A Burmese Python Could Be More Than A Pest
by Whit Gibbons
How would you like to find out that a 15-foot-long Burmese python was a permanent resident in your neighborhood? Add to this report that someone has found a clutch of 50 recently hatched python eggs, which means that pythons are breeding and that the juveniles have dispersed into the area. This exact scene has not been documented yet in suburban areas of south Florida, but the possibility exists. A recent book (The Exotic Amphibians and Reptiles of Florida, 2004, Krieger Publishing Company, Malabar, FL) by Walter E. Meshaka, Jr., Brian P. Butterfield, and J. Brian Hauge gives cause for the human residents of Florida to address the issue of introduced species of herpetofauna that have now become their new neighbors in the state.
Crocodiles And Alligators Are Very Different
by Whit Gibbons
Florida reported another alligator attack last week. As more people invade alligator habitat in southern states, we have (or at least should have) come to expect such news during the warmer months of the year. Contact between us and them is steadily increasing. Ironically, humans, the invasive species, are the ones who become offended when another species takes objection to our presence.
Let's Not Be Complacent About The Obvious
by Whit Gibbons
Last week in Alabama, I took my friend Andrew on a field trip. He wanted to catch a snake and other reptiles and amphibians, so we turned over logs in the forest, waded up streams, and slogged along the shorelines of lakes. Among our captures were slimy salamanders, green anoles, fence lizards, and cricket frogs. We even caught a large yellow-bellied watersnake. Anyone who spends time looking for these creatures in the Southeast would eventually find them also, as all are relatively common in many areas.
But I do not take these species for granted. Just because they are prevalent today gives no guarantee for the future. Now-extinct plants and animals have included some that were once very abundant. Revisiting the passenger pigeon saga is always a good way to make us realize we should appreciate and protect what we have.
Early in the 20th century the last surviving passenger pigeon--a species claimed by some to have occurred in greater numbers than any other bird or mammal for which we have records--died in captivity. Numbers offered little protection from extinction, and environmental protection laws came too late to help.
Passenger pigeons looked similar to mourning doves, but one distinction, communal nesting, ultimately led to their downfall as a result of uncontrolled hunting by humans. The abundance of passenger pigeons was documented in many ways. John James Audubon reported an enormous migrating flock in Kentucky that was more than a mile wide, closely compact, and passed overhead during the daylight hours for three full days. He estimated that more than a billion birds were in the flock.
The largest known nesting site for passenger pigeons was Petoskey, Michigan, where almost every tree limb had at least one nest. Camp sites were set up each year by hundreds of people who exploited the communal nesting area. In 1878 the nesting colony was 28 miles long and 4 miles wide. Thousands, maybe millions, of pigeons were sold during the late 1800s.
Most passenger pigeons were used for food, but people also found other uses for them. More than 20,000 of the docile and cooperative birds were used as shooting gallery targets on the Coney Island midway. Passenger pigeons, despite their millions, dwindled away over the years as the onslaught continued. Everyone took the abundant and commonly seen birds for granted.
One way to capture pigeons was to lure them to a would-be feeding spot with a decoy, a tame pigeon sitting on a stool. Upon seeing the "stool pigeon," passing flocks would land, only to be captured in a net trap. According to one authority, approximately 10 nettings of about 1,200 passenger pigeons each were made in a day, more than 80,000 being captured in some weeks. The actual toll was even greater when trapping occurred during the nesting season, because countless nestlings lost their parents and starved in the nest as a result.
The extinction of the passenger pigeon is a commentary on a persistent and dangerous attitude of that era, the belief that we could exploit any natural system to the fullest, without regard for long-term sustainability. Unfortunately, the attitude exists even today. The approach of squeezing everything we can out of natural areas for fast financial gain may be the most costly feature of free enterprise. The final payment may be far more costly than anyone anticipated.
By the late 1800s, some people, including a few legislators, realized that Americans had overextended their exploitation of the passenger pigeon. By the 1900s laws were being passed to prevent wholesale killing and trapping of the once most common of birds. But as is true with many of today's environmental laws, the rulings were passed too late, were not stringently enforced, and left too many loopholes. No one can be sure when and where the last passenger pigeon died in the wild. But the last known lonely passenger pigeon died in captivity on September 1, 1914, in the Cincinnati Zoo.
