Unique Fish of the Yucatan Peninsula

July 23, 2021

Underground rivers flow through the limestone bedrock underneath the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. When a river enters a cavern it flows in a circular pattern, eroding the walls into a circular shape. The roofs of these caverns eventually collapse, creating a small bucket-shaped lake known locally as a cenote. There are almost 20,000 cenotes on the Yucatan peninsula, and they host many unique fish species found nowhere else on earth. A recent survey of 4 cenotes captured 1,350 fish including 11 species from 5 families. The cenotes studied were small and deep–less than 2 acres wide but over 30 feet deep.

The most common species found in this study were mosquito fish from the Poeciliid family. Cichilids were also common, most notably a beautiful fish, the yellow jacket cichlid. This fish is a popular game fish, reportedly with a good flavor. The yellow jacket cichlid has an interesting habit–it feigns death and preys on smaller fish that attempt to scavenge it. Colorful tetras, popular aquarium fish, live in cenotes, and they are preyed upon by the pale catfish, the top predatory fish in the studied cenotes. Scientists found blind swamp eels in these surveyed cenotes. Blind swamp eels are found throughout underground cave systems in the region and have no need for sight. Although some cenotes are connected to the ocean through underground passages, scientists found little marine influence on them. Instead, zooplankton and insect abundance along with phosphorus concentrations have a greater influence on fish populations.

View from inside a cenote. There are almost 20,000 of these geological features on the Yucatan Peninsula and they host fish species found nowhere else in the world. Photo from Thrillist.com.
Yellow Jacket Cichlid. A beautiful fish that is popular for catching and eating.
Blind swamp eel.
Pale catfish.

The Yucatan Peninsula was also home to an unique mammalian fauna during the late Pleistocene. Cenotes inundated by sea level rise preserved the remains of many species, including a species of giant ground sloth and a species of peccary found nowhere else. 4 complete human skeletons dating to the late Pleistocene were discovered in a cenote that is now below sea level. (See: yucatan peninsula | Search Results | GeorgiaBeforePeople (wordpress.com) )

Reference:

Camargen-Guerra, T; L.K. Escalera Vazquera, L. Zambrano

“Fish Community Structure Dynamics in Cenotes of the Biosphere Reserve of Sian Kaan, Yucatan Peninsula”

Revista Mexicana de Biodiversidae

Horn Size Comparison Between Bubalus arnee and Bison latifrons

July 16, 2021

Some species of extant megafauna demonstrate how impressive similar extinct species were. Asian water buffalo (Bubalus arnee) weigh up to 2600 pounds, and their horn span averages 3 feet long. The individual in the below photo has an horn span of about double the size of the average. The largest known horn span of an Asian water buffalo was from a specimen shot in 1955–it had an astounding horn span of 13 feet 10 inches. The extinct long-horned bison (Bison latfrons) had horn spans up to 7 feet long, but it seems likely the largest individuals had horn spans even longer than the record specimen of Asian water buffalo shot during 1955. Long-horned bison are estimated to have reached weights between 2700-4400 pounds–significantly heavier than Asian water buffalo–and if these estimates are accurate, some individuals probably had horn spans exceeding 14 feet long.

Asian water buffalo (Bubalus arnee). Their horn span averages 3 feet, but this animal has an horn span that is close to twice that long. I found this photo on Twitter. I don’t know who took it.
I took this photo of a Bison latifrons specimen at the Georgia College Museum in Milledgeville, Georgia. This specimen was found near Brunswick, Georgia and dates to 24,000 years ago. This species evolved into Bison antiquus during the Last Glacial Maximum. B. antiquus evolved into modern Bison (B. bison) after the end of the last Ice Age.

