Skip to content

The mismeasure of the dodo

February 16, 2011

Painting by the Mughal artist Ustad Mansur from c 1625.

Brian Switek wrote an essay on the dodo last week on his blog Laelaps over at Wired Science. He looks at depictions of the dodo, traces the reasons why we think it looks the way we think it looks, describes what 17th century scientists thought it looked like, and what current dodo researchers have found. I’ll quote a little here, but really, I recommend just going and reading the thing.

I hate to say it, but the dodo looked as if it deserved extinction. What other fate could there have been for such a foolish-looking ground pigeon? A grotesque, tubby creature with huge nostrils and a ridiculous little poof of tail feathers, Raphus cucullatus had the air of a bird that stood still with a blank stare as the scythe of extinction lopped off its head.

But the dodo I have always known is not a true reflection of the bird. Notes, skeletal scraps, a disregard for soft-tissue anatomy, and a bit of artistic license created this symbol of extinction. The dodo looked so stupid because we made it so.

The dodo went extinct in recent human history, and it went extinct because of humans. Switek says, “The Age of Exploration both discovered and wiped out the dodo,” which pretty much sums it up for the dodo and for species–especially species on islands–all over the newly-explored world. The poor maligned dodo had a reputation not only as being dumb-looking, but as being just plain dumb. (This it also shared with other species on islands. For example, Darwin generously described the marine iguanas on the Galapagos as “disgusting clumsy Lizards,” and found them quite approachable). The dodo wasn’t dumb; it just hadn’t evolved alongside humans. And so when humans did come along, it wasn’t equipped to survive their hunger or their hobbies.

The dodo’s not like the Baiji, the Chinese river dolphin which the world basically watched disappear, or the Thylacine, which you can actually watch on YouTube. On the other hand, it didn’t evolve into a now-extant species, or succumb to ancient climate change or a meteor. And for that reason it feels stingingly recent, an extinction as much on our shoulders as the extinction of the Xerces blue.

Climate change is complicated

January 25, 2011

A paper came out a few days ago in the journal Science that explains that plants in California–contrary to what you might expect based on climate change predictions–have been shifting downhill. This paper got a lot of coverage already, so I’ll just quickly summarize it, and add a few thoughts.

The paper’s title basically explains it all anyway: “Changes in Climatic Water Balance Drive Downhill Shifts in Plant Species’ Optimum Elevations.” The authors, from University of Montana, University of Idaho, and UC Davis, surveyed plants roughly along the coast starting just north of Santa Barbara all the way up to Oregon, going inland as far as I-5, and then looping over to include the Klamath Mountains, then south again to include the Sierra (or you could say,  it’s a big upside-down “U” around the Central Valley). They found that plants are following precipitation downhill, rather than following temperatures uphill.

It’s a reminder that climate change doesn’t only affect temperature, and that looking on different levels, from a large, landscape-wide perspective down to a hillside, can result in different projections.

Even looking at temperature alone doesn’t necessarily predict uphill movement. On a small scale, in some places, it could actually get cooler lower down and warmer higher up, what’s referred to as an inversion. I’ve written about that before, about how it applies to pikas.

The paper is behind a paywall, though you can pay for one-off access to read it, if you’d like. I also recommend Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s take on it (really, I recommend his take on just about everything).


January 6, 2011

There’s a lot of traffic in California in the winter.

Photo of sandhill cranes at the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve by Flickr user lorises.

Sandhill cranes are wading around in the Central Valley. They migrate here from Canada and Alaska or from the Northwest and the Great Lakes, depending on the subspecies. I’m going to try and go see them before they head back to their summer breeding grounds. Also, Lodi hosts an annual Sandhill crane festival! Missed it this year, but mark your calendars.

This one’s by me. Look, off in the distance, a fluke!

Gray whales are heading South along the coast right now, working on their record-holding migration (the longest? one of the longest? of any mammal). You can often see them from the shore. Around here, Point Reyes and Big Sur are good spots. Look, Monterey County has a handy map. Gray whales almost went extinct; I get all emotional about it.

Monarch butterflies in Pismo Beach by Flickr user Steve Corey.

