Tag Archives: animals

Forests just exist out there somewhere.

Don’t they? They just grow and will go on growing forever.

We all know that animals go extinct.

Think of the thylacine, whose species died out in New Zealand toward the middle of the twentieth century. This incredible dog-like marsupial with the jaw of a crocodile was hunted out of existence, and the last one spent its final days in a cage.

Or the passenger pigeon, in the nineteenth century. They flew in clouds so gigantic that they blocked out the light of the sun. But their numbers were ultimately decimated for food and sport.

Or the elephant bird, a flightless wonder 10 feet tall that disappeared from Madagascar, the island where it made its home, around 1,000 AD. Think mega-ostrich.

When fauna die off, we mourn their loss  — at least I do. And now people are taking steps to ensure the survival of some, like the mountain gorilla, and the leatherback turtle. Only two northern white rhinos remain on earth, and they are kept carefully fenced in a Kenyan nature preserve. A third rhino, a male, died a few years back and so these two females have no way of continuing the line of succession. It’s over. Actually, not if some crazy Italian scientists have their way — they developed 12 embryos of the northern white rhino and we’ll see what happens.

It might come as a surprise to learn that certain trees also stand in danger of extinction. To be precise, as science has been on this point, one in three of the world’s tree species are now at risk of becoming extinct. A consortium of experts called The Global Tree Assessment has done its homework and found that In fact there are twice as many threatened tree species as there are mammals,  birds, amphibeans and reptiles combined.

It is crushing to learn that more than 400 tree species have less than 50 individuals left in the wild. Some are familiar, say the members of the Global Tree Assessment – even magnolias, oaks and maples, surprisingly, are at risk.

 But a lot of these endangered species grow far away, in tropical forests, and it’s more or less out of sight, out of mind. These forested areas have been logged out, cleared for farming, or invaded by various pests and diseases. When the trees go, habitat for birds and animals goes too. It’s devastating.

Forests cover approximately 31%of the world’s land surface and their total economic value has been estimated at around $150 trillion.  They contain around 50% of the world’s terrestrial carbon and help provide 75% of its accessible freshwater. These benefits could be lost if tree species go extinct.

Here are a few examples of trees in trouble. Blink and they may disappear.

Mahogany might be the best known threatened tree. Swietenia macrophylla is one of the most valuable hardwoods, used for furniture and musical instruments, cherished for its beauty. One tree alone can be worth many thousands of dollars. Native to the tropics of the Americas, it was one of the first to be called out as endangered, due to illegal logging.

African Cherry’s bark contains a compound that has proven useful in treating medical disorders such as prostrate problems, malaria and kidney disease. The international trade in the bark of Prunus africana is fully $200 million. Overharvesting has led to its demise.

Highly fragrant Agarwood produces a resin that is used in perfume and incense. Aquilaria malaccensis has a global trade value of $32 billion. The production of the resin is stimulated when it suffers the attack of a dangerous fungus. Overharvesting, again, has led to as many as 20 species being threatened..

Dipterocarps can be found in Southeast Asia – 680 species grow there. Often the most abundant trees in the forest canopy, it produces high quality timber. From the island of Borneo alone come $3.5 billion worth of exports each year, and 182 species face extinction. The tallest known tropical tree, Shorea faguetiana, may ultimately disappear.

Closer to home is the Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia, the source of the anti-cancer drug Paclitaxel. Logging threatens to wipe the tree out.

What can a person do? Well, don’t take forests for granted. Don’t take trees for granted. If we do that, some may go the way of the thylacine. Also, develop alternatives. Different medicines. Different flooring. A guitar made with a different type of wood. Or learn to play the banjo.

It’s a change of mindset. By the time we start feeling bad about it, it will be too late.

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Some biology etymology

for the curious, and useful in dinner party chat.

Canopy cover is vital in arboriculture, in description of those overhead limbs that weave together and block some of the sun’s rays, but what about those trees whose branches seem to avoid touching those of other trees? Do they actually exist? There are several. The phrase describing them is crown shyness, and it takes place in some forests, particularly those with lodgepole pines, eucalyptus, mangroves and some other tropical trees. Why? Botanists don’t have an answer yet, but it might have to do with a far-red (one down from infra-red) light reflected from neighborhood foliage which makes twigs at the end of branches shy away from each other.

Crown Shyness of a Rain Tree

On a completely different note, two unrelated  creatures have a similar problem and thus develop similar solutions. Like porcupines (rodents) and hedgehogs (insectivores). Convergent evolution describes how they develop similar spines. You knew that, probably.

