Saturday, July 24, 2010

The secrets we keep from our spouses

(I admit I'm a cheapskate, but my wife didn't fare much better.)

Violent crime against tourists is not common in Costa Rica, but rip-offs happen all the time.  A number of years ago, my wife, son, and I pulled into the Hotel D-Galah in San Pedro near the university to check into our room.  I was about to start another 2-month field season studying understory birds in the southern part of the country, and our first stop was always the capital.  We parked the rental car, a Suzuki, immediately in front of the entrance of the small hotel and we went inside to check in.  A decade ago, most tourists rented Suzukis, which were notoriously easy to break into, and thieves knew you were a relatively wealthy, relatively naive gringo if you were driving this model. 

The thieves obviously staked out tourists just like us.  As soon as we went inside the hotel, they jimmied the back door of the Suzuki, grabbed our bags, and off they went.  We returned to the car to get our luggage only to find that there wasn't any, or at least very little, which made getting to our room easier than normal.  Surprising how liberating it is when you have no clothes.  The most valuable item in the car were my binoculars, and fortunately they missed those.  But they got nearly all my field clothes, underwear, T-shirts, and shorts, and much of my wife's wardrobe as well.  They also got my son's homework and several textbooks for his two months of upcoming home schooling.  He was not that unhappy, and I'm sure the thieves wanted to study American history.   Of course, I felt like an idiot, but we had assumed the car was safe only 20 feet from the check-in desk at the hotel, and we were inside for no more than 10 minutes.  We reported to the hotel staff that we had been ripped off; they acted unimpressed, and uttered an unconvincing "lo siento".  Welcome to our hotel.

We had homeowner's insurance, which covered items stolen while traveling, but we needed a police report to turn in to our agent when we returned home.  So, the next day, we went to the Hall of Justice in downtown San Jose, or whatever it was called, expecting to see Batman and Robin or their latino equivalent flitting about the place.  Instead, we found dozens of ripped-off gringos just like us trying to file a report of stolen possessions---State Farm Insurance must have been busy that year back in the states.  Our turn finally came, and we proceeded to itemize for the police official what we could remember must have been in our stolen luggage, and its approximate value.

Six pair of underwear--$15.  Four T-shirts--$50.  One pair of sandals---$20.  And on and on.  But then it got more interesting.  Silk shirt that my wife had gotten me for Christmas: my wife answered, $12.  "What?", I exclaimed.  "My Christmas gift from you only cost $12?"  Management acted a bit sheepish, but we continued.  We got to some jewelry items.  My wife listed a pair of earrings that I had gotten her for her birthday, she looked at me for the value, and I said, innocently, $15.  "You cheap bastard!", she shrieked.  Geez, what an idiot I am.  I could have told the cop $125.  Who would know the difference if I committed a little insurance fraud in order to maintain domestic tranquility?  Any male insurance adjuster would certainly understand and look the other way.  I was so stupid that I deserved to be ripped off by some Costa Rican slicky boys.  Take my watch, take the wallet out of my pocket.  Honesty is not always the best policy when dealing with your spouse; I'm living proof of this.  I'm not just a cheap bastard; I'm a stupid bastard as well.  Cheap and stupid!!

I learned a lot during those two days in San Jose.  Watch your possessions like a hawk.  Never leave anything of value in a car unless you stand nearby to watch the two Great Danes you keep inside.  Never travel with expensive underwear; they may be stolen, and then you have to go to a foreign store and buy their skimpy togs.  I hate shopping, but I had to replace the under garments that I lost.  So we went to a store where the only men's underwear they had was the size of a small handkerchief---black with pin stripes.  Boy, this burglary has become a hassle, although I did feel extra sexy whenever I sported my tico briefs back home.  And most importantly, when your wife asks you a question where the answer matters to her happiness, consider your response carefully before you open your mouth.  And prepare your face for the untruthful answer that you may be about to give.  Pretend you are young and innocent again, and try to orient your countenance to resemble that 7-year old boy you used to be.

