Air Date: August 24, 2001
Animal Yenta/ Eric Anderson
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Eric Anderson of KPBS in San Diego profiles reproductive physiologist Barbara Durrant. Ms. Durrant is called the animal yenta of the San Diego Zoo for her efforts to help pairs of endangered get pregnant and bear off-spring. (11:15)
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Living on Earth's Maggie Villiger reports on research about a new herbal treatment for PMS symptons. (00:59)
Almanac: Rocky Mountain Locusts
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This week, facts about Rocky Mountain Locusts. One hundred twenty-six summers ago, a plague of locusts chewed its way across the American West. (01:30)
In the Arms of Africa
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Colin Turnbull is one of anthropology's most prominent and interesting figures. Through his work, Turnbull gave readers an inside look at parts of Africa they could only imagine. Host Steve Curwood speaks with author Richard Grinker about his new book which brings us inside the public and private life of the renowned anthropologist. (08:00)
Monk Parakeets/ Diane Orson
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Monk Parakeets are native to South America but in the last few decades, some of the birds have been transplanted to the U.S. and their numbers have grown. Officials are taking a wait-and-see approach as to whether the birds are a threat to native wildlife and agriculture. Diane Orson from WNPR explains. (07:00)
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Living On Earth's Cynthia Graber reports on windows that become darker with the flick of a switch, helping reduce heat and glare from the sun. (00:59)
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Across the southeastern U.S., red imported fire ants make a nuisance of themselves by biting anything that gets in their way and wreaking havoc on the native ant populations. Host Steve Curwood talks with research entomologist Sanford Porter about one promising technique for controlling the fire ants: killer flies. (05:45)
Mt. Desert Rock/ Matthew Algeo
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Matthew Algeo of Maine Public Broadcasting visits marine researchers on Mount Desert Rock. Residents of this isolated island study whales and seals and have few outside distractions other than the constant blow of the foghorn. (08:05)
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Host Steve Curwood discovers what attracts the neighborhood deer to his garden, and what keeps them away, now that he no longer has a dog. (02:22)
CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood, with an encore edition of Living on Earth. A handful of scientists around the world is leading the high-tech effort to keep the planet's most endangered animals from going extinct. These reproductive physiologists encounter failure far more often than success, but when success does come it can make headlines. One of the leaders in this field is Dr. Barbara Durrant of the San Diego Zoo. From member station KPBS in San Diego, reporter Erik Anderson has this profile.
ANDERSON: Behind the scenes of the giant panda exhibit at the San Diego
Zoo, keeper Dallas Ripsky pulls down a large metal latch, opening a door to a car-sized cage on wheels.
ANDERSON: She urges the zoo's female panda to enter.
RIPSKY: Come on, buddy.
ANDERSON: The 215-pound Bai Yun waddles into the squeeze cage, sniffing for the apple and carrot snacks that she knows are coming. This morning, Ripsky has company.
RIPSKY: Hello, Barb.
ANDERSON: Since the giant pandas first arrived from China four years ago, Barbara Durrant has been a regular visitor. This morning, she's here to check in on the first-time mom. Barbara and Dallas use a noisemaker and the lure of food to position the black and white bear.
RIPSKY: The other way.
DURRANT: Over here.
RIPSKY: No, that's not the way we do it now.
DURRANT: Well, we're going to do it this way today.
ANDERSON: Bai Yun sits up and eagerly accepts a freshly-cut carrot. Durrant kneels at the side of the cage. She has no trepidation about putting her hands inside, even though the seemingly cuddly animal sports huge claws and formidable teeth. Durrant is here to collect a pap smear. She puts a medical Q-tip on the end of a glass tube and reaches into the cage. Bai Yun is sprawled on her back with feet spread. The panda is far more interested in the carrots than helping Durrant.
DURRANT: Down. All the way down. I'm going to strap that leg to the side of the cage. (Ripsky laughs) We could use some stirrups. Be all the way down.
RIPSKY: Nope, nope, nope. Doggone it, she got it again. All right, let's try one more -- okay, I think I can - this one's okay.
ANDERSON: Durrant says the birth of Bai Yun's cub Hua Mei in 1999 was the highlight of her scientific career. Captive births are crucial for the future of the black and white bears because habitat destruction has reduced the number of wild pandas to less than a thousand. Her colleagues jokingly call her Hua Mei's dad, and last year she got cards on Father's Day. That's because Durrant was responsible for harvesting sperm from the reluctant male Shi Shi and artificially inseminating Bai Yun at precisely the right moment. No small feat, considering that pandas go into heat only a few days each spring. In tribute to that accomplishment, Durrant's ordered but cramped office, which she shares with several of her technicians, is filled with panda knickknacks. But it's a small handful of gag gifts that quickly draw a visitor's eye. A ceramic sperm bank. A wind-up sperm toy. And a small brass statue of two rhinos locked in a mating embrace.
DURRANT: I've been a reproductive physiologist for 21 years, and there is absolutely nothing that anyone can say that will embarrass me any more.
ANDERSON: But that wasn't the case when she arrived at the zoo as a young and shy postdoctoral researcher in 1979. Back then, she says mischievous animal keepers did everything they could to embarrass her, and they succeeded. Now, Durrant keeps things in perspective.
