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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

July 19, 2002

Air Date: July 19, 2002


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Voracious Snakehead / Anna Solomon-Greenbaum

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The Chinese snakehead fish caught in a Maryland pond can gobble native fish, live out of water, and wobble on land. Seems the only thing it can’t do is talk. So Anna Solomon-Greenbaum visited the infamous pond and listened to the human characters who’ve been embroiled in the snakehead adventure. (06:00)

Animal Tumors

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Cats and dogs share our environment and its effects on our health. Researchers at Cornell University are compiling a database of pet cancers in two New York counties. They hope to focus in on environmental influences on the disease. Host Diane Toomey talks with veterinary professor Rodney Page who is leading the project. (04:45)

Health Note/Eat Your Spinach / Jessica Penney

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Living on Earth’s Jessica Penney reports on how spinach might help old rats keep their wits. (01:20)

Almanac/Rat Catcher’s Day

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This week, we have facts about Rat Catcher's Day. The date stems from Robert Browning's poem "The Pied Piper of Hamelin." (01:30)

Nocturnal Birds

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Migratory birds often travel at night, making it difficult for scientists to monitor these declining flocks. But one researcher figured out how to track these birds by using their distinctive nighttime vocalizations. (06:30)

Alewife Survival / Naomi Schalit

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Maine has a lucrative sport-fishing industry that depends largely on non-native bass. But the state says native alewife fish there out-compete the bass. So, it’s authorized blockades that prevent alewives from reaching their spawning grounds. Now the federal governments of both the U.S, and Canada say that move is illegal. Maine Public Radio’s Naomi Schalit reports. (06:30)

Spitting Fish

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An aquarium in England is re-training Amazonian archer fish to spit for their meals. Aquarium manager Jane Wharmby explains this process to host Diane Toomey. (03:00)

Animal Note/Flavorful Pesticide / Maggie Villiger

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Living on Earth’s Maggie Villiger reports on research that wood rats use bay leaves to keep their homes pest-free. (01:20)

A Life With Chimps

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Africa’s bushmeat trade has claimed thousands of chimpanzees over the years, and left thousands more captive or orphaned. Sheila Siddle runs the largest chimpanzee refuge in the world, and is author of "In My Family Tree: A Life with Chimpanzees." She talks with host Diane Toomey about her efforts to save and rehabilitate the chimps of Africa. (09:30)

Queen of the Woodchucks / Matthew Algeo

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Woodchucks are among the most common wild mammals in North America. But other than that they love to dig up people’s gardens, not much is known about the social behaviors of these corpulent rodents. University of Southern Maine biologist Chris Maher has been tracking woodchucks for the past five years and she’s made some unusual discoveries. Maine Public Radio’s Matthew Algeo reports. (05:00)

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Show Credits and Funders

This Week's Music

Show Transcript

HOST: Diane ToomeyREPORTERS: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Daniel Grossman, Naomi Schalit, Matthew AlgeoGUESTS: Dr. Rodney Page, Jane Wharmby, Sheila SiddleUPDATES: Jessica Penney, Maggie Villiger



TOOMEY: From NPR News, this is Living on Earth. I’m Diane Toomey. Non-native species are usually the target of wrath. That’s certainly the case in Maryland where the discovery of an invasive fish has created a furor. But in Maine, it’s a native species that some want to eliminate.

Also, cracking the code of nighttime bird calls, how to teach a fish to spit, and the story of how one grandmother took on the cause of abandoned, abused and orphaned chimpanzees.

SIDDEL: As I placed a hand on the sliding metal door and peered into Pal’s cage, I leaned in close. "I promise you this," I whispered, "now off you go." He turned to look back at me, staring straight into my eyes. And maybe it was my imagination, but for just one magical second, I believe he was thanking me.

TOOMEY: Those stories and more, this week, on an all-animal edition of Living on Earth, coming up right after this.


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Voracious Snakehead

TOOMEY: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Diane Toomey, sitting in for Steve Curwood. We marvel at them, eat them, hunt, study and protect them. We cuddle them, talk to them, fear them, and learn from them. This week, on Living on Earth, we’re all about animals.

And we begin with one especially unattractive creature. Chances are, you’ve already heard about it. It’s the fish that’s been discovered in a Maryland pond, the one that’s created a media frenzy. The Northern Snakehead is an invasive species from China. It can grow more than three feet long, and has a very big appetite.

The snakehead has been called a monster, and does have state officials worried that it’s going to eat its way through the native fish in the pond. And since the snakehead can walk on land -- well sort of -- officials are also concerned it’s going to reach other bodies of water and wreak havoc on them.
In Crofton, Maryland, Living on Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum talked with some of the characters in the snakehead escapade.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It’s not a particularly pretty pond-- this no-name, nine acre hole, choked with weeds and stray bottles behind the Dunkin’ Donuts and the bank. But this is where Joe Gillespie achieved a certain fame in recent weeks. He came to hunt for snakeheads with his son Mark and Mark’s friend Jake. The fish had a price on its head, $100 gift certificate at a local sports store, and an urgent call for its catch by the state.

GILLESPIE: They posted the pond with "wanted" posters: "If you catch this fish, cut it, bleed it, do not let it go again, and kill it."

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Joe got two surfboards, one for the boys and one for himself, and they paddled out onto the pond. At first, there was no sign of the snakehead. But then, Joe noticed a mass of minnows. He went toward it.

