Human germ attacks already declining coral reefs

Plague, rabies, Lyme disease, bird flu and swine flu—people seem much more at risk for diseases from animals than the other way around. But it does go the other way too, and it has been discovered that such a case is responsible for a disease that has devastated coral reefs in the Caribbean.

“White pox disease” in coral is caused by a human strain of the common intestinal bacterium Serratia marcescens, which causes the hospital infection serratiosis. (Hospital infections, or nosocomial infections, happen because individuals already in poor health are exposed to pathogens by poor sanitary practices and invasive procedures such as surgery or catheterization.) [Etymological notes on scientific names are at the end of the post.]

The only coral known to be affected is Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), a major reef-bulding species in the Caribbean. Healthy Elkhorn coral looks like this.

Healthy Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata).jpg

Here’s an example of Elkhorn coral infected with White pox disease.

White Pox Disease (Serratia marcescens) on Elkhorn Coral.jpg

A research team at the University of Georgia was recently awarded a $5M grant to investigate the disease in coral, which is “the first known case of such a ‘reverse zoonosis’ that involves the transmission of a human pathogen to a marine invertebrate”. Even more remarkable, in the words of James W. Porter, associate dean of the Odum School of Ecology and the team’s leader, “This bacterium has jumped from vertebrate to invertebrate, from terrestrial to marine, and from anaerobic to aerobic environments. Triple jumps like this are rare.”

In addition, according to the report in ProMED (partly drawn from this source),

The scope of the team’s research will extend beyond gaining an
understanding of the impact of white pox disease on elkhorn coral and
how to counter it. The most likely source of the pathogen for coral
reefs is under-treated human sewage, so the study will also explore
the intersection of public health practices and environmental health

“This investigation addresses not only environmental protection, but
also the socio-ecological determinants of coastal zone protection,”
said Porter. “This includes the cost of wastewater treatment
infrastructure. Given a reliance on tourism by most Caribbean
countries, this study addresses a disease system that is of great
economic importance and public health concern to developing nations.”

“This is science in action to save an endangered species and a threatened ecosystem,” said team leader Porter. “We are linking good public health practices to effective environmental protection.”

Elkhorn and Staghorn coral (Acroporis cervicornis) are both on the US Federal list of threatened species, and in 2008 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration extended additional protection rules usually reserved for endangered species. The new rule will “prohibit the importing, exporting and taking of elkhorn and staghorn corals. Additionally, the rule prohibits any activities that result in the corals’ mortality or injury. Anchoring, grounding a vessel or dragging gear on the species is prohibited. Additionally, damaging the species’ habitat and discharging any pollutant or contaminant that harms the species violates NOAA’s new rule. The rule applies to elkhorn and staghorn coral in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Florida.” Of course the enforcement will be difficult, but it appears that it’s none too soon to reverse the decline of these reef-building species.

A recent analysis of 500 surveys of 200 reefs showed the most complex types of reef had been virtually wiped out across the entire Caribbean. What survives are mostly “flattened” reefs which provide poor habitat for fish including commercial species, and are less “effective in protecting coastal homes and villages from storm swells and tidal surges”.

Healthy reef of staghorn coral in the Caribbean, below.

Healthy Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis).jpg


When the branched corals are killed off, low-growing corals may take their place but don’t create the rich three-dimensional habitat that the branched ones do. Algae also may increase and blanket surfaces, preventing coral growth.

Flattened coral reef, degraded by loss of branching coral).jpg

Source. Photo by Jennifer E. Smith.

Other threats to coral reefs

Coral-building animals live symbiotically with algae. Influenced by water that is too warm or cold, the corals will “expel the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues causing the coral to turn completely white. This is called coral bleaching. When a coral bleaches, it is not dead. Corals can survive a bleaching event, but they are under more stress and are subject to mortality.” Rising ocean temperatures have caused wide-spread bleaching events. Warm waters also absorb more CO2, causing the water to become more acidic and that makes it more difficult for reef-building organisms to form the calcium carbon skeletons that serve as their structural basis.

Overfishing, pollution including sewage and agricultural runoff, dredging,hurricanes, and development have all damaged coral reefs. Each new injury reduces the ability of living organisms to reproduce and to withstand further assaults.

Coral reefs are among the world’s richest ecosystems, second only to tropical rain forests in plant and animal diversity. They arfe essential to fisheries, tourism, and protecting beaches from erosion. Yet “nearly two-thirds of the Caribbean’s coral reefs are threatened by human activities. Agricultural runoff, overfishing, dredging, sewage discharge (a factor in White pox disease), and the growing pace of coastal development have already degraded important reef systems, resulting not only in a tremendous loss of biodiversity but also lost revenue from declining tourism and fishing, and increased coastal erosion.” This last statement comes from the World Resources Institute, which is active many environmental fronts and is currently sponsoring a country-by-country survey of the economic values of Caribbean coral reefs and mangroves: “Supporting the sustainable management of coral reefs and mangroves by quantifying their economic value”.

Elkhorn coral & research robot.jpg

Source. Some breakage from hurricanes can be seen. Also shown is Fetch1, an autonomous underwater vehicle for research that was developed by NASA.

More about coral reefs

Global Coral Reef Alliance
EPA, Coral Reefs and your Coastal Watershed
University of Florida, Overview with photos

Etymological notes

Serratia marcescens was discovered in 1819 by Venetian pharmacist Bartolomeo Bizio, as the cause of an episode of blood-red discoloration of polenta in the city of Padua.[7] Bizio named the organism four years later in honor of Serafino Serrati, a physicist who developed an early steamboat; the epithet marcescens (Latin for “decaying”) was chosen because of the pigment’s rapid deterioration. [Wikipedia]

Acropora palmata: Acropora from the Greek, akros (high) and poros (opening, pore); palmata handlike, from Greek palma (a palm, flat hand; palm branch).

Acropora cervicornis: Acropora as above; cervicornis from the Latin cervus (deer) and cornu (horn, antler)

Biggest bug I was ever bitten by

One day this summer I was at the school where the food pantry is held, and a school landscape employee was spraying weeds. He called out in surprise, that there was a really big bug right on the nozzle of the herbicide applicator. I ran over to see and apparently was the only person willing to pick up this huge black beetle. I decided to take him home, since my husband is a beetle fancier, and rummaged around for some sort of container for him. Finally I found a kleenex box, emptied it, and with the help of a young girl gathered leaves and sticks to make a cozy temporary home. The little girl was scared of the beetle but her feelings toward him began to turn warm and nurturing when I invited her to help furnish his house. She hadn’t gotten up to touching him by the time we put him in and taped a piece of paper over the top, but given more time I feel sure she would have come around.

Here’s our prize, emerging from his house (all the furnishings got shaken to a corner by the car ride).

Ergates spiculatus Spined woodborer,emerges.jpg

He crawled on my arm and hand for a while and then I must have annoyed him because he bit me with his mandibles—made me jump! The bite made a 1/8 inch cut that did bleed, but alas left no scar for me to show off while admitting how I had completely deserved it. Below he’s on my husband’s arm.

Ergates spiculatus Spined woodborer - 15.jpg

And for better scale,

Ergates spiculatus Spined woodborer,4Scale.jpg

We were able to identify him as one of the longhorned woodboring beetles, the Spined Woodborer or Pine Sawyer Beetle (Ergates spiculatus). One clue to differentiating him from another similar species was the spininess of his thorax, visible in this photo. The spines are on the sides of his thorax, while the yellow arrows point to the palps which unfortunately are blurry in this picture.

Ergates spiculatus Spined woodborer Head.jpg

Here the palps are clearer.

Ergates spiculatus Spined woodborer palps.jpg

The palps are sensory organs for the beetle. Mandibles cut up food and maxilla help manipulate it. The parts of a beetle’s head are shown in this illustration.

Beetle head anatomy.jpg

After irritating this beetle so much, we stopped before getting any good photos of his underside, though we could see intriguing edges of fibrous stuff. Here’s someone else’s great picture of what the description says are “velvety” underparts. The eyes and two pairs of palps are also shown.


Etymological note: ergates is from the Greek, worker; spiculatus, from the Latin spiculum, a little sharp point (diminutive of spicum, a sharp point). The English word “spike” may derive from this Latin word, or may have a more indirect derivation; there is a Proto-Indo-European root *spei-, sharp point. [Proto-Indo-European is the common ancestor of all modern Indo-European languages. It dates from before writing, so it has been reconstructed from study of related words in various languages, and derivation of rules by which sounds change over time. The same method has been used to construct Proto-Germanic. In historical linguistic studies, the asterisk next to a “word” means that it is a reconstructed root.]

One site says this is the largest beetle in North America, up to 65 mm (2.6 inches) in length, but I could not confirm its status as champion big beetle. At any rate it is plenty large, and I wondered if it was one of those beetles, the larvae of which cause extensive die-off in our Pacific Northwest forests. A publication on wood-borers from Washington State University reassured me: “Keep in mind that almost all of our native species of long horned beetles feed in dying or stressed trees and do not attack healthy trees”. According to them, Ergates spiculatus feeds mostly on dead/dying/stressed Douglas firs or Ponderosa Pines.

That information has a different implication, however, at a time when climate change may be stressing northern forests with increased temperatures and long droughts, causing millions of trees to fall into that “stressed” category. British Columbia has reportedly lost about half of its pine trees to a borer no larger than a grain of rice, which spends most of its life boring beneath the bark, a process continued by its larvae which cut off the nutrient and water supply while feeding. To make matters worse, “The beetles also introduce a distinct blue stained fungus that holds back a tree’s natural defences against the attack, delivering a lethal larvae and fungus combination”.

Our trees look pretty good, though, so without hesitation we turned the big biting bug loose on one of them.

Ergates spiculatus Spined woodborer on tree.jpg

More about hydraulic mining, including some corrections

In an earlier post, about a walk along the Gin LinTrail, an area still scarred by hydraulic mining, I made errors that have been pointed out to me by a commenter on that post. I’ve made brief corrections to parts of my text in the original post, but will sort things out at more length here. On a couple of points, one trivial and the other important, I do differ with the commenter.

One error arose from my ignorance of the geological nature of the area where the hydraulic mining was done and the source of the gold. The commenter’s reference to Tertiary gravel deposits being the location of the gold was new to me, so I looked it up and learned a lot about the Northern California (and, I assume, extreme southern Oregon) hydraulic gold-mining industry.

The gold mined by hydraulic mining in Northern California was found accumulated in ancient “riverbed deposits, now elevated above modern rivers”. These deposits are 40 million years old, or older. So the hydraulickers, as they were sometimes called, were following a very old plane of deposited material across a large area which has since been raised, and also cut into, by modern geological forces such as uplift and water flow. The map below, from the UCSB Dept. of Geography, shows the location of those ancient rivers and their modern counterparts in one region of Northern California.

Map of ancient Northern California rivers which deposited gold and were mined by hydraulic miners.

”Pay streaks”, some ado about a phrase

With regard to the term “pay streaks”, of which the commenter said “A pay streak is a modern term used to describe a gold deposit that has formed in an existing waterway”, this term does in fact date back to the days of hydraulic mining and was used as I used it. For example, here is a passage from Hydraulic and placer mining by Eugene Benjamin Wilson (Wiley, 1918), page 8 (Google Books):

Pay Streak Quotation.jpg

It is easy to see how confusion may have arisen about this term’s early use, because of the change in meaning of another word: “placer”. Like other writers of his time and before, Wilson’s definition of “placer” is much more inclusive than what seems to be common usage today. We think of placer as meaning something deposited recently (in geological terms)

Placer definition.jpg

But Wilson and others of his era used it to refer not only to deposits in current rivers, but also to those made millions of years ago on riverbeds now under many feet of overburden.

placer quotation.jpg

(above, from Wilson page 11; below, from page 9) and

ancient&modern placers.jpg

His use of the the term “pay streaks” is in the half of his book about placer mining. For him, hydraulic mining is a method and placer describes a type of gold deposit including both recent and ancient riverbeds.

placer & hydraulic.jpg

(Wilson, page 152)

Another authoritative writer, Waldemar Lindgren, used “placer” in the same way (and “pay streak” also). In 1911 the U.S. Geological Survey published his opus, The Tertiary Gravels of the Sierra Nevada of California, as no. 73 in its series of Professional Papers. He says,

The occurrence of gold in paying quantities in the Tertiary gravels of the Sierra Nevada is limited almost entirely to the gravels in which quartz and metamorphic rocks form the principal components. …


It has become almost an axiom among miners that the gold is concentrated on the bedrock and all efforts in placer mining are generally directed toward finding the bedrock in order to pursue mining operations there. It is well known to all drift miners, however, that the gold is not equally distributed on the bedrock in the channels. The richest part forms a streak of irregular width referred to in the English colonies as the “run of gold” and in the United States as the “pay streak” or “pay lead.”
(Lindgren, p. 65-66)

Environmental effects of hydraulic mining

I blamed hydraulic mining for the unvegetated areas we saw along the Gin Lin Trail. The commenter blamed it upon poor soil in the areas of these ancient rivers, which he said was typical and something he has often observed. He said, “the deeper they were worked, the better the vegetation has recovered”.

The best description I found, in researching the revegetation of hydraulic mining sites, was this by Randall Rohe:

quote Rohe.jpg

(Source: Green versus gold: sources in California’s environmental history, by Carolyn Merchant. From the chapter by Randall Rohe, “Mining’s Impact on the land”, p. 128. Google books.)

So, all things being equal, the bottoms of hydraulic mining pits are most likely to revegetate quickly, while the slopes may remain bare for decades or centuries. However in some places the mining may result in contaminating the pit-bottom with minerals that are toxic to plants, such as seems to be the case here.


The photo above shows a pool of water devoid of any plants in or around it other than algae, in the area of the Malakoff Diggins—California’s largest hydraulic mine. (Source. Following photos are also of Malakoff Diggins.)



Minerals exposed by hydraulic mining can leach out and, if toxic, make plant growth impossible. Here is a view of what appears to be an exposed peak of some mineral:


The steep slopes in themselves, of course, also resist plant growth.

Malakoff UCSB.jpg


As far as the differences in soil quality, comparing ground above the ancient riverbeds (which would probably be what’s on the top area of the cliffs shown) versus that exposed by water cannons like this



who can say? Are the bottoms of mining pits often more lushly vegetated because water collects there (as long as no toxic minerals accumulate)? Do different species, of different habits, grow in the pits as opposed to at the tops, and so growth appears different? My guess would be that it varies greatly according to specific location. Perhaps someone can point me to comparative photos or soil studies.

