Displaying items by tag: extinction
From plastic pollution to extreme weather and the extinction crisis, the year ahead promises tough fights, enormous challenges and critical opportunities
This story was originally published by The Revelator.
A new year brings with it new opportunities — and more of the same environmental threats from the previous 12 months.
The ivory-billed woodpecker is officially extinct, and it strikes a chord in Knoxville
Clinging to a maple in the bayou, Jim Tanner finally had the rare nestling in his grasp.
He fitted it with a numbered leg band and placed the bird back in its hole high off the ground.
But true to its seldom-seen self, the juvenile ivory-billed woodpecker squirmed free and fluttered to the base of a giant maple tree in a southern Louisiana swamp owned at the time by the Singer Sewing Machine Co.
The year was 1936, and Jim Tanner was in the midst of doctorate research at Cornell University funded by the Audubon Society as part of a push to prevent the pending extinctions of multiple bird species, including the California condor, roseate spoonbill, whooping crane and ivory-billed woodpecker. Eighty-five years later, the regal woodpecker would be the only one grounded for eternity.
In the heat and rain of mucky, gassy bayous, Tanner compiled data on the range, population, habitat and prevalence of ivory-billed woodpeckers. He camped for weeks at a time in the swamps of the birds’ original range.
On this day, his only goal was to band the bird but he rushed down the tree and picked up the agitated but uninjured woodpecker.
He also wanted photographs.
Tanner took advantage of the moment.
He placed the bird upon the shoulder of an accompanying and accommodating game warden for 14 shots from his Leica.
They were probably the first, and perhaps the last, photographs of a juvenile ivory-billed woodpecker photographed by Tanner in its natural habitat. He named the bird Sonny, and he was the only known member of the species to be banded with a number.
The regal, smart, athletic bird, which peaceably flew over its small slice of Earth for some 10,000 years, was declared extinct last month by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Twenty-two other species also qualified for removal from the Endangered Species List — in the worst possible way.
The ivory bill inhabited the swamps of the Deep South, far removed from Rocky Top, but old visages of the departed were found in Little Switzerland in South Knoxville. The work of Tanner, who would go on to complete a rich ecological research career at the University of Tennessee, has been memorialized by a talented East Tennessee science writer.
And the Southern Appalachian region has other long-gone kinships with species that vanished from the Earth a long time ago.
MTSU researchers document hellbender’s accelerating decline in Middle Tennessee
(Author’s note: I was aware of the hellbender before interviewing Brian Miller, but did not know the giant salamanders were present on the Highland Rim of Tennessee. Subsequent reading and interviews with other researchers, including Dr. Bill Sutton at Tennessee State University, Nashville, confirm Miller’s statements that hellbenders are vanishing from large portions of Tennessee, and Missouri. The healthy populations in portions of the Great Smoky Mountains and Cherokee National Forest may be an exception to a general trend toward extirpation and, ultimately, extinction).
Brian Miller has been researching hellbenders for decades. He serves on the faculty of Middle Tennessee State University where he teaches in the biology department and mentors younger researchers, many of whom publish their research.
He has even developed a digital “Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Middle Tennessee.” The guide began more than 30 years ago as a dichotomous key for students in his vertebrate zoology class and now includes hundreds of photographs and exceeds 400 pages.
Dr. Miller researches the hellbenders of the Highland Rim, the upland that surrounds Nashville and the Great Basin. Populations of hellbenders in streams of this region are perhaps Tennessee’s most endangered.
QUESTION: I noticed that you specialize in herpetofauna. Most of the research listed on your faculty page is focused on amphibians, but with some papers on snakes. Can you comment about your research?
ANSWER: You are correct that amphibians are my primary research interest, particularly salamanders. However, I also have strong interests in reptiles, and my students and I have conducted research on various species of snakes and turtles.
When did you become interested in hellbenders?
Hellbenders have been of interest to me since I first encountered them while enrolled in a course on herpetology at the University of Missouri in 1977. I was fortunate that the professor of that course, Dean Metter, was involved with research on hellbenders and I began to assist with his research in 1978, in collaboration with Robert Wilkinson at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri.
Chris Petersen was working on his master’s degree with Dr. Wilkinson at that time and he matriculated to the University of Missouri a couple of years later to start on his Ph.D, which was also with hellbenders. Chris and I spent time in the field gathering data for his Ph.D. project until I moved to Washington State to work on my Ph.D.
I was hired into the biology department at Middle Tennessee State University in 1989 and began working with hellbenders in this state in 1990. At that time, I was able to locate populations in several rivers in Middle Tennessee, including a large population in the Collins River. I decided to concentrate my efforts on this population and one in the Buffalo River.
Of note, the population I worked with in the Collins River was dominated by large adults, whereas the population in the Buffalo River consisted of many age classes, including young individuals.
The Collins River situation was like what I was familiar with in Missouri and Arkansas populations. Unfortunately, by the early 2000s the population I was working with in the Collins River was gone; however, populations remain in the Buffalo River. My research with hellbenders during the past decade has been concentrated in streams in the Western Highland Rim.
Do you work with both subspecies, the Ozark, and the Eastern hellbender?
I worked with both subspecies while a student at the University of Missouri when assisting with projects in the Metter lab, but since I moved to Tennessee, I have worked only with Tennessee populations.
What do you perceive as the greatest threats to hellbender populations?
I am not certain why most populations of hellbenders are in decline rangewide, but suspect that habitat alteration, including sedimentation, and disease are involved in many if not all areas where declines are occurring. Lack of recruitment of young is a common theme of populations that decline.
‘Lord God Bird’ of lore, a sad reminder of what we have lost
We stood agape. Before us, on a white countertop as big as a ping pong table, lay 17 dead ivory-billed woodpeckers. They were museum specimens neatly arranged in two groups: nine males and eight females, all lined up like ears of corn in separate wooden trays. Each had a paper label attached to a leg with handwritten notation of when and where it had been collected; most seemed to date from the late 1800s. Being in the presence of so many rendered us reverently speechless.