Category Archives: Reptiles

Eyes Peeled

I’m not sure at what point I turned the corner to a full-on bird nerd. I’d always casually observed them around my parents and had definitely looked through binoculars at birds, mostly on our annual visits to Florida.

I have a vague recollection of keeping my mouth shut to avoid mockery when my parents were scoping out a pond to see if there were mergansers or wigeons or wood ducks. Ducks, other than mallards? I had honestly assumed they were one and the same. Now I can’t get enough of shovelers and hoodies and the occasional pintail. I squealed the first time I saw harlequin ducks.

I’m not sure what stage of birding I’m in, expertise-wise, but it is hard to walk anywhere without dragging along my binoculars. I’ve also begun stopping, Indiana Jones style, going “Did you hear that?” whenever I hear a new call, song, or promising rustle in the underbrush. (If it is not very much fun to walk with me now, my friends have not said anything.)

My relatively new entry to birding means that I still have weekends where I go hiking and spot 3 new species (yellow-billed cuckoo, Pileated woodpeckers, red-eyed vireo) without a ton of effort. Just the idea that there are interesting birds around has made me more aware of the ecological complexity that exists in a walk through greenery.

While not a bird, I saw this snapping turtle laying eggs on the way to work. One of the benefits of looking around for surprises on any walk, however short.

What wildlife has surprised you lately?

Snapping Turtle

Female snapping turtle laying eggs. Photo by author, June 2017.

Return from the Abyss…

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again…who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly.” (Teddy Roosevelt)

It would be a signature achievement to revive, or at least come very close in genetic terms, the Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii). As the New York Times describes, scientists found close genetic matches to the Pinta Island tortoises and hope to utilize a breeding program to create the closest probable match to the original species.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it is a marvel that we can use DNA analysis and managed breeding programs to repair some of the harm we do through extinction. This program is using living animals, not trying to re-establish a species from stored DNA, like some of the rumors of creating a mammoth, which seems gimmicky to me. More like it’s the thrill of the challenge, which would be fine if there weren’t living beings unwittingly involved.

On the other hand, we should not feel the catastrophic error of human-caused extinction can just be undone by some plucky scientists and a dash of DNA. Better to put our energies into protecting the diversity of life that we still have. Preserving the remaining species and building ecosystem resilience would be the ultimate “triumph of high achievement.”

So Long, Lonesome George

I went to see Lonesome George (Chelonoidis abingdoni) today, his last day at the American Natural History Museum before returning to Ecuador. He was tucked away in a turret on the fourth floor, through throngs of adults posing for photos and kids scurrying underfoot.

He deserved better than to be the last of his kind.

This is going to make me sound like an overwrought tree-hugger, but I went to pay my respects. He was beautiful, and majestic, and the last one, sealed in a glass cage. His remarkably long neck stretched forward, as if there was still something just out of reach.

Someone nearby commented from the display information that there are closely related species on other islands, so it’s not as big of a deal. I nobly refrained from grabbing him, with his coiffed side-swept hair and skinny jeans, and shaking him while wildly yelling, “IT IS A BIG DEAL! WE HAVE LEARNED NOTHING FOR CENTURIES AND KEEP SENDING UNIQUE, IRREPLACEABLE FORMS OF LIFE INTO THE VOID FOR NO DEFENSIBLE REASON!”

Instead I read about the Pinta Island Tortoise and apologized to Lonesome George in my head, over and over and over again.


For a compelling podcast on the changes occurring on the Galapagos Islands:

For information on Lonesome George and Pinta Island Tortoises: