Vaquita Capture Program Ends

Vaquita Rescue Program Setback

A  rescue program to save the vaquita, the world’s most endangered cetation (whales, dolphins and porpoises), has not started off well.  Earlier this year, I reported that there were only an estimated 30 vaquitas left in the world. That number may now be down to 15 or less.   The ambitious program to save vaquitas experienced a setback when a captured female died.

Vaquita (Phocoena sinus), a small porpoise endemic to the northern Gulf of Mexico. Illustration by Justin Shepherd
Vaquita (Phocoena sinus), a small porpoise endemic to the northern Gulf of Mexico. Illustration by Justin Shepherd
Population Surveys

Based upon population surveys conducted during the last 20 years, the vaquita has never been known to have very large populations.  Even still, the populations have dropped dramatically.  In a 1997 survey, the vaquita population was estimated to be around 567 individuals.  In 2008, the population had dropped to an estimated 245 individuals.  Then again in 2015, the population was estimated to only be 59 individuals.    Now there may be less than 30, with some estimating only 15 left.  If this number is accurate, there may be no way to save the species.

Captive Breeding

The Mexican government and several conservation organizations have raised funds to implement a conservation program for captive breeding.  The program includes several million dollars for the construction of marine holding tanks to house captured vaquitas.  Because so much about the behavior and life cycle of vaquitas is unknown, marine biologists are not certain that the vaquita can be bred successfully in captivity.

Fragile Species

The vaquita appears to be a very fragile species.   They can suddenly and quickly die from the stress of capture, even when released shortly after capture.  This year, as part of the rescue effort, two vaquitas, a calf and a female, were captured.  The calf was transported to a sea pin, a specially built enclosure to house and, hopefully, breed vaquitas.  However the calf was so stressed in the enclosed environment that it had to be released.  A second attempt was made a little while later, this time capturing a female.  The female, too, became very stressed and was quickly released, but died shortly after.  The capture program has ended as a result.  The fragile nature of vaquitas may help to explain why populations have plummeted over the last few years.  They just don’t survive capture and drown quickly when captured in gill nets.

Some Good News

With the end of the capture program, the only hope left is to enforce a ban on gill netting in the Gulf of California.  Some already think we are past the point of no return. There is, however, some good news.  During the search for vaquitas to capture, researchers noted several females with calves, a sign that they are still breeding in the wild.

For more information, click on the links below.

The Most Painful Stings

Fire Ants (solenopsis invicta)

Painful stings leave an impression. Everyone who has ever been stung has a story to tell.  Some of the stories of painful stings include common characters, such as honey bees (Apis melifera).  Being stung by a bee is fairly common, but unless you are allergic to them, your story is comparable to a common children’s tale: most people have read it, but can only vaguely remember how the story goes.  Another fairly common insect known to ruin the picnic is the fire ant (Solenopsis invicta).  I would guess that if the number of books sold describes the number of people stung, than the fire ant is a number-one best seller.  I once asked students in my environmental science class to raise their hands if they had ever experienced the pain and blistering associated with a fire ant sting.  All but one raised their hand.  I can only assume the one not raising a hand was new to Texas or the Southern United States.  Unlike bees, however, most people had better recall of fire ant stings, probably because if you been stung once, you have likely been stung multiple times – fire ants have a nasty strategy of waiting for a signal and then all stinging all at once.

Unidentified pseudomyrmex ant species  living in hollow spaces of this tree.

There are some insect stings, however, that if you have ever experienced it, you will never forget it.  I was recently stung by a species of pseudomyrmex ant, which made the fire ant sting seem almost pleasant.  These ants, found in the Amazon rainforest, only live in one particular species of tree.  They have a symbiotic relationship, meaning they both benefit from each other.  The tree exudes nectar that is nutritious and delicious, at least to the ants, and the ants protect the tree by stinging any animal, or plant, that gets too close.  The ants live in hollow areas of the tree and when disturbed, as for example when I knocked knuckles on the tree, they come running out.  They are fast, so it took no time at all for one to climb between my second and third finger and let me know how it felt about me being around.   The sting was painful, like someone had shoved a sewing needle between my fingers – all the way to the eye of the needle.  On the positive side, the pain did not last as long as the pain of the fire ant sting and did not produce any noticeable welt, as the fire ant sting does.