For the people downstream of these mines, the major consideration was what it did to their own locale. All the material washed away by the powerful streams of water—strong enough to hold a fifty-pound boulder in the air—went downstream sooner or later. Often the debris included boulders, cobbles, gravel, as well as finer material.

“The historian Hubert Howe Bancroft stated that an eight-inch Monitor [patented nozzle] could throw 185,000 cubic feet of water in an hour with a velocity of 150 feet per second.” (Source)

“A conservative estimate places the amount of debris dumped into tributaries of the Sacramento at 1.3 billion cubic yards.” (p. 132, article by Rohe in Green versus Gold previously cited). The total amount of material removed to build the Panama Canal (including both the French and the American work) was 268,000,000 cubic yards: only one-fifth the amount that was sent down the tributaries of the Sacramento.

The massive volume of debris that resulted from hydraulic mining clogged streams and rivers from the foothill outlets to the mouth of San Francisco Bay, obstructing navigable rivers and reducing their ability to carry flood waters. The lighter silt and sands, the “slickins”, spread over the river-side farms of the Sacramento Valley and ruined many farmers. These downstream impacts of the industry eventually brought on a series of local, then federal, lawsuits, and a series of debates in the California Legislature on how (or if) the problem would be solved. The end of debate came in 1884, when federal circuit judge Lorenzo Sawyer issued an injunction against the industry discharging its debris.


Many of the streams are turned out of their original channels, either directly for mining purposes, or in consequence of the great masses of soil and gravel that come down from the gold-washing above. Thousands of acres of fine land along their banks are ruined forever by the deposits of this character. A farmer may have his whole estate turned into a barren waste by a flood of sand and gravel from some hydraulic mining up stream; more, if a fine orchard or garden stands in the way of the working of a rich gulch or bank, orchard or garden must go. Then the tornout, dug- out, washed to pieces and then washed over side- hills, masses that have been or are being subjected to the hydraulics of the miners, are the very devil’s chaos indeed. The country is full of them among the mining districts of the Sierra Nevada, and they are truly a terrible blot upon the face of Nature. (Samuel Bowles, 1868.

It raised the level of rivers in some cases above the level of nearby towns, changed river-courses, silted up fish spawning gravels, reduced open water areas and increased tidal flats in San Francisco Bay and environs, and led to increasingly serious floods.

An invisible hazard accompanied the debris and silt-laden water: mercury. The gold-bearing material was sent down thousands of feet of sluices which were lined with mercury in order to snag particles of gold as they tumbled through. Mercury is very persistent in the environment. An estimated 2500 – 10,000 metric tons (2755 to 11,000 tons) entered the Bay. “Currently San Francisco Bay is listed under Clean Water Act Section 303(d) as impaired for mercury contamination, and many Bay-caught sport fish exceed the EPA human health criterion of 0.3 mg methylmercury/kg fish tissue” (Source). About 261 million cubic yards of sediment still remain in the northern part of San Francisco Bay.

When all is said and done

I went past the subject of the original commentator’s remarks (about seeing better vegetation in the bottoms of mining pits than on the presumably undisturbed top ground), to recapitulate some of the horrors of hydraulic mining, and that was not so I could bash him with matters not part of our differences, but because we must still fight against similarly great environmental damage from other mining practices. Strip mining, destruction of mountain tops, chemical “fracking” of strata to get at natural gas deposits, the list goes on and on.

Close to home, hydraulic mining’s little brother has come to visit. The recent moratorium on dredging in California has sent hundreds of miners with gas-powered dredges up to Southern Oregon, to suck up the banks and bottoms of streams in a small scale version of hydraulic mining. Small scale, but then our rivers and creeks are smaller too. The damage to the “stream banks and nursery gravels”, as one local gold panner wrote, is severe. “If you did a bio-survey of say, one cubic foot of stream gravel passed through a internal combustion driven pump, the numbers of ruptured organisms and caddis-fly eggs, water-beetle eggs, dragonfly larva, newt and salamander eggs would stagger one’s imagination. Just check a sluiced site for life forms sometime; see if you can find any. …The dredger’s assertion that their comparative damage is lesser than that of the major extractors doesn’t mitigate their injury.” (Pers. comm., Dan Barker, 2010).

No glaciers on the news

Last night I wanted to see footage on television of the huge island of ice that has broken off of the Petermann glacier in Greenland. It’s the biggest such event in the Arctic for 50 years, launching a massive iceberg that has four times the area of Manhattan and is 600 feet thick. “The so-called “ice island” covers a hundred square miles (260 square kilometers) and holds enough water to keep U.S. public tap water flowing for 120 days.”

