Flora and Fauna
By Doug Struck
Some years ago, I was hitching a ride on the back of a snowmobile in the Arctic town of Pangnirtung, on Baffin Island, when I remarked that the seat was badly slashed.
Oh that, said Noah Metuq, the Inuit hunter who was taking me on a seal hunt. “Polar bear,” he explained. “He missed me.”
Metuq was a man of few words.
What brings this to mind was the report this week of a polar bear attack on two people in Churchill, Manitoba. A woman stepped out of her house early in the morning after Halloween and a young polar bear mauled her and a neighbor who rushed to help. The bear finally retreated when another neighbor drove at it with a pickup truck, according to a report in the Canadian Press.FULL ENTRY
The Mystic River Watershed Association (MyRWA) is looking for volunteers to help them take stock of the number of herring in the river for their new Herring Monitoring Program. The Mystic River supports two species of herring- Alewife Herring and Blueback Herring. Herring live in the Atlantic Ocean and migrate up to the Mystic Lakes in Arlington each spring to lay their eggs.
Before the area was widely settled, it was said you could walk across the river on the backs of the herring because they were so abundant. That is not the case today. The Herring Alliance has stated that some herring runs on the Atlantic have declined by 95% in the past twenty years, mostly due to bycatch from trawlers.
MyRWA is looking for volunteer fish monitors to count herring so they can estimate the run size. Volunteers must attend a two-hour training on March 17 and commit to counting at least once from April 1-June 1 at the Mystic Lake dam.
More information: http://mysticriver.org/herring-monitoring/
The snow is gone and the bulbs are starting to peek through the soil, which means it's time to start planning your garden (if you haven't started already). Gardening workshops at the Boston Natural Areas Network's 36th Annual Gardeners' Gathering will get you inspired and ready for gardening season. The event is at Northeastern University on March 26th. The all day event has workshops for all levels of gardeners and is free and open to the public. (I hear Mayor Menino will make an appearance to give out awards and free seeds will be distributed at the end.) More information at: http://www.bostonnatural.org/evtGardenersGathering.htm
The Boston Tree Party was founded by artist Lisa Gross in October as a way to bring together her interests in urban agriculture, public art, sustainability, and community building. The idea has spread quickly and delegations from across the area, from Boston University's Center for Energy and Environmental Studies to Shape up Somerville have signed up to participate. Those that only have the space to plant one of the pair, have reached out to their neighbors to plant the other one, forming diverse neighborhood partnerships such as Tech Networks of Boston and Southie Trees.
What accomplishments are you most proud of over the past 16 years?
One of the things that is key to what we are trying to accomplish is cleaning the river up so that it becomes a place that people want to go. Historically, the Neponset River, like a lot of rivers in Massachusetts, was so dirty and smelly that communities organized themselves away from it. During my tenure and the organization’s tenure (which goes back 43 years), one of our focuses has been water quality and we’ve continued to see great strides there.
In the last five years or so we’ve really started to see developers orienting themselves towards the river instead of away from it and parks are starting to be developed along the river since it’s a nice place to go. People are able to enjoy a resource that they haven’t been able to enjoy for many, many years.
How clean is the river?
We do our own water quality monitoring and our data shows that for most of the watershed, we’ve made a lot of progress cleaning things up. At least during dry weather when you don’t have runoff from parking lots and streets, about 75-85% of the places we sample meet fishable/swimmable standards.
Are there parts of the river that need improvement?
The one big exception is in the estuary- the data shows that it is the least clean of the three harbor estuaries. There’s a big push to get that part of the river as clean as the rest of the river. We think we’ve found the sources and are working with folks to get them cleaned up, but that work is not done yet. The other problem is not a geographic problem area, but a temporal problem area. When it’s raining, you have water coming off streets and parking lots, and the water is not nearly as clean as it should be.
What are your goals for 2011?
We have been focusing on three big issues that we are trying to tackle. One is this polluted runoff problem; we are really starting to get the ball rolling on making progress. We have been working with communities to identify places where they can take steps to rectify the existing runoff problems. Our second big area is looking at water use. We’ve been working with several communities with tremendous results to help them reduce the amount of water they are diverting from the river. This saves a lot of energy- there’s a lot of energy used in pumping, delivering, heating and treating water. This also will, in the long term, keep down water and sewer bills. Our third area is looking at damaged habitat. Rivers are really neat systems in the sense that if you stop putting pollution into them, they have a tremendous capacity to clean themselves up. There are some problems that affect rivers that won’t take care of themselves, such as obsolete dams.