Monarch butterflies are up from Mexico. They’re in Santa Cruz, the East Bay, San Diego, Ventura, Pacific Grove, and Pismo Beach until March when they start heading South again. I’ve never seen them, and plan to this month. Also, check out the Life segment about monarch butterflies.

The elephant seals are large and in charge in places like Ano Nuevo State Park and down around San Simeon. I took this picture near the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse in October, when there were mostly just females napping and juvenile males practice fighting. By now the beach is covered in huge, bellowing males.

One Species at a Time

December 15, 2010

Photo Credit: National Park Service

The Island fox (urocyon littoralis) is a tiny cousin to the mainland grey fox. It only lives on the Channel Islands, off the coast of Southern California. In the ’90s, the fox population started plummeting, and the cause of the decline was a real mystery. Once the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy figured out what was going on, they were able to bring the fox back from the brink of extinction.

This story includes adorable fuzzy animals and chase scenes with helicopters. No spoiler alert here, just listen to the podcast One Species at a Time. It’s up now, along with pictures and extra audio from my trip out to Santa Cruz Island.

Ecological staircase

December 6, 2010

My friend Greg Gheorghiu wrote this awesome blog post for California’s Islands. This is good because the place he writes about sounds really cool, and also because I have been unforgivably lazy about posting here this month. He took all these beautiful pictures, too.  Thanks Greg!

Hello! I am Greg, your California’s Islands guest host for the day. My credentials are that I’m friends with Molly, I like thinking about ecosystems, and I have a little free time. I also play the banjo and do a little reporting for Crosscurrents at KALW public radio in San Francisco.

In October I drove up to Mendocino to visit the Jug Handle Creek Ecological Staircase.  I took a bunch of pictures, came home to SF, procrastinated pretty hard for a minute (not as much as I did in posting this, sorry! — ms), and finally we’re getting somewhere.

Along the Mendocino coast the Pacific Ocean smashes vigorously into sheer sandstone cliffs. The principal sculptor of these picturesque promontories is the sea itself, though of course our old friend continental drift also wields a chisel. As ice ages come and go, sea levels rise and fall alternately beating wide, flat underwater plains and lifting the coastline up out of the water.

Because this process happens repeatedly, and because the North American land mass is constantly shifting, we end up with successive terraces working their way inland. Today’s headland is 100,000 years from now’s step on a coastal staircase. A much better explanation of how this all works is here.

The Jug Handle Creek Ecological Staircase is one of the best places in the world to see this phenomenon. Each terrace was formed under different climatic conditions and has a unique soil makeup, so you can tell which step you’re on by looking at what’s growing around you. To adopt the idiom of this blog, each step is a discrete ecological island.

The headlands (i.e., the first step) are a lot like a prairie. Wild grasses bestow a dark rich soil; wildflowers and blackberry bushes thrive.

This photo would be a lot more bloomy and colorful in the spring.

Notice the thick layer of dark soil at the top. Below that is a layer of old beach from when this was seabed, and below that, the bedrock layer of Graywacke sandstone.

The second step on the trail is made up of evergreen forests: bishop pine followed by grand fir and Sitka spruce.  Farther up, on the climb to the third terrace and beyond the salty ocean breezes, are the trusty old coastal redwoods.  The ground layers beneath these forests are similar to that of the prairie-like first terrace – a Graywacke base, beach material from the Pleistocene area on top of that, topped with ancient soil rich enough to support some of the largest trees in the world.

Saw this little dude below the Bishop pine. How did he get up there?

Flat redwood needles resting on red huckleberry.

Blue huckleberry beneath western hemlock, near the crest of the third terrace, where the redwoods are more scarce.

The third terrace (the last step accessible by trail – there are actually five total) is a pygmy forest, one of the only such forests in the world. Poor sandy soil sits only 18 inches or so on top of an impermeable Graywacke and iron hardpan.  Mature redwoods don’t grow much taller than mature humans. Pygmy cypress, which reach up to a 100 feet just down the way on the second terrace, are dwarfed by rhododendrons.

See? A pygmy cypress smaller than a rhododendron. This tree may be 100 years old. It’s weird.

Reindeer lichen on the pygmy forest floor.

