Wednesday, April 3, 2024

American Pronghorn

Almost ten years ago on a trip to South Dakota, one of the animals, other than the Bison I most wanted to see, was the Pronghorn. We were nearly through Custard ‘s National Park and I was growing more disappointed with each passing mile that we still had not found them. We did find several buffalo, and burros but the Pronghorn remained elusive. As we came around one final bend I spotted them running down a steep hill and towards some open prairie land. Pronghorns! There were dozens of small antelope-like Pronghorns just off the road, some had a watchful eye on our car, and others paid us no mind. For such a small mammal they generate as much patriotic heart-felt feelings as the Bison, and Bald Eagle.

During the Pleistocene Epoch, approximately eleven other members of the same family as the Pronghorn roamed the area we now call North America. Some had impressive, curved horns or twisted horns. All but the Pronghorn have since gone extinct. The same fate nearly befell the Pronghorn as their numbers plummeted from millions to only a few thousand. In 1870 herds of Pronghorn were described by train passengers heading west as extending more than seventy miles and a million strong. These herds must have been as impressive to witness as the Bison herds.

Although first seen by Spanish explorers, the species was not actually described until Lewis and Clark made their famous trek across North America learning about the flora and fauna from coast to coast. Pronghorns are one of the most unique land mammals in North America. First, they are our fastest land animal, capable of reaching speeds of fifty-five to sixty miles per hour, which is not as fast as the famed Cheetah, but they can however run for longer periods at a sustained speed than the Cheetah can. They have one of the longest land migrations of North American mammals, traveling as much as one hundred and sixty miles from the Green River Basin in Wyoming to their destination at the Grand Teton National Park, then back again. The only North American land mammal with a longer migration is the Caribou.

Like deer, goats and many other horned animals Pronghorns are classified as ungulates. They are not built for jumping like goats and deer, but rather built for speed. They have light bone structures, hollow hair, and long cushioned pointed toes on each foot that act like shock absorbers while running at high speeds. They also have enlarged windpipes, hearts, and lungs to allow them to take in more oxygen when running. They resemble deer in that they have long legs, short tails, and a long snout. Their fur may be tan, or reddish-brown with white stripes on their necks and additional white markings on the face, stomach, and rump. These white hairs stand on end when frightened, much like the hairs on the backs of our necks when we are alarmed. Their large eyes sit prominently on top of their faces and are positioned on the sides of their heads, which allows them to see any predators in the area who may find Pronghorns a tasty meal. They are small at roughly four and a half feet long and three feet high and only weigh between ninety and one hundred and fifty pounds. Females are generally smaller than males. The most noticeable feature of the Pronghorn is the horns on top their head. Both males and females possess horns, although they differ a bit in appearance. The females horns are smaller with only a bump present. By contrast the male horns are much larger at nearly twelve inches long. At the end of the horn is a small notch or prong from where their common name comes from. They are uniquely different from other horned ungulates, in that their horns point backwards. The horns extend straight up and then curve towards the rump.

Because they closely resemble antelope in their appearance they are often referred to colloquially as American Antelope, Prong Buck, Pronghorn Antelope, or Prairie Antelope. This similarity in appearance can also be attributed to a developmental trait called parallel evolution, which means they have evolved to fill a similar ecological niche and will have similar traits as in distinct, but not closely related species.

The amount of wildlife in the western plains and adjacent areas was once so vast that it is often diificult to accept as having been true. But these massively large populations of  Bison, Elk, and other megafauna, many of which are now extinct, have earned the plains region the name of American Serengeti. What an apt name for how populated our country was with wildlife at one time. As we can no doubt agree, modern man was the downfall of many species of wildlife, plant life, and habitats throughout North America and the rest of the planet and this trend continues today. 

