A Safari through Utah’s Ice Age

Audio:  mp3

Wave-cut platforms from
Lake Bonneville preserved on
Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake, Utah.
Photo Courtesy Wikimedia, Mark A. Wilson (Department of Geology, The College of Wooster), Photographer

Ground sloth of the Pleistocene
Paramylodon harlani
Texas Memorial Museum
University of Texas at Austin.
Photo Courtesy Wikimedia
Licensed CCA Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Lake Bonneville compared to the
State of Utah.
Photo Courtesy http://wildlife.utah.gov/gsl/history/


Hi, I’m Ru Mahoney with Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon. As winter approaches I find myself anticipating the first really good snow, when our valley floors and mountain passes will be transformed overnight, relinquishing autumn’s riot of color for a glacial monochrome. As little as 12,000 years ago winter white was Utah’s perennial favorite, donned at the launch of the Pleistocene Epoch, a roughly 2 million year long period (give or take 10,000 years) marked by widely recurring glaciations.

The west has a reputation for being vast, but Ice Age Utah was even bigger. The mountains where higher and sharper. And the Great Salt Lake was submerged beneath the glacial waters of Lake Bonneville. At its largest, this massive body of water covered 20,000 square miles and was more than 980 feet deep. To put that into perspective, that measures about 9.5 million football fields wide by 4.5 Salt Lake Temples deep. And the Ice Age wildlife? Well it was much more akin to an African safari than anything you’re likely to find on your favorite shoreline trail these days.

The megafauna of Pleistocene Utah included a menagerie of beasts that are the stuff of legend. Familiar species like bison and big-horn sheep grazed among herds of mammoths and mastodons. Camels and horses – destined for extinction in North America – were the prehistoric prey of dire wolves and saber-toothed cats. Giant ground sloths the size of modern day elephants stood on two powerful hind legs to browse on shoreline foliage. And herds of muskoxen kept a wary eye on Arctodus, the Short-faced bear, a formidable predator more than 50% larger than any bear species living today.

The last 30,000 years of Utah’s Ice Age were characterized by increasingly volatile shifts in climate. The changing norms in temperature and abundance of liquid water created cyclical periods of transitioning habitat. Forests and forest dwellers gave way to deserts and their specialist species, before shifting back to forests again, all in mere millennia. While nomadic and highly adaptable species like muskoxen eventually moved north to more stable climates, the less adaptable fauna of the Ice Age were increasingly relegated to sharing shoreline habitat diminished by the swollen banks of Lake Bonneville.

As fluctuating glaciers pushed southward and then retreated, canyons like Big and Little Cottonwood were gouged into existence. Spring and summer glacier melt carried an abundance of freshwater into the lake, sometimes sweeping along with it the remains of prehistoric animals that had not lasted through the winter, laying them to rest in shoreline deltas where their fossilized remains are now uncovered and studied in alluvial sediment. For many of Utah’s Ice Age animals, the end of the Pleistocene brought extinction.

Today the ancient shoreline of Lake Bonneville is one of the most distinguishable geological features along the Wasatch front. This “bench”, as it’s now commonly known, is easily identifiable in cities all along the Wasatch and frequently boasts fine homes and even finer views. Which might go to show that lakeside property retains its value whether the lake is still there or not. So as you enjoy a winter hike or cross country ski along a shoreline trail this season, think about Utah’s last Ice Age and how our rich fossil record, with some of earth’s largest land mammals, paints a picture of an even wilder west.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Ru Mahoney.

Credits:
Image1: Courtesy Wikimedia, Mark A. Wilson (Department of Geology, The College of Wooster), Photographer
Image2: Courtesy Wikimedia,as licensed through Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Image3: Courtesy http://wildlife.utah.gov/gsl/history/
Text:     Ru Mahoney, Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon.


Additional Reading:
http://beta.geology.utah.gov/maps-publications/survey-notes/utahs-wildlife-in-the-ice-age-2/

http://esp.cr.msgs.gov/projects/paleo_hyd/paleolakes.shtml

http://serc.carleton.edu/vignettes/collection/37942.html

http://hugefloods.com/Bonneville.html

http://geology.utah.gov/surveynotes/archives/snt42-3.pdf

http://geology.utah.gov/surveynotes/articles/pdf/pleistocene_fossils_42-3.pdf

Wily Coyotes

Audio:  mp3

Coyote Canis latrans
Photo Courtesy & Copyright © 1991
Eric Gese, Photographer

Coyote Canis latrans
Photo Courtesy & Copyright © 1991
Eric Gese, Photographer

In many of the diverse Native American storytelling traditions, the coyote plays the same role over and over: that of the smart, sly trickster. For those who study coyote behavior, this characterization is well deserved. Coyotes are incredibly adaptable creatures – intelligent, observant, curious and well, wily.

