Friday, March 30, 2012

Stuck - The Southern Black Racer

It’s Sunday night and I find myself in a predicament. The story I wish to write involves a mystery to which I never solved and I’ve invested all of my time and thought into writing about this particular subject matter. I am stuck but I have no choice but to plow forward. My wife found a Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus) in our back yard in Lehigh Acres, FL. It was dead with its head firmly entrenched in a hole in the ground. The body was unscathed. I have no idea how this happened.

Ignore the “constrictor” part of the species name for the racer. The snake most often uses its speed to chase down prey. Once in its toothy grasp, it will eat its prey live rather than squeeze it to death as the species name might imply. The racer is most likely to freak out those with snake phobias. When threatened, it will rapidly shake its tail, causing nearby vegetation to vibrate and simulating the sound, as best as possible, of a rattlesnake. More commonly they will simply dart off with impressive zip. You can’t really call it a slither. More aptly they tear off like black lightning.

None of this helps me come any closer to solving the mystery of the snake with its head buried in the sand. I grab it by the tail and by its midsection, attempting to retract it from the hole. A series of internal pops discourages me from pursuing this tact. I switch to a shovel, which ironically is how many snakes die. In this case I gently pry the sandy soil from under the snake to discover that the hole was no deeper than the two inches the snake had progressed. The snake had nothing in its mouth and nothing seemed to be hanging on to the snake.

Had the snake chased after prey in an undiscovered subterranean hole? Had the snake investigated a hole and simply got stuck? Or had a predator chased it and the racer died trying to make its own escape route? I don’t know and I’m left with a mystery and stuck with a story I don’t know how to end. 

Friday, March 2, 2012

In the Year 2000 - The Osprey

By the year 2000 Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) and Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)  will be extinct.
That is what my 3rd grade teacher told me in 1978. Chemicals were killing the birds including Brown Pelicans, Cormorants and other fishing eating birds. The year 2000 was a long time away and seemingly in a galaxy far, far away and yet for my eight year old, Star Wars-obsessed brain, the notion of extinction was real and saddening to me.

My teacher had oversimplified the problem but I wouldn’t understand that until years later. In fact the ban on harmful chemicals, such as DDT, years earlier had begun the reversal of misfortunate that many of these birds had endured. DDT, an effective chemical pesticide used in the control of malaria-spreading mosquitoes was considered to be the culprit in the decline of many fish-eating bird populations. The chemical bioaccumulates in fatty tissues of animals as it works its way from the base of the food chain, from plant, to invertebrate, to fish, to bird. When the female birds would lay eggs, the DDT inhibited calcium deposition in egg shells resulting in thin eggs that were often crushed by the incubating adults.

After DDT was banned from use in the United States in 1972, the chemical slowly worked its way out of the environment, including wildlife and humans and the affected bird populations began to recover.

Thirty four years after my teacher’s apocalyptic prophecy, the sight of an Osprey taking flight over a body of water in Florida is relatively common. I routinely have the opportunity to watch Ospreys swoop down over the water and with spiculed-talons, grab a fish to eat. The spicules are sharp spines that impale their prey and make it easier for them to catch slippery fish. Nests are conspicuous accumulations of hefty sticks in trees, on utility poles or on human-made Osprey nesting platforms.

The population rebound for many of the species affected by DDT and other chemicals is very encouraging. Yet I would say to the children of today, the health of our ecosystems is still in jeopardy and unless we fix drainage issues, stop nutrient overloads and prevent further habitat loss, species such as the Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill and Florida Panther will be extinct by 2030.