January 11 – Humble Bumble

Today’s factismal: There are 250 different species of bumblebee.

If you ask the average person what that strange critter buzzing around those flowers is, they’ll probably say “it’s a bee”. They’d probably be right but they’d also be wrong. That’s because there are over 20,000 different bee species on Earth. And even if they said it was a bumblebee (or a bumble bee – you can use either one), they’d still not be completely right because there are over 250 species of bumblebee buzzing about. In order to be perfectly right, they’d need to tell you what species it was, for example “Oh, that’s a Rusty Patched Bumblebee“.


A honeybee sipping nectar from a flower
(My camera)

And if they told you that it was one of those, you should be very happy because the Rusty Patched Bumblebee is a rare sight indeed. They used to be found everywhere from the plains of Illinois to the rose fields of Maine; more than 28 states had underground colonies of these cheerful little critters. But today they are only found in 13 states and have lost more than 90% of their population and 87% of their range thanks to a variety of factors such as changes in farming, pesticide use, and climate change. Because they are in such dire straights, they’ve been placed on the Endangered Species List joining their relatives from Hawai’i and other notable insects.


There are more than 250 different species of bumblebee!
(My camera)

So what can you do to help keep other bees from joining the list? First, plant native flowers around your home. Not only will those attract local wildlife such as bees, butterflies, and rabbits, but they’ll use less water and fertilizer making them better for the environment all around. Next, help biologists learn more about native bee species by joining Bee Germs. You’ll collect bees (it is easier than you think!) and send them in to be analyzed for germs that could be contributing to colony collapse and other problems. To learn more, buzz over to:

June 24 – On Wings Of Eagles

Today’s Factismal: In the time since the Endangered Species list was created, 34 species have recovered – and 10 have gone extinct.

It is no secret that man has had an outsize effect on the environment. Sometimes, our influence has been a good one; we got rid of smallpox and are close to making polio extinct as well. But sometimes our influence hasn’t been so benign. Thanks to our need for energy, we’ve increased the CO2 levels in the atmosphere and increased the globe’s temperature as a result. Thanks to our need for fresh food, we nearly obliterated the ozone layer (but it is getting better).  And thanks to our need to get rid of tropical diseases, we nearly made our national bird extinct – along with more than 2,000 other animals and plants! Fortunately, we discovered our mistake in time and set about rectifying it with the Endangered Species Act. Since the Endangered Species Act was made law, some 2,270 species of animal and plant have been put under federal protection. And since then, 34 species have recovered enough to be delisted. unfortunately, another ten species have become extinct.

A bald eagle being rehabilitated at the Falcon Batchelor Bird of Prey Center (My camera)

A bald eagle being rehabilitated at the Falcon Batchelor Bird of Prey Center
(My camera)

As an example of the Endangered Species Act’s effectiveness, consider the bald eagle. The steady flap of its wings, the piercing cry as it spies a fish, and the sudden swoop on its dinner combine to make for an unforgettable moment. And yet, in 1963 we thought that the bald eagle might be lost forever. At that time, years of hunting by sportsmen, poisoning by farmers who thought the eagles stole livestock, and slow attrition due to the accumulation of pesticides and other poisons had reduced the number of bald eagles in the wild to the point that many thought they were headed for extinction.

A wild bald eagle on the lookout for some tasty salmon (My camera)

A wild bald eagle on the lookout for some tasty salmon
(My camera)

But laws passed to prevent hunting bald eagles and to clean up the environment have allowed a dramatic turnaround in bald eagle populations. Where they once were restricted to Alaska and Florida with a few strays in the Great Lakes, they now fly over forty-nine states. (They’d fly over all fifty, but cannot get enough frequent flyer miles to get to Hawaii.) Not surprisingly, Alaska is the state with the most bald eagles; the abundant trees and fish make the state a veritable paradise for more than 50,000 of the birds. Surprisingly, the state with the second largest number of bald eagles is Minnesota, with more than 2,600. Florida comes in a very close number three with some 2,300 bald eagles. And more than 23 states have at least 100 pairs, with every state having at least one pair of bald eagles!

