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Occasional posts - from the quirky to the momentous - on the life and times of the Methow Conservancy.
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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Of Chimps & Mammoths

Notes from the Big Ecology Conservation Course Fieldtrip to the Chimpanzee & Human Communication Institute and to hear about the Wenas Creek Mammoth Excavation  by Course Volunteer Bob Herbert 
On March 16, a group of 25 "students" from our Big Ecology Conservation Course carpooled to Central Washington University in Ellensburg to attend a "Chimposium," to hear a presentation by Dr. Pat Lubinski on a nearby mammoth excavation, and to tour the University's Museum of Culture and Environment. 

Central Washington University's Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) is a sanctuary for a unique family of chimpanzees who have acquired the signs of American Sign Language (ASL) and use those signs in conversations with each other and their human companions. The first thing that we learned at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) was the difference between chimps and monkeys.  For one, monkeys have tails and chimps do not.  The next thing we learned were the five big apes: Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Homo sapiens, Bonobos, and Orangutans.  We are most closely related to chimps.  They may not look exactly like us, but they share 98.77% of our DNA.  When I heard that fact all I could think of was how accurate the Planet of the Apes series really was.  Our genetics split apart from the chimps 1.5 million years ago, but many commonalities still exist between our species. 

The gestation period for chimps is 35 weeks, and it takes about 40 weeks for humans.  Chimps and tribal cultures of Homo sapiens both wean their children around five years of age.  Chimps lose their baby teeth between the ages of 5 and 6, and humans lose their baby teeth between 5 and 10 years of age.  Chimps and humans both start puberty around 13 years of age.  Chimps have a lifespan between 30 (captivity) and 60 years (wild), and humans live between 60 and 70 years.  Chimps live in communities, as do humans, and we both maintain a relationship with our mothers throughout our lives.  Male chimps experience male bonding, but with less alcohol compared with humans.  They live in hierarchical societies, as is the case with most humans, and there is competition and aggression between communities, with the only difference being that they settle their disagreements without using weapons of mass destruction.  They use fear as a motivator, just like humans, and we witnessed first hand the side to side motion that chimps use to create the illusion that they are larger than they actually are (I’m going to try that the next time I am pulled over for speeding and see if it works on the sheriff!). 

Chimps use tools to improve and diversify their diets, and we learned that some chimps even get culinary inspiration from reading gourmet magazines.  Some tribes of chimps hunt alone, while others hunt in groups.  The ones that hunt in groups involve elaborate and thorough planning to capture their prey.  The chimps in Fongoli, Africa even use spears to hunt, so in many respects they behave as our ancestors did before grocery stores became an option for humans. 

Washoe, born in 1965, was the first chimp to learn sign language, and she taught another chimp to sign, and that chimp is named Loulis.  Loulis is the only non-human to be taught a Homo sapiens language by another non-human, and he was one of the chimps we were able to see.  The chimps speak to each other through sign language, and they speak and interact with their human care givers through sign language.  We even saw how they sign when they are speaking to themselves while reading magazines.  See to learn more about all the chimps and the chimposiums.

Attend a Chimposium!
On the drive to Ellensburg, I envisioned holding one of these little creatures in my arms, just like I have seen on television.  As I peered through the bullet-proof glass at these large and powerful creatures (they are 8-10 times stronger than humans), I quickly lost the desire for one-on-one contact.  After one of the chimps ran past the glass and slapped it with his foot I was happy to be safely protected behind the glass that separated us from the chimps.  We could not show our top teeth, as it would be seen by the chimps as a sign of aggression, and we walked hunched over as a gesture of submission and solidarity to our cousins.  The experience was far more involved than going to a zoo, which makes you wonder about the existence and stimuli to which those creatures are exposed. 

After a lovely picnic on the grass we went to learn about the recent discovery of the Wenas Creek Columbian Mammoth from excavation team leader Dr. Patrick Lubinski.  The mammoth went extinct along with the Saber Tooth Tiger and the Dire Wolf, but when it lived on our northwest landscape up until about 10,000 years ago it was fifteen feet tall and weighed 20,000 pounds.  It survived as a species for over a million years and it needed to eat 700 pounds of grass each day to sustain its place as the largest mammal to roam the earth since the dinosaurs.