The Asian water buffalo has been classified as endangered since 1986. There are only 4000 left. They are found in small herds in 8 protected areas in India, 1 in Nepal, 1 in Bhutan, 1 in Thailand, and 1 in Cambodia. They are thought by many to be the ancestors of domesticated water buffalo, an animal used for pulling plows before the era of mechanization. Asian water buffalo prefer to live in swamps and marshes, and their hooves are wide and don’t sink in muddy ground, giving them superior performance in farm labor compared to a plain old ox. They also produce a richer milk than cows, and cheese-makers use their milk to make Mozzarella. Domesticated water buffalo have escaped from captivity in Australia, parts of Asia, Argentina, and Bolivia where they thrive on grass, sedges, fruit, bark, and twigs in wetlands. A species of European water buffalo became extinct about 10,000 years ago.

The ancestor of the long-horned bison crossed the Bering Land Bridge and colonized North America a little less than 300,000 years ago, marking the beginning of the Rancholabrean Land Mammal Age. They inhabited open woodland and prairie. Their long horns were a defense against big cats such as saber-tooths, giant lions, and jaguars (just like water buffalos use their horns to fend off tigers and lions). During the Last Glacial Maximum ((~21,000 years BP-~15,000 years BP) long-horned bison evolved into a smaller animal with shorter horns known as B. antiquus. This was likely in response to reduced quality of food and water sources. Following the arrival of man in North America, B. antiquus evolved into the even smaller but more mobile and migratory modern bison (B. bison). Instead of long horns and large bodies to battle big cats, bison needed longer legs, so they could run away from wolf packs and man.

Arthritic Glyptodonts

July 9, 2021

I am lucky so far. I am 59 years old and don’t feel arthritic yet, but my father was about my age when he first suffered from arthritis. The incurable disease forced him to give up playing tennis because his hand hurt too much when he tried to return a shot. About 50 million adults and 300,000 children suffer from arthritis. There are over 100 types of arthritis. The 4 most common include degenerative, infectious, inflammatory, and metabolic. Degenerative arthritis is caused by cartilage wearing away so that 2 different bones rub against each other at the joint. Bacteria cause infectious arthritis, and inflammatory arthritis is the result of the immune system turning against itself following an infection. Metabolic arthritis is caused by uric acid build up. This is the kind my dad had, and he also used to suffer terrible attacks of gout–a related condition.

Man isn’t the only animal that suffers from arthritis. Other primates, elephants, bears, and extinct ground sloths are known to be susceptible to the disease. Paleontologists examining bones of extinct glyptodonts found evidence of arthritic joints. Glyptodonts are related to armadillos. A recent genetic study found their closest living relative was the tiny pink fairy armadillo–an ironic discovery because fairy armadillos are so small, and glyptodonts weighed several tons. However, glyptodonts diverged from armadillos about 35 million years ago. The main difference between armadillos and glyptodonts is the shell. Armadillo shells in most species are flexible, and they can curl up in a ball when threatened. Glyptodonts had stiff turtle-like shells. The arthritic glyptodont bones were found in a limestone cave near Lajeda de Ecole, Brazil. Glyptodonts ranged throughout South America and into the southern parts of North America including coastal Georgia. The arthritic glyptodont specimen found in Brazil suffered from calcium pyrophosphate disease, a complication of spondyloarthropy. This disease is known as false gout because it is similar to gout, though the physiological cause differs. The specimen’s arthritis was in its arm and leg joints.

3 different species of glyptodonts compared to an average-sized man. I found this image on google. I don’t know who the original creator was.
Glyptodont joints with arthritis. Image from the below referenced paper.

Arthritic glyptodonts may have been more vulnerable to predators. When attacked, glyptodonts quickly turned around and swung their tails which in some species were clubbed. A glyptodont slowed by arthritis may have been too sluggish to swing their tail in time. Scientists found 1 specimen of arthritic glyptodont with gnaw marks from an extinct dog known as Protocyon trogylodytes. This predator may have killed the aged glyptodont or perhaps it scavenged an animal that died of old age.

References:

Aurauj-Junior, H. ; et. al.

