About Me

My photo
Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

That smell of dead meat

[Huay Khao Khaeng National Park, Thailand, April, 2005]

"Tiger kill." said Dave.

We were jeeping down a track in the forest when we smelled it.

"Back up and let's see if we can find it. It's coming from down there."

"Prem and I used to try that all the time, and we never found the kill." (Prem Bahadur Rai: the chief shikari on the SI-Nepal Tiger Ecology project.)

"Yeah, well, that was in tall grass. C'mon, man, let's try. At least here we can see where we're going."

We walked into the forest parallel to the road, but the stench came and went.

Time to study the situation. The land sloped gently downhill toward a shallow drainage. It looked like the kind of place a tiger might settle to feed. We moved in, picked up the scent again, and suddenly there it was: a heap of decaying flesh, an adult male sambar.

It's a strange feeling standing next to a tiger's half-eaten kill. The cat could be watching you, or it could be dozing on a full belly.

We took pictures, and followed the drag mark to the scene of the takedown, about 50 yards upslope, next to a fallen tree. The viscera were near by, so we knew the tiger had fed before dragging it into the drainage. We took more pictures and left.

The next morning a swarm of blue bottles rose into the air as we approached. The tiger had returned to finish the remaining haunch. We were pleased with ourselves.

Okay. So I was sitting here typing last week, and I kept seeing vultures out the window. They were cruising just above the trees at the edge of the ravine next to the house, and when I went outside, there was that smell of dead meat again. Plus there were 4 black-tailed bucks up the road by the mailboxes--where they hang out when a puma cruises the ravine.

I packed a camera trap, and slowly headed down the deer trail. Confident from our sniff-out in Thailand, I was going to find that puma's kill and stake a camera. I sniffed audibly like a dog, and periodically tested the air with a wet finger like Romar of the Jungle (which wasn't much help).

A vulture flapped out of the canopy, a good sign. I made sniffing sorties to the left and right. The air currents kept changing and the smell was elusive. I checked the small drainages where a carcass might come to rest, and looked for brush piles where a puma might have covered its prey. Nothing.

"Forget it. You need a bloodhound." I settled on checking a camera trap farther down the ravine.

It was a fine day. The poison oak and shrubs had dropped most of their leaves, the visibility was good, and except for a family of nuthatches, which alternately twittered and beeped, it was very quiet.

I was sitting there next to camera with water bottle in hand, when I heard intermittent walking. I shouldered the pack and padded quietly up the trail where I paused behind two large oaks. When I heard the sound again, I slowly peeked around the trunk. About 30 yards away was a small bear, probably the two-year old I've referred to here as Scruffy.

She stood motionless looking in my direction as I slowly reached for the pipe and toy hammer in my back pocket.

I tapped 5 times and nothing happened.

Again: tap tap tap tap tap. Her senses were completely focussed.

Hmmm, I wondered. Am I between mother and cub? Or is Scruffy going to romp up for a friendly look-see? . . . and then it was time to tap again.

Immediately the bear bolted down the hill. Man-the-tool-user smiled with self satisfaction.

I have a sneaky feeling that Scruffy knew exactly where the carrion was, and that reminded me of my own deficient nose. Hers had led her unerringly to the dead meat.

I could only sypathesize with Larry McMurtry's fictional Indian, Magic Shoes the Kickapoo. How he lusted for the Eagle's Eye -- as he called the white man's telescope.

I envied the bear's nose. Maybe it's time to get a dog.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The leaky old Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Insitution (or SI to Washingtonians) has always been a leaky place. Inside traitor information was always leaking during the dark days of the previous regime. While information leaked out, rainwater leaked in. And you know what? It still does!

For some reason, building maintenance isn't a problem for the State Department and the Pentagon. There just isn't enough federal money to pay for maintaining the old SI.

Well, the Government Accountability Office just came up with a brilliant suggestion, to wit: the SI should really think hard about finding alternative ways to pay for building maintenance. That means non-federal funding.

What I want to know is what happened to the concept of "accountability" in the GAO? Isn't the federal government accountable for maintaining federal buildings?

I guess not.

Well, the two obvious alternatives -- charging admission to the museums, and raising private donations -- have been kicking around for a long time.

Charging admission would take an act of congress, and has never been popular in various quarters. For one thing, our legislators on Capital Hill have always believed the Smithsonian should be a freebie. It's a fun place to go, but let's face it, it's not Disneyland.

Then there's the old problem with the way things usually work in the government. The money from admissions would go to the Treasury, and the Office of Management and Budget would adjust the SI's requested allocation. "Surprise! (hnyuck, hnyuck). Your budget is the same as it was before admissions."

So, let's get real and talk about the other alternative -- getting private donors to pay for SI's maintenance.

I particularly like this idea, and I think it's going to catch on, because it really mirrors a prevailing attitude. You know . . . science isn't as important as other federally funded functions, so let those SI buggers get donors to do it.

I bet that Monday morning, Cristian Sampere, SI's Acting Secretary, will be flooded with e-mails and calls from donors. But not the ones who want an exhibit hall named in their honor. This is a window of opportunity for donors who really dig maintenance, and of course, they want recognition too.

If this works, as I suspect it will, you're going to see some real improvements in that leaky old place.

The next time you are there and taking the pause that refreshes, a tasteful sign may remind you that: "This toilet and plumbing is paid for with a generous grant from Home Depot."

