Roadside attraction

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, wildlife habitat

Roads are both a blessing and a curse for wildlife (Photo: Colleen Greene, Creative Commons license)

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Ever dreamed of going on a safari? Then fasten your seat belt, start the engine, and hit the road. Any road. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts—take the time to look and you’ll spy enough wildlife to satisfy, Bwana.

Sure, some of the creatures will be easier to spot than others… for the simple reason they’re no longer moving.  But I’m not proposing a road-kill road-trip. Trust me, the city streets, shady neighborhood boulevards, highways and byways offer plenty of opportunities for wildlife watching. Naturally, the species on display depend on the size of the road, its location, the season, time of day, and the speed limit.

wildlife and roads, vultures, wildlife watchingLet’s say your motoring down a divided highway, a conduit to and through the all-American suburbs. The big stuff (aka megafauna), such as deer, elk, moose, bears, and even coyotes, can be seen at 65+ mph (although not always in time to either admire or avoid them). Certain birds of prey, red-tailed hawks in particular, can be seen at both speed and distance due to their habit of hanging out high on handy utility poles to scout for snacks. Anything more petite will be visible only if it’s on the shoulder or trying to cross the road. Scavengers looking for a free lunch can be seen out on the open road day (crows, ravens, vultures) and night (opossums, coyotes). That meal ticket can quickly turn the diner into dinner for someone else… and so on.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, groundhogBeyond mowed blacktop borders, in the woods and taller grasses, you’ll find rabbits, foxes, raccoons, skunks, and groundhogs. Based on my own non-scientific observation, to improve your chances of seeing these meso– (medium-sized) species as well as small but brightly colored male songbirds in situ you’ll have to ease up on the gas pedal and let the speedometer drop to 35-45 mph, tops.

A bicycle (or even a horse if you have access to one) would probably set the right pace for a rider to notice mice and voles, lizards, turtles, frogs and toads, as well as female songbirds (who tend to have less flashy wardrobes than their ready-for-the-disco menfolk). The truly diminutive critters—insects, spiders, snails and slugs—are hard to spot at more than arm’s length so it’s best to set off on foot and plan for a leisurely pace if spineless quarry is your goal.  A general rule: the slower you go, the more you’ll see—that’s what makes the backroads more appealing for this kind of trip than a superhighway.

In poetry, novels, song, and cinema people often speak of the allure and romance of roads—the ones that calls us, the ones less traveled, the ones that go on forever, choosing between high ones and low ones. Wild animals rarely have access to books and mp3 players and RedBox kiosks, though, and I’ve never found them to be all that interested in popular culture… so what’s the attraction?

To build a road through a previously undeveloped area, the first thing that happens is clearing a swath of the existing plant community, be that trees and shrubs or grasses or cacti. Once the project is completed (or even while it’s still in progress) new plants begin to colonize the bare soil, creating a plant community that’s different from the surrounding landscape along with an edge where new and old meet.  Disturbing the soil stimulates the germination of seeds that may have sat dormant for a long time waiting for the right conditions. Soil may be brought in from somewhere else as part of the construction process along with seeds from plants that are completely novel in this setting.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, wildlife habitatSince the plants predict what kind of animals will be found in any ecosystem, the new habitat creates opportunities certain wildlife species will exploit… but in most cases it won’t be the species that were living happily in the pre-construction habitat. Edge species will colonize the area, often using the right-of-way as a travel corridor before and after the road is completed. Some organisms will hitchhike to their new home on and in the bodies of larger animals or even motor vehicles. Birds, bats, and flying insects will drop in from above. Wild things are always jockeying for space and there’s no such thing as a vacant lot in nature—at least, not for long.

wildlife and roads, wildlife watching, pronghornMake no mistake—roads are a significant cause of habitat loss and their presence is detrimental to many types of wildlife. For others, though, the resulting edge provides exactly what they need to thrive. This includes our most familiar next-door nature species. In fact, the reason blue jays, robins, white-tailed deer and other edge-loving species are so common in human communities is because Homo sapiens is also an edge-loving species. Our roads are simply one very conspicuous example of that fact.

The natural world is never static; it’s always in flux and each day there are new winners and losers.  Are roads good or bad for wildlife? It depends on the species. But there’s no doubt they are a boon for wildlife watchers.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work. Just ask first.). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Colleen Greene (black bear); e_monk (black vulture); Matt Reinbold (groundhog); MoDOT Photos (edge habitat); Allan Harris (pronghorn).

No particular place to go

snail

Snails are gastropods--a word that translates as "stomach-foot" (Photo: Sally Crossthwaite, Creative Commons license)

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Stepping onto the sidewalk for a pre-breakfast stroll with Dash, my terrier, I saw a shimmering calligraphy on the concrete up ahead. Now, I live in a large apartment community in a college town so I’ve learned that it’s important to watch where you step on Monday mornings, but this didn’t look like party residue. Since it resembled writing, I thought for a moment it might be chalk—a message decipherable only by Greeks (the collegiate variety)—but that wouldn’t explain the silvery quality of the text.

Finally, I drew close enough to solve the mystery. It wasn’t writing at all. The weather had finally turned warm enough—temporarily, at least—for the local gastropod to take a stroll along a slime trail.

Can you stroll when you have no legs and only one foot?

Stroll, stride, saunter… call it what you will. Snails get from point A to point B by gliding along a secreted track of mucus that hardens into a kind of Slip ‘n Slide® when exposed to air. The animals ride waves created by a band of muscles in the foot that travel from the tail to the head, surfing along the slime, over the roadway, through the woods, and up the walls of grandmother’s house.

snail trail

Snails secrete a mucus trail that serves as a kind of slo-mo Slip 'n Slide® (Photo: Krstnn Hrmnsn, Creative Commons license)

Progress appears painfully slow to bipeds and quadrupeds, but the meandering trails suggest snail excursions are all about the journey, not the destination. You have to admit, they never rush—unlike many of their harried human neighbors.

Of course, it’s a smaller world for some. An average speed of 0.03 mph must be fast enough for a garden snail to get where s/he needs to go (snails are hermaphroditic, meaning they have both male and female sex organs, so s/he is particularly apt here).

Before you dismiss the lowly snail as too pedestrian to warrant admiration, you should know that the National Science Foundation supported a research collaboration between the University of California at San Diego (USA) and Stanford University (USA) to better understand the locomotion of snails and slugs, their shell-less cousins. The goal was to create robots that mimic snails, propelling themselves up and down walls, along ceilings, and across other challenging surfaces.

An examination of the mucus trail has proven fascinating as well. When common periwinkle snails are traveling along a vertical surface, the secretions have more adhesive qualities than when the animal is moving along a horizontal surface; the chemical structure of the mucus changes depending on the demands of the route.

But wait—there’s more! A study by researchers at the University of Sunderland (UK) found that snails conserve energy by reusing slime trails. They will retrace their step to return to a previous resting site—a much safer strategy than hoping to stumble on an appropriate new location in time to avoid the dehydrating rays of the sun. Snails will also follow the trails of their cohorts to find dinner and a date. Essentially, they’re playing follow-the-leader.

From where I sit, it looks as though a snail’s life is all fun and games… and what wouldn’t I give to see a group of gastropods do the Hokey-Pokey?

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author.