The following year when I presented my wife with her birthday gift, she gave me that "was this only $15 look?"  I had conveniently left the receipt for this $125 purse in the gift box, although I acted as if I were embarrassed when she found it in there.  "Oh, sorry, I thought I had filed that away, in case you had wanted to return it for an even nicer model."  Of course, she refused.  She was happy and I was happy.  And if this purse was ever stolen in a foreign country, I would gleefully fill out the police report in front of my wife, looking forward to the part where I tell the official its value.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tree planting programs: another form of greenwash?

(Is embedding tree seeds in cardboard a good idea, or just another round of greenwash?)

We hear a great deal about programs to encourage us to plant a tree.  It always sounds good, because most of us love trees, appreciate their value to us emotionally and ecologically, and understand the importance of wood and paper products that come from trees.  But when I scratch the surface of the suggestion to plant more trees for the environment, I find it is more confusing than amusing.

The supposition in these tree-planting programs seems to be that by planting a tree seedling or tree seed that we are rebuilding our forests.  But for this to be correct, it matters where you plop the baby tree, and what species it is that you are plopping.  Most ecologists are completely convinced that we should encourage vegetation native to a particular region to grow in that region.  I have often lamented in this blog the invasion of our local habitats by non-native plants.  So when someone gives you a tree seed and tells you to plant it, you need to know what species it is and if that species is indigenous to your area.

This week on Treehugger I read about a new "invention" where tree seeds are embedded in cardboard boxes.  When you are finished with the box, you bury the cardboard and a tree grows in that location.  Apparently, the company, which is called Life Box, has chosen tree seeds that are native to every major region of the country.  They think this has covered any criticisms about non-native species or invasive plants getting where they should not be (see comment by MycoKat here).  But it is not as simple as that.  For example, white birch is native and common in forests about 150 miles east of Ithaca, NY, where I live, but it is not found in the forest around Ithaca. If those seeds were used in their boxes, would those boxes only be used for shipping to eastern NY and not central NY?  I doubt it.  Humans have this tendency to superimpose their mental image of a map on the landscape, and it rarely matches the ecological reality that has been in place for centuries.

Let's assume you now have the seed of a tree species that is truly native to the exact location where you live.  But then, where do you put the darn thing?  You can always plant a tree in your front yard.  Nothing wrong with that.  That tree can be appreciated for its beauty for decades, and it produces oxygen and sequesters carbon dioxide during its life just like the next tree.  But this has nothing to do with regenerating a forest.  If you were interested in helping out our forests, I guess you might plant the thing next to or inside an existing forest.  But that is really unnecessary.  Forests produce plenty of seeds from the trees that are already there and don't benefit from our putting one more seed in the ground.  Evidence of the abundance of forest tree seeds can be found in your gutter every year, when you clean out the maple, ash, and elm seeds that have blown in there.  Squirrels and blue jays are moving nut seeds around the forest and planting them all the time.  Let nature do its thing.  It knows more than we do anyway about where to put these propagules.

So where should you put tree seeds if you have them?  I suggest putting them where they are really needed; put them where there is absolutely no forest at present, but in a location where there WAS once a forest that contained the species of trees you are about to plant.  An abandoned lot in a city would be a great place to undertake such a project, assuming there is still viable soil there.  That is, create a forest, however small, where there was not one before (or, at least, not in a very long time). Or what about an area that was once mined for some commodity, where the vegetation was skimmed off the surface of the earth for miles around?  That area needs help.  These examples would be true efforts at restoration.  Abandoned hayfields or meadows rarely need this kind of help; seeds from trees in nearby forests will find their way there.

My point is that planting a tree sounds as American as apple pie.  What could be wrong with a wholesome activity like that?  But this "movement" has all the characteristics of a program that makes us feel good without accomplishing anything substantive for the environment.  As a conservation biologist, we don't need more trees, we need more habitat.  And habitat, whether it is forest, or prairie, or marshland, mostly needs protection to develop on its own.  Only then will it contribute to viable populations of biodiversity, as well as provide all those "ecosystem services" like carbon sequestration that are so important.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Natural mortality in deer: the inescapable comparison to humans

(An adult female Columbian white-tailed deer marked with an ear tag and a plastic collar for identification in the field.)