Tarantula hawk  wasp climbing on a chair at the Southwest Research Station, Portal, Arizona.

Another painful sting you are not likely forget, and really do not want to experience, is that of the tarantula hawk wasp (Pepsis sp.).  These very large wasps sting to immobilize, but not kill, tarantulas.  After immobilizing the tarantula, a female wasp will stuff the unlucky fellow into a hole and lay eggs on it.  When then eggs hatch, the larvae  begin feasting on the still living  tarantula – a tale much more horrifying than any Stephen King novel.  These wasps don’t usually sting humans, except for those  prone to antagonize them.  There is a YouTube video “Stung by a Tarantula Hawk”, where Coyote Peterson intentionally goads the wasp the sting him on the arm.  I won’t describe it here.  The video has more impact if you see if for yourself.

A subjective index was developed to compare the painful stings associated with various hymenopteran insects (sawflies, wasps, bees and ants).   Named after the person who invented it, the Schmidt pain index rates painful stings from one to four, with four being the most painful.   I don’t know if Dr. Schmidt intended it to be funny, but for each sting rating, there is also a rather humorous description.

Fire ants only punch in at a low 1.2: “sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet and reaching for the light switch.”

The honey bee gets a 2.0:“Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine WC Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue”

Western honey bee is one of the most important insect pollinators.






The red harvester ant gets a 3.0:“Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.”

Harvester ants foraging.







The tarantula wasps gets a 4.0:“Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath (if you get stung by one you might as well lie down and scream).”

Dr. Schmidt, who has a Ph.D. in entomology, received an Ig Noble Prize in 2015 for his long and detailed preparation of the Schmitt pain index.  The prize, awarded by Annals of Improbable Research, is given for: “research that makes people laugh and then think”.

bullet ant

One more insect, that I have not yet mentioned, busts through the top of the pain index, weighing in at an astounding four plus.  The bullet ant.  This ant’s sting is described as:  

“Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.”



Bullet ant protecting a cocoon. Some ants only have pupae, but the bullet ant young use spin cocoons to protect developing young ants.

Bullet ants range from Central America to South America.  I had the opportunity to photograph the bullet ant in the rainforests of both Costa Rica and Peru.  The ants are large and can see very well – they will actually track your movement.  In Peru, I witnessed the ants sitting, individually on leaves, holding eggs in their mandibles.  Every leaf on the lower level of a tree was occupied, something I had never seen them do before, and am still not sure why.  I did not get stung, but needless to say, I was very careful to check every piece of clothing I had warn for any stragglers.


Read more at:

Schmidt pain index:

Are Insect Populations Declining?

Yellow Scarab Beetle in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica.  Photo by Mark Shepherd

On a recent trip to research insect populations, I visited a small sliver of the Chihuahua desert that runs through the extreme southeast corner of Arizona, I encountered hundreds of eager hover flies.  I say eager, because the flies followed and buzzed around me relentlessly.  While I couldn’t identify any single individual fly, I am certain that a few of them followed me for more than half a mile as I trekked through the dry, rock strewn, dusty desert.  I am not a dancer, but all of the swatting, arm waving, and stumbling probably made me look like I move like Mic Jagger.  Relief came when wind from an approaching thunderstorm forced the flies to land or be blown away.

Of course, the flies were after me because I was a source of water and salt in the middle of a desert.  The flies need both to survive and reproduce.  With a life span measured in weeks, the flies had no time for politeness.  Their tiny biological clocks were ticking.   They were in their golden days, having already lived most of their young lives as larvae and then metamorphosing into the annoying fly stage that zipped just a little too close to my ear canals.  For me it was irritating, but for the swarming flies, it was all-or-nothing; do or die.

