do you think?

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Poorly Known Species at Most Risk from Extinction

Our incomplete knowledge of the biological world can have profound implications for the natural world. The less we know about a species, the higher the risk for extinction. Researcher Lucie Bland presents her findings in this essay, the first in a series of three blogs written by winners of the University of Queensland’s Student Conference on Conservation Science.

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Weird Nature: A Bat that Eats Scorpions

Many bat species are well known for eating flying insects. This one eats scorpions. How can it detect prey on the ground at night? How does it avoid being stung? Our blogger takes an in-depth look at the pallid bat, and finds that the answers are even weirder than you think.

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Traveling Naturalist: 5 Top Spots to See Yellowstone’s Wildlife

Heading to America’s first national park? Our blogger points you to the best spots to see Yellowstone’s diverse wildlife, including creatures very, very large and those very, very small.

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The Cooler: Can Hillary Clinton Help Stop Elephant Poaching?

Hillary Rodham Clinton has made stopping elephant poaching her new cause. Can she really make a difference? Perhaps conservation history holds a hopeful answer.

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Climate Change and the Future of Bison

When the world gets warmer, what happens to bison and other grassland grazers such as cattle? A new paper, based on research conducted at Nature Conservancy preserves, is helping answer that question.

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Traveling Naturalist: 5 Marvelous Marsupials to Spot in Queensland

Northern Tropical Queensland offers some of the best wildlife viewing anywhere, if you know where to look. Our blog gives you what you need to spot bizarre marsupials, including bandicoots, sugar gliders and kangaroos that live in trees.

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Bison Bellows and Bones: Student-Scientists on the Prairie

Editor’s Note: At the Samuel H. Ordway Prairie Preserve, students from Gustavus Adolphus College will soon be arriving to follow bison herds for the summer. This research program is not only taking an in-depth look at animal behavior, it’s also providing information on how to best manage bison on fenced reserves. Today, we’re running a previously published blog on last year’s student researchers at Ordway Prairie.

I’m in the back seat of the vehicle as two female college students drive around, listen to music and—in their words—“look for guys.”

Just another evening for students on break, right?

Well, not quite.

These students aren’t driving to a party, nor are they cruising around downtown. There is no town. For that matter, there’s no road.

We’re bouncing around mixed grass prairie in South Dakota, the four-wheel-drive pick-up thumping over ruts and rocks. The vehicle’s loaded with notebooks, GPS units and animal bones.

And the”guys”?

They’re large, shaggy and prone to bellowing, wallowing and urinating on themselves.

They’re bison bulls, the subject of these students’ summer research project.

Michelle Hulke and Mary Joy Sun, entering their sophomore years at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, have spent day after day recording the bison bulls’ fights, vocalizations and even tongue positions.

It’s a research effort aimed at determining if bison bull behavior can be managed to produce more genetically diverse herds in fenced preserves and ranches, the type of environments where most bison herds now roam.

Hulke and Sun are the sixth set of Gustavus Adolphus students to research herd behavior at The Nature Conservancy’s Samuel H. Ordway Prairie Preserve, a 7,800-acre grassland property near Leola. Each year, students at Gustavus Adolphus have the opportunity to participate in research projects following their freshmen year. The bison project has become one of the most popular.

Conservancy preserves and projects offer the perfect outdoor laboratories for undergraduate field research. The Conservancy employs mentors in the form of 550 scientists, and many projects already have a “science infrastructure”—the tools, established research protocols and housing and logistics that support fieldwork. Students learn not only science but also community relations, marketing and land management.

Preserves are places where budding scientists can develop their skills and contribute to meaningful conservation. It’s a place where tomorrow’s conservation leaders can gain field experience in spectacular settings.

In this case, that means living amongst bison herds.

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The Traveling Naturalist: To the Bat Cave!

The Traveling Naturalist, our series featuring natural wonders and biological curiosities for the science-inclined wanderer.

What’s the world’s largest concentration of mammals? Many people guess that it’s one of the great herds—the wildebeest in the Serengeti, or caribou in the Arctic.

But no: To see even more mammals, you have to look to the sky. More specifically, head to a bat cave in the Texas Hill Country, between now and the end of summer.

At caves around Texas, Mexican free-tailed bats emerge nightly by the millions. Yes, millions. The biggest? Bracken Cave, owned by the excellent conservation organization Bat Conservation International, with an estimated 15 million bats. That’s a lot of critters.

These are maternal roosts: females come here to have young. Come fall, they migrate south to Mexico.

Bats emerge en masse from caves, and within minutes they stretch out to the horizon. At a glance it resembles nothing so much as a thick cloud of smoke, swaying in the breeze.

