Treehuggers

I’ve been called a treehugger more than once in my life, and while I know the comments weren’t intended as such, I always take them as compliments. As a sobriquet it’s both true and false: true, because I do spontaneously hug exceptionally handsome or venerable trees; and false, because compared to the practiced professionals who scamper up and down tree boles every waking hour of their lives, my embraces are too amateurish to qualify as authentic hugging.

Sure, as a kid I would climb trees and hang from the larger limbs by my knees. We had several sturdy silver maples in our yard and I loved spending time in these leafy hideouts. But there’s more to being a treehugger than practice. I simply don’t have the body to become world-class, or even marginally proficient. To compete with the Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) in my neighborhood, whose arboreal acrobatics would make a Cirque du Soleil gymnast green with envy, I would need a significantly different anatomy.

For example, I would need to lose enough weight (and height) to allow the friction created by the pressure of my paws gripping a small branch to overpower gravity’s bullying attempts to push me rudely onto the ground.

A better sense of balance would also be necessary if I were to have any success as a legitimate treehugger. I’m not saying I trip over myself on a daily basis but, as friends and family can attest, when I do fall it’s Charlie-Brown spectacular… and usually on my face.

Tree squirrels, in comparison, are masters at controlling their center of gravity. This can be attributed, at least in part, because they can hold on equally well with both hands and feet.  Here again I’m disadvantaged, and I place full blame on evolution, my DNA, and whichever hominid ancestors of mine, after climbing down from a tree on an African savannah, decided that standing upright and using feet almost exclusively for the precarious task of bipedal perambulation was a much better way to go than remaining quadrupedal.

My filed and brightly polished toenails would have to go, replaced by strong, sharp claws that could easily pierce porous bark or hook onto an uneven edge (completely impractical for someone who wears socks and sleeps under a blanket, though). Whereas humans, including me, need at least three points of attachment when climbing, this adaptation allows squirrels to secure their position with only two attachment points, and to grasp new surfaces at angles most animals would find impossible.

Most important of all, I would need feet that can pivot on a swivel joint, allowing my ankles to rotate backwards so I could hang from nearly vertical surfaces.

If I’d been born a flamboyantly fluffy-tailed rodent then maybe, just maybe, I could latch on to a wrinkle in the tree rind and hang by my toenails while enjoying a leisurely acorn snack. Alas, ’tis the fault in my stars to peer ever and enviously skyward, my feet with their simple-hinge ankles planted on the firmament at the base of the trunk, and looked down upon with curiosity and pity (I assume) from the higher-ups.

Life is better with a little Next-Door Nature—click the “subscribe”  link in the upper right-hand corner of this page and receive notifications of new posts!

.

[Thanks to the photographers made their work available through the Creative Commons license: Mr.TinDC, Artful Magpie, JoeInQueens, and Jed Sheehan.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Wingsuit

Southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans), © 2014 Peter Harrill, used with permission

Is there any non-human skill people covet more passionately than the ability to fly?

Understandably, early aviation experiments centered around mimicry of birds, complete with flapping arms that were usually covered in feathers. The Greek legend of Daedalus and Icarus is a familiar example, but plumage continued to be part of the trial-and-error approach through the first years of the 19th century, when a tailor named Albrecht Berblinger constructed an ornithopter and then took an ill-fated plunge into the Danube. Those daring young men with their dreams of flying machines… they just didn’t understand the concepts of thrust, lift, and drag, and they couldn’t let go of the idea that soaring requires feathers.

I guess Saturday mornings with Rocky and Bullwinkle were not a part of their childhood.

Skip ahead in the history books about two hundred years, during which heavier-than-air flight went from foolish fantasy to fleetingly airborne, to semi-reliably aloft, to acrobatic enough to decide the outcome of a World War, to commonplace as ~30,000 commercial flights per day in the U.S. in 2017.

And yet…

Aviation advancements and inventions during the greater part of the industrial age were about balloons and dirigibles and planes, i.e., aircraft; human beings remained firmly planted on terra firma unless they could climb inside or hang from some kind of apparatus.

It’s hard to point to a specific aeronautic adventurer as the first to see a flying squirrel, recognized the similarities with their fellow mammal, connected the dots, and think, “Eureka! A wingsuit!” But no one lucky enough to have seen one of these big-eyed nocturnal windsurfers could fail to notice the resemblance to the modern flying suits that have finally allowed human beings to fly free as a bird squirrel, unencumbered by gondola, scaffolding, or fuselage.