GILLESPIE: A head came up through the weed mass there, kind of coming up, and the weeds are just kind of dripping off it like this. I thought it was a big turtle. But this one was more just like a big snake.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Joe dropped his bait and hook into the water. But the snakehead went right for his two-inch floating bobber. Joe jerked it free, then he herded the fish toward the boys so they could trap it. The snakehead was so big, Joe says, it make a wake.

GILLESPIE: I tell my son Mark, I say, "All right, he’s coming your way. He’s coming your way." And he’s like, "Daddy, don’t tell me. I don’t want to see this fish. I don’t want to see him." And they both had their feet up now.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Mark’s friend Jake cast his bait. The snakehead bit, but then it broke free. Joe cast his bait. The fish bit again. But again, the line went slack.

GILLESPIE: I started to pick up the line, and all of a sudden [WHOOM SOUND], the rod goes right down into the water again.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Finally, Joe got the snakehead in his net. Soon, he had it on his lap. He sat as still as he could, balancing on the surfboard with the fish, his rod, and all the fishing gear as the boys towed him in.

GILLESPIE: The fish is chomping at the mesh on the net and has already broken through two of the little squares, and his head is starting to come out more and more. So, I went ahead and dispatched the fish coming across.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Meaning, a knife to the skull for an instant death. It didn’t take long for news of Joe’s catch to travel. Friends, strangers, reporters, strange reporters all came to Joe’s house to see the fish. Peter Jennings’ people called. National Geographic took pictures.

Since then, police have found the culprit, a man who bought the fish as pets, then released them when they grew too big. Now, they’ve discovered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of snakehead babies. Scientists are concerned some of these could escape the pond, and wobble to a nearby stream, wiping out native fish and, possibly, delivering parasites or disease to the native ecosystem. They’re talking about stunning the fish with electroshock, draining the pond, or possibly poisoning it.

[Sound of boat being put in water]

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Today, biologist Don Cosden is at the pond, pulling traps set for the snakeheads. He’s sure there’s at least one more adult fish.


COSDEN: I see a few species in there, but no snakeheads. It looks like all bluegills.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: These bluegills are a good sign biologists say. At least they know the snakeheads haven’t gobbled up all the native fish yet. But on land, the reporters still haven’t gotten over the snakehead Joe Gillespie caught.

It’s clear camera crews, and reporters, and state press folks have had their hands full with the snakehead story. But up at Anglers, a bait and tackle shop in Annapolis, manager Charlie Ebersberger says its business as usual.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: He chews on a drumstick and says the media has blown the whole thing out of proportion.

EBERSBERGER: It’s got to be front page six times-- unbelievable. Let DNR do their job and leave it alone.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Customer Andy Hanlon thinks the snakehead has potential.

HANLON: You all should sell snakehead t-shirts, make some money--snakehead flies…

RON: snakehead flies, snakehead lures, special rigs for snakehead….

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: And, for the gastronomic promise of the snakehead, they are sold in Asian fish markets. Raymond Chang, who manages Hunan Express in Crofton, says he’d cook the snakehead like this:

CHANG: This kind of fish, you know, just steam it, and put some scallion, ginger or shallot on the top, and put some soy sauce, and then put some hot oil on the top, and it would be very delicious.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: As for his own tastes--

CHANG: No, no, I don’t think so. But, I don’t think I would try that, not that snakehead fish.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: There is one way the snakehead will get some use. If you’re ever in Crofton, Maryland, check out the skateboard shop, Drop-In. That’s where Joe Gillespie’s mounted snakehead will be hung, once it’s back from the taxidermist. From Crofton, Maryland, I’m Anna Solomon-Greenbaum for Living on Earth.


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Animal Tumors

TOOMEY: When it comes to advances in human medicine, we owe a lot to animals. Most of our drugs and surgical procedures were first tested on laboratory animals. Now, a new medical study seeks to benefit both people and pets.

Researchers at Cornell School of Veterinary Medicine are beginning to compile a pet tumor registry. Their goal is to determine if environmental factors influence the development of cancer in both animals and humans.

Researchers are focusing on two areas in New York State: Tompkins County, where Cornell is located, and Nassau County on Long Island, where breast cancer rates have been of concern for a number of years. Cornell Veterinary Professor Rodney Page is heading up the study. Dr. Page, why look to cats and dogs for clues about the causes of human cancer?

PAGE: Well, they are animals that share our environment and, as such, are exposed to the same sorts of potential problems that we are also exposed to. But in some cases, they’re even more highly exposed because they don’t wear protective clothing. They are not prone to drinking bottled water, and things like that, although I know some dogs that do.

TOOMEY: My cats get filtered water, actually.

PAGE: But, for the majority of pets, they’re out there in the environment, very intimately rolling on the grass, or drinking things that we’d rather not know about. Or, because they end up licking themselves to groom, they may be exposed at higher levels than humans actually are. And, as such, they might actually be a little bit more influenced, in regard to development of cancer.

Also, pets are useful because they do not usually engage in real risky lifestyle behaviors, such as smoking and excessive eating or alcohol consumption. And that really can create some confounding problems when it comes to assessing what the true cause of cancer might be in human studies.

TOOMEY: Dogs and cats may not smoke. But still, there are confounding factors in animal cancer. Its owner may smoke, for instance. And there are other issues such as whether the cat goes outside, or whether an animal has been spayed or neutered, or even what chemicals are used in the house. So, how will this study take those variables into account?