Where there are large congregations of animals, of course, there’s also congregations of predators to take advantage of the bounty. Hovering outside the caves are often a variety of raptors, ready to snatch a wayward bat.

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Fish and Chimps

Chimpanzees don’t eat fish. They don’t even swim. But at Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania, scientists have found that to save chimps, they must look underwater.

That’s because here, everything—people, fish, water, forest, and chimps—is interconnected. Attempting to conserve the apes without accounting for the health of the fishery that provides food and income for local people would doom these efforts.

Today, fish supplies are dwindling, villages are growing fast and chimps are getting squeezed into smaller and smaller forests.

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Expedition to Northern Tibet, Part 2: Where the Wild Yak Roams

Kiang live up here.

We’re in the highest, most desolate section of Tibetan Plateau; a place no one lives and very few visit. And yet even here we’re accompanied by oddly domestic shapes. Kiang, or Tibetan wild ass (Equus kiang), are a strikingly coloured relative of the donkey; their red-brown backs contrasting sharply with white flanks, belly, legs, neck and muzzle.

They can survive more arid conditions than any other large mammal on the plateau, and like their less-wild cousins, are masters at finding food where there appears to be none. Their equine shape and canter are familiar even to someone who has spent very little time with horses.

As we struggle with our bike and trailers, slouching exhausted every couple of hundred meters, the domestication of equines seems like one of our species smartest achievements.

A big part of the Chinese government’s motivation for creating these nature preserves (Kekexili and Aerjinshan) was protection for the endangered Tibetan antelope or chiru (Pantholops hodgsoni). With slender arched horns the colour of ebony, chiru are an attractive antelope. But it is their pelts that are the cause of their decline. To deal with extreme cold, chiru have an extraordinarily fine and soft undercoat, known as Shahtoosh. Considered among the most luxurious and prized of all animal fibres, a shawl made of Shahtoosh can supposedly be passed through a wedding ring.

Poaching of these antelope – dramatized in the haunting film Kekexili Mountain Patrol – has pushed the small remaining population to the highest and most remote parts of the Tibetan Plateau.

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Review: When Conservation is Successful (Too Successful)

Deerland: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness. By Al Cambronne. Lyons Press, 2013. 264 pages.

Last week’s wildlife news brought a familiar parade of depressing subjects: Poachers killed more rhinos, this time at Ol Pejeta Ranch, a reserve specifically fenced and fortified to protect the animals from this fate. Seventy percent of forest elephants have been killed  in the past ten years, and conservationists are finding gruesome scenes of slaughtered herds. And on, and on.

Then a completely different wildlife story came across my desk,  Al Cambronne’s well-reported Deerland. In contrast to the stories of rhinos and forest elephants, Cambronne’s book is about a seemingly hopeless wildlife situation that turned into a wildly successful conservation story.

Perhaps, as it turns out, too successful.

Deerland is about the white-tailed deer, yet another of those North American species that we take for granted today, forgetting a century ago the species was facing similar perils to orangutans today.

Whitetails were slaughtered for their hides and meat. Their forest habitat was logged and leveled. Deer, it appeared, were on their way out.

However, white-tailed deer were more adaptable than many conservationists believed. Given legal protection and effective law enforcement, together with the reforestation of logged habitat, deer populations began rebounding.

And thrived: Today there are more than 100 times more whitetails than a century ago. Think we can’t save declining large wildlife species? Maybe we should look to the whitetail.

Conservationists today are fond of talking about building constituencies. Cambronne argues that no wildlife species has a more effective constituency than the whitetail: an active force of advocates in the form of deer hunters, deer feeders and people who just love having large animals around.

And what about science? White-tailed deer are arguably the most studied wildlife species on the planet, with more 3,260 peer-reviewed papers published on the species between 1985 and 2010.

Policy, constituency, science, measurable success: Everything conservation needs, all working exactly as planned.

And yet, as Cambronne vividly portrays, the white-tailed deer conservation effort has become too much of a good thing, creating a host of new problems in its wake.

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Expedition to Northern Tibet, Part 1: The Land of Charging Blue Bears

Why is it that when you are trying to be the quietest, you inevitably drop or bang something noisy? Well, at least that’s my experience.

The ice that just cracked under my foot was like a window breaking.

The bear sleeping on the bank of the river exploded with a roar.

Within a few seconds it was covering the frozen ground towards us at break-neck speed. My friend Hamish and I raised our airhorns above our heads and squeezed. The bear kept coming. Then just as the horns started to wheeze their last exhale of compressed air, the bear registered the sound and pulled up.

Standing less than 80 feet from us was one of the rarest bears on the planet, the Tibetan blue bear (Ursus arctos pruinosus).

