Friday, December 29, 2006

Hawaii Fly-O

Have you heard the news? The polar bear got on the endangered species list? Well, at least that’s how I heard it, but looking at the Fish and Wildlife Service website, it turns out that they’re proposed to be listed as threatened1. On the other hand, this May, twelve animals were placed on the endangered species list, and no one noticed2. Well, I suppose some people did. The Hawaiian Drosophila Project, for one. If you’ve taken a biology class where they talk about “model species,” you’ll know the genus Drosophila. It’s the fruit fly, a few species of which are probably in your kitchen right now3.

Drosophila heteroneura--Image from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services
Drosophila heteroneura--Image from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services

These, however, are collectively known as Hawaiian picture-wing flies, or pomace flies (pomace is remains from grape or olive oil). Drosophila aglaia, D. differens, D. hemipeza, D. heteroneura, D. montgomeryi, D. musaphilia, D. neoclavisetae, D. obatai, D. ochrobasis, D. substenoptera, and D. tarphytrichi are listed as endangered, and D. mulli is listed as threatened.

I kept seeing picture-wing flies described as, to quote the Recovery Outline,
…the “birds of paradise” of the insect world because of their relatively large size (4.32 to 6.35 millimeters [0.17 to 0.25 inches), colorful wing patterns, and the males’ elaborate courtship displays and territorial defense behaviors.
Seeing this, I had to figure out what those displays and behaviors were. Maybe I’m just not knowledgeable enough about birds of paradise. According to this article, the male flies will form a lek, or a mating ground to display to females. Each male will fight for his little piece of the lek, and then wait for the females to come. Once the females, show up, the males will perform species-specific mating dances to secure that female. Which is a lot like birds of paradise’s ritual, apparently.

Their eggs are laid on fairly specific plants, one of which is endangered as well. It and the other plants are being eaten by various invasive species, such as pigs, goats, cattle, and rats. Invasive grasses, along with management practices, have also removed the plants upon which the flies rely. The flies themselves are being preyed upon by other introduced species, such as wasps and various ants that have invaded Hawaii.

The question arises, what’s being done to save these flies? The major answer: they were added onto the endangered species list. They were added too recently to have many recovery programs in place. The endangered plant that two of the flies lay eggs on is protected, so that should help some. I just wish the Hawaiian Drosophila Project had a website, so I could see their input on this subject.

1Nothing against the polar bear at all. I’m glad to see they’re being considered, and citing global climate change as the reason is a step in the right direction.
2Drew suggested that I put together a list of ugly species that have been listed this past year. I thought that was a great idea, until I found out that there were 700 species listed as vulnerable, threatened or endangered by IUCN in the past year. Figuring out which ones were ugly would take some time.
3Drosophila melanogaster, for one, also used in scientific labs around the world.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

I'm a Bleedin' Volcano

I did it to a lesser extent about two months ago, but we’re gonna try for another Endangered Ugly Ecosystem. This one is volcanic, reptilian, and arid. There’s only one problem: it’s immensely famous for being an ecological wonderland. Which it is. But it also looks much like this:

Sullivan Bay, Santiago Island--My photograph
Image by me

Welcome to the real Galápagos. Yes, the cactus in the picture is listed as vulnerable (lava cactus, Brachycereus nesioticus). The islands were formed (are forming, really) by volcanic activity, so there’s been no contact with the South American continent, some 600 miles away. This means everything that arrives there must be able to manage at least a 600 mile drift, usually on mats of vegetation blown over from wherever they came. This leads to an over-representation in reptiles, because they’re really good at managing a long time without any food or water. Birds get blown off course in the process of migrating, but they’re not ugly enough for inclusion. Mammals tend to have much too fast a metabolism to let them manage months without food, so the only (non-sea-faring; there are sea lions) mammals on the islands are the ever-present mice, which can survive practically anything. There are also bats, which probably got blown off course like the birds.

What EUTs call the Galápagos home? Well, the marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus), and land iguanas (Conolophus subcristatus and C. pallidus) certainly fit the bill. The giant tortoises (Geochelone nigra, with many, many subspecies) may not be ugly enough, but it’s certainly plenty endangered. In my attempt to be more welcoming to all kingdoms1, there are also the cacti: the lava cactus mentioned earlier, an endemic species of prickly pear (Opuntia galapageia, also with a few subspecies), and the candelabra cactus (Jasminocereus thouarsii). There are plenty of other endangered things, but most of them are too pretty for me to talk about.

Why are they endangered? Goats, mostly. They escape farms or get released by sailors2 and then they run rampant, eating tons of vegetation, leaving none for the tortoises or land iguanas, and stepping on all the reptiles’ nests. Remember the issues the blue iguanas had with cats and rats and dogs? Well, cats and dogs and (non-endemic) rats have been introduced in the Galápagos, so the iguanas here have the exact same problem. And, since none of them are found anywhere else in the world, the animals there are starting at a disadvantage.

And to top it off, hundreds of people are flocking to the Galápagos each day, walking around, taking pictures, et cetera, et cetera. And what does this do for the islands? Funds the conservation, as one pays for entrance into the Galápagos National Park and into the Charles Darwin Research Station. The rules about what the groups are able to do, always with a trained guide, are strict enough that tourists do not adversely affect the wildlife3. What are the conservation efforts doing? There are successful breeding programs for the tortoises4 and the land iguanas at the Research Station. There is lots of work going into the goat eradication program, which at times involves people in helicopters with rifles. If any of my readers have had to deal with invasive species closer to home5, this will not seem like overkill, and it is certainly getting the job done.