DURRANT: Collecting semen from a bull elephant, for instance, is very serious business, and also a little frightening. But when you go back and review the photos that people have taken while you're very earnestly doing this procedure, you find that you have to laugh. It's pretty ridiculous.
ANDERSON: That's one reason she can talk candidly about her latest project with the giant pandas. Recently, she's been working with Shi Shi in hopes of collecting a sperm sample, much the way she does with some of the zoo's other endangered animals, without anesthesia. Back at the panda exhibit, keeper Dallas Ripsky calls out to the aging male.
RIPSKY: Come on, Shi Shi! Shi Shi! (Bangs on drum) Good boy, you Mr. Smarty-Pants. Come on!
ANDERSON: Shi Shi plops down and watches as Durrant pulls out a small medical vibrator.
DURRANT: Hear this?
RIPSKY: Has he ever touched it with his nose?
RIPSKY: What did he do?
DURRANT: Nothing. (Laughs)
RIPSKY: Already doing the Indian seat.
ANDERSON: Shi Shi hasn't responded yet, but Durrant hopes that will change. That's because there's always a risk when an animal is anaesthetized. So right now, Durrant is only able to harvest panda sperm when vets knock the bear out for a medical procedure. That's particularly frustrating because the aging Shi Shi holds a special place in the captive panda community.
DURRANT: Genetically, he's very, very valuable, because he's a wild-caught animal. He would be known as a founder animal. It's the assumption that we have to make that they are the most genetically diverse.
ANDERSON: The giant pandas have landed most of the headlines, but Durrant's work doesn't stop there. She's helped bring hundreds of threatened species into the world, including rhinos, birds, snakes, and cheetahs. In fact, the San Diego wild animal park's cheetah breeding program is one of the most successful in the world. At the cheetah compound, a handful of cats are lounging in the midday sun. Large wire-enclosed pens surround a small stand of thatch-roofed buildings and trailers. Keeper Therese Everett has just mixed a specially-enhanced meal for one of the pregnant cats, and with food in hand it only takes a moment to get the cheetah's attention.
(Durrant whistles, a gate clanks open. The cheetah purrs)
DURRANT: Yeah. You a hungry girl? Wait. Okay. Good girl.
ANDERSON: Keepers, veterinarians, and Durrant are working together to maximize the cats' breeding cycles. Because their numbers in the wild are dwindling, there is a sense of urgency to bring new cheetahs into the world. The team says it can't rely on natural breeding patterns because they don't guarantee conception.
ANDERSON: Near the center of the compound, where an industrial-sized outdoor refrigerator hums in the background, Durrant leans over a row of wooden crates. Always looking for a better technique, she's now in the process of trying out a new cheetah breeding box. It's a handmade wooden crate that stands about three feet tall. One side is open and the other closed, except for a small hole.
DURRANT: And someone will be dropping cheese down through this hole.
ANDERSON: The food will keep the cheetah busy and minimize risk to keepers.
DURRANT: He'll be preoccupied with eating the cheese, and then we can come around this way and put an artificial vagina on him.
ANDERSON: Durrant says each animal has to be treated as an individual. For instance, there is a mandrill at the zoo that has developed, shall we say, an interest in humans with a certain hair color. When keepers visit him for a sample collection, they make sure there is a blonde in the crew for the baboon to focus on. Durrant says you can tell a lot about her life by her first memory. It's of the family dog. That early affinity for the animal world was with her as she grew up and wandered the wooded hills of upstate New York. Her passion eventually led her to study animal science in college.
DURRANT: That's all about domestic animals, which I also like, but I couldn't see myself working to increase reproduction in domestic animals just then to send them all to the slaughterhouse.
ANDERSON: She says it was her first look at a microscopic mouse embryo that cemented her desire to become a reproductive physiologist. Despite her groundbreaking research with many endangered species at the zoo, Durrant is likely to be remembered publicly for her work with giant pandas. Her scientific legacy, however, is much larger. But it's located in a small room near her office. There, she keeps a modern version of Noah's Ark.
DURRANT: This is the frozen zoo. It's a little cold in here. We like to keep it that way. But the freezers also keep it that way. You can see a large tank outside the window, and that's our store of liquid nitrogen.
ANDERSON: The nitrogen cools eight waist-high freezers that ring the small chamber. Durrant leans over and unseals the top of one of them.
DURRANT: You have to be very strong. There.
ANDERSON: As she lifts one of the garbage can-sized lids, a six-inch-deep fog covers the room's floor.
DURRANT: Inside we have these racks, these aluminum racks. And in each rack we have boxes. You can hear the liquid running off the boxes. And within each box there are 100 samples.
DURRANT: I have to put this right back down into the liquid because you don't want these samples to be, to warm up.
ANDERSON: The samples represent sperm and eggs for more than 250 endangered species. Durrant uses some of them for her current reproductive work. But perhaps more importantly, she's also using part of each sample to develop methods to safely freeze, store, and thaw each species' sperm and eggs. For instance, two years ago no one was freezing panda sperm, so Durrant had to figure out how to do it. She had to pick a solution, a cryo-preservative, to freeze the sperm in, and then work out a host of other factors.