“Overlapping Paleoinchnology, Paleoecology, and Taphonomy: Analysis of Tooth Traces in Late Pleistocene-Early Holocene Megafaunal Assemblage of Brazil and Description of New Ichnology in Hard Substrate”

Paleogeography, Paleoclimatology, and Paleoecology 468 2017

Barbosa, F. ; et. al.

“Arthritis in a Glyptodont (Mammalia, Xenartha, Cintulata)”

Plos One Feb 2014

Fossorial Spiders in Georgia

July 2, 2021

2 different groups of spiders live underground in Georgia soils: trapdoor spiders and wolf spiders. Trapdoor spiders belong to the Myglamorph order which also includes tarantulas, funnel web spiders, and purse web spiders. (The latter make tube shaped webs on tree trunks.) In Georgia there are 3 families of trapdoor spiders including the Ctenizidae (ravine trapdoor spiders), the Antrodiactidae (folding door spiders), and the Eucterizidae (wafer lid spiders). Spiders in the Ummidia genus belong to the Ctenizidae family, and as their name would suggest, their preferred habitat is moist ravines located next to rivers. However, most species of trapdoor spiders seem to prefer this type of environment. 1 recent study searched for trapdoor spiders in moist ravines along the Altamaha, Savannah, and Satilla Rivers in Georgia, and the spider hunters found 51 specimens including 3 species. Along with 1 species of ravine trapdoor spider, they also found wafer lid and folding door spiders.

All trapdoor spiders construct underground burrows where they wait for prey to cross across the door. When the spider senses an insect on its door, it will seize the unfortunate prey with fangs and pull it inside the burrow where the spider feeds upon it. The families differ in how their doors are constructed. Ummidia spiders use their abdomen covered in webbing as a door. Folding door spiders pull the rims of their burrows closed, unfolding it in time to catch an insect. Wafer lid spiders have a thinly-webbed door. Incredibly, the wafer lid spider, Myrmekiaphilia, constructs its burrows inside or alongside ant nests. Some species of wasps hunt trapdoor spiders. The arachnids have a defense–they desperately attempt to hold the door shut while the wasp tries to pull it open. Somehow, they are able to tell the difference between prey and a wasp.

There are at least 8-10 known species of trapdoor spiders in Georgia. Auburn University professor, Jason Bond, has discovered 37 species of trapdoor spiders in North America, and there likely are more than 10 species living in Georgia with many undiscovered. He’s named newly discovered spiders after celebrities including Barack Obama, Tobey Maguire, Angelina Jolie, and Stephen Colbert.

The moist mesophytic slopes where trapdoor spiders occur are particularly rich habitats for all wildlife. William Bartram described walking through a “magnificent” slope forest in his Travels. (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/william-bartrams-magnificent-forest/ ). A forest such as Bartram described no longer exists in Georgia, but even logged over 2nd growth forests are richer on these sites because they are wetter and cooler than the surrounding habitats. During Ice Ages when much of the surrounding environment was dry scrub, these sites likely provided refuge for hardwood forests and hence relic habitat for trapdoor spiders.

This photo angle is not good enough to identify what species of spider this is in my rain gauge, but I can tell it is not a trapdoor spider as I wrongly assumed at first. I made this false assumption because I thought a trapdoor spider was using an existing structure that imitated its burrow, but that is not the case.
Photo of a ravine trap door spider in the Ummidia genus. Photo from spiderid.com.
Wolf spider from the Tigerosa genus. This is the kind of spiders I see when I dig in my garden. Photo from spiderid.com.

I often come across spiders when I dig in my garden. Until I started researching information for this blog article, I wrongly assumed they were trapdoor spiders. Instead, I learned these are wolf spiders, probably belonging to the Tigrosa genus (named for the striped appearance). Wolf spiders are in the Lycosidae family, and they also construct burrows underground. Unlike trapdoor spiders, they are not sedentary predators. They hide from predatory birds in their burrows during the day, but they leave their burrows at night and actively hunt insects. They probably attack crickets, homing in on their noisy chirping. A wolf spider’s burrow can be as deep as 3 feet, keeping them safe from inclement weather and birds, but moles can find them. Female wolf spiders carry their eggs and young on their backs when they hunt at night. They are far more common than trapdoor spiders, and worldwide there might be as many as 2000 species.