Are there a lot of dams in the watershed?
If you can believe it, there are more than 100 dams on the Neponset River. The work ethic of our forefathers was very intense- they were more committed than your average beaver in taking advantage of every bit of water power. The problem is that today, many of those dams are in a state of disrepair. They may be contributing to flooding programs and have a big impact on aquatic life in the river.
Are invasive plants a problem in the Neponset?
Yes. One of the big invasives we have focused on is purple loosestrife, which is a wetland plant that tends to take over freshwater marshes. We’ve been working with a group of about 100 volunteers who are serving as beetle ranchers. They are raising these tiny beetles that only eat purple loosestrife. They’d actually rather die than eat other plants. We’ve been working on this for about two years and are starting to see results.
What else do volunteers do for you?
The two things where we involve the most volunteers is the purple loosestrife beetle ranching efforts and water quality monitoring. Between these two projects there are probably about 250 people that are doing something once every six weeks.
What can our readers do to help their watersheds?
One tip would be to pick up after your dog, which is a big source of bacterial pollution in rivers. It’s also a nice thing to do for your neighbors. Another big one is being thoughtful about how you manage your lawn. People can go a little overboard with fertilizers, herbicides, and over-watering. The last one is to try to get more involved in your community. Be supportive of your Department of Public Works. For better or worse, the level of government that has the most impact is local government.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
CAMBRIDGE -- Roman Stocker was eating breakfast when he looked down and saw his gray and white cat taking a drink. An idle thought brought Stocker onto hands and knees, chin level with Cutta Cutta: How did he use his short little tongue to neatly lap up water?
That seemingly banal question launched Stocker, an MIT professor who ordinarily studies how microscopic marine bacteria move, on a three-year project. He and colleagues staked out his cat's water bowl with a high-speed camera, watched tigers and lions slake their thirst at local zoos, and developed a facsimile of a cat tongue.
Cat-lovers always knew their pets were clever. But it took bright minds from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, and Virginia Tech to unravel the mechanism by which cats drink without wetting their whiskers. Dogs take a straightforward approach, using their tongues as ladles to literally scoop water into their mouths. Cats, on the other hand, solve a delicate physics, fluid mechanics, and engineering problem with every gulp.
"One might think what we don't understand is quarks and particle physics and black holes ... but a lot of what we don't understand is in our everyday lives," said Pedro Reis, an MIT engineering professor who became interested in the cat question when he and Stocker discussed it on a camping trip. "Often, things that are very mundane can be an inspiration for real practical applications."
What they found was that when a cat extends its tongue, the tip curves backward into a J-shape. The tiny hairs on the middle and back of the tongue -- the ones that give a cat's tongue its characteristic sandpaper texture -- play no role in drinking. Instead, the smooth tip grazes the water, and as the cat rapidly retracts its tongue it draws liquid upward by inertia -- the tendency for matter to keep moving in the same direction. Gravity pulls the water back toward the bowl, but the cat closes its mouth at the precise moment when gravity and inertia are in balance, allowing it to swallow the maximum amount of water.
The finding, published online today in the journal Science, may seem trifling. The team did not receive funding for the work, and were motivated by curiosity. But the way a cat's tongue deftly handles liquid may help guide the thinking of people interested in soft robotics and designing systems that involve manipulating liquid.FULL ENTRY
By scouring a photo-sharing website for tourists’ pictures of whales, a citizen scientist from Maine has helped to document a female humpback’s record-breaking 6,000-mile journey from Brazil to Madagascar.
The remarkable voyage of whale number 1363 from one breeding ground to another is a scientific discovery for the social-networking age — a study made possible both by vacation photos posted on Flickr and an exhaustive library of photos of whales’ tails that scientists have built since the 1970s.
‘‘This to me is just an incredibly exciting way of reminding people they are our whales — they’re not the biologist’s whales,’’ said Gale McCullough of Hancock, Maine, who has become a liaison to Flickr for the Allied Whale research group at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. She regularly scours the popular website for humpback whale photos and uses expertise she’s honed over more than three decades of identifying whales by the shape and color of their tails, as well as the patterns on the undersides. Each whale’s tail, or fluke, is distinct.
