Tuesday, June 26, 2018

A wilder look at wildlife

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals

The book title is The Truth About Animals: Stones Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife. It is by Lucy Cooke, who does know a thing or two about animals. But if the title were anything close to accurate, the book would amount to millions of pages. Nonetheless, it is a fun romp.

The thirteen chapters spin out stories of thirteen animals, misconceptions about them—and how those were debunked—, and a strong dollop of "down and dirty", usually about their sex lives. For example, sex seems to be the only thing a sloth does quickly...over and over again (The author, a real sloth fanatic, is the first person to film sloth sex). Even their bathroom habits are quite a bit slower than a snail's pace: roughly one defecation weekly, for which the poor beast must make its way down the tree to drop the evidence of its existence on the ground and cover it with detritus.

The "lovelorn hippos" of the title refer to male hippos in Colombia, offspring of a small pack of them imported by Pablo Escobar in his heyday. Since the patriarch drives out all his sons once they reach puberty, they disperse around the countryside, looking in vain for mates among other packs of hippos.

The chapter on frogs dwells quite a bit on Xenopus, the African Clawed Frog, which used to be used for pregnancy testing. Only many years after the method was developed, and after it had become obsolete (replaced by the blue strip of monoclonal antibodies now in use), did it become clear that the frogs, millions of them, had brought with them "chytrid", a fungus parasite that is gradually destroying most other frog and toad species around the world. Xenopus is immune to chytrid; not so for most other amphibian species.

Oh, by the way, should you ever get close enough to a vulture to try to catch it, you ought to know that they keep cool on hot days by defecating on their legs and feet. Who knows, maybe the smell of fresh poop is also a real turn-on to the opposite sex! (Hmm, is this in any way related to a phrase from a love letter from Napoleon to Josephine, when he planned to return early from a battle, "I'll be home tomorrow – don't bathe!")

I really can't think of how to describe more without giving too much away. All the animals in the book, a fish, 8 mammals, 3 birds, and an amphibian, are vertebrates. There are 40,000 species of them in thousands of categories, so there's lots of room for sequels if the author is so inclined. And then, should she decide to tell us about some invertebrates, there are, so far, at least a couple of million species, though most are insects. But, hey, some are "bigger than a bedbug", such as squids, giant African tree snails, and six-foot Australian earthworms. A fun book.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Seeing half the birds — and more

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, bird watching, birding, obsessions, travelogues

Everybody collects something…or several somethings. Collections of small things are most popular because the collections don't take much space. A collection of 50,000 postage stamps takes up a few cubic feet; 10,000 worldwide coins would be of a similar size. These days, if one foregoes printing photos and putting them in albums, a collection of tens of thousands of high-resolution photos will fit on a single 64- or 128-Gbyte SD Card.

At the other end of the spectrum, H. F. du Pont, defining what it means to be filthy rich, collected salons. Not just "rooms", but the very large rooms used for large scale entertaining, complete with all furnishings, from 175 American mansions at his "home" in Greenville, Delaware, now known as the Winterthur Museum. A typical tour at Winterthur takes up to two hours to show just five of the rooms. I wonder whether many of the rooms have ever been toured; I don't think they have nearly enough unique tours.

Bird watching, bird listing, and other facets of "birding" can take up very little space, if one collects mainly memories. Just seeing and getting to know the habits of a few or a few dozen—or a few hundred—species of bird is very rewarding to many people. Lists can be made of the birds that visit your yard or neighborhood, or a certain town, county, state or country. Or the whole world.

Noah Strycker decided to take a whack at the all-time one-year record list of world birds by planning to see at least one-half of all species of bird in one year. 365 days. There is more than one "official" list of all species (biologists differ on a few percent of species, whether they are truly one species or more than one). Anyway, the number of known bird species in 2014 was roughly 10,500, so Noah set out to see at least 5,025 if possible, and possibly more. He traveled upwards of 40,000 miles, spent time in 41 countries in all seven continents, at a cost of about $60,000.

Just to get ready, he had to collect as many bird handbooks as possible. This photo shows the stack. Its volume is greater tha most stamp or coin collections…and that's just his prep work. How did he carry it with him? He scanned every page and stored them in his phone. It must have taken months! My guess is that the stack represents about 20,000 pages. I hope he had several backup copies, including one "in the cloud" in case his phone was lost, stolen, smashed by a Cassowary or whatever.

As chronicled in his book Birding Without Borders, An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World, he eventually saw, including verification by other bird enthusiasts that were with him, 6,042 species of birds. The prior record for a year's quest had been about 2/3 of that.