Edit: I've just put up a new t-shirt design. Enjoy.

1I’m still looking for an endangered bacterium. No luck so far.
2Alright, sailors releasing them were mostly in the 1700s, but it’s taken them until recently to get rid of those.
3Stay on the trail. No touching animals. Do not take sand, shells, bones or any other item from the island. Wash your shoes between islands to prevent mixing sand. Seriously.
4Baby tortoises are much too cute to be discussed here. Oh well.
5For example, have wanted to take a gallon of gasoline and a match to multiflora rose.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Shake, Rattle and Roll

Well, Florabot suggested a specific EUT which fits the bill well. However, with going to the Columbus Zoo1 on Saturday and getting ready Sunday for a three-week long trip to the Galápagos Islands2, I’m a little late putting up a post about a wonderfully misunderstood animal. I don’t think it’s ugly, but I know most people can’t stand snakes.

Image from Dad
Image by Dan Yaussy

The scientific name of the timber rattler (Crotalus horridus) is not as bad a moniker as I had originally thought. Crotalus refers to the rattle of the rattlesnake, and horridus, which seems to imply a terrifying animal, just refers to its raised stalking pose. Its bite is venomous, but apparently not as deadly to people as other rattlesnakes. According to a Minnesota herpetology site, the last lethal timber rattler bite in Minnesota was in the 1800’s.

Timber rattlesnakes are a middling size snake, somewhere between 3 and 4 feet long, and they have amazing camouflage for lying in wait among the leaf litter in the forests they call home. They ambush small mammals by positioning themselves conveniently in the paths the rodents run along. The females give birth (yes, birth. Not egg-laying) only every three years, and it takes her about five years to get to maturity. Even with their 20-year lifespan, that only leads to about six litters.

I’m sure no one will be surprised when I say that development, cars, and wanton killing are the leading threats to the timber rattlesnake. In fact, the wanton killing leads to an interesting example of selection at work. For the last 200 years, if a snake struck at a person, it got killed. If a snake even rattled at a person, it got killed. This leads, fairly quickly, to quiet, generally non-aggressive snakes. Which can be a problem, since they only rattle to let you know to not step on them. A friend and co-worker of my dad’s apparently walked along a line in a forest in southern Ohio multiple times, only to look down once and see a timber rattler, silently sitting right on the line.

On the site where the Ohio Department of Natural Resources asks people to help report sightings of timber rattlers, it is actively denied that the snakes are being released in Ohio. Why would a department of natural resources have to actively deny a conservation effort? The reason lies around a myth; a myth surrounding timber rattlesnake conservation that is far more exciting than any real conservation efforts would ever strive to be. According to this myth, ODNR uses black helicopters at night to drop rattlesnakes into potential habitats. That’s right, black helicopters. At night. This myth neglects to take several factors into account: A) Do you really think ODNR has the funding to buy several black helicopters? and B) If they really wanted to surreptitiously release rattlesnakes, wouldn’t three guys, a pillowcase full of snakes, and an ATV make more sense, both economically and logistically?

Oh well, myths will be myths.

1Tried to get a good timber rattler picture. Didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped.
2This is a warning to any die-hard readers (yes, both of you): I’m going to be on a small boat in the Pacific for three weeks. My parents and girlfriend might not get a phone call. Don’t expect a post.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

It’s not easy being green. Each animal represented in this blog, despite its purported “ugliness,” has one distinct advantage over its endangered plant counterparts: it is an animal. This is arguably an advantage because animals tend to attract human attention and garner our sympathies in ways that plants generally do not. I think this probably stems from a natural tendency to anthropomorphize, and therefore identify with animals in ways that just don’t come as easily when considering plants. It’s rather difficult for us to imagine how a plant might “feel” or “think.”

But as Garfman has pointed out, this blog was created in the spirit of equal-opportunity representation. Finding a suitably “ugly” species for the first plant profile proved challenging for me, however. For one thing, plants are held to different standards of beauty than animals. For another, as a botanist, I felt reluctant to assign a derisive label to any species from my chosen kingdom of study. Even though I have been known to curse while clawing my way through dense, thorny undergrowth, grumble about garden weeds, and despise invasive plant infestations, the source my vexation is only contextual. I was hard-pressed to think of a plant I would call flat-out ugly, because my fascination tends to override my aesthetic sensibilities.

It was after much deliberation that I chose the plant featured as this week’s endangered ugly thing: Rafflesia arnoldii. This species (and in fact the whole genus) is highly unusual in many regards.

The genus Rafflesia is native to tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia, and all members of the genus are either threatened or endangered. At least two species are probably already extinct.

These plants are commonly known as “stinking corpse lilies.” In case the name wasn’t enough of a clue, they produce malodorous blossoms that smell like decomposing flesh or feces. The reason? Well, just as we’ve seen that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the sort of bouquet that attracts one pollinator differs from the sort that attracts another. If you hadn’t guessed, R. arnoldii and the rest of the species in its genus are pollinated by carrion flies. To learn more about flowers that share this method of pollination, this site at Wayne’s Word is on of the most informative (and humorous) I have encountered.

