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The first step toward fixing a problem like global climate chaos resulting from CO2 buildup is to identify and quantize it. The Count Down Your Carbon website helps you achieve measurable results through simple actions.

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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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Redback salamander by Sarah Goodyear

 

by Erik Baard

 

Global warming is forcing the upward migration of reptiles and amphibians to cooler altitudes, according to an American Museum of Natural History researcher. While much has rightfully been made of the world’s visibly melting alpine glaciers, a desperate and quiet migration has been occurring, with creatures scaling slopes to escape the heat at the bottom of the mountains.

 

The alarm is sounded from Madagascar, where the AMNH Associate Curator of Herpetology Christopher Raxworthy has been studying habitats in the mountainous north. The shift uphill, by as much as 167 feet, was observed across the spectrum of amphibian and reptile species over a decade as temperatures rose slightly. By this century’s end there will be no escape and at least three species in that region will be doomed, he asserted in the journal Global Change Biology.

 

What does this have to do with New York City? Well, our own amphibian population is low and confined to small hills where chances for refuge are even more meager. That’s true not only for local rarities like the spotted salamander, but even for frogs and common species like the red back salamander (sitting in my palm in the photo by Sarah Goodyear above). As New York City Department of Parks and Recreation ecologist Ellen Pehek noted in our April 24 entry on Dusky Salamanders, these species prefer cool and damp areas.

 

On an outing to the Marshlands Conservancy in Westchester County with WildMetro (please consider joining this important conservation and education group as a member, volunteer, or trip participant), I learned that wetlands grass species have already begun creeping inland and upland by yards, yanking along with them the ecosystems they support. Global warming is a local threat. It’s quiet, but the losses have begun.

 

 

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Northern Dusky salamander in leaf litter. Photo by Sarah Goodyear.

Editor’s note: We are thrilled that National Public Radio featured Nature Calendar’s quest for the Manhattan population of Northern Dusky salamanders (well camouflaged in leaf litter above) as part of its Earth Day coverage. Check out the online story produced by NPR’s hot new show The Bryant Park Project:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89830807

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by Erik Baard

Amphibians serve as a bellwether for ecosystems ranging from tropical rainforests to temperate woodlands, and the news is rarely good. The Global Amphibian Assessment of 2004 found that we may have lost 120 species since the 1980s. Another 32% of remaining species are threatened with extinction, and 43% are suffering population declines. That’s an environmental body blow when you consider that salamanders alone are the largest contributor to vertebrate biomass in many North American forests. Part of this crisis seems traceable to global causes like climate change and ozone depletion. More often the problems are tied to local pollutants and habitat fragmentation.

Yet we bring you a quietly happy story of survival in, of all places, Manhattan.

Back in 1944, a 21-year old German immigrant naturalist named Carl Gans noted the presence of dusky salamanders living on a muddy slope in northern Manhattan. They prefer areas with limestone and need copious water, but only if it’s very slow flowing and not laden with silt. Weed-choked streams and bogs are good habitats. Seepages, that is gradually inclining hillsides where water saturates a broad swath of soft earth, are also places where a dusky salamander seeker might find quarry under rotting logs, leaf litter, and some loose stones. This common species is often known as the “pit bull of salamanders” for its stocky body and large jaw. Like many salamanders, they lack lungs and so breathe through their moist, delicate and permeable skin when they outgrow their newborn gills.

The duskies were probably a fun find for Gans, but he quickly moved on to adventures with sharks and exotic reptiles in a stellar, globetrotting career researching biomechanics and evolution. New York City had big ideas too. Over the next six tumultuous decades we built highways and iconic skyscrapers, birthed punk rock and hiphop, and rode waves of crime and condos with equal gusto.

Rough stuff for salamanders. Nearby pavement can accelerate water flow and sweep away salamanders, their young, and the small insects and worms they eat. Pesticides and herbicides cause mutations, behavioral aberrations, or outright kill them. Hydrocarbons and salts running off roads poison them. Clear cutting trees and shrubs denies them the protective shade they require. Urbanization finds a thousand ways to do them in. Even the gentler suburb of Westchester County saw its dusky salamanders nearly vanish in the latter twentieth century. The Manhattan area of the salamanders’ habitat became known for prostitution and illegal dumping, including many stripped cars (since cleared).