Their ability to adjust how they live to fit their circumstances can be seen in almost every aspect of the coyote’s life. For starters, coyotes will eat just about anything. As omnivores and opportunistic feeders, coyotes might be found hunting creatures as diverse as small mammals, birds, snakes, mule deer fawns, insects, or fish, and also seek out grasses, berries and seeds. They can hunt alone or in packs, and are not below feasting on carrion, rummaging through your garbage, or raiding the cantaloupe patch.

The environments in which coyotes can be found are similarly diverse. While once restricted to the American West, coyotes are now widespread across all of North America and parts of Central America, and can be found in nearly every ecosystem from deserts to forests to urban areas from Belize to Alaska.

Sometimes called ‘song dogs’ these social creatures are known for their nighttime solos and choruses. Their scientific name, Canis latrans literally means ‘barking dog’, and their many vocalizations help pack members and families bond and communicate over long distances. Coyotes have strong family ties, especially during spring, when puppies are born to monogamous coyote couples.

Coyotes are territorial and defend their space vigorously – especially when breeding and denning. Mating occurs from January through February and after a gestation period of only 60 to 62 days, 3 to 12 pups are born blind and helpless in March or April. Young coyotes are nursed for 4-5 weeks at which point they transition to regurgitated meals brought by both parents. Youngsters tag along on family hunts at 8 weeks old and are able to hunt independently by fall.

Interestingly, studies have shown that even coyote breeding is adaptable – a phenomenon called ‘density dependent reproduction’. In areas where coyote populations are stable, females bear lower numbers of pups. But in areas where there is disturbance to the population – for example through increased predation or hunting – females have larger litters. On average, newborn pups have less than a 50% chance of surviving to adulthood due to threats from disease, predators, and starvation. It therefore makes sense for females to bear more offspring in areas where threats may be even greater.

To learn more about coyote adaptability, join the Stokes Nature Center for a tour of the USDA/National Wildlife Research Center Predator Research Facility on June 16th. For more information visit www.logannature.org. Thank you to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting the research and development of this Wild About Utah topic.

For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.

Credits:
Images: Courtesy and Copyright © Eric Gese
            National Wildlife Research Center, Predator Behavior
and Ecology

Text:     Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon.


Additional Reading:

Stettler, Brett. 2009. Coyote (Canis latrans). Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Wildlife Notebook Series No. 19. Found online at:
http://wildlife.utah.gov/publications/pdf/2010_coyote.pdf

Video: Coyotes Cruise NYC, Science Friday & Mark Weckel, http://www.sciencefriday.com/videos/watch/10444

Pickleweed Spendor

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Pickleweed in Cache Valley
Courtesy & Copyright 2010 Linda Kervin

Utah’s mountains and foothills blaze with the brilliant foliar colors of aspens, maples, sumacs and more. But autumn colors can be found in less likely habitats too, even across our flat, desolate salt pans. There the usually drab stage has been given a splash of deep, dusty rose color by its sole botanical performers, the pickleweeds.

Also known as glassworts or samphire, our two species of pickleweed are in the genus Salicornia. They belong to the same plant family as beets, chard and spinach., but you’d never guess that from their appearance. The ankle-high Salicornia’s leaves are reduced to tiny scales that hug the green, branching, cylindrical stems. Pickleweeds are halophytic, or salt loving. Due to their unique physiology, they can thrive in extremely saline environments that kill normal plants. Pickleweed roots filter out some of the salt before it can move into the plant. The remaining excess salt is stored in balloon-like cavities in their cells called vacuoles. When its vacuole is full, a cell ruptures, and newer younger cells continue to accumulate incoming salt.

Pickleweed in Cache Valley
Courtesy & Copyright 2010 Linda Kervin

The common name, pickleweed, derives from the taste of the salt stored in the vacuoles of the succulent, crisp stems. You may be surprised to learn that gourmet websites report that pickleweeds are all the rage in Europe as a salad garnish or pickled vegetable.

[Kevin Colver recording: Songbirds of the Southwestern Canyon Country]

In the Great Basin, winter flocks of Horned Larks forage in the snow for Salicornia’s tiny oil-rich seeds as do other birds. The seeds’ proteins and oils are valuable dietary supplement in the sparse salt pan habitat where the picklweed’s unique physiological adaptations allow them to thrive. If your travels this fall take you by a salt pan, take the time to enjoy the rosy glow of the humble pickleweed or view pictures on the Wild About Utah website.