PAGE: Well, it is true that secondhand smoke has been shown to be an influence in the development of respiratory problems in dogs and cats. And those will be accounted for through survey evaluations of the owner’s household, the other issues related to movement of the pet indoors or outdoors, what type of environment they live in. Even, as you mentioned, the indoor potential for contamination or exposure to potential pollutants is strong. So, those are all sorts of issues that both species of animals have to deal with, both humans and companion animals.

TOOMEY: What kind of environmental contaminants are you concerned about in the study? What could be the possible culprits?

PAGE: Well, the types of things that we’re most often looking at, in terms of exposures that develop cancers, are things like pesticides or insecticides, airborne pollutants. Sometimes, heavy metals are associated with increased risk of cancer development. So, there’s a wide range of chemicals that, some of them, we are more clear about in terms of their potential cause of cancer. And some of them are not really known well or characterized well. But the list of suspects is quite long.

TOOMEY: Doctor, how will you be able to tell if this study is successful?

PAGE: Well, in the Long Island area, there are sections that are known to have an increased risk of breast cancer, for instance, or prostate cancer, or lung cancer. And, if we are able to show that in the same region, the incidence of comparable cancers in pets seems to be increased relative to other areas where we know that both species might have reduced cancer rates, I think it would go a long way to validate the concept that our pets can help us in more ways than we think.

TOOMEY: The converse might be true. There may not be an environmental link.

PAGE: True.

TOOMEY: And, this study may confirm that as well.

PAGE: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. It could be that although we suspect that the increase in breast cancer risk in people might be due to a particular environmental cause, proving that is very difficult. And, it’s hopeful that this will add some power in either direction to making those conclusions more strong.

TOOMEY: Dr. Rodney Page is a professor at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine and directs the Comparative Cancer Program there. Doctor, thanks so much.

PAGE: Thank you.


Related link:
Cornell University Program on Breast Cancer and Environmental Risk Factors">

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Health Note/Eat Your Spinach

TOOMEY: Coming up, Maine moves to banish a native fish. First, this Environmental Health Note from Jessica Penney.


PENNEY: Every cartoon fan knows downing a can spinach gave Popeye superhuman strength. But you may not know that spinach might help the aging hero keep his wits. Researchers at the University of South Florida have found that spinach can help prevent declines in learning and memory in aging rats.

The researchers wanted to see if a diet rich in anti-oxidants could protect a rat’s brain late in life. So they took older rats and fed some of them food containing freeze-dried spinach. Other rats got regular rat chow. The scientists then used a standard test to measure how well these old rats could learn new tricks. They rang a bell and then shot a puff of air at the rats. Eventually, the rats learned to anticipate the puff of air and blink their eyes when they hear the bell.

Typically, rats have trouble learning to do this as they get older. But the rats that ate the spinach learned almost twice as quickly to shut their eyes, compared to rats on the regular diet. The scientists think a diet rich in anti-oxidants might help prevent age-related brain deterioration, and help keep rats, and maybe humans, sharp in their golden years. That’s this week’s Health Note. I’m Jessica Penney.


TOOMEY: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.


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Almanac/Rat Catcher’s Day

TOOMEY: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Diane Toomey.


TOOMEY: "Rats, they fought the dogs and killed the cats, and bit the babies in the cradles, and ate the cheeses out of the vats, and licked the soup from the cook’s own ladles." That was the plight of a medieval German town, described in Robert Browning’s poem, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin."

To save the people from this terrible plague, a colorful stranger lured away all the rats by playing his flute. And the date Browning ascribes to this event, it’s July 22nd, now known as Rat Catcher’s Day.

People and rats have always been locked in a battle for supremacy. The rodents are despised for destroying crops and carrying disease, most notably, the Bubonic Plague. Rats can swim up to half a mile and tread water for three days. They can squeeze through holes as small as a quarter of an inch. And their reproductive rate is truly amazing. A single pair of rats can potentially produce thousands of heirs in a year.

Domestic rats do have their staunch supporters, with owners describing them as intelligent, even affectionate. But cities continue to consider the rats pests. Rat catchers starve them, poison them, and shoot them. But, so far, no method has had the 100% success rate of the Pied Piper and his captivating tune. For this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.


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Nocturnal Birds

TOOMEY: Much of what goes on in the animal world remains a mystery to us, simply because some things are difficult to observe. For instance, many North American migratory birds are in serious decline but scientists aren’t sure why.

And since a good portion of the journey they make to their summer breeding grounds is done at night, researchers don’t often know what routes these birds take. But a new technique promises to answer that question. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Daniel Grossman reports.

EVANS: It’s a little high warbler call right here.

GROSSMAN: It’s a warm spring evening on the south Texas coast. Ornithologist Bill Evans sits on a dock, listening for birds.

EVANS: Gray-cheek thrush.

GROSSMAN: That was that high one?

EVANS: Yeah. [WHISTLE] Moorhen calling behind us on the ground. Oh no, sorry. That’s black-neck stilt.

GROSSMAN: Evans has been listening to and studying these night calls since he had an epiphany at a Minnesota campground in 1985. Then, a recent college dropout and avid birder, Evans was adrift, unsure of what to do with his life.

EVANS: I was getting back to a campsite about two in the morning and heard an incredible flight.

