Posts Tagged ‘Burmese pythons’

My Dream Nature Property (Part 1)

February 6, 2012

I’m starting a new irregular series on this blog–my dream nature property.  My fantasy of living in Georgia 36,000 BP is not really possible.  Instead, I’ll be wishing and dreaming about properties in rural Georgia that I hope to one day purchase.  I’ll stick a trailer or cabin on the land and live out my days there.  So this fantasy has a possibility of coming true.

The first property I’d like to salivate over as a naturalist is this little gem on a Broad River Bluff.

It’s 154 acres of mostly wooded land in the middle of nowhere.  I drove through this area of Wilkes County last spring and summer.  I only stepped out of my car for brief periods of time but saw deer and turkey instantly.  This property is only a few miles upstream from the spectacular Anthony Shoals.   I can imagine a nice canoe or kayak trip back and forth to the shoals. Most of this part of Wilkes County is abandoned farmland that has grown up into second growth forest or overgrown fields.  It’s very quiet and there is little traffic, unlike some of our crowded National Parks and National Forests.

Over 4,300 ft. on gently flowing Broad River

View of the Broad River from this beautiful property.

The property itself is said to consist of a mixture of hardwoods and pines.  A satellite view shows the wooded property is surrounded by hayfields and cow pastures.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing–open spaces attract grassland and forest edge species.  Hayfields and cow pastures are a lot better than suburbs anyway.  Because of the river, I’d be sure to see a great variety of aquatic animals and birds.  The bluff forest may hold some rare types of plants as well.  It appears the owners use the land for hunting and fishing.  I’d most likely use it for birdwatching, nature walking, and fishing, though, who knows, I might take up hunting as well.

Unusual open water duck pond

A duck pond on the property.

Scenic picnic & camping area beside river

A nice picnic area for  private beer parties and outdoor grilling or just quiet solitude.  Note the large leaning trees.

The property is selling for $369,668.  I’m going to have to get real lucky on the stock market to be able to afford something like this.  There’s no house on the property, so if I decide to live here, I’d have to pay for that as well.  When considering buying rural land, it’s best to realize how much property taxes will be.  A buyer should understand that not only do they need to come up with the money or credit to purchase the land, but they need to have a lot of money socked away to pay property taxes every year.

I think government should give tax breaks to people who allow their properties to remain natural, especially if they harbor rare environments.  Much of Georgia’s remaining rural land is destined to be ruined by monocultured tree farms and row crops, so the owners can afford to pay property taxes.  They may be more inclined to let it remain wild, if they don’t have to pay property taxes on it.

New Study of Burmese Pythons in South Florida is Ripe for Debunking

The National Academy of Science often publishes some really bad studies.  One example was a paper that proclaimed Ice Age mammal extinction, the Younger Dryas cold phase, and Carolina Bays were all caused by a comet colliding with the Laurentide Glacier 12,900 years ago.  This illogical paper has since been thoroughly debunked.  Another study ripe for debunking is one that made headline news last week.

Scientists claim the populations of medium-sized mammals in Everglades National Park has been reduced by up to 100% since the accidental introduction of Burmese pythons.  I suspect this is alarmist bullshit.  Reptiles have very slow metabolisms and do not eat as much as carnivorous mammals.  Moreover, if an introduced predator reduced its food supply, it in turn would suffer a population decline, because they would have nothing left to eat.  The number of Burmese pythons captured has steadily increased (with the exception of the 2010 when there was a snake-killing hard freeze), suggesting the species is increasing in number.  This increase in python population couldn’t happen, if they were wiping out their prey base.

The method they used to count deer, raccoon, possums, rabbits, bobcats, and foxes is highly questionable and somewhat bizarre.  Scientists drove at night 331 times over an 8 year period in cars with 1-4 people in them, and counted live and road-killed animals within Everglades National Park.  Supposedly, they did the same thing during the 1990’s before Burmese pythons colonized the park, though as far as I know this data wasn’t published then, and they could be pulling numbers out of their ass.

The results confirm (in my opinion) that this study is full of shit.  From 2003-2011 these scientists only counted 9 raccoons and 5 possums.  9 raccoons and 5 possums in 8 years?  No way. No way!  That is 1 raccoon and less than 1 possum per year.  (Why didn’t they count armadilloes?– Another common small mammal in south Florida.)  These results are just not credible.  To get a good estimate of small mammal populations, the scientists should have used live traps which I guarantee would catch raccoons and possums with a high frequency.  I’m certain these animals are still abundant in the park.  In fact a recent series on the Discovery channel featuring a nature park adjacent to the Everglades that is run by the Seminole Indians showed the Indians frequently capturing problem or injured raccoons and bobcats.

The scientists admit they have no direct evidence that snakes are behind the so-called decline in the population of medium-sized mammals in the park, but point to anecdotal evidence.  If all they have is anecdotal evidence, they’ve got nothing.

The introduction of Burmese pythons has been a wonderful addition to an ecosystem that was in desperate need of more large predators.  I have no doubt that the population of medium-sized mammals has been reduced, but there is no way they’ve decreased as much as this ridiculous study claims.  The introduction of Burmese pythons has been highly beneficial for box turtles and birds whose eggs were vulnerable to the overpopulation of raccoons and possums.

By the way, the Everglades is overrated.  The most beautiful and productive ecosystem in Florida was destroyed by Walt Disney.  The creator of Bambi killed more wildlife than a millenia of hunters.  William Bartram and other explorers all agreed that the region now ruined by Disney World and Orlando was the most beautiful wild place they’d ever seen, and this was in the 18th century when just about every place on the continent was wild.