Many amazonian insect species were drawn to light.
Many amazonian moths and other insect species can be seen by hanging a sheet and light.  Photo by Mark Shepherd, Peru

Insect Bias

As a group insects get a lot of bad press, when they get any at all.   Biting and stinging insects of course figure prominently in many stories. There are a number of published articles headlining that insects make up a significant number of invasive species, which is partially true.  But the biases against our chitin covered earthmates are largely out of proportion.   Why is large group of caribou called a herd, but a large group of insects is a swarm.  Swarm has a more sinister, negative connotation.  Swarming hover flies are pests.  While many people mourn the loss of the huge buffalo populations that use to wander the western prairies, no one would likely invest in a hover fly reintroduction program if their populations dropped significantly.   Insects are not generally considered a charismatic species, meaning they don’t draw the attention that elephants and polar bears garner.  No one pines for the years when painful, stinging harvester ants were more plentiful in east Texas.  No one has established a non-profit to reintroduce the rocky mountain locust, whose past populations inspired the following letter from E. Snyder of Highland Kansas:

At our place they commenced coming down about 1 O’clock in the afternoon, at first only one at a time, here and there, looking a little like flakes of snow, but acting more like the advance skirmishers of and advancing army; soon they commenced coming thicker and faster, and they again were followed by vast columns, or bodies looking almost like clouds in the atmosphere.  They came rattling and pattering on houses, and against the windows, falling in the feilds, on the prairies and in the waters – everywhere and on everything.  By about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, every tree and bush, buildings fences, fields, roads and everything, except animated beings, was completely covered by grasshoppers. 

The disappearance of the locusts that terrorized the American frontier is noteworthy in that it happened to an insect pest that, at the time, no one believed was vulnerable to extinction.   Why? Because insects appear to be so numerous it is difficult to imagine them being eradicated.  They are described as “R” selected, meaning they have short lifespans and produce enormous numbers of offspring, among other traits.  Such characteristics may seem to make insects invincible, but the truth is many insects are especially vulnerable to habitat loss and invasive species.  Even if insects produce a large number of eggs, they usually have specific habitat requirements necessary to ensure survival.

Researchers have noted insect population declines in many sites across Europe.
Iron clad beetle (Zopherinae sp.) has and extremely tough outer shell, one of the strongest known.  Photo by Mark Shepherd,  Driftwood, Texas.

Declining Populations

A recent article in Science (May 12, 2017) reports that insect biomass captured in traps spread across more than 100 European nature reserves has dropped dramatically since the 1980’s.  Members of the Krefeld Entomological Society, a group of amateur entomologist that have been monitoring insect abundance, raised concern after comparing earlier masses of insects trapped to those in 2013.   Whether similar declines are happening in other locations around the world is difficult to say, because there are too few surveys across multiple years to make anything stronger than a guess.  Also, insect populations can vary significantly from one year to the next, in cycles that may last several years to a decade.  So even if annual surveys were available, for some insect species, it still wouldn’t be enough.  Finally, the lack of public awareness concerning the extinction risk of many insects, other than honey bees and monarch butterflies, means there is likely insufficient funding to conduct surveys.

So why be concerned about declining insect populations?  Because they pollinate most of our food crops, aerate the soil, control other pests, and feed those bat, bird, and fish species we humans so love to photograph.


Vaquita: The World’s Rarest Marine Mammal Is In Trouble

Vaquita (Phocoena sinus), a small porpoise endemic to the northern Gulf of Mexico, Illustration by Justin Shepherd
Vaquita (Phocoena sinus), a small porpoise endemic to the northern Gulf of Mexico. Illustration by Justin Shepherd

Another species of marine mammal is on the verge of extinction.  The Vaquita (Phocoena sinus), a small porpoise endemic to the northern Gulf of Mexico, is reportedly just 30 individuals away from being lost forever.  The name vaquita is Spanish for “little cow,” and it looks somewhat like a panda mixed with a dolphin.   Because individuals suffer high mortality when trapped in illegal gill nets used by fishermen, the vaquita populations have plummeted since 1997.  Mexico has spent millions trying to stop the illegal practice of using gill nets, but to date has not been able to prevent it completely.

