Celebrating Our Blue and Green Dot: Earth Day Turns 50

There was oil in the ocean and dead wildlife on the beaches. On January 28th, 1969, there was an oil well blowout off of Santa Barbara, which cracked the sea floor in five places, spilled an estimated 3 million gallons, and stretched along 35 miles of the California coast. It was the largest oil spill until the Exxon Valdez of 1989. Across the country, as well as the world, smog was a major problem in many cities. The Great Smog of London, from December 5-9, 1952 killed 12,000 people, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. The Hudson River was heavily polluted with toxic chemicals and fish had disappeared for many miles of it, leading folk singer Pete Seeger to found the Hudson Clearwater Project as a means of both cleanup and education. The issues had been building for decades, but the oil spill proved to be the tipping point. It spurred Wisconson Senator Gaylord Nelson along with environmentalist Denis Hayes to create the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970. An estimated 20 million people from New York to San Francisco came out to celebrate and a portion of Fifth Avenue had to be closed. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

In the half century that has since passed, several important changes have taken place. 1970 also saw the birth of both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act. The Clean Water Act came in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973. What started out nationally soon grew to an international movement and in 1990, Earth Day was celebrated in more 140 countries. On Earth Day 2016, 174 nations and the European Union signed the Paris Agreement, which was an international effort to reduce greenhouse emissions.

The creation of Earth Day had a profound effect on environmental policy and spearheaded much important legislation. Nevertheless, there is much more to do and many of the laws that came with Earth Day and the EPA are now under threat. This Earth Day, there will not be events drawing millions of people. However, what is important to remember is that Earth Day brought about both needed legislaton as well as a change in awareness of our impact on the planet. To date, we have found no other planet capable of supporting life which serves as a reminder that our blue and green dot in the universe is truly unique.

The Great Manipulator: Understanding Viruses is Key

They are less than a cell, yet they are one of the greatest manipulators of the world and are responsible for some of the worst diseases. They are viruses. This is somewhat different from the topics that this blog normally covers. However, a greater understanding of the world leads to a greater ability to meet the challenges that face us. Thus, this article will look at what viruses are, how they differ from bacteria, and how they work.

It is true that both viruses and some bacteria are pathogenic, however, there are some significant differences between them. They have a different chemical structure and what kills bacteria does not necessarily kill viruses. Viruses are strictly parasitic and are unable reproduce or carry out metabolic functions without a host cell. They are comprised of a submicroscopic particle of a nucleic acid genome (all genetic material surrounded by a protein coat called a capsid). The infective extra cellular form is called the virion and it contains at least one protein synthesized by genes in the nucleid acid of that virus. Some viruses also contain a lipoprotein membrane called an envelope. Viruses contain either DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) or RNA (ribonucleic acid), but not both. DNA and RNA both contain genetic material with one chemical difference. (RNA has uracil instead of thymine). Bacteria, by contrast, are unicelluar organisms which contain both DNA and RNA. They reproduce through cell division and are not dependent on a host cell for biological functions. While bacteria can also be pathogens, there are also a number that perform important ecological functions, such as nitrogen fixing, which allows plants to absorb nitrogen from the soil. Without these bacteria, soil be fertile and organic matter would decay much more slowly. Viruses, however, are solely pathogenic. When a virion comes into contact with a host cell it attaches, penetrates the plasma membrane, and introduces its own DNA or RNA. Through chemical messages, the host cell is then “tricked” into sythesizing the virus’s genetic material which is then used in making new viruses. Eventually, the virus kills the host cell and goes on to infect other cells. Most viruses can produce between 100-1,000 new viruses in less than one hour. Hence, then can mutate very quicky and this one reason they can be so difficult to treat. COVID 19 belongs to the coronaviridae family of viruses, which is one of several. The corona virus has a club shaped glycoprotein spike in its envelope, which gives it a crown-like appearance (hence corona). Its genome consistes of a single strand of positive sense RNA. Positive sense RNA means that it acts as a synthesis for the translation of viral proteins.