Perhaps Illegal to Keep as a Pet

Dewlap is a word Dickens might utilize to describe the chins of an elderly person to comical effect, but in biology it refers to the wobbly flap of skin under the chin of large herbivores such as the moose, eland – African antelope —  or kouprety — a rare species of wild cattle in Asia. Iguanas also have dewlaps that fold up until they need to inflate them to impress females. As if they’re not cool enough already.

An Eland in the Sunset, Amboseli National Park, Kenya.

The cute little worm lizard, termed an amphisbaenian, is blind and legless, and neither worm nor lizard. What it has is a sharp set of teeth, and it belongs to a distinct set of reptiles found mainly in Africa and the Americas. They spend their lives burrowing under the ground. Fun! Some scientists believe they are closely related to the ancestors of mammals.

Worm Lizard Camouflaging Itself on a Human Finger

Conservationists sometimes seem to focus a little too heavily on flagship species such as the giant panda or wolves or elephants in order to gain funding. No matter how tired you might be of panda appeals (or maybe you’re not and never will be sick of pandas) it’s a good thing. The protection of their habitats protect less charismatic threatened mammals, amphibians and bird.

An Especially Fetching Panda

Batesian mimicry occurs when a harmless insect, say the marmalade hoverfly,  mimicks the markings of more dangerous insects like wasps and bees to gain protection by association. I know they would fool me. Named for Norman Bates?

Episyrphus balteatus or Marmalade Fly, a very common hoverfly.

Spiders and scorpions have book lungs, their way of extracting oxygen from their surroundings and expelling carbon dioxide. These are enclosed in under-body pouches that resemble a loosely bound book – it’s thought that they evolved from the underside of an aquatic ancestor resembling horseshoe crabs. Are horseshoe crabs edible? Just an idle query.

Scorpion (Opistophthalmus carinatus) in defensive position, Kalahari desert

Scientists have described it as the single most important event in anyone’s life: gastrulation, the moment when a simple cluster of cells folds in on itself to produce a gut, a front and back end, and the basic tissue types. In vertebrates (us, but also creatures like the starfish) that first dent in the cluster’s surface becomes the anus. In everything else it becomes the mouth.

Impossibly Beautiful Starfish


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No humans, no dogs, one swan

populated the Ridgewood Reservoir when we saw it.  Ridgewood sits in the middle of Highland Park in Brooklyn, bordering Queens, and it is the closest thing to wilderness you will find in all of New York City. Those haunting pictures of life coming back to Chernobyl when it was absolutely impossible for life to come back – Ridgewood is like that, minus the nuclear blast.

In 1858, the city fathers (note: no mothers among them) realized that clean water was a vital necessity, and they bought Snedicker’s corn farm to become the reservoir.

Over the years the borough’s thirst only intensified and The People in Charge bought acres and acres around the original site to use as a buffer against “pollutants generated by cemeteries and garbage plants.” The boroughs of New York were still independent cities until 1898. By bringing water to Brooklyn, the reservoir allowed Brooklyn to become America’s third-largest city, as well as the country’s largest beer producer. (That honor now belongs either to Chicago or to Portland, OR.)

The reservoir was decommissioned and drained by 1990, and the land basically left to its own devices. 

During our visit we made our way all along the perimeter (1.18 miles) and met no one but a lone birder, who told us the bird song quieted at the hotter hours of the day. (I knew that.) I wanted to go because I heard there was a birch forest growing in Brooklyn, but in fact I saw nary a birch. Black locust, yes, very fragrant.

And lots of black cherry.

Sassafras. Imagine fifty-plus acres of sassafras. There’s also red maple and sweet gum. There are thick carpets of moss and the bogs we couldn’t get at.

I wonder what old Frederick Olmsted, master landscaper who designed Central Park, would have thought of the pristine pool becoming a jungle.

Highland Park sits atop  a ridge formed by the Wisconsin ice sheet’s terminal moraine. Olmstead loved blasting the hell out of ancient boulders to make Central Park.

In 1894, Brooklyn hired Olmsted’s firm to design the main drive and concourse for the reservoir’s southern portion, lined still today with towering, bulbous London plane trees.

The Olmsted company erected an iron fence and electric lights, which were barely heard of in those days. The fence went up because of repeated drownings, suicidal and otherwise.

You can still read on the base of each light fixture: MAGNIFLOOD.

Old pumphouses still stand.