Everything in the pygmy forest looks like it’s just barely hanging in there, each organism clawing out a tenuous existence. The soil, in addition to being shallow and nutrient-poor, also features a layer right beneath the topsoil called “podzol,” from the Russian word for ash. Its light gray hue derives from hundreds of thousands of years of rainfall leeching acidic minerals from the trees.

This ecosystem manages to maintain a remarkably precarious balance, like generation after generation of tightrope walkers who never get a minute to step off the family tightrope. It’s hard to believe anything would try so hard to live here, but in fact this soil was probably once deep and fertile. The pygmy forest, in contrast to the richer soils on the ecological staircase steps around it, illustrates the evolution of a soil from origin to depletion.

The Jug Handle Creek trailhead is only a few miles north of Mendocino Village along Route 1.  You can find more information (including a brief history of the preservation of the staircase and an awesome Victorian farmhouse/community garden) here.

Getting Shots

November 4, 2010

Island scrub jays! My favorite squawky residents of the Channel Islands.

Photo: Stephen Francis

They’re like Western scrub jays, which are the medium-sized blue and gray guys making a racket in your back yard (if you’re in the west), only bigger and bluer. Island scrub jays only live on Santa Cruz Island, which means they have one of the most limited ranges of any bird in North America. SCI’s protected; the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy own it. So the jays aren’t at risk of losing their habitat to invasive species (well, not anymore) or suburbs.

But, being a species with such a limited range, their existence is tenuous anyway. There’s about 2,400 of them. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not really that far from zero. There are good years and bad years; there’s drought, fire, el nino, predation, starvation, climate change, disease. It wouldn’t be impossible for a few bad years in a row to drive their numbers way down, like to zero, which is extinction.

Right now a looming threat is West Nile virus. Jays and other corvids–magpies, crows, and ravens–are especially susceptible to West Nile. It’s already wiped out half the yellow-billed magpies in California (which is the only place they live). It seems not to have spread to SCI yet, but if it did it would be devastating. So the Island scrub jays are getting West Nile shots.

Biologists are catching them by luring them into wire cages with peanuts, banding them, taking some measurements, and vaccinating them (the shots are produced at the CDC). They’ve done about 100 so far.

Photo: Kathryn Langin

I hate to play favorites, but I have some kind of deranged affection for the Western scrub jays that live in my back yard, and it’s expanded to include all their smart loud corvid brethren. West Nile moves quickly. It first came to the US in 1999, and has spread to 47 states since then. Warmer temperatures will likely mean more mosquitoes, and more West Nile. I hope this project is successful.

Photo: Kathryn Langin

Read more:

  • The LA Times has an article about the vaccination program that goes into nice detail about the island, the people working there, and the birds themselves. There’s also a photo gallery.
  • Island scrub jay bird of the month post from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.
  • This post from 10,000 Birds is from a couple years ago (as is the Smithsonian one, above). SCI is a major draw for birders, since you can’t see the Island scrub jay anywhere else.


October 25, 2010

This makes me feel like I don’t get out much, but did you realize that there are place where oil just bubbles up out of the ground?!

This is outside of Taft, CA, which is in the southwest corner of the San Joaquin Valley, about 30 miles from Bakersfield. Also just outside of Taft? The site of the largest oil spill in U.S. history.  The Lakeview Gusher blew in 1910 and flowed for 18 months.

There are oil deposits piled up higher than my head at the site of the gusher.

So my head’s not in this picture. You’ll just have to believe me on this one.

I think of California mainly as a produce-producing state. A redwood and sequoia-producing state. A Hollywood and Apple and Google-producing state. But it’s also a pretty serious oil-producing state. Standard Oil of California (now known as Chevron) was based in Taft before they moved to San Ramon. Other companies have operations there, too. Thousands of people moved here to work in the oil industry. The oilfields come up to the edge of town. Most people in Taft work in the oilfields, or someone in there family does (or did).
And every five years Taft celebrates its heritage with Oildorado. This year’s Oildorado festival was a big deal, since it’s Taft’s 100th anniversary. I went down there with Jeremy Miller and Todd D’Addario. It was really fun. We’re working on some stories, which I’ll link to when they’re up. I’m still processing a lot of audio and ideas. Meanwhile, in case you’ve never stood in the middle of an oilfield, here’s what it sounds like.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.