Creating such a world record is amazing in itself. To Noah, it was secondary to the memories of the birds, the stories about many of them as told by local birders who helped him along the way, and the relationships he built with literally hundreds of bird enthusiasts in every one of the 41 countries.

I had a vague thought of putting a lot of photos in this post. But I took Noah's example; he didn't put many photos in the book. Just 22. So I'll confine myself to just one more picture, of the world's most famous bird, a Giant Antpitta in Ecuador, that one of his new-found friends, Angel Pax, had half-tamed so visiting birders would actually get a chance to see one of the shyest bird species.

Birding Without Borders is astonishing. For one thing, Noah had much less trouble overall than he or anyone else would have any right to expect. When you share an obsessive fascination with people around the world, and you call on them for help, stand back! you're going to get help. Many of the local birders who accompanied Noah went out of their way to show him the rarest species they knew how to find, while keeping in mind the pace he had to maintain.

Just to see 6,000+ birds in 365 days requires a pace of 16-17 new species every single day. Since there are bound to be a few unfavorable days, and Noah even had a couple of "zero" days, seeing 30-40 birds on some days is practically a requirement. This is hyper-endurance marathon stuff.

The reading is much more enjoyable than running a marathon (at least for me, with my poor joints!). I consider portions of this book to be micro-biographies of a few dozen of the wonderful people Noah met all around the world. There's a lot of good stuff packed into this book.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Sing for your supper - er - survival

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space aliens, first contact, singing, competitions

Well, after a few serious books in a row, I was ready for some mindless escapism. Boy, did I find that! Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente is about the silliest bit of SF I've come across, yet based on an idea worth thinking about.

Scenario: When the aliens arrive, they arrive to everyone at once. By some kind of projection, a bizarre-looking alien being visits every single human on Earth, wherever they happen to be at the time, and converses with everyone individually (only much later in the book is there just a hint about translation technology). After various amounts of time for the human involved to get over the shock, the discussion gets serious (as serious as anything gets in this book): One human person or group is to be entered into a Galactic singing contest, to determine if humans are sentient. It turns out that "sentience" is not so self-evident as we'd like to think.

According to the Esca, the species chosen to "recruit" a human singing group, all entrants in the song festival are ranked, including any newcomers (in this case, humans). If a newcomer winds up ranked dead last, the species is indeed "Dead Last": the entire species is to be exterminated and the planetary biosphere will be given another few million years to evolve a new, purportedly sentient, species. Rinse, Dry, Repeat as necessary. The Esca were the most recent species to "enter" the contest, and are quite proud that they came in Eighth, rather than something like Seventy-Fourth, or whatever Dead Last would be. The proven sentient beings of the Galaxy have decided that the extinction of an occasional species is the price to be paid for the peace-promoting songfest. It succeeded "Galactic War X", after all.

To give you an idea of the hyper-enthusiasm of language Ms Valente, here is the description of the leading member of the Absolute Zeroes, the group that is taken a few thousand light-years to the competition venue, a certain Mr. Decibel Jones (né Danesh Jalo):
…a leggy psychedelic ambidextrous omnisexual gendersplat glitterpunk financially punch-drunk ethnically ambiguous glamrock messiah…
The prose reminds me of teachers of the art of composition, who advised us, "Use more adjectives!" This book is about 2/3 adjectives, frequently in sentences that run 100-200 words. Sentences full of immense enthusiasm. Also full of neologisms. Amazingly, newly coined words seem to fit into the text around them and practically define themselves. Other than the occasional jarring bit of potty-mouth, prose like that just washes over me like perfumed olive oil.

The concept is actually based on a real bit of history, though "last place" in a certain global competition does not result in anyone's being exterminated.

I don't know if I could call this escapism at its best, but it is certainly escapism of a most compelling sort.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Geology on the habitable edge

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, geology, plate tectonics

A formative experience of mine took place in a wilderness area north of Twenty Lake Basin in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The second session of Summer Field Camp was held there, for six weeks. What could we accomplish there that could not be done in the suburbs? To do geology you have to go where the rocks are…that is, where it is easy to get to the rocks. Where I live, near the Pennsylvania-Delaware border, you'd typically have to dig or drill 50-100 feet to find anything approaching "rock" as we know it: The Columbia Formation consists of loose to poorly consolidated (that is, cemented) sand with sparse fossils of Cretaceous dinosaur bone. You need to go a lot deeper to get to actual "bedrock".

