Dog Day Cicada Hatching, licensed for use under the creative commons.
I’ve only just noticed a change since our move 100 kilometres south-west from Guelph to London: there’s a different Cicada that makes up the summer-time chorus.
I’m very used to the song of the Dog-Day Cicada (Tibicen canicularis): it’s song has made up the entirety of my summer aural landscape in Southern Ontario. Now that male Cicadas have started to call (I heard my first Cicada calling on July 11th this year), I’m not just hearing the constant sound that characterizes the Dog-Day’s call. Rather, I’m hearing a loud, buzzy, pulsating call. After a little work, I think I’m hearing male Scissor-grinder Cicadas (Tibicen pruinosa). Neat thing is this species is not common in Guelph, but certainly common enough here in London. Looking at a range map, they’re shown to be in Michigan near the Canadian border, but not shown to be in SW Ontario. Perhaps individuals are slowly moving North due to climate change?
The gallivanting hay-eater’s Houdini attempt apparently paid off. City officials said the animal – who they named Molly – will be headed for greener pastures.
“We will find it a home,” said Richard Gentles of the city Animal Care and Control. “We’re starting to reach out to farm sanctuaries.”
Not saying anything that hasn’t been said before, but it is interesting to note that when livestock escapes from abattoirs, something about it qualities change: rather than a member of the herd, it becomes an individual. In that moment, we seem compelled to treat it morally as a different object.
So there is talk in shutting downRiverdale Farm in Toronto as a cost-savings measure (insert reference to gravy here). 2500 of the concerned have taken to Facebook to “Save the Riverdale Farm“. I’m feeling a bit ambivalent about this. On one hand, we have less and less contact with the animals that are responsible for the flesh we eat and modified sweat we consume. So if urbanites can see those animals and make the connection between the disembodied grocery store and a living, breathing organism, that’s a good thing. Is it a better world, however, if these animals weren’t kept at all?
“But,” I hear, “they’re domesticated animals.” How does that change the argument, though?
OK, I should be editing my dissertation at this very moment, but I came across videos of an event on July 4th, 2010 at Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, Japan, that I need to share. I found it to be disturbing, as a warning.
There is no doubt in my mind, especially seeing an event like this, that having cetaceans in captivity is not what ought to be done. What is fascinating, however, is to see the reactions of the other companion Dolphins and False Killer Whales. At 1:00 of the footage, the cetaceans watch (I hear echo-locating going on too, but it would be hard to determine from a video like this which of the cetaceans were making the noise) their companion through the pool’s glass enclosure.
I watch this and it makes me sick to my stomach. In part, because I feel deeply empathetic for that whale. Falling out of a pool can’t be enjoyable. While many shows like this one include the cetaceans “gliding out” of the water, the mammals do this on their stomach and are still can get themselves back into the water. Here, the False Killer Whale has no ability to do that. Imagining what that whale is thinking lying there on the concrete is overwhelming.
But it is interesting to hear the crowd’s reaction in the following clip:
As I watched this for the first time, I thought (always the researcher), “Boy, this would be a rich source of data if you could interview these people.” I wondered if this would be some kind of ethically crystallizing moment where a new perspective about whales in captivity could erupt—literally. As you listen to the reactions of the crowd, I hear gasps and giggles. More than anything, perhaps, this event simply reinforced people’s perspectives on whales—there to entertain or as innocent natural objects (or something else). That could be an interesting research question.
Inspired by Gregg McLachlan’s recent twitter conversation with Caroline Schultz1, allow me some reasoned conjecture answering what might happen to animals that hibernate in a warming climate.
First, some definitions: hibernation, colloquially-speaking, is the long, uninterrupted sleep that animals undertake to avoid the winter. More correctly, hibernation is one kind of dormancy along a continuum—kinds of deep rest that muddle across periods of time and kinds of organisms, including: torpor, estivation, brumation and diapause. But let’s focus on hibernation2. Two important things happen in hibernation that set it apart from the others I’ve just listed: it involves a lowered body temperature and a lowered heart rate. In turn, this means a lowered metabolism.
Now here in Southern Ontario, we have few animals that enter true hibernation. Bears (and in our case we’re talking Black Bears or Ursus americanus) do not enter true hibernation. But Groundhogs (Marmota monax, pictured below), Eastern Chimpunks (Tamias striatus) and Little Brown Bats (Myotis lucifugus) do.
