Amidst the raging bushfires in Australia there’s a bit of happy news. Wombats are unintentionally saving wildlife.
Wombats are nocturnal marsupials that live in burrows which they dig with their teeth and claws. Specially adapted for their underground life, the female’s pouch where she carries her young faces backward so that dirt doesn’t get into it.
Southern hairy-nosed wombats (Lasiorhinus latifrons) are the smallest of the three wombat species. At 30 inches long and weighing 42 to 71 pounds, their extensive tunnels have many entrances, long “hallways,” several large warrens, and smaller chambers. They are known to share their burrows with other wombats and are tolerant of visits by other species. Southern hairy-nosed wombats live in the fire zone.
Rescuers figured out the importance of wombat burrows when they found healthy, unscathed animals wandering in newly burned areas including small wallabies, echidnas, lizards, skinks and rabbits. As the fires approached, the fleeing animals dove into wombat burrows to shelter safely while the firestorm passed overhead.
Two species that may benefit from the wombat burrows are shown below.
The swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor) is common in the bushfire area, measuring 27-30 inches excluding its tail. Rock wallabies are even smaller.
Short-beaked echidnas (Tachyglossus aculeatus) are egg-laying mammals like the platypus that measure 12-18 inches long. They eat ants and termites.
Both studies correlated the annual mean summer temperature of the species’ breeding range and reached the same conclusion: As the climate heats up, birds are getting smaller.
We should expect this.
There’s a biological rule of thumb called Bergmann’s Rule which states that, within a species, populations living in colder climates have larger body size than those in warmer climates. Bergmann’s explanation is that large animals have a lower surface-area-to-volume ratio so they lose heat more slowly in cold climates while small animals have a higher surface-to-volume ratio and can cool off faster when it’s hot.
Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) provide a good example of Bergmann’s rule because they range across North America from Alaska to Newfoundland and south to Mexico. I saw their variability up close in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Section of Birds in December 2016. My photo below shows sparrows collected in Alaska in the top row, sparrows from Pennsylvania on the bottom.
Here’s a closeup placed side by side (below):
On the left, two song sparrows collected in Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh (leftmost) and Geneva Marsh.
On the right, song sparrows collected in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands at Unalaska (leftmost) and Sanak.
Alaskan song sparrows are so large that they have to be placed sideways in the tray!
Smaller size is normal where it’s warmer.
It isn’t bad news for birds and it tells us two additional things:
Birds’ bodies have been registering climate change long before we humans noticed or admitted it.
Now that climate change has really settled in there are loads of free fun winter activities that we can’t do in Pittsburgh. I was reminded of this when I heard that the Beaver County Snow Shovel Riding Championship was postponed last Saturday. Last year it was eventually canceled. As the Beaver County Times wrote last month:
The Beaver County Snow Shovel Riding Championship returns in 2020. That comes with the major assumption that sufficient snow rests on the 165-foot hill at Old Economy Park, just off Route 989 in Economy, on Jan. 11 or the makeup date of Jan. 18.
Last Saturday, 11 January 2020, was so hot that it broke a 130-year record. At Pittsburgh International Airport, nine miles from that Beaver County hillside, it was 71 degrees F. Of course there was no snow.
Other winter fun we’re missing includes building snowmen, making snow angels, and cross country skiing. These still might happen for a day or two if we get one big snowfall.
But some winter fun is just plain dangerous in today’s world. Ice fishermen used to count on our frozen lakes but these days the ice is missing or very thin. Unsafe!
To emphasize this dilemma, the Great Lakes were virtually ice free on January 12.
No winter fun.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons; map from U.S. National Ice Center; click on the captions to see the originals)
Tomorrow the New Jersey legislature will consider a bill that will either protect or destroy 15 acres of state park land where a neighboring golf course wants to build 3 golf holes. The showdown between those who love public parks and nature versus extremely rich developers is well described in the New York Times: Golf Club for the 1 Percent Wants to Seize a Migratory Bird Habitat.