A bald eagle's nest (My camera)

A bald eagle’s nest
(My camera)

So the return of the bald eagle is one of the success stories in the history of conservation. But that story is still being written, and we need more authors. If you’d like to add a line or two, then why not join one of these programs dedicated to observing and reporting on bald eagles?
Arizona Bald Eagle Nest Watch Program http://www.azgfd.gov/inside_azgfd/employment_eagle.shtml
Audubon of Florida EagleWatch http://fl.audubon.org/audubon-eaglewatch
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory Bald Eagle Watch http://rmbo.org/v3/OurWork/Science_/CitizenScience/BaldEagleWatch.aspx

August 1 – Pokey Dokey

Today’s factismal: August is National Immunization Awareness Month.

The smallpox virus (Image courtesy CDC)

The smallpox virus, former public enemy number one
(Image courtesy CDC)

If you want to be thankful for modern medicine, all you have to do is look at what used to kill us. In 1900, influenza was the leading cause of death in the USA (153,000 deaths or 202/100,000); today, it is the ninth most common (50,097 or 16/100,000). In 1964-1965, there were 20,000 babies born with congenital rubella syndrome in the USA; in the past ten years, there were none, thanks to vaccines. In 1916 in the US alone, there were more than 27,000 new cases of polio that paralyzed thousands and killed 6,000 people; in 2012 for the entire world, there were just 223 new cases of polio and no deaths or paralyzations. And then there is the best example for why we vaccinate – smallpox. In 1967, 2,000,000 people were killed each year by smallpox and countless others were left scarred or blind; today, smallpox is but a memory thanks to an effective vaccination campaign.

Vaccines contain trivial amounts of antiseptics (Data courtesy CDC)

Vaccines contain trivial amounts of antiseptics
(Data courtesy CDC)

Unfortunately, a lot of people have forgotten how dangerous things used to be and are no longer vaccinating their children. They are worried by vaccine ingredients such as aluminum potassium sulfate (the stuff that makes pickles taste sour), agar  (the stuff that makes toothpaste a paste), formaldehyde (made by your body as part of the energy cycle), and dihydrogen monoxide (water). Even though the ingredients are tested and known to be safe, scaremongering news stories have led many to stop vaccinating. And that’s a bad thing.

A simplified view of herd immunity

A simplified view of herd immunity

It is bad because vaccines do more than protect the people who take them; they also protect the people who can’t. People such as newborn infants (like the ones who were infected with measles by a missionary returning from overseas), people with compromised immune systems (such as children with cancer), and people for whom the vaccine never took (estimated to be about 5% of the population). By getting vaccinated, we create a “ring of immunity” that keeps the disease from spreading as quickly as it otherwise would (the Disneyland outbreak is a good example of herd immunity at work).  And, of course, if enough people use the vaccine, then the disease is eradicated which means that we can stop using the vaccine!

A comparison of the deaths caused by measles and those caused by vaccines; the vaccine deaths were exaggerated for clarity. Each face represents 1,000 deaths.

A comparison of the deaths caused by measles and those caused by vaccines; the vaccine deaths were exaggerated for clarity. Each face represents 1,000 deaths.

Now it is true that vaccines are not perfectly safe. An estimated 10,000 people have died from vaccines. But what is true is that getting vaccinated is much, much, much safer than not doing so. The flu vaccine reduces the chances of getting the flu by nearly 70% (that is, if 1,000,000 people who took the vaccine would have gotten the flu then only 300,000 actually do); without the flu vaccine, there would have been more than 500,000 deaths from the flu in the US last year instead of the 50,000 that did. Without the polio vaccine, there would be two million cases each year, killing nearly half a million people and leaving another 750,000 paralyzed. With the vaccine, polio has been eradicated in all but three countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria).

So what can you do for National Immunization Awareness Month? First, take care of yourself and your family by making sure that everyone’s vaccinations are up to date. Then take care of others by working with Global Vaccines. They are using their profits from vaccines in countries like the USA to pay for vaccinations in poor countries:

If you’d like to help drive a disease into extinction, then join the Global Polio Eradication Initiative:

And remember that flu season is just around the corner. Flu vaccines are safe, effective, and free under most health plans!


July 27 – I’m Not Lion

Today’s factismal: Poachers killed Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe last week.

If there is one thing that just about everyone can agree on, it is that poaching is bad. And not just “parking in a handicapped space” bad but “more evil than Linda Blair in the Exorcist” bad. That’s because poaching has many bad results and no good ones. What bad results?

