Sunday, August 28, 2005

Eco: From eft to newt, the complex life of a CT amphibian

Amphibian populations are in decline in many places around the world, and the reasons become clear during a trip to the Connecticut woods. Amphibians have complex life cycles, during which they may metamorphose from one stage to another multiple times, and rely on a network of diverse and finicky habitats, such as our vernal pools and forests, for their survival. They don't tolerate change well, and thus are early indicators of habitat degradation and pollution.

We went with herpetologist Brian Kleinman to the Enders State Forest in Granby the other day, and discovered a good example in one amphibian's remarkable adaptations. Brian gave us a tour of amphibian habitats here, and shared his knowledge of local inhabitants, such as the Red-spotted newt, along the way.

After years spent wandering the forest floor as a juvenile, the brightly colored red eft, the terrestrial stage of the Red-spotted newt (lower left), grows into a greenish-brown adult stage (upper right), and returns to the water.

Each stage of life is perilous for the Red-spotted newt, and it takes years for them to reach adulthood. They start life as eggs laid in weed choked aquatic habitats in late spring. Weeks later, gilled larvae hatch and feed on insect larvae and small aquatic animals. By mid-summer, many have grown into the red eft stage, and emerge from wetland pools to wander forest floors and colonize new habitats. They remain as efts for 2-7 years until they turn olive green, their tails begin to flatten to aid in swimming, and they return to the water as adult newts. Under some conditions, newts may even skip a life stage.

As we walked the trail at Enders, red efts of varying sizes were abundant in the leaf litter, and seemingly everywhere. Their bright orange color serves as a warning to would-be predators foolish enough to consider biting them. Far from appetizing, Red-spotted newts secrete foul tasting toxins through their skin that can cause severe reactions in amphibians and reptile predators.

Of course, this defense is of little use against human impacts such as habitat loss or water pollution. More and more Connecticut communities are taking declining numbers of native amphibians as dire warnings. Towns have begun to work with conservation groups such as Metropolitan Conseration Alliance and Conservation Districts of Connecticut to implement development plans and wildlife managment strategies that are effective at preserving amphibian habitats.

Frogs such as the Spring peeper (left) and Wood Frog (right) are among several other native amphibians commonly found in the Enders State Forest in Granby. Photos by Brian Kleinman. © Perry Heights Press, 2005.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Eco: Back to the bog

The last time the boys and I were here at the Black Spruce Bog in the Mohawk State Forest it was a crisp, 20-degree winter day. The air was still except for the large snowflakes that were lightly falling. A thin sheet of clear ice covered the sphagnum moss and ferns on the forest floor like glass over a museum exhibit.

On our return in mid-August six months later, it wasn't our breath we could see, but the humid air of a 90-plus-degree day under a Bermuda high. Barely a half hour after our visit the sky burst and crackled with thunderstorms and lightning, but during the time we were there the sun shined through the tall spruces and tamaracks and sparkled on the shrubs and plank walkway below.

The Black Spruce Bog here is among the most rare of Connecticut’s critical habitats. This particular bog forest is the only one of its type found in the state. It got its start as glacial melt water ponded up in a bedrock depression some ten thousand years ago. This was a place where plants and aquatic life began to re-colonize the tundra as the last Ice Age slowly melted away.

Ecologist Dr. Robert Craig described the bog’s ecology in his book, Great Day Trips to Connecticut’s Critical Habitats. “In bogs, living components are involved in creating their own environment," Craig wrote. “Once a vegetation mat is established, decaying plant material accumulates on it, and plant debris rain into the pond below. Devoid of oxygen, the materials build into a thick layer of a semi-preserved substance known as peat.” (Today, over 40 feet of peat fill the former pond here.)

“On the surface of the bog,” Craig explains, “which is low in nutrients, a process of colonization events occur involving increasingly complex plants. In the beginning, it is plants like the sedges and thick, spongy mats of Sphagnum. A host of other herbaceous plants colonize as well, with grasses like Cotton Grass particularly conspicuous. As bogs age, their mat thickens, producing a substrate suitable for woody plants, like Creeping Snowberry.