Friday, September 28, 2007

The bear went over the bridge--literally

Neighbor Richard sent this great bear story from Telstarlogistics. The news link at the bottom of the blog gives all the background you'll need to appreciate Bruin's embarrassed look in the final shot.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tiger wallah wins Getty Award

[The radio-collaring of the leopard "Buddy McKay"; Ullas Karanth (center) with veterinarian K.A.Nanjappa (left) and range warden K.M.Chinnappa (right). Nagarahole National Park, Feb. 13, 1990]

We're celebrating the achievements of a good friend this week. K. Ullas Karanth was just named the 2007 winner of the J. Paul Getty Award for Conservation Leadership. The highly esteemed award is WWF-US's way of recognizing outstanding contributions to international wildlife conservation.

Mel Sunquist and I witnessed Ullas's development as a conservation biologist for nearly three decades. Since Ullas's accomplishments have already been enumerated (here), we'll talk a bit about the early days and events that led to his success.

Ullas (pronounced Oo-las) was an engineer-turned-farmer when we first crossed paths with him at the centennial anniversary of the Bombay Natural History Society in 1983. Before switching to the farmer's life, he worked as a planning and industrial engineer for a motor company, and as a sales engineer of agricultural machinery. But job satisfaction he didn't have. His real interest was India's wildlife.

He began to drift more and more to his avocation, and soon he was attending international symposia and conferences in India, where he quickly developed a reputation for asking embarrassing questions.

He was a nitpicker about methodology in general, and his pet peeve was the unreliability of pugmark surveys used by the Indian government for censusing tiger populations. Project Tiger was India's new initiative at the time, and the high priests of tiger biology were a mixed bag of officials, panjandrums, and retired experts. They held forth and tilted at one another endlessly like the heroes and villains of a Bollywood epic. Ah, but how they squirmed when the young and then unknown engineer asked the hard questions. Few of them knew what he was talking about, so his plea for scientific rigor fell on deaf ears.

Ullas knew he needed "the union card". Getting advanced degrees in biology meant taking undergraduate courses while pursuing graduate studies, but it would also give him the opportunity to immerse himself in field studies.

Fortunately, in 1984, Rudy Rudran accepted Ullas for his Wildlife Conservation and Management Training Course at the National Zoo's Conservation & Research Center. This was an intensive immersion course and a chance for students to meet many specialists who were the course's staff and guest instructors.

Mel Sunquist was one of those specialists. Ullas had read his monograph on the social organization of tigers in Nepal's Royal Chitwan National Park, and Mel had recently joined the faculty of the University of Florida. Mel agreed to be Ullas's advisor in the masters degree program.

The research commenced. His home in Mysore was only an hour's drive from Nagarahole National Park, which had a marvelous community of large mammals and a full complement of predators. He started collecting data on the tiger's prey using his recently acquired skills in wildlife censusing. He also established his own non-government organization -- the Centre for Wildlife Studies so his research would be eligible for funding.

Fast forward 3 years to Gainesville, Florida: Mel is making a case for Ullas's admission to grad school with a graduate assistantship. The committee votes in favor, but the chairman has a concern: "Since this student lives in India, how soon can he actually begin?

Mel's answer, "He's on the plane right now", raises a few eyebrows. The next day Ullas arrived in Gainesville with his thesis data in his carry-on baggage. He was ready for course work and writing up.

A year and a half later he had his masters degree in wildlife biology and was ready to go home. Separation from family made him decide to pursue his Ph. D. closer to home at the University of Mangalore, where Mel could still serve as his co-adviser. Residence in India also augered better for obtaining funds for radio-telemetry studies.

Before departure, he presented his results at WCS in New York. Bill Conway, then General Director, recognized promise when he saw it, and offered Ullas support for his continuing work. The result? Ullas become a WCS staff member, and with the added support his Center for Wildlife Studies expanded its programs.

There would be challenges to studying tiger and leopard ecology in India, because he proposed to do the country's first radio-telemetry study, and this was a nation where some viewed the technology as a shadowy tool of US espionage.

That wasn't all. When he was in the US, Ullas's mentor and Nagarahole's range warden, K.M. Chinnappa, had been framed on a false murder charge, arrested, humiliated, and shifted out of the park. In his absence timber and wildlife poaching had taken its toll. An exemplary warden, Chinnappa was subsequently vindicated and returned to his post, but the bitterly aggrieved offenders were waiting to even the score.

Ullas did his homework. He got approval in principle for the study from the state and central government, and he used it to bolster a detailed project proposal for funding, which he submitted to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, WCS, and the National Geographic Society. By mid-1989, all clearances were in place. Then a key official in the Ministry of Environment was transferred, and the paperwork was suspended. It delayed the capture operation by three and a half months. Any longer would have put if off another year.

Mel joined Ullas in early December, delivered the equipment, and taught the capture team the fine art of staking buffalo baits, spreading funnel fences of muslin cloth, and selecting strategically positioned trees for darting passing tigers. These were proven methods used in Mel's Nepal studies, but they were thinking on their feet, and added a new innovation--radio-collaring the bait animal. Finding the kill was a always nagging problem. With a transmitter on its neck, it could easily be located wherever the tiger dragged it.

They caught and collared 4 tigers in the first 22 days. Then three leopards joined the ranks of the collared study animals. The study was off and running, and so was Ullas, who had to radio track the 7 animals daily.

Then came reports of dead tigers from Nagarahole. By May, 1 of the 5 radio-collared tigers had died from a fight. Then four uncollared tigers were found dead. It was clear that Nagarahole had a large number of transient or landless tigers that were challenging resident tigers for space. There were professional necropsies. A broken tiger canine was extracted from the shoulder of one victim, and fighting wounds were found to be the cause of all the deaths.