Three similar species of hairy, tusked mammoths evolved in different parts of the world.  The Imperial Mammoth lived between 1.2 millions years and 400,000 A.D.  The Columbian Mammoth evolved next and it lived between 500,000 and 10,000 A.D.  The Woolly Mammoth was the last to evolve and it roamed Siberia between 120,000 and 10,000 A.D.  Many of the discoveries of mammoth bones in the northwest were made possible because of the massive floods of Lake Missoula.  These catastrophic floods buried mammoths alive in mud slides which provide Paleontologists with their remains.  The bones found at the Wenas Creek site were not old enough to be fossilized, and through carbon dating it was determined that they are around 17,000 years old.

Mary Kiesau, our organizer with the mammoth femur
The most significant find at the site was a part of the tip of a stone arrow - a piece of chert.  The oldest human remains in North America have been dated at 13,000 years.  If the point found at the Wenas Creek site was buried at the same time as the mammoth and bison bones that were found, it would make Wenas Creek the oldest evidence of Homo sapiens in North America.  But, Dr. Lubinski said they have not yet found evidence that directly links the chert to the mammoth.  It was 6 inches above the bones in the soil and could have been left there thousands of years later.  More research will hopefully, eventually, bring about the answer.  We got to hold a replica of the upper leg bone (the femur) of the Columbian Mammoth they unearthed, and it was over four feet tall and eighteen inches across at the top and bottom joints.  The excavation went on for several years and it is a painstaking process.  Brushes and compressed air were used to peal away the layers of dirt and sonar mapping was also used to guide the dig.  Be sure to check out the "Virtual Dig Tour" here:!
The mammoth's C1 vertebra was found!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Deep Ecology - The Web of Life

Notes from the 6th class of the Big Ecology Conservation Course
by Course Volunteer Bob Herbert
The final big ecology course was presented by Dana Visalli.  Dana started the course by exploring 14.5 billion years of history in a couple of hours and his final presentation was equally saturated with material for hungry minds.  If there is one thing that we can take away from the past six weeks it is the fact that we are living in a dynamic and emerging universe.  The big bang started the ball rolling (or expanding), but it is the constant evolution of the universe, the planet we live on, and the millions of species we live amongst that keeps life interesting.  In the year 2013 we coexist with single-celled organisms like the 3.5 billion year old Stromatolites, which found no need to evolve; and we are also surrounded by products of evolution that are the result of massive climate swings and catastrophic events that have occurred on our planet over the past four billion years. 

The ability to adapt has proven critical for the survival of life on earth, and thanks to the five people that lectured during the Big Ecology course we have a better understanding of how we have arrived at our place in history.  A single walled cell of bacteria that existed over four billion years ago has evolved into approximately 10 million different species.  Some of those ancient bacteria still exist as they did four billion years ago, but the rest of its relatives chose to evolve into roses, garlic, butterflies, cougars, and humans, to name a few.  The attendees of the Methow Conservancy’s Big Ecology all have a better understanding of how that process occurred, and the many bumps that have altered the road of evolution.
The source of all life on our planet has been determined to be a bacteria named Archaea.  It is also referred to as LUCA, the last universal common ancestor.  The three domains of life that have emerged from LUCA are Archaea, Bacteria and Eukaryotes.  Birds, animals, humans, fish, insects, fungi, plants, and algae are all Eukaryotes.  The visible world is filled with millions of species of Eukaryotes, and the microscopic world is where mold, bacteria, and Archaea thrive.  The fact that over 6,000 different types of bacteria live inside our gastrointestinal tract is proof alone that we haven’t strayed too far from our ancestors.  It is the microscopic bacteria found everywhere on the planet that is responsible for recycling dead and decaying matter.  There is a perfect system of reclamation that naturally exists on our planet, which is why life has survived for over four billion years.  Bacteria are able to break down compounds into their individual elements making them ready for reuse in the system.  One study tagged a phosphorous molecule and they discovered that it passed through 46 different species before it arrived in the ocean and was recycled into the tectonic plate.

The energy produced by the sun is consumed by plants and it is converted through photosynthesis into consumable and usable energy for the remainder of the species on the planet.  Herbivores consume plants and in turn they provide food for the carnivores that exist above them on the food chain.  Each time that we move up the food chain, however, 90% of the energy is lost.  By the time you arrive amongst the top predators (humans) there has been an energy loss in the order of one thousand times that of photosynthesis.  The human brain is the pinnacle of evolution (just ask us), and even though it only makes up 3% of our mass, it consumes 25% of our energy.   