I thought that some enterprising Greenlander, perhaps from the Greenland Ice Patrol which monitors ice movement for shipping safety, would surely have gotten aloft and sent us all some live footage showing the area, but apparently not. Merging two clichés, one about cable tv and the other about big-box stores, I thought: “500 channels, but never what you want”.

Online, of course, there are photos like these from NASA.


Real color photo from NASA. I added the orange line around the breakaway ice island. Source.


False color photo from NASA. Source.

And I did find about two seconds of overhead video on YouTube. It’s about 20 seconds into the video, and most of the rest is talking heads taking sides on whether the event is connected to global warming/climate change. Maybe yes, maybe no, does it really matter if each individual event can be connected? Good for politicians and talk-shows.

In the Antarctic, however, there seems to be quite a clear pattern. Nearly all of the world’s glacier ice, 91%, is located there. An international scientific partnership including the US Geological Survey (and the British Antarctic Survey, with the assistance of the Scott Polar Research Institute and Germany’s Bundesamt fűr Kartographie und Geodäsie) has found that

every ice front in the southern part of the Antarctic Peninsula has been retreating overall from 1947 to 2009, with the most dramatic changes occurring since 1990. The USGS previously documented that the majority of ice fronts on the entire Peninsula have also retreated during the late 20th century and into the early 21st century.

The ice shelves are attached to the continent and already floating, holding in place the Antarctic ice sheet that covers about 98 percent of the Antarctic continent. As the ice shelves break off, it is easier for outlet glaciers and ice streams from the ice sheet to flow into the sea. The transition of that ice from land to the ocean is what raises sea level. [report dated 2/22/10]

Since 1950, total Antarctic ice loss exceeds 9,652 square miles. Temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula have risen faster than in any other area in the southern hemisphere – a rise that translates to more than five degrees Fahrenheit since the middle of the last century.


This image shows ice-front retreat in part of the southern Antarctic Peninsula from 1947 to 2009. Distance bar may be hard to read: it’s 50 miles in 10 miles increments. USGS scientists are studying coastal and glacier change along the entire Antarctic coastline. The southern portion of the Antarctic Peninsula is one area studied as part of this project, and is summarized in the USGS report, “Coastal-Change and Glaciological Map of the Palmer Land Area, Antarctica: 1947–2009” (map I–2600–C). (Credit: Image courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey). Source.

It is expected that loss of the floating ice shelves will allow the land-based ice to flow faster toward and into the ocean. If the Greenland Ice Sheet were to melt completely, it is estimated that it would add about 23 feet (7 meters) to current sea level. The West Antarctic Ice sheet is believed to be less stable than that covering East Antarctica, because the ice of East Antarctica lies on rock that is above sea level and is thought unlikely to collapse. But the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is on rock below sea level:

“Not just a bit below sea level, it’s 2,000 meters below sea level,” said David Vaughan, a principal investigator with the British Antarctic Survey. “If there was no ice sheet there, this would be deep ocean, deep like the middle of the Atlantic.”

Some scientists have theorized that this makes the WAIS inherently unstable. If the ice sheet retreats beyond a certain point, a positive feedback mechanism should, they say, lead to runaway retreat that would not stop until most of the ice sheet disappears. [Source.]

The Western Antarctic Ice Sheet contains 13% of all the ice on the Antarctic continent, enough to raise current sea levels around 11 feet (3.3 meters). And when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made its climate change predictions, including the “mid-range projection” (mid-range meaning, not the best-case nor the worst-case scenario) that seas will rise 17 inches (44 centimeters), they did not include what the effects would be, if polar ice sheets began to melt faster than in the decade of 1993-2003. This was done because there wasn’t enough known about ice sheet melting and its change over time. The Antarctic Ice Sheet is 6 miles thick in places, so it’s not easy to know what is going on under it and finding out has only recently seemed important to those who fund such expensive research.

Finally, the aspect that has seemed to many the most frightening about climate change predictions: the unknown potential for interactions between complex systems such as wind currents and ocean currents, which could conceivably multiply foreseen effects. (Or, if we were amazingly lucky, cause them to cancel one another out; but we won’t know until it’s too late to do anything about it.) For example, it’s believed that the melting of Antarctic ice shelves is caused by warmer water flowing up underneath the ice. But this water is not from melting ice; rather it comes from deep within the ocean, and climate change may be making it warmer by one of those unforeseen linkages:

Antarctica is encircled by atmospheric currents that largely insulate it from the rest of Earth’s climate and keep it colder than it otherwise would be. Jenkins’ model showed that these circumpolar currents, sometimes called “Westerlies,” “the Screaming 50s,” or “the Roaring 40s,” actually push surface waters out away from the continent. This results from the Coriolis Force, the byproduct of Earth’s rotation that causes cyclonic systems to turn counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere. As surface water is pushed away, warm deep water rises to replace it.

If the atmospheric currents speed up, more water is pulled up. Indeed, observations indicate these atmospheric currents have sped up in recent decades in response to global warming. So increased upwelling seems likely.