Whale 1363 in the Antarctic Humpback Whale Catalogue made its first appearance in the annals of science in a most conventional manner. It was first spotted by scientists off the coast of Brazil in August 1999, swimming with another whale for an hour. They took skin samples and did genetic analyses, determining that both whales were female.
Then, two years later, Freddy Johansen, a Norwegian tourist on a whale watch cruise, took an auspicious photo of the same whale’s fluke as it swam with two other whales off the east coast of Madagascar.
‘‘It was only a short trip taken on a whim in between scuba diving and exploring of this small island off Madagascar’s east coast,’’ Johansen, chief executive of a workshop that specializes in exhaust systems for cars, wrote in an e-mail.
In 2009, Johansen uploaded the photos from his trip to Madgascar to the website to back up his images and share them with friends. McCullough found them on a search.
She saw in the speckled pattern on the underside of the whale’s white tail a configuration that reminded her of a face, and the same pattern leaped out again when she looked in the Antarctic Humpback Whale Catalogue. She brought the match to scientists at the College of the Atlantic, where she works as a research associate.
Typically, humpback whales swim long distances to travel from feeding to breeding grounds — around 3,000 miles, according to Peter Stevick, a biologist at College of the Atlantic and the lead author of the paper published today in the journal Biology Letters.
‘‘This record is unusual, not only in being longer than any of those recorded migrations, but because it’s not between a feeding ground and a breeding ground — it’s between two different breeding gounds,’’ Stevick said. He said it is not known why the whale would have made the trip. One possibility is the whale swam too far following prey and then swam back to Madagascar to breed.
Although it is rare for whales to swim such a long way, it suggests scientists should look harder at whether this movement occurs, to a less extreme degree, in other whales, Stevick said. It is also intriguing, he said, because male whales are usually the ones thought to roam widely, not females.
Phillip J. Clapham, leader of the Cetacean Ecology and Assessment Program at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, who was not involved in the research, wrote in an e-mail that it was very unusual for a whale to travel so far. ‘
‘This remarkable movement shows either that humpback whales are amazingly flexible, or that they’re capable of making amazingly large navigational mistakes!’’ Clapham wrote.
Richard Merrick, chief of the resource evaluation and assessment division at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, said that increasingly, citizen scientists are making important contributions, whether it is fishermen, tourists, or whale watchers. Because they may be looking in places that aren’t being heavily studied, he said, they may make important finds.
For Johansen, who said his first passion is nature and wildlife, the chance to take part in a scientific discovery has been a pleasure.
‘‘This is my first time as coauthor of anything at all,’’ Johansen wrote. ‘‘You can imagine my surprise when it turned out the way it did!’’
E-mail Carolyn Y. Johnson.
One of the red-tailed hawks nesting at a Cambridge office building has taken its first flight, startling the crowd of photographers and other onlookers that have gathered at the site for more than a month.
Check out some of our readers' photos at this slide show and send some of your own.
With temperatures in the 50s in the Boston area this weekend, many local residents have been flocking outside, basking in the relatively warm sun, and already dreaming of summer days and outdoor activities. In such a dense area, urban parks such as Boston Common and the Emerald Necklace not only provide space for recreation on nice days such as today, but also bring vegetation into a landscape of concrete and asphalt, reduce heat island effect, and often provide habitat for wildlife.
This summer, Boston students will have the opportunity to learn about the stewardship of one of Boston's newest open spaces. The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy's Green and Grow program will provide part-time summer internships for Boston residents between the ages of 17 and 20. For eight weeks in July and August, participants will gain hands-on, outdoor experience in horticulture and maintenance of over one mile of connected parks in the heart of downtown Boston.
See the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Green and Grow webpage for further details. Applications for the program are open until April 5.
About the green blog
Helping Boston live a greener, more environmentally friendly life.
Christopher Reidy covers business for the Globe.
Doug Struck covers environmental issues from Boston.
Glenn Yoder produces Boston.com's Lifestyle pages.
Eric Bauer is site architect of Boston.com.
Bennie DiNardo is the Boston Globe's deputy managing editor/multimedia.
Dara Olmsted is a local sustainability professional focusing on green living.