DURRANT: How long we will cool the sample before we freeze it. How fast the freezing rate can be. How fast the thaw rate can be. And what we have to do after the sample is thawed to get that cryo-preservation out of the solution, because it's toxic to the sperm.
ANDERSON: Her frozen zoo collection is pretty impressive. With more than 19,000 samples, Durrant says there is enough material here to keep reproductive physiologists busy for decades after she's gone. Despite a career firmly rooted in the reproductive world, Durrant has no children. That may seem ironic, perhaps, until she's asked why.
DURRANT: The reason that we have so many endangered species is because we have way too many people. That is the core of every extinction that we are experiencing now: the human population.
ANDERSON: Durrant's next major project centers on the giant pandas. This spring she'll try to make sure that Bai Yun conceives again. Despite the zoo's best efforts to recreate an environment that's the panda equivalent of soft lights and music, the male Shi Shi has shown no romantic interest in his mate. That means Durrant will likely be called upon to step in where nature has fallen short. For Living on Earth, I'm Erik Anderson in San Diego.
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CURWOOD: This update from the San Diego Zoo: Dr. Durrant has now managed to artificially inseminate Bai Yun, the panda, a number of times in recent months, but it's too soon to tell if the bear is pregnant.
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CURWOOD: Coming up, remembering an anthropologist who liked to do things his own way. Stay tuned to Living on Earth. Now this environmental health note with Maggie Villiger.
VILLIGER: The chaste berry plant grows in the Mediterranean and Central Asia and gets its name from the belief that it suppresses sex drive. For centuries the chaste berry has also been a key ingredient in herbal therapies to relieve premenstrual syndrome. And a study out of Germany confirms its effectiveness in treating its symptoms. One hundred and seventy women diagnosed with PMS were either given chaste berry extract or a placebo. After three months, women who received the herb reported significant reductions in a number of symptoms, including mood swings, headaches, and feelings of anger and irritability. Overall, more than half the women given chaste berry extract say their symptoms improved by at least 50 percent. Researchers think the active ingredient in the fruit works by lowering the level of the hormone prolactin. That's this week's health update. I'm Maggie Villiger.
CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.
(Music up and under: Bela Fleck "Black Forest")
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.
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CURWOOD: A hundred and twenty-eight summers ago, a plague of biblical proportions hit the North American heartland. That's when hordes of Rocky Mountain locusts chewed their way across the Great Plains. "A large black cloud suddenly appeared high in the west," one Minnesota farmer wrote, "from which came an ominous sound: the scourge of the prairies was upon us." Locusts are grasshoppers which swarm together to migrate. The name "locust" comes from the Latin for "burnt place." And that's how the landscape can look once the insects have had their way. In 1875 a doctor in Nebraska estimated that one swarm moved over an area of almost 200,000 square miles with an estimated twelve-and-a-half trillion bugs. And could those bugs eat! They devoured any and all vegetation, along with wooden tool handles, clothes drying on the line, even wool off the backs of sheep. The bugs returned in lesser numbers after 1875. And then suddenly, around the turn of the century, the locusts disappeared. It might have been the unwitting revenge of the settlers. They converted land for agriculture and may have destroyed the grasshoppers' habitat. There is one place you can still see some of these ravenous insects. A few of them are preserved in the ice of Knife Point Glacier in Wyoming. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
CURWOOD: Colin Turnbull studied anthropology at Oxford, where he was taught to see aboriginal societies as windows into our evolutionary past. But when Mr. Turnbull traveled to Africa to study pygmies, he found their present-day life as spiritual beings to be as important and informative to us as their past. As a best-selling writer, he brought millions of people inside the lives of the people of Africa. Now, author Richard Grinker brings us inside the life of Colin Turnbull in his new book called In the Arms of Africa.
GRINKER: Colin Turnbull was destined to become a traditional anthropologist, but he did nothing of the sort. He became one of the most unusual anthropologists of this century. He was deeply influenced by Eastern spirituality, in particular Buddhism and Hinduism. And so, the kind of work he did for Oxford was terribly unsatisfying to them. When he went to Africa, he didn't see a kinship system or a political system to be described. He saw a society that lived in total harmony with their environment. A society whose religion was based on the rainforest and its bounty. He did not see a society that offered much in the way of science, but it certainly offered something in the way of truth. But it was a different sort of truth, a human core, an essence of humanity.
CURWOOD: What does conventional anthropology think about emotional and spiritual questions?
GRINKER: It's a very good question. They are conflicted about it. And often anthropologists are quite dismissive of work such as Turnbull's. Colin Turnbull is probably, next to Margaret Mead, the best-selling anthropologist of all time. And yet, anthropologists have questioned the value of his work as science. Now, on the other hand, everybody knows that our work is subjective, that our work is deeply felt, and that we often write for our own audiences. And Colin Turnbull's audience was not
anthropologists. Colin Turnbull was writing for the masses. He wanted to sell millions of copies of books, not to make money so much as to show the world that anthropology was a pilgrimage. It was a spiritual path. One of the hallmarks of anthropology is a concept called cultural relativism. What cultural relativism means is that we don't judge other cultures according to our own standards and values. We try to see things through the eyes of those to whom that culture actually belongs. And a lot of anthropologists, including me, have not practiced cultural relativism with respect to Colin Turnbull. We've not looked at what his perspective was, what his motivations were, his reasons for being an anthropologist.
