Intrepid reporter: Avoid floating masses of fire ants

One would think that if a large newspaper company were going to rewrite press releases sent to them – rather than going out and finding news stories – it could do so in an intelligent manner.

A reporter for al.com, which is the website for several publications, including Alabama newspapers the Birmingham News, the Mobile Press-Register and the Huntsville Times, apparently decided the recent arrival of Tropical Storm Cindy, with its potential for flooding, would be a good opportunity to rewrite a release from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System on the dangers of fire ants.

Fire ants, of course, aren’t daunted by flooding, as they ball together by the thousands during floods, making small rafts that enable them to survive for considerable periods until they find dry land.

According to the al.com story, “If a person encounters one of these floating balls of fire ants, it can be seriously bad news, causing potentially serious health problems not to mention many painful bites.”

Anyone living in the South who isn’t aware that a floating mass of fire ants is bad news either just stepped off the plane from an Inuit enclave in northern Canada or has serious short- and long-term memory issues.

And it isn’t the bite of fire ants that is so much bothersome as the other end of the critter; the fire ant has a sharp stinger on its rear, connected to an internal venom sac.

Among advice al.com included, directly quoting the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service release, was the following:

During times of flooding, avoid contact with floating masses of fire ants; and if you are in a rowboat, do not touch the ants with oars.

It’s understood that newspapers cater to a sixth-grade reading level, but even in sixth grade, when I happened to live along the Mississippi River, I knew you didn’t mess with fire ants, never mind a floating mass of the pernicious devils.

To be told to avoid contact with floating masses of fire ants is akin to being instructed not to stare directly into the sun with a pair of high-powered binoculars.

If all this seems nitpicky, remember that the fire ant that today has spread throughout the Southern US, the Southwestern US and California, came into the United States through the port of Mobile in the 1930s. One would expect a story from a site representing in part the Mobile Press-Register to have a pretty good understanding of the facts regarding this invasive and painful nuisance.

(Top: Fire ants grouped together floating on water.)

Herpetophobes beware: Some snakes found to hunt in unison

Snakes, central characters in many a nightmare, may have just added to their bad reputations: Researchers have found that some of the slithering reptiles attack in packs.

Cuban boas hunt as a team to increase efficiency, providing evidence of the creature’s intelligence, a University of Tennessee scientist has found.

“Coordinated hunting requires higher behavioral complexity because each animal has to take other hunters’ actions into account,” said Vladimir Dinets, the study author and an assistant research professor in the school’s psychology department.

While increased food consumption is believed to be the main reason for the behavior, it’s also possible there is a social function linked to working together, according to RedOrbit.com.

Snakes have been observed to hunt together previously, but the amount of coordination was questionable, and Dinets’ research is the first scientific recording of such behavior.

A recent much-viewed video by the BBC’s Planet Earth showing a young iguana barely escaping a seemingly endless number of attacking snakes would seem to be evidence of the reptiles working toward the same goal, though necessarily in a coordinated effort.

The new research showed how individual snakes take into account the location of others.

The snakes Dinets studied were hunting fruit bats in Cuba. At dawn and dusk, they positioned themselves around the mouth of the cave in such a way as to increase the chances of catching prey.

“Snakes arriving to the hunting area were significantly more likely to position themselves in the part of the passage where other snakes were already present, forming a ‘fence’ across the passage and thus more effectively blocking the flight path of the prey, significantly increasing hunting efficiency,” an extract from the study explained.

The Cuban boa can reach 6 feet in length, which makes the fact that they hang upside down from the roofs of caves even more remarkable.

“After sunset and before dawn, some of the boas entered the passage that connected the roosting chamber with the entrance chamber, and hunted by suspending themselves from the ceiling and grabbing passing bats,” Dinets said.

Dinets observed that the positions taken up by the snakes lowered the chances of bats getting out of the cave. Brilliantly, those hanging positions also meant they behaved like the bats they were trying to catch, according to RedOrbit.com.

For the 2 percent of us that like snakes, this is fascinating; for everyone else, it’s more fodder for bad dreams.

Evil invertebrate vs. good vertebrate: who you got?

The BBC has a report that the squeamish will find most disturbing: Invertebrates such as spiders and centipedes feasting on vertebrates, including birds, snakes and turtles.

Among incidents included in the story: A tarantula eating 15-inch snake that it had apparently subdued and killed last year in Brazil; a dragonfly catching a hummingbird in midair and eating it in 1977 in Canada; and Scolopendra centipedes, which regularly scales walls to either grab bats as they swoop past or pluck them from roosts while they sleep. The centipedes also eat birds, mice, lizards, frogs and snakes.

Even animal lovers can find this sort of behavior unnerving – after all, vertebrates typically eat invertebrates, not the other way around.