Thus, a dozen other Geology students and I spent half a summer in high mountains, among lovely scenery, because the bedrock, mostly granite and limestone, was right there at the surface. We could walk up to it and hammer off chunks to take back to the "library" tent and study. We were interested in the intersection between the limestone and the granite, studying "cooked" rocks called skarn.

To study bigger problems you need to go to places even more remote. In A Wilder Time: Notes From a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice, William E. Glassley weaves a narrative of discovery around four field seasons, each about a month long, along the Arfersiorfik Fjord in western Greenland. The camp area is at or near the little white arrow I placed at the middle of this image. The map pin is on Tunertooq Island, where significant evidence was discovered by the author and his colleagues.

He and two colleagues were working to gather evidence that the area had been a continental suture in the deep past, around two billion years ago. The deformed rocks in the area look very similar to other areas of mountain-building, but are so much older that some geologists wonder if it is possible. The short answer is, "hard rocks", what we call igneous and metamorphic rocks, form primarily when continents collide and thrust softer materials ("soft rocks" such as sandstone and limestone) deep into the crust and mantle. They are later brought to the surface by various mechanisms of plate tectonics, where erosion eventually exposes them.

Plate tectonics describes the movements of the crust of the Earth over time. The "plates" are large portions of crust, including thicker continental crust and thinner oceanic crust; there are 8 major plates and about 20 smaller ones. They are in constant motion, but the rates are slow and imperceptible without instruments: 10cm/year or less, averaging 4-5 cm/year. That is just slightly faster than the rate fingernails grow. But give it time: If the Earth had only two continents, and they had separated some time in the past and were moving first away from one another, at a rate of 5cm/yr each, but later toward another as they each circled halfway 'round, how long would it take until they collided? This is equivalent to asking how long it would take one continent to circle the Earth at a rate of 10 cm/yr. The circumference of Earth, 40,000 km, is 4 billion cm, so the time would be 400 million years. That implies that the crust beneath the oceans is formed and then consumed on a time span of a few hundred million years. Indeed, the oldest sections of oceanic crust are no more than 200 million years old (except for a small portion of older crust, ~300 million years of age, that was preserved in the Mediterranean basin).

New material is added to the oceanic crust of tectonic plates at divergent margins, AKA mid-ocean ridges. Iceland rides atop one of these ridges, which is why it is so volcanic. Where plates move toward one another, one or the other will be pushed downward and (mostly) consumed into the mantle beneath. Such convergent margins are also volcanic, such as the "ring of fire" around the Pacific Ocean. The volcanic activity is evidence of the energies involved in the convergence. Where the convergence brings together two major continents, you get mountain uplift. The Himalayas are still growing as India presses into the Eurasian plate. In the roots of mountain belts, remnants of the collided plates, including bits of oceanic crust, remain to mark the suture zone.

Greenland, where you can get to the rocks (most of it is under a mile or more of ice), has large areas of strongly folded rock, similar to that seen in the Alps, the Himalayas, and the Rockies. These are understood to mark the continental collisions that produce each mountain chain. The Appalachian mountains, including the area shown here in central Pennsylvania, are understood to be the roots of a mountain chain that stood tall 300 million years ago, but is now eroded to these remnants. By comparison, the Rocky Mountains were formed during the Laramide orogeny, between 80 and about 40 million years ago; the Alps began forming about 65 million years ago, and the process is presently winding down; and the Himilayas began forming about 40 million years ago. Each such mountain range has buried beneath it a suture zone where two continents collided.

The folded rocks in western Greenland are about 2,000 million (2 billion) years old. There is still some controversy among geologists about whether plate tectonics operated that early, or if it did, whether it worked the same way as it has in the past half billion years or so.

When I was a graduate student of Geology in the early 1980's, in one class we were asked how we would determine whether plate tectonics had operated in the early Precambrian, prior to about 1.2 billion years ago. I didn't do well on the assignment, and received my only C grade. Dr. Grassley and his Danish colleagues would have received an A+. They not only figured out how to do so, they went and did it, though it took a couple of decades. I think it no spoiler to report that the field seasons described in A Wilder Time led to a much better understanding that the Arfersiorfik Fjord area does indeed include a continental suture zone.

The book is in three parts, describing first the breaking down of old concepts, then accepting ignorance and becoming open to new ideas, and finally the beginnings of integration as a broader understanding emerges. The author stresses several times that our biology constrains us to awareness of only a tiny fraction of what the Universe has to offer. We "see" within one octave of a span of nearly infinite radiative wavelengths; we hear a wider range of sound frequencies, but most animals can hear sounds we cannot; we can bear only a narrow range of temperatures without severe damage; and so forth.