Now anti-wildlife agitators seized the moment, and certain officials and members of the press joined the campaign, blaming capture and tranquilization for the deaths. Accused of trafficking tiger hides, Ullas became a target of ridicule and death threats.

But he didn't throw in the towel, and in the end, several years later, a special government committee vindicated him of any blame. He had learned an important lesson: there is more to field work than research. And in 1993 he finished his Ph. D. on the predator-prey relations of Nagarahole's large mammals.

Ullas had been thinking about tiger populations and census methods now for several years. Ever since Paul Joslin had demonstrated his own Polaroid camera traps (veterans of his Peace Corps days in Iran) Ullas realized that camera traps could be used to census tigers. Tiger stripe patterns are as good as bar codes, provided you photograph both sides of the cat.

This led to an ongoing and fruitful collaboration with Jim Nichols, and in due course they published a statistically robust census methodology for tigers and prey. Then, Ullas and colleagues examined data trends from pugmark surveys, and compared current figures across much of India's tiger range with those from the new methodology.

They showed that years of pugmark surveys were in fact a textbook example of self-fulfilled prophecy. Pugmark surveys had proven Project Tiger's success: tiger pugmarks had increased throughout the country, as expected and desired. The results were artifacts of a flawed method, and the authorities still defend the method blithely. That's why wildlife conservation is so hard; it's really about managing the Earth's most stubborn species.

So there you have a few glimpses of Ullas's transformation. The rest of the story--represented but partially in the references below--is history.

Congratulations, Ullas. You have earned it.

[wallah defined here]


Singh., L.A.K. 1999. Tracking tigers. Guidelines for estimating wild tiger populations using the pugmark technique. WWF Tiger Conservation Programme, New Delhi

Sunquist, F and M. Sunquist. 1988. Tiger Moon. University of Chicago Press.

Sunquist, M. 1981. The social organization of the tiger (Panthera tigris) in Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Smithsonian Contributions of Zoology, 336:1-98.

Karanth, K. U. 1987. Tigers in India: a critical review of field censuses. Pages 118-132 in Tigers of the World: The Biology, Biopolitics, Management and Conservation of an Endangered Species (eds. R. L. Tilson and U.S. Seal). Noyes Publications, Park Ridge, NJ.

Karanth, K.U. and M.E. Sunquist. 1992. Population structure, density and biomass of large herbivores in the tropical forests of Nagarahole, India. Journal of Tropical Ecology, 8:21-35.

Karanth, K.U. March 6, 1992. Oral History of tiger research recorded by C. Wemmer.

Karanth, K.U. and M.E. Sunquist. 1995. Prey selection by tiger leopard and dhole in tropical forests. Journal of Animal Ecology, 64:439-450.

Karanth, K.U. and J.D. Nichols. 1998. Estimation of tiger densities in India using photographic captures and recaptures. Ecology, 79: 2852-2862.

Karanth, K.U. and M.B. Stith. 1999. Prey depletion as a critical determinant of tiger population visibility. Pp 100-113 in Riding the Tiger: Tiger conservation in human dominated landscapes. (J. Seidensticker, S. Christie, and P. Jackson, eds). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK

Karanth, K.U. and M.E. Sunquist. 2000. Behavioral corrlates of predation by tiger, leopard and dhole in Nagarahole National Park, India, Journal of Zoology, 250:255-265.

Karanth, K.U., J D. Nichols, N. S. Kumar, W.A. Link, J. E. Hines, G. H. Orians. 2004. Tigers and Their Prey: Predicting Carnivore Densities from Prey Abundance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101(14):4854-4858

Karanth, K.U., J.D. Nichols, J. Seidensticker, E. Dinerstein, J.L.D. Smith, C. McDougal, A.J.T. Johnsingh, R.S.Chundawat, and V. Thapar. 2003. Science deficiency in conservation practice: the monitoring of tiger populations in India. Animal Conservation, 6:141-146.

Karanth, K.U. and J.D. Nichols (editors). 2002. Monitoring tigers and their prey, a manual for researchers, managers and conservationists inn tropical Asia. Centre for Wildlife Studies, (With support from WCS, USGS and WWF-US).

Karanth, K.U. 2006. A view from the machan, how science can save the fragile predator. Orient Longman.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A ratcatcher's hound

A couple weeks ago, Patrick Burns of Terrierman's Daily Dose kindly mentioned Camera Trap Codger. I want to return the favor, Pat, so here's an experience with rat hounds.

This was back in 1979 when I was searching for the little known "giant civet" or musang choklat of Sulawesi (Macrogalidia musschenbroekii). We were living with a farmer's family in a village named Liberia. It was a transmigrated community of Javanese, and being the best rice paddy engineers in the world, they had completely terraced the slopes leading to the far ridges of forest and Gunung Ambang where the mysterious musang lived. I know this sounds like J. Peterman on the Seinfeld re-runs, but it's true.

My "musang brothers" were Jack West, the young multilingual general curator of the Ragunan Zoo in Jakarta, and a perpetually smiling bumpkin named Ribowo, who was the local warden. Though several years my junior, Jack took his charge as my protector very seriously. Ribowo was our native guide, known affectionately to the locals.

It didn't take long for the word to get out that we were trapping rats, which really doesn't raise any eyebrows in an Indonesian village, and we were told that the village had its own ratcatcher, with whom we would have a lot in common.

