Monthly Archives: April 2015

Unexpected Communication

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Raven's Breath Photo: Doug Dance

Raven’s Breath
Photo: Doug Dance

Before I started this post on talking turtles this morning, I moseyed over to Wikipedia to see what words we use to describe acoustic communications between turtles. Dogs bark, geese hiss, tapirs whistle, giraffes bleat and most rodents squeak – at least, that’s what they do when we’re talking about them in English.

But turtles? Apparently, turtles have always been considered voiceless.

As of last year, we’ve known that some turtles use chirps, clicks, meows and clucks to communicate with one another. Just not at levels we were ever able to hear before the advent of modern sound equipment.

Yellow-Spotted Amazon River Turtle Artist: Brin Edwards

Yellow-Spotted Amazon River Turtle
Artist: Brin Edwards

But even among the animals that produce vocalizations we can hear, conversations take place that remain out of our range.

Giraffes don’t really bleat much, but they do communicate via low-frequency moans and grunts. Sumatran rhinos, for example, have been found to emit low frequency whistles that might travel up to 9.8 km (6.1 mi).

In terms of all we’re not hearing, it’s not a one-way street. Animals of all kinds can hear the infrasonic melody being sung by the earth’s surface and waters – migratory birds use it to navigate, homing pigeons use it to find their way back to their lofts.

Sources of infrasound signals that can be detected by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization's listening stations. Note that this doesn't include any of the sounds discussed here, mainly because the signals being listened for by these infrasound stations are either disaster-related or human-generated. Graphic: Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization

Sources of infrasound signals that can be detected by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization’s listening stations.
Note that this graphic doesn’t include any of the sounds discussed here, mainly because the signals being listened for by these infrasound stations are either disaster-related or human-generated.
Graphic: Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization

Pulling on this thread of unheard sounds brought me to the story of some tamarin monkeys in the Central Park Zoo who were found to be whispering about a particular zoo supervisor, a person associated with unpleasant medical examinations.

The tamarins had, for a time, responded to the threat of his presence with screeches and loud vocalizations. After a while, however, researchers found that the monkeys switched to low frequency communication when the supervisor approached, as if to better discuss the real threat level and necessary response.

Golden Lion tamarins Artist: Sally Landry

Golden lion tamarins
Artist: Sally Landry

I started with turtles, but all these whispering monkeys comforting one another and a soft-spoken earth put me in mind of one of my favorite films, Wim Wender’s 1987 Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin). Two angels spend immortality listening to all the unspoken thoughts of humanity, the inward whispers no one else can hear. They offer succor where they can.

But one of the angels becomes so entranced by a lonely woman that he decides to become human just so he can experience the world as humans do, from the taste of food to the emotion of love. All of which had been abstract to him, because he could only hear one kind of communication.

Listening closely, in the end, made the angels want to experience the lives of humans more closely, to protect those assigned to their care beyond offering simple words of reassurance.

Maybe listening closely will have the same effect on us?

Let It Grow

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The garden lawn got its first seasonal trim yesterday, weeks after neighboring lawns around our place were abuzz with lawn mowers. Why do I wait so long and leave the lawn so untidy?

Over the past couple of years we redesigned the garden to use less water, so the green lawn area takes up much less space than it used to. The garden no longer a lawn dotted with flower beds, and is now a series of walkways with flower and vegetable beds, accented by a lawn.

Photo: PK Read

The grass cutttings.
Photo: PK Read

A large, lush lawn just uses too much water and is too product-intensive to make it a viable element for a lazy gardener and water miser like me. But laziness is only a small contributing factor to why the unruly lawn of winter and spring doesn’t get the flat-top treatment at the first possible opportunity.

In any case, our lawn is never golf-course perfect. Even mown, it’s a mess of green stuff and low flowers, all cut to the same length, with proper lawn grass in between. Fine by me.

I like seeing bees and other pollinators at work across the entire garden. At a time when many blossoms haven’t yet come out in full force, the various pollinators here are dependent on blossoming trees and small spring flowers. Our flowering lawn is alive with movement just above its surface.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) Photo: Photo: Bjørn Rørslett

What a bee sees:
A dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) photographed with the light spectrum
visible to humans (left) and bees (right).
Photo: Bjørn Rørslett

Finally, I enjoy the way it looks. I like the bright carpet of small daisies, violets, sundry ‘weed’ blossoms and yes, even the giant dandelions (at least before they go to seed).

When it comes down to it, the lawn is left long because I like working in the garden and walking through ankle-deep flowers. I like being surrounded by the mad life of springtime.

I look out over the lawn, just mown yesterday, and see a scattering of flowers that escaped the blade and are raising their heads. Bees are harvesting pollen. The sun is shining. See you later – I’ll be out working in the garden.