“Most of us are happy to watch vertebrates hunting vertebrates; if lions kill a giraffe, we might feel sadness but not revulsion, and we cheer when the baby iguana escapes the racer snakes. Similarly, if a vertebrate hunts an invertebrate, that seems normal: an early bird catching the worm is simply being enterprising,” according to the BBC. “But invertebrates eating vertebrates is another matter. We find ourselves horrified by crabs preying on baby turtles, wasps targeting nestling birds, or a giant centipede munching on a bat. Somehow it seems wrong, as if the natural order has been turned on its head – but why?”

The BBC surmises that the reason may be that we instinctively recognize that we are much more akin to other vertebrates than we are to invertebrates.

“We might not use the word “vertebrate,” but a dog is clearly more similar to us than a giant centipede,” it writes. “Not only does the dog have hair and the same number of limbs, it also behaves in understandable ways, displaying familiar emotions like happiness and anger.

“ … we cannot understand invertebrates in the same way that we understand dogs, lions or eagles,” the BBC added. “They are just too alien, their behavior too strange and their bodies too dissimilar. They do not have waggy tails and their eyes are never big and soulful.”

Or, as one of my daughter said when I asked why she didn’t like spiders: “Too many eyes, too many legs!”

If you’ve ever seen a frog swarmed over and stung to death by fire ants, or a lizard being stung repeatedly by a hornet, it does appear that things sometimes go amiss in the animal kingdom.

And while Scolopendra gigantea, also known as the Amazonian giant centipede, has yet to make its way to the US from South America, that’s one creepy-crawly I can foresee showing up in my nightmares.

(Top: I chose an image of a pug eating a sprinkled donut for this story because, well, the other photos, while interesting, would have undoubtedly upset lovers of baby turtles, small birds and other cute animals which happened to have fallen into the clutches of voracious invertebrates.)

Pint-sized pooch pays price for owners’ indolence

A small yappy dog in a San Francisco-area bedroom community was helped to its eternal reward early Monday morning, courtesy of a mountain lion that slipped into the canine owners’ home and made off with it.

A 15-pound Portuguese Podengo was grabbed from a bedroom in a Pescadero home after the residents reportedly left their French doors partially open for the dog to go outside, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The dog woke its owners around 3 a.m. by “barking aggressively.” A witness told authorities she saw the shadow of an animal come into the room through the French doors, grab the dog from the bed and walk out. When she grabbed a flashlight, she saw “large wet paw prints” near the bedroom’s entrance, and called 911.

When police arrived on scene, they discovered paw prints resembling those of a mountain lion, and notified the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

While certainly unfortunate, I have trouble mustering much sympathy for dogs that bark a great deal after hours, or, more particularly, for people who leave their doors open in the middle of the night.

Some will argue that the dog was making noise because it sensed the mountain lion and was being protective, but the fact remains there are too many dogs that bark continuously, disturbing everyone and their brother.

Perhaps if word gets around on the canine grapevine that mouthing off after hours could result in becoming a mountain lion’s late-night snack, a few pooches will think twice before baying all the livelong day (and night).

I don’t expect people who leave their dogs to bark nonstop to suddenly wise up and begin paying attention to their animals.

As for folks who leave their doors open so they don’t have to be bothered getting up and walking their pets, well, it’s hard to muster much sympathy for the indolent.

California wildflower bloom short-lived but spectacular

California’s Carrizo Plain National Monument covers some 250,000 acres – a swath of land 38 miles by 17 miles – between San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield and due north of Santa Barbara. Despite its rugged beauty and location within perhaps three hours of the several million residents of Los Angeles, it receives just a few thousand visitors a year.

At present, one of the more spectacular aspects of California’s spring is taking place in the Carrizo Plain National Monument. A “superbloom” of wildflowers, with a seemingly endless array of yellows, purples, blues, reds and oranges, is giving the area the appearance of an impressionist’s palette.

Carrizo Plain National Monument, at the southern end of California’s Central Valley, is a vast grassland where antelope, elk and numerous other fauna roam, inhabitants of the last undeveloped, unfarmed region of grasslands that once covered much of the state.

Called California’s Serengeti, the Carrizo Plain is home to a variety of threatened or endangered species.

It has been inhabited off and on for millennia and features Indian pictographs believed to date back thousands of years.

The remote monument is also traversed by the San Andreas Fault, which has carved valleys, moved mountains and can be viewed up close in the ridges and ravines evident throughout the region.

Within a few weeks, at most, the superbloom will have withered and given way to the drab brown of dry grass, which a good part of the sun-baked state is noted for much of the year. But like a nova in the night sky, the bright explosion of colors may fade but will most certainly leave a brilliant memory.

