Archive for category News and Research

#mcd (Must Come Down) – A Citizen Science Project

mcd_ballonHelium balloons pose a unique threat to wildlife and the environment. When released outdoors, the balloons eventually shatter and/or fall to earth, where the latex fragments are often mistaken by wildlife as food, or individuals become entangled in the strings or latex, leading to stress, injury, malnutrition, and sometimes death. What differentiates balloons from other garbage and debris, however, is that the very nature of their being – that they are filled with a gas lighter than air – not only allows them to stay airborne and disperse farther distances from their point of origin than might otherwise occur with a discarded straw or plastic bag, but also disperse to higher altitudes where latex balloons undergo an explosive “brittle fracture” that results in both large and micro material that fall to earth, making it difficult to track their fate.

As one who spends time outdoors, the number of spent balloons I’ve found littering my favorite open spaces has left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. If you throw a plastic grocery bag on the ground, there are few among us who would dispute that the very act constitutes littering. So what makes balloons any different?

2-iphone-rightTo better understand – and to help educate the public – about the fate of air- or helium-filled latex and mylar (foil) balloons released outdoors, and the inevitable fact that when balloons are released, singly or en masse, they must eventually fall to earth, I have started #mcd (Must Come Down; https://balloonsmcd.wordpress.com), a citizen science project whose purpose is to collect geotagged data on balloon trash through the app Litterati. Here’s how it works:

Once you’ve downloaded the Litterati app (visit: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/litterati/id982782776), you can start logging your observations in three easy steps:

(1) Track it down!

Whether you are in an urban or open space (the woods, the beach, the desert, the city, or your backyard), keep an eye out for latex and mylar balloons.

(2) Tag it up!

Take a photo of any balloon you encounter with the Litterati app and tag it with #mcd, as well as #latexballoon or #mylarballoon.

(3) Pack it out!

Properly dispose of any garbage you collect.

As you collect and record balloon trash, you will be contributing to a growing open source database that will help future policy makers begin a meaningful dialogue about the consequences of balloon releases based on hard facts.

img_7737Although the balloon industry maintains that latex balloons are made out of natural latex and are, thus, biodegradable, it can still take 8-10 weeks when exposed to air and more than 5 months when submerged in water before a latex balloon degrades and breaks down. That leaves plenty of time for wildlife to ingest them.

Why do wildlife mistake balloons for food? On land and in water, balloon remains can resemble common prey or food types, like flower petals, fruit, or jellyfish. If biomimicry is the intentional design and production of materials and systems modeled on the natural environment, when inadvertent this process could be thought of as “apatobiomimicry”:

a·pa·to·bi·o·mim·ic·ry

/əˈpatōˈbīōˈmiməkrē/

noun

The inadvertent and deceptive resemblance of anthropomorphic materials, structures, and systems to biological entities and processes.

{from the Greek words apatē (ἀπάτη)/apatēlos (ἀπατηλός) meaning “deception”/”deceptive”, βίος (bios), life, and μίμησις (mīmēsis), imitation, from μιμεῖσθαι (mīmeisthai), to imitate, from μῖμος (mimos), actor.}

When balloons enter the natural environment, they become apatobiomimics: anthropomorphic materials that inadvertently and deceptively resemble biological entities or process. Among the species that are vulnerable to this bait and switch are marine birds and mammals, big horn sheep, and sea turtles and desert tortoises, many of which are threatened or endangered species. It’s true that what goes up, must come down – but when balloons fall to earth, the consequences can be fatal.

If you are interested in learning more about the #mcd project or how balloons impact the environment and wildlife, visit: https://balloonsmcd.wordpress.com/.

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Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle: Captive Breeding Program 2016 Update

The annals and magazine of natural history : zoology, botany, anIt would appear that once again, this year’s attempts to breed two captive Swinhoe’s soft-shell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei), the world’s rarest freshwater turtle, have hit a wall. This situation has become even more dire after it was announced in January 2016 that the Sword Lake Turtle, one of the only four individuals known to exist in the wild or captivity, had been  had been found floating dead in Hoàn Kiếm Lake in central Hanoi, Vietnam.