Of course, strictly speaking flying squirrels don’t really fly, and neither do the people wearing a wingsuit.

They glide.

The wingsuit mimics a flying squirrel’s patagium—loose folds of skin that span the space between forelimb wrist and hindlimb ankle on either side of the body. Spreading those limbs into a jumping jack X, the furry membranes stretch into a rectangular shape that allows the tiny BASE* jumpers to propel themselves into the air and then slide down the sky at a 30-40 degree angle controlled fall.

© 2008 Steve Collins, used with permission

A long, flat tail is critical for controlling that fall. Serving as a rudder, it allowing 90 degree turns around mid-flight obstacles. The tail is used for landing, too; on the approach, the tail is raised to an upright position while, at the same time, all four limbs move forward to form a kind of patagium parachute. Together, these actions create enough drag to tip the animal’s head and body up as it prepares for impact with a tree trunk or branches, a bird feeder, or a building.

Northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) © 2015 Jukka Jantunen, used with permission

The New World is home to three species of rodent flyboys and flygirls: Northern (Glaucomys sabrinus); the recently differentiated and designated Humboldt’s (G oregonensis); and Southern (G volans). There’s some range overlap between Northerns and Southerns, but the two species are relatively easy to distinguish. Northerns are larger, but the belly of the beasts provides a much more notable difference; the underside of a Southern flying squirrel is creamy white, while Northern flying squirrels are beige below with darker roots.

Humboldt’s flying squirrel

There’s range overlap between Northerns (found from Alaska to Nova Scotia down to Utah and North Carolina) and Humboldts’ (whose limit their travels from British Columbia down into southern California) as well. However, the two are close enough in physical appearance and behavior that it took an examination of their DNA before scientists realized earlier this year (May 2017) that they were looking at not one species, but two. Humboldts’ have been described as smaller and darker than Northerns, but the fact that it took so long for the former to be recognized as distinctive (Southerns were first described in 1758, Northerns in 1801) suggests to me that one would have to do a mighty up-close-and-personal examination to make a positive ID.

All three varieties of Glaucomys have one important feature in common: they’re more risk-averse than you might have assumed. Riding the wind wearing a wingsuit is a dangerous activity for humans — one severe injury for every 500 jumps, according to one study, despite advances in materials, design, and training — but it’s just another day in the life of a flying squirrel. That’s not to imply they never miscalculate a distance, or botch a landing, or are immune from injury (or worse), but they do have concerns beyond thrust, lift, and drag, or changes in wind speed and direction.

Which is why, immediately after sticking the landing, a flying squirrel will scurry quickly to their nest hole, or the other side of the tree, or at least toward a deeper shadow. BASE jumpers and skydivers rarely have worry about avoiding predators waiting in the wings.

[Thanks to the photographers who granted permission to use their photos, and to those who made their work available through the Creative Commons license: Richard Schneider, and Barbogast. The painting of Icarus and Daedalus is by Charles Paul Landon, and the drawing of a New World flying squirrel is by Charles Henry Dessalines d’Orbigny, currently in the University of Washington’s Freshwater and Marine Image Bank; both images are in the public domain. © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

*BASE is the acronym that stands for the four categories of fixed objects from which one can jump: building, antenna, span (bridge), and Earth (cliffs).

Long-stemmed

Daddy longlegs are the jazz cats of the arachnid world!

This realization came to me as I watched a single backlit note poised on a broken music staff bebop across the asphalt path in front of me. A soundtrack of jazz piano greats immediately began to play in my head — Willie “The Lion” Smith, Thomas “Fats” Waller, Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, and Dave Brubeck, to name but a few. Chill dudes whose spider-like fingers strode, slid, bounced, and stomped across the keys.

Jazz has evolved and diverged from it’s start in the late 19th century as  ragtime and Dixieland into a genre so diverse it can be difficult to define, or even to list all the variations: Swing, Cool, West Coast, Modal, Free, Fusion, Funk, Cu-Bop, Post-Bop, etc.

The harvestmen, as daddy longlegs are also known (that even sounds like a 1950s jazz band, doesn’t it?) have an even longer and more impressive history. They’re a vast, improvisational set that spans millions of years and many taxonomic octaves, with over 6,500 named species worldwide (experts estimate there may actually be more than 10,000). And while not all the players in this big band have long legs, the ones who hangout in my neighborhood— eastern harvestmen (Leiobunum vittatum)— are definitely long-stemmed.

