Odd Couples, book cover
Since becoming a first-time mum last summer, I’ve become painfully more aware of the sexually-based differences between myself and my husband as we navigate the new-to-us territory of parenthood. (How can men listen to a baby wail for so long without doing anything?! And why do I feel I traded my career for motherhood, while his career is taking off and he gets to be an awesome dad?!) Yet, no matter how baffling these differences feel to me, they are negligible compared to the ones explored in Odd Couples: Extraordinary Differences Between the Sexes in the Animal Kingdom (Princeton University Press, 2013).
Odd Couples is a refreshingly informative and passionate jaunt through the extreme differences found in the sexes of eight different animal species. Evolutionary biologist Daphne Fairbairn infuses her rigorously researched text with elegant and poised language, a pervasive sense of insatiable curiosity, first-hand experiential scenes and learned suppositions. The result is a feeling of listening, enthralled, to the best lecturer in far-and-away the best college biology course you ever experienced.
Fairbairn begins the book with a standard introduction revealing biographical information which exemplifies her expertise in evolutionary biology. She shares that the roots of her questions about sexual differences stretches back to her early-career field studies on wild deer mice. The main questions her book explores are “why sexual differences are such a pervasive and significant part of the fabric of animal variation and, in particular, why males and females have come to differ to truly extraordinary degrees in some animal lineages.” (more…)
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Yesterday I came home from the Science Writers 2012 conference in Raleigh, N.C. feeling very good about seeing many old and new friends. Despite dealing with the travails of traveling as a nursing mom without her baby, it was an awesome trip. But even more awesome awesomesauce was awaiting me at home. Lurking in the middle of my stack of mail was the new UNC Press catalog for their spring/summer book releases—and gracing the cover is a large, handsome red wolf, a nice nod to the upcoming release of my book, The Secret World of Red Wolves next April! (Click here to download a partial PDF of the catalog and read more about the book.)
I am thrilled the press chose a photo from my book to put on the cover of their catalog! It is a wonderful gesture to their faith in the importance of this book, and it is also a welcome bit of positive news for the red wolf which is currently plagued by the fallout of a decision by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to allow the night spotlighting of coyotes throughout the state, even within the endangered red wolf’s five-county recovery area. For this, they are being sued. (I first wrote about the threat of this change to the state hunting regulations for the Scientific American Guest Blog, and for the Charlotte Observer, and I’ll be writing more about it elsewhere in the coming month.)
The photo on the catalog cover is also the photo for my book cover, which will look like this:
Now, is that a nice cover or what? I love the way they framed the wolf’s gaze with the title.
But back to the catalog. This is the first step in marketing my book, and that makes me very excited because I actually finished writing the book in November of 2011. At the time, I had no idea that it would take more than a year for the project to transform into a saleable hardback form! (In fact, the process took so long, I actually went through pregnancy and birth and now have a beautiful baby boy! Some people have commented that it must feel pretty good to have a book and a baby both “born” within the same year. It does feel good, though also a tad overwhelming as I try to regain my foothold with writing now that my life is re-centering around another human being.) Because of my recent inauguration into motherhood, I’ve not been blogging much the past few months, but I hope to rectify that situation in the months to come. Goodness knows there is so much to write about with recent developments for the worse for red wolves.
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The Wolverine Way, by Douglas Chadwick
Wolverines are badass animals. That’s probably why Marvel Comics made a character based on them. But unfortunately, we know more about the comic character than the real deal! Myth tells us that these animals are enormous gluttons, so much so that their latinized name is Gulo gulo, which means glutton glutton. I suppose the double name speaks to the intensity of glutton they were once thought to be.
Wolverines are a modest sized animal that can weigh anywhere from 15 to 70 pounds, with most being in the 30-50 pound range. They have the lithe muscular bodies of young black bear cubs, but with the wide digging-ready paws of a badger. Their heads look like a mashup of a Tasmanian devil with a mongoose. They have enormous strength that allows them to gallop for hours on end through deep snow fields, swim through freezing streams and rivers, and haul their bulk up nearly vertical cliff faces. And did I mention their skulls harbor bone-crushing teeth? Well, they do, and they make good use of them, gobbling up bones from carrion and fresh kills alike to process the fatty, nutritious marrow that many other animals can’t access.
Despite their obvious badassery, wolverines have remained one of the most understudied mammalian predators on the continent.
A few years ago, a multi-year project to study the life history details of these animals was undertaken at Glacier National Park, where a small population of the animals still remain. The study provided the perfect vehicle for Douglas Chadwick, who volunteered on the project, to write a book about these amazing but largely unknown carnivores.