The Pronghorn appeared in much Native American folklore and mythology. The Pueblo considered the pronghorn a clan animal. Just about all the plains tribes hunted and utilized the Pronghorn for meat, and hides were used as leather, fur, and clothing. Bladders were used for containers and bindings, the sinew was thread, and the bones were made into tools. The exception is the Apache who believed the Pronghorn should never be hunted.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Boone and Crockett Club had determined the population of Pronghorn was likely to go extinct if action wasn't taken soon to reverse the issues facing them. In a letter to George Bird Grimmel, the then chairman of the Boone and Crockett Club, it was stated the club was concerned about the fate of the Pronghorn, which appears to be rapidly diminishing. By the early 1920’s hunting pressure, habitat degradation, and the fencing of the grasslands, had reduced the population to nearly 13,000 remaining Pronghorns in their normal range. This is a fraction of traditional populations and certainly not a sustainable population if intervention is not made to change it. Grimmel felt they were doomed to become extinct but felt everything within their power should be done to preserve them. Every attempt to restore their population failed due to fencing enclosures covering their range and migration routes. In 1927 the National Audubon Society along with the Boone and Crockett Club were able to raise the funds to create an antelope refuge comprised of 2,500 acres. This purchase was subsequently donated to the Biological Survey with the contingency that the government donate an additional 30,000 acres of adjacent public land. On June 20th, 1929, President Herbert Hoover included the required lands upon request of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior. In January of 1931, this tract of land was designated, by executive order to be a refuge. On December 31, 1936, Franklin Roosevelt expanded on this, by providing an additional 549,000 acres. This was the beginning of the true recovery of the pronghorn. The population has rebounded to between 500,000 and 1,000,000  since the 1930’s. 

Today there are efforts in place, most notably, in Arizona to protect the migration of Pronghorn. Since their migration route is often affected by sheep ranchers and the barbed wire fences they put in place to keep their sheep enclosed, the Arizona Antelope Foundation is in the process of removing the bottom rows of barbed wire to allow Pronghorn to move freely underneath the fences. Or in some cases barbless wire is put in its place.


While we will never see the traditional herds there were before 1875, we are blessed that some forward-thinking, conservation-minded individuals recognized there was a problem and sought solutions to save the wildlife of the American Serengeti.

Monday, March 4, 2024

Eastern Lubber Grasshopper

A mighty grasshopper called the Eastern Lubber is slowly making its way into Missouri. Traditionally this species was only found in the southeastern states, but like many invertebrates, they don’t always recognize manmade boundaries and go where they please, or at least where the resources are. They are also found in Texas, Louisiana, and Arizona.

The Eastern Lubber Grasshopper is the only lubber in the southeastern United States,  they share the family Romaleidae with other lubbers, the name comes from a Greek word, and when translated into Latin means “strong of body.” This is an apt description of such a heavy-bodied, large grasshopper. The name lubber comes from the old English word lobre, which means lazy, or clumsy, which again is a very good description of this grasshopper. These large grasshoppers have small wings that barely extend half their body length making it impossible for them to fly. Instead, they are destined to a life of crawling, or ambling clumsily across the landscape. They appear slow and awkward as they move from place to place. However, what they lack in gracefulness they more than make up for in their ability to climb.

Like many insects, they possess defensive strategies to avoid being eaten by hungry predators. Their first line of defense is their coloring. Bright coloration in nature often warns predators they are poisonous or at the very least that they taste bad. The second line of defense is their ability to flap their wings rapidly and to secrete a toxin sprayed from their thorax. Many of the plants they consume give them these beneficial toxins which make them unpalatable to predators. Because they feed on a wide variety of plants at different times of the year, they take in a wide variety of toxins at different times, making it impossible for would-be predators to build up a tolerance for the chemical defense they utilize. Vertebrates like birds and small mammals have learned to avoid them, and those too young or too na├»ve to know better will find themselves gagging, regurgitating, or even dying from the experience. Even an opossum, which seems able to eat anything, will avoid them. An exception is loggerhead shrikes, which have figured out that if they impale the lubbers onto a thorn or other sharp object and wait a few days for the toxins to become diluted in the dead grasshopper they can then consume it. Invertebrate predators like large mantids are unaffected by the toxins but find it difficult to manage such large insects covered in thick exoskeletons,  so most avoid expending the energy it would take to overcome one.