Reference:

Stevenson, D.; and R. Godwin

“Notable Myglamorph Spiders (Aranae: Myglamorphae) Records for the Coastal Plain of Georgia”

Southeastern Naturalist 19 2020

Megalake Paratethys

June 25, 2021

The largest lake in earth’s history existed 11 million years ago and stretched across southern Europe and Asia. Its origins go back over 100 million years ago when the supercontinent of Gondwanaland split apart. The ocean that formed between the drifting continents is known as the Tethys Ocean. During the middle of the Miocene the Alps Mountain chain uplifted, cutting the Tethys Ocean into 2 halves. The southern half became the Mediterranean Sea, and the upper half turned into a massive freshwater lake known as Megalake Paratethys. This body of water existed for 5 million years, but further mountain uplift and climate change caused it to gradually recede. The freshwater lake shrank into an isolated salt lake and many individual lakes that fluctuated between salt and fresh. Today, the Black, Caspian, and Aral Seas are all that remains of Megalake Paratethys.

Map of Megalake Paratethys. Image from the below referenced sciencedailynews.com article.
Unique endemic whales lived in Megalake Paratethys. Image also from the below sciencedailynews.com article.

Megalake Paratethys hosted many endemic species found nowhere else. Whales and dolphins isolated from other ocean populations evolved into dwarf species, including the 9 foot long Cetatherium riabini. The grasslands that replaced the receding lake spawned the evolution of ancestors of modern day antelope, sheep, and goats.

References:

Paleoj, D. ; et al

“Late Marine Megalake Regression in Eurasia”

Scientific Reports 11 #11471 2021

Perkins, S.

“The Rise and Fall of the Earth’s Largest Lake”

http://www.sciencedailynews.org June 4, 2021

Pleistocene Coots (Fulica americana)

June 17, 2021

Coots are 1 of the most common aquatic birds across North America and probably have been for millions of years. They are so abundant I didn’t have to rip off any pictures of them from google for this week’s blog entry. Instead, I searched through my own photos and found 1 I took of coots in Gainesville, Florida 2 years ago. Fossil remains of coots dating to the Pleistocene and/or Pliocene have been excavated from sites in Florida, Tennessee, Colorado, Utah, California, Oregon, New Mexico, Mexico, and the Bahamas. Coots prefer to congregate in flocks in the middle of a pond or lake that is surrounded by marshy vegetation. This type of habitat keeps them safe from land predators. Coots are usually found in freshwater. Female coots lay 1 egg a day for 10 days during nesting season for a clutch of 10. Their rate of reproduction along with their habitat preference allows them to thrive wherever wetlands are available. They mate for life and males spend a long time courting, but copulation lasts just 2 seconds.

Flock of coots at a bird sanctuary in Gainesville, Florida. I took this photo 2 years ago.

Coots are in the Gruiformes order which includes cranes, limpkins, and rails. Though they often hang out with ducks, they are not closely related to them. Their closest relatives are rails and gallinules–all members of the Raillidae family. They feed upon algae, pondweeds, grass, bulbs, roots, insects, snails, and fish. They are slow clumsy flyers and often fall prey to eagles, great horned owls, alligators, and bobcats. 80% of some bald eagle diets are made up of coots. To start flying from water, they have to run across the surface for some time.

