Friday, October 26, 2012

The Wisdom of Alfred Wallace

Alfred Wallace (1823-1913) was a man of many talents. The Englishman was a naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist, and field biologist of great renown. While he discovered and documented many species previously unknown to science, he is probably best known for his ideas on evolution and natural selection. Wallace is one of the scientists with whom Charles Darwin corresponded and whose observations he cited when he published On the Origin of Species, which outlined his own theories on evolution, and The Descent of Man, in which he applies evolutionary theory to human evolution and sexual selection.

As an early proponent of evolution and natural selection, Wallace faced much resistance and criticism from the more conservative corners of society and religious institutions. Whether you believe in evolution or not is not the point right now. What is relevant is that Alfred Wallace knew what it was like to present something new and different to a scientific establishment and public that were dogmatic in their beliefs and strongly resistant to new ideas and theories.

Wallace said, "Truth is born into this world only with pangs and tribulations and every fresh truth is received unwillingly. To expect the world to receive a new truth, or even an old truth, without challenging it, is to look for one of those miracles which do not occur."

This is a quote that I keep in mind when I argue for the existence of a large, unknown primate on the North American continent. There is enough evidence out there to support the theory that the North American wood ape, or sasquatch, does likely exist.

Maybe one day, mainstream science will be open-minded enough to take the good hard look that the evidence warrants. If that were to occur, I think this whole mystery could be solved in fairly short order.

Hopefully, the idea of mainstream science considering the possibility that the sasquatch exists is not just, “one of those miracles which do not occur.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Critical Habitat Set Aside in Texas for Endangered Subterranean Insects and Amphipods

First it was spiders, now it is beetles and amphipods. It seems some of the smallest "Texans" are finally getting their due.

Last week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed setting aside 169 acres in the Texas Hill Country in an effort to protect the habitat of the Comal Springs riffle beetle (Heterelmis comalensis), Comal Springs dryopid beetle (Stygoparnus comalensis), and Peck’s Cave amphipod (Stygobromus pecki). The area, which includes parts of Comal and Hays Counties, has been identified as “critical habitat” for the species in question. As far as anyone knows, these three freshwater species exist only in four springs, which are all found in this part of the Hill Country.

Tierra Curry, of the Center for Biological Diversity stated, “These unique Texas creatures need protection of both their surface water and the underground recharge area and I’m so pleased they are getting the protected critical habitat they need to survive.”

This is a move that has been a long time coming. The Center for Biological Diversity along with several citizen conservation groups filed suit against the Fish and Wildlife Service in an effort to force them to designate critical habitat for these species once they were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1997. While some critical habitat was designated in 2007, these groups deemed it insufficient as the protection only extended to surface water and did not include any of the underground recharge areas of the Edward’s Aquifer, which are also vital to the survival of these species. Another suit was filed which led to this proposal.

The new critical habitat areas overlap and include 39 acres of surface habitat and 139 acres of subterranean habitat for the Comal Springs dryopid beetle. Also included are 38 surface acres and 138 subterranean acres for the Peck’s Cave amphipod. Finally, 54 surface acres are included for the Comal Springs riffle beetle.

All three of these species are in imminent danger of disappearing. The Peck’s Cave amphipod is dependent on a clean and steady flow of water. While recent droughts in Texas have been hard on this species it has shown more resiliency than initially expected in the dry conditions the last few years. Even so, as the water level in the Edward’s Aquifer dwindles, so do the number of Peck’s Cave amphipods.

The Comal Springs riffle beetle is an aquatic insect with some pretty amazing abilities. For example, on its underside, it has a large mass of small and unwettable hairs. The species can use the hairs to form an air bubble which it uses to breathe underwater. This beetle, too, needs clean, flowing water that has a high content of dissolved oxygen to survive.

The Comal Springs dryopid beetle is a blind aquatic insect that, surprisingly, cannot swim at all. It lives in air-filled underground caves and cavities near flowing water.