The flower itself is also a sight to behold. R. arnoldii has the distinction of producing the world’s largest flower. (Amorphophallus titanum, the Titan Arum, loses this contest on a technicality, as its huge flowering structure is actually composed of many smaller flowers). R. arnoldii’s flower buds are the size of cabbage heads, and when these finally open, the blossom can be reach up to 3 feet in diameter and weigh up to 25 pounds. Looking like something reminiscent of a Mario Bros. videogame, its five sepals are leathery, usually red or orange in color, and spotted with light-colored “warts.”

Image from Southern Illinois University
Image from Southern Illinois University

Additionally, the genus Rafflesia is atypical because all of its members are endoparasitic; that is, they live entirely within another plant (in this case, plants of the genus Tetrastigma, which are related to grape vines) and lack chlorophyll necessary to produce their own food. They are without stems, roots, or leaves. In a sense, they are tapeworms of the plant world. The only time Rafflesia are visible, in fact, is when they are at their reproductive stage; otherwise they exist within the Tetrastigma host vine as threadlike strands of tissue.

So picture this: an enormous flower bursting out of a vine on the floor of a lush tropical rainforest, emitting a rotten stench which is attracting flies. Hardly compares to a sunny field of daisies or a garden of roses, does it? Therefore I feel no qualms in calling R. arnoldii an “ugly” plant. “Weirdly intriguing,” yes. Conventionally “pretty,” no. In any case, probably not something your sweetheart would be thrilled to receive on a special occasion.

According to a 1988 article published in the American Journal of Botany (full text can be found here if you have access to JSTOR), the primary threat is habitat destruction, a theme we’ve encountered over and over again. There is a twist, however, which has to do with the plants’ method of reproduction. Rafflesia plants are dioecious, a fancy term which biologists use to denote that male and female sexes occur in separate organisms. This means that the flowers of a Rafflesia plant either have male sex organs or female sex organs, but not both, as is the case with many plants. In order for fertilization (and thus successful reproduction) to occur, both male and female plants must be present and flowering at the same time. As this source lucidly explains, this situation does not always occur. Rafflesia flowers take a long time (9-10 months) to develop, and there is a high mortality rate. Once open, they last for only a brief window of time (3-5 days). With habitat fragmentation, the chance of a male and female flower being in bloom at the same time while in close proximity to each other is greatly diminished. The situation is further complicated by the fact that even when successful fertilization takes place, the resultant seeds must find their way to a host vine to propagate.

Little is known about Rafflesia because its very nature, in addition to its rarity, makes it difficult to study. As I see it, however, the source of hope for saving these plants is that because of their uniqueness they have managed to draw much interest from both the scientific and lay communities. Efforts have been made to protect them, but as long as the rainforest habitat they occupy continues to disappear, so will they.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Devil Went Down to Sussex

The name of this blog is Endangered Ugly Things. No specific mention of animals. So today, in the interest of fairness, I’m adding a fungus to the annals of EUT. Though, when I looked at the US Endangered Species List, there aren’t any fungi listed. The United Kingdom, however, has a ton(ne), or rather twenty-eight fungus species of concern. So, for all you mycologists crying out for your part in the EUT, here you go. Then go put some fungi on the US list; I’m sure there are some endangered ones out there.

Image from UK Biodiversity Action Plan
Image from UK Biodiversity Action Plan

The Devil’s Bolete, or Satan’s Mushroom (Boletus satanas1) is a poisonous fungus found in southern England, and has been extirpated (probably2) from Northern Ireland. It forms a symbiotic relationship (ectomycorrhizal, but I had to look up what that meant) with broad-leafed trees, such as birch, oak, and sweet chestnut. The fungus gains a carbon source, and the tree gains increased nutrient intake.

In terms of looks, it’s a short, stocky, with a light colo(u)red cap and reddish yellowish stem. The devilish part comes from its smell. The Northern Ireland site claims that “the taste is unpleasant…” There’s only one issue I’ve got with this statement. It’s poisonous, so “unpleasant” might be putting it lightly. In fact, the most recent record of Satan’s Mushroom in Ireland is due to a poisoning incident.

The major cause of endangerment is deforestation, limiting the number of broad-leafed symbiotes to go around for the Devil’s Bolete. Also, a 1987 hurricane, which resulted in even fewer trees, didn’t help. There doesn’t seem to be any specific program(me) in place to save this devilish fungus. On the bright side, they’ve got a list for fungus. C’mon US, there have to be some American fungi that need our help.

Next week, stay tuned for another non-animal post, because Florabot, my summer roommate who suggested the whole thing (EUT), will teach us about an Endangered Ugly Plant. If there are any botanists out there complaining about underrepresentaion of plants on this blog, consider this my affirmative action.

1Sound like a good heavy metal album name? These guys thought so.
2Fungi have this terrible habit of disappearing from view and existing solely as hyphae underground. That, and they aren’t exactly conspicuous. Which might be why there aren’t any on the US list.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Like a Sturgeon

Last week, I showed my blog to my cousin, who just turned 20 (geez, we’re getting old). This was apparently a good move, since he sent me an e-mail earlier this week saying, “I think the lake sturgeon is endangered, but it’s kind of an older book.” A web search turns up threatened in New York, species of concern in Minnesota, and endangered in Ohio. And it’s plenty ugly, so good call there.