CURWOOD: And those reasons were?
GRINKER: And those reasons were in order to establish anthropology as a spiritual pathway, rather than as a pathway to science. Now, it's not that he didn't believe in truth. He believed in truth, just not one truth. And sure, you could believe that you were better suited to spout one version of the truth as opposed to another, and you could try to convince other people that your version of the truth was better. But you shouldn't be dogmatic about it, because who knows whether the next day your truth is overthrown?
CURWOOD: Why do you suppose so many of us bought or at least were asked to read The Mountain People and The Forest People, his two very bestselling books? I guess The Mountain People is the bestseller of the group.
GRINKER: Well, people loved reading The Mountain People and The Forest People because they were not written for an academic audience. But they also loved them because the books were fundamentally about what happens to a human being when they're separated from their society. In the first instance with the pygmies, as depicted in The Forest People, Colin Turnbull found the best of humanity in himself and in others. In the second example, about the Ik of Uganda, called The Mountain People,
Colin Turnbull found the worst of humanity. He thought that the Ik were evil and he saw himself becoming an evil person. In fact, I was just talking to a friend, I'm sure many listeners are, about the television show Survivor. And I was saying, you know, Turnbull would have loved Survivor. Anthropologists hate the kind of primitivism that was depicted on that show with phony idols being produced and the invention of a tribe and so on. Turnbull would have loved it. He would have loved any opportunity to separate yourself from your own society so that you could get to the core of who you were, and to the core of humanity. He would have loved that aspect of it. Because a lot of the show was about people doing some self-exploration and trying to figure out, is the world defined as some sort of a Hobbsean war against all, or some good social contract?
CURWOOD: Richard Grinker, what was it that first drew you to writing about Colin Turnbull?
GRINKER: I was studying the pygmies, myself, in the mid-80s. And I lived with the pygmies and the farmers who live in the Ituri rainforest. And I hated Turnbull's works, frankly. I pretty much set out to disprove Turnbull, to show that he was wrong. To show that his depiction of the world there was romantic and idealized and exaggerated and unscientific.
CURWOOD: You hated his work.
GRINKER: Oh, I absolutely did. I thought he was a hack. And in fact, Turnbull wrote me two letters while I was in the field. I answered neither of them. I was not only of the opinion that he was a bad scientist, I was also pretty self-centered and kind of egotistical at that point, and I just didn't even answer these letters when he told me that I should do this or that in my field site. And so, I came back to the United States and I wrote a book, which was highly critical of him. And when I wrote my second book, which was about Africa and is a textbook, a friend of mine said, "You know, you should dedicate it to Colin Turnbull, because he was really the one responsible for influencing so many people to respect African cultures, and to bring knowledge about Africa to the west. And I thought about it a lot, and my friend really influenced me, and in 1996 I dedicated a book to him.
CURWOOD: What was the turning point?
GRINKER: The turning point was really that one conversation I had with my friend, in which I started to develop that cultural relativism that I had just spoken of, where now I was able to see Turnbull through his own eyes, to empathize with him, to see what he was trying to do. And he wasn't trying to do what all of the other anthropologists were doing. He was trying to find something else, trying to learn, trying to teach. In a way, a very committed and dedicated, almost religious way, that we rarely see these days.
CURWOOD: We're just about out of time here, but you're a teacher. You teach anthropology at George Washington University, in the spot that was once held by Colin Turnbull himself. What's the big lesson that you ask students, you ask us to take away from your study of the life of Colin Turnbull?
GRINKER: I ask my students to look at Colin Turnbull, to discover the diversity of pathways we can take to knowledge. That we don't have to think only in terms of the scientific method. That social science, let alone anthropology, is not just an adherence to a particular method. It can be an art, a creative art, a way of exploring different aspects of our humanity. So I hope that when students look at Turnbull, they think, wow, here's a guy who did things his own way. And when students look at his life, his personal life as opposed to his professional life, I hope they see the same sort of thing. He wasn't an activist, he wasn't out there raising money being a community organizer. Colin Turnbull was an activist only to the extent that he lived his life exactly the way he wanted to. And he wasn't going to let anybody tell him what to do. I think he's a courageous figure in that regard.
CURWOOD: Richard Grinker is associate professor of anthropology at George Washington University. He is author of the new book In the Arms of Africa: The Life of Colin Turnbull. Thank you, sir.
GRINKER: Thank you.
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Buy In the Arms of Africa book">
CURWOOD: During Winter, New England bird watchers find chickadees, cardinals, and juncos at their back yard feeders. Now there's one more to add to that list: monk parakeets. These members of the parrot family are native to the mountains of Argentina and Bolivia. And now some transplants from South America have taken up year-round residence in southern New England and other parts of the U.S. From Connecticut, WNPR's Diane Orson has this report.
LIVING: The best reason to be a biologist is cool toys. A telescope, and I have binoculars in the bag, and...
ORSON: Steven Living spends his days driving up and down Connecticut's coastline looking for lime green parrots.
