Archive | August, 2014

Wildfires

Wildfires

Wildfires

Every year, all over the world, wildfires destroy many different landscapes. In the United States alone, wildfires burn an average of 5 million acres per year, which is 5 times the size of Rhode Island, or 137,544 football fields. That’s a tremendous amount of area that gets burned every year, and unfortunately the main reason for these fires are humans.

Although many types of fires occur each year, there are certain characteristics that a wildfire needs, to classify it as such. The main characteristic is that it happens outdoors in areas such as grasslands, woodlands, brushlands and other areas where the materials within the environment are more combustible and act as a fuel allowing the fire to grow.

The “un-natural” or generally man made wildfires are due to campfires that get out of control or not put out properly. Other man made causes include cigarette butts, fireworks, sparks from equipment and sadly, arson. When these fires are ignited in dry areas, they can spread very quickly. With enough wind and flammable brush, wildfires can reach speeds of 14mph. At that speed, fires are difficult to put out. Some of the natural ways that wildfires occur are from lightning, sparks created from rocks falling on top of one another, volcanic eruption and even spontaneous combustion. In some cases, fires can help trees, for example heat from fire helps the lodgepole pine to release it’s seeds. Fire also kills disease and other insects that can be harmful to plants. Although in some cases, fire benefits certain vegetation, it is important to remember all the “un-natural,” man made wildfires and the destruction they cause.

Although some of the wildfires that occur each year are inevitable, there are ways to prevent fires and be more careful when you are in vulnerable areas. Below are some of the best ways to prevent wildfires:

-The second you see an unattended fire or if a fire you started gets out of control, immediately call 911.

-When putting out a fire, pour water over it. Mix the ashes around and then pour more water. Often times, there are very hot ashes at the bottom of the fire pit so make sure to douse the pit a few times. Do this before sleeping or leaving the campsite.

-Take extra caution when using fueling lanterns, stoves, heaters, generators or any gas powered equipment.

-Never toss cigarette butts on the ground, or out of a moving vehicle. Make sure the butts are completely extinguished before putting them in the trash.

As you can see, wildfires can be ignited by the smallest spark, or unattended campfire. If we all took just a little more precaution when we are in areas that are more susceptible to wildfire, we could lessen the amount of damage they cause every year.

Wasps: The Misunderstood Insects

In everyday life encounters, wasps make most people very uncomfortable, forcing some people to run away when they are nearby. This widespread reaction is reasonable considering the belief that wasps do nothing except sting, but this could not be farther from the truth. In reality, wasps provide two major benefits to humans, such as pest control and pollination.

Emerald Wasp

Emerald Wasp

Pest control wasps are a great tool in farming. When thinking about pests, chances are there is a wasp out their that preys on it. Some wasps kill pests by consuming the insect entirely. These are most likely solitary wasps. If they are a social wasp, they will chew the insect up and feed it to their larvae. The adults then eat the milky clear excretion that comes from the larvae as their meal.

Some wasps use the pest for reproduction, using parasitism and in some cases mind control. My favorite example of this is the Emerald Wasp. The Emerald Wasp’s main target is a cockroach which it will quickly immobilize with two stings made with the accuracy of a neurosurgeon. The first sting targets the thoracic ganglion in the spine which temporarily immobilizes the roaches front legs. This paralysis allows for the second sting directly to the brain shutting down the cockroach’s flight response. The wasp then chews off half of the roach’s antenna for an, as of yet unknown reason, and then proceeds to pull the pest like a leash to its lair. Once the burrow has been reached it lays a single egg on the roach’s abdomen with a stinger-like body part called an ovipositor and imprisons it in the lair. Since the roach’s flight response has been eliminated it will sit in the lair unmoving until it is consumed by the baby wasp inside of it. To add to the amazingness of this wasp, it has also been found that while the larvae are inside of the cockroach they are consistently bathing themselves in a self-secreted antibacterial material to protect against the roaches internal bacteria. Parasitic wasps, such as these, are becoming more abundant in agriculture to help control pests known as bio control.

