Thursday, January 30, 2014

Citizen scientists ensure insect collection put to good use

Citizen scientists ensure insect collection put to good use

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Do you know the difference between a cat flea and a dog flea? Neither do I. But recently, I spent an afternoon among people who were learning.

They were members of the Illinois Grand PrairieMaster Naturalists, a program administered through University of Illinois Extension that draws members from Livingston, McLean and Woodford Counties. They had come to the home base of the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign to help entomologists there catalogue an insect collection.

The collection was left behind by James Fry of Heyworth, a dedicated amateur entomologist who passed away a couple of years ago. Most of them were collected by Fry himself between the 1950s and the 1980s, but some were also collected by his son and daughter, many of them for 4-H projects.

I should emphasize this is not the sort of collection that probably comes to mind when you hear the word “amateur.” It consists of more than 2300 individual specimens, which are divided among 41 wood-sided, glass-topped, square cases. Many, but not all of the specimens are labeled with the sort of information that makes them useful to science, especially the date and place where they were collected, and most are also identified by name.

[Photos by author: Above, Master Naturalists Maryann Stork, left, and Mary Jo Adams get some help from INHS entomologist Joe Spencer; below, an "easy" case from the Fry collection, containing familiar moths and butterflies.]

Here’s the thing, though. Identifying insects can be tricky, and if the specimens in a donated collection are to be useful for scientific and educational purposes, it’s critical that their identity is confirmed.

That’s where the Master Naturalists came in. Working in pairs, and with assistance from professional entomologists who circulated around the room, their job was to catalogue the contents of each case.

Some cases were easy, especially the ones housing large numbers of big, familiar species. To illustrate this point, entomologist Joe Spencer gestured toward one with his finger, “Luna moth, luna moth, luna moth . . ..

Other cases contained tiny puzzles. When I sat down with Master Naturalists Mary Jo Adams and Maryann Stork, they were sorting out whether the specimens in a vial labeled “dog fleas” were named correctly. They were not; in fact, they were cat fleas. As Survey entomologist Joe Spencer explained, examining the length of a tiny spur on a flea’s leg—visible only under magnification—is the way to tell the difference.

Why would anyone care whether the fleas and other specimens in a late twentieth century insect collection from central Illinois are correctly identified? I put this question to Mike Jeffords, a scientist who recently retired from INHS and who is coordinating work on the Fry collection.

In his words, such a collection represents “a window into the insect diversity of that part of the state at the time, something we didn’t have before. Now if someone else wants to examine insect diversity there, they’ve got a point of reference.”

Parts of the Fry collection will be integrated into the larger insect collection maintained by the Natural History Survey for scientific purposes. But other parts will go into wider circulation, as a traveling exhibit for the Master Naturalist program statewide, and for educational purposes at Sugar Grove Nature Center located just south of Bloomington-Normal in Funks Grove.

This disposition of the collection is quite pleasing to Master Naturalist Phil Houser, who took possession of it from the Fry family and put it into the hands of the survey. “They wanted it to go somewhere it would be appreciated and cared for,” he told me, “and that’s where it is now.”

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Appreciating an adaptable urban carnivore

Appreciating an adaptable urban carnivore

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On a cold, bright morning at the end of December, I was driving to Norris Tire and Auto in Champaign when I spotted a red fox trotting in the opposite direction, just off Springer Drive. I whipped the car around and got a few photos before it crossed Mattis Avenue and disappeared behind a pile of construction rubble. [Photos by author.]

When I arrived at the shop a short time later, I found people there had seen the fox, too, and Mr. Norris was explaining why we see more foxes in town now than we used to.

He referred to a study conducted by a UI doctoral student that looked at movements and mortality among 335 foxes that were captured and then tracked using radio collars between 1996 and 2002.*

According to that study, red foxes declined in rural parts of east central Illinois over the last three decades of the twentieth century as farming became more intensive (which reduced the amount of prey available by reducing cover) and coyote populations grew (because coyotes kill foxes).

At the same time, the study found, foxes thrived in urban areas, where coyotes are scarce and rabbits are more abundant.

That’s not to say life is ever easy for foxes. Fewer than one in four fox pups in the study survived through its first year, and only one in three adults made it through an average year. (Although urban foxes are safer from coyotes than their rural counterparts, they are much more susceptible to sarcoptic mange, a fatal infectious disease caused by mites.)