(Trunk door opens)
LIVING: So you can see the trunk of a monk parakeet researcher's car, full of twigs and various other debris, which I've collected from underneath their nests.
ORSON: Living is researching Connecticut's wild monk parakeets at Southern Connecticut State University. He studies where the birds nest, the materials they build with, what they eat, and how they interact with other birds.
ORSON: In a suburban neighborhood in the town of Milford along Connecticut's shoreline, there is a dense concentration of monk parakeets nesting in four evergreen trees, just a few feet from several beachfront homes.
LIVING: I believe I counted about 25 nests at this site. And numbers, I guessed at least 100 birds in this one location.
ORSON: Monk parakeets, also known as Quaker parakeets, are native to South America. About twelve inches long, they look as if they're wearing a bright green cloak over their gray chest. The birds were imported to the U.S. in the 1960s as exotic pets. Over time, some accidentally escaped or were intentionally released from pet shops and homes. In the 1970s an entire flock flew away after a shipping crate opened at New York's Kennedy Airport. There are now monk parakeet colonies in Connecticut, New York, Florida, Texas, Illinois, and Oregon. And when the birds take roost in an area, they build a home that's uniquely their own. Again, Steven Living.
LIVING: This nest, I've estimated that it's probably a good eight feet on its longest axis by probably four or five feet across on its shortest axis. And these nests can weigh hundreds of pounds.
ORSON: The nests are unusual in the parrot world. Huge, complex structures made from twigs and sticks, almost like enormous parrot condo complexes. Monk parakeets like to build their nests on utility poles. Transformers may help heat the nests in winter. Some birds chew on the insulation, which has on occasion crossed wires and even caused power outages. And monk parakeets live in their nests year-round. Unlike many exotics they arrived in the U.S. pre-adapted to extremely cold temperatures, since they're used to life high in the Patagonia Andes. Not only do they survive Connecticut's winters, they're flourishing.
ORSON: These birds are not the melodious type. In fact, they squawk continually from dawn to dusk. The birds' neighbors seem to either love them or passionately dislike them.
WOMAN 1: They're very loud, and I think they're very messy with the twigs from the nests.
WOMAN 2: They're cool to look at, and they come down, they feed on the yard. But they take getting used to.
WOMAN 3: I find it sort of interesting that people are coming to look at them with binoculars and saying oh, aren't they great. And then I want to say, hey, five o'clock in the morning they're not so great. (Laughs)
WOMAN 4: I don't put food out for them because I figure they are survivors, and they need to fend for themselves.
ORSON: The variety of foods they eat may turn out to be a key to their success. In their native habitat, monk parakeets are considered agricultural pests. Flocks swoop into cornfields and decimate crops. Jenny Dixon is a wildlife biologist with Connecticut's Department of Environmental Protection. She says it's unclear the monk parakeet population is doing damage in the U.S. Most states are taking a wait and see approach.
DIXON: What we generally have viewed as our policy right now is, if the birds are causing a problem that poses a public health or safety risk, then something can be done to control them. If it's just a nuisance from noise or droppings or something like that, that probably isn't going to fit that category.
ORSON: Experts estimate that the United States is home to thousands of wild monk parakeets. DEP biologist Dixon says many states tried at some point to eradicate their monk parakeet populations.
DIXON: Connecticut did some eradication efforts but not a lot. And a lot of that was done initially with the thought that they could keep the birds from becoming established, or their populations from expanding. Those didn't go very well, so the birds are here to stay in a lot of different states.
ORSON: The 1992 Wild Bird Conservation Act strictly regulates the importation of birds from other continents. But officials say that as global trade has increased, more and more alien species, both plants and animals, have been introduced to the United States. Ornithologist Noble Proctor is credited with sighting Connecticut's first free-flying monk parakeets in the 1970s. He says there is a big difference between alien species arriving on their own to new continents and those introduced accidentally or intentionally by humans. Procter says birds move naturally when there is an open niche.
PROCTOR: This is just a normality of expansion of range. The whole dynamics of migration. When somebody intercedes and actually physically brings it in, gets bored with it, and released, bad. Not only for birds but for plants.
ORSON: Proctor says that without a niche monk parakeets are bound to impact something. The food chain, for example. But ornithologist Mark Spreyer disagrees. He's written about monk parakeets for the Birds of North America series. Spreyer says that non-native species can create a new niche for themselves in the urban ecosystem.
SPREYER: People get very alarmed about exotics, but most exotics that come over don't survive. And those that do survive don't invade native ecosystems. Most of the birds, you know, you talk about house sparrows, starlings, monk parakeets, in the eastern United States house finches, they all show up right around suburbs and cities. And I think there is a community there where they have a role.
ORSON: Connecticut's monk parakeet population is expanding. Until recently the colonies stayed strictly along the coastline, but now are moving inland, closer to farms. Connecticut may soon need to develop new management plans, but more information about the birds is needed first. So research biologists will spend the next two years trying to discover as much as they can about the state's newest wild bird. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Orson in Milford, Connecticut.