There is some debate as to the origin of viruses and they were originally considered to be primordial life forms. However, this is not likely correct, since they need a host cell to metabolize and reproduce. According to Robert M. Wagner and Robert M. Krug, Encyclopedia Britannica April 2020, it is “likely” that viruses trace their origins to rogue pieces of nucleic acid. It is also “possible” that viruses came from plasmids, which are circular DNA molecules, without chromosomes. They could be transferred from cell to cell, acquired coded proteins to coat the plasmid DNA, and evetually have been converted into viruses.

According to Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the word virus dates form 1392 and comes from the Latin virus meaning poison, sap of a plant, or slimy liquid. Related words are the Old Irish fi, the Greek wisos, and Sanskrit visa, all of which also mean poison. Its use as a disease causing agent was first recorded in 1728, the Chamber Cyclopedia. The word bacteria was first used between 1847 and 1840. It is from New Latin bacteria, French bacterie (1842), and Greek bakterion, meaning small staff or rod. Words are powerful and an understanding of the word can lend a greater understanding of what it names. When I looked these up, I thought it was interesting that bacteria, which can have good uses, is essentially named for its shape without any positive or negative connotations, while viruses which are solely pathogenic have a name rooted in disease.

As was stated earlier, due to their high reproduction and susequently high mutation rate viruses can be very difficult to treat. In addition, antivirals must kill the virus without killing the host cell. According to Wagner and Krug, effective antivirals must do one of the five following: prevent the virus from attaching to the host cell, uncoat the virus, prevent the sythesis of new viral components, prevent assembly of viral components, or release the virus from the host cell.

Viruses have the distinction of having a simpler chemical makeup than a living cell, yet they have achieved great evolutionary success. There is no doubt that the current climate is a difficult one. As of this writing, cases and deaths are continuing to increase, hospitals are overstretched, and tens of thousands of people are out of work as a result of the economic shutdown. If anything, this virus may convince us that we’re not as invincible as we’d like to think. However, with a greater understanding of what viruses are and how they are transmitted, we may be able to put long term preventative measures in place.

Foam Glass Creates Recycling Potential

There’s a bin of glass bottles on the curbside. But what if there was no use for them after they went in the recycling bin? Would they end up in the landfill after all? According to Rick Smith, the technical sales manager for Aero Aggregates, in Eddystone, PA approxiamtely 30% of glass has been recycled and 70% has gone to a landfill. However, a new use for recycled glass, known as foam glass, may provide both a use and market for recycled glass which can keep it out of the landfill. It is lightweight, easy to move, and highly inusulating, and can be used as a fill for building foundations.

Smith said foam glass is made of recycled material as opposed to synthetic foam or polystyrene, which are made from oil and plastic. Smith also said foam glass is more fire resistant than other insulation materials. While gravel, which is a common fill is a renewable resource, Smith said foam glass is lighter, easier to move and puts less pressure on the soil. Torsten Dworshak, who does marketing and sales for Glavel based in St. Albans, VT, which hopes to be in prodution in six months, said that foam glass has compressive strength and thermal insulation properties. In addition to fill, Smith said it can also be used for filtration, hydroponics, and agricultural uses. He said it can release water back into the soil as it dries out. Dworshak said another use for foam glass is also green roof applications and noted that it doesn’t put too much stress on buildings.

To make the product, the glass is ground up and mixed with a foaming agent, such as silicon carbide or a limetone based agent. It is is then spread on a layer of fiberglass and baked. While the material bakes the foaming agent creates air bubbles, which gives it a highly insulating value. Smith said the limestone based agent causes the air bubbles to be connected, while the the silicon carbide causes air bubbles to be separate. As a result, the material doesn’t absorb water which was better for construction materials, which was why his company uses silicon carbide. Dworshak said his company was considering using either calcium carbonate or glycerin as the foaming agent.