GROSSMAN: Hundreds of birds were passing overhead in nocturnal migration including, what appeared to be, about 100 black-billed cuckoos.

EVANS: If you go out and look for black-billed cuckoos during the day, you may only see two or three. And, I’m thinking that, wow, if I had a tape recorder that could somehow document this on audiotape, I might have a pretty powerful conservation document.

GROSSMAN: Bill Evans got a recorder and soon was making tapes of flight calls. But his recordings were of limited use because no one knew which birds made which sounds. The melodious tunes birds perform during the day are well-known. But according to Cornell professor Charles Wolcott, the calls they make during night flights are another matter.

WOLCOTT: If you go out on an evening and listen to these birds migrating overhead, you hear all sorts of little twitters, most of which don’t sound anything like what a normal bird sounds like at all.

GROSSMAN: Wolcott is the former director of the Cornell Ornithology Laboratory. He says night calls may help birds keep from colliding with each other. For decades, researchers hearing these calls were frustrated, knowing there were birds in flight but unable to determine which ones.

WOLCOTT: And to be able to recognize individual species by their calls was a dream that many people have had. And Bill is really the first one that’s been able to do it at any substantial kind of scale.

GROSSMAN: Evans spent the next 17 years prowling migration routes to match birds with their calls. Often, his only chance came in the wee morning hours when sometimes night migrants make a single night call before settling down to eat and rest. Gradually, he cracked the code.

EVANS: The herons’ amazing squawks, black-crowned night heron is sort of a COOCK. Green heron which is a SKE-OW. Barn owl, it’s a PSSSH, except it’s about ten times louder than that. The dicksissel is actually a sparrow and it’s got sort of a buzzy note that’s more of a PHRBT.

GROSSMAN: The small, colorful dicksissel is why Bill Evans is here, just north of Brownsville, Texas. He set up a network of 15 computerized monitoring stations that listen for dicksissels in flight. It’s the first large-scale effort to track birds using night calls. The network is stretched out along a line he believes these birds cross on their way between Venezuela and the U.S. plains.

Each station has a roof-mounted microphone connected to a computer. Most of them are at high schools. Their large flat roofs and spacious grounds reduce traffic noise. And they’re generally in a science class. And while Evans does stay up late to listen for pleasure, it’s these computers that are actually doing the work. Each day, he collects the past night’s results in a marathon drive, station by station.

EVANS: Come on over, guys. My name is Bill. And this is Dan.

STUDENT: Bill and Dan.

EVANS: What’s your first name?


GROSSMAN: Some curious students pay Evans a visit at La Feria High School.

EVANS: So anyway, the sound comes down this audio cable into this computer. And, we’re just checking the data from last night.

GROSSMAN: The computer has a program that distinguishes the call of the dicksissel from other bird calls and extraneous noise. The machine records the call and saves a picture or spectrogram of it. Evans is here to check for problems and to collect data. First, he winnows out false positives, sounds that trick the computer by inspecting the spectrograms.

EVANS: I’m going to set up one folder to put in the dicksissel calls, and the other, I’m going to put in the noise, the false detections. So now, I’ve just classified the detections from last night. And I can go to the folder. We had 28 here that we classified as dicksissels.

GROSSMAN: His job here over, the researcher says he has to run. Each of the 15 stations in his network needs a checkup because this weekend might be the climax of the dicksissel migration, bringing a huge flight of birds.

EVANS: And this weekend, we think there’s thousands of them just in northeast Mexico. They’re going to take off and fly over the valley. Because last year, on one night, on April 28th, we had over 3,000 detected at McAllen High School in one...

GROSSMAN: In the end, the big flock didn’t appear until the following week. Though the arrival was delayed by several days compared to the previous year, Evans now has proof that, by monitoring night calls, he can predict the timing and migration route of an individual bird species.

WOLCOTT: It’s really an extraordinary accomplishment.

GROSSMAN: Cornell professor Charles Wolcott says the migration information Evans is discovering can’t be collected any other way. It’s all the more extraordinary because Bill Evans, who once worked for Wolcott, has neither a college nor any other degree.

WOLCOTT: And this is very useful and very interesting information. And it gives you a sense of where the migratory paths for each species of birds might be.

GROSSMAN: It’s detailed information like this that conservation specialists need to design plans to protect the most threatened species. In the future, Evans hopes several large-scale computer networks of the sort he’s testing in Texas will monitor many species throughout the United States. He hopes the listening posts could help solve the mystery of why so many North American species are in decline. For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Grossman on the Gulf Coast of Texas.


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Alewife Survival

TOOMEY: Sometimes, animals are at the center of human squabbles. That’s the case in Maine where the state legislature, local fishing guides and, not one but, two federal governments are arguing over the fate of a herring.

Alewives are a type of river herring native to Maine. Several years ago, the state legislature there voted to block these fish from their spawning grounds. As a result, alewife numbers plummeted. So, why destroy a native species? Why, to protect a non-native one, of course. Maine Public Radio’s Naomi Schalit explains.


SCHALIT: This is the Pine Tree Store in Grand Lake Stream, a tiny town tucked into the dark green woods of rural eastern Maine.

Every morning during fishing season, the area’s fishing guides show up here to buy flies and insect repellant, and whatever else they need for a day on the water. This is serious fishing country. Anglers from all over the world come to try their luck in the region’s numerous lakes. Dave Irving’s been guiding here since 1971.