In The Wolverine Way Chadwick narrates the time he spent as a volunteer on the Glacier project. His voice offers a mix of wonder and humility with just the right amount of swagger. But that last element stems almost solely from what we learn of wolverines: how they can scale sheer rock and ice mountain faces in times that make the most ardent mountaineers green with envy; how they can roam twenty or more miles across rugged topography in a single day, treating mountain slopes as if they were flat; how they can go head-to-head with grizzlies to stake a carcass as their own; and how they can munch bones like so many stale breadsticks to carry them between meaty meals.
Chadwick’s engaging, at times poetic, writing and reflections of the natural world are what elevates this book from a mere documentation of a project to an insightful tome into what I can only call the mindset of a wolverine. Check out this video trailer to see what I’m talking about:
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Cover to The Species Seekers, by Richard Conniff
The Species Seekers: Heroes, fools, and the mad pursuit of life on earth, by Richard Conniff, is a delightful natural history story that toes the line of an adventure book. The theme of the text explores various historical characters — their personalities and their deeds — who discovered a wide variety of nature’s bounty across the globe and across time. Conniff expertly weaves personality traits and anecdotes about the people who seek new species — the species seekers — so that readers learn not only who discovered what, but why they were driven to wander in new countries and trek through jungles and mountains to find new natural treasures. But it’s the way in which Conniff presents these characters, their travels and discoveries, that injects a fast-paced adventurous feel to the book.
He leads with a French colonel in Napolean’s army who spots an unusual beetle as he was about to lead his men to attack a Spanish line during the Battle of Alcaniz in 1809. The colonel dismounts, collects the beetle and pins it to a prepared piece of cork attached to the inside of his helmet. The cork was there for just this purpose, and the colonel had trained his men to collect interesting insects for him. His love for describing new species was so was so great that even his enemies sent him unusual specimens.
From this departure point, the narrative’s pace skips along like a light-hearted summer trip; the kind where you explore a multi-country itinerary in a condensed time period. (more…)
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Last summer, I followed around a North Carolina State University PhD student in the woods of Fort Bragg as he monitored amphibians at ephemeral ponds. That adventure turned into this story about imperiled Carlona gopher frogs. But another story was waiting in the wings, as it were. His advisor, Nick Haddad of NC State, was working on helping other small creatures on the base. It turns out that Fort Bragg is home to the only known populations of St. Francis’ satyrs in the world. They are a sub-species of the Mitchell’s satyr, and were once thought to be extinct in the wild.
Soldiers at Fort Bragg practice exploding munitions in artillery impact zones within the base. Smalls-arms fire practice takes place in firing ranges that ring the larger artillery impact zones. Native wildlife love these zones, and this is where populations of St. Francis’ satyr was found. Haddad and Brian Ball, an endangered species biologist at Fort Bragg, believe that fires sparked in these zones mimic the native fire regimes of old, and maintain small populations of once-widespread native species.
You can read the full story on this butterfly here. (Best read in “two-pages continuous” mode in your PDF viewer.)
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The Lost Wolves of Japan, by Brett Walker
The Lost Wolves of Japan is a first-rate academically-oriented text that combs through the natural and cultural history of wolves on the Japanese archipelago. Author Brett Walker is a professor of history at Montana State University who specializes in Japanese history; this book was published by the Univ. of Washington Press. He used historical research methodologies to frame an inquiry into what the Japanese wolf was, and what led to its extinction. If you like historical detail, this book serves it up in helping after generous helping.
Walker explores many different themes in The Lost Wolves of Japan, most of which are centered around people, culture, wolves and nature. He pokes and prods the relationships of these entitites to each other by using various historical lenses. He examines the near-myth of Japanese “oneness” with nature; the culture of the Ainu (an indigenous people group in the Japanese archipelago) and their spiritual reverence for wild wolves, and their close relationship with domesticated hunting dogs; how early Japanese naturalists classified the wolves and mountain dogs that populated their islands; the Japanese government’s quest to modernize their society through ranching during the early years of the Meiji Restoration (ca. 1868); and theories of wolf extinction.
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Mexican wolf M859's tracks, photo by AZGFD.
When wolves and livestock, or pets, come into conflict with each other, people’s tolerance for wolves on the landscape tends to decrease. Part of the problem is the economic loss to the livestock producer, so some predator conservation organizations offer compensation payments for wolf-killed livestock as a tool to increase tolerance for wolves. Additional reasons to offer compensation include attempting to reduce retaliatory killing of wolves, and an opportunity for the public to share the burden of wolf recovery.