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CURWOOD: You can hear our program anytime on our website. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And while you are online, send your comments to us at email@example.com. Once again, firstname.lastname@example.org. Our postal address is, 8 Story St, Cambridge, MA 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-99-88. CD's, tapes and transcripts are $15.
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CURWOOD: Just ahead, putting a damper on fire ants. Stay tuned to Living on Earth. First this environmental technology note with Cynthia Graber.
GRABER: Windows make a big difference in how much heating, cooling, and light a building needs. Today's best windows can reduce heat and glare from ultraviolet rays. But about half the heat streaming through them comes from visible light. So researchers have teamed up with the U.S. Department of Energy to produce the first electrically-powered tinting windows. These windows are coated with five layers of a thin metal mixture. With the twist of a dimmer, a user can send an electric charge through some of the coatings. Some layers absorb the charge and become darker, then lighter once again when the charge is released. Researchers say the new panels can save up to 40 percent of electricity needs even over today's best energy-saving windows. And because they cut down on both ultraviolet and visible sunlight, your couches, chairs, and carpets won't fade so quickly, either. That's this week's technology update. I'm Cynthia Graber.
CURWOOD: And you 're listening to Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Red fire ants have made the southeastern United States a dangerous place to walk barefoot since the 1940s. These aggressive, pesky ants will bite anything that stands still long enough, including people, livestock, crops, or even outdoor air conditioners. In an attempt to stop the spread of these ants, scientists are looking to the ants' old nemeses from their native continent. I'm joined now by Sanford Porter, a research entomologist with the United States Department of Agriculture.
CURWOOD: For our listeners who don't live in the southeast, how big of a problem are these little guys? I mean, I take it they aren't just your sort of typical show up at a picnic uninvited type of ants, huh?
PORTER: Well, the problem is that they're absolutely everywhere. If you walk around in your back yard with your bare feet it's easy to get stung. So, for the average person it's an aggravation. But for little kids, for example, it's a fairly serious problem. A little two-year-old will climb onto a fire ant mound and the fire ants just swarm up by the hundreds and thousands and the poor little kid can get bitten hundreds of times before he can get off.
CURWOOD: What's it like to get stung by the ants? I mean, I live in New Hampshire. I've been bitten by the ants that are in an anthill here. It's no fun.
PORTER: It's about like a mosquito bite or a pinprick. They hurt for about a minute or two, and then about 24 hours later they form a little sterile pustule that looks like a pimple. And the problem is not one bite, but it's easy to get stung by the fire ants dozens or even hundreds of times.
CURWOOD: Now, why are these fire ants so pesky? Is this how they hunt? I mean, they go out and they eat huge creatures?
PORTER: Absolutely. They are premiere mass recruiting social insects, and that's how they do it. They find some food, they go back to their nest-mates, and they say "There's lots of food over here." And pretty soon you have hundreds and thousands of ants out there trying to carry the food back.
CURWOOD: These fire ants have no natural enemies here, but in their native South America there are things that keep these ants in check. And I understand that you've got a laboratory there, in Gainesville, Florida, that has enlisted a certain fly in the fight against fire ants. How exactly do they wage this battle?
PORTER: Well, the flies are something that we're very excited about. The flies are little, itty bitty flies, about the size of a head of a fire ant. And there is a reason for that, and what the flies do is come in, hover a couple of millimeters above the ants, and as soon as they get in just the right position they inject an egg into the ant. And the egg hatches in a couple of days, moves into the ant's head, where the little maggot swims around for a few weeks. And when it gets mature, then it will release an enzyme that causes the fire ant's head to fall off.
CURWOOD: Oh, my.
PORTER: And when the head falls off, then the little fly maggot eats everything in the fire ant's head and pupates like a butterfly. So, it's using a fire ant head like a cocoon. A few weeks later, the adult fly pops out and starts looking for more ants.
CURWOOD: What kind of defenses do these fire ants have against this decapitating fly?
PORTER: Well, the fire ants will first run and hide as quick as they can, if they can. If they can't hide fast enough, then they'll freeze. And they'll, of course, stop foraging while the flies are attacking.
CURWOOD: So, let me see if I've got this right. Fire ants are out having a good time. And it's like one of the gang looks up and sees a cop car, like these flies, and everybody scatters, huh?
PORTER: (Laughs) Oh, exactly. Exactly. There's some kind of an air raid alarm that the ants put out that says we're under an air raid, everybody scatter.
CURWOOD: These flies actually don't kill that many of these fire ants.
PORTER: Right. They probably only kill a few percent of the colony. But the biggest impact is on the ability of the ants to collect food. So while the ants are hiding from the flies, that means that our native ants can be out there eating the food that the fire ants would have normally eaten. And then when that happens, the native ants can compete with fire ants at other times, as well. Basically, what we're trying to do is shift the ecological balance in favor of our native ants.
CURWOOD: There is the obvious concern that if you bring in a non-native species to fight these fire ants, which are already a non-native species, you could have more problems down the road.
PORTER: Yes, and that's something that we are always very concerned about. So we looked at how the flies affected other kinds of ants and what kinds of things they were attracted to. They're not attracted to people, they're not attracted to animals, they're not attracted to plants or our food or our refuse or carrion. They don't vector diseases. The flies are extremely specific. They're like little guided missiles, that when they run out of fire ants to eat they basically just die.