(Top and middle: Images taken of superbloom of wildflowers at Carrizo Plain National Monument, California, by Bureau of Land Management.)

Butterflies: neither butter nor fly, but still welcome

Spring’s advent is announced any number of ways, depending on what part of the world one inhabits. In the Deep South, wisteria vines taking bloom in otherwise drab, lifeless trees are often the first sign that seasons are changing.

This year, I came across a new harbinger: a brood of recently hatched Eastern tiger swallowtails.

During a weekend drive through the country 10 days ago, I stopped at a small creek to peer at the water coursing below. Being shallow, the creek was more sand than stream. In one of the many islands were eight Eastern tiger swallowtails, a common butterfly noted for its yellow body and black stripes, congregating together.

After snapping a few photos from the bridge, I made my way down to stream level. With each couple of steps, I’d snap photos, not knowing when the insects would take flight.

After a short time I was upon them, and it was only when I touched a couple with my finger did some make a lazy effort at flight. Others simply walked a few inches away.

It was apparent that this group had just hatched and were sunning themselves, letting their wings dry before setting off in search of food.

The Eastern tiger swallowtail is among butterflies that spends winter in a chrysalis, emerging when the weather warms. This made sense as it seemed difficult to fathom caterpillars finding enough greenery to fatten up in winter, never mind surviving occasional below-freezing conditions.

Eastern tiger swallowtails are abundant, being found across much of eastern North America, from Ontario south to the Gulf Coast and into northern Mexico.

Typically, Eastern tiger swallowtails avoid company, except, apparently, just after hatching and, of course, when mating.

Besides birds, swallowtails have a variety of predators, including hornets, praying mantises, squirrels, possums and raccoons.

With bright colors and a wingspan of up to 5.5 inches, one could see how they’d make a tempting target for the butterfly-hungry.

However, within a short time, my kaleidoscope of swallowtails had gained enough strength to safely take flight and make their way into the world.

(Top: Eastern tiger swallowtail resting after being disturbed by nosy blogger.)

Study shows purple sandpiper to be tough guy of bird world

cornell-bird-study

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has not only documented the migratory movements of more than 100 western hemisphere bird species but created a fascinating animated map which shows the approximate location of each throughout the year.

This is the first time data of this sort has been compiled on such a scale. It includes such extreme migrations as that of the Lapland longspur, which travels well into the Arctic Circle in July and August, and the dark-faced ground-tyrant, which makes its way to the tip of Tierra del Fuego from November through February.

There are others that migrate from Brazil and other South American countries all the way north to central Canada, a distance of 7,000 miles or more.

“We used millions of observations from the eBird citizen-science database,” said lead author Frank La Sorte, a research associate at the Cornell Lab. “After tracing the migration routes of all these species and comparing them, we concluded that a combination of geographic features and broad-scale atmospheric conditions influence the choice of routes used during spring and fall migration.”

(You can access a second map here, which will provide an index through which you can follow different species on their year-long route.)

Purple sandpiper: Tougher than it looks.

Purple sandpiper: Tougher than it looks.

Perhaps the most unusual migration is that of the purple sandpiper. This species winters near the eastern tip of Cape Breton Island, in the Canadian Maritimes, than spends its summer on Baffin Island, in far northern Canada.

While not limited to Canada, in North America the species’ breeding ground is the northern tundra on Arctic islands in Canada. They also breed in Greenland and northwestern Europe, perhaps in part to cement their role as ornithological tough guys. Anyone or anything that purposely winters in the Canadian Maritimes and also spends time in Greenland has my respect.

It appears, according to Cornell’s interactive map, that purple sandpipers have little interaction with other species, as none have migratory patterns that bring them within a couple hundred miles of the small shorebirds.

An important discovery of the study is that bird species that head out over the Atlantic Ocean during fall migration to winter in the Caribbean and South America follow a clockwise loop and take a path farther inland on their return journey in the spring, La Sorte said. These include bobolinks, yellow and black-billed cuckoos, Connecticut and Cape May warblers, Bicknell’s thrush, and shorebirds, such as the American golden plover.

“These looped pathways help the birds take advantage of conditions in the atmosphere,” he added. “Weaker headwinds and a push from the northeast trade winds as they move farther south make the fall journey a bit easier. The birds take this shorter, more direct route despite the dangers of flying over open-ocean.”

The study found the spring migration path follows a more roundabout route but the birds move faster thanks to strong tailwinds as they head north to their breeding grounds.

Species that do not fly over the open ocean use the same migration routes in the spring and fall. Geographic features shaping this pattern include mountain chains or isthmuses that funnel migrants along narrow routes, according to the study.

(Screen grab from Cornell migration study, showing location of different species on April 9. The purple sandpiper is the blue dot seen in the far eastern reaches of Canada.)