Happy Earth Day 2015.

Unknown Depths

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It was on a trip to the Cayman Islands, Little Cayman to be specific, that I acquired my conflicted sense of wonder and discomfort in the sea.

I was a teenager, snorkling the surface waters of Bloody Bay while family descended the vertical cliff known as the Great Wall West.

Below me to one side, a bright sandy seabed, perhaps 20 feet below. Sunlit, crystal clear. To the other side, darkness as the sea floor dropped away in a steep underwater wall.

"Great Wall West", shear coral reef wall Little Cayman Island Photo: Jim Hellemn

“Great Wall West”, the sheer coral reef wall off Little Cayman Island
Photo: Jim Hellemn

As I floated on the sunny sea, a fever of several large manta rays approached below. Gliding smoothly along the sandy floor, they appeared in my range of vision, and then swiftly floated out over the lip of the great wall and swooped into blackness.

It wasn’t the size of the rays, the number of them, or the distance between me and them, that sent shivers down my spine.

It was the thought that if such strange animals could vanish so quickly into those dark depths, then almost anything could come right back out with no warning. They were in their element; I was out of mine.

Our Changing Seas III, ceramic installation illustrating the changes in world coral reef systems. Art/photo: Courtney Mattison/Arthur Evans

Our Changing Seas III, ceramic installation illustrating the changes in world coral reef systems.
Art/photo: Courtney Mattison/Arthur Evans

Last year, images emerged of a previously unknown species of snailfish found five miles (8 km) deep into the Pacific’s seven-mile-deep (11 km) Mariana Trench. The deepest known fish ever recorded.

Fragile in appearance, ghostlike, the 6-inch (15 cm) fish was on the hunt for prey when caught on film by an international research team using the Hadal-Lander, a deep sea exploration vehicle.

A new species of deep-sea snailfish with a glowing cranium and transparent body has been discovered over 500 meters deep. This discovery smashes the record for deepest fish known to exist in the world.  Photo : PA/Oceanlab, University of Aberdeen

A new species of deep-sea snailfish with a glowing cranium and transparent body,
the deepest fish known to exist in the world.
Photo : PA/Oceanlab, University of Aberdeen

But how fragile could the snailfish be, really, if it is able to survive and hunt five miles down?

For the first time, researchers also filmed and collected a ‘supergiant’ amphipod over a foot long (34 cm), a massive version of creatures normally sized between 1-1.5 inches (2-3 cm).

The teams and technology behind the Hadal-Lander exploration work to understand what we know about the environment, animals and the various geological and ecological processes of the deepest ocean region on the planet.

A selection of crustacean samples recovered from the Mariana Trench. Photo: University of Aberdeen

A selection of crustacean samples recovered from the Mariana Trench.
Photo: University of Aberdeen

Meanwhile, over at the Sea Life Aquarium in New Zealand, Sony managed to teach an octopus how to use a water-resistant camera to film visitors on the other side of the aquarium glass. The octopus, a female named Rambo, took only three tries to get it right, faster than most humans. Even if it’s only for a marketing stunt, that’s one smart beastie.

I marvel at the breadth and array of aquatic life, at types of intelligence so different from our own; I respect the phenomenal physical capacities to withstand extreme water pressure and thrive in darkness. It is truly a different element.

And it’s just as I suspected way back on the precipice of the Great Wall West all those years ago: Our oceans are full of creatures with all manner of tricks up their fins, tentacles and tails.

Artist: Ellen Jewett

Artist: Ellen Jewett

Certitude and Change

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Images of this 1956 Pictorial Wildlife and Game Map of the United States have been kicking around the Internet for a while now. It caught my eye when I first saw it, but I’ve been pondering just why I find it so intriguing.

Pictorial Wildlife & Game Map of the United States (1956) Click to enlarge. Source: Shorewood Press

Pictorial Wildlife & Game Map of the United States (1956)
Click to enlarge.
Source: Shorewood Press

Sure, it’s picturesque and pretty. It harks back to a cheery era of view of land and environment that pre-dated the current changes in biodiversity. Or rather, it pre-dated the deepening knowledge and understanding of what those changes mean.

Recent biodiversity studies are showing that while the quantitative amount of species might be fairly constant in a given region, the composition and quality of those numbers are undergoing rapid alteration. More species of algae and invertebrates, for example, and fewer of birds and mammals and corals.

The 1956 map doesn’t just show a wide variety of iconic mammals and birds, it shows them in an array of overwhelming plenty. And I think this starts to get at what I find so interesting. Small or large, mighty or modest, posed as if poised for action, the entire map is packed with more animals than any one person could ever track or hunt or witness. Except that, really, it isn’t.