Nine cemeteries ring the park, including this one, the B’nal Jeshaurm and Shearith Isreal cemetery. There is one just for nuns, too, and one for the World War I dead. I think I have family in one of them.

Actually, the original tract featured three reservoirs, and two were drained in the 1980s while water remained in one. That body is now ringed by phragmites, which is the insidious non-cattail taking over deteriorated landscapes everywhere. At the Cabin we had a swamp filled with phragmites; a botanist friend visited and told me, “Oh, those are an invasive species.” Which I felt kind of insulted by at the time, but she was correct.

The swan on the beach is cleaning itself. The person who uses the flat-bottomed boat is used by ecologists, and maybe Huckleberry Finn.

Ridgewood is now a wildlife refuge, with forests, fields and wetlands.  Preservationists have rallied against any threat to its development. We tried to imagine the wildlife that would get over the fences, down the steep slopes and survive there: possum, raccoon, squirrels, voles, snapping turtles (the New York State reptile), garter snakes and frogs. And probably coyotes. In the heart of Brooklyn! We saw only a red winged blackbird but could hear birdsong. A total of 127 bird species have been counted there.

“It’s like a postage-stamp size id in the middle of the raging ego of New York City,” says Gil.

I just say it’s a cool place.


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Bringing a forest to NYC

can be a lot of work, even for Maya Lin. Yes, that Maya Lin, the one who designed the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC (opened in 1982, when Lin was 23), winning a lot of criticism at first and then nothing but accolades.

The same Maya Lin designed a factory in Yonkers, the city next to where I Iive, that makes scrumptious brownies, which find their way into Ben and Jerry’s chocolate fudge brownie ice cream. The factory employs people who might otherwise be unemployable with open hiring policies—not requiring resumes, for example. It’s called the Greyston Bakery, and its motto is: “We don’t hire people to make brownies, we make brownies in order to hire people.” 

Every once in a while Greyston makes its brownies available to the public, and they are irresistible (coming from someone who makes a mean brownie herself).

Lin applied her touch to other Yonkers venues, including a shuttered city jail and an environmental installation at the Hudson River Museum. And she created wonderful waves of landscape art at upstate New York’s Storm King sculpture park. Worth a viisit if you are in the area.

Now, in a Manhattan park, she has planted a grove of forty-nine Atlantic white cedars, with the odd factor that the trees were dead before she harvested them  from the New Jersey pine barrens.

The piece is called Ghost Forest. It’s a harsh comment on climate change. Before the 1700s, Atlantic white cedars provided at least 500,000 acres of habitat for unique plants and animals. Today there are just 50,000 acres of the species. Ghost forests are a widespread phenomenon in coastal areas, a matter of concern among ecologists.

In fact, believe it or not “ghost tree farts” are a recognized by-product of such tracts. Standing dead trees, also called snags, have been killed by saltwater. They no longer have a leaf canopy to photosynthesize and consume carbon dioxide. So they can potentially increase the ecosystem’s carbon dioxide emissions by up to 25 percent.

Snags don’t move water and nutrients around for growth. The gases they emit probably come from decaying wood or emissions oozing up from the soil. Scientists are alarmed by the world-wide profusion of dead forests, as the ocean rises and saltwater intrudes on heretofore healthy wetlands. Some ecologists have made it a focal point of their study, such as Emily Ury, here measuring soil salinity.

The trees Lin brought to New York came from  a stand that had been infiltrated by salt water and were being cleared as part of a regeneration effort. When I think of the pine barrens it brings a spooky scene to mind: we canoed down a river in November and as night came on passed close enough to a dead deer lying underneath the water to prod it with a paddle. A perfect crescent slice had been taken out of its flank, cattle mutilation style.

The deterioration of our forests unlikely to be an issue on the mind of any of the hundreds of picnickers among the Ghost Forest installation. It’s the most beautiful spring day of all time, at the final gasp of a horrific pandemic, after all. The last thing anyone wants to think about is the end of a livable earth as we know it.

But some visitors may tune in to another element of the installation, a soundscape accessible via smart phone, that renders what you might have heard at what is now 26th Street and Broadway five hundred years ago. The audio track has English names, Latin names and linguistic translations from the Lenape Center in New York City. How cool is that? Madison Square Park sits on the traditional homeland of the Lenape-Delaware people. Using West Virginia species that are living today, the acoustic exhibit takes you into the forest: grey fox howling, cougar meowing, American black bear vocalizing with a sort of urgent whine, a beaver splashing its tail in water. 

To me, the haunting “sounds of the silenced” was worth the price of admission.

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