Duck hunters frequently bag lots of coots because they are easier to shoot than ducks. According to the late George Leonard Herter, author of The Bull Cook and Authentic Recipes and Practices, coot meat tastes like a mouthful of mud. He noted the only way he could make the flesh palatable was to grind it up and put it in chili. Cajuns reportedly know how to make coot taste good, and they use it in a dish called gumbo de pouldeau. They remove every bit of fat from the meat, then soak it in water or milk overnight. The birds can then be used as an ingredient in gumbo. I’ve also seen videos on youtube of hunters removing the fat and soaking the meat in water. After this preparation they fry the meat and say it tastes like beef steak.

Oil Trough, Arkansas

June 10, 2021

Bear lard was the most common kind of cooking fat sold and used in New Orleans from its founding until the middle of the 19th century when bears became scarce. A village in northeastern Arkansas bares the name Oil Trough because this is where pioneer French hunters used to render bear lard into cooking oil before sending it down the river in wooden troughs to New Orleans. Oil Trough was located in an area where there was a dense population of black bears. The habitats were ideal for maintaining an unusually large population of bears. Oil Trough sits along the rich bottomlands of the White River. Before lumber companies discovered it, the bottomlands supported huge oaks and hickories that grew to 9 feet in diameter. Most notable were sassafras trees. Normally, this species is a small shrub, but here it grew to 5 feet in diameter. Pawpaw trees produced so much fruit that even the wild hogs got tired of eating them. These bottomlands were not like the dense 2nd growth forests of today. Instead, the grand centuries-old trees were widely spaced with grass, grape vines, and berry bushes growing between the giant trees. Indians often set fire to the woods, and the thermal pruning resulted in an open parkland type of environment where all kinds of animals and plants flourished. Bears fattened up on the acorns, fruits, and grass. The bears also found refuge in the dense bamboo canebrakes that covered many square miles up and down the White River bottomlands. Bears could hide from hunters in these thickets. Bears also found ideal denning sites in the rock shelters and caves of the cliffs alongside the White River.

Location of Oil Trough, Arkansas.

The white cliffs along the White River provide rock shelters and caves for bears to den in. The water was more clear than in the Mississippi River, one of its outlets.

The many square miles of canebrakes alongside the White River also provided cover for bears.

Bears were so abundant near Oil Trough, Arkansas that bear lard from this area was the main source of cooking fat for New Orleans until well into the 19th century.

Pioneers preferred the cooking qualities of bear fat. John Lawson, author of a New Voyage to the Carolinas, the first American natural history book, wrote bear fat was preferred over all other oils when frying fish. One can find videos on youtube of bear hunters frying catfish in bear grease.

References:

Gerstacker, Fredrich

Wild Sports: Rambling and Hunting Trips Through the U.S. of North America

Stackpole Books 2004

Also see the Encyclopedia of Arkansas available online

Causes of Death Among African-Americans: A Rational Review

June 3, 2021

I’m in favor of everything in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, except for naming the bill after George Floyd. This act, if it becomes law, will strengthen the Justice Department’s tools for investigating police departments, establish a federal registry for bad cops, restrict transfer of military equipment to police, prohibit no knock warrants, and allow police to be sued when they are negligent in an innocent person’s death. African-Americans are still treated unequally by law enforcement, and I am all in favor of ending this discrimination. However, I am against naming the bill after a convicted armed robber. Floyd spent time in prison for sticking a gun in the belly of a pregnant woman. Yet, this piece of shit was given a state hero funeral, and he is about to be posthumously honored by having a bill named after him. I think this is obscene. Sure, Chauvin deserves the long sentence he received for murdering Floyd, but being the victim of a sadistic cop does not make someone a hero. I will never run for office, so I can say something honest that politicians (especially Democrats) can not say–the world is a better place without George Floyd in it (and with Chauvin locked up).

Whenever there is a publicized incident of a cop killing an African-American, everybody breaks into 2 camps–African-American activists who are certain the killing was unjustified, and the police who think they should be allowed to commit police brutality with impunity. The truth is more complicated. Sometimes the police are justified because the suspect endangered their lives or the lives of innocent civilians, and sometimes the police are not justified and become criminals themselves when they kill innocent people. I look at these incidents on a case-by-case basis and don’t always side with 1 camp or the other.

