I draw to learn the way life perpetuates itself, moves, and holds itself in space.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Brother's Keeper

One day the zookeeper noticed that the orang-utang was reading two books -- the Bible and Darwin's Origin of Species. In surprise he asked the ape, "Why are you reading both those books"?

"Well," said the orang-utang, "I just wanted to know if I was my brother's keeper or my keeper's brother."

I went for a job interview at the Zoo for the ZooTeen Instructor position. The program is amazing if you're sixteen- teens can volunteer one day a week and learn about how to communicate wildlife information to humans. They stand in front of exhibits and explain the lifestyle and habits of each creature. The position appeared to involve mostly strolling the grounds and making sure teens aren't sexting during their shift.

I got a free tour after the interview with my interviewer, Chris Kline, Director of Onsite Interpretation, and we discussed the various merits and fallbacks of the zoo as an instution. I'm told the amount that visitors ask if zebras lay eggs is staggeringly frequent, so they certainly have an educational job to do. Zoos in their modern iterations are touted as important for conservation, becauase presumably they increase the robustness of species endangered in the wild by providing safe spaces and breeding habitats for them. I believe that zoo people believe in what they're doing, and believe it's for the good of the animals. For example, the chance of white-phase (either Bengal or Siberian) tigers being born in the wild is about 1 in 5,000, as it is caused by a double recessive gene. The Nashville Zoo has a White Bengal tiger. All white tigers in zoos right now originate from an individual captured in the 1950's, therefore despite zoos introducing new genes to prevent inbreeding, it persists and has caused a prevalence of hip dysplasia in many white tiger individuals.

The Nashville Zoo boasts being the topmost breeder of the giant anteater in the country. Anteaters are notoriously difficult to breed, but apparently are mating like rabbits at the zoo here. They also have successful breeding programs for Rhinoceros Hornbills, and are one of only a handful for Clouded Leapords. They also have had success with breeding Puerto Rican Crested Toads and Panamanian Golden Frogs, which are now believed to be extinct in the wild.

At the Schimdt's Guenon habitat, also called a Red Monkey, there is an odd, difficult to see electric grass between the monkeys and the chain link fence to prevent them from reaching their hands out to visitors. Visitors holding hands with monkeys would perhaps cause legal hazards for the zoo. The electric grass shocks their little monkey hands if they try to reach out. The Schmidt's Guenon has huge cheek pouches it can fill with food while foraging and then retire to dine on the food stored in its cheeks. One monkey came close to the grass and played around near it, and I watched it get slightly zinged, remember the infernal electric grass, give it a disdainful look, and retract its hand slightly. The monkey was going to give the electric grass the room it evidently demanded, but little else. How's that for anthropomorphization?! I thought about how we like to assume animals are just like us while at the zoo. A couple of women walked up to the exhibit and began talking about the animals excitedly, projecting a whole bundle of emotions and behaviors on them, even applying humans concepts of beauty to them. Apparently they didn't appreciate the Schmidt's Guenon's looks. For a great article on this concept, see Tom Tyler's essay "If Horses Had Hands" http://www.criminalanimal.org/people/writings/cyberchimp/horses.htm

Next visit I'll check out the elephant habitat, where there apparently is a kind of sponge under the soil so it's cushier for them. Behave!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Big O

Lake Okeechobee is the headwaters of the Everglades, vast and much depleted (read: screwed with by the Army Engineer Corps). Florida is one of the wettest states in the country, and its rainfall keeps Okeechobee productive. Lake Okeechoee sits in the center of the state, and benefits in biodiversity from both two climactic zones in Florida, subtropical and temperate.

I went there on an airboat tour with my family a couple of weeks ago. Being on an airboat is a trip- it's nice to be able to glide over not only the water, but any plant or obstacle that might come into one's path (including alligators), but the noise is not a companion I typically like to take with me on adventures in wild places. Edie Widder says about deep sea subs that they are so loud and intrusive anything they see must be just the slow and the stupid. I had the same thought about airboating, but it was fun like the carnival, so I went along for the ride.

Our guide picked out Julia to use as an example in a little scenario he cooked up about what her life would have been like at the frontier of Florida at the turn of the century: "You're nineteen, you work in a general store, and you've just had a divorce. Some guy comes along and tells you you about this land he has so you go with him and you get here and see this! Pretty soon you have another divorce."

I'm going to bring you with me on a little guided tour of Lake Okeechobee as it was in mid-April. Our lovely guide Mike, a retired high school biology teacher who's grandfather came from Italy to Florida years ago and is a passionate Floridian, informed us that week to week a visit to The Lake can be entirely different, and its riches vary wildly with the seasons. This lucky man's life revolves around watching this lake in all its iterations.