Faced with the imminent loss of the vaquita, the Mexican government approved a conservation plan in April, 2017.  The plan, however, may not be implemented until October, 2017, as there are many logistical hurdles, including building enclosures to house the captive breeding program.  There are also many unknowns, such as whether the vaquita will breed in captivity, how long they live, what age they mature sexually, and the minimum number of individuals necessary to keep the species from going extinct.  It will be tricky to get all of the things needed to save the vaquita by October.  Let’s hope the efforts that the Mexican government is taking, and the recent awareness brought to the issue by Leonardo De Caprio and several wildlife conservation organizations, will help turn things around.   Otherwise, like the Chinese river dolphin, we will lose another unique aquatic species.

Killing Poachers

Many are familiar with the worldwide effort to stop the illegal hunting of endangered wildlife.  Some nations have created wildlife refuges where hunting is limited, while other nations, such as Costa Rica, have banned hunting altogether.  Creating a refuge is challenging enough, but enforcing hunting limitations is far more difficult.  Even in the well protected reserves in Africa, poachers still manage to kill threatened elephant and rhinoceros. The animals are typically killed for their ivory horns and tusks. Recently, several accusations have been leveled that game wardens in India may be going too far by killing poachers.

Wild greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) standing by a forest track in Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India. Park wardens on bicycles in the background. Photo by Jeremy Richards;
Wild greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) standing by a forest track in Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India. Park wardens on bicycles in the background. Photo by JeremyRichards

Encountering poachers is dangerous, as they are often organized and armed. Several game wardens who have crossed paths with poachers have been killed in the line of duty.  Nonetheless, accusations have arisen that wardens use excessive force against poachers, sometimes with the tacit approval of conservation minded individuals.  Wildlife guards in India’s famous Kaziranga National Park, in Assam, have recently been accused of using excessive force sanctioned by the Indian Government.  One such accusation was leveled by British Broadcasting Corporation reporter Justin Rowlatt.  In his  film titled Killing for Conservation , Rowlatt reported that guards were given immunity from prosecution for killing or injuring poachers:

“the park rangers were killing an average of two people every month – more than 20 people a year. Indeed, in 2015 more people were shot dead by park guards than rhinos were killed by poachers. Innocent villagers, mostly tribal people, have been caught up in the conflict.”

Officials with India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) dispute that wardens are given authority to kill-on-sight.  The NTCA go further stating that Rowlatt’s film is biased and misleading, and was not submitted for review prior to airing. Moreover, The NTCA has banned BBC from filming in any other tiger reserves for five years.

Several aspects lend credence to the film’s claim that there is a shoot-to-kill policy.  Firstly, the film shows interviews with several guards who state that they have been told to kill any poachers caught in the conservation park.  The film also shows interviews with several individuals from nearby villages who tell stories of family members killed in the park, not because they were not poaching, but because they accidentally strayed into the park.  In one instance, a father describes how his young son was shot in the leg by guards who mistook him for a poacher.  The park management reportedly compensated the family for their mistake.  Even the interviews with park managers appear to support that there is, if not a policy, at least unspoken approval and support for killing poachers on-sight.

There were, however, also several facts that seem to lend credence to the NTCA’s claim that the goal of the film was to sensationalize.  That Rowaltt did not offer  authorities the opportunity to comment on interview statements, prior to broadcasting the film, could be interpreted as biased reporting.  There is nothing that would seemingly have prevented the BBC from airing the film in spite of any objections.  So why did Rowlatt not submit it for review.  In another instance, Rowlatt appears to speak negatively of the World Wildlife Fund, the organization he indicates is providing funds, equipment, and training for the park guards. He asks whether donor would be alright knowing that their donations are going to train these wardens.  The statement seems odd when placed against the gravity of the shoot-to kill accusation.