We didn’t speak, there wasn’t anything to say. We both knew that our air horns were exhausted and that in retrospect we should have had a plan to let off one then the other.

The bear stared at us with lips curled back. We stood frozen holding our bikes. It wasn’t more than a few seconds – time enough to process the gravity of the situation – before the bear turned and retreated. Twenty feet at first, then all the way to the bank, then half way up the sand dune, at each point turning to observe and perhaps reevaluate its decision to retreat, then finally over the top of the dune and out of sight. This was the first bear we had seen on the expedition.

“Holy [expletive].”

“These air horns just saved our lives.”

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Review: Two from Tibet

Tibet Wild: A Naturalist’s Journeys on the Roof of the World. By George B. Schaller. Island Press, 2012. 372 pages. 

“I am less a modern field biologist devoted to technology and statistics than a nineteenth century naturalist who with paper and pencil describes nature in detail,” writes George Schaller in his latest book, Tibet Wild.

And, indeed, no one can accuse Schaller of being a lab- or desk-bound scientist: Few have spent more time among the large, wild beasts. He’s studied Serengeti’s lions, India’s tigers and Brazil’s jaguars. He’s lived with gorillas and tracked snow leopards in the Himalayas. He led one of the first comprehensive studies of giant panda habitat and conservation.

But perhaps his most important work has been his three decades of research in the Tibetan Plateau, a remote region little known to most outsiders (including many wildlife enthusiasts). He first began exploring the region seeking the migration route of the chiru, a little-known antelope species that embarks on one of the great seasonal mammal movements in the world.

Schaller’s search for chiru reads like adventure from an earlier time—with horrible weather, impassable routes and dead ends galore. He and his teammates persevere and map the migration through one of Asia’s wildest regions.

However, he has never been content to merely record biological detail; he has been a fierce advocate for conservation throughout his career. As a biologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society and Panthera, he uses the information gathered to inform plans for protected areas and community-based conservation projects.

Over the decades, Schaller has witnessed alarming changes in Tibet. For millennia, nomadic herders and huge herds of grazing wildlife thrived together on the grasslands. But that deep relationship has been changing, fast. In part, that can be traced to the end of nomadic traditions. Herders have been encouraged (or forced) to settle, which means their livestock is fenced to one patch of land, leading to overgrazing, wildlife conflicts and economic hardship.

Schaller details a distressing list of problems facing plateau wildlife: fences, poaching, the slaugher of antelopes for fashion, corrupt trophy hunting programs, the poisoning of pikas, mining, roads and more.

He remains optimistic, though, that by involving local people in conservation programs that benefit them, the great herds, large predators and productive grasslands can once again thrive.

Tibet Wild is one of Schaller’s best works, combining wild adventure with insightful recommendations for people and nature. And it demonstrates why “old-fashioned” field biology is still an essential part of conservation, and of science.

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Boucher’s Birding Blog: Mamba Meets Bushbaby

Sometimes when you go birding, you can’t help but see other animals – elephants, army ants, beautiful butterflies.

Occasionally, if you get out early (as birders always do), you can get to a park before the crowds and you might see something really special (and, in this case, gruesome).

In January, we traveled to Ghana for some superb birding. Our visit included the famous canopy walkway at the Kakum National Park near the Ivory Coast. The seven bridges strung high up in the trees usually teem with visitors who have no appreciation of the amazing birdlife.

They might notice the monkeys, but for most, the canopy walkway is just a low-tech amusement ride. They shriek as they bounce from one platform to the next on the narrow, swaying  wooden planks.

We arrived very early, our guide having arranged for the park to admit us before the regular opening hour.  We were the first visitors on the path that climbs to the walkway.

It was barely light as we tramped up the steep hill, trying not to trip over hidden roots and rocks. As we reached a turn, we heard a ruckus near the trail – about head height — and we all peered into the tangle of vines and branches.  We had the surprise of our lives.

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This Week on Cool Green Science: Change & The Eastern U.S. Forest

Too many deer. Logging one tree to save another. Beavers versus old growth. Welcome to forest conservation in the Anthropocene. Beginning Monday, July 21, join us for a provocative 5-part series exploring the full complexity facing forest conservation in the eastern United States.

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What is Cool Green Science?

noun 1. Blog where Nature Conservancy scientists, science writers and external experts discuss and debate how conservation can meet the challenges of a 9 billion + planet.

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3. Home of Weird Nature, The Cooler, Quick Study, Traveling Naturalist and other amazing features.

Cool Green Science is managed by Matt Miller, the Conservancy's deputy director for science communications, and edited by Bob Lalasz, its director of science communications. Email us your feedback.

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