His name was Mengko; he farmed like everyone else, and he supplemented his income by moonlighting as a ratcatcher. Roasted rats were a delicacy in Liberia. [Note: Southeast Asia has climbing rats, giant rats, water rats, and predaceous rats, to mention just a few, and they are all referred to "tikus" (you can pronounce that teekoos). I was told by Guy Musser that Sulawesi is the epicenter of rat diversity.]

The next morning we met Mengko with a cigarette stuck to his lip. He wore a pointy little cap like the Pied Piper, and had a quiet air of confidence. In tow were his 14-year-old apprentice with a gunny sack, and his pale bridled rat hound, which looked like it didn't have the strength to catch a cockroach. Between the sorry looking dog and these guys wearing garish sport shirts, I was starting to have doubts.

"How in the hell is he going to get rats?" I stammered. "He doesn't have any equipment!"

Jack explained that the equipment -- a shovel blade, a steel rod, and a parang (=machete) --was in the gunny sack, and the dog would dig up the burrows.

Roiiiight!!! I thought with sarcastic British accent. I couldn't wait to see them use a shovel without a handle. And that listless dog that strained to crap every 50 yards? We'd be lucky if it didn't die in the next half hour.

The hunting ground, a few kilometers from the village was an overgrown coffee plantation that dated back to the Dutch. The rats burrowed among the roots.

Mengko located a promising burrow with the rod, fashioned a handle for the shovel with the parang, cleared the ground vegetation, and started digging. The pooch buried its head in the burrow, snorted deeply, then took a break to squat and strain. The scenario was repeated for an hour.

Suddenly there was a magical transformation. Maybe it was the smell of rat. Whatever it was, it breathed life into the dog. Like a bionic badger a stream of soil shot out between its hind legs, and in a minute it was almost out of sight.

Obviously, the poor creature expected a meal of rat guts, it's usual reward, but we wanted those rats alive. Mengko dragged it from the hole, and caught the rat by hand. Still, the dog worked for several hours, energized each time by the smell of frightened rat, until we had a fine collection.

Then it followed us back to the village on an empty stomach.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Dead whales, gawkers, and scavengers

[Photo: Stephen Osman / Los Angeles Times]

A Blue whale made quite a stink and drew a fabulous crowd last week. Highway 101 beside Ventura's Solimar Beach was jammed as the masses clamored to the sand. Folks down there don't see much wildlife, and a beached whale is a once-in-a-lifetime experience anywhere in the world. Well, I take that back. A smaller blue whale was cast ashore on Long Beach a few weeks ago. It seems these leviathans made the fatal mistake of tarrying in the shipping lanes of the Santa Barbara channel, where whale food seems to be concentrated this year. The latest word is that the vets who performed the necropsy went home to bathe, and the carcass was buried by dozers.

Which makes you wonder. Are there marine scavengers suitably sized and equipped to dispose of this amount of putrescent mana? You know, not all whale, giant shark, and megasquid corpses come to rest on a beach or rocky shore, do they. Most of them, I imagine, linger in the deep blue sea like de-finned sharks. In the Pleistocene there was a fine assemblage of terrestrial scavengers here, including California condors, to fight over beached spoils, and we know that large cats stomach foul meat quite well. I can see Felis atrox and Smilodon fatalis following their noses to the beach.

What I want to know is this: are there any large marine scavengers in the briney deep? Or are colossi of carrion nibbled away by bacteria and gazillions of marine invertebrates? If someone in the blogosphere has the answer, please fill us in!

I guess it's just coincidence that Martin Collinson's blog -- George Bristow's Secret Freezer recently evoked a whale memory of my bygone youth. This moved Martin to do me one better in the category of tales of bawdy biologists.

I might add that as I was flensing that grampus, something moved me to smack the whale's mellon (the bonnet of fat) with the side of a machete. The purest of clear oil oozed forth, which I collected in a jar like some precious liquor. That night I lovingly rubbed the whale oil into the leather sheath of my skinning knife. It soon turned black and mellowed into the overwhelming and unmistakable smell of rancid whale oil. It was the gift that keeps on giving. Anything stored in my skinning kit (an old metal tackle box) acquired the bouquet. I kept it in the basement, and ten years passed before I discarded the sheath. Twenty years later I tossed the metal tackle box, but I still have the knife and its delicate bouquet to remind me of dead whales.

Thanks to Marty Fujita of Marty's Food Chain for setting the wheels in motion for this story.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A codger's kit

A faithful reader requested a post about my kit -- he was curious about the baggage I haul around in order to set the cameras, and the musical background to the hammer and pipe. (Go ahead and click it!)

The redhead took this picture of me a couple days ago when I got home. I had just gathered two cameras that had been out for over a month -- both had bear pictures, including (soto voce) some very intimate movies of a bathing she-bear. For those of you who are old enough to have read Frank Norris's "Octopus", they remind me of Annixter's Peeping Tom venture when his wife-to-be took her ablutions in the creek. (I think you'll like the paparazzi intrusiveness of the film, provided I can figure out how to edit the footage and post it.)

This should also give you an idea of the kit needed to set two camera traps.