These invertebrate daddy-o’s are arachnids but they are NOT spiders; they’re more closely related to mites and scorpions.  Harvestmen don’t have a spider’s tiny waist… or venom… or silk (so no webs)… and they have only two eyes instead of eight.

Jazz musicians need to maintain their instruments to get the best sound; piano hammers need to be voiced, strings tuned, reeds moistened and valves lubricated.  Daddy longlegs are similarly serious about the tools of their trade, cleaning each leg after a meal by threading them through the pincers by their mouths.

Harvestmen are a gregarious lot who periodically congregate in the hundreds or even thousands. Scientists have suggested these spontaneous jam sessions might occur in response to climatic conditions or provide some protection against predators… but it’s pretty clear they aren’t making music (that can be detected by the human ear, anyway).

Members of Order Opiliones are exceptional even among arachnids. They can swallow small pieces of solid food, whereas their cousins are limited to a liquid diet. Conversely, daddy longlegs sip oxygen through their legs into a trachea, while other arachnids respirate through a gas exchange organ called a book lung. That’s probably just a warm-up, though. Like jazz, daddy longlegs are both familiar and mysterious. Little research has been done on these species… and who can say why? Maybe they’re a bit too avant garde to have a large fan base among researchers.

Or it could be the hours they keep and the dives they frequent. See, eastern harvestmen have more in common with jazz pianists than an impressive hand (or leg) span. Say what you will about the pleasures of sitting outside at a warm summer evening festival, lounging on a blanket in the grass while listening to a live performance — you’ll hear no argument from me. But to my mind, jazz is an urban art form, and the smokin’ hot licks happen in basement clubs. An intimate corner, low lights, insulated from street noise, maybe just a little damp…

Now that the kind of gig daddy longlegs’ dig.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Rob Swatski, Leslie Bliss, Rob SwatskiLuis Fernández Garcia, and schizoform.  © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Still Life

Great blue heron

The great blue heron is a patient angler.

[I’m working on new essays this week so I hope you’ll enjoy this reposting from March 26, 2011]

Racing past a nearby pond, I mistook the bird for an art installation.

I realized my error quickly enough once I downshifted. Then again, there’s just something so painterly about a great blue heron (Ardea herodias). The graceful, sinuous lines; the aqueous blues and grays; the plumage, evocative as a brush stroke. The unhurried disposition that creates a pose of every posture. The stippled scene was realism and impressionism all at once.

Slow, prehistoric wing-beats call to mind the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira. The great blue is one of the more easily identified birds in flight, partly due to its size—a 6-foot wingspan is hard to miss—and partly because of its silhouette, reminiscent of a textbook pterodactyl: neck folded back on itself in a compressed S; a contrail of long, slender legs.

Statuesque as an adult, the stalk-and-strike hunter spends much of its life standing still as stone.  Balanced as bronze armature, this is a kinetic sculpture that moves imperceptibly, and yet, as you watch… you can feel the potential energy of that cocked, cursive neck building in your own musculature, grown taut with anticipation.

Patience personified…

waiting…

waiting…

waiting…

and THEN

…the spring detonates with blinding speed, blasting the javelin bill through the water’s surface and into the target!

The spear is dragged back from the depths as a squirming fish-kabob. Or, perhaps, a canapé of frog, salamander, crab, or crawdad… would you prefer a vole, garter snake, duckling, or a dragonfly. Heron menus include far more than seafood.

On occasion, large prey will be consumed bite by bite. A tedious process and, as every angler knows, if you want to increase your catch you need to keep your line in the water. So, more often, there’s a flip of feathered head and neck, then dinner is swallowed whole.

Or not. That narrow neck can accommodate a surprisingly wide load, but in the hurry to put the catch in the creel, herons have been known to choke on a too-big meal.

 

 

I know the feeling. I gobble down the items on my to-do list—even tasks like “take a walk.” I channel surf when I should take the time to savor the canvas before me. Taking a deep breath, I tried to quiet my mind, and settled down to watch… and wait.  Dining, fishing, or appreciating a living, breathing work of art—these are pastimes that can’t be rushed.

 

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: S Pisharam and Len Blumin. Blumin, who is responsible for the “catfish dinner” series, reports that in this particular heron’s eyes were NOT bigger than its stomach, or its throat, and it lived to fish another day. © 2011 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Vert-de-Gris

Cope’s gray treefrog on a pepper plant. Photo: Alan Howell © 2017, Star Path Images, Used with Permission.