Smith said foam glass was first made in Germany in the 1980’s and has been in widespread use in Scandanavia for approximately three decades. To date, it has not been in common use in the U.S., but he hopes that will change in the coming years.

Smith said one of the difficulties with recycling glass is that it is heavy and hard to ship. As pressure on resources increases, finding creative and innovative ways to use recyclable items becomes more and more imperative. Foam glass has the potential to provide a use for recycled glass and offer an alternative to synthetic materials.

Wildlife in Winter: Animals Find Many Ways to Adapt

The temperature drops, the water freezes, and the snow slowly drifts down. You and I bundle up and curl up with a nice mug of hot cocoa. But what do animals do when the mercury drops way below freezing? Many animals have developed some amazing adaptaions to deal with some nature’s most extreme conditions. This includes changing colors, growing extra fur and feathers, becoming dormant, and even taking advantage of the snow pack for warmth and shelter.

There are a number of animals that change from gray or brown to white in winter. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, color changes are thought to be linked to the amount of daylight, as temperature and location does not seem to affect it. In the case of the Arctic hare, mountain hare, and snowshoe hare, there are receptors in the retina that transmit information to the hare’s brain that stimulate the color change. There are also three species of weasel- the least weasel (Mustela nivalis), the longtailed weasel (M. frenata), and the shorttailed weasel (M. erminea) that change and this takes place regardless of temperature or location. In addition, Siberian hamster, the only domesticated animal to do so also changes regardless other environmental conditions. While changing coats has obvious camouflage advantages, there is also a theory that a pale coat may have better insulating properties as melanin, the substance responsible for a colored coat is absent, thus leaving more room for air spaces in the hair shaft. In ptamigans, there are air bubbles in the winter feathers, which also may help with insulation and also makes them appear brighter.

Another adaptation is dormancy in its various forms. In reptiles, this is referred to as brumation and this is induced by low temperatures. Brumating reptiles may move to drink water, but they can go months without food. The type of winter dormancy that some mammals and birds do is called hibernation. However, this is not merely a matter of going into a den and going to sleep, but requires complex changes beforehand. Hibernating animals readjust body temperature, metablolism, and heart rate. There is also an increase in magnesium in the blood and reduction in endocrine glands. While bears may be the best know hibernators, their body temperature only drops from approximatley 100 degrees to 93 degrees. They also give birth in the winter and for these reasons they are considered shallow hibernators. They are able to conserve energy, but their bodies do not undergo the level of physiological changes as some other animals, such as ground squirrels and bats.

While snow may seem like the opposite of warmth, it is actually able to serve as a good insulator and several animals make use of this. Snow actually traps heat close to the ground so this layer or subnivean zone may be only slightly below freezing, while the air temperature could be much colder. Voles tunnel through the snow as a way to both stay warm and avoid predators. In addition, grouse, ptarmigan, porcupines, wolverines, and bears also make dens in the snow.

Snow blankets the ground, ice crystals coat the trees, and a cold wind blows through the forest. While winter is a challenge for all wildlife, a large number have found ways to stay warm and even turn environmental conditions to their advantage. It is the ability to meet these challenges that can serve as a reminder of the amazing world we live in.

Living With Wildfires: How Do We Respond?

The last article looked at the ecological role of fires and the history of fire suppression. While fire is important to a number of ecosystems, in recent years, there have been a number of especially severe wildfires, which have claimed both lives and property. The 2018 fire season was California’s deadliest on record. So, are wildfires getting worse or are we not looking at the larger picture? A changing climate, fire suppression, and invasive species all affect fire length and severity. This article will look at what factors affect wildfire behavior and how we should respond to them.