Because these cases get so much publicity, many African-Americans express great fear when they get pulled over by the police. In fact, I’ve heard some state they become “paralyzed with fear” when they encounter a police officer. I’ve heard some claim deaths by police in the U.S. amount to genocide. Chelsea Handler, a white celebrity talk show host, even suggested black people shouldn’t ever cooperate with police, thereby (inadvertently, I’m sure) urging them to commit suicide by cop. I am writing this blog article today to counter this hysteria by showing that the chances of being killed by police are tiny compared to other causes of death.

There are approximately 42 million African-Americans living in the U.S. today. Between the years 2017-2020 an average of 227 black people were killed by the police annually. During this same time period an average of 420 white people were killed by police. But because black people make up a smaller percentage of the population, they suffer a greater chance of being killed. According to a University of Michigan study, black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men. However, this is a small enough number that I would consider it rare. Most were likely resisting arrest in some way. This same study found 1 in every 1000 black men and about 1 in every 2500 white men will die at the hands of the police in their lifetimes but this percentage is surely much smaller for detained people who were not resisting arrest.

For black men between the ages of 20-35 death through the use of police force ranks lower than death from heart attacks. Think about how rare it is for a young man to die of an heart attack, yet there is a greater chance of death from that than from being killed by the police.

A University of Michigan study determined African-American men between the ages of 20-35 are over 2 times more likely to be killed by police than white men that age. Nevertheless, deaths from police brutality rank 6th…behind heart attacks. Chart from the University of Michigan study.

Chart showing deaths at the hands of police by race from 2017-2021. From the Statista Research Department.

Top 10 causes of death for African-American men. Deaths at the hands of the police does not rank in the top 10. Raising public awareness of the importance of an healthy lifestyle would save far more lives than police reform. Chart from the CDC.

Now, let’s compare the risk of death from other causes compared to deaths through the use of police force. On average 73,000 African-Americans die from cancer every year, so black people are 321 times more likely to die of this than from police brutality. On average 86,520 black people die from hypertension yearly, making them 381 times more likely to die from this than police brutality. I’m all for reforming the police, but putting more emphasis on living an healthy lifestyle would save far more lives than police reform.

An average of 4656 black people are killed in car accidents yearly (26 times the risk of death from cops), and 2100 black people on average commit suicide yearly (7.9 times the risk of death from cops). More than 1 study estimates 200,000 people per year die from medical malpractice. This is likely a vast underestimate. Based on this figure, about 30,000 black people die each year in this country due to medical mistakes. So black people should be 132 times more afraid of doctors than the police.

When I first conceived of this blog topic, I wanted to show that the chances of being killed by police were comparable to being struck by lightning. However, based on National Weather Service statistics, only an average of 5 black people are killed by lightning each year. (This was an extrapolation as was the malpractice estimate–neither statistic is broken down by race). So risk of death from use of police force is higher than risk of death from a lightning strike.

References:

Crosby, A.; S. Molock

“Suicidal Behaviors in the African-American Community”

Journal of Black Psychology 12 (3) 2006

Anderson, J.; K. Abrahamson

“Your Health Care May Kill You”

Study Health Technology Information 234 2017

Recent Experiments in the Kitchen–Custard Pie and Making a Black Roux

May 28, 2021

I had extra milk the other day, and I decided to make a custard pie. I searched the internet to find a recipe. The top 2 results used the same recipe that called for 2 and 1/2 cups of milk. I am an experienced cook, so I should have known better, but a 9 inch pie pan will not hold that much liquid, let alone the 4 eggs and sugar. The filling spilled over the top, and I felt annoyed. I cleaned up the mess and put the pie with the remainder of the filling in the oven. Again, I should have known better, but I followed the recipe instructions and blitzed the pie at 400 degrees for 40 minutes. The result was edible but not up to my usual standards. I remembered a reliable, oft-used buttermilk pie recipe, and a few days later tried again, substituting milk for buttermilk, and the result was much better. Buttermilk pie is a type of custard pie as are pumpkin pie, sweet potato pie, and pecan pie; any pie using eggs is a custard pie. The following recipe for custard pie is better than the top recipes found in a google search. I think they are written by people who don’t really even cook.