[Read more in this article which goes into deeper detail than many accounts of climate research for lay persons. It reports on the 2007 the West Antarctic Links to Sea-Level Estimation (WALSE) international workshop.]

It’s this sort of unforeseen multiplier-effect between two systems (each one of which,by itself, strains our capacity to make accurate mental and statistical models), that makes me think efforts to mitigate, and prepare for, climate change should be at the top of every developed nation’s agenda. Of course it’s not at the top of any nation’s agenda, and won’t be, until the effects are severe—not just “extreme weather” like last week’s flooding and unusual heat waves, but unmistakeable (and irreversible) such as significant rise in sea levels. By then secondary results, such as mass migration of tens of millions trying to flee drought and famine, will be well under way and our primate brains will be where they are most comfortable, dealing with what’s right in front of them. Near-term possibilities are construed concretely, long-term ones abstractly, and the consequences of that upon human action are pretty much as you’d expect. Psychologists even have a name for this, “temporal construal”.

We are told that Homo sapiens mostly evolves culturally now, rather than physically. Yet human cultures in industrial nations are mostly under the control of corporate interests which manufacture and sell us “culture” in a form that serves their ends. Government, also, serves them. If corporations were subject to natural selection we wouldn’t have seen no-strings bailouts for banks and financial institutions, instead there would have been widespread failures. If American culture is poorly adapted for survival in coming conditions, and if the few run it for their short-term gain, then chances for “our” success seem slim. Humans are slippery devils, though, enduring and resourceful. And there are still a few groups of hunter-gatherers and nomads left who may well prove far more resilient than any of our proud nations.

Algae poses threat to humans as well as animals

Health departments have been trying to inform swimmers and pet owners that they should avoid water with visible algae, since ingesting it can cause severe and sudden illness including convulsions or even death. In our state, three dogs died last year after swimming at a reservoir. One died before his owner could even get him to the car, another died on the way to the vet.

Now, a recent report in the ProMED health tracking network calls our attention to human risks that don’t involved either entering or drinking the algae-contaminated water.

One man, whose dog died after a swim in the lake, was hospitalized last week [week of 19 Jul 2010] after he gave the dog a bath. Within days, the 43-year-old man began having trouble walking and lost
feeling in his arms and feet.

“We weren’t swimming in the lake because it’s disgusting,” said the
victim’s wife, whose husband, is still having trouble with memory loss and fatigue. “Our dog was just covered in that sludge, and my husband washed him.” Washington Examiner, July 30, 2010.

According to one doctor treating the Ohio man, his neurological problems may be permanent. But he’s better off than his dog, who died despite having the algae washed off.

The algae are in the “blue-green algae” family, and are actually not algae but photosynthesizing bacteria, called cyanobacteria. Blooms, or overgrowths, in bodies of water (fresh or saltwater) are encouraged by temperature change and increases in nutrients, often from agricultural runoff into the water. The cyanobacteria, like some algae, make toxins harmful to fish and mammals. Humans have been aware of this mostly through being poisoned by eating shellfish, which concentrate the toxins. The familiar warnings about “red tides” and issuance of “shellfish advisories” result from these conditions.

While it has been known that skin contact with toxic algae could produce illness in humans, the severe results from relatively small exposure—simply washing an algae-slimed dog—seem to be worse than expected.

The lake in Ohio is Grand Lake St. Marys; it’s the largest inland lake in the state by area, but is extremely shallow, with an average depth of only 5 to 7 feet. This shallow lake warms up more, and doesn’t dilute the runoff of agricultural fertilizer and livestock waste as much as if it held more water. Recent algae blooms have killed so many catfish that crews were shovelling up the dead fish. With the lake surrounded by warning signs, the area’s $160 million tourism industry has declined, and a boat race that draws about 30,000 people in late August each year has been cancelled.

Some algae are harmless, but there are many different algae or bacteria that can produce dangerous levels of toxins when they bloom. Some are more harmful than others but it’s foolish to take chances: keep yourself, and children and pets, well away from any water that has a visible algae presence. This can be greenish, reddish, or other colors. Or it can appear as just cloudiness or discoloration in the water, as foam or scum floating on top, as mats on the bottom, or actual filaments or pellets. And don’t let kids or pets wander to areas of a river, stream, or lake that you have not closely checked.

Algae by rocks.jpg


An Ohio factsheet sums up the methods of exposure, and known symptoms:

Skin contact: Contact with the skin may cause rashes, hives, or skin blisters (especially on the lips and under swimsuits).

Breathing of water droplets: Breathing aerosolizing (suspended water droplets-mist) from the lake water-related recreational activities and/or lawn irrigation can cause runny eyes and noses, a sore throat, asthma-like symptoms, or allergic reactions.

Swallowing water: Swallowing HAB-contaminated water can cause:
◦ Acute (immediate), severe diarrhea and vomiting
◦ Liver toxicity (abnormal liver function, abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting)
◦ Kidney toxicity
◦ Neurotoxicity (weakness, salivation, tingly fingers, numbness, dizziness, difficulties breathing, death)   Source.