The Extinct Pleistocene Giant Tortoise (Hesperotestudo crassicutata) Must Have Been Able To Survive Light Frosts

April 15, 2011

Illustration of the extinct giant tortoise that lived in the southern parts of North America.  It grew as large as the Galapagos Island tortoises but was more closely related to the much smaller extant gopher tortoise.

Scientists often use the presence of giant tortoise fossils as a proxy for past temperatures.  They conclude that because giant tortoises can not survive freezing temperatures than they must have lived during a time when the region was completely frost free.

Hesperotestudo crassicutata scute

Photo of part of a tortoise shell or scute from a specimen found in Texas.

Three species of closely related land tortoises lived in southeastern North America: a giant species (Hesperotestudo crassicutata) that grew as big as modern day Galapagos Island tortoises, an intermediate-sized species (Hesperotestudo incisa), and the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) which is still extant.  It has occurred to me that the two larger species must have been able to survive light frosts, otherwise they would have become extinct when Ice Ages began.  Here are 5 reasons why I have come to this conclusion and disagree with the scientific consensus that the presence of tortoise fossils indicates warmer winters in this region than those of today.

1. The giant Pleistocene tortoise existed for at least 2 million years.  Within this vast time span, there must have been climatic phases, or at least events of crazy weather, that led to frosts in the deep south.  Today, frosts occur as far south as

Look at how much average temperatures fluctuated before the Holocene (~11,000 BP) when it’s assumed once a decade frosts began occurring in south Florida.  Notice also how much lower average temperatures were previous to the Holocene.  It doesn’t make sense the frosts in the deep south just began occuring 11,000 years ago.  They must have occurred before then.

south Florida at least once a decade.  It doesn’t make sense that these once a decade frosts just began to occur ~11,000 years ago and were absent for the previous 2 million years.  It just seems improbable that frosts began to occur in the deep south during the Holocene, a time of relative climatic stability, but didn’t occur during the Ice Ages which were times of dramatic climatic fluctuations (as the above chart shows) and generally of cooler climates.  If it’s true that giant tortoises couldn’t survive in an environment of light frosts, than that means they were extirpated in the southeast every time there was a frost.  They could only recolonize the south from enclaves in central America or what’s now Mexico, but that would mean a geographical corridor in the deep south must have remained frost free for thousands of years at a time–an unlikely climatic scenario, even during warm interglacials.

2. Scientists believe giant tortoises couldn’t escape the cold because they didn’t dig burrows.  This is a shaky assumption.  The only surviving species of giant tortoise lives on islands near the equator where there are no frosts.  As I discussed with my first point, Hesperotestudo did evolve in a region that must have had occasional light frosts, and therefore to survive, it must have evolved adapatations to escape the cold.  Moreover, Hesperotestudo is not the same species as extant giant tortoises, and we have no knowledge of its behavior patterns.  It’s closest living relative, the gopher tortoise, has a deeply innate instinct to dig burrows, and I see no reason for the assumption that giant tortoises didn’t also dig burrows.  Sea turtles dig deep pits to lay their eggs, proving that size is no obstacle to digging deep holes.

Gopher tortoises dig extensive burrow systems. The giant Pleistocene tortoise was closely related to the gopher tortoise.  There is no reason for the assumption that they did not also dig burrows which would have helped them survive frosts.

3. There is no evidence of tropical plants or pollen in the Pleistocene fossil record of the deep south.  If winters were warmer than those of today, and frost free, there should be fossils of tropical species of plants.  Instead, for example, a study of fossil plants from a site in the Aucilla River in north Florida, dating to the Pleistocene, found almost the exact same species that exist in the region today.  No tropical species were found.  Only 3 species outside their present day region were discovered here–osage orange, wild squash, and hazlenut. All three are temperate species, and the latter prefers cooler temperatures than exist today here.

4. Fossils of extant mammal species tend to be on average of individuals larger than those of the same species found in the region today.  According to Bergmann’s Rule, this indicates cooler climates and precludes warmer winters.

5. The prolonged freeze of 2009/2010 in south Florida caused a high mortality rate of the invasive Burmese python but did not cause their complete extirpation.  It seems reasonable to suppose that eventually, large reptiles that are maladapted to occasional frosts, would through selective pressure evolve to have an adapatation that enables them to seek thermal refuges.  And in fact, there are 2 clades of Burmese pythons with differing behavior patterns in their responses to frosts: the majority of the ones imported for the pet trade come from southeast Asia, and they’re naive to frost; but another population of this species occurs in temperate regions, and they’ve learned to seek refuge and hibernate during colder times of the year.

Like the northern population of Burmese pythons, and the American alligator, the giant Pleistocene tortoise was likely an animal of the subtropics that extended its range into southern temperate regions during warmer climatic stages.  And like pythons and alligators, selective pressures chose those individuals that took action to escape frost.  Alligators know to escape frost by moving into deep water, while caimans and crocodiles and southern Burmese pythons continue basking in subfreezing temperatures which leads to their deaths.  Like the alligator, Pleistocene giant tortoises must have survived frosts by moving to thermal enclaves such as burrows they dug themselves, the dens of other species, caves, hot springs, or under upturned tree roots.  How they survived frost is a subject for conjecture, but I have no doubt that somehow they must have.