Thursday, September 28, 2006

Walking to School & UIUC Campus "Walk Toward Wellness"

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Link to local International Walk to School information.

Link to Walk Toward Wellness

The most basic form of human locomotion, walking, gets so little respect in our culture, I sometimes wonder we don’t just forget how to do it. As a means of getting from one place to another, it’s a last resort. As a form of exercise, it’s an afterthought. But upcoming activities in Champaign-Urbana and on the U of I campus suggest that walking isn’t down for the count just yet.

Next week six elementary schools—three in Urbana and three in Champaign—will mark the third local observance of International Walk to School Day. This event encourages walking to school as a way of promoting children’s health, reducing fuel consumption and air pollution, and emphasizing the need for safe routes for walking and bicycling.

Now these are all fine reasons to walk to school, but they’re a little heavy on virtue. I would emphasize, in addition, that it is enjoyable for children to walk to school, and a treat for parents who take the opportunity to walk with them.

The walk to and from school is a great time to enjoy listening to kids. They’re not distracted by books or television or computers or toys. And parents who are walking with them are free to listen instead of focusing on the demands of driving. In the morning you may be reminded of the kinds of things that kids look forward to in a day, whether that’s time to work on a special project in class, free time in P. E., or just what’s on the menu for lunch. In the afternoon, you may find out what children have learned in class, but you’re just as likely to hear what was gross, what was funny, who was mean or nice to whom—the kinds of things that really occupy kids.

Walking to school is also a great way to enjoy the natural world, even in a relatively urban setting. After all, any walk can be a nature hike if you approach it as one. Walking to school gives kids a chance to investigate the ants that sometimes pile up around cracks in the sidewalk, time to wonder why squirrels chase each other, or whether a monarch butterfly can really make it all the way to Mexico. It also provides excellent opportunities to smash acorns, kick walnuts, and collect buckeyes.

And on top of that, walking to school is good for kids and the environment.

Of course walking also promotes wellness in adults, and that’s the aim of the Second Annual “Walk Toward Wellness,” which will begin at noon tomorrow on the main quad at the U of I. The walk will kick off with brief comments from Provost Linda Katehi and take you about 4,000 steps through campus. The walk is part of a larger initiative to promote the well-being of the campus community sponsored by the Culture of Wellness Committee. You can register for the “Walk Toward Wellness” online, or sign in on the quad after 11:00 Friday morning.

Whether you can make the “Walk Toward Wellness” tomorrow, or walk to school with your children next week, I hope you do get the chance to reconnect with this most basic form of human locomotion. More walking may not be the answer to all of our problems, but for many of them, it’s a step in the right direction.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Appreciating Crayfish

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Crawdad. Mudbug. Crawfish. Crayfish. Whatever name you know them by, you probably don’t associate these lobster-like, freshwater crustaceans with the traits that give other wildlife their appeal. Crayfish are not warm and fuzzy, and they don’t sing or sport much color. (They do make great eating, but that’s another story.)

I checked in recently with Chris Taylor at the Illinois Natural History Survey to get the scoop on crayfish in our state. Taylor is a crayfish biologist and Curator of Crustaceans there, and he’s eager to help people understand the important role crayfish play in aquatic ecosystems.

Although to most people a crayfish is a crayfish, there are actually 360 species of them in the U.S., 24 of which occur in Illinois. Crayfish inhabit every aquatic environment in the state, from the smallest creeks and ponds to the largest rivers and lakes.

Crayfish that live in permanent water bodies typically spend the daylight hours concealed under rocks or woody debris. Other crayfish, known as burrowers, spend much of their time in tunnels and chambers they excavate in the ground. Some burrowers inhabit the margins of water bodies, but others live in habitats where there is no surface water for much of the year. You’ve likely seen the entrances to crayfish burrows even if you didn’t know what you were looking at. They are recognizable by the mud chimneys that rise several inches above them, which are formed from material that crayfish excavate with their claws.

All Illinois crayfish are most active from dusk to dawn, when they come out from under cover to forage for food and seek out mates. Depending on circumstances, crayfish may eat just about anything they can get their claws on, including plant material and carrion. But recent studies suggest they prefer live animal food--insects, snails, and even small fish. Crayfish in turn serve as a critical food source for sunfish and bass, but also show up on the menu for any number of wading birds, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

Aside from biologists and environmental writers, I suppose few adults bother to ever catch crayfish. But if you get children into shallow, clear water, and show them how to find crayfish by turning over rocks, you may have trouble getting them to stop. Crayfish flee danger by a powerful flip of the tail that propels them backward. They are just fast enough to be difficult to catch, but not so fast as to be impossible.

There are two important things people can do to help promote the health of crayfish populations in Illinois. The first is to support efforts to conserve and restore aquatic environments. The second is to never release crayfish into a body of water they weren’t taken from. Many species of crayfish occur in very limited ranges, and so can be lost altogether when aggressive outsiders are introduced. One invader, the rusty crayfish, which was probably introduced by anglers dumping out unused live bait, has already displaced native crayfish from many waters in the northern half of Illinois.

Although the role of crayfish in aquatic ecosystems has been sometimes neglected in the past, scientists like Chris Taylor are working hard to further our understanding of them today. That understanding benefits all of us who love the outdoors and value the health of natural resources.

