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Neighborhoodcats.org photo of JFK cat protest.

Neighborhoodcats.org photo of JFK cat protest.

by Erik Baard

Australia is learning that it’s traded one form of “cute overload” for another, and there might be lessons for New York City.

 

As reported in this article, Australia attacked its cat overpopulation problem in the interest of preserving its indigenous bird species. The trouble is, without the feline predators around, a rabbit population explosion ensued, stripping away ground foliage needed for safe bird nesting.

 

The conflict between cat lovers and conservationists, which is often an inner one, spans the globe. In NYC it’s found focus on Jamaica Bay and the JFK Airport. Emotional pleas and conservation science studies have crashed upon walls of bureaucracy in recent years as airport officials cleared out a stray cat population. One ironic twist is that some airport managers have claimed that the cats are attracting birds, with their food and feces, and posing a hazard to planes. While bird strikes are very real, environmental concerns on Jamaica Bay center on ground nesting birds.

 

Cats are the flashpoint where empathy and responsibility crash in on themselves.

 

We feel for the cats, cast off in a breach of our social contract with them as a companion species. Activists might have a point in calling the feral ones, though born outside of human housing, “homeless.” That’s certainly true for abandoned pets. But we also grasp the suffering that attends habitat loss and losing young, as birds and other small species struggle to hold on under assault from feline predators.

 

Our sense of responsibility is weighty because we’ve both marginalized local species to a fringe of habitat and introduced an effective predator.

 

The greatest point of consensus is that cats should be adopted only responsibly (for life, and neutered), and that they should be kept indoors. But in cases where colonies already exist, sterilization and reintroduction seems is the most humane and effective means of dealing with the cat population. Infertile cats will still hold territory, preventing a rapid repopulation of the area by breeding cats from adjacent neighborhoods. With rats, another species that’s forever the subject of population control schemes, denying food helps disperse a population and keep them busy seeking sustenance instead of breeding. When social animals have a central food source, they gather and find mates, and have the surplus energy to breed and bear young.

 

Just ask the rabbits down under!

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by Erik Baard

 

 

He walked up from below the high water mark beside the old seaplane ramp at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn and called out, “That’s it! New York City is done!”

 

Not comforting words from a man who measures time in mass extinctions. Paleontologist Carl Mehling is one of many native New Yorkers struggling at the fringes of our city’s constant reinvention and real estate development to preserve glimpses of life from earlier eras. As collections manager for fossil amphibians, reptiles, and birds at the American Museum of Natural History, Mehling went on a personal quest to be the first person to discover naturally occurring fossils in all five boroughs in one year.

 

In his hand that November day he held a piece of chert, a smooth rock that in this case looked like caramel. On its surface were pinholes that a magnifying lens revealed were ringed by radiating spokes. “There’s no ambiguity. That’s a crinoid,” a starfish cousin, Mehling said. The cluster of crinoids that left traces in this stone probably lived about 380 million years ago, he said.

 

Crionoids at Floyd Bennet Field. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Crinoids at Floyd Bennet Field. Photo by Carl Mehling.

 Earlier fossil finds include a brachiopod and a bryozoan (a shellfish and a creature resembling coral, respectively) in a Riverdale Park streambed in the Bronx, another brachiopod or bivalve on a tiny Inwood Hill Park beach in Manhattan, and scallops and oysters on Rockaway Beach in Queens. Conference House Park on Staten Island yielded favositid corals, more crinoids, brachiopods, and bryozoans.

 

 

 

 

 

Brachiopod and Bryozoan from Riverdale Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Bryozoan and Brachiopod from Riverdale Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Brachiopod or Bivalve from Inwood Hill Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Brachiopod or Bivalve from Inwood Hill Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scallops in the Rockaways. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Scallops in the Rockaways. Photo by Jill Palermo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brachiopod and Crionoid from Conference House Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Brachiopod and Crinoid from Conference House Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crinoid and Bryozoan from Conference House Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Crinoid and Bryozoan from Conference House Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Favositid from Conference House Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Favositid from Conference House Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mehling targets often forgotten shorelines because “there no buildings and no sidewalks and no streets. They’re remnants of what might have been there a hundred years ago.” When we arrived at one prospective site on Jamaica Bay to find that it had been recently bulkheaded, he remarked, “This is the worst place on Earth to look. It’s so depressing.”