The next time you hear a bullfrog, smell a wax myrtle, or see a tiger swallowtail butterfly, stop and appreciate it. Although they are common today, let's not let them become the passenger pigeons of tomorrow. Let's support protection of natural habitats.
Are Alligator Snappers Out Of The Soup?
by Whit Gibbons
South Carolina and Louisiana have major problems with some of their senior citizens. As summer begins, Louisiana will have begun to address the problem for one group. South Carolina will still be seeking a solution for their denizens. The problem relates not to AARP members but to turtles: how to control their removal from the wild by commercial turtle trappers. Neither state can afford to lose many more of their native turtles and keep their natural heritage intact. Recent positive action by the Louisiana senate regarding one species bears mentioning.
One of the most magnificent reptiles in America is the alligator snapping turtle, a species that is fast disappearing from southern rivers and swamps. The giant turtle, one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world, gets bigger than the adults of some sea turtles. Typical adults can weigh more than 100 pounds and the record is more than 200. Alligator snappers have a come-hither scam that operates quite effectively with hungry fish. The turtle sits on the bottom with its mouth open. Its bright red tongue wiggles like a worm. As unsuspecting fish move in for a meal, they become a meal themselves when the unseen con artist slams its jaws shut.
Alligator snappers inhabit the Mississippi River drainage and are found as far east as southern Georgia, west to Texas, and north to Indiana, although not in the Carolinas. Once they were in virtually all large rivers throughout their geographic range. Last year their numbers were estimated to be less than 5 percent of what they once were, and still declining. All but one state (Louisiana) had passed laws to protect these mighty creatures from the assaults of commercial trapping. I think it safe to say that they are part of the natural world that most Americans would like to preserve.
Louisiana may actually make that a reality. Louisiana Senate Resolution No. 49 introduced by Sen. Robert J. Barham is "to urge and request the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to place a moratorium on the taking of alligator snapping turtles." The resolution notes that these turtles have "historically been a vital and integral part of the Louisiana wildlife ecosystem [and are] presently suffering excessive exploitation for meat in local commercial markets, as well as an increasing international market."
The impact of such a resolution will go far in setting the system right for alligator snappers in Louisiana. Other states should consider taking similar steps to protect their turtle species. Although resolutions are only suggestions, and the state's wildlife department does not have to honor them, such a suggestion by a state senate is a positive start. The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission has now taken action and voted to "stop the taking and possession of alligator snapping turtles by anybody with a commercial license." Recreational trapping of alligator snappers was not affected.
I asked Dr. Joseph Pechmann, a biologist at the University of New Orleans, how he thought the Louisiana senate had ever been able to pass a resolution that would protect the turtles. "They accepted the idea that part of Louisiana's natural heritage was going to disappear if commercial harvest was allowed to continue. Recreational harvesting of alligator snappers is a pastime important to many in the state, but the current levels of commercial removal were clearly unsustainable."
The southeastern turtle saga is not over, and I'm not sure how it will end before meaningful regulations are in place in all states. I do know the loss of alligator snappers from the commercial scene will have little effect on the turtle soup au sherry at Commander's Palace restaurant in New Orleans. But I do not know whether the South Carolina legislature will realize that it must now step forward and take some action to protect its own turtles. When I asked Dr. Pechmann how he personally felt about the resolution to protect the giant turtles in Louisiana, he said, "It’s about time." Let's hope tight restrictions on overharvesting will not be too late coming for alligator snappers in Louisiana, or for other turtles elsewhere.
We need a National Reptile and National Amphibian
by Whit Gibbons
We need two new symbols in America--a national reptile and a national amphibian. For the reptile, I nominate the garter snake. For the amphibian, I propose the leopard frog. Together they would symbolically represent America's commitment to our natural heritage of native animals, including the reptiles and amphibians, the herpetofauna. Herpetofauna for the most part are not game species and are unfamiliar to most people. Also a few can be dangerous when they defend themselves. But they are part of our natural environments and deserve our respect and protection. Designating representatives that everyone in America can be as familiar with as the bald eagle would go a long way toward shifting attitudes positively toward our native, nongame wildlife.
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