Monthly Archives: July 2015

Sharks in the Hudson

Smooth Dogfish Shark, photo credit Patrick Kerwin at New York Times City Room blog

It always amazes me how animals and plants will reclaim habitat if it becomes even slightly more habitable from a prior polluted state. Yesterday I was walking along Battery City Park when I saw a two foot shark on the walkway. A couple had stopped ahead of us and I believe convinced the man who had caught it to throw the shark back into the murky waters. Before it was thrown back–to hopefully live out the rest of its days enjoying mollusk and crustacean meals–its eyes glinted green, huge in relation to its body.

It is listed as “Near Threatened” by the IUCN (Florida Museum of Natural History), so hopefully the Hudson continues to become a hospitable home to the dogfish shark and other marine creatures.

These random encounters are always a great reminder of the diversity that exists all around us, if we just pay attention. What surprising animal diversity has caught you unawares lately?

More Reading:

NY Sharks & Whales

Smooth Dogfish Shark

Review of War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz

War of the Whales

War of the Whales

(Check out that link, if only to hear the echoing sonar)

I’ve been on a bit of a book kick lately and still have a pile waiting for me. I definitely recommend this one on whales, the Navy, and the legal system all the way up to the Supreme Court. Although, if your views run anything akin to mine, you will need to find a sturdy wall to bang your head against at multiple points.

Meticulously researched for 6 years, this book weaves together complex and competing national security, environmental, and legal concepts. It illuminates impacts of human activity that are not often considered. Human activity has permeated everywhere. Even the deep ocean is haunted by our sounds.

Exhibit One: “Of the 200 [marine mammals in 1999] that stranded alive [on U.S. shorelines], some were euthanized on the beach by Fisheries officials. Most of the others soon died of exposure to the elements, or suffocated when their bodies collapsed under their own weight, or drowned when the high tide washed over their blowholes. Only five marine mammals that stranded alive that year were actually rescued from the beach and returned to the ocean.” (pg. 70).

Exhibit Two: “The Marine Mammal Protection Act had been on the books for almost 20 years, but the Navy had never applied for a permit–as the law mandated–for any experiment or exercise that might ‘injure or harass’ any marine mammals.” (pg. 162) Essentially, underwater sonar activities went unregulated until the mass stranding in 2000 set activists in motion.

Exhibit Three:  “[A key lawyer] Reynolds wondered if saving the whales was simply a grandiose fantasy. Having barely escaped commercial whaling, were the survivors doomed to be overrun by the ceaseless naval arms race after more and more powerful acoustic weapons? Would judges and politicians continue to defer to admirals in their ‘balance of hardships’ calculations, until there were no more whales left to save?” (pg. 344-345)


American Cetacean Society

Cuvier’s Beaked Whales

Washington Post Book Review

Review of Octopus! The most mysterious creature in the sea (by Katherine Harmon Courage)

“Head-turning intelligence is turning out to be far less rare in the animal world than we once presumed (which makes us the dummies for assuming we were the only ones with any wherewithal at all.” (Courage, 119)

I recently read Octopus! by Katherine Harmon Courage. Already one of my favorite animals for their intelligence and camouflage abilities, I loved delving into the lives of these cephalopods. I could have done without the chapters on eating octopus, as they are off my list of edibles due to their intelligence and charisma, but with over 250,000 tons caught annually, I understand why she included information about the importance of the octopus catch and octopus cuisine. (Especially as we exhaust fisheries and begin eating our way down the marine food web, with species depleted quickly in many regions.)

But the book really gets going after that portion. I could nerd out about all of the octopus facts, and the remarkable diversity of octopuses (e.g., blanket octopuses, venomous blue-ringed octopuses, or the Giant Pacific Octopus) but I want to provide a brief overview of their camouflage tricks and encourage you to read the book.

Octopuses are considered to be the smartest invertebrate. Oddly enough for solitary animals, they learn well through observation, while also engaging in complex behaviors that were not taught (like tool use). They are able to change color, texture, and reflectivity in well under a second to blend in with their background. How do they change so fast? According to Courage, “Teams of researchers and millions of dollars have not yet been able to fully understand or even begin to replicate it” (83). We don’t know how they deal with all of the environmental stimuli, as light scatters everywhere underwater and the ocean bottom is a festival of textures and colors. To hide in plain sight, they use chromatophores to change color, iridophores to change reflectivity and hue, leucophores to adjust white coloring, and muscles to create texture. It’s still not clear how they ‘know’ what to shift to. Scientists think that they may be processing the input locally and instantly, without involving their central nervous system. Not bad for a creature that Aristotle deemed stupid.