Lupine by Mary Kiesau
Forests evolve after fires through the process of ecological succession.  The fire provides potassium and other nutrients for the soil.  The newly exposed forest floor receives much more light than it previously did when the forest canopy was alive, and wildflowers like fireweed and lupine move into the newly burned area.  They fix nitrogen from the air and transfer it to the soil.  This process provides another critical nutrient necessary to grow tall trees and a new forest.  Over time the humus is restored and the size of the trees continue to grow until a mature forest returns to the burned site.  The trees provide dimension to the landscape and homes for birds and animals of all kinds.  Coniferous forests also provide protection from snow and their dark color helps to speed up the snow melt in the spring. 

Earth’s landscape has continuously been carved and shaped through the following naturally occurring events: fire, ice, water, wind, earthquakes, volcanoes, climate swings, and asteroids.  Some of these events were so catastrophic that they forced massive change upon the planet in a relatively short period of time.  Some of the super volcanoes and asteroid strikes have emitted so much ash and debris into the atmosphere that the sun’s rays were blocked out and the earth plunged quickly into another ice age, causing another mass extinction of species.

We also learned about the many ways that human intervention has upset regional ecosystems.  The brown tree snake was accidentally released on the island of Guam and within a short period of time they had eliminated 10 of the 12 native species of birds on the island.  As the continents drifted and separated they created individualized ecosystems and species that coexist in a balanced manner.  Human intervention is perhaps the biggest threat today to the delicate balance of these ecosystems; just ask the birds on Guam. 

The rainforests are responsible for 50% of the rainfall on the planet, but will that continue to be the case when the forests are all stumps?  The sun is currently producing 25% more energy than it did 4 billion years ago, but the temperature on earth has remained relatively stable.  The planet is obviously capable of maintaining balance and equilibrium when it is left to its own devices, regardless of what is thrown at it.   

After six weeks of Big Ecology we learned that the evolution of the planet has been a wild and bumpy ride if you step back and review four billion years of development.  We are all descendants of the stars, and although humans have only occupied a tiny fraction of the planet’s evolutionary calendar, our impact appears to be approaching that of the catastrophic natural disasters.  We are living in a time of mass extinction (other than humans), rapid climate change, and we don’t have a super volcano or asteroid to blame.  Thanks to Big Ecology, we all have a better understanding of where we came from and who are cousins really are.  Armed with the knowledge of our planet’s history and evolution we can all make better decisions about the future of our community and our planet.  

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Wolves in the Land of Salmon - Notes from the March "First Tuesday" Program

By Bob Herbert, Volunteer & Program Attendee
All photos © David Moskowitz
The Methow Conservancy’s March “First Tuesday” program was presented by David Moskowitz, author of the new book, Wolves in the Land of Salmon, as well as the field guide, Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest.  The free program attracted well over 200 people.  

For the past two years David put his expert tracking skills to work all over the Northwest studying and documenting the elusive and thrilling wolf.  Wolves have had a long history with North America, and their presence has come and gone for different reasons.  When the glaciers crept south, so too did the wolf.  When the ice receded the wolf followed it north into Canada.  There have been times when the wolf’s range covered all of North America, and we are lucky to live in one of the few places in America where the wolf has begun to naturally reestablish itself.

Wolves’ adaptability is one of its strengths, and through evolution the wolf has separated itself from its cousin the coyote in size, bulk, speed and strength.  The increase in the size of their paw and leg, combined with a broader chest, enable the wolf to take down large game like elk.  Wolves also have larger and broader noses compared with coyotes, and they have adapted to the snow by increasing paw size and decreasing the height of their ears.  They also have thicker coats compared with coyotes, which helps their survival throughout the cold winter months of the Northwest.
A wolf den in the North Cascades
Wolf packs typically contain one mating pair of adults and a group of their offspring and cousins.  Wolves coalesce at a “den site” only for the summer birthing period.  Dens are dug around natural features, such as holes under rocks, or old burrows of other animals.  After the pups have nursed and are outside the den, the pack roams within a territory, often splitting up, but then meeting again at a designated “rendezvous site.”  Here in the Pacific Northwest, the ideal range used by wolves is middle to low elevation forests and meadows.  Only in the height of summer do wolves move into the high country when large game has moved there too. 