Now our enjoyment of, as a species of naked apes, the winter season may lead us to believe that other animals enter hibernation to avoid the same cold weather that (some of us) suffer though. The truth is somewhere else—these hibernators have depressed their metabolism so they can avoid having to find food. So, rather than an inability to deal with cold weather, it is the lack of food that has driven the evolution of entering a physiologically dormant state when food disappears.
We’ve (the naked apes in Souther Ontario) have been enjoying a warm period this January and its supposed to get as warm as 6 degrees Celsius on Sunday. Before we tackle the larger question of climate change, what might a warm period like we’ve been having do for those animals hibernating right now?
I’m turning to the great book Winter World: The Ingenuity Of Animal Survival by Bernd Heinrich to help me answer the question and I’m going to focus on the ground squirrels (the Chipmunk and the Groundhog) just to simplify things. Chipmunks and Groundhogs, though they both hibernate, show different strategies in preparation. Simplified: Chipmunks collect food and Groundhogs get fat.
In fact, Heinrich writes that a chipmunk’s “availability of stored food affects whether is remains active or enters [hibernation]” (p.99) meaning that in years with lots of available food, Chipmunks can be active the entire winter and don’t need to suppress their metabolism. This was the subject of an entire doctoral dissertation, so I can’t possibly give a nuanced answer, but being active in the cold seems to be associated more with lots of stored food rather than warmer temperatures. So, for Chipmunks, it will be some combination of the two factors (food & cold) that will predict the depth and length of their hibernation. In fact a Southern species, the California Chipmunk (Tamias obscurus) does not hibernate at all.
Groundhogs are different. They follow something called a circannual calendar—named, to continue our connection to Southern Ontario, by two researcher from the University of Toronto—which means they prepare for, enter and exit hibernation on an internal clock, independent of external conditions.
So, what do these intermittent warm periods do? For Groundhogs, nothing, as they’re busily following the ticking of their circannual clock, waiting for it to rouse them sometime in mid to late February. Like most things in the natural world, there is an exception to Groundhog’s circannual clock: in the U of T experiments, when the air temperature remained above 30 degrees Celsius, the Groundhogs did not enter hibernation. Chipmunks, on the other hand, are easy to rouse, even when in hibernation. Does this mean a longer period of warm weather would wake them up? Perhaps. Likely, those that are active are the Chipmunks with access to food in their cache, so being active, and the higher metabolism, isn’t as serious.
What would a warming climate do? This is where the guess work comes in. Over a long period of time, I would guess that the Eastern Chipmunk would come to resemble its southern cousin and not hibernate at all. For the Groundhog, it would seem that the climate would need to warm a great deal—above 30 degrees Celsius in the wintertime—for them not to hibernate. That’s not an immediate concern right now, and if ever Southern Ontario’s winter temperature ever got to 30 due to global climate change, I think the lack of hibernation would be the least of a Groundhog’s worries.
In the short term, it’s a bit more interesting to guess. Different populations of Groundhogs emerge at different times. This is evident in the fact that Groundhog day falls on February 2nd even though our Southern Ontario Groundhogs emerge later in February. February 2nd is the time of year the southern Groundhogs, specifically those in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, generally emerge. This shows some plasticity in the length of that circannual calendar. I would suspect with a warming climate that the clock would begin to change—Southern Ontario groundhogs entering their den later in the year and emerging earlier. Would these climatic changes occur faster than that the circannual calendar could change? I don’t know. For Chipmunks, it would be similar to the long-term changes. Eastern Chipmunks, I suspect, in combination with access to food, will be more active.
What all of this points to though, and what I haven’t really addressed in relation to global climate change, is that access to food continues to be the most important factor associated with hibernators. The question that then needs to be asked: how with global climate change, change the plant communities of Southern Ontario and what impact could that have on the mammals that currently live here?
Perhaps I’ll take a stab at that next time…
As aside, here’s why Twitter is awesome—before Twitter, how or where else do you get to have an informal chat with the executive director of Ontario Nature and the founder of environmentally-focused career site? [↩]
“I wanted to capture a photo in which you would see a wolf in an act of hunting – or predation – but without blood,” he told BBC News. “I didn’t want a cruel image.”
October 2009 has become January 2010 and Rodriguez has been stripped of the—technically speaking, disqualified—award. From the special statement announcing the disqualification:
The judging panel was reconvened and concluded that it was likely that the wolf featured in the image was an animal model that can be hired for photographic purposes and, as a result, that the image had been entered in breach of Rule 10 of the 2009 Competition.
