Sunday, December 30, 2007

Eastern red cedar

In the backyard, I arranged 3 bird feeders around the perimeter of an large Eastern red cedar. On cold afternoons, chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals and white-throated sparrows hide out in the dense branches, keeping close watch on the feeders while waiting for the plush fox squirrels to finish gorging on seed that is rightfully theirs. In the front yard, two cedars grow next the street. One has been hit by a car at least once and the other grows in such a strange spot that it must have been here before the house. Otherwise, the placement doesn't make sense.

I never had a problem with cedars until I moved to Missouri. After learning more about them, I'm compelled to grab a chainsaw and remove a large part of my yard's canopy. My yard, however, is so far divorced from its natural state (having been developed and incorporated since 1938), that ecological stewardship really wouldn't improve anything. So, the cedars will stay and the wintering birds will keep their shelter.

Eastern red cedars are native to the eastern U.S. and occur in almost every county in Missouri. In the Ozarks, large, gnarled cedars averaging 500 years old grow on rocky outcroppings in shallow limestone-based soils. As large, individual trees, they have a rightful place in Ozark ecosystems; but in the absence of land management and with the presence of largescale grazing, cedars have aggressively moved into woodlands, glades, and prairies, creating dense thickets that shade out any traditional herbaceous growth.

The historical Ozark landscape was largely shaped by fire. Coming off the prairies in the west, fire crept across the rocky landscape, keeping the understory free of brush while encouraging the growth of oaks, hickories, native grasses and wildflowers. Small cedars are intolerant of fire, so the frequent low surface fires kept them in check. During the past 80 years, since the days of open range grazing that encouraged this cedar invasion, natural fires have been squelched and cedars now grow prolifically throughout the Ozarks.

Dense stands of cedar not only shade out understory grasses and wildflowers, but they leach out a resinous substance which actually restricts plant growth. Public land managers in the Ozarks have made cedar removal a top priority. While small cedars are intolerant of fire, large cedars are resistant to it. Moreover, fire is unable to penetrate thick stands of cedar due not only to lack of grassy fuels, but to the high humidities caused by the dense canopy. Now, in prairies, woodlands and glades throughout the Ozarks, crews set out with chainsaws to remove large cedars, piling them into big heaps to burn. Once cedars are cut below the lowest branches, they won't resprout. After large cedars are removed and burned, fire is sent through the area to kill any smaller sprouts that were spared by the saw. It usually takes at least two years before biodiversity returns to the treated area.

Ecological stewardship is big business in the Ozarks these days. Thousands of dollars and Americorps hours are spent on cedar removal and other invasive species control. The few native plants that grow in my yard are typical of the glaciated plains and outer Ozark border. Once I start my own rigorous stewardship plan to remove the thriving populations of exotics (bush honeysuckle, wintercreeper and Japanese honeysuckle) from the yard, I won't even have time to begrudge the cedars in my midst.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Unwanted ungulates

Kirksville is about to be hammered with 6 inches of snow tonight. If temperatures remain below freezing, Highway Patrol and several members of state agencies will be hitting the skies in helicopters to count deer. With leaves off the trees and snow on the ground, deer stand out like a bull in a china shop. Ask any resource manager in Missouri about her thoughts on deer in the landscape and she'll likely say the same thing: they're as destructive as, say, a bull in a china shop.

Helicopter surveys for deer are dizzying affairs. Hovering over wooded tracts, girded with a GPS, passengers count deer from above. There's a handy formula that can translate raw data into deer per acre. One colleague came back from the North Hills' survey with a splitting headache and tunnel vision. Another one came back nauseous from the hairpin turns the helicopter made, insuring that the whole landscape was covered.

Of course, during winter deer aren't very destructive to Missouri's flora. During the growing season, they can reduce a healthy stand of wildflowers and grasses to mown lawn status. When they're really hungry, or if their numbers are so high that there's not enough forage to go around, they'll feed on oak sprouts. And Missouri foresters don't really like that to happen to their oak woodlands.

Several decades ago, deer were almost extirpated from Missouri, overhunted to near extinction in the state. The state's conservation agency outlawed hunting deer until their numbers rebounded. Rebound they did, and quite handily. The landscape had changed, however, and deer thrived without the presence of their natural predator, the red wolf. Wolves were hunted to near extinction east of the Rockies, with the last population hanging on in Tennessee long enough for several individuals to be caught and bred. Outside of Chattanooga in the late 1990s, red wolves were released in Tennessee Valley Authority property. In recent years, red wolves have been spotted in public lands miles away from their release point.

We've all seen the documentaries and articles praising Yellowstone's hotly contested gray wolf reintroduction. With packs of gray wolves roaming the land, elk are forced to move around, thereby allowing the formerly heavily browsed willows to grow up naturally. With the willows growing along the river's edge, beavers have moved into the area, feeding on willows and creating small wetlands. Ducks which haven't been documented from the park in 20 years have returned to the wetlands. It's a cascade effect that is happening in Tennessee, as well.