Faith Ann Heinsch, Greg Dillon, and Chuck McHugh, of the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, stated in an email that the majority of fires are human caused. W. J. Bond and R. F Keane “Ecological Effects of Fire” (2017), also state that most fires are ignited by people. In spite of some of the fires that have recently made headlines, looking at wildfires through the historical lens can help to put them in perspective. Heinsch, Dillon, and McHugh said that fires were not necessarily more “severe,” even though more area has burned compared to the mid twentieth century, but that the proportion of high intensity fires has remained fairly constant. They also stated that the frame of reference for most Americans is the mid to late twentieth century, which was an especially cooler and wetter epoch. This was largely what caused fire suppression to be successful and in this time period and much less burned than would have had nature been allowed to take its course. Bond and Keane also stated that fires declined after 1870 and areas burnt recently may actually be at the lowest level for the past few millenia. However, the lack of fire in earlier times is one factor which may have affected some more recent ones. Heinsch, Dillon, and McHugh stated that fire suppression leads to fuel buildup. In addition, Bond and Keane also noted that fire suppression allows young trees to become estabished and this can serve as a “fire ladder.” In these instances, “surface fires” which might might otherwise have just burned the underbrush can become “crown fires” and jump to the canopies of mature trees.

While a changing climate is not the only factor to affect wildfire severity, hotter and drier temperatures can cause them to burn longer and spread more quickly. Acccording to W. Matt Jolly, Mark A. Cochrane, Patrick H. Freeborn, Zachary A. Holden, Timothy J. Brown, Grant J. Williams, and David M. J. S. Brown, “Climate-Induced Variations in Global Wildfire Danger 1979- 2013” (July 2015) climate “strongly influences global wildfire activity.” They also said that the factors of dry weather, available fuel, and ignition sources are what causes fires to start and spread. In addition, temperature, relative humidity, and wind speeds also influence wildfire activity. Hot, dry, and windy conditions are what lead to the most severe fires. According to their paper, global temperatures have increased by 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade over the last three decades “possibly” leading to more intense rainfalls and more severe drought. They also stated that climactic changes have been “implicated in global fire variation” and it is “expected” that there will be increases in fire season severity in the coming decades. Heinsch, Dillon, and McHugh stated that there are “indications” that fire seasons are getting longer as a result of climate change. Bond and Keane said that global warming is “predicted” to cause a doubling of burned area and 50% increase in fire occurence by the end of the century in the circumboreal region.

Invasive species can also affect fire length and severity if such species are more fire tolerant than the ones they are replacing. According to Bond and Keane, in Hawaii the invasion, tall nonnative grasses has fueled frequent fires and largely changed forests into grasslands. Likewise, in the western U. S. invasive cheatgrass has also increased fire frequency and severity in the native sagebrush habitat.

The next question then is what should our response be to wildfires and what may be more severe fire seasons in the coming years. Fire is part of a number of ecosystems and there are many species which are not only fire adapted, but even depend on fire. Returning fire to the ecosystems that need it is a way of reducing fuel load and the severity of fires. Heinsch, Dillon, and McHugh state that wildfires are a “key component” of keeping forests healthy, but it is possible to reduce the risk through prescribed burns and treating the area around homes. As with so many other aspects of the world, fire is multifaceted. While fire has its destructive power, it also has its power to maintain ecological balance. Understanding fire’s ecological role as well as what affects its behavior is crucial to accepting it as part of the ecosystem and reducing risk.

Acknowledgement: Faith Ann Heinsch, Greg Dillon, and Chuck McHugh of the U. S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station not only responded to my email inquiry, but also compiled a number of other research materials for both these articles.

Smoke Rises: Fire Plays an Important Role in Many Ecosystems

Smoke rises from the trees and this is a scene which usually triggers fear and dire news reports. However, while it is true that fire can cause serious destruction, there are many places in which they are a necessary part of the ecosystem. This will be the first of two articles to look at wildfires, their role in the ecosystem, the factors that affect their severity, and what our response should be. This one will focus on the ecological role of wildfires as well as the effect of fire suppression. The second one will look at the factors that affect wildfires and how we should respond to them.