Pickleweed in Cache Valley
Courtesy & Copyright 2010 Linda Kervin

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.
Credits:

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Linda Kervin

Text: Jim Cane and Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=SALIC

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salicornia_oil

http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=129055

http://people.westminstercollege.edu/faculty/tharrison/gslplaya99/pickleweed.htm

Men’s Hair and the Male House Finch

Audio:  mp3

Male House Finch

Male House Finch

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

A man’s vanity is nowhere more apparent than for the hair atop his head. As men age, their hair may whiten, thin or disappear. As a remedy, some men use dyes or hair growth potions.

But imagine this: What if the right food alone could restore the virile dark hair of youth?

There is a common songbird at your birdfeeder this winter that can do just this. It is the male house finch.

[House Finch Call - #3 Songbirds of the Southwest Canyon Country]

As with many songbirds, the female house finch is drab compared to the brightly colored male. He sports a showy brow and bib in colors that range from tomato red to orange to straw yellow. Like the tomato and carrot, these colors come from pigments called carotenoids. All birds with red feathers get these carotenoid pigments from their diet, ultimately from the plants that can produce them.

What does the red feather color mean for the house finch?

The ornathologist Geof Hill of Auburn University experimentally altered head feather colors of male house finches. To make red-headed males into carrot tops, Jeff used peroxide. Red hair die achieved the opposite transformation. He then let the guys compete for the attentions of females.

Jeff’s experiments demonstrated that plumage does make the male. The redder the male’s head, the higher his place in the pecking order. And the more females that he could attract. Conversely, redheads lost rank after bleaching. Among male house finches, blondes really don’t have more fun.

So now you can predict the likely winners and losers in the mating game from just a glance at the male house finches at your seed feeder. As is common in science, this discovery leads to new questions: What food makes the male’s head feathers red? Is it some red fruit or berry? Why do some males manage to get more carotenoid pigments than others? Do they instinctively know the right seed or fruit to eat? We humans must get our carotenoids from plant sources too, such as the carotine that we transform into Vitamin A for night vision. The produce aisle at the grocery store might be a much different place though if the right fruit or vegetable could transform our hair color too.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:

Photo: Utah Division of Wildlife Resources http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/search/Display.asp?FlNm=carpmexi

Bird Sounds: Courtesy and Copyright 2008 Dr. Kevin Colver, Songbirds of the Southwest Canyon Country http://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/

Text: Jim Cane and Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society http://www.bridgerlandaudubon.org

Additional Reading:

House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/search/Display.asp?FlNm=carpmexi

House Finch, Utah Bird Profile, UtahBirds.org, http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/ProfilesD-K/HouseFinch.htm

A Red Bird in a Brown Bag: The Function and Evolution of Colorful Plumage in the House Finch , Dr. Geoffrey, E. Hill, Oxford University Press, September 2002
ISBN-13: 9780195148480, http://search.barnesandnoble.com/BookSearch/isbnInquiry.asp?userid=l88eD6dCpP&isbn=0195148487&itm=2

Turkey Vultures

Audio:  mp3

Swainsons Thrush

Turkey Vulture in flight
Cathartes aura
Courtesy Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
Scott Root, Photographer
Licensed under CCL

Turkey Vulture Kettle above LoganTurkey Vulture Kettle above Logan
Cathartes aura
Courtesy and Copyright
Andrea Liberatore, Photographer

Turkey Vulture Kettle above LoganTurkey Vulture Kettle above Logan
Cathartes aura
Courtesy and Copyright
Andrea Liberatore, Photographer

On certain days in the spring and fall, the sky above my neighborhood looks like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’. As many as 60 large black birds swarm the sky, circling above the rooftops. On the busiest of days, people will stop their cars in the middle of the road to gawk at the sight. Some give a visible shiver when told that the birds are turkey vultures. But we have nothing to fear from these birds – in fact they should be embraced for the absolutely vital role they play in our environment.

There are lots of myths surrounding vultures, which in turn creates a misunderstanding about them. So let’s set the record straight on a few things. Vultures circle for two main reasons, neither of which involves waiting for a sick or wounded animal to die. The first reason is to take advantage of rising columns of air, called thermals, which generally occur in the mornings as the sun warms the air closest to the earth. Vultures are soaring birds and flapping their 6-foot wingspans takes a lot of effort, so they rarely do it. In fact these birds can fly for hours without a single flap. Circling within a thermal helps them travel higher and farther on much less energy.
The second reason vultures circle is to hone in on a food source. Turkey vultures are one of the few birds that have a highly developed sense of smell. Working together with their excellent eyesight, the birds soar and circle to pin down the location of their next meal.

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