You can read more about the case against the shot, but the disqualification is an interesting development as it signals that a boundary has been crossed between what is considered wild and what is not. The 2010 rules of this competition state that “only pictures of wild animals and plants and landscapes are eligible. Images of animal models or any other animal being exploited for profit may not be entered.” This, of course, is the ostensible reason for the disqualification. Read, however, how this image was crafted:
Watching the animals as they returned to the same spot to collect food each night, Mr Rodriguez decided on his dream shot.
He eventually captured it using a photographic trap that included a motion sensor and an infrared barrier to operate the camera.
The winning photograph wasn’t a chance moment where human, photographic equipment and wolf all masterfully and fatefully converged. It was, rather, a measured, long-term exercise involving bait to attract the wolves, cameras to record the image and an infrared trap to trigger the shutter. So, was the winning photograph ever an image of “true” wildlife? Or, to put it another way, what does the image loose in impact to learn that in addition to the bait, the camera and the IR trap, a captive wolf known as Ossian was the subject?
Given that there is photography involved, an act that already works in ways to remove the viewer from the subject, that the animal subject should be seen as now falling into the category of “not wild” is fascinating. In fact, these developments speak to a larger question of the truth and authenticity we put in wildlife photography. I’ll be provocative by saying there are no truly “wild” or ” nature untouched” moments that come from an image captured by photographic equipment (read a related previous post on Tusk Cams & Nature Films).
We don’t have a problem with them in our apartment (thankfully), but because of an interest (I guess somewhat similar to gawking when an emergency vehicle goes by) in where they’re found in Toronto, I discovered the bedbug registry and a map of reported Toronto sightings. Now the usual caveats apply to self-reported information, but it’s fascinating and not surprising to see that the hot-spot appears to be centred around St. James Town.
Interestingly, when we were in NYC, we saw bedbug sniffer dogs services advertised. I haven’t seen anything like that yet here. But perhaps that’s just a symptom of when you look at NYC’s sightings map, it appears to cut across more socio-economic neighbourhoods. There is likely a need for sniffing dogs here in Toronto, it’s just those who need their services the most can’t afford it.
I had just pulled the van into the ferry queue and stepped outside when they arrived: from the tree-tops of the nearby Pacific Northwest temperate rain forest, two Northwestern Crows (Corvus caurinus) glided and landed on the asphalt beside me. Hopping to a stop and quickly re-arranging their wings, they looked up at me and I looked down at them. In a moment, with our mutual glances, it was obvious that these two were here because of the growing line of cars, vans and campers that were parked, lining up to board the evening ferry to Skagway, Alaska. I decided to watch.
Earlier in the evening, I had glimpsed a pair of Northwestern Crows foraging by the ocean as I was driving along the coast of the Lutak Inlet to the ferry terminal. As the common corvid of the coast in this part of North America, it wasn’t a surprise to see them here. The tide was receding along a rocky beach, and as I passed, the crows appeared from the shoreline below. Their wings beating in the stiff on-shore breeze with the kind of tempo one expects when birds take flight, they both flew up into a sharp parabola. One of the pair had something in its bill—it looked like some sort of mollusc—and slowed down its wing beats, quickly decelerating. Reaching the apex of its flight, it dropped the object from its mouth onto the rocky shore below. Down the birds flew, on I drove.
This kind of behaviour isn’t unusual in the Northwestern Crow. They’re known to be foragers along the edge of the ocean, looking for aquatic organisms that become stranded as the tide ebbs. If it can be found between the exposed rockweed, it can be considered food and these crows find their protein in the fish, molluscs and crustaceans that live along the coast of the Northern Pacific. While they are foragers, and live commensally with humans, I experienced something unexpected along the line of vehicles.
As I watched the crows standing at my feet, they hopped past me and my vehicle towards the van that had pulled up behind mine in the queue. With what I would describe as curiosity, the two crows began to inspect the grill of the camper van. It became clear what they were looking for: insects. Or, more correctly, they were searching out freshly-deceased insects that had stuck to the camper’s metal and chrome. And so the metal grill became the shore: up these birds flew, gleaning the remains. Because of the lack of a good perch, they looked more like oversized Ruby-Crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula) feeding in this way, with their wings quickly flapping to give them the purchase they needed to get their food. This was challenging work for the crows. After the “easy” carcases were gone, it became a cooperative effort with each bird taking turns in one of two roles: one flying up to remove the insects and the other, after the insect hit the pavement, eating it up.
