Archive for February, 2017

Fort Pulaski National Monument Near Savannah, Georgia

February 24, 2017

Casimir Pulaski saved George Washington’s life during the Battle of Brandywine.  The Americans were losing this battle against the British when Pulaski, an experienced cavalry officer, discovered the British were attempting to cut off retreat and capture Washington’s entire army and command.  Pulaski took 30 of Washington’s personal guard on a reconnaissance mission, and they found an escape route.  Washington used this avenue to lead his soldiers in an organized retreat, so they could live to fight another day.  Just imagine how different American history would be, if George Washington would have been killed or captured in this battle.  Without his military leadership America might have lost the Revolutionary War.  Or if Americans won anyway, a different first president might have established the executive branch as a kind of dictatorship.

Pulaski was appointed general in charge of the American cavalry following his heroic valor during the Battle of Brandywine.  There were only a few hundred men in the American cavalry then.  He participated in many battles before he was killed by cannon fire during a cavalry charge on British-held Savannah, Georgia.

The U.S. began building coastal fortifications after the War of 1812 because during this debacle the British had captured American ports with impunity.  Construction of a coastal fort in Savannah began in 1829 and it was completed in 1842.  The fort was named in honor of Casimir Pulaski. However, there was little danger of a foreign invasion after the fort was built, and it was manned by just 2 men at a time.  Confederate traitors seized the fort at the beginning of the Civil War.  In 1862 Union naval forces bombarded the fort, forcing its surrender in less than 2 days.  Ironically, the only battle that took place at Fort Pulaski demonstrated coastal fortifications were obsolete against naval ships with newly developed, accurate, rifled artillery.  Union forces held the fort, bottling up the port of Savannah for the duration of the war–a critical strategic advantage for the north.

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The U.S. named a coastal fort in Savannah, Georgia after Casimir Pulaski.

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The fort is surrounded by a saltwater moat.

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A Civil War battle, the only battle that took place at this fort, proved that coastal defenses were obsolete.  Union naval forces made the fort surrender after 30 hours of bombardmentIncidentally, there are no guardrails on the inside here.

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The jailhouse at the fort held Confederate prisoners during the war and political prisoners after.

My wife and I visited Fort Pulaski last week on our 23rd wedding anniversary.  There is some interesting nature at Fort Pulaski National Monument.  The endangered diamond backed terrapin finds refuge here, but they live in the surrounding salt marsh, and I didn’t see any.  I did see big flocks of robins and chimney swifts.  They stop and roost here on their way north during spring and probably fall migration.  On a nature trail I saw rufus-sided towhees, Carolina wrens, and sparrows, and there were black vultures, turkey vultures, common crows, and ring-billed gulls flying over the fort.  I think I saw an osprey landing on a light post, and fish crows perched on telephone wire while I was driving on Island Expressway, the road that leads to the fort.  Fish crows are smaller than common crows, but small individuals of the latter may overlap in size.  Fish crows have a distinct call.  I didn’t have an opportunity to hear them and make a definitive identification.  Raccoons crap on the sidewalks here.  They are feeding upon palmetto berries this time of year.

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There is a lot of raccoon scat on the sidewalks at Fort Pulaski.  They are eating palmetto berries.  The park service should introduce Burmese pythons to reduce the raccoon population here.

Last fall’s Hurricane Matthew, a Category 5, left a big impact on the local forest.  Many trees were uprooted, and crews were still cleaning up the mess.  A storm surge killed several acres of live oaks and red cedar, though some Carolina palmetto survived.  The salt water that flooded and killed the trees is still standing in some places.  The storm surge created a kind of ghost forest, and it will be interesting to see what it looks like in 10 years.

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Saltwater storm surge from Hurricane Matthew created a kind of ghost forest with acres of standing dead trees.  Note the standing salt water over 4 months after the storm.

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Hurricane Matthew uprooted many trees here. Tiger mosquitoes attacked me while I was on this trail, and it is just February.

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Although this fig tree located inside the confines of the fort looks sickly white from storm surge, it survived the hurricane.  I saw green buds.

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Pleistocene Tornadoes and Windthrow Ecology

February 18, 2017

Unstable weather conditions spawn outbreaks of tornadoes.  Cold fronts collide with warm air causing the chilled air from the upper layer of the atmosphere to plummet, creating swirling winds of great destructive force.  Tornado intensity is classified according to the Fujita scale or F scale for short.  Tornado wind speeds range from less than 73 mph (an F0 tornado) to estimated wind speeds of 261 mph-318 mph (an F5 tornado).  One of the largest outbreaks of tornadoes in recorded history occurred in early April, 1936.  At least 12 tornadoes struck the south from Tupelo, Mississippi to Anderson, South Carolina.  A tornado from this system that hit Tupelo left a path of destruction 15 miles long.  Another tornado from this storm traveled 50 miles from Alabama to Tennessee.  Two tornadoes merged in Gainesville, Georgia, killing 200 people in a factory and a department store.  Overall, this storm system wiped out 454 human lives.