CURWOOD: Now, when do you think you're going to be able to release some of these red fire ant avengers on a larger scale?
PORTER: Well, we've already begun that here in Gainesville. About three years ago, we began the releases. We were thrilled to find them out a few hundred yards and that they survived the winter. And then the second year, we found them out three or four miles. And then, we went out just last November and we found them out another eight to sixteen miles. So they are now occupying almost 1,000 square miles around Gainesville, Florida.
CURWOOD: And what's happened to the fire ant population around Gainesville, Florida?
PORTER: Ah, excellent question. That is something that we're just beginning to look at. Last spring, we set out a bunch of test sites just outside the wavefront of the advancing flies, and this fall, they've moved into the test sites and it will probably be a couple of years before we can assess the impacts.
CURWOOD: Sanford Porter is a research entomologist with the United States Department of Agriculture in Gainesville, Florida. Thank you, sir.
PORTER: You're welcome, Steve.
(Music up and under: "Them!" THE UNINVITED, VOLUME 3)
CURWOOD: Imagine moving in with a dozen strangers, on a tiny island twenty-five miles out to sea, in a dwelling with no running water and minimal electricity. It sounds like some new "reality" TV show, but it's how some researchers from the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine spent their summer on Mount Desert Rock. The scientists are studying whales and seals. Maine Public Radio's Matthew Algeo paid them a visit.
ALGEO: During the summer, humpback and finback whales come to the Gulf of Maine to feed. These two humpbacks, a cow and her calf, were recently spotted off Mount Desert Island. Whales are still mysterious creatures. They spend much of their lives deep underwater, so researchers have to be willing to go to great lengths to study them. And the researchers who come to Mount Desert Rock every summer go to very great lengths to do their work.
(Boat sound, horn blows)
ALGEO: The boat ride from Bar Harbor to Mount Desert Rock takes about two hours. The Rock, as it's known, is 25 miles from the mainland, smack in the middle of the Gulf of Maine. It's a remote, rocky, four-acre island, with a rambling two-story house, a lighthouse and a foghorn that blows every 22 seconds. One historian called the Rock "part of another world."
(Foghorn blows, seagull sounds)
ALGEO: The lighthouse was automated more than 20 years ago. Today the rock is uninhabited, except in the summer, when a dozen or so researchers from the College of the Atlantic come to the tiny island to study whales and seals. They live without plumbing, and at night, they work by candlelight and oil lamps. Dan Dendanto studies finback whales and manages the research station on the Rock. He says the living conditions are primitive.
DENDANTO: There are things that we all miss about the mainland. Regular showers. Mail every day. The ability to run to the convenience store.
ALGEO: Despite the harsh conditions, whale researchers like Dendanto are drawn to the Rock because whales are drawn to the Rock. As far as the cetaceans are concerned, it's a great place to eat. As the ocean's currents hit the island, plankton are forced to the surface of the water. The plankton are eaten by small fish like herring, and the fish are eaten by whales.
(Wind and bird noise atop the lighthouse)
UZ: You're looking for a blow, for finbacks and humpbacks.
ALGEO: Ozlem Uz is a native of Turkey and a recent College of the Atlantic graduate. She usually starts each day on the Rock by climbing fifty feet to the top of the lighthouse. With binoculars, she scans the horizon, looking for puffs of mist rising above the water - whale blows. Uz can tell a whale by its blow. Humpbacks have short, squat ones and finbacks have tall, thin ones.
UZ: There's another blow! To the southeast. That's a finback, too. See how tall the blow is?
ALGEO: After the researchers find out where the whales are, they set out in small motorboats to catch up with them. But whales are elusive and surprisingly fast. Some can swim fifteen miles an hour. If they find one, the researchers take a picture of its fins. Each whale has unique markings on its fins, like fingerprints on humans. Judy Allen has been studying whales for more than twenty years and she helped pioneer the photographic identification technique.
ALLEN: That gives us information about a lot of aspects of the whale biology. It tells us about breeding patterns, calving intervals. We can determine things about social structure of these animals.
ALGEO: If they can get close enough to a whale, the researchers also try to get a sample of its skin. Dan Dendanto says this is a useful way to study whale breeding patterns.
DENDANTO: We use a rather modern version of the 13th century crossbow that has a modified arrow tip which is like a punch, and it removes a piece of skin just like a cookie cutter would work in dough. And it removes a piece of skin about the size of a pencil eraser, and from that piece of skin we can extract the cells, and, more importantly, the nucleic acids which occur within those cells, and then we can use that DNA for a number of different types of investigation.
ALGEO: Whales aren't the only subject of the researchers on Mount Desert Rock. Seals are studied here, too. During the summer, the island is home to more than a thousand gray and harbor seals, and Steve Renner counts them all.
RENNER: 13AHU sleep, 1JHU change, in response 1AHU....
ALGEO: Renner is a grad student who's on the Rock to study seal behavior. He watches the seals that haul out of the water and congregate on rock ledges just off the island. Renner spends as many as six hours a day counting the seals, identifying them by species, age and sex and cataloging their behavior.