IRVING: There’s so much diversity. You can fish lake trout. You can fish brook trout, landlocked salmon. Oh, you can fish at a different lake every day of the month. If you had 30 days to fish, you could go to a different place everyday.

SCHALIT: And in the pecking order held dear by fishermen, there’s one fish that’s revered above all others. It isn’t even native to the local waters, but was introduced to this lake system in the 19th century. And it’s one that this economically depressed county needs. Guide Louie Cataldo.

CATALDO: This whole area depends on the bass. And, we built our businesses around the bass.

SCHALIT: So, anything that threatens those bass is taken very seriously, including a small silvery fish called an alewife. More than 15 years ago, the lucrative bass fishery in a lake further up the watershed crashed, simply disappeared. And local fishing guides there blamed alewives who, they said, either ate the bass or outcompeted them.

And while there’s been scant scientific evidence to support that contention, a rural legend was born. The locals call alewives "piranhas." Guide Bill Gillespie.

GILLESPIE: These fish are veracious eaters. Not only do they eat small fish, but everything in between. They gobble up everything.

SCHALIT: So, a number of years ago, the region’s fishing guides, afraid that alewives would decimate their bass, convinced the Maine legislature to prevent migrating alewives from reaching their upriver spawning grounds by blocking existing fish ladders; this, at a time when the alewives were finally bouncing back from years of pollution and habitat destruction.

Alewife numbers plummeted. The population went from two and a half million fish to a mere 900. And the area’s fishing guides were unapologetic. They had no problem sacrificing a native fish that only provides forage for wildlife. Again, fishing guide Bill Gillespie.

GILLESPIE: The bass is a sport fish where people can make a living fishing for them. Whereas, alewife is, in most part, a junk fish. It’s more of a forage fish that comes up here just to breed and go back to the ocean, and eat everything in between.

SCHALIT: Enter the Canadians. The St. Croix River forms an international boundary between Canada and Maine. And the Canadian government has taken a dim view of Maine’s actions to block the fish they call "gaspereau." Alewife migration was once an extraordinary scene, the river boiling with hundreds of thousands of fish fighting their way upstream.

But since the barriers went up, that kind of spectacle is long gone on the St. Croix. The Canadians say Maine’s unilateral action threatens the St. Croix River system. So, the Canadians have decided to truck the fish upriver.


SCHALIT: For the second year in a row, Canadian officials are capturing what alewives they can at a downriver gathering place for the fish. The fish are moved by net to a water-filled tank on this truck. Then, they’re driven to spawning grounds above on of the blocked fish ladders where they’re emptied out.


SCHALIT: Canadian officials say they hope that this meager attempt will help maintain at least a vestige of the once thriving run. Larry Marshall is with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

MARSHALL: The fact that we only have a thousand, which is 20% of last year, is very disappointing, and really doesn’t give us very much wiggle room in trying to maintain the population. But certainly, to have any numbers like we had five, six, seven years ago, when we had the area between even Woodland and Grand Falls, supporting something in the neighborhood of maybe 200,000 fish, it will take a while to rebuild that population.

SCHALIT: Fisheries officials on both sides of the border have produced ample evidence that alewife and bass coexist in numerous other lake and river systems. Besides antagonizing the Canadians, Maine has angered Federal officials on this side of the border as well.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided money to build the fish ladders that are now blocked to alewives. And the agency says they want those alewives to pass up the river. So they’re wielding a big stick. Since the fish ways aren’t being used as planned, the Feds will withhold two and a half million dollars in sport fish restoration money from the state unless legislators vote to remove the barriers by next February.

There’s one other rescue option still possible for the St. Croix alewives. That’s the International Joint Commission, created by the U.S. and Canada to resolve disputes along border waters. But, so far, the Commission has taken a wait-and-see attitude. So for now, the only way the alewives, fish that once crowded the St. Croix River by the millions, will survive is by being loaded into a water-filled tank and trucked around the state of Maine’s barriers. For Living on Earth, I’m Naomi Schalit on the St. Croix River in New Brunswick, Canada.

TOOMEY: You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

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Spitting Fish

It seems that officials at the Blue Reef Aquarium in Portsmouth, England have a little problem. Their archer fish aren’t spitting. Spitting is the way these natives of the Amazon hunt for insects. Now, keepers at the Aquarium are trying to fix the fish. Joining me from her office is the Aquarium’s manager Jane Wharmby. Jane, describe how the archer fish catches food in the wild.

WHARMBY: They have the flattop. So they can see above the water. They would then swim along the surface. And when they see a fly or an insect of some sort, they drill water into their mouth and shoot it at them to knock the fly into the water, which they then have to be quite quick to get hold of once it’s there.

TOOMEY: So now you’ve come to find that your archer fish don’t spit anymore. Why is that?

WHARMBY: Well, they were new. We hadn’t had them before. We actually built the aquarium in the winter of this year. So the fish were new to us. They had been fed in their tank only fish flakes which were put into the water. So that’s the equivalent or you or I sitting in an armchair and having food delivered to us everyday and losing the ability to cook.

TOOMEY: The good life, the comfy life.

WHARMBY: The comfy life. They had had a very easy life.

TOOMEY: So, you’ve started a training program to get them to spit again.

WHARMBY: That’s right.

TOOMEY: What does that training program entail?