 

In addition to field prospecting, Mehling is compiling a list of all of the fossils discovered in New York City from academic sources. Many can’t be traced today, even the mastodon bone that was dredged from the East River shoreline of Long Island City when Standard Oil built a barge slip a century ago. It hung in a nearby shop window for years before vanishing. Central Staten Island holds rich reserves of fossilized Cretaceous plants that grew when dinosaurs reigned, but they’ve been paved over in recent decades. “There are parts of Staten Island that, if I heard that there was construction starting, I would be out there in an hour.”

 

He’s often in a rush. “I deal in millions of years but always feel I have to be a half-hour early. As if it matters,” he remarked. Actually, it did, one day in August when he tackled Queens and Staten Island, with some Nature Calendar people in tow. We had to race to sites before our quarry was covered by the rising tide.

 

An hour later I was scratching around stones jutting from a red clay shoreline bluff near Conference House Park, hoping in vain to loosen something interesting…if I could recognize it. Mehling was yards behind me on the beach, casually picking up Devonian fossils like sea glass. If a rock looked promising but showed no micro-fossils on its surface, Mehling would smash it open with a larger rock. Jill Palermo of WeAddUp.com and Queens Community Board 2 environmental chairperson Dorothy Morehead came along and had the good sense to stick with him, not me.

breaking rocks in the hot sun. Photo by Jill Palermo.

Carl Mehling demonstrates the paleontologist's/prisoners workout routine: breaking rocks in the hot sun. Photo by Jill Palermo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“This is coral, hundreds of millions of years old. If this fossil is as old as I think it is, this place was below the equator when it was living,” he said. “It’s moved a lot, and it’s been through hell.” He also found sea shells from the same period. Still, he’s not very excited by his finds, dismissing them as “invasive species” transported by the glaciers that ground their way down the continent, and therefore not much better than the fossils one can find in the imported stone that make up the Rockefeller Center façade or the walls of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel.

 

In the Rockaways, Kelly Rimshnick is ankle deep in water not far from her kids as we scour the intertidal zone. “Are you looking for something dangerous?,” she nervously asked.

 

Three of us turned up oysters that Mehling said were merely “12,000 years old, tops. They’re the same species that you find here today.” Mehling, who discovered in Patagonia, Argentina the first fossilized fetal dinosaur skin, says globally these fossils are “as common as pigeons.” Still, he’s excited. “These are native, they are really from this place. In that sense these are real rarities, the stuff I like. That’s why I love to hunt in New York City, because fossils are not supposed to be here.”

 

That’s as much a state of mind as physical reality. As an urban forager, Mehling is used to eating meals of delicious plants that others pass by. But New York City is also truly a lousy place to find fossils. Our bedrock was produced in a fossil-erasing lathe of geologic forces, not gentle sedimentation. Worse yet, “If all the manmade stuff was taken off of Manhattan it would be just a big rock. It’s been stripped.”

 

Mehling dreams of finding an unlucky mastodon, caught in bogs during the glacial thaw. Short of that, Mehling plans to kick continue kicking over stones in Inwood Hill Park and Central Park (and check this site too), along the Bronx River and in Van Cortlandt Park with very humble expectations. “This is the lowest form of fossil hunting,” he said. “The lowest, but done with high hopes.”

 

The challenges don’t stop eager local amateurs from frequently bringing in egg-shaped stones for him to inspect. “I have to explain that there are many ways nature can produce that shape. Not every round stone flew out of a dinosaur’s ass.”