I was doubly compelled and fascinated by the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the geological material, of course. Even more, the author writes with a rare lyric intensity. He sparsely limns the emotions and impressions evoked by the harsh landscape. And sometimes it is not so harsh. One day he knelt and lay flat, to see the outline of a ptarmigan and her chicks hiding in plain sight atop the tundra:
I was suddenly awash in layers of sweet flower scents. As I rested lightly on the surface, the smell of dozens of blossoms I hadn't noticed engulfed me. Arctic poppy and white Arctic bell-heather were interspersed among mountain sorrel, hairy lousewort, purple saxifrage, and mountain avens. I was awash in a botanical sea, carried into an unexpected world.
Upon arising, he found none of the scents could be discerned more than a few inches above. He realized that the bird and her young would live among these scents:
A world of perfumes would cloak the hatchlings and saturate their feathers, becoming a sensory background to the birds' accumulating experience of living…
If "poets" who like to write free verse could write it like Dr. Glassley, I'd read more free verse.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

The short life of the most famous wolf

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, wolves, yellowstone

A wolf in the wild seldom lives more than nine years. The wolf called O-Six, so named because she was born in 2006, lived less than seven years, though she was very healthy, with several good years left in her, when a hunter killed her late in 2012.

American Wolf: The True Store of Survival and Obsession in the West, by Nate Blakeslee, outlines the life of O-Six, the wolves in her pack, and other wolves and wildlife that filled the landscape of the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone Park where she lived. Partly because she was big, bigger even than most male wolves; partly because she was such a skilled hunter she could fell an elk all by herself; partly because she was wilfully ignorant of the humans that dotted the road and ridge tops around her; and mainly because she was a consummate survivor in a species that is known for toughness and surviving: she became the most famous wolf in America, perhaps in the world. Her fame brought more tourists to Yellowstone, just to see the wolves, and particularly to see O-Six, which wasn't really that hard, with Rick McIntyre helping out (the book is partly a biography of Rick).

Many people love wolves. Many people hate them. Neither stance is entirely rational. But the obsession that puzzles me most is that of the "sport hunter", whether the game sought is a deer, an elk, a wolf, or a bear (or a fish or a duck or goose). If you are using a rifle that can kill any creature on earth from a distance of 100-500 yards, there is no sport in it at all. As I have said before, the word "sport" implies a certain fairness or equity. If there is no chance that your target can retaliate, perhaps by taking your life before you take his or hers, that is not a sport. If you hunt for food, well and good. Hunt for your needs. If you hunt for fun, I pity you.

Y'wanna be a real sport? Go after a deer with a knife and a loincloth. You're allowed to carry a bottle of water. Going for wolf or bear, or perhaps an elk? OK, I'll permit you to carry two knives, one to distract the animal while you try to extract its life with the other. Even the Masai way of going after a lion with a knife and spear is heavily weighted against the lion. But, hunters, I don't hate you. I just don't understand why you are obsessed with killing.

I slowed down my normal hectic reading pace and savored the book. The author writes compelling prose, and has stories to tell that are worth taking in with care. O-Six was an amazing animal. She outwitted rival wolves and rival packs when it seemed she had no chance to survive. She and her mate guided a growing pack through numerous dangers, to thrive. And for the wolf-haters out there, the final bit of storytelling by the man who killed O-Six is an eye-opener. After he shot her, her mate ran off. The man went to collect her body, because he was required to bring the carcass to the wildlife office to register his kill against his license. As he stood over her body, her mate returned and howled, then one by one, her whole pack came. All eleven of them. They ignored the man. They sat in a loose arc around the body and began to howl. They went on for some time. The hunter backed away, safely returned to his truck, and drove off. The next morning, he returned to take the body to the wildlife office. Other than humans, the only other animals I know of that communally mourn their dead are elephants.

The book is bittersweet. The return of wolves to Yellowstone Park has re-balanced the ecosystem there. The Park is no longer overrun with elk. The kinds of plants that grow have changed. More beavers dam the streams, making habitat for a host of species. The drawbacks? Hunters may not always get an easy shot at an elk; they have to do more work to "fill their license." (Boo hoo!) Some domestic animals get taken by wolves, though the Park Service compensates them. The news storm that followed the shooting of O-Six resulted in laws changing; in my opinion, for the better. Why does someone or something famous usually have to die before the public does what is right?