It isn’t easy being green. Kermit the Frog said it, so you know it has to be true.

He’s always seemed a reluctant celebrity, so my guess is that being the most famous Muppet-amphibian on the planet isn’t always a picnic. I wonder whether life would be a little less stressful if, like some of his cousins, Kermit could change from green to another color when he’d rather not be so conspicuous.

North American gray treefrogs know how to be seen and when to blend into their surrounding, shifting the spectrum from bright emerald to peridot, to gold, copper, platinum, silver, and even gunmetal. Since the places they hang out — trees and shrubs in woodlands, meadows, prairies, swamps, suburbs, and cities — tend toward palettes awash with green and gray hues, these arboreal amphibians can keep their sartorial choices simple. 

What looks like a costume change is actually a rather high-tech, cellular-level special effect created by chromatophores. These pigment-containing and light-reflecting cells, or groups of cells, are present in the skin of certain frogs, as well as some reptiles (including chameleons), cephalopods (such as octopi), fish, and crustaceans. Mammals and birds, on the other hand, have melanocytes, a different class of cells for coloration.

Chromatophores are classified based on their hue under white light:

  • melanophores (black/brown)
  • cyanophores (blue)
  • erythrophores (red)
  • xanthophores (yellow)
  • leucophores (white)
  • iridophores (reflective or iridescent)

The process, known as physiological color change, can be controlled by hormones, neurons, or both. Most studies have focused primarily on melanophores because they are the darkest and, therefore, the most visible. When pigment inside the chromatophores disperses throughout cell the skin appears to darken; when pigment aggregates in cells the skin appears to lighten. Either way, you’ve got an amazing makeover, or a convincing disguise, in no time flat! 

There’s even more to the gray treefrog’s ability to assume an alter-ego than meets the eye —what appears to be a single species is actually two very close relatives: Hyla versicolor, aka Eastern, although there’s a long list of pseudonyms from which to choose (there are more ways to hide than blending into the substrate); and Hyla chrysoscelis, aka Cope’s (which also has a couple of nicknames but not as many as H. versicolor).

Cope’s and Eastern are equally skilled at clinging to and climbing slick surfaces using large toe pads that secrete mucous, creating surface tension. It’s not uncommon to find one plastered against a window pane (allowing for an interesting view of their nether-regions). Both species prefer a diet of small insects, spiders, and snails. Both hibernate under leaves, bark, or rocks. Well, “hibernate” sounds a lot more cozy than the reality… which is that their bodies pretty much freeze and their lungs, heart, brain, and other organs stop working until they thaw out and reanimate in the spring. It’s a pretty nifty chemical trick, on par with being able to transform your complexion at will. 

Kermit has an unmistakable personal brand, but distinguishing H. versicolor from H. chrysocelis visually is just about impossible. Both Eastern and Cope’s are relatively small (1.5—2.0 in/3.5—5 cm), and the adults are often mistaken for younglings. Both wear a sweep of bright citrus-orange along the inseam of their hind legs (a signature shade is all the rage, you know).  Females of both species are usually (but not always) larger, with a ladylike white throat. During the breeding season, males have a macho (make that hipster, since it resembles a beard) black, gray, or brown throat. Guys sing. Gals swoon, but don’t sing along.

The ranges of these two species overlap, but Cope’s are more widely distributed. If you find a gray treefrog in North Carolina or Georgia, you can be reasonably certain it’s a Cope’s, but if you’re in Iowa or Pennsylvania, all bets are off. The only risk-free way to know for sure is to do a DNA test — Cope’s are a diploid species, meaning they have two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent (for a total of 24); Easterns are a tetraploid species, meaning they have four sets of chromosomes (for a total of 48).

Now, some frog call connoisseurs claim they can detect variations in breeding calls, and that Cope’s treefrogs have a faster and slightly higher-pitched trill than Easterns. But the call rates of both species change with ambient temperature… so color me skeptical.

[Postscript:  What kind of frog is Kermit? While I’ve never found a definitive answer to this question, I always assumed that because he was created/discovered by Jim Henson, he was probably Hyla muppetalis or Rana hensonii… something like that. However, in 2015 Brian Kubicki of the Costa Rican Amphibian Research Center discovered a frog who, if not the same species, must at least be a first cousin, or possibly Kermit’s doppleganger.]