To the left:
two cameras in Pelican cases (one camou, one black with cable for attachment)
two metal posts for staking cams (I can't always find a tree in the right place)
two "bear protectors" disarmed with wine corks (another good reason to drink wine)

Middle column of tiles
Pruning shears (long and short) and folding saw for "landscaping" trails and sets,
pipe and hammer (for alerting the bears that I am coming--this is carried in my back pocket, and can used to accompany oneself singing the Happy Wanderer),
Swiss army knife (for cutting rope and as a size reference for photos of scat etc.)
Cree crooked knife (for stripping branches when you need to make a post, stake, or walking stick)
Tool roll with screwdriver, nut drivers, and ratchet wrenches (for attaching hardware)

To the right:
water bottle (filled with iced Gatorade in summer)
surveyors tape (for trail marking)
Miranda's Jim River beaver scent (a scent lure)
Plastic container of hardware (for tacking bait and jury rigging)
string and nylon cord
rope ratchet (for attaching cams to trees when using the cord)
Off Clean Feel (contains Picaridin, less mutagenic than than DEET)
Furfindr with chain
two-way radio (to call the boss in case of emergency)
Rechargeable batteries and memory sticks (for cameras already out there)
notebook and pencils (if I am feeling poetic)
GPS for marking locations and recording tracks

I always carry an "Alpenstock" of California bay, and sometimes take a camera along. I gave up on carrying a multimeter -- when in doubt, replace batteries.

Thanks for the suggestion, Nigel.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Hairy entanglements

Bwah-ha-ha-ha . . . I tricked you with that title, didn't I!

And then you saw another blasted skunk picture. Well, I know you're tired of seeing skunks on this blog, and I'd much rather be writing about pictures of California quail, red tree mice, or kit foxes. But these seedy skunks delivered a story.

Skunks tank up at the water trough nightly, so the camera trap gives me a pretty good idea of who's coming and going. Seedy skunks started to show up back in July. A week later they were gone, and only well-groomed skunks were making appearances.

I can't tell you what kind of seeds they were, but the skunks, I suspect, dispersed the seeds far and wide as they grubbed about on their nocturnal beat. I imagine a lot of the seeds just dropped off, but carnivores are pretty persistent at grooming seeds out of their fur, too.

Epizoochory is an old story. Grass parts were recently discovered in dinosaur dung, so Juarrasic park might have been seeded by giant reptiles, but that's endozoochory.

We're talking about the first plants to hitch-hike "on" rather than "inside of" mammals (epizoochory). The earliest evidence for seed dispersal by hairy entanglement comes from the Dominican Republic in the late Eocene. A grass spikelet attached itself to some mammalian hair, a blob of tree pitch snared the entanglement, and the pitch was transformed to amber. The spikelet had hooked hairs on the lemma, which means that hairy entanglement had been going on for some time.

When the middle Miocene (c.20-10Ma) rolled around, prairies and savannas were widespread, and it is likely that mammals, especially migratory ungulates contributed to their spread. In seasonal climates sheep, bison, antelope, camels, and horses cover large distances moving between summer and winter ranges, and bushy manes and hair capes can carry a lot of seed. In domestic sheep the area between the shoulders is particularly prone to collect seeds and plant rubbish, and sheep growers refer to it as the "bird's nest".

You have to marvel at the myriad and frustrating ways that plant seeds stick to your sneakers and bury themselves in your socks. It's not just a chance thing.

So when my daughters had to do a science fair project in middle school, I suggested "Furs and burrs"! Our working hypothesis was that mammalian fur differs in its ability to catch burrs. The experimental design was simple. After school, the girls suited up with fur leggings of cottontail, woodchuck and deer skin (patches held on with rubber bands), and then traipsed through a measured track of weeds in the field next to the house. Afterwards, they combed the furs, and sorted the seeds for counting.

I just called them on the telephone to learn the results, and guess what? They didn't remember! They said it was great fun wearing the leggings and combing the furs, but they couldn't remember the results! Oh well, it was a fun if not elegant experiment.

I was pleased to find that just a few years ago some researchers did the experiment more scientifically. They tested seeds of 66 species on seven mammals to develop a "seed adhesivity score", but before I go any farther, let me state that I had to be satisfied with the limited information contained in the abstract of their publication -- the codger wasn't willing to pay $30 for a pdf file of the article.

As reported in the abstract: "Deep furs with long, rough, undulated hairs implanted at a large angle were most suited for seed adhesion, while seeds adhered less well to shallow furs with short, smooth, straight hairs implanted at small angles." Clearly we are talking about all kinds of bushy tails, and skunk tails fit the billing to a T.

The authors go on to say, however, that there was "an interaction effect between certain seed and fur types", which I take to mean that some furs and seeds were meant for each other. They also learned that though seed structure is a good predictor of hairy entanglement, less specialized seed types can still get a good grip on fur. In other words, all the species they tested seem able to disperse as hairy entanglements.

As frustrating as seeds may be in boots, pants, and mittens, they offered society a wonderful invention. It didn't take George de Mestral much time to figure out the hook and fastener principle that plants evolved millenia ago. That's how we got Velcro.


Couvreur M, B. Vandenberghe, K. Verheyen, and M. Hermy. 2004. An experimental assessment of seed adhesivity on animal furs. Seed Science Research, 14(2):147-159.

Manzano, P. and J.E. Malo. 2006. Extreme long-distance seed dispersal via sheep. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 4(5):244–248.

Milton, S.J., W.R. Siegfried, and W.R.J.Dean. 1990. The distribution of epizoocoric plant species: a clue to the prehistoric use of arid karoo rangelands by large herbivores. Journal of Biogeography, 17(1)25-34.

Poinar Jr, G. O. and J. T. Columbus. 1992. Adhesive grass spikelet with mammalian hair in Dominican amber: First fossil evidence of epizoochory. Journal of Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, 48(9):906-908.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Into the smoke

It was time to get out of the house yesterday and prime the adrenalin pump. I was tired of shallow breathing and inactivity. So I suggested a ride to the upper falls of Deer Creek, making no reference to destinations beyond (and closer to the fire.