I don’t know how the fight will play out in human terms but I’m sure of one thing. In the end the sea will win.
Caven Point Natural Area is a sandy peninsula on the Hudson River in Jersey City, NJ, a migratory bird stopover and nesting site so sensitive that the area is closed April through September to leave the birds in peace. American oystercatchers, shown above, are some of the cool birds you can see there.
Though it’s part of Liberty State Park, Caven Point Natural Area (yellow circle) is not contiguous to it.
Liberty National Golf Club is one of the most exclusive golf courses in the US with an initiation fee of nearly half a million dollars. The course has breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline which you may have seen on television last August when Liberty National hosted the PGA TOUR’s FedEx Cup Playoffs from August 6–11, 2019. This photo, uploaded by Redi-Rock International in 2015, gives you an idea of the view.
To us humans, Nature is the backdrop to the protests, letter writing, legislation and legal battles, but Nature will be the foreground in the years ahead. Climate change and sea level rise will engulf Caven Point and part of the existing golf course. It is already happening.
This map of the Caven Point area from NOAA’s Sea Level Rise Viewer shows red where the highest high tides inundate the land today. This doesn’t include the 5-foot wall of water that washed over the area during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
If the ocean rises 3 feet, as predicted for this century, Caven Point will become an island, ponds on the existing golf course will overflow (green) and the end of Liberty National’s parking lot near the clubhouse will be underwater every day (green).
Even if it doesn’t rise three feet very soon …
“Nobody’s debating that sea-level rise is happening. It’s back to how much, how fast,” Helen Amanda Fricker, a glaciologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told me. Even the most optimistic scientists have recently increased their low-end estimates, she said.
(photo of American oystercatcher by Tony Bruno. Caven Point walkway by Bill Benson on Flickr, Liberty National Golf Course by Redi-Rock International on Flickr, maps from New Jersey State Parks and NOAA Sea Level Viewer; click on the captions to see the originals)
For temperature, the redder the color the more likely it will be hotter than normal. For precipitation, green means it’s likely to be wetter. Pittsburgh is high in both categories, hot and wet. So is Alaska, especially in temperature.
For many years now my First Bird of the Year is always the American crow because hundreds fly over my house before dawn, cawing as they disperse from the roost. The only way a different species could win “First Bird” is if I cheated and ignored the obvious.
This year I decided to change the challenge to Best Bird of the First Day. My 2020 winner is the turkey vulture that used to be absent on January 1.
Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are South American birds who’ve expanded their range into North America, year-round residents in the southern U.S. but only summer visitors up north.
Vultures migrate because they can’t eat our winter food supply. Though carrion is available year-round their beaks aren’t strong enough to rip open frozen food.
However climate change is doing them a favor. Last month in Pittsburgh most days were barely below freezing and five recent days were as much as 20 degrees above normal. Nothing was frozen.
Turkey vultures used to leave Pittsburgh for the winter but in this century a few began to linger here. The most reliable group roosted within sight of Dashields Dam on the Ohio River. Last month additional vultures were reported during the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count. Even so, I was surprised to see two of them soaring over McKnight Road on the first day of the year.
It’s October but you wouldn’t know it by stepping outdoors. We’re still running the air conditioner and wearing summer clothes. Today’s low temperature of 68oF is the normal high for October 1 in Pittsburgh. Our 90oF high will be 22 degrees above normal. It feels like August.
It didn’t used to be this way. Do you remember when you used to turn on the heat in September or suffer because you delayed to save money? Ten years ago our furnace broke and we were cold! I wrote this on 1 October 2009:
The weather has been getting colder every day for a week. This morning it was in the upper 30s at dawn. By now most of you have turned on your heat, but not us. We’re toughing it out until we get a new furnace. The old one won’t turn on and rather than pay to fix it I thought we could cope without it until the furnace man comes with a new one on Friday.