Left uncertain in the whole affair is whether the number of poachers killed in the last few years is truly a result of a policy that lowers the threshold for using deadly force, or, as also reported, there is an increase in the number of poachers willing to take a risk for the valuable ivory.  It would appear unlikely that individuals willing to poach are unarmed, as it would be difficult to kill an elephant, even a small one, without a weapon.  Thus, any confrontation between poachers and guards is likely to be a high risk situation.  The presence of so many villagers on the outskirts of the park, where there are no fences to mark its perimeter, makes the probability of accidental shootings almost inevitable.


Protecting Elephants

In October of 2016, in what was considered a surprising move, the United States, the European Union and several African nations voted against an all-out ban of the elephant ivory trade;
African Elephant in Kenya Photo by Kevin Lings

In October of 2016, in what was considered a surprising move, the United States, the European Union and several African nations voted against an all-out ban of the elephant ivory trade.  It was a surprising move in that there was strong support in favor of a ban from the countries hosting the two largest elephant ivory markets: the United States and China.

There were several reasons offered as to why the ban failed.  One reason had to do with the technical structure of the ban, which contained a potential loophole giving illegal ivory trading cover under the limited legal trade.  Another reason given was that banning all ivory trading would reduce incentive to protect elephants and to establish effective elephant conservation programs.  A similar argument is used to support hunting of game birds and other animals in the United States, such as duck, alligator, deer, wolves, and more recently, bears.  It is not at all clear, however, that such limited, legal hunting necessarily results in sustainable population sizes.  Also, elephants are a potentially vulnerable because they are a K-selected species, meaning they have large body sizes, are long lived, have few offspring, and don’t usually reach sexual maturity until between 12 and 16 years of age.  That likely means that sustainable hunting may mean very few in the population can be hunted without impacting the ability of elephant populations to remain stable.  Yet another reason given was that populations of elephants are too large to warrant an all-out ban, something that should be afforded to only to species whose populations are teetering on the edge of extinction.

While legal hunting programs have apparently benefited some species of game birds, whether such programs truly work for larger, or even other small species is uncertain.  After all, populations subjected to legal hunting regimes are typically nowhere near the size of populations 30 to 100 years ago.  In addition, it is important to remember that no one really knows what the sustainable population size truly is.  The passenger pigeon reportedly had incredibly large populations only a few years before they completely disappeared.  There are some species with small population sizes that are stable, while others, especially those that exhibit strong social structures, need a much larger populations size than would be recognized as the minimum.

The good news is that both of the two largest markets for elephant ivory have or are set to ban imports and trading.  Last year China, the largest consumer of elephant ivory, announced a ban on imports and trading that will take effect later this year.  The United States finalized regulations last year (July 6, 2016) banning virtually all future imports and trading.  How effective the ban will be depends upon enforcement and whether the risk of illegally obtaining ivory is worth the reward.  In any case, there does seem to be hope for one of the public’s favorite animals, even while lesser known species continue their silent, unmitigated march toward extinction.


Haleakala Flightless Moth

haleakala flightless moth final
Haleakala flightless moth (Thyrocopa apatela). Photo by Mark Shepherd

Many species in the Hawaiian islands are known to be endemic (found nowhere else).   An example is the Haleakala flightless moth. This moth is not just restricted to the Hawaiian Islands, but it can only be found on the windswept western slopes of the summit of Haleakala volcano.  Its scientific name is Thyrocopa apatela.  It is, however, more commonly known as the Haleakala flightless moth or the Haleakala grasshopper moth.


It survives in very harsh, desert-like conditions near the summit, where temperatures average from 50 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit (10-18°C) during the day, and may drop below freezing temperatures at night.  Because the moth lives at elevations above 9,000 feet (2,900 m), the air is thinner and solar radiation is more intense than at sea level; another factor contributing to the harsh conditions of its habitat.  The name Haleakala means “house of the sun” and the thin air means the sun is brighter here.  The thin air is also one of the reasons there is an observatory on the summit of Haleakala, where light from space is less distorted than at lower elevations.  