"They extend out across the pond at middle age, and toward the edge trees become established. The blue-black spires of Black Spruce contrast with the open, lime-green crowns of Tamarack. In old age, the bog fills with peat, and the quaking surface of the young bog is gradually made more stable."

A truly magnificent and magical place, the bog is easily accessed via a very short hike, and a plank walkway out the to center of the bog. It's a journey many grandparents can make comfortably, and an adventure kids love.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Geo: CT Mining Museum

Kent is always a beautiful place to visit, and a group of little known museums just north of the village offer unique experiences you won't find anywhere else. Tucked away off Route 7 are the Sloane-Stanley Museum, featuring the work and tools of Connecticut master painter Eric Sloane, The Connecticut Antique Machinery Museum, featuring an extraordinary collection of antique farm and industrial machinery, and the Connecticut Mining Museum, a true "diamond in the rough" for local mineral hounds.

The boys and I enjoyed bouncing around back and forth between the attractions on a trip up to Litchfield County and Kent Falls just the other day.

You can't miss them. Just look for the old steam locomotive parked along the railroad tracks north of the Kent village, just to the west of Rt. 7, and a few miles south of Kent Falls State Park. Turn in, and after crossing the tracks, bear right to follow the road to the Machinery Museum. Make the first left to reach the Mining Museum.

Mining has been an important industry in Connecticut since European colonists first settled in the region, and the state was in many ways the place where commercial mining in the US began. The mining of materials such as traprock and commercial grade marble remains a large and important industry in the state today.

All around the outside of the Mining Museum are specimens of many of the state's most noted and collectible minerals. In the back of the building are a collection of iron buckets that once rode the rails of special railroads used to transport ores out of local mines. Inside is a map of current and former rock quarries throughout the state, a recreation of an underground mine, and outstanding displays of Connecticut minerals.

Built by a former New Milford teacher, John Pawlowski, the museum features cases filled with fine examples of local minerals. There are specimens of quartz from New Britain, Malachite from New Milford, Corundum & Sillimanite from Norwich and many, many more.

There is a wonderful display of minerals associated with Connecticut traprock, an igneous rock known as basalt that formed from lavas that flooded the Connecticut Valley nearly 200 million years ago. Here are specimens of my personal favorite, Prehnite, as well as Amethyst and Calcite.

Also not to be missed is a piece of Verde Antique green marble from a quarry in Orange, Connecticut, that began to be worked in 1811. Verde Antique marble from the quarry was used to make the fireplace mantles in the East Room of the White House. There is also a wonderful display of minerals that show remarkable color under special light.

Eco: Revitalizing the movement

The shock waves that followed the release of The Death of Environmentalism, a report on the state of the American environmental movement presented by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in October 2004, continue to reverberate.

The report argued that a new vision for conservation and environmental politics is urgently needed, stirring a pot that had been on the back burner for decades. At first, many in the environmental movement's establishment, such as the Sierra Club's Carl Pope, responded as if put on the defensive.

Since then, several of Connecticut's local grass roots organizations and educational institutions have shown their willingness to embrace the authors' call for change and have begun searching for a new vision for environmental education and outreach.

The New England Environmental Education Alliance, a group of environmental educators from Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, has planned its October 2005 convention, Raising our Net Impact: The Next Generation of Environmental Education, as a "face in the mirror" sort of forum on what's working and what's not.

Students at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Sciences in New Haven, along with the school's dean, Gus Speth, hosted a forum with the authors in May. A video of the event is now posted on the school's web site, Post-environmentalism: Beyond “I have a nightmare” politics. The video provides an excellent overview of the report and the ensuing debate, and an opportunity to get up to speed on the new ideas that promise to reshape the enviromental movement in the future.

Besides making the report available online, the web magazine, posts relevant articles and maintaints an online forum.