Fig Wasp

Fig Wasp

The second group of wasps is the pollinating wasps. This group is not nearly as large and abundant as the pest control wasps, but it still has some serious contenders. Within the natural world, most plants are able to be pollinated by multiple pollinators, however sometimes a plant makes a special relationship with its pollinator. When this happens a specific pollinator may become the only pollinator for a specific plant. Although many pollinating wasps are general pollinators, there are some that are solely responsible for the reproduction of a specific plant. An example of this is the fig wasp. The fig wasp is the exclusive pollinator for figs and are parasitic. Besides being an exclusive pollinator, the fig wasp’s life cycle is pretty intense. It all starts with a female fig wasp. First the female wasp finds an immature fig and enters it through an incredibly small hole called an ostiole and deposits her eggs. Upon entering the ostiole, the female pollinates the immature fig with pollen from the fig she was born in. The female fig wasp then dies having completed her job. Now is when things get really interesting. First the male fig wasps will hatch to complete the two purposes they have before they die. The first is to fertilize the eggs inside of the still unborn females and the second is to chew a small hole through the walls of the fig in order for the females to escape. After these two tasks are completed, the males die and the females are born to repeat the cycle over again.

As patrons of this planet we must always be aware that everything that exists has a purpose even if it poses a potential danger to us. We must always be willing to look past an organisms defenses and behavioral mechanisms and see it for what it truly is and the benefits it can bring. Only by looking past the things that make us uncomfortable and scared can we truly begin to see just how amazing things are. So the next time you encounter a wasp I hope you choose to face the experience with understanding and not fear.

 

Vultures

Black Vulture

Black Vulture

Vultures are one of the most misunderstood creatures on our planet. There seems to be a negative association with them for many reasons, but in actuality vultures are extremely important to the existence and survival of other animals, and they play a huge role in maintaining the cycle of life.

Although their name has been used to describe someone trying to take advantage of others, in the wild, vultures don’t harm living creatures. This is hard to say about any other animal. On occasion, vultures go after wounded or dying animals, but for the most part, they eat dead or decaying animals, also known as carrion. Sources of carrion can be road kill, animals that have died from natural causes, hunting discards and predator kills. Without vultures, disease would spread and many habitats would be affected.

Griffon Vultures

Griffon Vultures

Because of a vulture’s job in the cycle of life, they are actually designed to be able to eat certain things from which other animals would normally get sick and die. Even though a dead animal starts to decay and the spread of disease is possible, the stomach acids in a vulture are a lot stronger and more corrosive allowing it to digest bacteria that would normally harm other animals.

Vultures have many ways of maintaining their health during feeding time. One is they urinate on their legs. They do this for two reasons. One is to cool themselves off on hot days, but also because the urine helps to disinfect the bacteria and kill off parasites they have picked up after walking through carcasses. Another feature vultures have are bald heads. The purpose for this adaptation is to mitigate the unsanitary conditions they incur after sticking their heads into the dead animals while feeding.

Lapped-Face Vulture

Lapped-Face Vulture

A common myth surrounding vultures is that they fly in the sky, circling around dead animals. This is not true. Vultures do simulate the above behavior but it is because they are actually looking for dead animals, not because they have already found one. Vultures have very strong senses of smell and excellent eyesight to spot dead animals and if they find one, they don’t waste their time flying over it.

There are 23 different vultures species in the world that are divided into two groups, New World and Old World. Although both of these groups are considered vultures, they aren’t closely related and are only considered together because they fall into a similar ecological sector. Unfortunately, 14 of the 23 species are endangered. Sadly, one of the main reasons for their extinction are accidental poisonings. A lot of farmers poison their animal carcasses thinking it will prevent predators from killing their livestock, but in actuality is has impacted the vulture population tremendously. Given the important role vultures have in our environment, one can only hope they survive to continue their life’s work.