Image from Tennessee Aquarium
Image from Tennessee Aquarium

Think the 3-foot long lungfish with a 100-year lifespan isn’t enough? Howzabout the Lake Sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens), right here in the Midwest, which, during its life of 150 years, can grow to 8 feet long. It has gigantic bony plates on its body, which grow smoother as it ages, because small spiky fish aren’t as digestible. The name “sturgeon” means “the stirrer” in various European languages (and, its scientific name means “reddish-yellow sturgeon” in Latin), which refers to its bottom-feeding habits. The “whiskers” (more technically barbules, which translates from Latin to… uh… whiskers) on their snout allow them to feel food items, such as crustaceans and small fish that are hiding under the substrate, which they suction up with their protruding mouth. Sound familiar?

As stated in the lungfish and tuatara posts, long life means one thing in the animal kingdom: slow to reproduce. Sturgeons take just as long to go through puberty as we do, reaching sexual maturity at 15 to 25 years of age, though they probably don’t have to worry about strange hair and cracking voices, what with being fish and all. Slow to reproduce means that this big fish is still getting over being used for meat, caviar, and isinglass (whatever that is). Pollution, damming, and the normal ol’ endangering factors still come into play.

Since this big bony fish has become protected in pretty much all of its range, the population has stabilized, even bumping it off the IUCN Redlist. It’s very much on its way to become one of those “Conservation Success Stories” like the bald eagle, but hopefully, when it’s pulled of the state endangered species lists, it gets some media attention too.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Yellow Arachnids of Texas

Take a look at the U.S. Endangered species list, arachnid section. Out of twelve arachnids, eleven of them fall into the form of “X Cave Y,” where X is the name of a cave, and Y is the type of arachnid. Ten of these are from two counties in Texas. Since these aren’t discussed in depth separately, we’ll talk about the whole bunch. They are, in no particular order, the Bee Creek Cave Harvestman (Texella reddelli), the Bone Cave Harvestman (Texella reyesi), Robber Baron Cave Harvestman (Texella cokendolpheri), the Braken Bat Cave Meshweaver (Cicurina venii), the Government Canyon Bat Cave Meshweaver (Cicurina vespera), the Madla's Cave Meshweaver (Cicurina madla), the Robber Baron Cave Meshweaver, (Cicurina baronia), the Tooth Cave Pseudoscorpion (Tartarocreagris texana), the Government Canyon Bat Cave Spider (Neoleptoneta microps), and the Tooth Cave Spider (Leptoneta myopica). For your viewing pleasure today, we have the Bone Cave Harvestman, simply because it has a cool name (and if any Metalheads reading this are at a loss for a band or album name, you’re welcome).

Image from City of Austin
Image from City of Austin

Each of the arachnids is predatory, feeding on smaller cave-dwelling invertebrates. They are eyeless, and paler than its superterranian counterpart, often becoming orangish or yellowish. Otherwise, the spiders (meshweavers included) are similar to the everyday house spiders, and the same goes with the harvestmen, though I had to look them up to find that harvestman was another name for daddy longlegs. Pseudoscorpions, which I’m not sure how many people are familiar with them (I’m not), look much like, well, scorpions, just tailless, with small venom glands in their claws.

What is this cave habitat that contains all these endangered species, and why are there so many endangered arachnids in such a small area (relatively, we’re talking about Texas here)? The Texas karst is a limestone area that, due to the erosion of softer rocks, has formed extensive cave systems. Since they have formed (and continue to do so, they won’t stop for us) by water flow, anything dumped on the surface goes right through to all of those places where eyes are luxury items. While pollution is certainly a problem, the major issue is development encroachment, which has the possibility of destroying the area around caves or the caves themselves, or changing the temperature of the cave, which has been constant since, oh, the last ice age. Invasive plants can bring in red fire ants, which compete with the arachnids for food and sometimes prey on them.

There’s another reason for the density of endangered cave arachnids: the density of spelunking entomologists. Like it or not, much of the information about endangered species comes from a few people looking for specific species. Since they know exactly what they’re looking for, they can determine that these species are endangered, and go through the rigmarole of getting them listed. There are tons of endangered species running all over the place, but since no one’s described them, or looked closely enough at them, they go unnoticed.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Oh, Caecilian, You're Breaking my Heart

Within amphibians, there are the frogs and toads (order Anura; it means tailless), which can be considered too cute to include on this blog and there are the salamanders and newts (order Caudata or Urodela, both meaning with a tail), which I’ve already posted about one1. There is a third order of amphibians, of which most people have not heardof. The scientific name for the order is either Gymnophiona (naked snake) or Apoda (footless), both of which are stunning endorsements for the inclusion of a caecilian on this blog.

Image from ARKive
Image by John Measey

The Sagala Caecilian (Boulengerula niedeni) is a species that was first described in 2005. Its name comes from the hill it inhabits (Sagala Hill in southern Kenya). Since they’re such a newly discovered species, there’s a lot that still isn’t known about them, but scientists are pretty sure that their range is about 30 sq. km, which is smaller than Manhattan Island. Right there, with that small of a range, they become listed as Critically Endangered. Along with its already minimal range, large-scale farming disrupts streamside habitats, where they make their home, and introduces pollutants.