Most Texans likely have never laid eyes on any of these species. Most have probably never heard of them either; however, it is small species like these that often give us much insight into the health of a particular ecosystem. They are a barometer of sorts, if you will. If we can save these small creatures we may end up saving larger, more familiar, species as well.

Besides that, it is simply the right thing to do.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Endangered Spider Halts Highway Project in San Antonio

What some are calling the eight-legged discovery of the millennium occurred last month in NW San Antonio. An endangered species of spider, not seen in more than three decades, was found in a natural hole in, of all places, a highway median.

A biologist discovered the presence of a Braken Bat Cave meshweaver (Cicurina venii) after a heavy rain exposed a six-foot deep hole in the median area near the intersection of Texas State Hwy 151 and Loop 1604 where the Texas Department of Transportation is building an underpass. Biologists from a company called Zara Environmental have been working side by side with TxDOT construction workers on the project since April as the area where the project is located is known for its abundant wildlife that includes songbirds and rare cave animals. After the eyeless spider, no larger than a dime, was positively identified the project was halted. Just how long the $15.1 million project will remain on hold is anyone’s guess but it doesn’t look like it will restart anytime soon.

The Braken Bat Cave meshweaver was added to the federal government’s endangered species list in 2000 along with eight other “karst invertebrates” that, as far as anyone knows, are found only in Bexar County, Texas. The specimen was collected in a bottle and dissected; a step necessary to ensure proper identification. The collection and dissection of endangered species is allowed for the purpose of identification if done by someone with a federal permit. Zara Environmental biologists meet that criteria. While some, no doubt, will be angered by this development, it was necessary. It seems that this species is identical in appearance to another spider that lives in the region. The differences are all internal and there was simply no other way to know for sure if this was indeed the endangered Braken Bat Cave meshweaver. Now that taxonomists have confirmed that this specimen was the endangered spider, steps will be taken to protect the habitat and the species in the area. Losing even a single endangered creature, like this arachnid, is unfortunate but the sacrifice of this one specimen could mean survival for its species.

Make no mistake, this discovery is a very big deal. Zara Environmental’s president, Jean Krejca, said it was akin to “stumbling on a new Galapagos Island in terms of the biological significance of the region.” Stirling J. Robertson, the team leader for TxDOT’s environmental affairs division, said, “From a conservation standpoint this is an amazing coup.”

The Braken Bat Cave meshweaver was first identified by George Veni, a hydrogeologist, back in 1980 in NW Bexar County only about five miles from the current construction site. The cave where Veni found the rare arachnid was later filled in and a residential development was built on top of it. The species was not seen again until last month. The species is literally back from the dead.

There are likely to be some legal fireworks to come. The underpass project was meant to ease traffic congestion on this stretch of highway that sees about 80,000 vehicles per day. Bypassing the area may not be an option. The entire area is riddled with small cave-like holes that could be spider habitat. What happens next is anyone’s guess but it is likely a judge, and not a biologist, will make the final call.

It is a decision that could decide the final fate of the Braken Bat Cave meshweaver.


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sasquatch Sighting Reported in Panola County, TX

Hit the link here to read a brief story out of Panola County, TX detailing a reported wood ape sighting.

Make sure and check the links at the end of the story which lead directly to TBRC investigation reports from the same area.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Endangered Jaguars Granted Critical Habitat in the American Southwest

The news sure can be depressing. For the most part, all you hear about are the ills of the world. War, terrorism, droughts, and famine rule the 6:00 p.m. time slot. Every now and then, however, you actually hear something encouraging. This would be one of those times. After years of legal wrangling, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finally granted jaguars protected territory within the borders of the United States. To say this has been a long time coming would be an understatement.

Jaguars (Panthera onca) once roamed freely about much of the American South and Southwest. The largest cats in the Western Hemisphere, and third biggest in the world behind only tigers and lions, jaguars inhabited parts of Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Texas. The cats sometimes wandered even farther north and east as there were documented sightings of jaguars in Colorado and North Carolina in the late 1800’s.