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by Erik Baard

If a seal falls ill in the Gowanus Canal, a turtle catches an autumnal chill in Montauk, and a dolphin gets marsh bound in the Great South Bay, there’s a good chance they’ll end up as roommates at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation.

As New York State’s only authorized marine mammal and sea turtle rescue group, the Riverhead Foundation is called upon to perform rescues and verify unusual sightings throughout the southern New York salty shorelines — the Long Island Sound, Atlantic Ocean, New York Bight and New York Harbor. The small, overstretched staff is like an aquatic A-Team housed within the Atlantis Marine World Aquarium, a well-run regional attraction where sting rays poke up to kiss you right upon entering the door. Really. Well, okay, and be fed.

 

raykiss

(This photo and those following, unless otherwise specified, were taken by trip participant Sofia Theologitis.)

Our Nature Calendar group of five was ushered into the back rooms where the Riverhead Foundation does its work of assessing, monitoring, and healing animals held in cylindrical tanks for eventual release into the ocean or transfer to another aquarium. The most frequent guests are seals and turtles (we saw about ten of them, representing a mix of species that including harbor seals and a loggerhead turtle that had arrived an hour before us), though dolphins and porpoises are regulars too.

(I learned about the foundation eight years ago when I was with a pod of fellow winter kayakers who confirmed Harry Spitz’s sighting of the first community of seals in New York Harbor in 120 years, and wrote about it for the New York Times.) 

You’ll know that turtles are in residence if upon stepping off the decontamination shoe pad you’re hit with a wave of warm, moist air. Some “cold stunned” turtles appear dead because they’ve been immobilized by temperature drops, before they could migrate to warmer waters.

“They get washed ashore like any other debris,” said rescue program supervisor Julika Wocial, who trains the public in making proper sighting and stranding reports . “Don’t assume a turtle is dead unless it’s decomposed or missing a head.”

Other turtles can’t dive well because of trapped gas pockets in their shells. This makes it hard to feed, leaves them vulnerable to predators and boat injuries, and above-surface shells sections can degrade with prolonged air exposure (as with the patient below). A bubble can be drained, but evenly distributed gas is a challenge. Sometimes weights are added, or the turtle is found unfit for release.

Flipper injuries like the one photographed below were common (suspected shark bites) among turtles, as are propeller lacerations. Even double rear amputees can survive in the wild, explained Robert DiGiovanni Jr., director and senior biologist at the foundation.

floater

 gimp4

Whirl pools at the center of seal tanks mimic ocean currents and combat muscle atrophy.

Seal pox further weakened a few already struggling pinipeds. The viral disease, which isn’t transmittable to humans, runs its course with the severity and duration of our experience of chicken pox. Instead of many small pustules dotting the skin, however, seals get several larger, hard knobs near their faces and flippers.

Seal pox lesion.

Seal pox lesion.

Perhaps more surprising was how common eye injuries are among seals. Of course, those at the foundation were being rehabilitated and weren’t representative of the general population. It makes sense, however, that seals would often get bitten or poked around the eyes as they rooted around the seabed.

seal1

The staff takes special care to not bond with the animals, so that they retain natural behaviors and a healthy aversion to humans upon release. As social mammals with expressive faces, seals make this particularly difficult. Well, at least for me. The female seal I photographed below and I had some immediate chemistry. Ms. Wocial mildly reprimanded me for lingering and chatting with this pirate-eyed beauty.

ladylove

 

Staff and highly-trained volunteers work together in both rescues and releases, with the latter being sometimes nearly ceremonial. Sponsors who “adopt” seals and turtles come out, as do reporters and other friends of the foundation. Sometimes a dolphin must be gently ushered out of its tank by a wall of staff and volunteers wearing dry suits, with arms interlocked. Slight injuries, sometimes quite painful, are common among the humans.