WHARMBY: We started off by putting their food onto the glass of the tank. So they had to come to the surface and they could take the food just from the edge of the waterline, if you like. And then gradually, we built it higher and higher, until they were actually spitting a small distance.

And then we had the bright idea of making it even more natural for them. And we brought the little plastic joke flies, and built them a mobile out of it. So, the flies hung at different heights above the water. And we hung it up there. And, it did take them a few days to accept that this was what we were going to do.

And then we would put their food onto the flies. And now, they quite happily will spit away until their food drops off, and then they’ll eat it.

TOOMEY: Jane, why did you want them to spit? What difference does it make since these animals aren’t going to be released into the wild and they’re getting their food anyway? What’s the philosophy behind this?

WHARMBY: We believe that the animals that we keep here should behave and be kept in as natural an environment as possible. And to do that we have to provide them, if you like, with that environment. And of course, the other thing, as a public aquarium, if you’re displaying something that has a peculiar behavior, then you ought to encourage them to use that behavior because the customers like to see what these fish do in the wild.

TOOMEY: Jane Wharmby is manager of the Blue Reef Aquarium in Portsmouth, England. She spoke to us from her office there. Jane, thanks for joining us today.

WHARMBY: Thank you.


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Animal Note/Flavorful Pesticide

TOOMEY: Just ahead, in Zambia, orphaned and abused chimpanzees find refuge in the arms of a 70 year old grandmother. First, this page from the Animal Notebook with Maggie Villiger.


VILLIGER: Having a home infested with pests isn’t fun for anyone, including dusky-footed wood rats. But these rodent natives of California are doing something about their parasite invasion. Wood rats, also known as pack rats, live in above-ground stick houses, complete with distinct sleeping areas. They furnish their abodes with fresh green foliage which biologists assumed was stored by the rodents to be eaten later.

But recently, researchers noticed that wood rats were tucking carefully nibbled bay leaves into their sleeping nests. And bay isn’t a typical food for the wood rats. But bay trees do produce essential oils that discourage insects from eating their leaves. So scientists guessed the wood rats were harnessing these insecticidal properties and using bay leaves to fumigate their bedrooms.

Back in the lab, researchers exposed flea larvae to torn bay, oak or toyon leaves. They found that flea survival rates dropped 60 to 70% in the bay leaf container compared to the other leaves. Scientists know birds incorporate anti-pest plants into their nests, but this is the first time the behavior has been seen in mammals. That’s this week’s Animal Note. I’m Maggie Villiger.


TOOMEY: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.


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A Life With Chimps

TOOMEY: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Diane Toomey. There are times when animals are victimized by humans. And there are times when humans step into help. Such is the case in Zambia at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage, the largest chimpanzee refuge in the world.

There, Sheila and David Siddle care for about 100 chimpanzees, rescued as orphans in the wild or from sometimes horrific conditions in captivity. Sheila Siddle has written a book about the refuge and her struggle to maintain it. It’s called "In My Family Tree: A Life With Chimpanzees." Siddle, now in her 70s, never intended to start a chimp refuge. But two decades ago, a baby chimp, she later named Pal, was brought to her cattle ranch. The dying animal had been rescued from poachers.

SIDDLE: And this baby chimp really and truly looked as though he was dying. His mouth at one side was split open two inches more than it should have been. It seemed as though they had tried to smash his teeth out with a hammer or something. And he smelled rotten. It nauseated me. But I took this baby and he put his little arms around me and I’m afraid it was love at first sight.

TOOMEY: Now, you had raised five children. So, you had a lot of experience in the nursery. But, how did you figure out how to take care of a chimpanzee?

SIDDLE: I knew absolutely nothing about chimpanzees. But he just acted like a baby. And, it was, obviously, he wanted love and attention. It’s just instinct. And I treated him like a human baby.

The first thing I did was started him on watered-down milk. And he went mad for that. And he developed this will to live again. And it was a roaring success from there on. Once he really got on well, once the smell had gone, and the infection had gone, he really made a lot of progress very fast.

TOOMEY: And how old was he when he came to you?

SIDDLE: We think he was probably about one and a half or two years old. He really was a baby.

TOOMEY: Chimps come to you in some pretty horrid physical conditions. And, if you could give me an overview of what you’re up against, physically, when these animals come to you.

SIDDLE: The real problem stems from logging, bush meat, and the things that are happening in Central and West Africa. The animals are all being killed for meat but they don’t eat babies.

The mother is shot out of a tree. She falls to the ground. This poor baby is grabbed away, probably shoved in a sack somewhere. They’re not fed properly. They’re obviously not given milk or anything like that. And they’re just carted around with people trying to smuggle them out of the country or sell them.

I mean the trauma for a little baby is terrible. And I’m terribly surprised that half of them live through it. But, in actual fact, they don’t. They say for every one that reaches me, there’s ten dead in the bush somewhere.

TOOMEY: Once the word was out that you were taking chimps, it seemed like the floodgates opened.

SIDDLE: [LAUGH] How right you are.

TOOMEY: So, tell me about those early days when you weren’t quite in the organized state that you’re in now.

SIDDLE: It was rather horrific. Suddenly, we got another chimp, then another, and another. In 1985, we actually had five chimps. We had no idea what to do with them. And we realized that this was far beyond anything we knew about. So we tried to find a home for them. We went to the Gambia and saw the Brewers who were rehabilitating chimps there, and asked them if they could take ours. And they said, "Very sorry, we can’t."