The summit of Haleakala volcano, Maui, Hawaii. Photo by Mark shepherd

The moth’s restricted habitat appears to be getting even smaller. Surveys during the 1970’s found moths living at altitudes as low as of 5,000 feet (1,524 m) . Recent surveys, however, only found  moths above 9,500 feet (2,895.6 meters), perhaps due to invasive Argentine ants (Iridomyrmex humilis).  The abundance of many native insect species is reduced in areas invaded by Argentine ants.  Theses ants have been named one of the worlds top 100 worst invasive species.

Advantages to Being Flightless

It might seem odd that a moth with wings is flightless, however several winged insects live in aeolian areas, where winds are strong.  In windy habitats , the ability to fly may be a disadvantage.   The obvious disadvantage is the potential injury from being smashed against the dry, rock strewn landscape, reminiscent of the surface of Mars.  A second disadvantage is that strong winds may blow moths away from potential mates.  Remember, these moths are only found near the summit.  A third potential disadvantage is that strong winds blow the insects into rainwater where they can drown.  So there appears to be some advantages to being flightless.

Ecology and Behavior

The Haleakala flightless moth hops in a similar way to crickets, and is able to jump ten times its body length.  Adults are largely scavengers of organic material and the moth caterpillars feed on dead leaves.  Beside this, very little information is available on the ecology of the Haleakala flightless moths.  A quick review on google scholar turned up only three results pages, and most of the studies found provided little more than taxonomic (biological classification) information.

Haleakala flightless moth is able to hop 10 times its body length.
Photo by Mark Shepherd

If you find yourself on the island of Maui, you should make the journey up to the caldera of the now extinct Haleakala volcano to see this remarkable moth and a whole host of other rare species that populate the national park – before they are gone forever.

To see more of the Earths biodiversity, click on the link below to visit MyEarth.

The Still Mysterious Case of Missing Bees

Honey Bee (genus Apis) foraging in the field. Photo by Mark Shepherd
Honey Bee (genus Apis) foraging in the field. Photo by Mark Shepherd

We are just four months shy of the 10-year anniversary when David Hackenberg reported losing two-thirds of his bee hives to a phenomenon now known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).   It was in October of 2006 that Mr Hackenberg, a Pennsylvania bee keeper, noticed that 2000 bee colonies he had transferred to Florida to pollinate crops were devoid of almost all adult bees, except the queen.   Like a scene out of a science fiction movie there were no bodies left to explain what happened.  All of the adult bees took flight from the hive never to return, leaving combs filled with honey and larvae.  In January of 2016, Maryam Henein published a story online noting that David Hackenberg had again lost a large number of bee hives.  This time 90 percent of his colonies.   Mr. Hackenberg was not alone in his losses, with other bee keepers reporting large colony losses.  He is now a part of a civil lawsuit filed against the United States Environmental Protection Agency alleging that the ongoing sale and use of neonicotinoid pesticides have caused rapid honey bee kills with long-term effects leading to bee colony mortality, bird mortality, nationwide water and soil contamination, and other environmental and economic harms.  Other researchers, however, question the role  that neonics, as neonicotinoids are often called in the bee keeper industry, play in CCD.

Neonicotinoids are a group of insecticides used on a variety of crops, such as apples, pears, peaches, walnuts, cucumbers and many others.  The most widely used neonicotinoid is imidacloprid. Mimicking the molecular structure of nicotine that is found in a variety of plants such as tobacco, and that can act as a natural defense against insects, neonics over-stimulate insect nerve cells. The over-stimulation results in the noticeable twitching of insects that are fatally poisoned.

In 2012, researchers led by Chensheng Lu of Harvard University  published a paper indicating that exposing bee hives to  imidacloprid led to the death of colonies in significantly higher numbers than hives not exposed to the insecticide.   In the study, however,  dead bees were found on  the ground near the hives, something not seen in colonies affected by CCD.  Hives affected by CCD were reported to be  empty with few, if any, dead bees found.  The researchers explained that the reason they found dead bees was that their study was conducted in winter conditions, where snow on the ground made finding dead bees easier.  In warmer latitudes, sick bees could fly farther and the bodies might not be found.  So it seemed that the mystery might have finally been solved, right?  Well, no.