Two wolves playing on the beach. Clayoquot Sound, BC
David’s research brought him far north of Vancouver to the Great Bear Rainforest wolf pack of British Columbia where he learned just how adaptable the wolf really is.  This area is a chain of uninhabited islands and he observed wolves fishing for salmon, eating barnacles and seals, and swimming miles of open ocean in order to travel between islands.  They have adapted to life on the coast to the point that they know to only eat the brain of the salmon, because the remainder of the flesh contains a parasite that can be harmful to canines.  We also learned that the Imnaha wolf pack that lives in Northeast Oregon swam across the Snake River in order to establish their new home. 

The last historic wolf pack in Washington lived in Olympic National Park in the 1930’s, and as we saw in photos, the elk have overgrazed many areas of the rainforest as a result of the elimination of the wolf.  The one thing ecologists, scientists and environmentalists all agree on these days is the fact that everything is interconnected on this planet.  The wolf is a glaring example of what can happen when a major predator is removed from a landscape.  Populations of various species can expand unnaturally and uncurbed, resulting in imbalances that can be seen throughout the ecosystem, from plants to animals.  When a wolf pack keeps populations of deer and elk in check everyone benefits, including the ravens, eagles, bears, coyote, fox and mice that eat from the wolf’s kill. 

Young wolves in the Great Bear Rainforest, BC
Another unexpected change that has occurred as a result of the elimination of the wolf is the reduction in the population of the Olympic Marmot.  The coyote population expanded after the wolf disappeared, but unlike the wolf, the coyote eats marmots.  In another example of interconnectedness, after the wolf was reintroduced into Yellowstone researchers discovered that the beaver made a comeback.  The elk no longer over-grazed the streams that contained the cottonwood and aspen groves because they needed to stay alert and on the move with a predator in the vicinity.  Beaver will only live where there are mature aspen and cottonwood and the elk had been eating the new shoots and not allowing them to mature, but that all changed when the wolf returned.  The elk moved about more and the beaver returned to their natural habitat.    

A wolf feeding on an elk carcass in MT
The wolf is at the top of the food chain, except for perhaps humans, David pointed out.  Wolves will hunt and kill prey species for food but they will also scavenge from other carnivore’s work.  Humans and wolves have a long history of coexisting together, but there is only one documented case in all of history of an attack on a human.  The parking lot at the mall poses more of a threat to us and with the help and dedication of people like David, the education process and understanding of wolves will continue moving in a positive direction.

Wolf in NW Montana
Every action we impose on the natural world around us results in a cascade of events.  The more we understand about the wolf and the integral part they play in the balance of nature, the better off we will all be.  David led an invigorating and enlightening discussion on wolves and his dedication to the species seemed inspiring to those in attendance.                     
The reddish hue of this young grey wolf is typical of many wolves in coastal British Columbia

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Human Saga

Notes from the 5th class of the Big Ecology Conservation Course by Course Volunteer Bob Herbert
In the Big Ecology course’s fifth class, given by retired anthropology professor Carol McMillan, we continued our search for answers about how humans have arrived at our place in time and how we fit in as one of thousands of species on this ever-changing planet.  Carol McMillan started off by explaining that she lived with Rhesus monkeys many years ago when she was just getting starting in anthropology.  There are not very many people who have been assimilated into the animal kingdom to the point of being accepted as a member of the group, and Carol is one of those rare individuals.
Rhesus monkeys are highly social, raising their young in a communal atmosphere.
The first thing that Carol revealed is the fact that the dominant male does not always get the girl (which may be good news for some of us guys!).  It was originally thought that the alpha male mated with the majority of the females, however, Carol discovered first hand that this is not always the case.  The dominant male dedicates more time to the mating ritual, and the lower ranking males take advantage of this.  While the alpha male takes his time making his moves, the lower ranking males are sneaking into the bushes with females.

