Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Remembering Malta

The beautful, highly-developed Maltese coastline
The country of Malta, where I lived during the summer of 2011, was a crowded place.  On an area a bit smaller than the Massachusetts islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket combined lived 417,000 citizens, speaking their own language and with their own fierce culture.  I lived in the hugely overdeveloped tourist district, the town of San Giljan (St. Julian's).  Road ran directly along the perimeter of this whole northeastern coast, with hotels and "lidos" (beach clubs) every block, all more or less attached to each other the whole way.  And lapping at the limestone just below the road or sometimes the tiny adjacent bedrock seashore was the blue, blue Mediterannean.

Can you spot the goby amid the diverse algal forest?
No rivers flow into the sea here, nor is the tiny island close enough to any continent for there to be significant coastal pollution.  You can see into the water for perhaps 30 meters when you are not in a major population area, like where I was living, but even then you could see 10 meters deep!  To celebrate the fact that our apartment was a mere hundred feet from the sea, which, as a marine biologist, I love, I jumped in every day.  I would go for a run to get my exercise and really overheat myself so that I could stay in the sea longer.  I carried my snorkeling gear in a bag on my back, and ran in my bathing suit!  After the run, I'd walk down to my beach of choice (anywhere I hadn't yet explored along the coastal stretch), take off my shoes, put on my mask and snorkel, and jump in holding my house key!  The water was warm in summer, 27 C / 80 F, so with the added heat of the run I could stay under comfortably for hours.

Calmella cavolini, a Mediterranean aeolid nudibranch
The benthic (i.e. bottom) habitat of the Mediterranean has no coral, but rather a forest of hundreds of different species of marine algae.  These wild red, green, and brown multi-textured growths are kept neat and trim by dozens of species of herbivorous creatures, particularly sea breams, that snack on the algae every day.  The resulting short, trimmed, underwater bonsai forests are thus the perfect habitats for me to hunt for the minute sea creatures that often bring so much wonder - nudibranchs, tectibranchs, pycnogonids, caprellids, harpacticoids, isopods, turbellarians!  I'd search through them with glee, and occasionally find a creature I'd never spotted before.  I'd run home to look it up, or bring it with me for a photo - giggling like a schoolgirl all the way, sometimes skipping dinner.  (Although I would always return the creature where I found it.)

Some of my favorite creatures were the octopods.  Yes, that is the plural of octopus.  The octopus is more common in the Mediterranean than any other sea I'd been in.  I can guarantee you an octopus while snorkeling right off the tourist beach.  In tiny holes, cracks, and crevices, they occur every hundred feet or so underwater, watching the world.  I used to love to interact with them.  They all had unique personalities!  I usually carry a single wooden chopstick with me to move around algae without having to use my fingers.  The first time I came across an octopus while snorkeling after a run, it reached out of its cave and wrapped its tentacles around my chopstick!  Surprisingly strong, the octopus wrestled the chopstick from my hands and I had to fight to get it back!  Curious whether or not this was a common behavior, I approached an octopus I saw on another day with my chopstick, only to have it flee from its cave squirting ink at me as it jettisoned away!  Yet another octopus lazily aimed its siphon at my hand and tried to blow the chopstick away from its lair with the jets of water pulsed out of its mantle.

Of course in every place where people live near the sea, there are people that love the sea.  Some of my time in Malta was spent volunteering with a non-profit shark conservation organization, SharkLab Malta, a subsidiary of a UK group.  With them I helped to lead snorkeling tours and collect data about sharks at the local fish market (at 3 am, an early business worldwide).  As a trained PADI Rescue Diver with lots of research diving experience, I also joined in on coastal dive surveys to, well, look for unrecorded species around the island.  We would go wherever we figured we'd find unique habitats, taking a tiny boat and SCUBA gear to sand patches, dropoffs, Posidonia seagrass meadows, and submerged limestone caves.  Among our many discoveries - which is what we call a trained mind attaching more importance to something than other observers - was the Bull Ray (Pteromyleus bovinus), swimming in 20 feet of water over a sandy bottom off a popular beach.  Though a Mediterranean species, it wasn't known from Maltese waters.  Malta is an isolated island, so finding species there known from elsewhere in the Mediterranean still means a lot; it means they had to get there somehow, at some point in their ancestral history.