"What about all the fire and smoke up there?", asked the redhead.

"Well, the weather report showed the smoke blowing to the southwest, and the road is open". That quelled her concerns.

We were driving up Rt 32 listening to Car Talk on the radio and the smoke was getting thicker, when the redhead observed that "breathing smoke can be bad for your health".

At this point in the program Ray was dissing his older brother about being "a city guy" with not an iota of the nature lover in his bones. The perfect cue for a change of topic.

"I always wonder if a month of outward bound would work on someone like Tommy Magliozzi. Do you think it would convert him to birdwatching and collecting pine cones?"

"We're getting closer to the fire," answered the redhead.

It was clear that the smoke was still spilling down the creek valleys, but it made for a pleasing background effect at the falls.

We lingered for a while, and I photographed the fish ladder tunnel. It's an impressive feat of engineering, but the sign says the salmon didn't like it.

My wife agreed to continue the ride to Lassen National Park. Apparently the smoke was affecting her thinking.

There was no one at the entrance booth. Everyone in the park looked to be our age or older, so maybe there was no need. We all have Golden Age passes, you know, and get in for free. It was good to see crews working on Sunday and removing white fir. With decades of fire control this highly flammable species has turned groves of jeffrey pine into thickets.

So the moonlight fire rages on. It is 15% in containment, and has scorched 52,000 acres. The smoke was thick even in Lassen, and we didn't see a single pika. They were all underground, probably with asthma.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Smoky memories

There's a fire in the mountains about 50 miles away. We're not in danger, but the smoke plumes over us during the day, and flows down the canyons at night. The Sacramento valley looks like an inland sea, the hills are gray, and the house smells like chipotle, which isn't bad . . . for a while anyway.

I woke up at 3:07 last night with an acrid presence in my sinuses. Couldn't sleep. The security light next to the house kept going on and off -- thirsty skunks at the water trough, I guess. Then came the smoky memories . . . .

A sunny spring day in 1950, Lafayette Elementary School, San Francisco
I'm looking towards the classroom window and freedom outside, smelling burning eucalyptus leaves in Golden Gate Park. It's beautiful outside, and I hear the cries of peacocks in the park . . . why am I being held captive? Then the teacher calls my father for a meeting. Apparently he is clueless. Unless he can influence my behavior, she dreads another week of school. She advises him to lower his expectations for my future. My mother says he was rather glum that weekend.

1952. San Francisco. Geary street between 40th and 39th avenues
We hear the fire engines before we smell the smoke. Burning linoleum. When the firemen arrive, my friend Clayton, who lives in the burning house is dancing and leaping for joy. He started the fire. Luckily the fire department puts it out before it reaches the basement, where we used to play with a box of machine gun ammo left over from the war.

1958, A Thanksgiving fieldtrip to Bridleveil Campground (now closed), Yosemite National Park
A field trip for science nerds--student members of the California Academy of Sciences. It is cold, so cold that my fellow nerds are raiding my plant press for newsprint to insulate their sleeping bags. This is irritating, but I can't complain. My bag needs insulation too. We also warm our feet in front of the campfire, and I am the only one who doesn't heed the smell of burning rubber. It is hard keeping up with my friends wearing boots with curled soles.

1982, December. Royal Chitawan National Park, Nepal
The sun is a red rubber ball. At 3:00 PM there's enough smoke in the air that you can look at it without burning holes in your retinas. The villagers are lighting fires in and out of the park. Not to worry, they're not wildfires. Indian rollers and drongos follow the flames and glean smoke-dazed insects with frazzled wings. The firing of the terai is an ancient rite that's good for ungulates. In a few weeks chital and great one-horned Asian rhinos, not to mention cattle and buffaloes will be munching on the greensward. Burning grass smells sharp, but burning sal (Shorea robusta) smells like incense.

c. 1985. Chitawan again, Smithsonian-Nepal Tiger Ecology Project
Sweating in my skivies under a mosquito net, upstairs in a wooden bungalow, I am a dysenteric zombie trapped in the stench of burning elephant dung. There is no escape. The mahouts burn green dung balls as a nightly ritual. It's a sanitary practice. Like Gunga Din, Bishnu delivers electrolytes and bottles of water three times a day. I make dozens of trips to the loo, day and night. A Swedish tour group sees me creaking down the stairs in my stained skivies. They think I'm a druggie. I don't care. My only goal is to get to the loo without you-know-whating myself.

At 4:30 the redhead asks if I want the radio on. I do.

The BBC reports the state of the world. Pavarotti has died and Putin is selling arms to Indonesia . . .

There will be no more double espresso iced coffees with lunch.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Remembering a mentor of years past -- C. Don MacNeill

Tom’s Place Campground, Owens Valley, California--August 1959

We pulled off of Route 395 and negotiated the dusty potholes to our campsite. It was dark, and our mentors, MacNeill and Lundgren, were silhouettes in the light of a Coleman lamp. We unloaded our gear and joined them.

"Well, did you get anything, or was it a wild goose chase?" MacNeill smiled.

"We didn’t do too badly", replied my friend Dave as he handed him a cyanide jar full of dead katydids.

Don slowly turned the jar and assessed the catch, as Dave not only named most of the species, but recalled their host plants and details about their songs. (Dave and I had often debated the relative difficulty of collecting katydids to trapping rodents. Though I wouldn’t admit it, finding serenading insects at night in the sagebrush was a lot harder than trapping mice.)