As the population boomed and Manifest Destiny took a firm hold on the collective American mind, more and more humans began invading jaguar territory. Farmers began cultivating the land for agriculture, which rendered it useless as jaguar habitat. Ranchers, hostile to the jaguar due to potential predation of their livestock, would shoot the big cats on site. The growth of urban centers and the development that followed swallowed even more habitat. It wasn’t long before jaguars became scarce and rarely seen. In fact, they all but disappeared north of the Rio Grande. They became little more than ghostly memories in the United States as the surviving cats were limited to Central and South America and Mexico.

Somehow, some way, that began to change in the 1980’s. Jaguars began to be reported north of the border in Arizona. Many of these reports were not taken seriously by wildlife officials at the time; however, and nothing was done about them. Then, in 1996, a southern Arizona hunter photographed a jaguar near the border. This prompted jaguar advocates to jump into action and soon groups began petitioning the government for official protection for the species and its habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service resisted, however. The FWS came to the conclusion that jaguars didn’t need special protection in the U.S. to survive. One of the strongest jaguar advocate groups, the Center of Biological Diversity, filed suit to fight this ruling in 2007. The predictable legal wrangling ensued with neither side budging or gaining ground until 2009 when something remarkable took place.

On February 18, 2009 a male jaguar was captured inadvertently in a trap set by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. The trap was intended for black bear and/or mountain lions and was being used to survey the population of these two species south of Tucson. The jaguar was identified as Macho B, a cat that had been photographed via trail cam before. The jaguar was evaluated and, though very old at an estimated 15-16 years, given a clean bill of health. The big cat was fitted with a lightweight satellite tracking collar in the hopes that the data gained would reveal more about jaguar habits in Arizona. This was not to be, however, as the data soon revealed Macho B was anything but healthy. Tracking information revealed a continuously diminishing range. The decision was made to recapture Macho B and try to determine what was wrong. To make a long story a bit shorter, the jaguar was recaptured, found to have terminal kidney failure, and euthanized.

The death of this jaguar was quite controversial. Euthenasia always is, I suppose. Many thought Macho B should have been released to live out his few remaining days in the wild while others felt putting him down was doing the cat a favor by ending his suffering. Regardless, the death of this jaguar was a disappointment to all. It did serve, however, as a rallying point for conservationists who picked up the pace in their efforts to gain protection for the jaguar, and its habitat, in Arizona.

The fight was far from over though. Jaguar advocates argued that jaguars belonged in the American Southwest as they were part of the region’s historical fauna and would have inherent value to the ecosystem. Others added that the government actually owed the jaguar critical habitat as the original extirpation of the big cats in the region came mainly at the hands of the feds via a predator extermination program that ran from 1918-1964. In addition, it was argued, the government initially failed to list jaguars under the Endangered Species Act, an oversight that took the federal government more than 25 years to correct. Other prominent conservationists disagreed and claimed it would be a monumental waste of time, money, and resources to focus on jaguar recovery in the American Southwest as it was marginal habitat at best and was more than 200 kilometers away from the nearest breeding population in Mexico’s state of Sonora.

The arguments, for the moment, have come to an end with the government’s move to designate 1,309 square miles across southern Arizona and a small piece of southern New Mexico as prime habitat that is essential for the survival of the endangered jaguar. The designated land includes mountain ranges in rural Pima, Cochise, and Santa Cruz counties in Arizona and portions of Hidalgo County in New Mexico. These are areas that are known to have been occupied by jaguars, at least periodically, since 1962 and meet the government’s criteria of having rugged terrain, expansive open spaces, availability of surface water, an adequate prey base, minimal human presence, relatively easy access to northern Mexico, and be 3-40% covered by Madrean woodlands including oak, juniper, and pine or by semi-desert grasslands.

Whether the American Southwest can support a breeding population of jaguars remains to be seen. The one thing both sides of the jaguar argument agree on is that, for there to be any hope at all for the species to bounce back in the region, substantial conservation efforts will have to be extended into northern Mexico. Regardless, the jaguar now has a fighting chance.

I think that is cause to be hopeful.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Ancient Wisdom

"Nature is wont to hide herself."

- Heraclitus (540 BC - 480 BC)