Sunday, March 25, 2007

Modest Mole

So the purpose of me writing is to talk about the endangered species that people normally wouldn’t want to save, right? Right; the issue is, I’ve noticed that there seem to be more comments on the fuzzier animals, or, failing that, the vertebrates. I suppose this is why the WWF generally focuses on marketing the saving of the pandas and tigers. Aren’t you here for the fruit flies and mosses? Apparently not. So here’s a fuzzy Endangered Ugly Thing, because I give the fans what they want. That, and I noticed I hadn’t talked about any marsupials yet.

Image from Give Us A Home
Image from Give Us A Home

Marsupial Moles (genus Notoryctes, both species are endangered) are, in fact, very fuzzy, at least based on the pictures I’ve seen. The thing that disturbs me the most is that it looks like marsupial moles have no face. Their eyes have more or less atrophied1, the ears are small, hair covered slits, and their nose has grown a large horny shield. All of these adaptations help the Marsupial Mole burrow in the Australian desert where it lives.

Yes, it looks quite a bit like a “normal” mole (except that it has a flat nose). This is due to convergent evolution, since there were a good 130 million years since the last common ancestor. Since there were no burrowing insectivores on the continent, the Marsupial Mole took over the niche. It actively hunts beetles and ants, though ARKive has pictures of it devouring geckos,2.

The Marsupial Mole doesn’t live underground quite as exclusively as the placental mole, as their shallow tunnels collapse behind them and they surface frequently. Females will construct deeper permanent burrows to give birth. Their pouch (called, surprisingly enough, a marsupium) is situated so the opening is backwards, so sand doesn’t get in.

People aren’t quite sure why the Marsupial Mole is endangered. In the early 1900’s, aboriginals traded lots of Marsupial Mole pelts to the Europeans, but it’s been a while since then. The best guess now is predation by feral cats and other introduced placentals. Conservation efforts are just beginning, with the main goal to understand more about their ecology.

Edit: The "Save the Wartyback Mussel" T-shirt is now avaliable for Phantom Midge (and anyone else who wants one) to purchace here.

1Not really, that’s a very Lamarkian way of thinking of it. Eyes, which would just get sand in them and not be very helpful, were bred out of the population.
2Do these pictures not make it look like something out of Dune? It looks like the sort of thing to burst from the sand and just start eating people.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Mussel of Love

In the very first post, I mentioned a particular animal and I haven’t gotten around to talking about them yet. It doesn’t have the distinction of being endangered anywhere save for Ohio and Minnesota (though it is threatened in Wisconsin). I wish I could find more detailed information about them, but I’ll share with you what I’ve found out about the Wartyback Mussel1.
Image from Indiana Natural History Survey

The Wartyback Mussel (Quadrula nodulata) inhabits deeper rivers in the Upper Mississippi system, such as the Ohio River. There’s no real mystery to the origin of its name; it has bumps all over its shell. It hangs out in sand or fine gravel, where it filter- feeds by sucking in water and digesting anything somewhat nutritious. The gills do double duty as both strainers and breathing apparatuses.

Mussel reproduction is weird. The female will hold eggs in her gills3, which are fertilized when the male’s sperm are drawn in as the females are siphoning water. The female then creates a prey mimic, which looks like some sort of minnow, and as a fish comes by to eat it, larvae are released. Parasitic larvae4. I can’t find if the Wartyback uses the lure, but seeing as the main hosts are catfish, it seems likely. The larvae aren’t harmful to the fish, but, like burrs from a plant, hitch on (in this case, to the gills) to get away from mom and dad, where there’ll be less competition and more genetic dispersal.

Because they filter so much water, pollution is the major problem facing freshwater mussels. Yes, we’re talking about the whole group. I started talking in generalities about a paragraph and a half ago. Dam construction and pretty much anything that messes with river flow also add to the problem of endangerment.

The Columbus Zoo, in conjunction with people like ODNR and OSU recently built an entire center on freshwater mussel conservation. Granted, the Wartyback doesn’t seem to be listed on the site, but anything that’s good for freshwater mussels is good for the Wartyback. Breeding programs have extra steps when dealing with mussels, since they need to catch and parasitize fish and then release them. The fish likely swim away wondering what on earth just happened to them.

1Does anyone want a “Save the Wartyback Mussel” t-shirt2? Just comment and I’ll make one.
2I’d make an Ohio Lamprey plush toy if I had any idea how to do so.
3At a science convention I went to, someone’s project was counting the eggs of local mussels. I think the numbers were in the hundreds for each individual. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her, and I was counting roadkill snakes.
4Not co-endangered, because there are plenty of catfish to go around.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Lichen Rock

Well, I wanted to spread the love to all the taxa, and since no one suggested anything last week, you get to read about lichens. Lucky you. Well, to what group do the lichens belong, you may ask. The answer: most of ‘em. The major part of the lichen is a fungus, but it has a symbiotic relationship with either an alga or a cyanobacterium (or both) that allows them to be photosynthetic.

