Saturday, April 22, 2006

Good reads

A couple of months ago I read Scott Weidensaul's book The Ghost With Trembling Wings. It is about the search for vanishing and possibly vanished wildlife. It's a good book, wide ranging and well written, accessible enough for anyone to pick up but filled with enough unheralded stories to reward the seasoned biologist.

Looking back on the book with a couple of months' perspective, one of the best bits is the section on the black-footed ferret. Ferrets eat prairie dogs, which used to be as common as dirt on the Great Plains but have been pushed back to handful of refuges. You don't have to be an ecologist to figure out that if you want to have a breeding population of ferrets, you need a shitload of prairie dogs to sustain them. The number of places that could possibly support a population of ferrets is tiny. You could count them on one hand. This animal is staring right down the long black barrel of extinction while we stroke the trigger.

When this problem first came to wide attention a few decades ago, the decision was made to try to round up all the remaining ferrets and establish a captive breeding program. Other species have been saved by such efforts in the years since--the California condor and the Mauritius kestrel come to mind--but at the time it was a largely untested strategy. A new ferret population was discovered out west, in Wyoming I think, and promptly carted up and moved to some rainy shithole on the east coast. Not surprisingly, the ferrets died. It was a huge hit, one that the species could ill afford, and it had been inflicted through the carelessness of the people who were supposed to be trying to save it.

The reason it comes back to me is because of one or two throwaway lines, to the effect that after the annihilation of that population by conservationists, ranchers in the area stopped reporting ferret sightings. Maybe it was because there were no ferrets to report. But maybe it was because the ranchers figured the ferrets had a better chance in the wild than in the care of some pointy-headed degree-holders with little common sense.

Am I being too hard on the biologists who conducted that first disastrous ferret removal? I don't know. No doubt if I tracked them down, I'd find some who would explain the very logical reasons they had for doing things as they did, and others who would cry into their beers. But I don't feel that bad about judging them. Anyone who expects a rare mammal from the Great Plains to thrive in a rain-soaked mid-Atlantic state--who, in fact, is betting the survival of the species on that expectation--is a dumbass.

Ditto with the National Park and Forest Services with their decades of absolute total burn bans. (Ditto with Phantom Menace, for that matter.) I can't help wondering why someone didn't stand up and say, hey, this is stupid, let's doing something else. Surely, surely, those rangers out roaming around their parks noticed that the amount of fuel on the ground was getting out of hand. Surely. But the policy didn't change until the epic firestorms of the past two decades. WTF?

I've decided that it must be something institutional. If a grip or an extra points out to George Lucas that his dialogue sucks more balls than a ball-sucking donkey, he's off the picture (the extra, that is, not George--more's the pity). And possibly that grip or extra is an aspiring something, and being a nobody on a Star Wars shoot is still their best or only toehold in the industry. I imagine that some bright young grad student thought moving the ferrets to Cloaca, Virginia was a bad idea, but the idea came from her advisor who was also funding her research. And I'm dead certain that the National Park Service has ways of silencing rangers that make troublesome observations. So either the observations weren't reported, or the reports were ignored.

It's hard to fly north when the prevailing institutional wind is blowing south. I don't have much time for criticisms of the "culture of science". Science is the way it is for good reasons, and most of the time it works (go read David Hull's Science As a Process if you think otherwise). But science has its blind spots, the places no one is willing to go, the thoughts that no one is willing to air. I wonder how much of that is because science is inextricably tied up with money and politics, and how much is because everyone is too afraid of career immolation to say what is on everyone else's mind.

Yuck. Shudder.

Anyway, give The Ghost With Trembling Wings a look. The best thing I can say about it is, if you've read Song of the Dodo and you're wondering what to read next, it just might be the ticket.


Libro Numero Dos on tonight's agenda is Seashells of North America, a Golden Field Guide by Abbott, Zim, and Sandstrom.

On three mornings this week I went down to the beach to pick up shells. There are worse ways to start the day. What I'm wondering now is why I haven't been doing this all along. We've lived in Santa Cruz for almost five years, we've only got about two months left, and so far the number of times I've gone in for serious beachcombing is, uh, three.

One of my Mom's best friends married a park ranger, and one year we went to visit them at their house in Colorado Springs. We were there to go up Pike's Peak, too, so we were astounded to learn that the ranger and his family had lived in Colorado Springs for years and had never been up to see the top. It was right on their doorstep! Now I have a little more perspective on how that might happen. Suddenly we are seeing Santa Cruz in a new light. Not as residents, for whom the city's attractions will be available indefinitely, but as tourists who know their vacation is coming to an end. We have an opportunity to dine out: do we take a chance on someplace new, that one place that we always wanted to try, or do we go back to an old favorite for what might be the last time? I walk past the city's natural history museum and wonder why I never became a member. Sea kayaking classes: before I had a baby to tend and a dissertation to write, what kept me from signing up? Not sloth, for a change. Overconfidence. The future is a long way off. You've got plenty of time. Do it later.

Do it now.