For my Ph.D. research I studied a population of white-tailed deer located on a national wildlife refuge in southwestern Washington.  The refuge was situated on the north bank of the mighty Columbia River and this particular subspecies of deer is called Columbian white-tailed deer.  They were placed on the Endangered Species List in the early 1970s, which led to my research project on this rare form of North American deer.  The only other form of white-tailed deer that is considered endangered is the diminutive Key Deer of Florida.

As you all know, most populations of deer in North America are subjected to sport hunting every fall.  Historically, hunts allowed for male-only kills, but this has been greatly liberalized in recent decades to allow hunting of females to reduce the size of this now abundant (= too abundant) species.  One of the demographic observations about deer populations is the sex ratio of adults---it almost always favors females significantly.  Sex ratios among adult deer typically are 3-4 females for every male, and this is generally attributed to the fact that males are hunted and females are not.  That is, more males were removed from the herd every year due to legal hunting than were females, and this resulted in a skewed sex ratio favoring females.  Reproductively speaking, this is not a problem because most species of cervids (which include elk, moose, and caribou) have a promiscuous breeding system, where each male breeds with as many females as possible.  An adult male white-tailed deer can breed with 10 or more females during a single breeding season in the fall, so the skewed sex ratio does not inhibit reproduction at all.  Essentially, all females get pregnant every year regardless of the sex ratio.  Larger, older, and more experienced males probably obtain more copulations than younger, smaller, and less experienced males and, therefore, the larger bucks sire more offspring.

So, I had at my fingertips a non-hunted refuge population of deer to study, and I was free to choose the research questions that were of interest to me.  I decided that this was an opportunity to study natural mortality and demography in this population of about 200 deer found on a somewhat contained (i.e., surrounded by water or habitat not used by whitetails) piece of land of about 2,000 acres.  I lived on the refuge and worked on the population daily for two years.  At the end, an interesting demographic pattern emerged, which informed my view of what makes male mammals tick.

My primary method of studying this phenomenon was to systematically search the refuge with my assistant, Bill Half Moon, for dead deer.  When we found a carcass, I estimated the month in which it had died, its location on the refuge, and I collected the skull for later analysis.  This analysis involved removing a tooth, and staining and sectioning the tooth to reveal cementum annuli that can be counted to determine the age of the animal at time of death.  It is sort of like counting tree rings.  Of course, the sex of the deer was easily determined from the skull as well.  If the carcass was fresh enough, I took it to Oregon State University to be necropsied, and to determine the cause of death.  I also cracked open a femur to examine the bone marrow, which can be scored subjectively for fat content, which is a crude method of evaluating the nutritional health of the deer at time of death.

It turned out that in this population the sex ratio among adults was still 3-4 females for every male.  However, we knew that the sex ratio at birth was nearly 1:1; in fact, there were probably slightly more males born than females, a typical pattern in mammals.  That is, the sex ratio started out about equal, but by the time males and females were two years old or older, there were many more females than males in the population.  We knew that males were not leaving the refuge, or emigrating, so the only other explanation for the skewed sex ratio was mortality.  Between birth and adulthood, males died at a younger age than females.    Males, on average, were living about 3.5 years, while females were living an average of about 6.5 years.  The oldest male skull I recovered was 7.5 years old; the oldest female skull was 13 years old.  In other words, males were cycling through the population at a faster rate than were females.

To put it bluntly, males are just more reckless than females. They get hit my cars, they get caught in barbed wire fences, and they drown in ponds more often than females.  But the most common cause of death in males was their poor physical condition immediately after the rut, or breeding season.  In this population, the rut began in November and lasted about two months.  At the end of the rut, we are in the middle of winter when conditions are not conducive to recovering body condition, and males paid the price.  It is known that adult male deer spend so much time and energy locating and tending females in heat during the rut that they lose significant body weight.  They increase physical activity during this important process and they decrease the time they spend feeding.  The result is that males are worn out and emaciated come January, all because they want to make love to as many females as possible.  In fact, you could say that many males literally mate themselves to death.