There are several ecosystems where fire plays a vital role. In these areas, plants have developed not only adaptations to survive fire, but in many cases, are also dependent on it. According to Faith Ann Heinsch, Greg Dillon, and Chuck McHugh, of the U. S. Forest Sevice’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, who responded in an email, all ecosystems are adapted to fire in some way. Some ecosystems require fire to function. In the western U. S. many vegetation types evolved with fire whether from natural or human causes, though they require different types and frequencies of fire. The open, dry ponderosa pine forestes of the western U. S. require frequent, low intensity fires that burn approximately every 10-15 years to keep the area open. Lodgepole pine forests, also of the western U. S., require less frequent high intensity fires. In many places, they are adapted to stand-replacing fires that occur every 100 years or so. The longleaf pine forests of the southeast are also adapted to fire as it clears out competing vegetation. In these ecosystems, plants have developed a number of specific adaptations. W. J. Bond of the University of Capetown and R. F. Keane of the Rocky Mountain Institute in “Ecological Effects of Fire” (2017) cite thick bark, open crowns, deep roots, and sprouting from insulated buds. In addition, several species of conifer have what is called serotinous cones, meaning they only open in intense heat. Bond and Keane also say that grasses are among the most fire resistant species and can survive frequent fires, though few species are dependent on burning.

There are a number of ecological benefits to fire. In addition to opening serotinous cones, Heinsch, Dillon, and McHugh say it can improve forest health and create better wildlife habitat. It also helps to return nutrients to the soil. Bond and Keane state that fire-stimulated flowering is common among grasses and herbs. In addition, they also say that dormant seeds in soil show heat stimulated germination. In grasslands, fire helps avoid encroaching trees and shrubs. Elk, deer, and bears eat vegetation in areas opened by fire. According to Richard L. Hutto, Robert E. Keane, Rosemary L. Sherriff, Christopher T. Rota, Lisa A. Eby, and Victoria A. Saab, “Toward a More Ecologically Informed View of Severe Forest Fires” (2015), black-backed woodpeckers (Picoides arcticus) eat the larvae of wood boring beetles that are attracted to trees killed by fire. While they are known to occur outside severely burned forests, studies show growing populations only in recently burned forests.

In spite of fire’s role in the ecosystem, the main policy of the Forest Service for several decades has been fire suppression. However, in ecosysems that are adapted to fire, this has had a negative effect on flora and fauna. It is only relatively recently that the true role of fire had been studied seriously. Heinsch, Dillon, and McHugh stated that fire suppresssion began with European settlement and started in earnest during the early to mid 1800’s. They also said that a major fire in 1910 set the stage for full fire suppression. According to Diane M. Smith, “Missoula Fire Lab: 50 Years Dedicated to Understanding Wildlands and Fire” (2012), in the early twentieth century most political leaders saw fire as too dangerous to be allowed to burn, though this resulted in harming the ecosysems the agencies sought to protect. Smith also refers to the 1910 fire and said estimates vary, but it burned approximately 3 million acres and killed over 80 people, most of them firefighters. Nevertheless, Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the U. S. Forest Service, and his contemporaries understood the beneficial role of fire. Fire suppression left forests more vulnerable to disease and insect infestations. In the early to mid twentieth century research began on the causes of fires and how they spread. In 1970, a study tested a new approach to fire management in the White Cap Creek Drainage in Idaho. Vegetation was sampled, evidence of fire history was collected, and the effects of fire exclusion. In 1972, a fire was allowed to burn and it put itself out after four days. In 1973, another fire was also allowed to burn and it was only put out when it moved beyond the test area.

While fire is important to a number of ecosystems, some recent wildfires have killed a number of people in addition to causing serious property damage. So, are wildfires getting worse, or is this the natural order and what should our response be? The next article will look into these questions.

