Decorator Worms

On a recent and much treasured trip to the ocean, I came across strands of tiny shells on the beach. Of course I was curious. Clearly the shells had once belonged to living mollusks. But why were they all connected together like a necklace or bracelet? Because of a worm.

A decorator worm to be exact. These segmented worms live in benthic environments and create the tubes out of mucus that also cements sand, shells, and other debris available in their habitat to the outside of the tube. The appearance of the decorated tubes of these worms vary greatly by habitat and what’s available. The tube serves as the worm’s home and armor.

The worms themselves look like see-through millipedes with long antennae and plumed gills on their head. For their size, the decorator worms have large jaws for eating plankton as well as decomposing plant and animal matter on the seafloor. Another fun fact – the decorated tubes not only protect the worm but also collect food!

Meet Rosalie Edge

In the research I do for a variety of projects, I often come across individuals who have made a difference in conservation and environmental efforts. Surely we can all name a few. But so much of the work is done by unsung heroes, people who work tirelessly to protect simply because it’s the right thing to do and they are driven to do so.

Photo Credit – Scott Campbell (2007)

Rosalie Edge is one of those heroes. She was born in 1877. In 1934, with a loan from a friend, she purchased a ridgetop in Pennsylvania that was a regular gathering place of recreational hunters who killed thousands of birds of prey. Prior to this, Ms. Edge had garnered a reputation for going to battle with conservation organizations that did not protect wildlife, but instead conspired with developers, ranchers, and hunters, and even supported bounties in Alaska on bald eagles. Her work came at a time when over-hunting and declining wildlife populations became recognized as a growing problem. Needless to say her work ruffled feathers.

But back to the property. After she purchased it, Ms. Edge put a stop to the hunting there. She also turned the land into the world’s first nature preserve specifically for birds of prey – Hawk Mountain. The preserve has become an important site for bird counts and bird research which has aided bird conservation. Hawk Mountain is open to visitors and offers hiking, lectures, workshops, tours, and of course, bird watching.

In her day, Ms. Edge was not quiet, but her contribution to conservation is seldom celebrated as it should be. In addition to preserving Hawk Mountain, Ms. Edge was also instrumental in preserving 8,000 acres in Yosemite which helped to create Olympic and Kings Canyon National Parks. Not only that, her outspoken activism at the time forced leaders of major conservation organizations such as the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, and the Nature Conservancy to make significant reforms and rededicate themselves to honest conservation. Rosalie Edge is an inspiration to all those wanting to protect wild things and wild places and wondering if one person can make a difference.


Squirrel Appreciation

Next Saturday, January 21, is Squirrel Appreciation Day. So in appreciation of my backyard squirrels (which I love watching) and all of their relatives, I did a little research. The first thing I discovered is that a squirrel is not just a squirrel – they vary greatly from the ones in the yard. There are, apparently, over 200 species of squirrels living all over the world except in Antarctica and Australia in a wide variety of habitats. They range in size from 5 inches from nose to tail (aptly named the pygmy squirrel) to one that is three feet long (also aptly named – the Indian giant squirrel). All are rodents and all have four front teeth that grow continuously throughout their lifetime because they wear down due to regular nibbling.

The squirrels that live in trees are the ones I associate with the word squirrel. They are well-adapted to a variety of habitats, including urban and suburban areas. Of course, they are good climbers. Tree squirrels eat nuts and seeds, but also eat flowers, berries, and even *gasp* baby birds! Some eat tree sap which is somewhat of a delicacy.

There are also ground squirrels. This includes marmots, chipmunks, woodchucks, and prairie dogs. These squirrels live in tunnel systems under the ground, usually in large colonies, and are the most social of all the types of squirrel. A few ground squirrel species even hibernate. They eat nuts and seeds too, as well as insects and small animals.

The third type of squirrel is the flying squirrel. They do not fly and flap in the traditional sense – they glide. These squirrels have a membrane between their front and rear legs. When they leap and splay their legs, the membrane acts like a parachute, allowing the squirrel to glide up to 150 feet between trees! Unlike ground and tree squirrels, flying squirrels are nocturnal.

It will also surprise no one that squirrels play an important role in the ecosystems in which they live. They are indeed prey animals. But tree and flying squirrels also propagate many different types of plants because they bury nuts and seeds. They also disperse fungal spores. And of course, the burrows of ground squirrels are important to their ecosystems. All squirrels should be be appreciated! Even this one on my window feeder.

Save the Eagles

January 10 every year is National Save the Eagles Day, a day meant to draw attention to the birds and ongoing conservation efforts to protect them.

Photo Credit: Andy Morffew (2016)

In the mid-1900s, bald eagles were dangerously close to extinction as a result of pesticide use, habitat loss, and hunting. In 1940, the Bald Eagle Protection Act was passed which outlawed killing or capturing the bird. But at the same time, pesticide use was increasing, which included DDT. Once sprayed to control pests, it eventually washed into waterways where it was absorbed by fish and aquatic plants. When eagles then ate contaminated fish they too were poisoned. As a result, eagles produced eggs with thin shells that broke or never hatched. By the early 1960s, fewer than 500 pairs of eagles remained down from roughly 100,000 when the bird was adopted as the national symbol in 1782.

Rachel Carson, in her 1962 publication of Silent Spring, is largely responsible, if not solely responsible, for bringing the reality and horror of pesticide use into the public eye. The book was a result of years of scientific study that withstood the wrath of both the pesticide industry and those who did not believe a woman could possibly understand such matters. DDT was finally banned in 1972.

But back to eagles. The bald eagle was part of the Class of ’67, a list of endangered species that predated the Endangered Species Act in 1973. It was later put on the ESA list. Thanks to efforts both small and large around the country, the bald eagle population recovered to the point, that in 2007, bald eagles were removed from the list of threatened and endangered species altogether. Every time I see a bald eagle, I feel lucky. And I am thankful for the combined efforts of so many people who helped the populations recover, and still work to protect their future.

New Species Discoveries

I would like to start the new year with a look at some of the new species discovered last year. Scientists estimate that there are over 8 million (some even say as many as 1 trillion) species of plants and animals in the world, but only a little over 1 million have been identified. In 2022, the California Academy of Sciences researchers and collaborators around the world made 146 new species discoveries from the tops of mountains to the depths of the ocean in locations across the globe.

One of the newly discovered scorpions, Paruroctonus soda, with 51 juveniles on her back [Photo credit – Harper Forbes and Prakrit Jain]

The discoveries included new species of fish, moths, lizards, flowering plants, frogs, and even sharks! Two high school students in California were among those to make these discoveries. Working with a scientist at the California Academy of Sciences, they identified two new species of scorpion living in dry lake beds in the state. Another researcher tripled the number of identified Bavayia gecko species that live in forests on the New Caledonian islands in the Pacific; previously there were 13 identified species and now there are 41. Other fun discoveries included a tiny translucent clam thought to be extinct, a new wild onion, a sea star 1.2 miles below the surface of the ocean, a .6 inch sea slug whose Latin name means small bean, and 30 different ant species!

The result of these discoveries helps guide habitat conservation efforts and broadens our knowledge of Earth’s biodiversity. May 2023 bring you a year of your own discoveries and adventures. As Calvin said to Hobbes in Bill Watterson’s last Calvin and Hobbes comic on December 31, 1995, “It’s a magical world, Hobbes ol’ buddy…let’s go exploring!”