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F5 tornado in Oklahoma.  I hypothesize storms and tornadoes were much more frequent and severe during some Pleistocene climate phases than they are today, but they may have been less severe during others.

I hypothesize tornado frequency and intensity was greater during some climatic phases of the Pleistocene than it is today.  As far as I can determine, no scientist has ever published a study of paleotornado frequency, probably because there just isn’t any method to collect data about past transient phenomena. Incidentally, I invented the term, paleotornado, in case a scientist figures how to study them.  My hypothesis is conjecture, but I am confident it is correct.  I base it on 3 lines of indirect evidence.

a) Data from ice cores in Greenland shows average annual temperatures fluctuated dramatically during Ice Ages.  There was an alternating cycle of sudden warm spikes in temperature that melted ice dams which in turn released glacial meltwater and icebergs into the ocean, shutting down the gulf stream.  This caused an equally sudden reversal in temperatures.   By comparison today’s climate is relatively stable, yet even with a stable climate, tornadoes form with regularity. When climate changed more rapidly in the past, it seems logical to assume there was an increased frequency of colliding warm and cold weather fronts.  I believe the middle south was an Ice Age tornado alley.  Temperatures in south Florida and the Gulf Coast were warmer than they are today because oceanic circulation ceased and warm water stayed in the Caribbean, but the upper south was only a few hundred miles from the Laurentide Ice Sheet that covered Canada and New England.  Cold fronts blowing off the Ice Sheet met warm fronts originating from the Gulf of Mexico in what must have been an exceptionally stormy transition zone.

b) An unusually cold phase of climate, known as The Little Ice Age, occurred between 1310-1850.  Anecdotal historical references suggest storms were more frequent and intense during this time period.  In Europe several storms killed hundreds of thousands of people.  The Little Ice Age is a tiny blip compared to the climate fluctuations of the Wisconsinian Ice Age as recorded from Greenland ice core data.

c) Geological evidence suggests river flooding in southeastern North America was much more severe during the early Holocene (11,000 BP-6,000 BP).  These massive floods caused supermeandering river patterns.  An increase in river flooding indicates an increase in storm activity and hence tornadoes.

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Windthrows open up the forest canopy and dramatically change the local ecology.

Tornadoes, thunderstorm downbursts, and hurricanes have a profound impact on forest ecosystems and may be a primary driver of evolutionary relationships.  Areas of forest felled by wind are known as windthrows among ecologists.  Tornadoes can travel for many miles, and they leave long scars of fallen and splintered trees that can be seen in satellite and aerial photographs.  These long windthrows create gaps in the canopy where shade intolerant species can thrive.  In southeastern North America canopy gap formation is beneficial for oak, pine, persimmon, sumac, grapevine, blackberry, composites, and grasses.  Windthrows can become tangles of luxuriant vegetation that provide forage and cover for forest edge species such as whitetail deer, cottontail rabbits, and ruffed grouse.  Fallen rotting timber attracts beetles, food for woodpeckers and other birds.  The extinct ivory-billed woodpecker formerly relied on vast tracts of timber with freshly created windthrows from annual storms.  Unlike extant woodpeckers, they depended upon early colonizing, shallow burrowing beetles.  Snakes and lizards lay their eggs in rotting timber.  Bears tear up these logs, looking for beetle larva, termites, and reptile eggs.  The pits created when trees are uprooted fill with water following heavy rains, and they serve as breeding pools for amphibians.  Most of the organisms that live in southeastern North America evolved to thrive in canopy gaps resulting from wind storms.  Plants able to resprout after sustaining wind damage have a competitive advantage over those species easily uprooted and killed, and the animals that browse and can digest those plants also enjoy a competitive advantage.

One study estimated wind felled 20 square miles of forest per year in pre-settlement forests of Wisconsin.  They also estimated the recovery time for northern hardwood-hemlock forests to erase the windthrow scar is 1210 years.  The recovery time in southeastern forests is probably quicker due to the longer growing season. A tornado can leave a long-lasting impact on the landscape, and wind may be a critical element, along with megafauna foraging and fire, that may explain why Ice Age environments were so much more open than they were in late Holocene environments.