Costs for rescue, rehabilitation, and release range from $6500 for a seal to $120,000 for a dolphin. Medical machines are always needed, Mr. DiGiovanni said, and often come through hospital donations. One recent acquisition greatly improving the Riverhead Foundation’s field work is a portable unit to test for blood gases, electrolytes, and glucose levels.

Released patients of the rescue hospital have paid back their human tenders with unprecendented revelations. Tracking devices on their backs have mapped migration patterns, not only north-to-south, but inshore and offshore, where deeper waters have steadier temperatures, according to Mr. DiGiovanni. The foundation doesn’t necessarily deliver animals to places near their rescue locations because they usually swim hundreds or thousands of miles within weeks or months of returning to the wild.

Our own path was more predictable. As people now contaminated by seal pox, we were slipped out the back door. Our hosts apologized for the necessity, and stopped short of making us wear leper bells.

GET INVOLVED

ADOPT” a rescued animal, make a cash or in-kind DONATION or become a MEMBER.

(One trip participant, Neena Dhamoon, is already raising funds from officemates, friends, and family!)

To volunteer, please email: volunteers@riverheadfoundation.org

(Different skill levels are needed, ranging from basic office help to *gentle* dolphin wrestling, after much training.)

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newtown_pippin_toa

Imagine the sandy shores of Dumbo, Stuyvesant Cove, Hunters Point, South Beach, and Pelham Bay resplendent with bushes full of white blossoms that grow into delicious fruits akin to fat cherries as summer passes. Or seeing trees at City Hall, or in a school playground just inland from the Newtown Creek, heavy with sublimely sweet and tart green apples.

Welcome to New York City, 2015!

Well, potentially. Check this page in the coming weeks to learn how you can be part of bringing beach plums and Newtown Pippin apples back to NYC! It might even be possible to have the Newtown Pippin recognized as the official apple of the Big Apple. We have some amazing sponsors and partners already committed to plantings and helping others receive saplings.

Beach plums grow in sandy soil, even dunes, from New Jersey to eastern Canada. They sustain birds and delight beachcombers, and provide a living for those who make them into desserts. Industrialization erased them from our city’s shores.

Newtown Pippins were developed on the Queens bank of the Newtown Creek in the 18th century and quickly became known as the “prince of apples.” Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Queen Victoria were all ardent fans. Today they are grown by celebrities like Dave Matthews. They consistently win apple taste competitions to this day. The namesake creek has quietly descended into a state that should shame all New Yorkers. The nation’s largest oil spill leaches into it while combined sewer outflows continually assault it. The creek bed is laden with heavy metal wastes.

beachlg

May the restoration of these species remind us of how lush and wondrous our environment once was, and inspire us to act to replenish our city.

One key element of the campaign will be to excite city officials by providing a taste of these plums and apples. On Saturday, Dec. 13, we will carpool or take a train out to Riverhead, Long Island, to buy apples, cider, plum jams, plum pies, and other delicacies at Briermere Farm. While we are there, there will be some exploring, of course!

If you’d like to come, please email naturecalendar@gmail.com so that we can determine how best to coordinate travel.

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by Erik Baard

 

As I walked past the Sunnyside Railyards yesterday I spotted a tree with a crown that each year is generously laden with green-gold pods. It’s rising up from beside the tracks, reaching eye level for strollers on the south side of the overpass. It occurred to me that while I’ve seen this kind of tree countless times throughout my life, I didn’t know its name.

 

When I focus on a tree these days, the first question I ask is its name, followed by “can I eat it?” For the latter obsession, I blame Wildman Steve Brill. The foraging instinct that he reawakened in me is useful not so much as a survival tool as a prime mover toward general ecological knowledge. Once I’ve asked that, the other questions come flooding: If I eat it, with what species am I now competing for food? If I can’t eat it, what chemicals are there to thwart me, and why? What species are able to eat it and what’s different about their physiology? Did those species co-evolve with the tree because they are superior vectors for spreading seeds?

 

Anyway, I did some digging and found some foresters who want us all to do some more digging…to uproot the species.