RENNER: With the scan method, I will start on one side of a ledge and go across, pretty much, animal by animal and just give them a quick look, determine what species they are, what sex they are, and what behavior they might be doing and categorize that as best I can. So, the idea is to get to figure out what proportion of animals are doing a certain behavior nearly simultaneously and projecting that onto a single animal to see the amount of time an animal would spend doing a given behavior, such as sleeping or being involved in an aggressive encounter with another animal.
ALGEO: Gray seals and harbor seals are different species. Gray seals can weigh as much as a thousand pounds. Harbor seals usually weigh less than half that. But Renner says both species have something in common: they're not very active and counting them for hours on end can get a little repetitious.
RENNER: By hour number three or hour number four it gets a little sketchy sitting in the seal blind by yourself, just noting the same behaviors. And as the tide goes out I find that more and more animals are spending more and more time sleeping, so the scans get much more monotonous. You have 200 animals and 198 of them are sleeping. (Laughs)
ALGEO: Life on the Rock can sometimes be as monotonous as counting sleeping seals. When the fog rolls in, the researchers can be stuck inside for days with few diversions.
(Sound of pool balls racked up)
ALGEO: There is a pool table in the house, reportedly flown in by helicopter several years ago, when the coast guard managed the property. There's also a computer and a cell phone, but not much else.
(Sound of break)
ALGEO: Despite the isolation, the hard work, the primitive conditions, the researchers who spend their summers on Mount Desert Rock always find it hard to leave. And, says researcher Kari Barber, adjusting to life back on the mainland can be hard.
BARBER: Out here, it's kind of like you're living in your own world. And you're somewhat connected, but you're not. And you're just so immersed in your work and you're immersed in your research, that going back is kind of like, "Wow, I really don't like being here one bit."
ALGEO: At summer's end, the researchers on Mount Desert Rock leave the island. The research station is now closed for the year and the Rock, once again, will face the winter alone. For Living on Earth, I'm Matthew Algeo.
(Foghorn sounds and music)
CURWOOD: Each of us has our own ways of marking the seasons. The signs of summer around my house are country music, yes, and disappearing hosta plants. Now, hostas are squat little bushes with leaves about as wide as a hand, and when spring turns to summer they sprout lush, new growth that deer love.
When I had a dog roaming the grounds of my New England farmhouse, my hostas made it through the season untouched. But once I no longer had a dog, well, the local doe began bringing her gang by in the early mornings. Now they neatly snip off the hosta leaves, at a respectable length, of course, that allows them to grow back. I don't so much mind the deer pruning my hosta plants. But last weekend they went too far.
It was a beautiful sunny morning. The ground just damp enough to make weed pulling almost a pleasure, and I found the tops of my biggest tomato plants had disappeared along with the hosta shoots. A lethal lament slipped into my thoughts. Serves you right, I said to myself, for putting up those signs telling hunters they are not welcome. If you'd let those hunters come around last winter, you'd be picking more tomatoes this summer. Too late now, I thought. I could get a new dog, but the time's just not right.
Or I could seek advice from my neighbor, farmer Randy. Randy grows such tasty corn, grapes, and strawberries on his 300 acres that folks drive for miles when they know he's picking.
"Randy," I says, "you ever heard of a deer eating tomato plants?"
"Yup," he says. "And they usually spit it right back out. They'd much rather eat hosta."
So I suppose I could plant even more hosta. Or, Randy says, "Put on the radio."
I smile at this one, until he says the next thing. "But don't put on your kind of radio. All that news stuff and talking. It's got to be music."
"And not just any music. Country music," he says. "The deer around here don't seem to mind rock or pop, but if they hear country music they flash that white tail and they are gone. It doesn't even have to be that loud. Just leave it on 24 hours a day."
Hmm. Suppose my neighbors like that better than a barking dog? Well, so far it's working. So, here's to the voices of summer. George Strait and Dixie Chicks? Thanks.
(Music up and under: Dixie Chicks "Cowboy Take Me Away")
CURWOOD: And for this week that is Living on Earth. Next week, ever since Thailand imposed a ban on logging, elephants that used to haul logs out of the forest are out of work. But some have found new jobs; playing in the band.
LAIR: I'd say for about half of the elephants, playing in the orchestra is just a job. But several of them genuinely enjoy it, particularly Luuk-Op, who is a wonderful percussionist, keeps perfect time.
CURWOOD: The incredible Thai elephant orchestra, next week on Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Before we go today a quick audio voyage to Lisbon, Portugal. Michael Rusenberg produced this montage portrait of the city on a recording called Lisboa Epilogue.
(Soundscape: Michael Rusenberg "Lisbon, Portugal" LISBOA EPILOGUE)
CURWOOD: We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Maggie Villiger, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, Milisa Muniz, and Bunnie Lester. Jesse Wegman produced this week's program. We had help this week from, Marie Chung, Katy Saunders, and Gernot Wagner. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. Our Technical Director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our Western Editor. Diane Toomey is our Science Editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our Senior Editor. And Chris Ballman is the Senior Producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, Executive Producer. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new ways to provide energy for the world economy without harm to the environment: www.wajones.org; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for reporting on western issues; the Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, supporting efforts to better understand environmental change; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Turner Foundation.
NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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