Reference:

Canham, Charles; and Orie Loucks

“Catastrophic Windthrow in the Presettlement Forests of Wisconsin”

Ecology 1988

U.S. Government Will Allow Religious Nuts to Bury a 1 of a Kind Scientific Specimen

February 13, 2017

Democrats like to paint Republicans as being anti-science and of course this is true.  Republicans dispute scientific facts about everything from the harmful effects of pollution to the fundamental basis of biological science.  But when it is politically expedient, democrats can be just as anti-science.  On September 28, 2016 democrats caved-in to religious nuts who want to bury an extremely rare specimen where it will be lost forever to science.  The specimen is known as Kennewick man, first discovered 20 years ago.  It’s a nearly complete skeleton of a man who lived 9,000 years BP.  Skeletal remains of humans from this age in North America are so rare that only a few have ever been discovered.  The Army Corps of Engineers was going to let Native American tribes bury this precious specimen shortly after its discovery, but some scientists banded together and sued for the right to study it.  They won in court and luckily we now have increased our knowledge about the life of early archaic man in the Pacific northwest.  In 2015 a genetic study of this specimen determined Kennewick man shared a common ancestry with modern Native-Americans.  Unfortunately, this gave new legal momentum to the religious nuts who want to perform a ceremonial burial with the specimen, even though the study did not show any direct relationship with the tribes that inhabit the region today.  An amendment introduced by a democratic congresswoman was attached to a bill signed by then President Obama that will let these idiotic Indians throw away any more potential scientific knowledge we can learn about Kennewick man.  Future advancements in science could give us the opportunity to glean further knowledge from the specimen, but alas, unless there is another successful lawsuit, this rare specimen will be lost.  And it’s all because of the unnecessary deference given to stupid superstitions.

This clay facial reconstruction of Kennewick Man or "the Ancient One" was carefully sculpted around the morphological features of his skull, and lends a deeper understanding of what he may have looked like nearly 9,000 years ago. The remains will be repatriated to Columbia Basin tribes for traditional burial under legislation passed by Congress. Photo: Brittney Tatchell, Smithsonian Institution

The government is going to let ignorant Native-Americans bury this 9000 year old skull. A nearly 1 of a kind scientific specimen will be lost to science forever.

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I didn’t realize that Obama and the democrats were just as anti-science as the republicans.

In my opinion all religion is brainwashing for simple-minded people, and scientists know this, though they are often reluctant to say so.  If this dispute involved Christian fundamentalists, many scientists would be loudly protesting this amendment.  I’m sure they would call them “bible thumpers.”  But they seem unusually quiet about this because they are afraid of being called racist or politically incorrect for getting in a conflict with an indigenous belief system.  Well, I won’t be silenced.  I have no tolerance for ignorant beliefs no matter what group spouts them.  These Native-Americans are pushing their religion on us, and I think it is an outrage.  This specimen doesn’t belong to them.  They did not personally know Kennewick man.  None of their great-great-great-great-great grandparents knew Kennewick man.  In fact the ancestors of some of these tribes may have even fed upon Kennewick man’s kin.  (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/10/24/native-american-cannibalism-and-dog-eating/ ) Their claim on this specimen is based on phony political correctness. They can’t demonstrate to which tribe Kennewick man belonged, probably because none of the tribes existed yet when he lived.  So all the 5 tribes of the Pacific northwest (Umatilla, Nez Pierce, Colville, Yakama, and Wanapum) are going to share the burial ceremony, and the specimen is going to be buried in a secret location to prevent disinterment. How ridiculous.  What politically correct bullshit.  When Europeans discover thousand year old human specimens in Europe, no group ever comes forward to claim they have the right to the remains because they are relatives.  Human remains are not sacred…they are just bones.

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Native Americans on their way to bury scientific knowledge.

After I die I do not want to be cremated.  I want to be buried, so there is a chance my remains could be discovered by scientists 30,000 years in the future.  They can study or do whatever they want with my skeleton, and I’m pretty sure I won’t care.

The Most Cataclysmic Ice Age Floods

February 11, 2017

Climate patterns were different during Ice Ages.  The Rocky Mountain region of North America is mostly arid today, but more precipitation and lower rates of evapotranspiration led to the formation of vast lakes during cooler climate phases.  Most of these lakes gradually disappeared in non-dramatic fashion after the climate became warmer and drier.  Evaporation changed the former sites of these freshwater lakes into empty basins, salt plains, and much smaller salt lakes.  But the demise of Glacial Lake Missoula caused a spectacular flood, perhaps the largest deluge in earth’s history.

A southern lobe of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet blocked the flow of the Clark Fork River near the border of present day Idaho and Montana, creating a glacial lake as big as Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined.  At times it was almost 2000 feet deep, though it periodically lowered and partially drained.  The ice dam itself was an astonishing 2000 feet high.  The warm climate phase that marked the end of the Ice Age beginning about 15,000 years ago melted the ice dam, and the tremendous volume of water in Lake Missoula burst across Idaho and eastern and central Washington, finally emptying through the Columbia River valley into the Pacific Ocean near the present day town of Astoria, Oregon.  This massive flood created a landscape known as the “channeled scablands.”  The geological formations that serve as evidence of this cataclysm are impressive and picturesque.

