Posts Tagged ‘endocrine’

Mallard struggling with plastic trash in Oakland Lake, Queens. Photo by Cathy St. Pierre.

Environmentalists are now aware of Earth’s oceanic gyres of garbage, most famously the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Locally, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection has warned us through subway ad campaigns that trash we toss on the street will wait for us at the beach. But for many people the ways in which plastics cause suffering and ecological damage (including wreaking havoc with hormones in many species) remain abstract.

Queens resident Cathy St. Pierre recently photographed this afflicted mallard in Oakland Lake. Being so encumbered endangers the bird, physically hurts it, interferes with mating and feeding, and leaves it more vulnerable to dangers by inhibiting escape. Cathy told the Bayside, NY Patch (unrelated to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) that she couldn’t get near enough to the shy bird to free it. One of the most energetic Queens blogs subsequently picked the story up, so perhaps there will be more sitings and, we hope, a possible rescue.

Animals who aren’t able to free themselves can often be killed or maimed by plastic trash.

If you find wildlife in trouble, please contact your local Wildlife Rehabilitator in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut.

If you’d like to help remove plastic trash from habitats with beach and trail cleanups, please volunteer with the American Littoral Society or the American Hiking Society.

Of course, the best approach is prevention. Use much less plastic, reuse or recycle what you must (or opt for biodegradable plastics when that’s not greenwashing), demand that your favorite manufacturers use less plastic, lobby elected officials and government agencies to restrict plastic use, and have the courage to confront litterbugs (or the charity to clean up after them).  It’s also vital that New York City and other municipalities upgrade sewer systems to handle storm runoffs (also kn0wn in New York City as “combined sewage overflows“) so that street litter, let alone untreated waste, isn’t washed into our waterways.

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Safran and a banr swallow. Photo by Kevin Stearns.



by Erik Baard


If you want to score with New Jersey babes, wear red. At least if you’re a barn swallow. And on second thought, I’d advise swallows to do two things: avoid dressing for a role they’re not able to fulfill, and watch Star Trek.


One rare trait in the animal kingdom is self-recognition in a mirror. You probably didn’t grasp that the reflected figure was yourself until you were about 18 months old. Other primates and species as diverse as elephants, dolphins, whales, and magpies also shared the insight, some without special training.


Individuals of most species therefore rely entirely on community feedback for their sense of status, or in squishier terminology, “self-esteem.” A Current Biology report on an experiment with barn swallows (which we reported in our May 27 posting were darting around Fresh Kills) provides an excellent demonstration of this fact. Dig deeper with the full press release and video.


A study of 63 male barn swallows, captured from six colonies in New Jersey at the start of breeding season. All had blood samples drawn, to measure hormonal levels. Half of them were gussied up with a $5.99 nontoxic red marker to make their breast plumage match the richest shade of the population. The birds were then released and recaptured a week later. The enhanced males showed a spike in their testosterone levels at a time in their annual cycle when they should be slacking off.


A few swipes with a magic marker set off a fascinating loop of physical and neurological interplay, reminding us that the psyche is very somatic and that the sense of self is fluidly social.


The deeper hues attracted and retained more females, who read it as a sign of robustness, and that attention pumped up the bird’s biochemistry in line with his sense of social standing.


Some reports, and the researchers themselves, chuckled that the study proves “the clothes make the man.” I hold strong reservations against that emphasis.


An increased capacity for dominance through higher testosterone levels is vital to perpetuating the pigmentation’s potential genetic windfall, because envious rivals will spar with a male who has more mating opportunities. In a sense, one can view the testosterone boost as the endocrine system’s frantic game of catch-up as the altered males try to grow into roles for which they aren’t equipped. 


One possible sign that the ink job was a mixed blessing at best, that there’s a steep cost to primacy, is that the enhanced males lost weight. Is that because they spent so much time getting busy with the females, or was the competition from males taking its toll? Predators can also target a brightly feathered barn swallow more easily, perhaps leading to a few stressful encounters and energetic evasions. In nature, showy displays like plumage and antlers are outgrowths of a stronger and capable organism – truth in advertising, as University of Colorado at Boulder biologist Rebecca Safran, the lead author of the study, noted.

I wonder if a longer-term study would reveal greater mortality rates for the posers than the authentic alpha males. Also, now this is stretching the study much further out, I can imagine that isolating members of the species and leveling the pigmentation playing field in the same manner would in time cause sexual selection for females with greater visual acuity, to detect the chromatic fakes, or the evolution of new male signals of prowess.


Even among the Wodaabe people, where young men wear elaborate makeup and outfits (pictured below) to parade before marriageable women, special emphasis is made on height, white teeth, and perfection in the whites of the men’s eyes (to the point where they roll their eyes back to show off the purity). In short, catch their attention with the flashiness, but close the deal by proving your health.






Of course, we could have all saved ourselves a lot of time by heeding the central wisdom of Star Trek: any situation is made worse by a red shirt.

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