Now, if red wolves can cross the Mississippi River and navigate through all of the suburbs to Missouri's public lands, we might be in luck. With the increased urbanization of our wild places, available habitat for deer and their associated large predators is disappearing. Deer are showing up in suburbs all over the country: in my father's backyard (built on a floodplain. Killdeer still show up at night, hanging out in the street that used to be a sandflat.), in Greater St. Louis, in Brooklyn. A huge buck crashed through the windows of an Episcopal church in Shreveport. Insurance companies list deer collisions in Michigan as one of their highest risks. As a country, we've not only removed a reliable deer population control method, but most of their habitat. When my colleagues call them "goats" or make an earth-shattering "kerpow!" when they see them feeding on roadside fescue, I'm sure they realize that we are, as humans, singlehandedly to blame.

More than meets the eye

In 2005, the Missouri Speleological Survey listed 5,800 known caves in Missouri. There are more than 500 linear miles of identified cave passageways, with the longest cave, Crevice in Perry County, measuring 28 miles. Cave communities are tied to the terrestrial, geologic and aquatic resources all around them. Every cave is different, just as the surrounding soils and rocks are different. Some caves have elaborate speleothems, others have rivers running through them, some have gravel floors while others are filled with silt. Nevertheless, or perhaps because each cave has its own character, several of Missouri's underground communities have been converted into "show caves," complete with handrails, lights, and concrete floors.

One of the historical show caves is located outside of Leasburg, smack in the middle of the Ozarks. No one really knows when Onondaga cave was first discovered, but its modern history began in the latter half of the 19th century when a small group of millwrights decided to use the cave's springwater to run a mill. Seeking a higher return on the land, plans were laid to mine and sell the thousands of speleothems as "cave onyx." Lack of mining experience encouraged the millwrights to sell the property to other interested parties. One of those was George Bothe, a miner from St. Louis who, armed with experience, intended to sell off the formations.

Thanks to Missouri's saturated cave onyx market, the cave remained in tact. Instead of mining it, Bothe decided to show the cave as a landscape feature during the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Fairgoers could hop a Frisco line down to Leasburg to see one of Missouri's natural wonders. Trips to the cave were so popular that Bothe decided to keep it open after the fair ended. Eventually he sold the show cave to Robert Bradford, who continued to operate tours. Leasburg became a frequent stop for trains carrying tourists to see the cave, but when rail travel dropped, so, too did tourism. Onondaga stayed open for tours, but the monetary return was in steady decline.

A rather fascinating controversy broke out in the early 1930s when the property near Onondaga was sold to Eugene Benoist. Cave ecology wasn't well understood in the 1930s, but it was soon discovered that most of the cave ran under the recently sold property. Using a different entrance to Onondaga, Benoist's lease holder, Dr. William Mook, opened another entrance to the cave and starting running cave tours of his own. A war between the show cave operators broke out.

The dividing line between the two properties was established by a barbed wire fence. Onondaga Cave tours were conducted on one side of the fence and Missouri Caverns tours were held on the other. Unfortunately, the underground property line was so ambiguous that Bradford and Mook couldn't agree on the actual boundaries. Bradford sued Mook, claiming the other half of the cave by adverse possession. The case went to the Missouri Supreme Court. Mook won, but died 6 months prior. Cave tours continued for both operations. Tour guides staged rock fights around the barbed wire fence, while above ground hucksters for both operations continued to bring in tourists traveling Route 66.

After a rather sad and sordid land dispute, the cave ended up in the hands of one of Missouri's famous Ozark personalities, Lester Dill. A master of the tall tale, he always told what he called the "Ozark truth." In 1950, he promoted a 102 year old Oklahoman as the real Jesse James. He received national attention for this stunt.

Dill guided tourists through the cave dressed like a caveman and continued to advertise heavily along Route 66. Despite his showmanship, he remained a staunch protector of Onondaga Cave. Of course, for decades, the thousands of tourists caused serious damage to the formations and water quality; even today, staff continue to pull out antique flash bulbs and other tourist-related rubbish from little nooks and crannies.