My own report was less learned, but equally enthusiastic. That night we saw so many kangaroo rats and pocket mice crossing the roads, I was sure that the mouse traps known as "museum specials" would be full in the morning.

"I’m going to be mighty busy tomorrow putting up specimens", I crooned.

Our mentors smiled. "Well, why don’t you have a look at what we found here in camp", said Mr. Lundgren. The Coleman lantern and the bedsheet had reaped a great collection of moths, beetles, flies and other goodies. The message was clear: you don’t have to drive all over the valley to find good specimens.

A middle-aged man with flashlight approached us from the next campsite. "Boys, I gather that you’re naturalists."

MacNeill and Lundgren remained silent, and Dave resumed his discourse about our collecting activities.

"You didn’t by any chance lose some rattlesnakes, did you?"

Dave looked to me, the snake chaser.

"I don’t think so…", I hesitated. Then I registered the paternal forbearance of the three men. …. "but maybe I should check."

I bee-lined to the minnow can. Had the rattlers pushed open the lid? Or had I somehow failed to latch it after admiring the five beauties that afternoon? When I reached the can, it was empty and the lid was unlatched.

"Damn, they’re gone!" I exclaimed with an appropriate measure of drama.

"Well", said the stranger, "I think you might want to come over to my camp and collect them again." It was clear that he had been tip-toeing around rattlesnakes all afternoon, and had already discussed his concern with MacNeill and Lundgren.

Dave and I fetched the flashlights and snake stick, and as we pussy-footed to his campsite, yesterday’s memory flashed back to me…

"What the hell is that?" asked Mr. Lundgren as he released the hand brake. The minnow can was a splendid resonating chamber, and the bump of the hand brake set off the rattlers that were inside.

"Oh, just the rattlesnakes", I replied as if everyone kept a can of snakes next to he stick-shift.

"Well get ‘em the hell out of here. I’m not driving with a bucket of rattlesnakes next to my foot." The logic of keeping those lovely rattlers in the safety of the cab had somehow escaped Mr. Lundgren.

We searched the brush around our neighbor’s camp in quiet embarrassment, but a half hour later we had four of the five rattlesnakes back in the minnow can.

"Let’s hope the other one is gone forever", reflected our neighbor with a stern eye, "but maybe you should have another look in the morning." We never did figure out why our neighbor’s campsite had proved so attractive to those snakes. But we were lucky to be in the company of men who, when compared to our parents had the patience of Job. But then our parents weren’t naturalists.

That was 47 years ago. C. Don MacNeill, then a 35 year-old freethinker with a disdain for neckties, was a curator of entomology at the California Academy of Sciences. Milford Lundgren had been Don’s high school science teacher. Dave Rentz and I, then in our mid-teens, were members of the Academy’s Student Section, a club for "science nerds" that bore a certain resemblance to a secret society. When a San Francisco science teacher diagnosed a kid as having incurable biophilia, she would drop hints about "this special place for children like you".

On Saturdays a bevy of geeky adolescents converged from across the city at "the special place". The basement of the erstwhile Academy’s east wing housed the student section’s collections, library, meeting room, work areas, and a specimen prep area. Our guides there were a no-nonsense Stanford graduate student named Al Leviton, and a student teacher named Ray Bandar, who bore a curious resemblance to an over-developed Cosmo Kramer.

There were field trips. On Saturday mornings Bandar carted us in a WWII Dodge power wagon to various bay area destinations for "collecting".

The unofficial open-door policy between the Student Section and the science departments meant that an unusual specimen could win you an audience with a scientist. Don was certainly one of the academy’s most approachable scientists. You could count on finding him in his office or in the collection pouring over a drawer of pinned skippers.

Don MacNeill died in August 2005 at the age of 81. Two weeks later, Dave and I paid homage to our old mentor by revisiting the sites of that trip nearly 50 years ago. Fond memories of youth and discovery don’t fade easily, but they can’t be called up like the files on a computer’s hard drive. We needed to go through the experience. As we lived out the familiar old collecting ritual, the old sights and sounds summoned fragmented memories of times with our old friend. The trip accomplished what we wanted.

Memories of the First Trip
We were flattered by the invitation. True, we needed our parents’ permission, but by Dave’s reckoning MacNeill and Lundgren recognized the signs of our impending maturity. As my teenage friend put it, "They didn’t invite us to be our baby-sitters". No doubt they had weighed the pros and cons, but in reality, the invitation was simply a well-intentioned gesture. In two enthusiastic boy naturalists they probably recognized themselves.

Most importantly, the trip was a chance for Don to settle unfinished business in the Sierras. In 1959 he had discovered a new species of butterfly zipping about in the thin air of Mono Pass, and he named the skipper for his mother, Hesperia miriamae MacNeill. The scientific description of "miriamae" was unfinished, however, because he hadn’t yet seen or described the larvae. His summer trip to the high country had become an annual quest for gravid females, and a mission impossible. For several years he had returned from the mountains with females, but they had failed to lay eggs. The goal of describing the larval form eluded him for several more years. If it hadn’t been for that frustrating reality, we might not have been invited.

The timing was good. The dog days of August, 1958, were dragging on. School would start in a few weeks, and we were aching for diversion. Dave had just acquired "wheels", a hand-me down Volkswagen pickup truck from his father. Owens Valley would be the big one of the summer of ‘58, and the first of many trips we would do on our own.

It was 5:30 AM when my father dropped me off at the Rentz house in the Sunset District. Dave’s powder blue Volkswagen, symbolic of our freedom was in the garage. "Now that you have your learner’s permit", Dave said, "you can help me drive".