 

Oh, “Tree of Heaven!” Oh, “Ghetto Palm!” It’s amazing how a species can be viewed with such difference. We’ve already considered how the pigeon is “revered and reviled,” to use Andrew Blechman’s phrase, as a carrier of both the Holy Spirit and disease. Anthropologist Mary Douglas defined dirt, as opposed to soil, as “matter out of place.” The Ailanthus tree is indeed “out of place”; it’s an invasive species from eastern and southern Asia and northern Australasia. I also guess it doesn’t help that the male flowers of this tree smell like cat urine.

 

I couldn’t find a reason for its more flattering moniker, translated from the Ambonese in Indonesia. Folk medicine practitioners do make some intriguing claims for the tree though; Asian tradition holds that the bark is good for lowering heart rate, reducing muscle spasms, and, well, delaying a particular spasm that could cause your Fourth of July fireworks to shoot off a little too soon. Maybe it was an Ambonese wife who named the tree?

 

The inimitably New York name stems from the hardiness of this tree. Even when the city fails to green a community or lot, Ailanthus trees will find a way to grow. Park Slope has its London planes, while back alleys have the ubiquitous “poverty tree.”

 

That ability to thrive in urban wastelands spotlights another similarity between pigeons and ailanthus trees: despite being so opportunistic, they are usually benign to other, indigenous species because they specialize in unclaimed niches. There are places, however, where Ailanthus can be a destructive force. At forest fringes and clearings, or where new forests are being seeded, Ailanthus squeezes out slower-growing but essential native trees. One good case of this is Conference House Park on Staten Island. Volunteers are needed to yank young Ailanthus on Monday, from 1PM through 4PM. But be careful not to pluck similar-looking sumac, ash, black walnut, or pecan.

 

If you can help, RSVP by calling 718-390-8021 or emailing cheri.brunault@parks.nyc.gov as soon as possible.

 

And even as you’re thrashing the Ailanthus out of our city’s bucolic frontier in southern Staten Island, keep some gratitude in your heart for the shade it provides us when it seeds into the toughest hardscapes of the urban core.

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by Erik Baard

 

 

One of the stupider “sports” people have come up with is pigeon shooting, where the birds are released from boxes into the line of yahoos’ ready fire. In a 1902 debate over a bill banning the sport from New York, a state senator compared that lack of humanity and sportsman-like behavior to shutting a doe up in a barn and then blasting her as she ran out the open door.

 

As nearby as Pennsylvania the practice persists, and New York City birds are being stolen to supply the madness. Fortunately, In Defense of Animals is part of the vanguard to stop it. This week the group conferred its first $2,500 award for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a person netting pigeons, also known as rock doves, in NYC. The recipient was Desi Stewart, a street sweeper with the Doe Fund. He spotted Brooklyn resident Isaac Gonzalez spreading seed and netting many pigeons on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation officer arrested Gonzalez, who pleaded guilty in Manhattan Criminal Court on June 26, 2008.

 

It’s a shame Gonzalez didn’t go to prison, if only because we’ll miss the small ironic pleasure of letting him know of his idiocy in trapping for deathly amusement birds whose intelligence might have made them useful allies in alleviating the sufferings of confinement. Kindred criminal spirits in Brazil, at least, were smart enough to attempt to employ the birds as jailhouse smugglers, complete with little pigeon backpacks!

 

Pigeons have a growing fan base outside “the clink” (is my mother the only person who still uses that expression?) too. National Pigeon Day  was Friday the 13th in June, appropriately enough for such a besotted bird. In Defense of Animals, the United Federation of Teachers Humane Education Committee, the New York Bird Club, and luminaries ate pigeon-shaped cookies…and perhaps scandalously snuck a few crumbs to their avian honorees. The contributions of this species, including astonishing heroics in war, rescue, and acts of touching personal loyalty were recounted.  