Lake Okeechobee is home to panthers, the West Indian manatee, ibises, bald eagles, river otters, bobcats, black bears, red-winged blackbirds, the Everglade snail, the Blue Heron, to name but a few. It also is home to the federally protected alligator. We got to see some babies that are about a year old and shockingly small given their age- it seems so vulnerable to stay so small for a year! Their mother, after hatching them, doesn't feed her young, but stays with them until the next mating season, which typically begins each April.

These are some adults and a camouflaged baby I challenge you to amid the greenery.

This is bladderwort, a carnivorous plant:

They capture insects by means of bladder-like traps. An aquatic species like the one at right can prey on critters as large as small tadpoles or mosquito larvae. The traps are rather sophisticated. The bladder is "set" by the flower under negative pressure relative to the water surrounding it, so when a creature swims by and brushes up against trigger hairs, the trapdoor opens and the prey and water surrounding it are swept into the bladder trap! Once the bladder is full of water, the door closes. This process takes fifteen thousandths of a second. This is a docile looking killer on the loose.
Between my legs in this dashing shot are a lotus flower, the whiter flower closer to my own flower with a yellow center, and a water lily, the more yellow flower closer to my knees. Lotuses are aquatic perennials, and under favorable conditions their seeds can stay viable and productive for many years. The oldest recorded lotus germination is from a seed 1300 years old, in a dry lakebed in China. Lotuses are hot right now, literally, because a recent study by Dr. Roger S. Seymour and Dr. Paul Schultze-Motel, physiologists at the University of Adelaide in Australia, found that lotus flowers maintained a temperature of 86 degrees Fahrenheit even when surrounding temperatures were 50 degrees. They believe this is for the benefit of their cold-blooded pollinators, and is a breakthrough case in developing studies on heat-producing plants. In both Hindu and Buddhist iconography, the Lotus is an important flower, representing purity of the body, speech and mind, and non-attachment.

Rotten papaya in the tops of trees.
Papaya, also called Paw Paw or Big Melon, has leaves that grow in a spiral pattern. When green, papaya fruit and the tree's latex generate an enzyme useful in tenderizing meat. Its fruit is soft when ripe, like an avocado. It has been cultivated in Mexico since several centuries before the emergence of Mesoamerican classic cultures. It is the first fruit tree to have its genome deciphered.

The plants above are called Water Hemlock, one of the most toxic plants in America. Our guide told us that last year in Florida a young boy made a spit gun from the stem of a water hemlock, and was nearly immediately killed.

Our guide said this osprey had been hanging around this tree quite often, and if it was building a nest, it would be the first osprey nest he'd ever seen in Lake Okeechobee.
Quite a nice bird show:

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Arctic Circle

How Climate Change Affects Prey of Major Commercial Fish
The Arctic Circle 2010

In October I am conducting a study in the Arctic Ocean on plankton that dwell at the ocean’s surface. Gathering more data on these poorly understood creatures is important because zooplankton serve as a key link between primary producers and top predators. An understanding of the effects a change in ice cover might be having on the habitat of surface dwellers in the Arctic might indicate the overall global effects of climate change on the major United States commercial fisheries.

I will conduct my study as a scientific participant in The Arctic Circle, an annual expeditionary residency program open to international artists, architects, innovators, scientists, and educators who seek out areas of collaborative exploration. The 2010 Arctic Circle program will explore the international territory of Svalbard, a mountainous Arctic archipelago just 10 degrees from the North Pole, aboard a scientific research sailing vessel that is specially outfitted to accommodate program-specific needs.

I am seeking funding to support my expedition. Funding will go toward expedition and equipment costs. Each day aboard I plan to conduct a plankton net collection, sampling more gelatinous fragile surface dwellers with jars. I will visually analyze samples durin expedition, identifying species using a microscope that funding will help provide. Post-expedition I plan to continue sample analysis at the lab of Russ Hopcroft, PhD, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Your support could help me generate a data set to contribute to an ongoing project to understand how climate change will affect the Arctic food chain.

The Arctic Circle Education Program will provide an opportunity for me to engage students in my project from approximately 45 high schools internationally. Outfitted with state-of-the-art satellite communications, The Arctic Circle 2010 vessel will become an extension of the classroom through participatory text and video hosted on the interactive Blog. I am interested in pursuing opportunities to engage students upon my return in informal, innovative educational settings. I will also have the opportunity to exhibit my findings upon return, as The Arctic Circle partners with a number of presenters, including art centers, museums and established galleries in the United States and abroad. These exhibits provide the opportunity for the public to experience thought-provoking work developed at a crossroads of disciplines.

For more information or to lend your support, please contact me: Perrin Roosevelt Ireland, Perrin.Ireland@gmail.com, 203.273.2823