I’m having problems finding specifics about the Sagala caecilian, such as what it eats (probably small invertebrates) and specific reproductive history, though caecilians are the only order of amphibians that perform internal fertilization. In fact, the discerning feature of this amphibian, used to describe it as a new species, is its oddly shaped phallus.

On a different note, I have received my Official EUTshirt, and I am pleased with the quality. The concept of a cute lamprey stuck with me since I wrote about it. I asked friends and family if the idea of a line of cute Endangered Ugly Things t-shirts went against everything EUT stood for, and they said, “Maybe.” Well, they’re up and buyable anyway. Enjoy, and I’m up for any suggestions of other EUTs, since I’m having slight problems finding good ones.

1Possibly more to come, ‘cause if you thought the hellbender was big and ugly, there are some bigger, uglier ones out there.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

I Only Have Ears For You

I promised myself I wouldn’t post a mammal unless it was certainly ugly. I have come to the realization that, y’know, I’m a pretty bad judge of ugly. Bats with noses like satellite dishes are just par for the course. So, here’s a bat with ears about half as long as its entire body and facial glands on either side of its nose.

Image from Bat Conservation International
Image from Bat Conservation International

Those glands on the Virginia Big-Eared Bat (Corynorhinus townsendii virginianus) probably emit pheromones. Nothing quite like natural perfume sacs right next to your nose (it’s amazingly difficult to definitely determine this sort of thing). Like many other bats, they are nocturnal insectivores, feeding mostly on moths. Unlike most bats, they’re late sleepers1, as they leave the cave about an hour after dark instead of an hour before. Since they fly fairly slowly, they’ve got their share of predators, including barn owls, and the less native feral housecat.

Big-eared bats mate in the fall and early winter. Since bats in temperate habitats tend to hibernate all winter, this might not seem like a good idea. But fear not, dear reader, for the female big-ear has a trick up her… sleeve. She is able to keep the sperm through the winter, ovulate in the spring, and have the baby (well, pup, actually) in early summer, when all the juiciest moths are out and getting in people’s campsites.

Not only are the big-ears late sleepers, they're also light sleepers in the winter. When the bats are hibernating, disturbances cause them to wake up, shift around, and lose valuable energy for managing their way through the winter2. Thus, spelunking and other caving activities are potentially dangerous to these bats. Intrusions during other times of the year can directly affect young, or drive the bats to look for a new home.

To keep these occurrences at a minimum, gates or fences have been placed around the colonies by concerned government employees. Studies on big-ears’ favorite roosting places are being conducted to see what else we can do to study them. And, on the political front, in 2005, the Virginia Big-Eared Bat was chosen to honorably represent the Commonwealth of Virginia as the Official State Bat.

1Like many college students.
2Also like many college students.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Lady Madonna - The Beatles

As beetles go, the American Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) isn’t terribly ugly (this may be due to its nice black and reddish orange pattern on its back). It is a little big (about an inch). On the other hand, invertebrates need a bit more screen time on this blog, and when you’re competing with pandas and tigers, anything with more than twice as many legs as eyes fits into the ugly category.
Image from University of Nebraska State Museum
Image from University of Nebraska State Museum
There’s another thing going for this nocturnal beetle’s inclusion here. People really don’t like carrion eaters, despite their impressive ability to smell a dead body from two miles away within an hour of death. Of course, their habit for eating dead things is helpful for returning nutrients to the soil, and they even have orange mites living on them, which keep the beetle and the carcasses free of many microbes and fly eggs (nothing like a clean corpse).

The impressive part about this beetle is its childcare policy. While most insects tend to drop their eggs and either leave or die, burying beetles are almost… vertebrate in their parental care. After one finds a suitable dead thing, a dove or chipmunk, for example, it will send out a huge amount of pheromones into the air. When a potential mate shows up, the two work together to move the carcass to an acceptable location, and, once there, live up to their name. Once the body is under a few inches of soil, they strip off the skin and some appendages, and generally form the body into a flesh ball, applying excretions that stop fungal growth. The pair then mate, lay 10 to 30 eggs in an adjacent tunnel, and wait for them to hatch. Once the larvae have hatched, the adults will help them out by regurgitation feeding, a la birds, or by moving the young to particularly choice pieces of carcass.

The American burying beetle has a cause for endangerment I haven’t talked about yet: habitat fragmentation, which reduces available prey items, and increases competing scavengers, like raccoons and crows. It also separates the populations, resulting in minimized gene flow. Pesticides and light pollution (remember, they’re nocturnal) don’t help, so now the beetle exists only in isolated pockets, a shadow of its former range.

One does not normally think of breeding programs and reintroduction of insects, but they exist for the burrowing beetle. More than 200 beetles have been reintroduced into Southern Ohio since 1998, and Massachusetts has had a head-start program to bolster their burying beetle population since 1994. Many other states are doing their part to help bring this little necrophage back from the brink.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

It Sucks to be Me

Blood-sucking. Slimy. Limbless. A face like an orbital sander mated with a shark. A species in concern in about 10 states. Sounds like we’ve got a candidate ripe for the honor of Endangered Ugly Thing, and EUT's new mascot. Meet the Ohio lamprey (Ichthyomyzon bdellium).