He went upstairs, and I loaded my gear into the truck with the energy of a sleepwalker. Then I climbed into the passenger’s seat, and stretched out for a snooze with my feet on the dashboard. Something snapped under my boot. The key! To my embarrassment I had broken it off in the ignition. A few minutes later Dave was back, and I made my feeble attempt to explain the improbable event…"You’re not going to believe this…". Dave found that he could still start the car by jamming the base of the key into the keyhole. With the confession over, my trusting friend asked me to back the car out of the garage. I was doing well until I heard a snapping sound. I had broken off the side view mirror. Thus started our trip to the eastern Sierras 47 years ago.

MacNeill and Lundgren beat us to our meeting place that day at Sonora Pass. There were delays for car repairs in Sonora, and Volkswagens were notoriously slow on grades. We found Don’s car parked on the shoulder, but the men were out of sight, so we collected on the slopes within view of the car until my friend started summoning me excitedly:

"You’ve got to see this!" I hurried down the slope and found Dave displaying his prize with wonderment. He had enthused about grylloblattids many times, and now there it was, looking like a soggy distended termite.

"That thing’s a grylloblattid? You’ve got to be kidding". It was one of those archaic missing links, a primitive Orthopteran that evolved in the shadows of glaciers. In a few years I would listen with a certain smugness as Professor Larry Swan waxed eloquent about grylloblattids, which thrive in the Aeolian zone, the high snowy reaches of mountains that the late professor discovered in the Himalaya. As Swan would have put it, the updrafts on high mountains deliver manna from the lowlands--spiders and all manner of aerial insects--to the hungry grylloblattids waiting under the snow like creatures from a Japanese sci-fi movie.

After nearly two hours of netting insects we had wandered back to the car, and were relieved to see our two friends descending the slope above us. We were together at last. Dave explained "our little accident" that caused the delay. I rolled my eyes. Don thought he might have seen a miriamae, "but it was going like a bat out of hell". In the late afternoon shadows we caravanned down the eastern slope of the Sierras towards Bridgeport. We kept a safe distance behind, because Lundgren conserved gas by coasting and riding the brake. When the road leveled out he popped the clutch and the car lurched with a smoky report.

I had never met Mr. Lundgren before. He had been Don MacNeill’s high school teacher, and he was an amateur entomologist and a knowledgable recreational naturalist who collected insects for biological supply houses. The biological supply houses sold them as "biological preparations" to schools and universities.

He was also a storyteller, as we learned that night in camp. Don had cooked his field specialty—glop. At last we learned the ingredients of his little secret. It was nothing more than tuna casserole, a mixture of tuna, noodles, peas, and mushroom soup, but he played up the glop story ("You'll find out soon enough') for suspense.

The topic of bears came up after dinner, and Lundgren issued a stern warning: never attempt to catch a bear cub in a tree. We had no idea that bear cubs were particularly dangerous, and he baited our youthful gullibility. He had committed the mistake himself somewhere in northern California in his youth. The bear had climbed as high as possible in a small ponderosa pine. He laid out his plan, which was to climb up and grab it by the scruff of its neck.

"I never got close enough for that. The bear was so terrified it starting crapping, and it didn’t finish its business till I was back on the ground. I don’t know what that cub was eating, but I assure you it didn’t smell like digested mother’s milk." He burned his clothes, and was never again interested in rescuing bear cubs. It was the kind of story that appeals to young men, especially young biologists with a weakness for scatological humor.

We left early the next day for Mono Pass, the type locality of "miriamae". We looked up to the pass from the trailhead. It was far above us, and the switchbacks looked like an unnecessary delay. Our mentors read our thoughts. "Just take your time", they advised. "We’ll collect on these switchbacks, take in the scenery, and in a few hours we’ll reach the pass."

The three entomologists took their time, but impetuosity sent me straight up the slope. When my friends’ caught up with me clouds were blowing over, the temperature was dropping, and I was still nauseous. They had a splendid collection of late summer insects. My colleagues reveled in the sights and collected more specimens as I sat glumly on a rock paying for my stupidity. It was a good lesson.

These were the fond memories that returned to us in the clear air of the eastern Sierra on our trip of 2005. We were two old guys locked in a time warp.

But one last thing. I haven't mentioned Don's theory of soul.

I was 16 when my grandfather died, and when things had settled after the funeral I stopped by the Academy to visit with Don. I didn't intend to mention my loss, but he expressed his sympathy, and I became a little emotional. He asked if I had good memories of him. Teary eyed, I answered, "Yes".

"He has a strong soul." He told me that his idea of the soul was the aggregate of good memories that one leaves behind.

Then he asked me if I wanted to drive to the Santa Cruz Mountains with him in a couple weeks to collect ferns. Of course I agreed. More good memories.

By his own definition, Don MacNeill has a very strong soul.

Note: This blog post was a joint effort with my old buddy, Dave Rentz (aka Mr Smiley to blog comment readers). Our memories of Don the mentor overlapped, but specific events differed. While I drifted away, Dave remained close to Don through the years. But when I visited Don at the academy around 2002, he asked me to send him my publications. The old mentor hadn't changed.

Many thanks to Library Assistant Karren Elsbernd for scanning the image of Don MacNeill, and the California Academy of Sciences for permission to reproduce it here. Photographer (c) California Academy of Sciences


Brown, R.M., J.M. Burns, M.M. Collins, P.A, Opler, J.A. Powell, and J. Vernon. 2006. Remembering Don MacNeill. Journal of the Lepidopterist's Society, 60(2):107-114.