Splashing of water in eyes, or inhaling droplets of contaminated water, can get the toxin into your system. One of the toxins from cyanobacteria, Saxitoxin is “reportedly one of the most toxic, non-protein substances known. It is known that the LD50 (median lethal dose) in mice is 8 micrograms/kilogram. Based on
a human weighing approx. 70 kg (154 lb), a lethal dose would be a
single dose of 0.2 mg.” [Source, ProMED report.]

How much is two-tenths of a milligram? There are a thousand milligrams in a gram, and a dime or a paper clip each weigh about 1 gram. So an amount of toxin weighing the same as two ten-thousandths of a paper clip may be lethal.

Algae,feet in water.jpg


These “Harmful Algal Blooms” can occur in large or small bodies of water; often, but not always, they are in areas where the waterflow is slow (near shore) or nonexistent (stagnant). Small pools or puddles separate from the main body of water can contain algal growth. Even in tiny amounts the toxins can have devastating and sudden effects of humans or animals.

Eating fish or shellfish from contaminated waters is dangerous too. Cooking does NOT render toxins safe.

Algal blooms can be very transient, appearing and disappearing in a matter of days to weeks. If you spot a possible instance and there are no warning signs, it may not have been found yet. Stay away from the water and call your local or state health department so they can track outbreaks, and put up signs.

For the state of Oregon, current advisories can be found online here. The HAB team can be reached by email at, by phone: 971-673-0440; Toll Free: 877-290-6767; or by fax: 971-673-0457. Other states should have similar programs; your city or county health department ought to be able to tell you more.

Why are these toxic algae blooms becoming more common?

The short answer is, better growing conditions for algae. They thrive in warm water, and temperatures are going up. Nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) from human activities pour into streams, lakes, rivers, and the ocean, and act like Miracle-Gro for the algae. Sources include runoff from fields treated with fertilizer or manure, spraying partially treated sewage sludge, sewage overflows, and runoff from pastures.

What can be done?

Rising temperatures, that’s a big one. Let’s just look at eutrophication or over-nutrification of water, since that’s something where local efforts can have relatively immediate local effects. Obviously, better treatment of sewage (including livestock waste) and reduced use of fertilizers (in agriculture, on golf courses, in parks, and in our own personal yards) are important steps to work on. On July 1st, 16 states will begin enforcing laws that require dishwasher detergents to be almost phosphate-free. That’s a small but significant improvement; the legislator who introduced the bill into the Pennsylvania legislature estimated that 7% to 12% of the phosphorus entering sewage plants came from automatic dishwashing detergents. New guidelines from the federal Clean Water Act to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus have provided more impetus to these particular efforts.

Not so obvious steps:

At least one study found that use of organic fertilizers led to less nitrogen runoff than use of chemical fertilizers.

Remediation of areas where nitrogen is stored in soil, from decades of deposition by one means or another, is possible but expensive and slow.

And years of research is showing us, surprise surprise, that intact aquatic communities slow the trickle-down of nutrient pollution (from, say, creeks to streams to rivers to a lake) and seem to enable a body of water to better resist eutrophication. Dr. David Schindler (Professor of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta) has studied the problem for decades including 37 years of work on Lake 227, a small pristine lake in the Experimental Lakes region of northern Ontario. He says, for example, that overexploitation of piscivorous (fish-eating) fish seems to increase the effects of eutrophication. (His earlier work energized the campaign to reduce phosphorus pollution.)

A study along the Georgia coast suggests that tidal marsh soils protect aquatic ecosystems from eutrophication, caused by the accumulation of nutrients. And they sequester large amounts of carbon, helping us slow down climate change. I would expect similar results with regard to freshwater wetlands and marshes. When I was a zookeeper I worked with mechanical incubators for bird eggs, none of which was as reliable as one of those “bird-brained” hens of whatever species. We are told that the appropriate native herbivores—bison, wildebeest, and so on—produce more meat per acre and do less damage than introduced species like cattle. And now we’re coming around to seeing that oldmothernature is better at water purification than we are, if we leave existing systems intact (but we never do).

Salt Marsh.jpg

Salt Marsh near Dartmouth, Nova Scotia; more good photos of this marsh here.

Botanical prints of threatened flora

For those of us who find beauty in plant forms, the botanical illustrations available online are an always-blooming visual pleasure. Here are two that came my way via a mention in today’s Botany Photo of the Day.

First, a gallery of members’ works on the site of the The American Society of Botanical Artists, well worth a visit. There are only a couple of examples for each artist, but you can follow links to websites for many of those represented.

Detail, Mountain lilac or Greenbark ceanothus (Ceanothus spinosus), watercolor © Chris Chapman. Source [this is a frames page, click on artist’s name in list at side].