Their third line of defense is to hiss loudly startling a predator, which may make it think twice before messing with such an ill-tempered adversary. Having all these defenses seems like overkill, but for an insect incapable of flight and lacking the ability to physically escape they must employ other means to avoid being eaten.

Photo: K. Leeker
They are easily recognized as no other grasshopper is as large or colored quite like them. Both the Western Horse Lubber and the Eastern Lubber are the largest of the grasshoppers in the United States, both capable of reaching lengths of three and a half inches, some claim they have seen them as long as four inches. Truly a large insect! As nymphs, they are black with yellow, orange, or red stripes down the body. As they mature from nymph to adult their coloring will vary from dull orange with black spots, to bright orange with black markings or even an entirely black version with red or yellow stripes, that resembles the nymphal stage. They possess sharp spines on their legs that can pierce human flesh, and they are capable of giving a strong, somewhat painful nip if mishandled.

Like most lubbers, as nymphs, they are known to be gregarious and can move in large numbers over the landscape sometimes wreaking havoc as they do. The verdict is still out as to whether the feeding habits of these insects cause significant damage to plants. Some claim with their large numbers and even larger appetites, they can cause significant damage to citrus, vegetable, peanut, corn, and other crops as well as ornamental landscape plants. As adults, their appetite is not as large as what one would expect out of a plant-eating insect that gets so impressively large. It is also known they have a secretion in their saliva that stimulates new growth, making plant foliage bushier and possibly more appealing to four-legged grazers. However, as nymphs, if they occur in large enough numbers they can defoliate leaves rapidly and may stunt or kill young plants.

Because of the characteristics attributed to these grasshoppers…..the large size, bright warning coloration, toxic secretions, and gregarious populations, they are often given some pretty colorful common names including the devil's horse, black diablo, Georgia thumper, soldier boys, and the graveyard grasshopper. 

The first time most people come in contact with this large lubber is during science class when they are dissecting one for biology studies. The experience is likely to stay with you as they smell horribly from the formalin and their natural essence. For now, their population within Missouri is limited to low numbers on the eastern side of our state. With climate conditions rapidly changing and new agricultural practices of farming roadside to roadside and fencerow to fencerow, leaving little to no vegetation for these and other insects to feed on, our fields are becoming more favorable to crop-eating insects.  It may be in the not-too-distant future we experience the giant lubber in our neck of the woods.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

American EEL



When one hears the term slippery as an eel, the first thing that typically comes to mind is a less than trustful individual bent on bamboozling you then slipping away silently into the night never to be heard from again. This phrase having been repeated for generations has become part of English vernacular and is probably not going anywhere soon. For me slippery as an eel takes on a different meaning, in terms of the eel itself.

Several months ago, during a trip to the zoo with my granddaughter she showed an intense fascination for the eels on display. After many repeated trips since that initial visit, she expressed the same desire to “see the eels.” I found this interest in eels at such a young age (she’s 3) curious, after all aren’t most children more inclined towards the elephants, lions, or giraffes? This unusual interest of hers sent me on my own journey to learn about them. After reading books, and pouring over internet sites, it became apparent to me that her interest was (is) valid and I am grateful to her for having  piqued my own interest. Now I too want to “see the eels.”

Did you know that Missouri is home to an eel? I did not. The American Eel is native to North America and may be found throughout much of our country as well as Canada. This slippery torpedo shaped creature lives in many rivers and streams throughout our state. They are clear to green in color depending upon the stage of life they are in. They have a large dorsal fin that extends the entire length of the body. They appear to be smooth but are actually covered in tiny scales, too small for us to see, that are arranged in an irregular pattern and embedded below the skin. A slimy mucus secretes from their skin, which is thought to aid them in moving through the water.

This slippery slime, combined with their serpentine movements makes holding on to one exceeding difficult, thus the term slippery as an eel came into being. They may reach a yard or more in length, with females being larger than males. It is believed that all eels found within our state will be females, as the males stay close to the estuaries near the Atlantic coastline. A state record eel was caught on the Current River in 2021 that weighed a whopping six and a half pounds beating the previous record set in 1994 of a little over four pounds. No one knows for certain how many eels are actually in Missouri, but they are considered threatened in our state. They are nocturnal by nature, and feed on a wide variety of aquatic insects, crayfish, worms  and mussels. During the day they hide under logs, boulders, and other underwater cover. Even though they are capable of tolerating a wide range of temperature fluctuations, during the winter they burrow into the mud and enter into a torpor, or inactive state. 