Article "The Rusty Crayfish in Illinois" from Illinois Natural History Survey Reports.

Sea-Grant fact sheet on Rusty Crayfish

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Wind Power on the Illinois Horizon

Link to University YMCA Friday Forum page.

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Wind has an immediate impact on us just about any time we step out of doors. In winter a blast from the north adds insult to the injury of January’s bitter cold. On a summer day, even a slight breeze provides a touch of relief from the heat. But wind has the potential to play a much more significant role in our lives in the near future, as we harness its energy to produce electricity on a large scale.

Capturing wind energy to generate electricity is not new. Americans first used wind to generate electric power more than a hundred years ago, when a windmill with a fifty-six-foot-wide blade could produce about twelve kilowatts.

The scale of wind energy projects today is entirely different. Most of the high-tech, utility-style wind turbines being manufactured now generate between seven and eighteen-hundred kilowatts—up to a hundred-fifty times more than the electricity produced by the first wind turbines. Today’s turbines are much larger than their predecessors, with blades more than two hundred feet wide, and they convert wind to electricity much more efficiently.

The U.S. Department of Energy rates the potential for wind energy in most of Illinois as “fair,” but there are also areas that fall into the “good” category. If the potential were fully developed, it is estimated that power generated from these areas could meet between five and ten percent of current use.

At present there are four major wind energy projects operating in Illinois, and together they generate enough electricity to meet the demands of 25,000 to 30,000 households. A number of other proposed projects would quadruple that capacity.

One of these projects is coming to the UIUC campus in the near future thanks to the “Clean Energy Technology Fee” that students assess themselves, a grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, and capital support from the University.

The plan is for the University to build and operate three one-and-a-half megawatt turbines. These turbines will be more than three hundred feet tall at the tip of an extended blade, and they’ll occupy a site on the new South Farms. Together they will provide just under three percent of the electricity used on campus.

The U of I’s wind turbines will also serve as a demonstration for landowners who might be interested in wind energy, and for teaching and research by U of I faculty and students.

None of this is to say wind energy is without drawbacks. Today’s turbines really loom over the landscape, and they’re not the sort of thing many people want to look at in otherwise unspoiled natural settings. In addition, they affect wildlife to some degree although careful siting and design can minimize their impact.

On the whole, the tradeoffs are compelling. Wind energy generates electricity without producing greenhouse gases or other air pollution, and it entails none of the immediate or long term environmental problems associated with nuclear power.

Credit for the information in today’s spot goes to Matt Malten, sustainability coordinator at UIUC. [You can learn more about wind energy in Illinois from his article in the Spring 2006 issue of The Illinois Steward magazine.]

You can learn more about efforts to make the U of I a testing ground for environmental sustainability at a talk tomorrow by Bill Sullivan, director of the UIUC Environmental Council. He’ll be speaking at noon at the University YMCA as part of the Friday Forum series, which is this Fall devoted entirely to environmental issues.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

"Wildlife Vet to Be" Studies Caribou in Alaska

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Link to "Vet Student Summer" blog.

Did you see any brown bears this summer? How about moose? Grey whales? Caribou? You know, I didn’t either. But let me tell you about someone who did.

Nina Hansen is in her fourth and final year as a student in the U of I’s Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program. Although she anticipates beginning her career in a relatively conventional job working in private practice, her ultimate goal is to become a wildlife veterinarian. In that role she anticipates working for the good of wild animals by generating new knowledge about factors affecting their health and welfare. Preferably in Alaska.

Hansen got to Alaska this past summer by securing a grant from the Morris Animal Foundation to investigate a method for gauging pesticide exposure in caribou by measuring the activity levels of certain enzymes in their blood.

Observers have witnessed a drastic decline in populations of North American caribou over the past couple of decades, but as yet scientists have been unable to identify the cause or causes of the decline with much certainty. Some research has suggested that climate change may be a factor, as more variable arctic weather creates conditions unfavorable for caribou to forage, and at the same time swells populations of the parasites that plague them.

Working with her U of I faculty adviser, Petra Volmer, who is the principal investigator on the study, Hansen hopes to determine a useful blood marker for evaluating whether exposure to certain pesticides is having a negative affect on caribou health. This measure would fit into the broader assessment of caribou health being pursued by Kimberlee Beckmen, a U of I vet school alum now with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and Hansen’s mentor in the field.

You can get a sense of what it means to be a wildlife vet in Alaska by checking out the blog that Hansen kept during her four weeks of field work this summer. Although she writes with great enthusiasm for her work, this was no vacation.

Consider her entry for June 15th, a day spent doing post mortem examinations of caribou on the tundra. She writes

Unfortunately the weather was TERRIBLE all day long. It was like 35 degrees and raining/hailing. We were all wearing layers and layers of clothing covered by full rain gear.


We did four adults that day, and it took us about 5.5 hours. We were beat after that! I think if I hadn't been sawing through spines and skulls the whole time I would have frozen solid. I feel tough now though, having survived almost 6 hours of freezing rain in the middle of the Alaskan tundra.

Now, I imagine it’s a pretty select group of people who will read Nina Hansen’s blog and think to themselves, “I’d like to try that.” But the account of her summer is a good reminder of the wide range of work veterinary medicine can entail, and it’s a testament to the dedication sometimes required of people who work for the benefit of wildlife.