We were also reminded of the interestingly subtle fact that all species have evolved for the same amount of time.  At the bottom of the tree of life we find nothing but bacteria.  They have existed for four billion years, and they remain a major part of our ecosystem.  At the top of that tree are humans, whales, monkeys, birds, insects, etc.  Everyone has been evolving side by side, but we have all evolved differently.  This explains why all monkeys didn’t wind up walking erect like Homo sapiens.  Some species changed/evolved while others found no need to change.  The environment around us has dictated these changes over long periods of time.  If a species has unlimited sources of food and space and they are prolific enough, then the need to evolve is less pronounced.  Once climate, geography or food availability changes, species are forced to adapt and evolve.  Carol also shared the unsettling fact that 99% of all species have gone extinct over time.

Carol impressed upon us that human evolution went through a genetic bottleneck and one of the explanations for this is geographic.  The northern and southern hemispheres of the Americas have a very narrow restriction in the middle, and the same holds true with Africa and Europe.  As humanity passed through these narrow trade routes they began to populate these bottlenecks.  All walks of life passed through these geographic bottlenecks and as they reproduced on the way through, our genetic diversity was restricted.      

The next thing we learned was the fact that brains expand in size when bodies are unable to turn quickly.  Heads that can change direction rapidly have smaller brains.  Slower moving creatures with better protected skulls show an increase in brain size, and in turn complexity.  The human brain is 200,000 years old and it was the development of the prefrontal cortex that allows humans to do algebra.  This is also where personality comes from and decision-making occurs.  Human’s prefrontal lobe is the second largest, proportionately speaking, next to whales.  Behind humans are chimpanzees, and man’s best friend (dogs) are after chimps.  We walk around with the egocentric belief that we are the smartest thing on the planet, but Carol pointed out that chimps can identify and memorize images three times faster than humans.  We also learned that whale’s and dolphin’s brains have been developing for 12 million years, so human brains are young by comparison (60 times).  Carol emphasized that “smart” can be many different things in different animals.  

As human population expanded around the globe there was a transition from tribal living into larger, more organized agricultural societies.  Societies developed as more and more people began living together in population clusters.  Two main types of societies ultimately evolved; egalitarian and hierarchical.  The symbol for an egalitarian society is a circle and a hierarchical society is symbolized by a pyramid.  Carol had us work in small groups and discuss characteristics that comprise these two types of societies.  Generally speaking, this is what we came up with:  An egalitarian society is governed by council (often elders) and a hierarchal society is ruled by a King or President.  Egalitarian societies are anchored with a strong set of values such as equality in fundamental worth or social status, and they typically live in synch with the natural world around them.  Hierarchical societies have classes and social inequalities and their values tend to be material based.  Hierarchical societies rule through power and control, where egalitarian societies rely on discussions, the needs of the people and equality.

The Khoisan of South Africa © South African Tourism
As it turns out, egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies work far less (time-wise) than hierarchical agricultural societies do for the same amount of food, allowing them more free time.  It is estimated that an Aborigine in the bush of Australia hunts and gathers less than twenty hours a week in order to maintain a healthier diet than the majority of Americans.  They average 90 grams of protein per day and the remainder of their diet includes with fruits, nuts, berries, and roots to keep them healthy.  The Aborigines see no need to change their way of life, even with knowledge of other ways of living, and when you break it down into diet and leisure time, I can’t blame them.  They may not have iPhones, but the parents don’t have to grind through forty+ hour work weeks either.  This additional freedom allows them more time to raise their children.

Population centers were trading points and they also were agricultural centers.  The more people you pack into a small area, the more rules and regulations are required to keep the peace, and the harder it is to feed everyone.  Carol believes that the Anasazi of what is now the southwest US were an egalitarian society for thousands of years then became hierarchical due to increased population only to discover many down sides.  Carol thinks they decided to abandon their brief stint with hierarchical society (and the largest “apartment building” in the world) and return to an egalitarian way of life in smaller groups.  No civilization has ever achieved a large scale egalitarian society, so perhaps the Anasazi saw the writing on the wall.

Human population is exploding on the planet at a time when biodiversity and resources are plummeting.  The majority of the world now lives on an electrical grid supplied by unclean sources of energy.  More and more energy is needed for agriculture each decade, which further reduces the availability of those natural resources for our grandchildren.  It took a couple hundred thousand years for humanity to fill the planet with seven billion people, but that number is expected to double within a few decades.  Understanding our past mistakes (and moments of brilliance) is the best way for humanity to provide itself with a sustainable future.  This Big Ecology course has provided the attendees with a wealth of information about how we got to where we are today and Carol showed us that we could still learn a thing or two from our hairy cousins.