Diane’s bare-hearted glass frog (Hyalinobatrachium dianae). Photo: © Brian Kubicki, Costa Rican Amphibian Research Center, Used with Permission

[Thanks to the photographers who granted permission to use their photos, and to those who made their work available through the Creative Commons license: Dave Huth(composite of color variations), , Chiswick Chap & CheChe, (melanophores schematic), Alan Wolf, Andrew Hoffman, and Douglas Mills© 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Shell Game

eastern box turgle

Eastern box turtle shells provide protection from predators, but not the hazards of life in cities and suburbs (Photo: Alan Howell © 2010 Star Path Images, used with permission)

[This post is a reprint from 2011, prompted by Dash’s discovery of a box turtle on our evening walk last night–enjoy!]

Sometimes you just need to shut out the world for a while, you know?

Maybe you can’t relate but I know the eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) certainly can. Whether the threat is carnivores or the impending return of students to campus, there are times when nothing beats a little self-imposed solitary confinement.

Carrying a personal isolation chamber on your back means sensory deprivation can be achieved in mere seconds. No need to call ahead for an appointment at the local day spa. Don’t bother dimming the lights, closing the blinds, and turning off your cell phone. Just pull in your extremities and slam your hinged shell shut—a little privacy, if you don’t mind!

eastern box turtles

Hello… goodbye!

Is it any coincidence that box turtles are one of our longest-lived species, with well-documented cases of individuals who reached and then passed the half-century mark? Stress reductions, in the form of a room of one’s own, may well be the key to attaining a ripe old age.

We shouldn’t dismiss the importance of wise food choices either—lots of lean protein, in the form of earthworms, snails, slugs, and insects, as well as fruits and veggies such as berries, grasses, and flowers.  Turtles have another favorite food that may contribute to overall longevity—they’ve been known to consume poisonous fungi, causing anyone who dines on that particular portion of turtle meat to sicken, or worse.

Of course, someone has to kill and eat said turtle before suffering the consequences, which may not seem like much of a survival benefit unless you consider it from the standpoint of the population, rather than the individual. See, all it takes is one or two bad dinners and, ever after, box turtles become a much less appealing meal for that particular consumer. The technical term is adverse conditioning—that’s a polite way of saying animals (both human and non-human) tend to stop eating things that make us vomit.

Now, it’s unlikely that turtles have that particular life-extending strategy in mind when eating wild mushrooms, but other kinds of magical fungi have been credited with providing a variety of benefits, including an improved sense of well-being and decreased anxiety levels. Perhaps box turtles are self-medicating with the Terrapene equivalent of Xanax®.

One of six subspecies of the common box turtle (T. carolina), the eastern, like all its kin, has a highly domed carapace (the upper portion of the shell) and a hinged plastron (the lower half of the shell). What sets each subspecies apart is distribution and habitat, as well as certain physical characteristics.  T.c. carolina, found from southern Maine to southern Florida and as far west as central Texas, is known for a colorful keeled carpace that features diverse combinations of spots, bars, and radiating lines.

Color provides a clue to more than a box turtle’s species. It can also help us determine the gender of that lurching, resolute reptile we stop to help cross the street.  If the eyes (irises) are bright orange or red, you’re holding a male; females have brown or light orange eyes. What if, in response to your good deed, the turtle has gone into hiding, making eye contact a moot point? Simply turn the creature over; females have a flat plastron, males are slightly concave. (You know… birds do it, bees do it…).

The hinged plastron is what caused taxonomists to create a separate genus for North America’s box-top reptiles, and what allows the eastern and it’s relatives to retreat into a kind of biological fortress. For most of their history, this survival strategy worked quite well against predators like coyotes, raccoons, and skunks.  Sadly, it doesn’t provide the same level of protection from every threat.

Box turtles are still relatively common throughout much of their range, but not even the most tightly closed shell can shield this species from the impacts of habitat loss and interactions with Homo sapiens. These are slow moving, slow growing creatures with delayed sexual maturity and low reproduction rates, all of which puts them at risk. A female may produce hundreds of eggs during her lifetime, but less than a dozen offspring can be expected to survive to adulthood.

It’s hard to even begin to estimate how many turtles are hit attempting to cross roads every year, and there are plenty of other hazard against which withdrawing into your shell is of little use—trains, lawn mowers, tractors, and bulldozers, to name but a few. Then there’s the capture of turtles for the pet trade. In many states, this practice is completely unregulated, with devastating impacts on wild populations.

