Smooth green question mark

SD biologists wonder what’s become of an uncommon, common snake

by Lance Nixon

On paper they’re as common as grass.

But outside the textbooks, the smooth green snake, Opheodrys vernalis – or “grass snake,” as some people in South Dakota call it – might not be as common as even scientists believe.

That’s the concern that Black Hills State University biologist Brian Smith and his graduate student, Brian Blais, share.

“My thesis is focusing on the genetic diversity across the species range,” Blais said.” We suspect that there may be genetically distinct populations scattered across its range – including differentiation of the Black Hills vs. the Prairie Pothole Region within South Dakota – and my study should shed light on that issue. Identifying these fragile populations could offer recommendations to wildlife managers.”…

(read more: Capital Journal)

photograph by Brian Blais

De-Extinction and the Passenger Pigeon


The last lonely passenger pigeon died in 1914. Her stuffed body is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.  I’ve seen her.  It’s a sad exhibit.

But what if passenger pigeons could be reincarnated?

That’s the idea behind de-extinction. Take DNA harvested from museum specimens and figure out which genes are most important to the species’ identity.  Then use genetic engineering to edit in the DNA of a closely related species (in this case the band-tailed pigeon).  If all goes well, a chimera pigeon (with both passenger and band-tailed genes)  that looks and acts like a passenger pigeon could be hatched by a band-tailed mother.  

When and if chimera passenger pigeons are produced, there will initially be very few.  In a very small population, closely-related individuals must mate.  This inbreeding can be lethal in the short term but might be good for the population in the long term.

To predict the effects of inbreeding on the chimera passenger pigeons, it’s important to know whether the species in question went through at least one “population bottleneck" as humans probably did 70,000 years ago.  Historical records suggest that the original passenger pigeon population did this several times, as their populations were subjected to “boom and bust” cycles.

That’s a good news, because inbreeding can purge lethal genes from a species’ gene pool. * This happens when individuals carrying especially bad gene combinations die before they can reproduce, thus lowering the incidence of deleterious genes.  

After a bottleneck purges lethal genes, it’s possible for the a tiny population to develop a healthy gene pool.  Pigeons are profligate breeders, and the passenger pigeon’s gene pool has probably been purged more than once.  Genetically speaking, passenger pigeons are a good candidate for de-extinction and one day flocks may again grace the skies of North America!


*Purging selection occurs where the phenotypes (physical expressions) of deleterious recessive alleles (genes) are exposed through inbreeding, and thus can be selected against.  

Ann says:  This article contains speculation on my part.  There is no proof, other than apparent past population fluctuations, that the passenger pigeons’ gene pool has been purged thought imbreeding. It’s likely that we will never know the answer.

Reference: Scientific American and Wikipedia.

Image: Passenger Pigeons by John James Audubon

Copyright 2014 by Ann Marcaida.

The state Senate on Friday gave final legislative approval to a measure that would phase out single-use plastic bags in supermarkets, pharmacies and convenience stores as part of an effort to rid beaches and streets of litter.

Wonderful news! Hopefully other states will follow this lead, and in turn ban plastic bags as well.

There are better alternatives to plastic bags: you can find biodegradable bags to pick up after your dog, and use reusable and produce bags when you go grocery shopping!

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New episode! - An introduction to: Insect Orders 

We’ve all seen insects, right? Scuttling along the forest floor, buzzing between flowers, or simply basking in the sun. But what are the different types and how are they classified? Phil gets to grips with taxonomy and illustrates some common critters you might see on your travels.

anonymous said:

So I've been quite depressed lately as you have been about the whole "animals leaving the earth FOREVER really quickly " thing so I wanted to ask why things really aren't being done. You are in the field and you know how the field works, (this is not to bash you in any way, you just know more than I do.) so I wanted to know what is really keeping things from moving forward. We already have the research, the data, but what is the final piece? Is there anything other than donating and petitions?

God this is a difficult question to answer. Honestly I don’t know how some people can get out of bed in the morning. I have friends who have watched numerous frog extinctions happen, and somehow they remain positive, hopeful, driven, and influential people. If Madagascar’s frogs start to collapse like the rest of the world’s, I will be inconsolable.

The thing is, in a lot of cases, researchers are hesitant to take big steps because they don’t have all the data they want. In other cases, even if they take the necessary steps to make a difference, the people in political power, who ultimately govern what is designated for what purpose, become a huge obstacle. This is a problem of conservation science having to be run through governing agencies, whose interests are not necessarily what is best for the fauna or flora inhabiting the areas they govern.