Swinhoe’s softshell turtle has long been famous for it role in Vietnamese legend as the fabled Sword Lake Turtle, which inhabits Hoàn Kiếm Lake (“The Lake of the Returned Sword”) in Hanoi, Vietnam. But of the handful of Swinhoe’s softshell turtles known to scientists to exist in the wild or captivity in recent years, five have died since the 1990s, leaving only four remaining (until this year): one in Hoàn Kiếm Lake (now deceased), one in the wild in Đồng Mỏ Lake west of Hanoi, and two in captivity, the latter now both part of the Suzhou Zoo’s captive breeding program.

Since 2008, when the Changsha Zoo’s female, “China Girl,” was relocated to Suzhou, scientists at Suzhou Zoo have undertaken a captive breeding program with their older male turtle. But despite repeated bouts of courtship displays and mating between the pair in the years since, the resulting eggs have failed to hatch. Remediative actions to date, including steps to improve their diet by constructing a glass wall to prevent visitors from tossing junk food into their inclosure, provisioning the pair with a more natural diet (e.g. whole shrimp, freshwater crayfish, fishes, freshwater snails, frogs, quail, pigeons), and redesigning their enclosure to allow the pair more time together, have proven unsuccessful.

After the Suzhou Zoo’s captive breeding program reported in 2014 that their male may be infertile, the future of the program and the species were both at risk. In a move that lets slip their growing concern for the species’ survival, in the spring of 2015 researchers attempted what had until recently been considered by stakeholders too controversial – artificial insemination.

In April 2016, the Turtle Survival Alliance reports that herpetologist Gerald Kuchling oversaw a surgical artificial insemination attempt that injected the semen directly into the female’s oviducts while the turtle was anesthetized. Kuchling was able to closely examine the male’s penis during past insemination attempts and found that it had been mangled, possibly during an ill-fated encounter with a second captive male several years ago. Last year’s attempt involved depositing the sperm into the anesthetized female’s oviducts.

As she has in the past, this year the female laid 65 eggs at the Suzhou Zoo. However, when Kuchling candled the eggs in late June, all were found to be infertile.

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Make Every Butterfly Count at the Antioch Dunes (2016)

Throughout August and September this year, wildlife biologists at the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge will be conducting their annual Lange’s metalmark butterfly counts to determine the health of this rare butterfly species.

The Lange’s metalmark butterfly (Apodemia mormo langei) can only be found at the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge in Antioch, California. There, this butterfly’s life revolves around its host plant, the Antioch Dunes buckwheat. Adult butterflies are short-lived and weak fliers, relegating them to this relict 67-acre pocket of sand that was once part of a greater dune complex that connected the San Joaquin River to dunes in the Central Valley and beyond. After years of sand mining at the Antioch Dunes, today the Lange’s metalmark butterfly is nearing extinction.

That’s why refuge staff need your help censusing the butterfly population. Butterfly counts are scheduled once a week (typically, Thursdays), every week, until counts zero out sometime in September:

  • August: 4, 11, 18, 25
  • September: 1, 8, 15, and if they are still active, 22

Newcomers and veterans alike are welcome to participate, but you must be 18+ years or older. Training begins on site at 9:30 AM, and the counts continue until 4 PM. Volunteers are cautioned to wear layered clothing in anticipation of the unpredictable cold, wind, or listless heat; sturdy shoes/boots and long pants (jeans) for uneven terrain and spiky weed seeds; sun-protection (e.g. sunblock, sunglasses, hat) and plenty of water; and your lunch.

If you are interested in volunteering for the Aug-Sept. butterfly counts, please contact Susan Euing (by email at susan_euing@yahoo.com or by phone at (510) 521-9716). If you leave a message, please leave your name, phone number and email address, and Susan will contact you as soon as possible to confirm.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that writing about the Lange’s metalmark butterfly and the Antioch Dunes for Bay Nature magazine in 2005 was the genesis behind my children’s book, Sardis and Stamm. You can read more about the book – and order a copy for your shelves – here:
http://www.sardisandstamm.wordpress.com/

 

Directions:
Surveys will be held at the Sardis Unit at 1551 Wilbur Avenue in Antioch, 94509.