Areal Scenario Map of the Ice Age Floods - Click to View Larger Image

The largest floods in the history of North America occurred in the Pacific northwest following the end of Ice Ages.

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These geological landforms were caused by post Ice Age floods.

Below is a link to many more photos of these formations.

http://hugefloods.com/Scablands.html

The flood carried large boulders encased in icebergs.  These “erratics” can be found throughout the channeled scablands.  There are dry falls–350 foot tall hills under where 300 feet of Lake Missoula water formerly flowed in what were temporary waterfalls.  Huge ripple marks can be seen on Camas Prairie.  Other amazing formations are the kolk potholes where swirling eddies gouged out deep troughs.  Strandlines and lake deposits visible on the sides of mountains are evidence the dissolution of glacial lakes occurred repeatedly in this region–perhaps more than 34 times during the Pleistocene.

The scouring of these intermittent Ice Age floods eroded most of the topsoil in this region and much of the scabland is unsuitable for crops.  But there are some exceptions.  The tops of some hills were above the flood and still have enough soil for growing crops, and some soil eroded from mountains into some valleys where crops can also be grown.  But for the most part agricultural activity here is limited to livestock grazing.

Humans began colonizing North America about the same time this cataclysmic flood occurred. Any people in the path of the deluge perished.  Members of the sparse population living on the edge of the flood witnessed an unusual, awe-inspiring event, a story they likely told their children and grandchildren.  It may be the origin of ancient flood myths found in Native American lore.  Flood myths are known in cultures worldwide and probably are based on inherited memories of local floods that occurred at the end of the Ice Age when glaciers melted and sea level rose rapidly.

Reference:

Smith, Larry

“Repeated Sedimentation and Expanse of Glacial Lake Missoula Sediments: A Lake Level History of Garden Gulch, Mountain, USA”

Quaternary Science Review January 2017

The Unknown Mating Habits of Saber-toothed Cats (Smilodon fatalis)

February 5, 2017

The average male saber-toothed cat was only slightly larger in overall body size than a female saber-tooth, but they had significantly larger mandibles and upper canines (the fangs).  This is in contrast to most species of cats today.  Most male cats and especially lions are much larger than the average female of their species.  The mating habits of Smilodon are completely unknown, and we can only speculate about them based on the knowledge that they differed in size above the neck, but not much elsewhere aside from the sexual organs.

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Smilodon had low sexual dimorphism in body size, but males had significantly larger mandibles and upper canines.  Did males share their larger kills with females as way to attract them?

I believe saber-tooth mating habits may have been notably different from those of all extant species of cats.  The saber-toothed and the scimitar-toothed cats ( Dinobastis or Homotherium ) belonged to an extinct subfamily of cats known as the Machairodontinae.  The Machariodontinae diverged from all other cats an estimated 13 million years ago, very early in cat evolution, and they have no close living relatives today.  They were more closely related to other carnivores than modern day species of cats are.  Perhaps they lived in matriarchal societies like the spotted hyena ( Crocuta crocuta ), another species that shows low sexual dimorphism (the females are actually slightly larger than the males).  Or maybe, as in the wolf ( Canis lupus only the dominant male and female of the pack were allowed to mate.  However, scientists disagree over whether saber-toothed cats were social or solitary animals.

Some scientists argue evidence from the La Brea Tar Pits of severely injured saber-tooths that survived traumatic debilitating injuries suggests they must have lived in groups.  But others believe that even a severely injured saber-tooth could have lived for a long time by scavenging.  A saber-tooth in a bad mood due to pain could have easily intimidated smaller predators from their kills. Moreover, their small braincases also indicates they didn’t live in groups.  I suspect they were solitary cats, though mothers probably hunted cooperatively with nearly grown cubs when she was training them how to hunt.

The males were able to bring down larger prey than the females because their bites, aided by the larger jaws and fangs, were deadlier.  Perhaps this was an element of their mating system.  Females that came to scavenge the male-killed prey were tolerated by the males, and the heavy meal caused them to go into instant heat.  Maybe females followed the most successful hunting males with the frequent nutritious meals triggering more frequent ovulation.

I’ve always been fascinated over how recently this strange exotic animal became extinct–only ~10,000 years ago.    It’s frustrating not to be able to know more about how it lived.  Relying on guesswork is just not as satisfying as knowing.

References:

Christiansen, P.; and John Harris

“Variation in Craniomandibular Morphology and Sexual Dimorphism in Pantherines and the Sabercat Smilodon fatalis

Plos One Oct 2012

Meachen-Samuels; J.A.; W.J. Binder

“Sexual Dimorphism and Ontogenetic Growth in the American Lion and Sabertoothed Cat from Rancho La Brea”

Journal of Zoology 2010