Like Cecil, this lion lives in a game preserve. But he could still be poached. (My camera)

Like Cecil, this lion lives in a game preserve. But he could still be poached.
(My camera)

Poaching kills. A lot. To put it mildly, poaching is a huge problem. It kills off animals and, worse, focuses on species that are already on the brink of extinction. Take lions for example; in the past two decades, some 17,000 lions have been killed by poachers, including “Cecil” a highly popular lion at one of Zimbabwe’s nature parks. Similarly, since 1960, 96% of the rhinoceroses in Africa have been killed. Over a twenty year period, ivory poachers killed more than 60% of the elephants in Africa; in 2012, the toll was more than 25,000 African elephants killed for their tusks. More than 65,000 wild parrots are poached each year in Mexico for sale as pets; 49,000 of them will die before reaching pet stores. All told, more than 100 million animals are killed each year by poachers.

This rhino's horn makes him a popular target for poachers. (My camera)

This rhino’s horn makes him a popular target for poachers.
(My camera)

Poaching kills more than you think. Lion poaching does more than just kill lions and bird poaching does more than just kill birds. That’s because the animals and plants that are poached are part of an ecosystem and have a role to play. Those lions help keep the number of herbivores in check; without the lions, the herbivores can overpopulate an area and graze it to death. Those birds eat fruit from trees and drop the seeds in all sorts of new and interesting places, leading to a change in the forest that crowds out some trees and reduces the number of habitats and the number of animals that can live there.

This elephant does more than trumpet. They clear open spaces in forests where new things can grow and spread seeds in their dung. (My camera)

This elephant does more than trumpet. They clear open spaces in forests where new things can grow and spread seeds in their dung.
(My camera)

Poaching is dirty. Poachers kill most animals for just one thing. They kill elephants for their ivory tusks, and leave everything else behind to rot. They kill rhinos for their sharp horn and leave everything else behind to rot. They kill birds for their bright feathers and leave everything else behind to rot. (Do you see a pattern here?) And all of that rotting meat is a breeding ground for disease and decay that can spread from the poached animal’s carcass to animals that might feed on it, such as hyenas, lions, and buzzards. And then there is the problem of zoonotic diseases (medico-speak for “animals diseases caught by humans”). Remember Ebola? Poachers have caused several different outbreaks, thanks to the bushmeat trade. How about SARS? We can thank poachers feasting on masked palm civets and other critters for the 2002 outbreak. Anyone for HIV? That started as the simian foamy virus and was transmitted to humans through, you guessed it, poaching.

This flock of parrots would be in deep trouble in some parts of the world. (My camera)

This flock of parrots would be in deep trouble in some parts of the world.
(My camera)

Poaching makes the poor poorer. A tried-and-true route to economic success in many countries is ecotourism. In many areas, poor people must live by poaching; they simply don’t have enough resources to live on. But by changing an area into a protected zone with tourists who come to see the wildlife, the poor folks suddenly become less poor. The tourists spend money to stay, and money to eat local foods, and money for guides, and money on souvenirs; lots and lots of money, flowing from the hands of tourists into the hands of locals. Officials in Zimbabwe estimate taht Cecil the lion brought in over a million dollars in tourist money each year. Everybody wins. But poachers destroy that by stealing the wildlife that ecotourism needs. As a result, the poor get poorer as the tourists go elsewhere.

If you’d like to fight poaching and help scientists learn more about animals in the wild, why not join Snapshot Serengeti? You’ll get to look at cool photos of animals (and empty plains). And by identifying the animals you’ll help the folks managing them make sure that the populations stay safe and stable. To learn more, track on over to:

July 26 – Lemur Buy You A Drink!

It is hard to decide what is most amazing about lemurs. Is it the fact that they are one of the few simians that can make their own vitamin C? Is it that they have specialized teeth and claws for grooming (a toothcomb and a grooming claw, respectively)? Is it that they have a tapetum like a cat’s, allowing them to see in low light? Is it that they have “wet noses” that allow them to smell odors too faint for a bloodhound? Or is it that some species spend almost their entire lives in trees, coming down just to mate and move to new trees?

Look! UP in the tree! Its a bird! Its a plane! No - it is a lemur, man! (My camera)

Look! Up in the tree! Its a bird! Its a plane! No – it is a lemur, man!
(My camera)

A close up of that lemur. It isn't a spy' the radio pack on its back is being used to track its movements. (My camera)

A close up of that lemur. It isn’t a spy’ the radio pack on its back is being used to track its movements.
(My camera)

Of course, on the the most amazing things about lemurs is how much we still don’t know about them. We are still learning how often they change trees and what they eat and where they go on their days off. We’re using radio transmitters and citizen scientists and a host of other techniques to help these magnificent mammals survive.