Image from Ohio DNR
Image from Ohio Department of Natural Resources

The Ohio lamprey is a 2 foot long, eel-looking fish, which is native to streams and rivers in the eastern Midwest (or western East) states. In their two years as adults they parasitize fish by sucking onto other fish with its gaping maw (also known as an oral disc; lamprey don’t have jaws), where it proceeds to suck the host’s blood1.

Before the parasitic adult stage, baby lamprey (now isn’t that an adorable mental image?) spend four years buried in the riffles of small streams with their head poking out, filter feeding on algae and plankton. After this time, they develop eyes and an oral disc, make their way to a larger river, and find a suitable host. I’m not sure if how frequently they switch hosts, and it’s possible that the scientists don’t know either. After their first year, the lamprey disengage themselves from their hosts, and make their way back to the river that spawned them. Here, they will build a nest, often with the cooperation of other spawning lamprey, lay their eggs in the gravel, and die.

Quick quiz! What have all the aquatic vertebrates I’ve written about had a problem with?
Time’s up! If you guessed “Dams,” you’re correct! With the lamprey, dams stop them from being able to move to their feeding grounds as adults. The entrance of more silt in the streams, usually from runoff, gives the juveniles problems with filter feeding.

There are people working on fixing these problems, through land conservation and habitat monitoring. Determining good solutions for lamprey preservation requires that we learn a lot more about them. Sampling is hard due to their habits of being either buried in a stream or a fish for five-sixths of their life. Getting people interested in them is the first step toward saving them, so I’m trying to do my part.

1Can anybody think of a parasitic vertebrate that isn’t a lamprey? I know of the male anglerfish, but that hardly counts.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Gonna Be a Blue Collar Lizard

I personally don’t think the Grand Cayman blue iguana (Cyclura lewisi) is ugly, but reptiles are usually given a bit of a short straw in terms of caring about their conservation. What they lack in ugliness (which is a bad thing?) they certainly make up for in being so endangered, with a long-term goal to get up to 1000 individuals, including those in captivity. They represent the last Endangered Ugly Thing that I’ve actually dealt with.

Image by me
Endemic to a small Caribbean island that’s roughly 20 miles across, the blue iguana makes its living as the largest native land vertebrate on the incredibly sharp coral rocks that make up Grand Cayman. They somewhat fit the elephant’s niche as the large (they get up to maybe 5 feet long) herbivore, with no predators as adults, though the young are preyed upon by snakes native to the area.

They live up to their name well, though they are the bluest when they are either very angry or trying to impress a female. They differ from green iguanas, which are an invasive species in the Caymans, in a variety of ways, such as the shields on the green iguanas’ cheeks, or the thicker tail on the blue iguana.

The reason why blue iguanas are so endangered is, like the tuatara, after a few million years of isolation with minimal predators, human interactive has brought rats and cats, which go after the eggs and young, and dogs, which will attack the adults. This brought their population down far enough to earn them the distinction of the world’s most endangered iguana.

They are not without their champion, however, as the Blue Iguana Recovery Program has come into existence to help save the iguanas from the edge of extinction. Captive breeding programs at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanical Park have managed to hatch more than 80 baby iguanas the last few years. Female iguanas, when they are ready to lay their eggs, will dig a burrow. However, to the dismay of the conservationists who wish to incubate the eggs in a controlled environment, the female’s burrows are labyrinthine, with many dead ends, where only one will contain any eggs. After the eggs hatch, the young are kept at the botanical park until they are two years old, big enough to deter any rats and cats. These are released into a reserve on the sparsely populated eastern end of the island.

The news that I am very happy to impart upon you, the reader, is that these released iguanas spent the last weeks of this past June mating. This July, the females were busy laying eggs around the reserve. The past few weeks, the first of the hatchlings have begun to emerge from their burrows. These hatchlings represent the first generation of wild hatched iguanas in the reserve, untagged and free.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

I Wish They All Could be California Arthropods

This one falls into the category of ugly things that I came across while randomly looking through The List. I'm going to keep on the lookout for any others, but I'm running low on EUTs that I've heard of. If anyone has any suggestions, start sending 'em in.
Image by Aviva Rossi
Looking somewhat like a cross between a horseshoe crab and a shield bug, the vernal pool tadpole shrimp (Lepidurus packardi) gets the distinction of being the first invertebrate on Endangered Ugly Things. It will not be the last, as the diversity of invertebrates is staggering, and, with the exception of butterflies, they're pretty much all considered ugly.

Distantly related to triops and sea monkeys (actually brine shrimp), which you can buy at any decent science shop, the tadpole shrimp share their ability to breathe through their 35 or so phyllopoda (leaf-feet) which also act as paddles. They grow up to a whopping 2 inches in length, eat organic matter smaller than them, and get eaten by everything that normally eats benthic macroinvertebrates: other invertebrates, amphibians, fish, and some birds.

The vernal pool tadpole shrimp hangs its small, strangely shaped hat in ephemeral pools in the San Fransisco bay area that dry out every summer. It survives these dry spells by laying drought-resistant eggs, which will hatch once the pools fill up again.