 

City Councilman Tony Avella, who’s taken the lead on a number of animal rights issues, shared a moving observation. “They are often a city child’s first contact with nature and an elderly person’s only friends,” he said.

 

One might wonder why there isn’t a greater effort to control pigeon populations, for fear that they might crowd out other, indigenous species. To understand how little worry ecologists have in this regard, here’s a simple exercise: plant your own lush garden or grove of indigenous plants and trees and wait for the pigeons to show up. Or simply visualize the trees on your block being filled with pigeons. It simply won’t happen. The “rock dove” species feeds on the ground and prefers barren areas much like its ancestral cliff sides in Asia Minor. In other words, buildings and asphalt. Not that city life is kind to pigeons. In the wild they live about 14 years, but typically reach only two in urban areas. They do, however, breed a lot more.

 

If you’d like to get involved in the responsible care and control of pigeons in the city, try volunteering for Pigeon Watch. And remember, if you witness a pigeon netting in the five boroughs of New York City, call New York State DEC Officer Joseph Pane at 718-482-4941. If you need help in rescuing a pigeon of any age or condition, please visit New York City Pigeon Rescue Central. For the simple enjoyment of learning more about this species, one great place to start is Andrew Blechman’s book, Pigeons, which he calls “the world’s most revered and reviled bird.”

 

All this brings to mind that we’re at a sad centennial: it was in 1908 that zookeepers posted a $1000 reward (more than $23,000 in today’s dollars) for fertile, wild passenger pigeons. That awakening to the crisis was too late and the reward was never collected. Over-hunting and habitat destruction wiped out that species, which once filled North American skies in flocks of billions. Martha, the last of her kind, died in captivity in 1914. I’ll write more about this missing species of pigeons in coming weeks.

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Garter snake mating ball. University of Oregon.

 

 

 

by Erik Baard

 

 

Cross-dressers are more often straight than gay, but there’s something irresistibly amusing about the fact that our language paired the words “garter” and “snake” for a species later discovered to be promiscuously homosexual in drag.

 

Well, at least chemically in drag. Male garter snakes (which live in all five boroughs in a variety of niches, ranging from dusty lots and wet drainage ditches to Last Chance Pond) awaken from hibernation in spring before the far-less-populous females in an attempt to secure best mating placement. Some males will then emit feminine pheromones and linger by the burrow entrance of a hibernating female. When males show interest, the imposter will lead them away and trick them into thinking their deed is done. The imposter will then cease emitting feminine pheromones and hurry back to the burrow to have his chance with the actual female.

 

Of course, with many more males than females, the process remains a bit messy. A happy couple will soon find themselves at the center of a huge “mating ball” (see the photo above, from the University of Oregon) of writhing males and a minority of females. Some researchers have even postulated that by tricking other males into thinking that they are female, an imposter might better survive the cold early spring, insulated at the center of such mating balls.

 

But homosexuality in “nature” is certainly not reducible to trickery. It’s varied and nuanced, and in higher mammals apparently most often centered on emotional bonding and pleasure. Yes, much as in humans. I do not doubt that many of our pre-human ancestors were homosexual and bisexual. Two years ago the University of Oslo’s Natural History Museum restarted the periodic dialogue on this topic with an photographic exhibit of 51 such species called, “Against Nature.”

 

For me, the two most fascinating questions are why did homosexuality evolve and how did a sexual behavior coalesce in humans into a sustained and resilient Gay subculture? After all, while other species display homosexual behavior, only humans are Gay.

 

 

Many media stories about the 1,500 species in which homosexuality has been observed leap right to the phrase “gay animals.” As we look back on the weekend’s Gay Pride festivities, I think it’s important to bear (no pun intended but hey, I’ll roll with any bad pun) in mind a distinction between shorthand sexual definitions and a richer cultural and personal identification.