Even when governing agencies cooperate and agree on what is most important, they are notoriously slow. It takes years, sometimes decades, to enact the changes that we want to see over months to reverse or mitigate damage.

It’s easy to have a defeated attitude. And sometimes it’s appropriate. Hundreds of frogs have disappeared without any possible hope of bringing them back. We are losing diversity before it is even discovered. But the most important thing is to stay positive. Focus on the steps that need to come, one after the next. We have to build policies. We have to work with communities to make differences to their lives as well as the lives of their fauna. We have to convince people that animals, plants, and ecosystems are worth saving. We have to identify what gaps there are in our knowledge, and then piece together the funding to do the research that we’re still missing. Step by step, slowly, we have to work toward a better future. For ourselves, for our children, and for our planet.

Responsible Hunting

Hunting for sport is something many people do, and I must admit, despite knowing some of these folks, I do not care for the act. Hunting is a wonderful experience, one that brings you closer to nature and shows you the delicate balance of life that industrialization has veiled from the majority of folks in the developed world. For me and many hunters, there is a great deal of respect for nature and the animals we hunt, which we intend to utilize every part of after we make the kill. The notion of not letting any part of the animal go to waste is essential to many hunters, even to many hunters who are not taking the time to point out that they are indeed conservationists of sort.


Hunters who follow the laws and provisions set forth by local game wardens actually help the environment, primarily via population control. In addition, fees collected from hunting licenses and tags help finance state conservation efforts, with the money helping maintain state parks, campgrounds, and natural habitat for undomesticated animals. 

For many, hunting is a bonding experience - familial hunting, hunting with friends, and even meeting other fellow hunters. Yet, it is important to note that many folks hunt because it is a means of supplementing their income, and putting food on the table for their families. These individuals are not interested in hunting for sport, but rather, view hunting as a means of supporting their livelihood. These are the individuals that hone their craft, practicing often in order to minimize the potential discomfort experienced by the hunted animals. *Yes discomfort - if you are a good hunter, you strive make the kill as efficient as possible, minimizing any suffering the animal has to endure. 

I hunt to increase the amount of meat in my home, allowing me to purchase items like fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as the growing number of bills we all face as we get older. As for the animal, I utilize all of the meat, leave the entrails for scavengers, and sell the animal hides, heads and hooves, tail and feet to local taxidermists who tan and prepare them for resale. I waste no part of the animal, and directly after the kill, I apologize to the animal, and thank it for providing me with sustenance. It may seem odd to to those who do not hunt, me killing an animal then apologizing, but call it a personal thing I believe in doing.

The point is, most hunters are responsible folk who are looking for extra meat to put in their freezers and feed their families. Hunters who fail to hunt responsibly are not the norm, and I have no problem with the law prosecuting them to the full extent of the law. Hunters who act responsibly are continuing a tradition as old as humanity, and helping conservation efforts. They are also aiding in discrediting negative stereotypes of gun owners, and can potentially educate the public on the benefits of fresh meat, unadulterated by chemicals and hormone injections.

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For many years the Human-Elephant conflict has been a headache both to the Kenya Wildlife Service and residents of Mwakoma village in Taita Taveta. But after years of intensive research, scientists now say that the African bee is what will bring peace to this village sandwiched between two national parks - the Tsavo West and Tsavo East - that are home to hundreds of elephants. Alex Kubasu visited the research station located in Voi where he met the brains behind this innovation.

Sounds like a job for a gentleman honey farmer.

Check out Elephants & Bees for more info!


With less than 4,000 left in the wild, tigers are in real danger of extinction. You can make a difference in saving tigers.

  • Share your love of tigers and spread the word about the threats they face.
  • Do not purchase products that put tigers at risk and encourage others not to, either.
  • Support programs like the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy that fund conservation work to help save tigers.

11 photos that prove tigers have a softer side
July 29 is International Tiger Day, a holiday that raises awareness of their endangered status and advocates a global system for conserving their natural habitats.
While tigers are known for their striking stripes, massive size, barbed tongues, razor sharp teeth and predatory instinct, it’s also important to recognize how cute and lovable they can be. Here are just a few photos demonstrating the gentle side of these beautiful creatures.

See all the photos.