There are no big surprises with why these are endangered. Habitat destruction is always a problem when your habitat is a big wet spot, and someone says, "Hey, this looks like the perfect place for a shopping mall." Suddenly, your big wet spot is under a ton and a half of concrete. Agricultural and urban runoff, overgrazing, and invasive plants are also having an effect on the tadpole shrimp. Hope exists for them in the form of programs to save wetlands, which are being put into effect all over the United States.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Third Eye Blind(ish)

The Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus) is a reptile that is also grouped into the "living fossil" category (see footnote on the lungfish). They belong to order Rhynchocephalia, which has existed worldwide about 220 million years ago, and the tuataras themselves look about the same as they did 140 million years ago. They aren't exactly worldwide anymore, as they are confined to New Zealand, and being an island species is never good news in terms of population.
Image from Wellington Zoo

While superficially resembling lizards, there are various characteristics separating the two groups, such as lack of external ears, another set of teeth, and a developed pineal eye1. This "third eye" may help in temperature regulation, circadian regulation, Vitamin D absorption, or something completely different.

Tuataras are nocturnal and able to function at much lower temperatures than most reptiles. They have long lifespans, taking 20 years to reach maturity and living up to 100 years. Like many predators, they subscribe to the idea, "Is it animal matter, smaller than my head, and easy to catch? Then it's food." Hunting by ambush, they will eat insects, lizards, eggs, and seabird chicks.

The endangerment of the tuatara starts out fairly textbook. After millions of years isolated on islands, humans interfere and begin habitat destruction, removing them from the New Zealand mainland. Europeans bring rats, which eat the eggs and the young. However, there is a newer problem facing the tuatara. Like many reptiles, incubation temperature determines the sex of the offspring. Too warm (above 71.6 degrees Fahrenheit for the tuatara) and the nest is all males, too cold (under 69.8 degrees) and the nest is all females. What happens when global warming comes into play? One female can only parent one litter at a time (and four years apart), so this hurts the population much more than if fewer males were being hatched.

There is hope for our spiny little friends. Breeding and release programs are working on bringing the tuatara back to the New Zealand mainland, with the help of rat-proof fencing. Various studies are being conducted to determine the extent of global warming's effect.

1Though not near as developed as this guy's, who I came across while searching for images.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Like a Salamander Outta Hell

There has to be a story behind the eastern hellbender's name. It sounds like Dante on a drug trip, a motorcycle gang, or a punk metal band1 (the Ozark Hellbenders would perform cover songs heavily involving banjos). If anyone has the actual etymology behind the name, I'd be glad to hear it.

Image from Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Image from Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Despite having an ugly sounding name, the eastern hellbender, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, is, in fact, not pretty. As an adult, they can achieve lengths of 11 to 20 inches. Folds of skin hang from their sides, through which they breathe. The hellbenders have lungs, but those are used only for buoyancy. Their heads are flat, with tiny, beady eyes. Their habitat exists under rocks and debris in clear, fast-moving streams.

These giant salamanders hunt crayfish, small fish, and large insects, searching mainly using lateral lines and then sucking in prey, a method not shared by any other adult salamander. Also seperating them from other salamanders is the fact that the hellbender practices external fertilization, where the female will drop the eggs and then allow the male to fertilize them. After this, the male will guard the eggs for two to three months until they hatch.

Hellbenders are endangered in Ohio, Maryland, Illinois, and Indiana, threatened in Alabama, and a species of concern in New York. Pollution is a major problem facing eastern hellbenders, and for that matter, many amphibians. This is due to their ability to breathe through their skin. Any chemical with a higher concentration in the water than their body is drawn in, be it oxygen, nitrogen, or agricultural runoff. Damming rivers cause silt to clog the hellbender's nesting site (remember the lungfish?). The bad rap that the hellbender gets also doesn't help, as there are many legends of the salamanders sliming fishers' nets or poisoning river water. Photos of herpetologists, gloveless, holding it, might help dispel these myths. So if you happen to be creeking in the eastern Midwest (or western East), and see a gigantic salamander, consider yourself lucky to be in the presence of the largest salamander around.

1They are a band! That's what I get for looking too far on the internet for hellbender research. Though, they look more indie than punk metal.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Hey, Aqualung

I have seen a few blogs that mention the plight this animal is in, but with less life history than I'll provide you with.

Yeah, it's kinda blurry. Aquaria are not good places for snapshots.

The Queensland (or Australian) lungfish, Neoceratodus forsteri, is a fish with, as its name suggests, a lung (living in Queensland, Australia is secondary). This is to help it manage when levels of dissolved oxygen in the water are low, which is likely to happen in the slow-moving pools that it inhabits. It is completely aquatic, in contrast to African or South American lungfish (with two lungs) that spend entire dry periods burrowed in a mucous cocoon with an airhole to the surface. However, N. forsteri can spend hours out of water if it's kept moist, according to this study.

Appropriately described as "a living fossil," lungfish certainly look the part. They can grow up to three or four feet in length, and have large, platelike scales and fins that look ready to attempt to flop onto land. In Australia, lungfish fossils dating back 100 million years (when our mammal ancestors were running from Compsognathus) have been found, and there are minimal differences. The Queensland lungfish, even moreso than the other lobe-finned fish, helps give an idea of how the water-land transition happened in vertebrates about 370 million years ago1.

Alright, so it's not endangered, it's threatened. They are very long lived, which, in population terms, means slow to reproduce. The majority of problems facing the lungfish are actually facing the eggs.Invasive tilapia prey on the young and eggs. Also,dams on the rivers in which they live flood out the vegetation in which they breed. I've seen links to this petition, but I'm trying to be more of an educator than activist (and I linked to it anyway).