Beach Closed: Blue Green Algae Threatens Lakes and Rivers

It’s a hot summer day and perfect for a swim. But the beach is closed due to an algae bloom. Sadly, this is becoming a more and more common occurrence due to an organism called blue green algae or cyanobacteria. It is a prokaryotic or simple celled organism originally considered to be algae, but then reclassified as bacteria. Nitrogen and phosphorous are often used as fertilizer on farms and lawns. However, when too much of these chemicals are used they can wash into lakes, rivers, and streams, thus causing major algal blooms. These blooms cause scum on the surface of waterways and take so much oxygen that fish suffocate. In addition, water with serious algal blooms are also not considered safe for people or pets. It has affected lakes and rivers acoss the country.

Angela Shambaugh, an aquatic biologist with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, said that cyanobacteria produce a couple of different toxins which can cause skin rashes. She also said children and pets should be kept away from any areas with algal blooms. In addition, Shambaugh said that algal blooms reduce oxygen concentrations, which have resulted in fish and mussel die-offs in Lake Champlain.

According to Foul Water Season, by Laura Tangley, published in The National Wildlife Federation July 2015, there is evidence that harmful algal blooms are on the rise. The article states that the loss of forests and wetlands which help to absorb nitrogen and phosphorous contribute to the problem. Warmer water and heavier rainfall also create a more suitable enviroment for blooms as well as higher runoff that can wash nutrients into streams and rivers. Tangley recommends applying only the precise amount of fertilizer needed, planting cover crops, and restoring wetlands. Shambaugh concurred saying that blooms seemed to be lasting longer and cited one which lasted into October of last year.

The Union of Concerned Scientists also criticized the overuse of fertilizer as one of the main causes. In their article “Subsidizing Waste: How Inefficient Farm Policy Costs Taxpayers, Businesses and Farmers Billions” (2016), they state that farm subsidies often encourage an overeliance on certain crops, such as corn and soybeans. The UCS cited a study in Iowa in which researchers planted prairie strips or small areas of native plants among farm crops. The study found that planting these on just 10 % of farmland reduced nitrogen loss by 85 %, phosphorus loss by 90% and sedimentation by 95%. Lisa Nurnberger, the media director for the UCS, sent information concerning the red tide in Florida. The organism that causes red tide is not the same as the one that causes blue green algae, but it is a related issue. According to studies she cited, the red tide has been linked to both runoff from cattle farms and residential development as well as rising sea temperatures due to climate change.

While certain crops have received strong criticism, Shambaugh said any nutrient running into the water can cause problems. Agricultural runoff has received large amount of the blame. However, Shambaugh said this is largely a matter of location. In some areas, agricultural runoff produces the largest amount of runoff and in other areas, lawns and gardens produce the largest amount. She also pointed out that areas with more concrete also have higher runoff, because there is no soil to absorb the rain.

While this is a serious issue, there are steps that can be taken. The UCS recommends reducing reliance on commodity crops and making the adoption of conservation practices a requirement for receiving subsidies. Shambaugh said it wasn’ t an easy problem to solve, but she recommended the Vermont Dept. of Health website for more information. In addition, reducing or eliminating fertilizer on lawns and gardens is also an important step.

Electronic Recycling Prevents Waste in Landfills

So, what to do with that old computer or phone?   Electronics comprise a significant and growing number of houseold items.   Yet many of them contain toxic materials that can contaminate air and water when dumped in landfills.   This includes lead, cadmium, and mercury.   Cadmium is generally used to prevent corrosion and poisoning occurs from inhalation.   The dangers of lead and mecury are well documented.   Both can accumulate over time and lead can cause cognitive deficiency in children.  Recycling prevents the release of these chemicals into the enviroment as well as the recovery of valuable metals, such as gold and silver. 

    In addition to computers and phones, electronic waste also includes houseold appliances, lighting, electric tools, toys, medical devices, and monitoring equipment.   All of these contain chemicals that can be detrimental to air and water.   Recycling involves two different groups.  First there are collectors which sort items and ship them out  Second are the actual recyclers which dismantle the items to recover the parts and metals which can be reused.    