Fifteen animals listed as ‘big game’, most of them bears. Another fifteen animals as ‘small game’, with several squirrel and rabbit types, followed by fifteen ‘animal predators’, mostly foxes and skunks. Then a scattering of small mammals and lots of birds.

And yet, it looks like an overabundance, a certainty that bounty always has and always will exist.

And maybe at some point, it was.

This older map doesn’t concern itself with the mammals that might be found almost anywhere, at least in a related species.

Map of the Animal Kingdom, circa 1835.  Source: American Folk Art Museum via streetsofsalem

Map of the Animal Kingdom, circa 1835.
Source: American Folk Art Museum via streetsofsalem

No squirrels or pigeons here, just the big guys. Jaguars and camels, black bears and bison, the iconic creatures that might nourish us, serve us, carry us, or eat us.

Again, though, there’s the static certitude that if one were to visit a region, one would find the animals as shown.

And then there’s this new map that shows both our changing attitudes towards animals as well as towards mapping.

California Roadkill Observation System. The map can be configured to search for a number of different species, and for specific time frames. This version is a screenshot of the past 90 days. Visitors can add their own observations to the database. Source: California Roadkill Observation System

California Roadkill Observation System. The map can be configured to search for a number of different species, and for specific time frames. This version is a screenshot of the past 90 days.
Visitors can add their own observations to the database.
Source: California Roadkill Observation System

The California Roadkill Observation System is an interactive cartography project that dates back to 2009, and it charts ongoing instances of roadkill in California. Anyone can take a photo of an animal killed on California’s roads, and upload it for inclusion.

This grim diary serves several purposes. One is to show what kinds of animals are present in a given region, and to a certain extent, how abundant they are, i.e. the health of the population. For instance, the project has documented a general decline in wildlife roadkill over the course of the California drought.

UC Davis professor Fraser Shilling, who operates the database, calls it a ‘continuous wildlife sampling device.’ It can offer information on invasive species, such as the westward movement of the Eastern grey squirrel, at least where their presence intersects with motorized human mobility.

It’s not as visually arresting as the 1956 map, but it does something that older maps can’t: Show the movement and abundance of life on the ground. It carries no inherent optimism or promises, just the acknowledgement of change on the ground, and an invitation to awareness.

The Shape of Absence

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Absence of information has the curious characteristic of being innocuous as long as it goes unnoticed, and undeniably intriguing once it becomes apparent. Once you notice something is missing, you can’t stop looking at the hole where it should be and wondering what should actually be there.

For example, a recent report published by the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) shows just how little data is publicly available on the subject of oil and gas company spills and other violations in the United States.

RIP Great Auk: After John Gould (1873/ 2014),  from the series Frameworks of Absence, a collection of historic prints and publications printed at the time in history when the depicted species became extinct, with the extinct species cut out of the image. Artist: Brandon Ballengée

RIP Great Auk: After John Gould
(1873/ 2014)
From the series Frameworks of Absence, a collection of historic prints and publications printed at the time in history when the depicted species became extinct, with the extinct species cut out of the image.
Artist: Brandon Ballengée

I noticed this some time ago when I posted comments on the large 2013 Tesoro oil spill in North Dakota that took over a week to report to the press (and which is still in the clean-up process, 18 months and $20 million later).

I looked for data on oil spills across the 36 U.S. states with active oil and gas installations, but information was difficult to find. I attributed that difficulty to my own lack of time and online savvy, but as it turns out, the reason runs deeper.

Neither state nor federal regulatory agencies provide this data in any consistent form, and if corporations have extensive monitoring and data on spills, they are keeping it to themselves for the most part.

RIP Sloane’s Urania Butterfly: After W.F. Kirby (1897/ 2014) Frameworks of Absence Artist: Brandon Ballengée

RIP Sloane’s Urania Butterfly: After W.F. Kirby
(1897/ 2014)
Frameworks of Absence
Artist: Brandon Ballengée

According to the NRDC study, many violations are never reported at all. It should be added that many violations aren’t considered report-worthy because of lax standards and enforcement found in many states.

What happens when no consistent records are kept?

There can be no true accountability of the impact of oil and gas industry operations and activities on the communities and environments in which they conduct business. Noncompliance with safety standards and construction requirements becomes difficult to enforce due to the lack of a track record. The same goes for on-site worker safety regulations and compliance.

Companies with an (invisible) history of violations can skirt notice and supervision. The true boundaries of pollution and damage can be minimized or even denied.

The NRDC report makes for interesting reading and now I can’t stop looking at the empty space where all the information should be.

'RIP Audubon's Bighorn Sheep' (18492014) Frameworks of Absence Artist: Brandon Ballengée

‘RIP Audubon’s Bighorn Sheep’ (1849/2014)
Frameworks of Absence
Artist: Brandon Ballengée