First, make a pat-in-the-pan pie crust from scratch. The leading recipes claim store bought pie crust is adequate, but it is not. Take 1 cup of cake flour and 1/3rd cup of bread flour and mix with a pinch of salt, 1/3rd a cup of vegetable oil, and a little cold water to make a pie dough. Put the dough into a 9 inch pie pan and pat it into a crust.

Next, make the filling. Mix 1 melted stick of butter with 1 cup of sugar, 3 eggs, 1 cup of milk, 1 tablespoon of flour, and cinnamon and nutmeg to taste. Put the filling in the pie crust and bake gently in a 300 degree oven for 1 hour. The spices float to the top. The top recipes call for pre-baking the pie crust, but this is an unnecessary step. The premise for this step is the prevention of a soggy crust. What nonsense? Pour water on a baked crust and an unbaked pie crust and both will get soggy.

My custard pie made the right way, not the way the leading search results on google suggest.

The standard custard pie will never replace a family favorite of ours–the Cajun tart ala bouillie. This custard pie has a sweetened cookie dough crust and is best served warm.

For the crust mix 3/4 cup of lard or Crisco, 1 and 1/2 cups of sugar, 1/2 cup of buttermilk, 3 and 1/2 cups of cake flour, 1 teaspoon of baking powder, and nutmeg. This batter will by very sticky, and it is messy to work with. Line a pie pan with about half of this mixture.

Next, make the filling. Scald 2 cups of milk while mixing 2/3rds cup of sugar, 6 tablespoons of flour, 2 eggs, and 2 cups of milk. Slowly pour this mixture into the scalding milk. It’s best to temper this mixture by adding some of the scalded milk to it before pouring it into the scalding milk. This prevents the eggs from scrambling. When the custard is thick add 2 teaspoons of vanilla to it and put it into the pie crust. Top the pie with the rest of the crust. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes.

Tarte ala bouille. Made with a sweetened cookie dough crust, this is much better than a traditional custard pie.

I was reviewing my copy of the late Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen recently and came across something I hadn’t noticed before. There are photos of different roux stages in this book, and I had never paid attention to the picture of the black stage of a roux. Moreover, I was a little surprised to learn Prudhomme considered this the best stage of roux to make a proper gumbo. He believed a light brown roux was right for dark meats, a dark brown roux was right for white meats, , but a good gumbo required a black roux. Well, the weather is currently too warm for gumbo. Instead, I decided to experiment with making a black roux to flavor the gravy for shrimp and grits.

I melted 1/2 cup of lard over very high heat and added half a cup of flour. I stirred constantly until the roux almost turned black. (I lost my nerve at the last minute.) I believe the result bordered between a dark brown roux and a black roux. I added 2 finely chopped onions to the roux and turned the heat down. I sauteed the onions until they were tender, then added 1 pound of shrimp. I seasoned the shrimp with salt and would have added red and black pepper, but my wife can’t eat spicy food. When the shrimp turned pink I added 2 cups of chicken broth and cooked until it came to a boil. Flour loses its thickening power the darker a roux gets.

I liked the flavor. It was slightly bitter, but a pleasant bitter, like coffee, chocolate, or beer. I don’t think I burned it. However, in the future, I’m going to stick with a dark brown roux for my gumbos. I feel more comfortable with them.

Shrimp and grits. The gravy was made with an (almost) black roux.