In March 2013, the FDA published the results of  a 3-year study indicating that while imidacloprid could cause effects on bee health and colony success, effects were not seen at doses typically encountered in the field.  The FDA report stated that even at some high doses imidacloprid,

“had no significant effects on foraging activity or other colony performance indicators during and shortly after exposure…. Given the weight of evidence, chronic exposure to imidacloprid at the higher range of field doses (20 to 100 μg/kg) in pollen of certain treated crops could cause negative impacts on honey bee colony health and reduced overwintering success, but the most likely encountered high range of field doses relevant for seed-treated crops (5 μg/kg) had negligible effects on colony health and are unlikely a sole cause of colony declines”.  

honey bee on flower (apis melifera) photo by mark shepherd
honey bee on flower (apis melifera)

Further, the FDA and Mary Berenbaum, previously at the National Academy of Sciences, noted that Chensheng Lu, “never tested for the presence of pathogens, so his conclusions dismissing other likely causes don’t follow from his data“.  The FDA also noted that with bee populations in 2015 at a 20-year high, the CCD phenomenon identified in 2006 was likely a cyclical  phenomenon that has occurred several times over the last century,  making CCD less of a concern.  Or does it?  Bear in mind that many of the honey bee populations are started with queens that share a very similar genetic makeup, and thus, are potentially susceptible to similar diseases.  If a virus, bacterium, or mite was the real culprit behind CCD,   having some many queens and colonies with such a similar genetic make up could mean another event like the 2006 CCD phenomenon could have a potentially devastating effect.

The general molecular structure of Imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid insecticide suspected of causing colony collapse disorder.
The general molecular structure of imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid insecticide suspected of causing colony collapse disorder.

For more information see the links below

USDA study concludes neonics not driving bee deaths—As White House set to announce pollinator revival plan’





Diversity among Some Environmental Organizations

A review of board members and executives at several large and well known environmental organizations finds little diversity in leadership positions.
African American Hiker Photo by Mark Shepherd

If the biological world exhibited a similar diversity in the number of species present that several environmental organizations do with regard to minorities in positions of leadership, it would be an extremely impoverished world.   I reviewed the online list of board members and executives at several large and well known environmental organizations, and was very surprised to find that there is very little diversity in leadership positions, and almost no African Americans.  There were only a few Hispanics, Asians, and at one prestigious environmental organization, there were no African Americans.  That’s right, not one!

Diversity Review

To be fair, there are limited positions, though several environmental organizations’ list of board members is long – very long.  You would think that in an organization with a list of nearly 50 board members and executive staff, there would be at least one African American.  Perhaps that is just an artifact of my online survey, which only included active board members in 2016, but I have my doubts.  I am sure that every organization seeks to recruit dedicated talent to their senior level positions, and who wants to be included in an organization solely for the purpose of helping to attain the semblance of diversity.  It was, however, rather odd to see positions such as Managing Director of continents such as Africa, that were no more diverse than, say, a Managing Director of Europe.

Reasons for Low Diversity Among Environmental Organizations

Several reasons have been proffered to account for the lack of diversity among environmentalist, and environmental organizations, including the lack of minority participation as environmental volunteers, the shortage of minorities pursuing science degrees or attaining the skills and experience necessary to make attractive candidates.  I, however, think the issue is much deeper than opportunities.  Marshall Shepherd wrote an excellent piece in Forbes, “Why Do Many Minorities Avoid Science?”   While the issue I am discussing is not specifically about minorities in science, I think the reasons mentioned in the article are related to minority representation in environmental organizations.  In his article, Marshall Shepherd quoted several minority professors and scientists who opined on the lack of minorities in science.  Several opinions focused on lack of exposure to science at an early age, the lack of minority scientists as role models, a low connection of minorities to science, and even a distrust of the system.  All of which seem reasonable, but only deal with one side of the issue, that of the availability of qualified minority professionals.  Only a couple dealt with the other potential issue: perceptions of minorities by the predominantly white leaders of environmental organizations, and in particular perceptions of African Americans.  A quote by Calvin Mackie, President and founder of STEM NOLA (Science, Technology Engineering, and Math – New Orleans, Louisiana) discusses the issue of perceptions.