In the minutes before the ferry arrived they continued looking for more to eat, moving from car to van down the line of vehicles.
Research published in Vol. 126, Iss. 3, pg. 579 of The Auk has some interesting implications for habitat conservation for migrating bird species here in eastern North America. In short, during Spring and Fall migration, migrants showed no preference for stopover locations based on distance from a continuous, connected (river corridor) habitat, nor were they more likely to be concentrated in one forest patch over another. Plainly, the migrating birds appear to show no preference for connected habitats versus fragmented ones. Clearly, if this is the case, birds are using other criteria to select where they stop while migrating.
What is interesting, and not surprising, is the finding that during Fall migration, birds do select habitat described as “early succession forest” with high density of native and non-native fruit-bearing trees and shrubs. In the cannon of conservation, habitats that are fragmented or in the early stages of succession are seen as lower quality when compared to continuous and stable habitats. And this may still be the case when it comes to nesting (less nest predation in larger forests, for example)—but it would seem as though we might need to re-evaluate the assumption that these younger, more fragmented landscapes are of little or no use to birds and ultimately, bird conservation.
As migratory stopovers, it would seem that all forested landscapes—no matter how mature—are important.
On July 22nd, 2009, The Toronto Star reported that two Northern Black Widow spiders (Latrodectus variolus) have been found in the GTA within the last year. This shouldn’t be news, as the article itself outlines that these spiders have been found throughout Ontario over the “past decades” but the reporting in the Star bordered on sensationalism (the spider is described at one point as “this fabled doyenne of death”) and, in my opinion, irresponsibly overstates the risk of the spider to those that live in the GTA.
Here’s what the article should have said:
If you live in the GTA, be aware that a female Black Widow Spider might be in a web underneath your discarded bits of wood from your deck-building project. But temper that knowledge with the fact that she’ll likely not bite you. If she does, she’s doing it in defense and while it the bite will hurt, odds say you’ll be just fine after a visit to a doctor.
So, do we need to worry about Black Widow Spiders? In a word, no. Here’s why:
Black Widow Spiders are not aggressive. The spider will only bite as a last, defensive resort. This would likely be due to a human unknowingly placing a hand on the spider. Why unknowingly? Because:
Black Widow Spiders are often found in out-of-the way places. Think corners of cupboards, under the pile of wood in the garage (they do like to hang out in outhouses, which is more of an issue in cottage country, not the GTA).
The Black Widow’s venom is a neurotoxin. This means it does not kill flesh, resulting in necrosis. It hurts like a sonofabitch, yes, but the bite will not lead to sepsis and the associated concerns of a systemic bacterial infection.
Mortality rate is less than 1%. If bitten by a Black Widow Spider your likelihood of dying from the bite is equivalent to your lifetime risk of dying in a car crash. For most of us, the likelihood of driving in a car is much greater than the likelihood of getting bitten by a Black Widow spider.
The Star article’s tone was alarmist by suggesting that we’re in some kind of deficit situation due to the lack of anti-venom:
Anti-venom is available in this country, but is in very sparse supply, says Dr. Margaret Thompson, medical director of the Ontario Poison Centre. “There might be two vials of it in Canada.”
Let me say that the reason that there is such little anti-venom in the country has to do with the fact that it’s not what is first used in the treatment of bites. It is true that kids, the elderly and the immunocompromised are at a greater risk of suffering severe symptoms of Latrodectism, the clinical name of a Black Widow Spider bite, but most outcomes from treatment for bites are positive and without the need for hospitalization, let alone anti-venom.
On-line, people seem to have reacted in the same tone as the article.
Case in point, commenters on the Star’s article are suggesting that the presence of these spiders is reason enough to bring back cosmetic pesticide use:
We need to bring back pesticides especially considering the fact the summer is so mild, not enough heat to burn anything off, not enough winter to kill things there now either. I for one will be using it regardless.
The use of 300 cosmetic pesticides has been banned in the Province of Ontario since April 2009. I’ll highlight the term cosmetic, aka pesticide use for looks only. If we do, perchance, happen to become overrun with Black Widow spiders, it will no doubt be considered a public health concern and pesticides will be used in eradicating the spiders. Just to reiterate: pesticides have not been banned outright in the Province and the presence of Black Widow spiders is not reason enough to bring back their use to make your lawn look nice.