From I-680 heading north (near Walnut Creek/Concord), take Hwy. 242 E, which will lead you onto Hwy 4 E towards Pittsburg/Antioch.

From I-680 heading south (from Benicia/Martinez), take Hwy 4 E towards Pittsburg/Antioch.

At Antioch, take A Street/Lone Tree Way exit and go left under the freeway. Proceed about 1 mile on A Street and then go right onto Wilbur Avenue. Proceed on Wilbur approximately 1 mile, cross over a concrete bridge and look for two large PG&E towers on your left. The entrance gate will be on the left between the two towers. Look for the large brown refuge sign next to the gate; park at the bottom of the driveway.

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London Zoo Turtle Exhibit Explores Turtles In the Knife Kitchen

In a move meant to make manifest the real dangers turtles face in the wild today, the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) London Zoo unveiled their new Annam leaf turtle (Mauremys annamensis) exhibit last year. But to tell the raw story behind this turtle’s Critically Endangered status, ZSL bypassed the traditional bucolic exhibit depicting turtles in the lowland wetlands characteristic of Vietnam in lieu of a tell-tale tableau that reveals where they more frequently end up: in a traditional Vietnamese kitchen. The resulting still life of still-live turtles shows the stark realities of the wildlife trade, tapping into the grim fate these and other Asian turtles face from overhunting for meat, not to mention traditional medicine and the pet trade.

Photo by: Ben Tapley/ZSL

The ZSL’s all-too-real exhibit takes advantage of everything and the kitchen sink to bring this restaurant kitchen to life. The only thing more macabre than the axeman’s butchering knife, pendant woks, and bubbling soup pot are the kitchen sink itself and the butcher’s block doing double duty as aquarium and basking platform.

According to Ben Tapley, team leader of the Reptile House at ZSL London Zoo,  “We’ve gone to town on the new Annam leaf turtle exhibit here at ZSL London Zoo, as we want our visitors to really understand the threats facing these animals. Providing a great habitat for these beautiful turtles, with water for them to swim in and a secluded nesting area hidden behind a carefully positioned wok, the creative exhibit tells a serious story.”

Knowing that Asian turtles like the Annam leaf turtle and Swinhoe’s soft-shell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei), the world’s rarest freshwater turtle, are close to extinction, perhaps it’s time more zoological institutions explore this morbid mode of storytelling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle: The Death of a Legend

The annals and magazine of natural history : zoology, botany, anSince January 19th, when rumors about the death of the Hoàn Kiếm Turtle first surfaced, the Turtle Survival Alliance has now confirmed that indeed the lone Swinhoe’s (or Yangtze) soft-shell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) that resided in Hoàn Kiếm Lake in central Hanoi, Vietnam, was found floating dead in the lake Tuesday. The passing of this individual makes the situation even more dire for the remaining three turtles, which together represent the last and only known individuals in existence of this, the world’s rarest freshwater turtle.

The Swinhoe’s softshell turtle had long been famous for it role in Vietnamese legend as the fabled Sword Lake Turtle that inhabited Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Of the handful of Swinhoe’s softshell turtles known to scientists to exist in the wild or captivity in recent years, five had died since the 1990s, leaving only four remaining: one in Hoàn Kiếm Lake, one in the wild in Đồng Mỏ Lake west of Hanoi, and two in captivity, the latter now both part of the Suzhou Zoo’s captive breeding program.

Since 2008, when the Changsha Zoo’s female, “China Girl,” was relocated to Suzhou, scientists at Suzhou Zoo have undertaken a captive breeding program with their older male turtle. But despite repeated bouts of courtship displays and mating between the pair in the years since, the resulting eggs have failed to hatch.