Image from Lichens of North America
Image from Lichens of North America

I’ll admit the Rock Gnome Lichen1 (Gymnoderma lineare) isn’t really ugly, it falls more into the category of endangered things you’d never hear or care about. Think about what I tend to write in other posts. What does it eat? Rocks. What behaviors does it have? It grows, very, very slowly, and eats rocks. Breeding habits? A piece of the lichen breaks off2.

I suppose some of those are some points of interest, since lichens have the distinction of being able to metabolize minerals straight from rock faces, setting the stage for “higher” plant forms to colonize. A blank rock face with a few greenish growths today could be a forest in 100 years. Or, just as likely, the same lichens that are there today. Not the same population, the same individuals; which brings us to our second point. Lichens are incredibly slow growing. Something like a millimeter a year. They can be used to estimate dates like glacial retreat or ancient landslides. Redwoods and giant tortoises can’t hold a candle to that3. Heck, continents move faster than that.

This particular lichen lives in southern Appalachia, where it likes its rock served moist and vertical. It's the only member of its genus in North America, the other Gymnoderma live in the Himalayas or other East Asian mountains. The rock gnome lichen is extremely sensitive to trampling (despite the fact it lives vertically), and to changes in moisture levels. Many lichens have issues with air pollution, and it’s likely that the rock gnome has the same problems. Scientific collection is an endangerment cause I haven’t talked about yet4. What do you do to study something that won’t grow in the lab and dies if you poke at it too much? I’m not sure.

1Good band name for, what, maybe a bluegrass band?
2Sex, when you’re two or three individual organisms per cell, is kinda difficult. Possible, just complicated.
3And not just because they don’t have opposable digits.
4Though a much smaller problem than in, say, the 1800s, when killing was the easiest way to document an animal and get it to as many museums as possible.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Stuck on You

(Alternate title: Lice Lice Baby)

Well, Stephanie (who I can’t find a link for) suggested whale lice, but alas, they are not listed. I will get to them, because it’s very possible that they’re endangered. While looking for information on them, I came across an interesting term: coendangered. While this may refer to close-knit predator/prey or flower/pollinator relationships, that’s not the relationship I’m focusing on. The species that I will claim this post is about is the Pygmy Hog-Sucking Louse (Haematopinus oliveri). It is a louse that sucks Pygmy Hogs, not a pygmy louse that sucks hogs1.
Image from Texas A&M
This is just a common hog louse. Can you tell the difference?

These lice, which live normal, lousy lives (hanging on to hair and sucking the blood that springs eternal from the ground) suffer from habitat destruction. What else would you call it when a parasite’s only host is disappearing? The pygmy hog lives in India savannahs, and according to Ultimate Ungulate2 they build/dig a type of nest that “facilitates the transfer of ticks and lice - including one, the pygmy hog louse Haematopinus oliveri, which is found only on this species.” Since the pygmy hogs are dying out due to, well, habitat destruction, so are the lice.

Other animals have this problem as well. All whale species have a specific whale louse3, which must be as endangered as the whales they inhabit, since those whales are their only habitat. None of them are on the IUCN Redlist. The Galapagos hawk has a skin mite that is almost certainly endangered and not listed. Scientists have now used both of these species to get a better idea of their hosts’ evolutionary history. NPR even did a segment (in 2005) about the parasitologists who were discovering the Galapagos hawks’ past.

There are some parasites that we’re too late to save. When California condors were brought into captivity to save them from extinction in the ‘80s, they were, understandably, deloused. Thus passed Colpocephalum californici, the California condor-chewing louse. The article that described this extinction stated that “…charismatic animals hog conservation dollars; the only ethic that makes the condor more important than its louse is its aesthetic value.” This is a good statement of what led me to start this blog, though when a condor beats out something in “aesthetic value”, you know that thing is ugly.

The simple fact that people are now (within the last few years) worrying about parasite conservation is about all I can ask for. Science magazine reported in 2004 that, based on average parasite levels, there are approximately 6,300 coendangered species that don’t appear on any list. I suppose the easiest conservation method is to save their hosts. And watch out for the little guys.

1Because, quite frankly, who’s going to call an almost microscopic animal “pygmy”?
2Should I be surprised this exists?
3Actually crustaceans that cling onto the whale’s face, creating crusty white patches.