In my opinion, the critique Schellenberger and Nordhaus have offered promises to spark the most exciting period in the environmental movement since the late '60s, and perhaps its history. Think about getting involved.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Continental drifting: Vacation in Oregon

We did a bit of continental drifting ourselves last week when we flew cross country to Oregon for a long overdue vacation. I took the boys for almost daily visits to the tide pools at Otter Rock (a beach between Lincoln City and Newport, Oregon) and was struck by similarities between the geology of the area and that of the Connecticut Valley.

Both this area of the Oregon coast and the Connecticut Valley are comprised of sedimentary and igneous rocks. The sedimentary rocks along the Oregon coast are comparatively younger and more clay-like than Connecticut Valley sandstones. Igneous rocks such as the basalts found along the Oregon coast are also much younger, dating from the Tertiary Period, or approx. 15-20 million years ago. By contrast, the Connecticut Valley's sedimentary strata and igneous basalts are much older, dating from the early Jurassic Period, or as long ago as 200 million years ago.

Layers of sedimentary rock, or strata, as well as evidence of subsequent tilting, can be seen in the headlands surrounding Otter Rock. The sunlit spots inside the shadow at the center of the photo are from a large bowl, Devil's Punch Bowl, eroded out of the sediments at the southern end of the beach. The Punch Bowl floods at high tide, with waves crashing well up and even above the top of the headland. It can be entered from beach level and explored at low tide, which is quite exciting after you've seen it from the top, boiling with waves and pounded by the surf.

To the north of the Otter Rock area, the headlands are exposures of volcanic rock known as basalt, similar to the basalts found in the Connecticut Valley and its traprock ridges. The columns and blocks are quite dramatic and distinct, even more so that what you see in Connecticut, perhaps because of their younger age. In places large sections of rock can let go all at once, loosing great piles of enormous blocks to build up in piles along the sea.

The Pacific is also working to rapidly erode the sedimentary rocks, creating many depressions in rocks in the subtidal and tidal zones. Some, like the nearly cylindrical depression pictured above, take on remarkable shapes (perhaps the result of a former cast or an area of softer or less well cemented sediments being removed at a higher rate).

Where these depressions hold water long enough to support colonization, tide pools support wonderful communities of marine plants and animals. These communities can grow to fill tidal pools with anemones, urchins, barnacles, mussels, algae and plants. You find anemones, for instance, lining pools and cracks right up to where they usually hold water at low tide, but no further. The green anemones, purple urchins, ochre and sunflower sea stars and seaweeds are spectacular, and endlessly fascinating.

Just a bit further back in the tidal zone we found lots of what we call "sand crabs," or small marine animals known as amphipods that commonly inhabit sandy beaches near the subtidal zone. Amphipods are also common along the Connecticut shore and east coast of the US. The gulls found them as well, and the birds were quite adept at using their bills to dig the sand crabs out of their burrows, peck their heads off, and gobble these morsels down like museum patrons eating shrimp cocktail at the opening of a new exhibition. The boys and I were fascinated to find many shells still wiggling around, literally "like chickens with their heads cut off."

Pictured above are the footprints of one of the marauding gulls. Seen in the lower left hand corner is one of the headless sand crabs beside the hole the bird drilled to extract and eat it. The footprint at center looks very much like the Connecticut Valley dinosaur footprint Grallator, revealing similarities in foot designs shared only by extinct dinosaurs and their modern day survivors, birds.

Above is a photo of sand crab or amphipod tracks. The round, "stirred" impression to the left is a place where the amphibod burrowed into the sand and buried itself. It's amazing how fast they can wriggle through wet sand!

Oregon beaches are typically crossed at least in one place by rivers draining out of the Coast Range mountains, and that spread out where they reach the sand to form wide, shallow streams to the ocean. These streams transport small grained sediments (on a much smaller scale) in a manner similar to the way rivers deposited sediments in large scale alluvial fans such as those found in the Connecticut Valley.