With the passing of this lonely, legendary turtle, it is perhaps fitting to remember it today more than ever through the legend that made it a cornerstone of Vietnamese mythology, a fairytale hero to Vietnamese schoolchildren, and an omen of good luck to all who were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the turtle surfacing in Hoàn Kiếm Lake over the years.

The following retelling is from the 2012 article I prepared on the history and natural history of this species in the journal Bibliotheca Herpetologica, and is excerpted here, below (a citation and link to the full article are provided below).

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The Legend of the Sword Lake Turtle

“In the six-hundred years since the Dragon King first guided the farmer king to victory, the legend of the Sword Lake Turtle has evolved in the telling. The heart of this legend roughly holds true to the historical record. Between 1418 and 1426, after enduring years of violent occupation under an invading force of the Chinese Ming, the farmer Lê Lợi raised an army of 500 volunteer soldiers – the Lam Son army – to free their country. Although Lê Lợi’s guerilla tactics demoralized and chipped away at the invader’s forces, the Ming occupation persisted (Trang 2006). It is here that the lines between legend and history blur.

As retold by Minh Trang in “Sự Tích Hồ Gươm (The Legend of Sword Lake)” (Trang 2006; see also Asian Turtle Conservation Network 2008), legend has it the Dragon King – witnessing from his underwater palace the Lam Son army’s struggle – sent forth the Golden Turtle (referred to as the “Golden Tortoise” in Trang 2006) to deliver a magical sword blade to Lê Lợi. Whether by design or by accident (here the legend is unclear on all counts), this blade was delivered, not to Lê Lợi, but to a fisherman, Lê Thận. Lê Thận cast his net three times, each time entangling it in the sword blade. It wasn’t until the third cast that Lê Thận, beguiled by the reappearing blade, tucked it in his belt and returned home. Soon thereafter, Lê Thận joined Lê Lợi’s resistance army.

One night, after stopping by Lê Thận’s quarters to visit, Lê Lợi noticed the blade on the wall, which began to glow in his presence. Inspecting the blade, Lê Lợi saw the radiance emanated from two words etched on the blade: “Thuận Thiên” (“Heaven Approves” or “The Will of Heaven”). Several days later, during a retreat of Lê Lợi’s guerilla army before an anticipated Ming attack, the farmer king again saw a strange glow – this time from the canopy of an ancient banyan tree. Upon closer inspection, Lê Lợi saw that it was a sword hilt decorated in gems and etched with the same divine words: “Thuận Thiên.”

When Lê Lợi and Lê Thận next crossed paths, Lê Lợi asked to see the blade; the blade and hilt were a perfect fit. Seeing this as a sign from heaven, Lê Thận knelt before Lê Lợi, bestowed him the sword, and swore his allegiance to the farmer king that he might save their people and their homeland (Trang 2006).

As word of Lê Lợi’s magical sword spread, his Lam Son army grew (Trang 2006, Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008). Backed by a growing resistance some 350,000 soldiers strong, reinforced with horses and elephants, and – by legend’s score – armed with the magical sword that made Lê Lợi grow tall and gave him the strength of many men (Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008), Lê Lợi destroyed the Ming forces and led his people to victory. After years of oppression, in 1427 the Chinese recognized the Vietnamese people’s independence. One year later, Lê Lợi was declared king under the title Lê Thái Tổ, founder of the Lê Dynasty (Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008).

Not long after Lê Lợi became king, he was touring Lục Thuy (“Green Water”) Lake when the Golden Turtle emerged from the waters to retrieve the divine sword. By some accounts, the Golden Turtle asked for the sword’s return and Lê Lợi respectfully complied (Trang 2006); by others the messenger instead plucked it from Lê Lợi’s belt, inciting the king to retrieve it (Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008). In the end, however, Lê Lợi acknowledged the sword’s return to the Dragon King and in tribute, renamed the waters Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, “The Lake of the Returned Sword” (Trang 2006, Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008)” (Bettelheim 2012).

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Full Citation: Bettelheim, Matthew P. 2012. Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei): The Legendary Sword Lake Turtle of Hoan Kiem Lake. Bibliotheca Herpetologica 10(1): p 4-20.

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