Charlotte Low, the Operations Manager for Central Vermot Solid Waste, said that one third of all Central Vermont recyclables are electronics. She said the most common toxic materials are freon from refrigerators, which depletes the ozone and lead and cadmium fom televisions, which pollute air and water.

Robin Ingenthron, the CEO of Good Point Recycling in Middlebury, VT and founder of fairtraderecycling.org, said they dismantle the items they receive and the sell the parts. He gave the example of TV repair shops which may need a part for merchandise under warranty but are uable to get it from the manufacturer. Ingenthron said the largest release of toxic material is through mining and he saw the mission of recycling of keeping material in the economy rather than mining new ore. There have been concerns about the overseas trade. Ingenthron responded to these concerns by saying that the international trade helps to encourage investment. He said cell towers would not be built if reusables were not being shipped. The Basel Action Network (BAN) is a watchdog group that tracks electronic devices, and according to their website, a February 2019 study found 6% of computer and computer equipment shipments “very likely” illegal. However, as of this publication, they have not responded to an interview request.

Most of us keep our food in refrigerators, use computers at work, and listen to the radio. However, all of these items contain chemicals that can be detrimental to the enviroment if dumped in landfills. Thus, finding responsible recyclers keeps these chemicals out of the enviroment, can provide parts for other equipment, and reduces mining.

Viral Hemmorhagic Septisemia May Be Preventable

Something strange was happening.  Dead fish were washing up on the shores of the Great Lakes.  The cause was determined to be viral hemmorhagic septisemia (VHS), a virus that infects approximately 38 species of both marine and freshwater fish.  As stated above, it was introduced into the Great Lakes in the early 2000s and there are concerns about it spreading eastward.  The symptoms include hyperactivity, twisting of the body, and erratic swimming.  In its most severe form, fish become lethargic with bulging eyes, liver and kidey abnormalities, and bleeding in the eyes, skin, gills, fin bases, skeletal muscles, and interal organs.  It is unknown how it was introduced into the Great Lakes, but according to http://www.seagrant.umn.edu, genetic evidence suggests it may have been transported in water from ships or migration from infected fish.  Aquaculture and bait transportation have also been liked to the virus’ spead. Shawn Good, a Fisheries Biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife, also said it was likely introduced through bait transportation.  He said bait fish were caught, sold to shops, and subsequently sold to anglers.   It is found in all the Great Lakes as was as lakes in Ohio, New York, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

It is native to eastern and western Europe, Japan, the Pacific coast (California to Alaska), and the North Atlantic coast.   Good said that fish which are found where the disease is native do seem to be more resistant as a result of having evolved with it. The disease fares best in cold water and is unable to survive in warm blooded animals.  Thus, it is not one that humans can catch.   While it is not unsafe for people to eat fish with VHS, Good said it is not something he would recommmend.

Good said no threatened or endangered species are at risk.  However, he also said it can affect different species in different ways.  Some appear to be just carriers.   Some are not affected at all, while others seem to be prone to it.  The reasons for this are unknown.   Good also said the virus can exist outside of a host for a couple of weeks, thus giving it time to spread.   However,  he also said survivors can pass the resistance traits to their offspring thus potentially creating a population which may be more resistant in the long run.   He also said its effect on overall populations can vary.   Muskellunges (esox masquinongy) or “muskies” are large predatory fish which can grow up to up to five feet and weigh up to 60 pounds.  They are considered rare even in a healthy population and Good said they were seriously impacted by the disease in the St. Lawrence River and it would likely take 20 years for the population to recover.   However, other species which are faster growing, such as sunfish and bass recover much more quickly.