I met many good people in Malta, made many good friends, had a lot of adventures, made a lot of memories.  The dives I have done there were magnificent.  If you want to see Mediterranean marine life, stop by  Malta.  It's a magical little country!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Fisher (Martes pennanti)

Seeing my hometown of Grafton, Massachusetts, USA as more than just my youthful stomping ground has been difficult.  I grew up in this area; every street and landmark has some connotation to me that no visitor would see.  It is funny that while traveling I desperately seek that "local" feeling to truly understand a place, while at home I wish to discard the "local" feeling and look at my surroundings with unbiased eyes!  But I'm finding that these "local" connotations skew my knowledge of what Grafton, even Massachusetts, has to offer.  Today I stepped outside my "local" knowledge by exploring one of the Grafton Land Trust's properties, the Hassanamesit Woods.  Despite the fact that the entrance to this excellent conservation land is only two miles from my front door, I had never visited in my life!  Here was a new location to view Massachusetts wilderness objectively.  Despite the fact that it's November, and most of the leaves (and even branches!) of the trees have fallen due to an early snowstorm, it was still a beautiful afternoon walk.  Meandering around from 2-4 PM, the last thing I expected to see was a giant, black-furred mammalian predator on the prowl!  But that's what appeared in front of me - perhaps a hundred feet away down a long stretch of trail among the white pine forest, what I at first thought was a black dog turned and peered back at me - probably because I shouted "WHOA, WHAT IS THAT?!"

The missing link!  ...Or just a startled fisher.
I know, I know - my picture looks as legitimate as the photographs of the Loch Ness Monster.  But a friend put me on the right path with her guess - a fisher!  These amazing creatures, which live for a maximum of 7-10 years in the wild, are one of the largest representatives of the Mustelid family (the taxonomic order containing skunks, weasels, otters, ferrets, etc.).  They can get to three feet long and weigh up to 12 pounds.  They are endemic to North America, and more common in the northern part of their range (Canada).  They actually were pushed to local extinction in the late 1800's to early 1900's due to excessive hunting (for their fur) and intensive logging activity that destroyed the dense pine forest habitat they need to survive.  Thanks to a reduction in logging and a moratorium on hunting in the 1930's, the fisher population began to recover and expand their range.  Now fishers are known throughout Massachusetts, and even a bit further south into Connecticut.  Hunting activities resumed in the 1950's, though heavily regulated.  In fact, this is the middle of the Massachusetts fisher season - trappers can catch them (with licenses) from November 1st to November 22nd!  (Don't worry, they're not endangered.)

Young fisher kits!
Fishers are more famously known for their terrifying but fascinating screams, which sound like a person being attacked!  If you're near a large, heavily-wooded pine forest, you might hear one calling for a mate on a cool April evening.  Although fisher copulation (which can last for 7 hours, how about that) results in fertilized embryos in April, the female fisher doesn't actually implant the embryos in her uterus until the following February - 10 months later!  (This fact confounded fur farmers that thought they could grow this species just like other furbearing mammals - the impatient farmers couldn't figure out why the females didn't seem to get pregnant!)  After a gestation period of 50 days, the female finds a nice hole in a tree to give birth and raise her 1-4 "kits."  After about 5 months, she kicks them out and the young fishers must begin their solitary lives.

"Pekan" is an indigenous name; don't try to make pie with one.
Another awesome fisher fact - they are the prime enemy of porcupines!  Apparently other predatory mammals in the region are too "tall" to attack a porcupine - getting only a mouthful of quills!  But fishers are low enough to the ground to coordinate an attack to the face of the porcupine.  And what an attack!  It may take half an hour for a fisher to kill a porcupine this way - circling the porcupine and repeatedly biting at the face!  Afterwards, they dodge the quill problem by flipping the dead porcupine over and dining on the soft underbelly.  These warm-blooded carnivores are active all year round - no hibernation - and need to eat the equivalent of 1-2 squirrels per day to keep their energy up!  (They also eat snowshoe hares, mice, shrews, and carrion of larger animals).

Outside the mating season, fishers are solitary creatures that establish habitats of about eight square miles, with little overlap for individuals of the same sex.  This means that in the whole Hassanamesit Woods area of Grafton, you might only see a single male and a single female!  See if your local New England pine forest has fishers around.  They spend most of their time on the ground (NOT in trees) and are most active during the "crepuscular" hours - sunrise and sunset.  To learn more cool facts about fishers, check out the "Mammalian Species" journal article that I got most of my information from and an info pamphlet on fishers from the Massachusetts government.  Of course, Google and YouTube have great stuff too!