With such high mortality, foxes persist by reproducing at a high rate; females often breed in their first winter, and litters range from four to ten or more.

Why do people get so excited about seeing foxes? Ed Heske, a mammal ecologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey, credits the in-between space they occupy from a human perspective. “They’re cool because they’re wild carnivores, but they’re small enough not to be threatening.”

Indeed, even though its full coat and bushy tail can make it appear larger, an adult red fox typically weighs only somewhere between eight and 13 pounds—less than some housecats I know.

Foxes may not possess all of the cunning or wisdom attributed to them by folklore, but they are pretty amazing. Have you ever seen video of a fox pouncing to catch a small mammal--or, better still, seen that yourself?

Scientists know foxes are especially sensitive to the low-frequency sounds made by prey animals as they move about or chew. But research conducted recently in the Czech Republic suggests foxes may also possess a magnetic sense that helps them estimate distance. Such a sense would go a long way in explaining how a fox can leap into the air and punch through the snow to pin a mouse without having seen it.

To see a nice account this by Ed Yong on his Discover blog Not Exactly Rocket Science click here.

I think my own fondness for red foxes owes to their adaptability. They occupy an incredible range of habitats, from cities and farms, to forests, grasslands, mountains and deserts. They can den under a shed or pass through your backyard at night without attracting notice. They eat rabbits and other small mammals for the bulk of their diet, but they also take advantage of insects and fruit when those things are abundant.

I suppose

they’re really a lot like us.

Be that at it may, I have no comment if you’re question is, “What does the fox say?”

* Published as "Survival and Cause-Specific Mortality of Red Foxes in Agricultural and Urban Areas of Illinois" by Todd E. Gosselink, et al. Journal of Wildlife Management 71(6):1862-1873. 2007. doi:

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Enviro resolutions for 2014

Enviro resolutions for 2014

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When I was younger and found myself cornered for New Year’s resolutions, I offered up only this: fish more in the new year than I did in the preceding one. As I’ve advanced in years I’ve added others, but most of them have something of the same self-serving quality. So.

In 2014, I resolve to stay attuned to the local environment as I go about my business, and encourage others to cultivate their own appreciation for the wonders of the nearby natural world. I already have a story in the works based on this. It’s about red foxes in urban areas.

In addition to appreciating the natural world, I resolve to express appreciation for the many people who help to maintain—and sometimes reshape—the local environment. This turns out to be such an extensive list I can’t even begin to name names, and I’m sure to neglect some who deserve credit.

To start, there are the city staffers and policymakers responsible for creating naturalized public spaces in Urbana and Champaign. As you may already know, I’m especially fond of the Second Street Basin and Scott Park, which provide wonderful opportunities for seeing birds and other wildlife right in town.

[Mallards on the creek in Scott Park. photo by author.]

Our local governments also deserve recognition for efforts to promote active transportation, and for policy moves that liberate people to produce their own food, especially the change in Champaign’s ordinance to allow for backyard hens.

Much of the “nearby natural world” I appreciate so much is accessible thanks to the Champaign and Urbana Park Districts and the Champaign County Forest Preserve District. I’m thankful for the workers who maintain prairies, woodlands and wetlands for us to enjoy, and the educators who help us stay connected with the natural world. In addition, I’m thankful for all of the dedicated volunteers—especially East Central Illinois Master Naturalists—who enable those entities to do all they do on constrained budgets.

I’m thankful for the organizations through which citizens of east central Illinois come together to promote conservation, whether by purchasing and/or maintaining land, providing opportunities for education and recreation or advocating for policies that protect the public’s interests in clean air, clean water and healthy wildlife.

While I’m all for being attuned to the local environment and appreciating the people whose work benefits it, I also remind myself not to lose sight of the bigger picture; we won’t meet the global challenges of environmental justice, climate change and species loss without changes in policy on much larger scales.

At the very least, in 2014 I resolve to be consistent in communicating my concerns to representatives at the state and national levels, whether I think they already agree with me or not.

In 2014 I also resolve to continue the project of reducing the use of fossil fuel use at home. My project is inspired by a central Champaign neighbor who this year reduced his family’s home energy use so far he calculates it can be met with the amount of electricity produced by his rooftop solar panels.

At my house we’re already enjoying the benefits of weather sealing and insulation done last fall. The next step will be to replace our aging furnace and air conditioner.

How’s that for a resolution that requires sacrifice?