 

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Pelagia noctiluca swimming near Spain. Jellyfish photo by Oceana/Suarez

 

by Erik Baard

 

The Long Island City Community Boathouse hosted a “brunch paddle” from Anable Cove in Hunters Point down to “Dumbo Cove” in Brooklyn Bridge Park. On the way, one participant was surprised, and then reassuringly centered, by a simple encounter:

 

“Nature sightings started before we even left off when Dan saw a jellyfish bobbling around. There are jellyfish in the East River? Sure, that makes sense,” wrote Wren Longno.

 

As a tidal strait completing the circle of Long Island from the harbor to the Sound, the life of the East River (or as I prefer to call it, the Gotham Strait) is entirely oceanic. It’s easy to forget, however, with highrises, highways, skyscrapers, parking lots, airports, and sitting parks bounding the entire length of the waterway. The gulls, seaweed, salt air, and the humble jellyfish remind us of the salient fact of our location. We are ocean islanders.

 

But recent research has added a new dimension to our relationship with the jellyfish: their recent population boom might herald worldwide decline of marine ecology.

 

“When you knock out species, other species fill in the gap, sometimes from lower down the food chain. The problem with that in this case is that jellyfish are not exactly pleasant, they don’t have much commercial value, and they’re a pain in the neck for many communities,” said Dianne Saenz, North American communications director for Oceana, a global ecology advocate. Oceana provided the above photo, by Carlos Suarez, of the jellyfish now plaguing Spain.

 

We’ve over-fished sharks, turtles, and tuna, among other creatures further up the food chain. Jellyfish are reproducing without checks and have less competition for the feeding on fellow zooplankton. Once their biomass tips the scales in a region, even restocking fish won’t work because it’s hard to shoehorn species into vast seas of jellyfish. Indeed, some of the invertebrates eat the very fish (especially juveniles) we’d seek to reintroduce.

 

Waves of jellyfish are chasing swimmers back to shore in the Mediterranean. The Gulf of Mexico has been a pool of jellyfish in some recent summers. In Northern Ireland, global climate change is being eyed as possibly contributing to a jellyfish invasion that wiped out stocks of penned organic salmon. Chinese and Japanese fishers are trying to contend with jellyfish crowding out the fish that provide their livelihoods. We can’t even accurately measure how had the problem is, or how fast it’s advancing, because jellyfish don’t show up on radar, sonar, or satellite images very well. After all, they typically are composed of up to 98% water, less than one percent collagen, salt and other trace minerals.

 

One thing biologists often slap lay people for is referring to some creatures as “primitive.” I understand their argument; adaptation is measured in genetic success – longevity and progeny, not brains or beauty. Some, including the great Stephen Jay Gould, go as far as to say that bacteria rule the Earth, not our self-involved primate species. This pushes the argument too far; the facts are left wanting for a poetic thread. I believe in the inherent value of complex order within individuals as well as ecosystems. Whether your sentiments are those of an artist or an engineer, nature teaches an appreciation of refinement.

 

Yes, many species of jellyfish have a ghostly beauty, and they have a fascinatingly simple, elegant structure. They are most prominently a bell and tentacles (in most species). There’s no brain or central nervous system but they can see changes in light and shade with a 360-degree scope and can smell and touch. They thrive without specialized digestive, respiratory, or circulatory systems. Some glow with sublime bioluminescent displays. But I don’t want them crowding out the dizzying array of species who have developed in the 650 millions of years since its Cnidaria or Coelenterata phylum appeared on the scene.

 

 

Jellyfish cookies

 

 

One solution, offered by the Japanese on the island of Fukui, is to eat them in cookies. But, as Florida State University food scientist Yun-Hwa “Peggy” Hsieh cautioned me, jellyfish don’t provide a complete nutritional protein. Once dried, what remains is nearly pure Type 2 collagen, she said.

 

According to Hsieh, Florida has the first large U.S. jellyfish export industry, mostly to Asia, but species in that region are smaller than in northern Asia. That means they have a higher waste proportion, and so they require more labor. In short, the real economic benefit is to tourism, by keeping beaches desirable, not the fish processor.