More Resources:

Octopus Adorabilis

Octopus Movement


Ten Curious Facts

Review of Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem (Part Two)

This book asks uncomfortable, troubling questions. It made me wonder, when is it worth saving a species from the gaping maw of extinction? What is the actual goal? Is the goal just to have the species exist so that we don’t have to add another name to the long roll call of human-caused exile? Is the goal to prop them up long enough for us to figure out a way to make the populations self-sustaining again? Is the goal to restore them to a level where they can function as a key player in the ecosystem? It also strikes me that this is a very anthropocentric view, where we decide what species is important and what is not, often based on completely random (to say nothing of incomplete) criteria. Taking a species by species view seems futile in a large sense. We attempt to fix one piece in isolation of an entire structure. But people rally behind an icon, not an ecosystem.

There are monumental, cumulative forces that drive extinction. It takes heroic, relentless, painstaking acts to prevent a species slipping over into the abyss. At one point, in the 1950s, there were only twenty-one whooping cranes on Earth (Mooallem, 200). “The situation looked hopeless. The New York Times blamed the species’ looming extinction on its own ‘lack of cooperation.’ ” (Ibid) At that point, humans seemed to have little nostalgia for rare species. I am always puzzled by the fact that we idolize rare species, while resenting species that thrive in the environments we have created. It is only when a situation is bleak that we seem to get interested. Canadian geese, deer, pigeons–I find it remarkable that they have become ubiquitous (at least where I live). As Mooallem says, “It’s a thin and erratic line we draw between the wilderness that awes us and the wilderness that annoys us” (258).

Operation Migration, among others, have done extraordinary work in trying to re-establish whooping crane populations. Mooallem details their dedication and the madness to their (relative, precarious, hard-earned) success. Humans teaching birds to fly without making them tame is a remarkable feat, to state the obvious. I support the effort, because I’m a bleeding heart who thinks every individual animal values its own life as much as I value mine, and because I hate that we are tossing aside biodiversity like a cartoon character frantically pawing through a pile of garbage to find one thing worth saving. And I know we lose something irreplaceable every time we lose a species.

I’ll end with this jewel from Mooallem. (Again, read this book.)

“In the end, I can’t say I’m optimistic about the future of wildlife. The stories of the polar bear, the [Lange’s metalmark] butterfly, and the whooping crane, had, at times, even lowered my confidence in our ability to see the problem clearly. There’s a fluidity to nature that’s not easy to recognize or accept, and climate change will only accelerate and distort such changes. There’s also a fluidity to how we feel about nature–the way our baselines subjectively reset and will keep resetting far into the future, while, in the background, the empirical damage piles up.

These are destabilizing thoughts. I still don’t know what to do with them. But neither does anyone else, it seems, and so their weight has a way of compressing conservation down into a nearsighted exercise–one that can be pursued only by focusing on the little picture of the present and by blocking out the yawning uncertainty that the moment is adrift in.” (292)

From this video:  “But we had to try.”

About the flock in Texas

Information about Sandhill Cranes & Whooping Cranes

Operation Migration

Review of Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem

“Zoom out and what you see is one species–us–struggling to keep all others in their appropriate places, or at the least the places we’ve decided they ought to stay. In some areas, we want cows but no bison, or mule deer but not coyotes, or cars but not elk. Or bighorn sheep but not aoudad [a non-native species] sheep. Or else we’d like wolves and cows in the same place. Or natural gas tankers swimming harmoniously with whales. We are everywhere in the wilderness with white gloves on, directing traffic.” ~Mooallem, 252-253, Wild Ones

I literally don’t know where to start with this one, other than to say this made me actually start taking notes while I was reading, which is something I have always reminded myself to do half-heartedly. I was scribbling frantically and trying to resist the urge to block-quote entire sections in my scrawl.

Read it.

Then, re-read it.

Mooallem argues convincingly in this book that a species has a cultural carrying capacity. Population numbers depend on our willingness to tolerate a species or help its survival. He presents three case studies–a bear, a butterfly, and a bird–with an aside on whales thrown in.

“But the possibility that a species could be annihilated, totally, everywhere, was literally inconceivable:  it occurred to almost no one [in colonial times].” (pg. 44) A few centuries later, the possibility we are facing is that scores of species will be extinct in the geologic blink of an eye.

Our attitude now seems almost the opposite to the colonial attitude; with the theory of evolution, it seems that we expect animals to adapt. If they don’t, it’s that they weren’t fit enough to survive. It provides convenient cover for climate change deniers and a soft landing for those who are aware of human impact on the environment but keep rolling along. This book has made me really think about my wildlife viewing tendencies, my attitudes towards conservation, and my anthropomorphizing. More later as I keep grappling with these ideas.