And we returned home and realized we were stuck with five chimps. So, the thought of keeping them in cages is not very good. So Dave designed this wall. And we built this seven-acre walled enclosure, which was open in 1988. And, at that time, we put 19 chimps into it.

TOOMEY: Today, with almost 100 chimps and counting, what would I see if I visited Chimfunshi?

SIDDLE: Around my house, you’d see a seven-acre enclosure, a fourteen-acre enclosure, a five-acre enclosure. But we have lots of youngsters slowly growing up, and forming family groups with them. New ones arriving I’m trying to integrate with these.

We cannot return them to their country of origin because they would just be eaten. If you go beyond the boundary of our farm, we have purchased 13,000 acres. And we have built two 500-acre enclosures. And, this is our way of trying to give them back semi-freedom. I know it’s not total freedom. But, it’s impossible to give them their total freedom now. They’ve been humanized. They’re four times stronger than a human being.

TOOMEY: Chimps are funny and dangerous. And sometimes they’re funny and dangerous at the same time. And I’m thinking here of Charlie, one of your biggest, if not your biggest, at the time, male chimp who went on a rampage. And, you thought that Charlie was going to attack your husband.

SIDDLE: Oh yes. We were moving them to this new five-acre enclosure. And, because Charlie was doing all these war dances and everything else, all the people that were with me got into one of the cages to keep out of his way. And then Dave walked around the corner. And Dave saw Charlie coming. And Charlie was getting bigger and bigger as he got closer to him. And Dave just put his head down. He wasn’t looking at Charlie. And Charlie goes rushing up to him, stops a few seconds, then throws his arms around him, and gives him a big hug and big kiss. It was a real anti-climax.

TOOMEY: You write about one beautiful moment where chimp Milla, who’s been living in a bar in Tanzania. She’s addicted to cigarettes and alcohol. And it’s been years since she’s seen one of her own kind. And I believe Jane Goodall, actually, brought her to you. And there’s a moment where she reaches out and touches--

SIDDLE: Sandy.

TOOMEY: Another chimp, Sandy. Tell me about that moment.

SIDDLE: They had been ignoring each other for a while. But, this particular day, she put her hand out. But, he jumped when her hand touched him. And, she did it again. Her hand sort of touched his shoulder, and he stood still. And then she started just slowly stroking him. It was wonderful to see.

And then I started to hear this giggling from the both of them. And, just to see her rows of fat wobbling about while she was laughing, did me wonders.

TOOMEY: And, the last time that she had touched another chimp, you surmise, was when she was touching the body of her dead mother.

SIDDLE: Who was in a meat market, yes.

TOOMEY: I’d like you to read a paragraph from your book. This takes place on the day you moved the chimps into the new 500 acre enclosure where you write, "The chimps would be able to get as close to freedom as was possible for them." In this passage, you’re about to release Pal, the first orphaned chimp that had come to you, and this is 18 years after that fateful day.

SIDDLE: It had been 18 years since he’d come to us. A desperate little chimpanzee, his face torn open, his teeth smashed, and his body racked by dehydration and diarrhea. God, I’ll never forget the smell. If death has a smell, that was it. Nobody thought Pal could survive.

And, on some of those lonely nights when I sat up nursing him or cuddling him through his nightmares, I had my doubts, too. Yet, there he was, big and robust, with only those scars and that droopy lower lip to remind us of how sad he’d once looked. My heart was in my throat. I can feel it there now.

As I placed a hand on the sliding metal door and peered into Pal’s cage, I leaned in close, "I promised you this," I whispered, "Now off you go." And with that, I pulled open the door and gave Pal his freedom. He stepped through the opening onto the sandy earth, followed very closely by Toby and Spencer, who immediately puffed themselves up to enormous sizes and began to display, waving sticks and stashing about as the crowd clapped and cheered.

Before Pal joined them, however, he turned to look back at me, staring straight into my eyes. And maybe it was my imagination but, for just one magical second, I believe he was thanking me.

TOOMEY: Tell me about Pal today. How is Pal doing?

SIDDLE: Pal is wonderful. He’s out there with all those other chimps, doing what chimps do best, displaying and, on occasions, challenging the boss. And, he’s got his girlfriends now. And, it’s just wonderful to see them walking out through the forests and then disappearing back into the forests again.

TOOMEY: Sheila Siddle is author of "In My Family Tree: A Life With Chimpanzees." Sheila Siddle, thanks for joining us today.

SIDDLE: Thank you very much for having me. I have thoroughly enjoyed it.


TOOMEY: To hear more of my interview with Sheila Siddle, and to see pictures of her chimps, go to our website at www.loe.org.


Audio Features

The power of family life – mp3 | realaudio

To those we couldn't save – mp3 | realaudio

My baby, the hippo – mp3 | realaudio

Mental rehabilitation – mp3 | realaudio

Related link:
Chimfunshi Wildlife orphanage">

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Queen of the Woodchucks

TOOMEY: Nature documentaries have made heroes out of those determined folk who risk all to study the likes of crocodiles, bears and elephants. But what about the study of, shall we say, the less noble, less charismatic animals amongst us? What about the woodchuck?

Despite the fact that this voracious rodent is among the most common mammals found in the wilds of North America, they haven’t been widely studied. Matthew Algeo of Maine Public Radio caught up with one researcher who is determined to unravel the secret life of this corpulent creature.