According to http://www.seagrant.umn.edu,  there are also concerns with the impacts to aquaculture.   When fish are confined and stessed, as they are in an aquaculture setting, the disease can be much  more serious.  Good also stated that fish in a weakened condition tend to be more vulnerable and said that approximately 20 years ago, hatcheries in Europe took a serious hit from the disease.   This was at least in part due to taking eggs from wild stock.   As a result, this practice was temporarily stopped, quarantine areas were created, and water sterilization was also added.  Good said that due to these preventative measures, that so far as he knew, no U. S. hatchery had an outbreak.

While it can be a serious disease, taking precautions such as the ones stated above can do much to limit the spread.   Good said that many of the Great Lakes states, including New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan had passed laws making it illegal to move fish from an infected area and he said there were similar laws in Vermont.   He said by following these laws it may be possible to prevent the further spread of the disease.

Butteflies, Bees, and Blooms: Gardens Transform Yards Into Habitat

Imagine watching a butterfly alight on the purple flowers of a New England aster.  Nearby,  a bee lands on the bright red flowers of a bee balm,  its wings making a gentle hum in the morning.  In the blueberry bush, a robin chirps filling the day with song.   This may sound like a scene in the woods, but it could be and frequently is, someone’s backyard.    As habitat continues to disappear, bees, butterflies, birds, and other wildlife face increasing challenges.   Planting food sources and providing habitat can go a long way to helping threatened and endangered wildlife.  This article will  feature several native plants and the animals that depend on them.

As was discussed in the previous article, bees are major pollinators for a number of agricultural crops and are in serious trouble due to phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder.  A number of butterflies, including the Karner Blue,  are also endangered or in decline  As monarchs migrate north from Mexico in the spring, they need both resting places as well as milkweed plants, which are the only ones where they lay their eggs.   Migratory birds need both stopover and nesting areas as they head back north.   Flowering plants provide nectar for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.   Shrubs and taller plants can provide berries, fruit, and nesting places for birds and mammals. Eliminating pesticides from gardens and lawns is also important.  While it may seem that a larger yard is required for this, even a community plot or small balcony can provide space for habitat.

According to Native Plants of the Northeast, Donald J. Leopold, Timber Press 2005, some of the best plants for attracting wildlife include:

Bee balm (monarda didyma)   Beebalm has beautiful red flowers and blooms through July and August.   Its leaves can also be used for tea which was a remedy for the Native Americans.

Swamp milkweed  (asclepias incarnata)  Swamp milkweed needs moist to wet soil, has pink flowers, and as was mentioned above, is in the milkweed family which are the only plants on which monarch butterflies lay their eggs.

Butterfly weed (asceplias tuberosa)  Butterfly weed is, as its name implies, popular with many butterfly species and has orange flowers.  It should not be confused with butterfly bush, which is invasive.

Purple coneflower (echinacea purpurea)   The coneflower also blooms through most of the summer and it is the plant from which echinacea tea is derived.

Asters ( aster divaricatus, ericoides, novae angliae, and novi -belgii) There are several species of asters which attract pollinators and bloom throughout the summer.

Blue lupine (lupinus perennis) Blue lupine has purple flowers and is the sole food source for the endangered Karner blue butterfly.

Strawberry (waldsteinia fragarioides)   Strawberries are a low growimg plant, but they spead and do require some space.

Blueberry (vaccinum angustifolium and corymbosum)  Both strawberries and blueberries attract  birds.  If gardeners would like some fruit for themselves, some plants can be netted and others left alone to provide a compromise.

This list focuses on plants native to the Northeast, due to this the being the region where the majority of my readership is based.   However, people can go to the National Wildlife Federation (www.wf.og) and look up Native Plant Finder to find the best plants for their region.

Bees, butterflies, and humming birds are important pollinators for many wild flowers and food crops.   Birds can fill gardens with song and are also important predators of many pests.    Nevertheless, many of these species are in trouble due to pesticides and habitat loss.  Providing the food and habitat they need can be an important step  to helping the environment as well as creating a place of color and life for all to see.   Happy spring!