Even so, there are still times when coming out of your shell is the better choice. Especially for humans. Solitary confinement is used as a punishment because, unlike turtles we are social mammals. We need companionship, conversation, touch. Hard to get any of those needs met when you retreat to your shell. Unless, of course, you invite someone to join you there.

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Doug Letterman, Bill Lynch, Shane Kemp, Brian Hefele, and  Chesapeake Bay Program.  © 2011 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Leftovers

foraging raccoon by Kara Allyson CC

One man's trash is another creature's feast (Photo: Kara Allyson, Creative Commons license)

.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans throw out 34 million tons of food each year—an average of 93 thousand tons per day, and some experts estimate the amount triples on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Food for thought, while making another trip to the garbage can following our national day of feasting. Waste not, want not… so the proverb goes. But does anything digestible really ever go to waste? Only if you think food is wasted when humans don’t consume it.

red squirrel in trash can by Rémi Lanvin ccWe live on a planet where, if someone can eat it, bet your bottom dollar someone does eat it. Within a biotic community there are three basic trophic (feeding) levels:  producers, consumers, and decomposers. Producers transform energy from the Sun into sugar (i.e. food)—that’s the work of green plants. Primary consumers eat the plants, secondary or tertiary consumers eat the animals that eat the plants. Decomposers transform both dead plants and animals back into their abiotic components (e.g., water, nitrogen, CO2). All three groups work together to create food, move it through the community, and return the abiotics back to the environment for another trip through the system.

Food travels through the community in food chains and food webs. A food chain is a simplistic model, a subset, for illustrating the relationship between a community’s trophic levels. For example:

Sun > violets > caterpillars > black-capped vireo > sharp-shinned hawk > black vulture > bacteria

The food web is a more realistic and complex model of the relationship between members of the biotic community. It takes into consideration the fact that most consumers eat more than one thing—vireos don’t just eat caterpillars, they eat a variety of insects, insect larvae, and spiders; sharp-shinned hawks eat all kinds of songbirds, plus some small mammals, and an occasional large insect; black vultures will eat almost any kind of meat, although they seem to prefer it well “aged.” A species can, and usually does, belong to more than one chain within the web. Very little is wasted, and everything that lives eventually takes a turn at eating and being eaten (with the exception of modern humans in the “developed” world, primarily due to our funereal laws and customs).

herring gull at landfill by Jerry Oldenettel ccA large portion of the human population may have disentangled themselves from food webs, but we remain an indirect source of nutrition for many non-human animals, and not just those we feed intentionally, such as our companion animals and livestock. Easy access to consistently plentiful human-produced food waste is a primary reason behind the success of many wild species in urban and suburban habitats. Garbage is also one of the main sources of conflict between wildlife and humans. This is due, largely, to the fact that—and I’m sorry, but I don’t know how else to say this—the human race has some definite control issues when it comes to food.

The concept of owning food seems to be uniquely human, as is the idea that we should be able to stipulate who gets access to calories that we think of as “ours,” including future-food (crops and livestock), faux-food (from Petco or Wild Birds Unlimited), and former-food (garbage).

Skeptical? How many times have you heard a bird-feeding acquaintance complain when squirrels invite themselves to dinner? Or even when the wrong kind of bird drops in for a snack? How about the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which spends millions of dollars annually on research and other efforts to reduce or eliminate wild species that like to avail themselves to a helping of the harvest? Consider, also, the time, money, and energy spent trying to keep wild creatures out of garbage cans and dumpsters, so their contents can be transported to the landfill and buried to prevent other non-humans from turning it into a meal.

Of course, there are valid reasons for managing food waste, including aesthetics and hygiene. Garbage stinks, and no one wants to live in the middle of a kitchen midden. You may be willing to share your cast off cuisine with resourceful furred and feathered recyclers, but human neighbors tend to be less than forgiving about garbage-strewn lawns. Picking chicken bones and greasy bits of aluminum foil out of the Zoysia grass isn’t all that fun; even less so when you’re running late for work. It’s mornings like these when homeowners begin to formulate battle plans.

opossum in trash can by Gary Oppenheim ccIt’s a war we’ll never win. At its core, this is a first-come-first-serve, finders- keepers-losers-weepers kind of world, especially when it comes to food. Sure, a brief détente may be achieved through an exclusion technology arms race. Some may even seek vigilante justice against an individual opossum or raccoon, a flock of seagulls or crows.