So now I have one bowl full of clams and cockles, another full of snails, and a plate with barnacles, limpets, calcified worm tubes, pretty rocks, and sea monster teeth (I found another one today). Having specimens in the house that I can't identify is intolerable. So I walked to Logos this afternoon and picked up Seashells of North America.

SONA was not my only possible choice, of course. I passed up the Beachcomber's Guide to the Pacific Northwest and the Audubon Guide to Seashore Life (no guarantees that I've gotten those titles exactly right), among many others. Both books were chock full of glossy photos showing living animals. I've got frikkin' shells, man. I can't imagine why a supposed "beachcomber's guide" would have large glossy photos of clams stuck to rocks several meters below the surface. Maybe I've been doing it wrong.

Anyway, SONA wasn't the flashiest choice. It was originally published in 1968. I should know, I got a first edition. But it would have been obvious anyway. It's fully illustrated with the sort of field guide paintings that look decades old when they're brand new, and the whole production of the book, from chapter organization to page layout to the little blurbs of natural history that accompany each entry, screams "artifact of another time".

That's why I picked it up. Well, that and the $4.50 price tag.

These days field guides tend to be all range maps and breeding plumage. I need some background. Some zoology, fer cryin' out loud, and all that that entails. Preferrably delivered in a rigid Linnean framework, not because I don't get phylogenetic taxonomy but because anything recent enough to be phylogenetically based will not have the breadth of introductory information I'm looking for. A geologic time scale is good (p. 15). Cross-sections of the shells showing how they're built are even better (p. 22). Some quaint pictures of homemade collecting gear (p. 40) and hand-drawn specimen labels (p. 45) are required. These signal to me: you too can become a malacologist. This book has all you need. There are no tie-ins or add-ons, no Abbott Guide To Seashell Life and Behavior to spend my next thirty bucks on, no Audubon Handbook for Attracting Seashells To Your Backyard. This book is it. Origin, evolution, anatomy, classification, glossary, how-to guide and more, all in the first 50 pages.

And then...the feast.

I got SONA because it looked readable. The Audubon book is impressive-looking, but I can't imagine actually reading it. The Beachcomber's Guide was worse, very far down the big pictures/little content path of damnation that the Guinness Book of World Records has already trod. And read I did.

I now know the difference between a sea hare and a nudibranch (the former have no gills). I know that a certain species of hermit crab prefers scaphopod shells and can block the entrance with its two semicircular chelae, and that shipworms are really very long clams that wear their tiny shells like hats. Janthinid snails are pelagic, eat floating critters like jellyfish and men-o-war, and can cast off their shells at will. Keyhole limpets poop out their chimneys. I had no idea that pteropods or "sea butterflies" even existed. They look like they should be floating through the storms of Jupiter, vast sky-grazers kilometers across. Instead they are tiny, Earthbound, and planktonic.

By minute increment, my life is richer for knowing these things. I like to be surprised. I like monsters. Monsters on the big screen are good. Real monsters are much better. Every time I see some odd bit of morphology or behavior, I wonder how it came to be that way. How long has it existed? What is the range of variation? Is the existence of this thing, this plant or animal or horn or migration route, necessary and predictable or contingent and accidental?

About a hundred yards from the house is the four-lane bridge over the San Lorenzo River. On Tuesday morning, for the first time in five years, I noticed that there are swallows nesting under the bridge. When I pass by at 9:00 on my way to the beach, the whole flock is in constant motion, zooming from their nests out over the river and back. I assume they're getting insects. When I come back by at 10:30, there is not a bird to be seen. Where do they go? What are they doing? One of these mornings I'm going to have to park myself on the riverbank with my binoculars and find out.

Angels and ministers of grace defend me--I think I may become a birder.


Blogger Darren Naish said...

Sitting in my office compiling and coding characters for my Chapter 4 analysis gave me a tremendous urge to get out of the house and go roll in leaf litter or something. In other words, to get out of the house.

So today Will and I went on a 10 km round trip to a beech forest we hadn't visited before. On the way there we stopped at some scrubby wasteland and lifted up old carpet. We found a slow worm Anguis fragilis, which is a tremendous discovery for me (I went back later to photograph it but it had moved away). Then we got to the woods. There were chiffchaffs, jays, squirrels, brimstone butterflies and chaffinches. Nothing special, but nice.

We sat near a stream and a vole ran out, down and across the stream, and up the bank on the other side. On the way back a buzzard soared on thermals over a field. Will doesn't know what a buzzard is, so I told him it was an eagle.

And when I sat on a branch that broke under my weight I did get to roll around in leaf litter.

So, yes, make the effort to explore what's there, when you can. It's a form of self-betterment, and eductional too.

1:38 PM  
Blogger Darren Naish said...

WTF does 'eductional' mean? Sorry, I became momentarily lilliterate. Idiot.

1:42 PM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

I hope you don't feel silly for making such an amazing mistake.


4:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the continued exposition of stupid black-footed ferret conservation techniques, I suggest everybody read:

Owen, P.R., Bell, C.J., and Mead, E.M. 2000. Fossils, diet, and conservation of black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes). Journal of Mammalogy 81(2):422–433.

Its a good example of when ecological relationships are not all they seem.

8:48 PM  

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