ALGEO: It’s early on a warm, muggy morning. The air is heavy with fog. And Chris Maher is on the prowl for woodchucks.

MAHER: Oop, there she is. That’s probably B.J.

ALGEO: Maher is a Biology professor at the University of Southern Maine. And for the past five years, she’s been studying the woodchucks at Gilsland Farm, a nature preserve just outside Portland.

After she spots one, Maher and her research assistants set cage-like traps around the holes that lead to its burrow. They bait the traps with apples and peanut butter and then they wait, and wait.

(Photo: Chris Maher)

MAHER: The record is 20 minutes for catching somebody. That’s very unusual. It usually takes us, oh, three, four hours.

ALGEO: When she catches a woodchuck for the first time, Maher weighs it and puts and identifying tag through each ear. She also plucks some fur for DNA testing. And sometimes, she’ll put a distinctive mark on the animal’s back with Clairol hair coloring.

Maher wants to know everything about the 40 or so woodchucks living here. She wants to know where their burrows are, where they hunt, who they mate with, who their pups are, and where they hibernate.

MAHER: I’m just interested in trying to figure out why these animals are the way they are.

ALGEO: On this day, it only takes about an hour for Harry, a woodchuck pup named after Harry Potter, to succumb to the irresistible lure of apples and peanut butter.

(Photo: Casco Bay Weekly)

MAHER: Well hi there. Alright, we’ve already caught you once.

ALGEO: When they’re frightened or angry, woodchucks chatter their teeth, which is what Harry does. [TEETH CHATTERING] He’s just been trapped for the second time in ten days, and he’s clearly not happy about it.

ALGEO: Harry’s about the size of a small rabbit, with dark brown fur and a big twitchy nose. Maher coaxes him out of the trap, and into a long canvas bag with Velcro straps running up the side.


MAHER: And then I can just open up the part of the bag that I need to get to him. And, we’ll pull some hair.

ALGEO: After making sure the identifying tags in his ears are still secure, Maher checks Harry’s weight. An adult woodchuck can weigh as much as 14 pounds. Harry tips the scales at about two pounds. Not bad for a young pup.

MAHER: So, he’s put on a little bit of weight in the ten days since we caught him. Hey, come on bud.

ALGEO: In a few minutes, it’s all over and Harry’s ready to be returned to his burrow. He squeals as Maher gently drops him back down his hole.


MAHER: There you go. Yeah, good boy. Ok, we’ll put you back.

ALGEO: Maher’s research is showing that woodchucks are much more social than previously thought. For example, Maher has noticed that male and female adults often interact outside the Fall breeding season. She’s also discovered that young female adults tend to build burrows close to their mothers, while the males move farther away.

MAHER: What we’re getting are these clusters of related females. You’ve got the mother, and you’ve got her daughters settling all around her. That’s the first step towards evolving a complex social organization.

ALGEO: Eventually, Maher hopes to find out whether woodchucks, like their cousins the beavers, are monogamous. If course, as a woodchuck researcher, there is one question that Maher gets asked a lot. How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? It’s a question to which she has a quick reply.

MAHER: It costs a dollar to find out the answer. So, that’s a little bit of extra funding for my research.

ALGEO: Do you know the answer?

MAHER: Yeah. A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood.

ALGEO: Maher hopes her research will eventually lead to a better understanding of the evolution of social behavior, not only in woodchucks, but in all mammals, including humans. For Living on Earth, I’m Matthew Algeo in Portland, Maine.


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TOOMEY: You can comment on our program anytime. Call our Listener Line. The number is (800) 218-9988. That’s (800) 218-9988. Or visit our website at www.loe.org. And while you’re there, please take our survey. We’re trying to find out how Living on Earth can help you best use our website. So please go to www.loe.org, and tell us what you think. And thanks to everyone who’s already responded.

And for this week, that’s Living on Earth. Next week, in the waters off New England, fishermen and scientists are testing new fishnet designs that target abundant species, but leave others unscathed.

MALE: I do believe that, if we deconstruct the wheel a little bit and make gear a little less efficient or more efficient at catching target species via gear modifications, we can let these guys fish almost as much as they want.

TOOMEY: How a little stitch here and a little stitch there may help save an industry, next time on Living on Earth.



TOOMEY: And, as we end our look at some of the creatures who share our planet, we’ll let the animals have the final word. This is white-handed gibbon, living in Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park. These calls are used to defend territory and were recorded by Arnoud Van Den Berg and Cecelia Bosman. Listen as a pair of these small apes creates a duet with their vocalizations.


TOOMEY: Living on Earth is produced by The World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. You can find us at www.loe.org. Our staff include Cynthia Graber, Jennifer Chu, Al Avery and Chris Engles, along with Julie O’NeilL, Peter Shaw, Susan Shepherd and Carly Ferguson. Special thanks to Ernie Silver.

We had help this week from Jamie McEvoy, Max Morange and Emma Uwodukunda. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental SoundArt courtesy of EarthEar.

Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Ingrid Lobet heads our western bureau. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. Chris Ballman is the senior producer. And Steve Curwood is the executive producer of Living on Earth. I’m Diane Toomey. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER 1: Funding for Living on Earth comes from The World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth’s expanded internet service, The William and Flora Hewlitt Foundation for reporting on Western issues, and The Ford Foundation for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues.

ANNOUNCER 2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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