 

Cosmetics companies frequently send queries to Hsieh, seeking advice on turning jellyfish into Angelina Jolie pouts and other Cosmo Girl miracles. Hsieh politely takes their calls but the real goldmine, she believes, is in using their Type 2 collagen as a therapy for rheumatoid arthritis.

 

“Chicken collagen has been tested, but it seems that a more homogenous might be more effective. We may be creative and really original with this work, but I don’t have the research funding for that right now,” said Hsieh, who has grants to pursue other questions. “If I had a sponsor, I could easily produce more interesting data. I would like to do a clinical study on rheumatoid arthritis because the animal studies were very good.”

 

One can imagine a government program to seed industrial interest in using jellyfish for adhesives or biomechanics and implants, or a George Washington Carver of jellyfish promoting many uses for the species.

 

Regardless of the uses we find for jellyfish, one thing is for certain: we’re exhausting the seas for animal protein as terribly as we are the land. Lab-grown meat might a biotech savior at some point, but the ready solution is veganism.

 

As a media center with a boisterous vegan community, New York City is well positioned to help lead that culture change. In terms of wildlife protection, habitat preservation, and energy conservation (and resulting pollution and carbon emissions), glamorizing veganism might prove more critical to the world at large than our city’s leadership in mass transit, “green” building, and the humane density made possible by tree planting.

 

If you’d like to get active as a volunteer promoting ocean ecology, veganism, or natural sciences, contact the Mayor’s Volunteer Center for help finding a great organizational partner.

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Summer daylight and heat cycle by USA Today

 

 

by Erik Baard

 

A kid waiting to kayak at the Clearwater Festival last Solstice weekend asked me, “If this is the longest day of the year, then why isn’t it the hottest?” It’s a logical question, and I guess a common one. The incomparable Joe Rao addressed it in his New York Times astronomy blurb last week, and USA Today explored the question as well. The graphic above comes from USA Today.

 

In short, if Earth lacked an atmosphere, then surface temperature, apart from heat retained by rocks, would correlate with sun exposure. But our relatively stable atmosphere slowly and steadily receives energy from sunlight over the course of the spring and summer, as days lengthen. That energy, which we feel as heat, builds higher and higher until reaching its peak in July and early August.

 

I suppose an economist might call day length a leading indicator of summer, whereas as temperature is a lagging indicator. Swimmers and boaters (who are perpetually potential swimmers) know that this phenomenon of delay is even more pronounced with water temperatures.

 

Of course both air and water move around, so there’s a good bit of chaos and complexity to the fluid dynamics that make for summer weather and those late night skinny dips in open water that feel as warm as a bathtub. But the principle of heat retention is a far more powerful truth than its exceptions.

 

I’m also reminded of my good friend, David Grinspoon (with whom, for the record, I’ve never skinny-dipped), who joined us with comments about the Orion Nebula for the very first essay on Nature Calendar. He’s an astrobiologist (with an Earthly incarnation as a rhythm guitarist) with prestigious Mars and Venus robotic probe science assignments from both NASA and the European Space Agency, and serves as the curator of astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature. He’s devoted much of his career to the planet Venus. He notes that if there was intelligent groundling life on Venus, it won’t see dominant temperature zones as we see them, corresponding to latitude, but instead look skyward to temperate altitudes. This is because Venus has an atmosphere that’s so dense, and therefore conductive, that heat overloads long ago seeped across all geographic areas. The surface is now isothermic, meaning that temperatures at the poles and the equator are the same. It’s gotten so hot there, due to a greenhouse effect gone into overdrive, that David postulates Venusian life would prefer a cloud habitat

 

Of course, our cities perversely punish themselves, with air conditioners dumping extra heat into the dense local ecosystem through their exhaust, building electrical wires, regional transmission lines, and the power plants required to power them. Makes you wonder if there’s intelligent life on Earth.

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