Eels have an unusual lifecycle that is greatly dependent on their ability to travel river systems, and with the damming of the rivers they are blocked from making that journey. The American eel, along with its cousin the European eel begin their life in the Sargasso Sea, sort of a sea within a sea located near Bermuda. After mating, females will lay as many as four million eggs before dying. These eggs hatch in about one week. 

 

The newly hatched eels are called leptocephali. They will be somewhat leaf-shaped, transparent and will remain in this state for up to a year. At that time, they will have reached the continental shelf and will metamorphosis into the next stage and are referred to as glass eels. These tiny transparent juveniles continue to drift among the ocean currents heading towards North America. As they reach the coastal estuaries they will metamorphosis into elvers with more pigment in their skin and remain in this stage for an additional year.

As they begin their journey up freshwater rivers and their tributaries they are now ready to enter into the next stage of development called the yellow eel. They are considered adults at this stage but are still sexually immature. They will remain yellow eels for more than ten years before significant changes happen with their physiology to prepare them for their final stage of development. At this time, they are referred to as silver eels. 

Photo: K. Leeker

They will change color to green or brown with a white or yellowish belly that appears silver. Their digestive system dissolves, meaning they will no longer be able to feed,  their eyes grow in diameter and adapt the pigments necessary to survive on their upcoming oceanic journey, their pectoral fin enlarges, and lipids increase to supply enough energy to live on for the long migration back to the Sargasso Sea where they will spawn, and die, thus completing their lifecycle. For some eels this journey exceeds 3700 miles,  and takes years to complete, as they face the dangers of being eaten by other eels, eagles, gulls, and other fish-eating birds.

Climate change is dramatically interrupting their lifecycle. With a warming planet the direction and strength of the ocean currents change impeding the eels ability to migrate to their freshwater habitats. Stronger currents drastically throw migrating eels off course, casting them adrift in the ocean currents. The temperature of the water also changes which affects the lifecycle of plankton, reducing their numbers which means less food for the tiny leptocephali and glass eels. Other challenges faced by American Eels as well as European Eels is the over harvest of glass eels. Spain and France especially consider glass eels a delicacy and they are caught in unsustainable numbers, greatly reducing the population of these eels. Without strict regulation, if these actions continue the eel may be no more. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation) has declared the American and European Eels as endangered.

Many Indigenous cultures rely on the eel for their traditions and practices. For many the eel is a source of food, and medicine. Dried eel skins were used to make bindings to hold spear points and axe heads onto sticks, as well as fashion hair ties and sew moccasins together and the oils from the eel treated earaches. We know the travelers of the Mayflower, after months at sea, landed on hostile shores. They spent a year aboard their ship in fear for their lives with no access to nutritional food. Many died of scurvy, and tuberculosis. Tisquantum , also known as Squanto, was a member of the Patuxet tribe. He made peace with the Pilgrams and brought them eels to eat, which saved their lives. He taught them how to find and hunt the eels as well as grow corn and other food. His life saving teachings were greatly appreciated by the newcomers and a feast was held one year after Squanto initiated peace. This feast is referred to as Thanksgiving today. To think we could just as easily be eating eels for our Thanksgiving dinner as we do turkey. I guess the lowly eel didn’t make the cut when the tradition of this feast was handed down from generation to generation. 

With the numbers of eels in sharp decline Canada has listed them as a species of special concern and they are no longer harvested commercially. The United States has not yet followed suit.  I for one hope the powers that be in our country change their mind and gives the eel its due recognition as a unique member of our natural fauna. These slippery, snake-like creatures saved the Pilgrams of the Mayflower, they travel our waterways controlling insect and crayfish populations, have a lifecycle that defies logic, and are an important resource for many Indigenous tribes. As such, should be protected so future generations can be inspired by them, as my granddaughter, and now myself are.