“It’s a problem because no one sees it as one. Think about it, STEM people are taught to solve problems. ..if the problem exist. .. in their eyes, it’s our problem, own it and solve …without accepting any responsibility that they are the barriers.  It’s mind over matter, we don’t matter because they (the professions) don’t mind!

Involving the Next Generation

To be sure, this is more than an academic issue to me.  I have two children, both of whom are, of course, minorities.  My daughter stands second in her very academically rigorous high school class of nearly 500 plus students, and my son has just finished his second year of college with a 3.9 GPA , while double majoring in Biology and Biochemistry.  I certainly have involved them in my environmental research and they have had numerous experiences with environmental issues, especially during the time period when I was Vice President of Environmental Health and Safety at a fairly large power company.  I also recently decided to volunteer more in a few environmental organizations, something I have done before, though once again in fairness, not for these organizations.  I feel I am doing my part to assure there are well qualified minorities available.  I hope environmental organizations, some of which have finally recognized the issue, will also do the very best they can to be more inclusive.


Shepherd, M. (2016, January 18). Why do many minorities avoid science? Forbes Science.


Link to the article below:


Photo by Mark Shepherd:  African American hiker in Big Bend National Park

Monk Parakeet Populations Growing


Three Monk Parakeets perched and interacting in a tangle of branches (Buenos Aires);
Three Monk Parakeets perched and interacting in a tangle of branches (Buenos Aires).
Photo by Rich Lindie

In 1939, nearly 77 years ago, the Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) was declared extinct.  At the time, it was United States’ only known native parrot.  The cause for its extinction is not certain, but is frequently reported to be the result of deforestation.  Some experts, however, believe deforestation and hunting may have reduced the

populations sufficiently to allow other factors, such as disease, to be the proximate cause of extinction.  Whatever the cause, the species’ population decline appears to have been rapid, occurring sometime between 1896 and 1904.   The last one died in captivity in 1918 at the Cincinnati Zoo (Click on the book cover to the right to get a copy of an excellent book Errol Fuller discussing the Carolina Parakeet and other extinct species titled, “Lost Animals”).

Since 1968, a new parakeet is taking up residence in some habitats formerly occupied by the Carolina Parakeet.  Also known as the Quaker parakeet, the monk parakeet is native to South America, occurring from central Bolivia and southern Brazil, south to central Argentina.  Monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus), believed to have been accidentally or intentionally released, are now found in several states of the U.S., and can also be found in Canada, Puerto Rico, Bahamas, West Indies, England, Belgium, Italy, Spain, and Israel.  In the United States breeding populations occur in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Illinois, New York and as far north as Connecticut.

Here in Austin, as in all major Texas cities, there is an established population of monk parakeets.  They are almost always found in groups, frequently searching the ground for seeds and any fallen fruit, which is reported to be their main diet.  They are also frequently found on electric transmission lines crisscrossing the city.

Monk Parakeets are unique among the psittacines (parrots) in that rather than making their home in cavities, they build large communal nests using sticks, often among those same transmission lines, which is the only potential problem with any increase in their numbers.

Populations of monk parakeets are thought to be growing exponentially, and while they do not seem to pose the same pest problem in United States that they do in their native South America, there is still concern that could change.   One study reports that parakeet populations will likely continue to expand and grow for the foreseeable future (Pruett-Jones et al., 2007).

Click the link below to see a short video of monk parakeets in Austin, Texas

monk parakeets short 2

Pruett-Jones S, Newman JR, Newman CM, Avery ML, Lindsay JR: Population viability analysis of monk parakeets in the United States and examination of alternative management strategies. Human-Wildlife Conflicts. 2007, 1:35-44.