Victory will be short-lived. There will always be more where those came from because our leftovers are the raw materials from which the next generation of wild dumpster divers are created. Urban wildlife are adaptive, creative, resourceful, and fecund. They are adept exploiters of the humans with whom they live.

Still, in most ways it’s a symbiotic relationship. They take the food we no longer want and, in exchange, add to our quality of life in ways that are easy to recognize and hard to measure. Moreover, by refusing to accept that we are masters of the universe they keep us humble. And for that, I am thankful.

..

© 2011 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available for use through a Creative Commons license: Rémi Lanvin (red squirrel); Jerry Oldenettel (herring gull); and Gary Oppenheim (opossum).

Big mouth

garter snake swallowing a whole fish

Who needs a knife and fork, or even molars, when you can easily swallow bites bigger than your head? (Photo: Jesse Palmer, Creative Commons license)

.

Could there be a holiday more representative of the true nature of American culture than Thanksgiving? Considered the least commercial of our national holidays, yet the true theme of the day is consumption. Family, food, and football are all available in quantities large enough to cause a bit of indigestion. Moreover, the entire event is just a warm up, an appetizer that signals the start of a dietary and retail feeding frenzy.

A turkey is the holiday’s traditional mascot, not to mention the main course, but I’d like to suggest a different and even more appropriate talisman for a day devoted to stuffing one’s face—the garter snake (Thamnophis spp.).

color and pattern variation in garter snakesThought to resemble the fanciful bands that held up men’s and ladies’ hosiery in a pre-elastic era, garter snakes are as American as pumpkin pies and pigskins. The most widely distributed reptile genus in North America, you’ll find them slithering from sea to shining sea across 49 states, including Alaska—the only snake able to make that claim. Remarkable in their ability to adjust to a wide range of habitats, garter snakes live on purple mountain ranges, in amber waves of grain, across the fruited plains, and everywhere in-between.

The genus includes 26 species and dozens of subspecies. Most include the “garter” tag as part of their common name, but the western ribbon snake (Thamnophis proximus) and its subspecies are part of the tribe too. Morphologically diverse—even within a species—the unifying theme is one or more stripes that run the length of the body (with or without spots). Some, like the common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), favor an understated tan or brown background with yellow stripes. Other color combos may include: red-orange, black, and creamy yellow (coast garter snake, Thamnophis elegans terrestris); black with a pale teal green stripe and red spots (red-spotted garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis concinnus); and even a striking electric blue paired with black (Puget Sound garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis pickeringii).

Garter snakes are not picky eaters, and this characteristic has also helped them to spread out across the continent. These legless wonders will eat just about member of the Animal Kingdom they can catch and devour, including slugs, earthworms, fish, frogs and toads, lizards and other snakes, birds (including their eggs and nestlings), and small mammals, including rodents.

You’ve heard the phrase “His eyes were bigger than his stomach”? Well, that’s never really a problem for an animal whose stomach, along with the skin, muscles, ribs, throat, and mouth, can expand to accommodate up to 20% of its body weight in a single swallow. Imagine the kind of advantage you’d have in an eating contest if you could loosen your jaw, open wide (150° compared to 45° for the average human), and send a whole turkey down the hatch! Chewing? Why bother? Snakes don’t. They don’t have the choppers for it, although some have a few small teeth that curve toward the back of the mouth and help the reptile “walk” the upper and lower jaws over and around their meal. Concerned about how to breath while a roasted 30 pound tom or hen is passing through your gullet? No worries… if you’re a snake your windpipe is located near the front of your mouth and can move out of the way. If you’re not a snake (and I mean that literally—your in-laws’ opinion doesn’t count)… you may want to reconsider using a knife and fork.

Still, when your favorite team is lining up for the opening kickoff on the 55” LCD HDTV with Surround Sound, and Grandma is standing between you and the game with a third helping plate and a look that says responding to her offering with “no thanks, I couldn’t eat another bite” may not kill her, but it will significantly shorten her life—you have to admit, the ability to swallow food whole would sure come in handy.

.

© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to the following photographers for making their photos available for use through a Creative Commons license:  Frank Miles/USFWS (2 common garter snakes); randomtruth (coast garter snake); Jonathan Crowe (red-spotted garter snake); and Dan Dzurisin (Purget Sound garter snake).