Friday, May 05, 2006

Back To The Devonian Seas

The boys and I had a chance to hunt for fossils in what 400 million years ago were mud flats beneath a shallow Devonian sea that have since become known as the Catskill Delta, courtesy of Fairfield Woods School teacher Vinny Carbone and University of Bridgeport geologist Dr. John Nicholas.

Vinny is well known to Fairfield students and parents for his love of the natural world, from the stars in the night sky, to local minerals, to the marine fossils of New York State. His passion translates into a magical ability to engage his students and to fill school buses with kids and parents for one of his now legendary field trips. Vinny and Dr. Nicholas, better known as Doc Rock, have been leading trips to this site in the Catskills area for years now, carrying on a tradition Doc Rock says began in the 1950s, when he was a student at NYU, and before modern geological concepts about continental drift, seafloor spreading and plate tectonics were fully accepted.

Doc Rock (above) pointed out a relatively narrow band of shale in a hillside with many different stripes of sedimentary layers and we quickly went to it. Clad in work gloves and safety goggles, the group of roughly 50 kids and parents were rewarded with many fine fossils of marine animals that existed not long after life began its great expansion in the oceans of the deep past. (Photo by Vinny Carbone.)

There were all sorts of clam-like shelled brachiopods (below), horned corals, and crinoids. Once we found a good spot the boys and I pulled out fossil after fossil in a sort of gold rush frenzy. (Photo by Vinny Carbone.)

A separate horn coral fossil shown to the right of one of the blocks of fossils we found (below). The boys decided to donate another particularly fine specimen of horn coral to a seventh grader named Aaron who had yet to find one, and had earlier contributed several of his best brachipods to our buckets.

A great day, made memorable by the experience of unearthing the remains of animals from a sea that disappeared hundreds of millions of years ago, yet still appear to be fresh from the mud.

Thanks Vinny and Doc Rock!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Search For The Magic Bullet (7th in a series): Where The Wild Things Are

It was amazing to witness. Connecticut's leading experts on all things wild taking turns to report on the status of the state's wildlife--and what could be our last chance to preserve nature pushed to the brink.

Some 250 people, including wildlife biologists, government agencies, environmental groups, teachers, students and the public, came to UCONN Storrs yesterday for the First Annual CT Wildlife Conservation Conference. The day capped a multi-year team effort to answer a challenge from the US Congress to assemble our knowledge of the state's wild species, population trends and threats, research needs and tools and implement a new conservation plan that addresses urgent conservation needs.

For anyone with even a passing interest in wild things, the knowledge team members shared was both inspiring and stunning. Together, they told a story of the state's remarkable natural diversity with a passion that was often starkly revealing. Many habitats that have for centuries enriched our lives, and species that have long symbolized the best of wild Connecticut, now teeter on the brink of extirpation from the state, if not extinction from the earth.

On the dais were a team of biologists and conservationists who worked to prepare Connecticut's Wildlife Conservation Strategy. From left, Tom Savoy, CT DEP, spoke about marine fisheries; Chris Elphick, UConn, landbirds; Milan Bull, CT Audubon, waterbirds; David Wagner, UConn, invertebrates; CT State Environmental Conservation Police Officer; Bill Hyatt, CT DEP, inland fisheries; Jenny Dickson, CT DEP, bats and small mammals; Julie Victoria, CT DEP, freshwater mussels; Steve Broderick, UConn, community outreach; Hank Gruner, Science Center of CT, reptiles & amphibians; Chet Arnold, UConn/CLEAR, land use education and research. Not pictured: Paul Rego, CT DEP, large mammals; Nancy Murray, CT DEP, natural diversity database; Karen Terwilliger, challenges & opportunities.

Current Trends

Chris Elphick noted that one in three of Connecticut's landbird species for which data is available have declined over the past 35 years. Once familiar birds such as the Wood Thrush, Baltimore Oriole, Scarlet Tanager and Woodcock are a few that should now be given top priority in conservation efforts. Milan Bull spoke about how waterbirds such as loons, grebes, ducks, rails, herons, bitterns--key indicators of wetland health--are also of greatest conservation need.

Jenny Dickson described how bats are showing dramatic population drops, with seven of the eight local species in need of conservation. Hank Gruner spoke powerfully about the diversity of Connecticut reptile and amphibian species, the genetic diversity represented by several salamander species and hybrid salamanders, and the unique challenges presented by the conservation needs of reptiles such as bog turtles, wood turtles and timber rattlesnakes. Nearly half of the state's amphibian species show evidence of population declines, while more than half of native reptiles are of conservation concern.

David Wagner made an impassioned plea that invertebrates be given greater recognition by talking about the plight of tiger beetles at the ends of successional habitat continuums in Connecticut. He spoke about how tiger beetles have occupied the state's sand plains since the Holocene, a time at the end of the last Ice Age when Glacial Lake Hitchcock drained and left areas such as Windsor with wind-driven sand dunes 40-50 feet tall. Today, some species of tiger beetle cling tenously to existence in a few populations as small as a few hundred individuals. Wagner noted that glacial sand plain ecosystems have evolved into highly unique systems, devoid of plants, where invertebrates wage fierce struggles to survive, but are now among the state's most endangered habitats.

Wagner gave efforts to conserve butterflies a "D," noting that 25% of local species are now imperiled or gone altogether. As for the decline of honeybees, a "keystone taxa" for pollination services, the situation is critical given that many natural communities, as well as farmers, are dependent on bees for pollination of wild plants and domestic crops. Wild bee populations disappeared decades ago and pollination is now dependent on domestic hives and beekeepers.

Mobilizing Change

Following the presentations, Karen Terwilliger, who consulted with the team and the state on the development of the plan, led a discussion of key issues. "The greatest threats include habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and habitat degradation," said Terwilliger, with the aggressive pace of development in the state over the past several decades a culprit in each. "I also heard from practically everyone that there is currently not enough information available about conservation needs, and that we need to look for commonalities as we seek to gather more."

New approaches must be based around landscape-scale planning, such as the Biodiversity Mapping Project that the Farmington River Watershed Association has undertaken on behalf of its communities, based on research by biologists such as Michael Klemens and Hank Gruner. The project is featured in the book, "Nature-Friendly Communities, Island Press, 2005.

Steve Broderick suggested that putting such information about key conservation areas in the hands of local conservation commissions is essential to any plan to protect larger scale wildlife corridors. "They are among the least appreciated and under supported groups in the state," said Broderick. "We need to do more for them than print brochures. They need our ongoing support. We need to be there with them, in the meetings, when important decisions are made."

Chris Elphick spoke about the utility of tools such as GIS satellite images and modelling, methods which require fewer data points to make projections about land use and habitat changes, species distribution and population trends. Together with the progress the CLEAR project is making in using satellite images to track land use and land cover changes to inform decision making, GIS modelling could be invaluable to addressing informational needs.

Elphick also made a plea for greater cooperation between groups. "Coordination is critical," said Elphick. "There may be many agendas, but we all share one goal."

A Call To Action

"The time for us to act is short," Jack Barclay, Director of The Wildlife Conservation Research Center at UConn pointed out in his remarks, "ten years or less. We must make a commitment to implement a cohesive strategy to preserve ecosystems and all things wild.

"Can we achieve the levels of understanding and success of the environmental heroes of the previous century, such as Teddy Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold and Gifford Pinchot? I call upon each one of you to participate. We must listen, learn, care, take action and speak out. All voices are essential. We must be heard on all levels. The public needs to hear from us. The legislature needs to hear from us. We must give them the details and tell them with passion and meaning."