Also, the ASBA has made available online nearly all of a touring exhibition called Losing Paradise? Endangered Plants Here and Around the World.The exhibit is at The New York Botanical Garden through July 25 2010, and at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in DC, August 14th through December 10th.

This ASBA blog has about thirty of the 44 artworks featured in the exhibition (another is added every few days), and each is accompanied by the text from the exhibit catalog: a description of the plant and its situation, and commentary from the artist. (Elsewhere, the ASBA also plans to post all 125 pieces that were submitted for the exhibit, with shorter text; only about a dozen are up now.)

Here are a few samples from the blog. The images on the page are thumbnails, be sure to look at the much larger versions.


Detail of Painted trillium (Trillium undulatum), mixed media, © Anne Marie Carney, US.


Detail of Royal catchfly (Silene regia), watercolor © Heeyoung Kim, US.

A perennial wildflower of the US Midwest; its bright red flowers are pollinated by butterflies and hummingbirds.


Detail, Marsh gentian (Gentiana pneumonanthe), watercolor © Gillian Barlow, UK.

Marsh gentian is being studied all over northern Europe, mainly because of its fascinating relationship with the rare Alcon blue butterfly (Phengaris alcon). Adult Alcon blues lay their eggs on the outside of marsh gentian flowers, and when the larvae hatch, they emerge inside, where they begin to feed on the flower. After molting 3 times, these caterpillars chew through to the outside of the flower, then lower themselves to the ground on a “silken thread”. The caterpillar awaits the arrival of a Myrmica ant, which adopts it and carries it back to the ant’s nest. There it is fed by the ant colony through the fall and winter, growing quite large. In spring it forms a chrysalis, then emerges and exits the colony as quickly as it can to avoid being killed by the ants.

Actually, it’s even odder than that…

The larvae emit surface chemicals (allomones) that closely match those of ant larvae, causing the ants to carry the Alcon larvae into their nests and place them in their brood chambers, where they are fed by worker ants and where they devour ant larvae.

When the Alcon larva is fully developed it pupates. Once the adult hatches it must run the gauntlet of escaping. The ants recognise the butterfly to be an intruder, but when they go to attack it with their jaws they can’t grab anything substantial as the newly emerged adult butterfly is thickly clothed in loosely attached scales.

Over time, some ant colonies that are parasitized in this manner will slightly change their larva chemicals as a defense, leading to an evolutionary “arms race” between the two species.

The Phengaris alcon larvae are sought underground by the Ichneumon eumerus wasp. On detecting a P. alcon larva the wasp enters the nest and sprays a pheromone that causes the ants to attack each other. In the resulting confusion the wasp locates the butterfly larva and injects it with its eggs. On pupation, the wasp eggs hatch and consume the chrysalis from the inside. [Wikipedia]


Alcon blue butterfly (Phengaris alcon). Source.

Since the butterfly lays its eggs right on the flower, it may be serving the gentian as a pollinator, if it visits more than one plant.

Below, the Santa Cruz Cypress.


The endangered Santa Cruz Cypress, Cupressus abramsiana, is found only in the coastal Santa Cruz Mountains of central California, where it grows in gravelly, sandy soils above the fog belt, with chaparral and other evergreen species. This tree, once abundant, succumbed over the years to vineyard and home development, and road building. Only five populations totaling a few thousand individuals remain, all within a 15-mile stretch of the coast. It was Federally listed in 1987. It is still threatened by competition with non-native plants such as pampas grass and French broom, insect infestation and hybridization with other cypress species.

Visit the ASBA blogspot to see the rest of 30 or so. The catalog of the exhibit, from which these texts are excerpted, is on sale for $29.95 + s & h.

Unclear on the basic concept: White House Press Secretary on Gulf oil spill

As President Obama made his tour of the Gulf region on Monday, White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton told reporters aboard Air Force One that BP would move forward in creating an escrow account to ensure, “that all the people who are affected by BP’s oil spill are made whole.”
from, June 14, 2010.

What kind of a disconnected nitwit can use the phrase “made whole” about this? Believe it or not, there are some things money can’t change. All the money in the world cannot turn back the clock and make the ocean clean, bring back to life the millions of dead creatures—the tiny ones we never see also suffered, also died, and from our myopic human standpoint they are important because they’re part of the web of life that makes shrimp for us to catch and eat.

This isn’t “just words”, this is a perversion of thinking that is at the root of our modern lostness. Minds so separated from the real “buzzing blooming confusion” of life, that they are hardly here in the same world with the oiled pelicans and the devastated fishermen. Yet like aliens from some distant galaxy they walk among us and their power is immense, to act in our world, control what we know, run our government like a puppet theatre.


A dead jelly fish floats in oil in the Gulf of Mexico near Venice, LA. AP photo from Telegraph (UK).


Hermit crabs struggle to cross a patch of oil on a barrier island near East Grand Terre Island, LA. AP photo from Telegraph (UK).