What a great day in the woods.  Maybe I'll go again soon, wait with coffee and an MP3 player, and try to get better photos.  The experience just goes to show how close new experiences are to your own home!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Misadventures with the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia)

I thought I was going to die today, but rest easy for I will not.  I received no comfort from Messrs. Alden and Paulson, harumph!  But I am getting ahead of myself.  See, it all started weeks ago on my edible wild foods walk at the Oak Knoll Wildlife Sanctuary in Attleboro, Massachusetts.  Russ Cohen, author of Wild plants I have known... and eaten and our guide for the walk, was sharing useful beginner's wisdom about wild foods.  "If it tastes bad, don't eat it," he offered helpfully.  I oversimplified what he shared with us that day because this was the most useful statement I heard.  Russ did helpfully add, "that's not to say you should go around tasting everything," but I had already begun finding the hidden fruits of the forest and begun tasting them with reckless abandon.  If the suspected "food" wasn't delicious, I spit it out.  It didn't bother me that I spit out nearly everything I had never seen in a supermarket before; trying these forest fruits made feel hip and dangerous.  I survived the nature walk that day.

Snowberry (Symphoricarpos sp.) - Pretty, but mildly poisonous!
Now I'm in Seattle, visiting a friend.  While walking in Lincoln Park, a beautiful stretch along the Puget Sound in southwest Seattle, I realized there were wild blackberries everywhere.  Joy!  I happily leaped for the tall berries others couldn't reach.  While chewing, I remembered the wild foods walk I had survived weeks ago in Massachusetts, and decided to resume my "taste first, ask questions later" approach to Pacific Northwest plants.  The next time I saw a strange plant, I popped a few of its snow-white berries into my mouth and chewed.  Disappointed at the complete lack of flavor, I spit them out.  I took a photo (see picture), and we later identified them as snowberries (Symphoricarpos), which are mildly toxic; you'd have to eat a lot to get sick.  This approach to wild berries made me a mini-hero to my friend, a computer geek who is always surprised to see trees outside of the zoo.  Now I felt like Survivor-man, and thus began my wild food foraging in the great wilderness of Seattle's parks and suburbs.  I should have reminded myself that my foraging experience was limited to a single lecture about Atlantic Coast plants, and that none of what I'd yet found was actually food...

Nevertheless, this is how I found myself chewing on a small red berry (or aril, in technical terms) that I'd plucked from a needly evergreen shrub next to a Seattle bus stop.  The fruit had a slight sweetness over the snowberry.  So I had a decision to make.  I could spit it out like I did with the snowberry, which was neutral on the is-it-bad-or-good scale, and was only mildly poisonous anyway - or I could swallow it and see what happened.  Because I thought it was funny, I decided to eat only half of the berry.  

The Pacific Yew tree (Taxus brevifolia)
When I got back to my friend's house I reached for the National Audubon Society's Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest, by Mr Peter Alden and Mr Dennis Paulson, to look up the strange red berry.  (I had bought him this book as a way of getting him to discover what nature Seattle had to offer beyond the bugs in his programming code.)  To my delight, I found the berry on page 102.  This is what the authors wrote about the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia):
"Shrub or tree with broad crown.  Bark brown, purple, and red; smooth, flaky.  Needles soft, flat, in 2 rows.  Fruit (aril) tiny, red, cup-shaped, berry-like, juicy.  CAUTION: Fruit deadly poisonous."

Excuse me?
I began to sweat.  
Nervously, I checked my mental and physical state.  
How many berries does it take to kill a man?  
In a mild panic, I turned to Google.

According to a document I found, the yew berry (or aril, as I corrected myself while awaiting possible death) "contains toxic amounts of the cardiotoxic alkaloidal fraction named 'taxine.'  'Taxine' causes death from asphyxia due to cardiac and respiratory failure."
Was I having trouble breathing?!  I read on.
" The Pacific Northwest of the United States has actually only been ‘civilized’ and ‘settled’ for a little over 100 years.  Most of the people that ‘settled’ this country were of European or Asian decent.  They recognized the yews when they got here..."
Hm, so I was going to die because my ancestors immigrated to the Atlantic Coast, found no yews, and didn't think it would make a useful tradition to pass this knowledge on through the generations in case the shrubs should be found elsewhere on the new continent.  I was particularly worried, and ready to start dialing the local Poison Control Center.  But I really like to read, so I kept going, still scared I might die:
"...and mistakenly assumed they were poisonous like the yews in their homelands."

Excuse me again?
I realized my throat wasn't tight.  Continuing with the text:
"The Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia) got a bad rap due to guilt-by-association and that is why many websites, encyclopedias and botanical publications list Taxus brevifolia as poisonous.  There are no documented instances of poisoning in humans or animals with Taxus brevifolia."  

"#$%^&*!," I shouted to the authors of my Audubon guide, with a sigh of relief.  I do not feel like I am dying.  But I wished they had checked their facts!  Still, it is my fault for mis-interpreting advice from a wild foods forager.  In today's information age, where positive identification can be made in mere minutes, it is irresponsible to taste anything in the wild you don't recognize.  But it did add some thrill to my afternoon!