The similarities to other mammals including humans is inescapable.  The mortality rate of male humans is higher than females, especially among those just entering age of reproduction.  Males take dangerous chances, largely in an attempt to increase their status in the eyes of females, whether they know it or not.  The winners can win big, with multiple mates during their life and the possibility of siring many offspring.  Of course, modern contraception has changed the outcome of this male behavior somewhat, but our behavioral tendencies produced over the past 4 million years of human evolution continue to play out regardless.

(See full citation and an Abstract of the monograph produced from this research.)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Memories of the Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

My first evening in the Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya was spectacular.  I will never forget that night.  We stopped the safari vehicle as the sun was setting.  It was during the famous mammal migration, and we were surrounded by wildebeest in all directions, as they stopped moving for the night.  The grunting sounds of this interesting animal could be heard everywhere.  I will never forget those few hours.

Our guide, Meshak, a local Masai.  He knew the birds cold.  Also, my two safari-mates from the UK, who were on their honeymoon.  When I got married, my wife and I went to Niagara Falls--ugh.

A large bull elephant, who appeared to be asleep.  I love this savanna habitat.  Visibility is fantastic.

Male olive baboon eating a baby Thompson's gazelle, which he just caught.  We were close enough to hear the crunching of bones as he ate.  Baboons have always scared me.  Short, robust, and strong as hell.

The main reason you go to the Mara in August or September is to see one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles on earth--the migration of wildebeest, zebra, and Thompson's gazelles.  Here they are crossing the Mara River on their way to Tanzania.  They will return to the Mara in about six months, as they follow the greening of the grasses, their primary food.

Some of the river crossers are not so lucky.  They get picked off by Nile crocodiles, which the crocs let lie around for a couple of days to decompose a bit.  Then, the carcasses are easier to tear apart and eat.  Here, a vulture (I believe an African White-backed Vulture) is feeding on a dead wildebeest in the croc pantry.

We saw two wildebeest picked off by crocs, which grab wildebeest from beneath as they are swimming the muddy river.  The mammal is pulled under the water, where it drowns.

A croc lying by the side of the Mara River.  You could see a couple of dozen crocs at any one time during migration.  The mammals always cross at particular sites along the river that are conducive to jumping into the water and getting out in one piece on the other side.  And that is where the crocs congregate.  Everyone seems to know what the game is about.

I always thought that the Iron Man competition should occur right here.  If you can swim to the other side and back, and survive, you win.

Some of the "winners", making it to the other side.  There are mostly wildebeest here, but you can see at least one zebra in the mixed group.

Death seems to be everywhere at this time of year.  This wildebeest did not even make it to the river, and was probably killed by lions.

A warthog peeks out from behind a tree.

Female cheetah and her sole surviving cub.  It was thought that the other cubs had been killed by lions or hyenas.  I almost got to see this mother chase a Thompson's gazelle, their main prey here.  But the cub ran up to the mother as she was stalking the gazelle, and alerted the gazelle, which ran off.  The mother immediately turned and barked sharply at the cub as if to say, "Stay where I put you when I am about to hunt if you want to eat!"

The female later killed a "tommy", and presented it to the cub for investigation and food.  "You see, this is what we are after".

A small herd of Thompson's gazelles.  Everything likes to eat "tommies".

The colorful women of a Masai village.

The men are pretty elegant as well.  Young Masai boys usually attend 5 years of "warrior" training.  But our Masai guide was sent to an "English" school where he learned to be a wildlife guide.  Is this like college prep vs. trade school training in American public schools?

A lioness who, along with another female, had just killed a zebra.  She is still hot and panting.  Notice how she blends into these dry savanna grasses.

The dead zebra had not even been fed upon yet.  I think the lionesses were simply too tired and too hot to eat.

A Defassa waterbuck, one of many species of antelope found on the Mara.

Wildebeest, as far as the eye can see.

I will never forget the two days I spent in the Masai Mara, and I hope to return one day soon.  North America once had a wildlife spectacle similar to the incredible phenomenon of East Africa, when bison were numerous and migrated across the plains of the Western U.S.  That wonder of the animal world ended in the 1870s.  Let us hope that the large mammal populations of Africa remain viable for generations to come.