June 22 – Gone Forever

Today’s factismal: Ten species have been removed from the Endangered Species List because they are extinct.

There was some sad news out of the US Fish and Wildlife Service last week: the Eastern Cougar is officially considered extinct taken off of the Endangered Species list. This news wasn’t unexpected. Back in 2011 the Service had said that the species was probably extinct and had been since the last known sighting in 1938. But some still held out hope for small pockets of Eastern Cougars in the more remote parts of the Appalachians. Unfortunately, the only cougars that they found were visitors, some from as far away as the Black Hills of South Dakota. Sadly, as has happened in other cases, the Eastern Cougar was probably extinct even before it went on the list.

A stuffed Eastern Cougar; sadly, this is the only way we will ever see them now (Image courtesy USFWS)

A stuffed Eastern Cougar; sadly, this is the only way we will ever see them now
(Image courtesy USFWS)

However, many other species have benefitted from the Endangered Species list. Perhaps the most notable of these is the Bald Eagle which has grown from a low of 834 birds to more than 22,000 and now no longer on the list. And then there is the grey whale population which more than doubled from 13,095 animals to 26,635 during its time on the list. Plants have benefited from the list, too; for example, the San Clemente Indian Paintbrush went from just 500 plants to some 3,500 before being removed from the list in 1997. And the pace of successes has quickened of late; in the past twelve years, more species have become strong enough to be delisted than in the previous thirty-four!

If you’d like to help an endangered species get off the list by recovering instead of by going the way of the Eastern Cougar, then why not join Condor Watch? This species is critically endangered and needs citizen scientists like you to help it. By tracking their location and social behavior, we can help the species recover. All you have to do is look at photos and identify the tag number on the condor; if you can tell the researchers what the condors are doing, that would be great, too. To get started, wing on over to:


June 16 – My Queen!

Today’s factismal: Female cuckoo bumblebees orchestrate coup d’etats in the hives of other bumble bees and then enslave the workers to feed their meglomaniacal horde.

Things get weird in the insect world. Consider the humble bumblebee (or the bumble humblebee if you live in Britain). Though they all get lumped together by the casual observer (i.e., “that small insect with a big stinger that makes honey”), there are actually significant differences between the 250 known species of bumblebee worldwide, about 50 of which live in the USA. Though most bumblebees are about an inch long, the resemblances stops there. They have a bewildering variety of color schemes (usually in alternating strips of black and something bold) and flower preferences (from cactus to roses to pines) and nesting sites (from old bird’s nests to mouse holes to wooden eaves) and temperature range (from near-arctic to warmly tropical).

A bumblebee with loaded corbicula (pollen baskets) (My camera)

A bumblebee with loaded corbicula (pollen baskets)
(My camera)

But perhaps the weirdest thing that bumblebees do is prey on other bumblebees. There is an entire group of bumblebees known as the cuckoo bumblebee. The 29 different species in this group don’t hunt for nectar to make into honey; instead, they look for colonies of other bumblebees to take over in a coup d’etat. What happens is a recently-fertilized female cuckoo bumblebee will seek out a flower with the characteristic pheromone left on it after it has been the meal for a bumblebee. She will then feed at that flower, covering herself with the odor of the plant and the pheromone. Next, she finds the bumblebee nest which is always nearby due to their limited flight range. Using the scent of the flower as a disguise, she sneaks into the nest and sidles up to the queen. With a sudden leap, the cuckoo bumblebee stabs the queen to death after which she emits a pheromone that calms the remaining bumblebees and turns them into her loyal slaves. The usurping cuckoo bumblebee then spends the rest of the season pumping out baby cuckoo bumblebees, which are tended to by the enslaved colony; the cruel kingdom only ends when winter comes, killing all of the bees (sounds like a Game of Thrones episode, doesn’t it?).

Two bumblebees doing their job (My camera)

Two bumblebees doing their job
(My camera)

Of course, that’s not the only weird thing about bumblebees. Another one is that we still don’t know the range of the various species of bumblebee, nor are we sure if their numbers are increasing or not. If you’d like to help answer those questions, then why not join the folks at Project Bumble Bee?