Whether or not compensation is an effective tool is debatable. A survey study in Wisconsin investigated whether or not compensation for wolf depredation of livestock or pets increased rural citizen’s tolerance for wolves (Naughton-Treves, Grossberg and Treves 2003). The researchers found that although all the participants approved of compensation as a management strategy, it did not necessarily increase tolerance of wolves on an individual basis, and that most who had lost livestock or pets believed the payments in themselves to be “inadequate, given the emotion and years invested in each animal” (Ibid, pg. 1509). The researchers also found that an individual’s social group (whether a bear hunter, or a sheep farmer or a rancher) had a greater influence on their attitudes toward wolves than did individual experiences with wolves, leading them to conclude that “attitudes are not highly sensitive to wolf numbers and depredation frequencies” (Ibid). This is interesting because it suggests a belief pattern independent of immediate facts about wolves or experiences with wolf conflicts. A second study suggests that an unintended negative effect of compensation payments may be that such programs worsen wildlife conflicts by decreasing efforts to prevent the conflicts in the first place (Bulte and Rondeau 2005).
Frequently, in the U.S., we look to compensation programs to help shore up support for large carnivore conservation in areas where livestock producers are thought to be affected negatively by these predators’ presence. I’ve blogged in other posts about the effectiveness of different types of carnivore compensation programs, but the heart of the matter goes beyond dollars and cents. Another dimension we have to consider when studying how to gain tolerance for carnivore conservation is the human dimension. What do carnivores mean to people? How do people create meaning and attach meaning to different animals? (more…)
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Aerial view of a church forest, also called coptic forest, in Ethiopia. (Google Earth)
An article I researched and wrote for the PLoS Blogs network about Ethiopia’s coptic forests published a few days ago. It starts like this:
In America, some fundamental Christians believe that man has a God-given right to use the earth and all its resources to meet their needs. After all, Genesis says so. But across the Atlantic, a different attitude prevails among followers in Ethiopia, which has the longest continuous tradition of Christianity of any African country. Followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Churches believe they should maintain a home for all of God’s creatures around their places of worship. The result? Forests ringing churches.
Read the whole piece here.
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Egyptian jackal, now understood to be an African gray wolf. (Image credit unknown)
Africa has a new, old wolf. An animal that was previously called a subspecies of the golden jackal in Egypt has now been found to be a very rare relict species hiding in plain sight — an ancient gray wolf line still living today.
Previously, it was thought that the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis) was Africa’s only wolf, but it is a separate species from the gray wolves (Canis lupus) that most folks are familiar with.
A new study published today in PLoS-ONE offers a heavy-weight genetic analysis of golden jackals in Africa, India, Israel and Serbia compared to gray wolves from all over the world. In the paper titled “The Cryptic African Wolf: Canis aureus lupaster Is Not a Golden Jackal and Is Not Endemic to Egypt” the authors conclude that Africa has its very own gray wolf — and it’s ancient. Claudio Sirello, the chair of the IUCN’s Canid Specialist Group and a professor in the zoology department of Oxford University, is a co-author to the paper.
The study found that the subspecies of golden jackal found in Egypt, Canis aureus lupaster, is more closely related to gray wolves of India (Canis lupus pallipes) and the Himalayas (Canis lupus chanco) than it is to other golden jackals found in India, Israel and Serbia. They also presented evidence that the animal known as a golden jackal in Egypt is also present in the highlands of Ethiopia — a 2,500 kilometer range expansion southeasterly.
The new evidence, based on an mtDNA analysis, suggests that the African gray wolf (formerly known as C. a. lupaster) belongs to an ancient group of gray wolves that clusters most closely with gray wolves of India and the Himalayas, and that this group formed prior to the radiation of gray wolves that comprised the Holarctic group we know today from Sweden, Japan, North America, and Saudi Arabia.
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The Golden Spruce, cover; by John Vaillant. (W.W. Norton & Co.)
In 1997, a symbolic Sitka spruce tree known as the golden spruce was cut down illegally in the dark cover of night. The deed took place in British Columbia when a marginally-employed logger and layout engineer, Grant Hadwin, systematically sawed the 300-year-old tree so that it was left teetering without the strength to withstand a strong wind. A day later, the massive giant crashed down. In Hadwin’s mind, the act was a political statement against the greed and short-sightedness of industrial logging corporations. But to many, his actions were environmental terrorism.
The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed is a non-fiction nature book that systematically investigates the meaning behind the golden spruce tree to three main groups of people, and the motives that lay within the man who actually felled it. This book is part mystery, part natural history, part ethnography and shot through with excellent narrative storytelling.
Author John Vaillant has a way of gathering fact after fact like so many vibrant colored strings and then weaving them into a multi-colored and multi-dimensional tapestry. The book’s structure is an investigation of various people groups and their attitudes toward using natural resources: the early sea-faring westerners that came to British Columbia for the sea otter fur trade, then stayed for the seemingly limitless timber; the Haida indigenous people that happily sold the otters and timber in their territory; and the loggers that happily plundered the old-growth forests, convinced that it would regrow by the time they were done and that they could cut it all over again. The picture that emerges from this is a detective’s tale that presents the facts of a case as well as how these facts were perceived by the various people groups involved. It is this latter part that infuses Vaillant’s work with a deep literary value. (more…)
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