Despite the odds, Ellen Pehek, senior ecologist with the Natural Resources Group of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, led a little expedition alongside the Harlem River Drive to revisit the site. Astonishingly, the salamanders were still there.

“That was quite a find. I think people assumed they were gone, but they just hadn’t gone back to check on them,” Pehek said. “The lesson here is that we can protect them without giving up recreational activities. We can plan around these habitats to avoid certain places and all coexist. If they can live in Manhattan, we know we can coexist.”

Pehek was kind enough to share the location of this rare habitat with me – not that it was easy to find, even with directions. “Landmarks” included puddles and hillsides that looked alike to someone out for a casual stroll. To protect this special place, Pehek asked that I not reveal it here. But she encourages readers to visit the duskies in the Staten Island Greenbelt (check out the June 1 “Amphibian Adventures” program!), where they are plentiful.

I invited my old friend, Laura Conaway, and her wife, Sarah Goodyear (whose photos you’re enjoying – click to enlarge), on a salamander safari. Also joining were Laura and Sarah’s son, Nate, and Laura’s brother, Brian. Both Laura and Sarah are writers, and I got to know Laura when she edited a number of my Village Voice stories. She’s now a web editor with The Bryant Park Project at National Public Radio.

After a few wrong turns on my bike and direction checks by cell phone with the very-patient Pehek, we met up and walked the edge of a wood, never leaving the sounds of traffic and Latin music far behind. A small pack of sad-faced stray dogs slowly wound their way single-file up through hillside outcroppings in single file while Northern Flicker woodpeckers busy on fallen logs below. Baseballs were oddly placed in the crotches of locust, dogwood, and oak branches. Glass was ubiquitous. Some boulders were cracked and slivered; tell-tale bullet shell casings lay beneath them.

We turned over logs as we went. Millipedes here, pillbugs (aka rolly pollies) there, but no salamanders. I was starting to feel foolish. Laura continued to record, I continued to stall.

Finally, Brian exclaimed, “Found one!” From that point on, we found duskies and more common redback salamanders under every log in a small area. No wonder Pehek was so cautious about protecting the duskies’ coordinates: on the entire island of Manhattan, this species’ habitat can be measured in yards.

The salamanders were still when held, but quite fleet of foot on the ground. They have very muscular hind legs, which are a distinguishing characteristic second in prominence only to their muddy, dark gray-brown camouflage pigmentation. They are known to be excellent leapers. Subtler differences include a pale line from the eye to the corner of the mouth and an immobile jaw – they lift their heads to open their mouths.

The duskies felt cool in my palm (they don’t grow larger than five inches) for the few seconds I held them before I returning them to the wet ground, lest their skin dry.

Not so camouflaged now. Photo by Sarah Goodyear

“Most salamanders like the cold. You think of cold-blooded creatures liking warmth, but they can’t handle the heat. They sort of almost pass out from your skin warmth. They’re not something you want to handle for long,” Pehek cautioned. “They need to recover in moist leaf litter or a cold stream.”

In a few weeks they’ll begin courtship, an involved affair that includes head stroking, “butterfly” forelimb movements, and tail straddling. Then the grape-like egg clusters will develop in the mud during the height of summer. By the season’s end, yellow-spotted, gilled juveniles will be scurrying about. As they mature, the spots fade and the gills are subsumed. Salamanders don’t travel far in their several years of life, hugging the same muddy spring or stream bank.

That doesn’t mean they’re equally easy to find year-round. “They like a somewhat steady temperature, so when it’s too cold they’ll burrow down and do their thing there” in the warm earth, Pehek said. “In the middle of summer, when it gets too dry, they’ll also go under ground.”

A good strategy to catch them in action, Pehek advised, is to go to their haunts after sunset with a headlamp or flashlight. “At night they’ll climb around flowering plants and shrubs looking for invertebrates to eat.”

But don’t interrupt their feeding for too long – it’s important work. “They eat the insects that break down the leaf litter, so salamanders are slowing that decay. There’s carbon sequestered in those leaves, so in a way you could say salamanders are slowing down global warming,” Pehek said.

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