Tuesday, 9 August 2011

What the Mantis Did...

DISCLAIMER:  The following blurb may have been exaggerated slightly for dramatic effect.

 Last week I was busy at work, preparing a group of children to take on a major Toronto landmark: The Outward Bound Challenge Tower.  It measures in at an impressive 65 feet, which does little to challenge the lofty Toronto skyline or CN tower, but is nonetheless just as impressive for it’s various ropes, ladders, and beams hanging from the side (none of which can be found hanging from a downtown Toronto high-rise).
While demonstrating proper belay technique, my eyes strayed to a twig stuck in the rope web at the start of the aptly named “Rope-Thingy” route.  Upon closer inspection I noticed it was in fact a praying mantis.  I couldn’t believe my eyes, I had never had the fortune to meet this insect in person before.  Its many eyes glared at me through emerald orbs as its head swiveled around robotically to meet my stare.  Face to face with this buggy monster I did that only thing any closet biology nerd would do.  I picked it up.
Not with my hands of course (though they were involved).  I found a nearby twig and proceeded to prod the mantis gently, encouraging the twig as a perch so that I could show the kids this surprising find.  The mantis obliged, then as they say in the sewage bizz; the shit hit the fan.
The mantis began flailing its arms wildly, doggy paddling the thin air in front of its face with its long talons.  It started walking forward on the twig towards my fingers, the kids lunged back in surprise, and a few shrieks were loosed.  The mantis was in attack mode, it wanted blood.  I could see its large pincers opening and closing and thought that if I had a magnifying glass, I could probably see the thing foaming voraciously at the mouth like a rabid animal.  Maybe it had rabies?  Maybe its bite had venom, or was at least mildly irritating.  My mind flashed to an old grade school nature film of a female praying mantis mating with a male mantis then devouring its mate.  I didn’t want that to happen to my index finger, and I definitely didn’t want it to be chewed on either.
I knew I wasn’t properly equipped to be handling this unknown bug.  So I let it down in a nearby patch of tall grass.  Just as my hand was nearing the ground, the bug turned and a small green, torpedo shaped projectile came flying out at me from its rear end.  Naturally, I was startled, but my agile reflexes kicked in just in the knick of time for the shot to go whizzing past me.
With the mantis safe in the grass, I returned to the belay lesson.  It was difficult to focus immediately after the mantis assault.  I just kept wondering: what flew out of it’s butt?  Still to this day, no amount of google searching can answer my question.  Can you?

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

A Pest By Any Other Name

The European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is a common sight among the urban landscape of North America from St. Nich’s to St. John’s.  Well, perhaps not as far north as the North Pole, but you can bet Mr. Claus produces some playful knock-off of this friendly fowl.

The Starling is my personal favorite when it comes to urban aves.  It’s appearance is somewhat of a conundrum.  Iridescent neck feathers display fanciful color schemes commonly found in a French impressionist painting, yet it’s slender and ruffled appearance when wet stir up memories of a rat stuck in a toilet bowl.

While a common enough sight at your local park or even park-ing lot, this bird is in fact an invader.  Although, truthfully this classification isn’t entirely accurate.  Invasion implies that their presence is unwanted, and while this may be true with respect to your grandmother’s strawberry patch, it is in fact false when applied to the vector of the Starling’s arrival.

One look at the Starling and it should be obvious that they are incapable of transatlantic flight.  They can scarcely fly more than 20 feet without stopping to forage with their bright yellow beaks.  This bird made the jump across the pond over a century ago.  A population of about 100 birds was released into New York City’s Central Park under the guidance of the American Acclimatization Society.  The organization had been introducing native European birds to Central park since the 1860s in an attempt to homogenize the North American native birds with European fowl.  Blackbirds, sparrows, and finches had all been introduced with varying success, but it was the Starling that really took flight.

As surprising as the notion of an American Acclimatization Society sounds today, it is not as surprising as the reason for introducing the sparrow.  Then society chairmen, Eugene Schieffelin, being an ardent appreciator of Shakespeare, thought it appropriate to introduce every bird mentioned in the Bard’s 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and several poems.  Clearly, this man outcompeted Darwin’s finches when it came to “nut” jobs.

Mentioned in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, this bird lives up to its modern reputation as a notarized nuisance.  Quoting from the play; the character Hotspur, considers using the bird to drive the King mad and convince him to release his brother-in-law Mortimer from jail:

“I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion.”                         - King Henry IV Part I

The small population spread plague-like across the continent, outcompeting native birds for nest sites, and spoiling farmer’s crops.  Today the population is estimated at 200 million, and increasing.  Municipalities routinely cull large flocks of Starling’s for their detrimental economic impact.  Their presence has even been known to interfere with air traffic. 

True to Shakespeare’s preferred style, the Starling’s story and indeed the story of many invasive species unfolds more as a tragedy.  The Cane Toad in Australia was introduced to control Cane Beetle populations and now is the cause of ecological annihilation across the island continent.  Rats stowed away on merchant ships are responsible for the loss of countless endemic bird species on islands throughout the world.  While cats introduced to curb rat populations magnified the damage by preying on fledglings.

The danger of a globalized world where humanity’s forceful arm reaches every corner is the homogenization of our natural capital.  As world economies begin to integrate, should that also mean an integration of ecologies?  Just as evolution favored the adaptable Homo sapien, so too will it favor the species adaptable to our own culture. 

We must be mindful of our ecological impact, not just offsetting our footprint, but taking it away completely, including those left behind by previous generations.  The steps necessary to wipe clean the slate are significant.  It may take many species introductions; it may require widespread culling, and tremendous economic stimulus.  Seemingly impossible, yes, especially during times of ‘economic fragility’, but to once again quote the Bard:

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t” – Hamlet (Act II, Scene II)