Deer Herbivory Alters Plant and Bird Species Composition

May 20, 2021

Cades Cove, located within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is 1 of my favorite places in the world. I visited Cades Cove during June of 2017 and saw lots of deer, a few black bears, a turkey, and an herd of tame horses. It’s 1 of the best places to see wildlife east of the Mississippi. Cades Cove is known for its high density of white-tailed deer and is 1 of many areas where deer herbivory and its effect on plant species diversity and abundance has been studied. High density deer populations reduce tree regeneration and alter plant species composition and forest successional patterns. Areas where deer are abundant can also see a shift in natural communities to an alternate state, while plant species diversity becomes reduced, influencing other species of wildlife. Results of studies on the interaction between deer and plant community vary, depending upon geographical location. Some species thrive or can at least survive in high density deer locations, while these same species in a different geographical location my suffer. I’ll review some of these studies below.

Plant growth inside and outside a deer exclosure in Wisconsin.

Cades Cove, located within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is an area considered to have an high density of deer.
Deer in Cades Cover are not hunted, and they have little fear of people.
Look at how close these stupid asses got to this bear in Cades Cove. That bear could be mauling them in about 2 seconds.

Scientists studying the effect of deer herbivory on plant species composition use exclosures, or in other words they construct deer proof fences on certain plots to prevent deer from feeding on the plants inside the fence. They then compare plant composition and abundance inside and outside the fence. A study at the Clemson Experimental Forest found that after 2 years the difference between inside and outside exclosures was negligible. The differences aren’t noticeable until 5-20 years after the exclosure is constructed. At Callaway Gardens near Columbus, Georgia deer exclosures were in use for 20 years. Here, there were significant differences between the inside and outside of the enclosures. Inside the exclosures strawberry bush (Eunonymous americanus not to be confused with the strawberry people eat–Fragaria virginianus) and greenbriar, 2 favorite deer foods, grew taller and more dense than outside the exclosure. There was also an increase in red maple, black cherry, white oak, and sassafras inside the exclosure. Outside the exclosures there was an increase in sweetgum, wax myrtle, hop hornbeam, shining sumac, water oak, and willow oak. Black cherry benefitted from the absence of deer at this location, but at a site in northwest Pennsylvania, this species was found to be resistant to deer browsing.

Violet responds differently to deer herbivory at different locations as well. Scientists studying deer herbivory on the upper peninsula of Michigan found deer eradicated violets, but at Cades Code, though it is often eaten by deer, violet still regenerates. The scientists in Michigan identified “winners” and “losers” among plants in high density deer sites. “Winners included wind pollinated sedges and grasses in the Poa genus, along with hazelnut, blueberry, wood anemone, and wood fern. “Losers” in addition to violets were forbs such as big leaf aster, blue beard lily, strawberry, and thimbleberry. In some areas of Wisconsin deer can reduce tree sapling abundance by 90%, and they can eliminate white cedar and red oak. Oddly enough, yellow birch trees require moderate deer population densities. This species didn’t regenerate if deer populations were too low or too high.

The effects of deer herbivory were studied in a forest located in northwest Pennsylvania. The forest consisted of sugar maple, striped maple, black cherry, fire cherry, beech, and sweet birch. Tree regeneration failed in 25%-40% of clear cut plots. Species of trees that were browse resistant included beech, black cherry, striped maple, ash, and hackberry. A number of common bird species were absent from Pennsylvania forests with high deer population densities. This list includes wood peewees, cerulean warblers, yellow-billed cuckoos, and indigo buntings.

Ironically, heavy deer populations can accelerate forest successional patterns. By feeding upon pioneer species of plants, deer reduce competition for space with species that normally don’t dominate until later stages of forest succession.

References:

Thrift, J.

“Effects of White-Tailed Deer Herbivory on Forest Plant Communities”

Clemson University Thesis 2007

Wiegmann, S.; and D. Waller

“Fifty Years of Change in Northern Upland Forest Understory. Identity and Traits of “Winner” and “Loser Plant Species”

Biological Conservation 129 2006