There doesn't seem to be any official Queensland lungfish breeding programs in existence. There are, however these guys, from whom you can buy a baby lungfish for just $850! Don't forget to buy the 6 foot tank. They are CITES approved, whose job is to check up on the trade of threatened and endangered species. Breeding for pets is not the way to save animals in the wild, so programs on releasing lungfish and saving habitat are the way to go. Kids! Just be sure to ask your parents nicely for a lungfish. And say please and thank you.

1As a somewhat random aside, I want to point out that flies are never described "living fossils," even though they were in their modern form a good 100 million years before the lungfish.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Death in the Fast Lane

I'd like to begin with a profile of the species that started it all, at least for me: Thamnophis radix radix, the eastern plains garter snake.

Now, if anyone is reading this in any state from Indiana to Montana to Kansas, inclusive, and has a knowledge of local snakes, you're probably thinking "Plains garter? Endangered? We've got tons of 'em!" Yes. Yes you do. But if you'll look at the range posted on ODNR's website about them, you'll see a tiny dot in northwestern central Ohio. That is Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area, where I spent much of my high school career.

Visually, the plains garter is nothing too impressive. It gets to be at most 2 feet long, which you can compare to the harmless black rat snake at 6 feet. In terms of coloration, I was hard pressed to tell it from the common eastern garter snake. The difference consists of a row of dots under the lateral stripes on the plains garter. It is even behaviorally unobtrusive, as it manages to be less likely to bite than the common garter snake, which I have picked up dozens of times without getting bitten. Its preferred habitat is, of course, plains and praries, but more specifically, near the ponds and drainage areas to be found in such habitat. Food sources for the plains garter include large insects and small rodents (agricultural pests, if anyone's wondering why we should save these snakes), along with amphibians and earthworms.

A threat facing many endangered species, habitat loss, is what has endangered the plains garter snake in Ohio. We're already at the eastern edge of its range, and the conversion of more and more prairies into developed land, agricultural fields, or even forests, has led to fewer numbers of plains garters.

Another issue plaguing these snakes is traffic, which is how I became came to know of the plight of this species. As a freshman in high school, I wanted a science fair project where I could do research on wildlife. I managed to get in touch with the contract herpetologist with ODNR, and he suggested that I perform a road mortality survey at Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area. Consequently, for the next four years, my fall season was spent by peeling dead snakes off the road. A few unfortunate specimens were the plains garter. This is why many of the pictures I have of them look like this:
My own pictures
Image by me
Though there were a few less... "vitally challenged" specimens:
I've got tons of 'em
Image also by me
There is hope. ODNR has enlisted the Columbus and Cleveland Zoos to breed captured plains garters to release their offspring in the wild. This colony has been breeding since 1999, with releases every fall since.

A short note on biodiversity:
I have mentioned that plains garter snakes look a great deal like common garter snakes. They also both live in similar areas. They eat about the same thing (earthworms, small rodents, frogs), but a study in the late '70's showed that there were plenty of those to go around, so there's no competition for food. "Hey," says the contrarian, "why do we need two of these, if they fill the same niche? Why do we need to save the one, if there's another just like it?" Well, they aren't exactly alike. There are habitat differences (the common garter snake is a habitat generalist), along with many genetic differences that don't show up in ecological research. What happens when a disease comes by and takes out a large number of common garter snakes, but the plains garter is immune? You'll be glad it's there, helping keep the rodent and insect population in check.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself

Take a good look at the WWF website, (World Wildlife Fund, not the other one) and what do you see? The giant panda, of course. Tigers. Gorillas. Cetaceans. The token reptile, a sea turtle. Generally cute and/or fuzzy, or, failing that, sleek and "handsome". Notice a pattern?

Well, the purpose of this blog is to change all that. Sure, cute fuzzies will sell calendars and mugs, but what about those endangered things whose faces even a mother might have issues loving? Just because they're ugly doesn't mean they're not important. Don't they deserve some attention?

This idea started with an essay. I'll blame the online college application process for saying "...or come up with your own topic!" After having written too many essays about peeling snake carcasses from the road for scientific study (more on that in a later post), I decided to take a different route. Pulling up the Ohio Endangered Wildlife List, I discovered that among the listings was a species of midge. A midge! You know, the relatively inconspicuous insects that go largely unnoticed by anyone except entomologists--unless you're swatting at a cloud of them. If that wasn't enough, they were joined by endangered lampreys, beetles, clams, and some of the aforementioned snakes. Well, that settled it. These were as imperiled, and at least as important as the black bear, whose stories have peppered state news. Where were the American burying beetle news features? The "Save the Wartyback Mussel" t-shirts? The Ohio lamprey plush toys?

Thus was born the concept of Endangered Ugly Things, whose goal is to promote awareness of all things both rare and repulsive. However, it currently consists of two members: me, who came up with the idea, and my summer roommate, who said "Y'know, you should make a Blog about that." So, here I am, to promote those endangered things with no good looks, charm, or possibly even appendages, and to give them their time in the spotlight.

I plan on updating with new profiles of Endangered Ugly Things every weekend. I'd be glad to hear of any news concerning "EUTs", or suggestions for an upcoming profile.