Onondaga remains a show cave, but its resources are finally being protected. Despite all of the foot traffic, all of the exploration and exploitation that has continued through the years, discoveries are still being made. In early December, a small passage that opens up into a large room was discovered at Onondaga Cave. I received an email from one of the Onondaga staff two days later. I've taken out the hundreds of exclamation points, but her excitement remains evident:

About a month ago, one of the cave guides pointed out a hole that was 3 - 5 feet deep and was filled with old camera flash bulbs. On Saturday Dec. 8th, a volunteer and I were going to clean out the hole. When we got to the hole, we discovered that the hole was no longer 3 - 5 feet deep. It had collapsed and was much deeper and it appeared that a horizontal passageway continued at the bottom. I sent two very experienced grotto members down the newly opened passageway to investigate. What they found was amazing. The passageway continued for approximately 500'. Within that passageway, there is a small hole that was "blowing" which means that there is a significant amount of cave beyond that hole. A skeleton (a couple of people guessed peccary others guessed dog) was found on top of the clay sediment. The hind legs are articulated. Hoofed mammal tracks (peccary?) as well as slide marks were found. Found within the vertical hole was the barbed wire fence and the sign that separated Missouri Caverns from Onondaga during the famous "Cave Wars". Huge amounts of "trash" (one broken soda bottle was dated 1944) was found at the bottom of the vertical hole.

So, how did all of this "trash" end up at the bottom of a closed off hole? Upon further inspection, we think that we found the answer. During the first part of the cave's life as a show cave, people threw garbage down that hole. Sometime after the mid to late 50's (most recently dated soda bottle found), someone covered the hole with wire mesh and covered the mesh with clay. The hole still existed and people threw flash bulbs down the hole on top of the clay covered wire mesh. At some point, someone covered the flashbulbs with clay. Recently, the flash bulbs were exposed and the wire mesh rusted through exposing the hole.

It reminds me of the highway workers outside of Springfield who discovered a 2 mile long cave (complete with ice age skeletons) while digging a sewer line. Or that house outside of Springfield that fell halfway into a sinkhole, exposing another unknown cave. Or the bridge workers who were putting in pilings near Branson and hit a huge pocket of air that turned out to be an enormous cave. The naturalist was intending to pick up trash out of an old garbage pit and discovered another branch of the cave that thousands of tourists have never seen.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Premier example

There are few places left in America that can sum up in a small, 4,000 acre tract an entire landscape. One of those places is in central Missouri, deep in the heart of the Ozark Mountains. Dominated by limestone and dolomite bluffs, springs, seeps, caves, oak-hickory woodlands and glades, the Ozarks represent in rather pristine condition (more than anywhere else in America) karst topography, and one small state park a couple hours south of Columbia so typifies karst topography that is being considered by the National Park Service as a National Natural Landmark. I'm hesitant to even mention the name of the park because too many people know about it already; the fragile landscape is being abused enough by the onslaught of hikers from St. Louis and Kansas City looking for a wilderness experience close to home.

Named after Kars, a region of Slovenia rich with limestone caves, karst topography is defined by the presence of limestone, sandstone and dolomite, underground rivers, sinkholes and caves...lots and lots of caves. Then Governor John Ashcroft officially desingnated us "the cave state" and as of last year, personalized license plates are available with a representation of a cave with bats flying out of its mouth.

The complex features of karst topography can be explored in a short three mile hike: begin at a spring that produces, on average, 48 million gallons of water a day. The recharge area for the spring stretches for over 60 miles; throw some used oil in an old farm pond in Lebanon, Missouri, and it will end up killing fish at the spring. Rocks can't filter impurities, and since the Ozarks are simply a rocky uplift with minimal soils, impurities ranging from atrazine to motor oil end up in Missouri's spring water.

The spring wasn't always gushing forth 48 million gallons of water a day in plain view. The exposed spring is actually part of an elaborate collapse of a cavern system that stretches for several miles, though in various stages of development. Part of the system is a large, natural rock bridge that spans roughly 500 feet. Natural bridges represent partial cave collapses--both sides of the bridge collapse, leaving a small stretch of rock as evidence that there was once, indeed, a cave. A stone's throw away from the natural bridge are three large caves, one of which was only discovered last year. Eventually, through erosive forces, the natural bridge, too, will collapse.

What's so astonishing about this area south of Columbia is that the average hiker, if so inclined, can trace the sequence of events in karst systems in a mere hour. Start at the spring, go under the natural bridge. Climb over the bridge to the highest peak of the park and you're on top of the mountain overlooking the huge chasm. The top of the mountain can collapse at any moment, exposing an elaborate cave system shaped by such powerful erosive forces that clearly peak the interest of millions of hikers every year.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Visit from the Grinch

Snow and ice have moved into the region this past week, which has made driving (and even walking) a serious chore. Last night we were walloped with another three inches of snow on top of two inches of sleet and an inch of last week's ice. Three more inches of snow are predicted over night.

If you turn on any major network in the area tonight, scrolling across the bottom of the screen is a thorough listing of all of the cancelled church services, bingo games, AlAnon meetings, schools. Thrown into the mix of cancelled events and closings are roughly 50 holiday affairs--Christmas pageants, cancelled. Christmas piano concerts, cancelled. Nativity scenes, cancelled. Holiday party for State Farm employees, cancelled. Winter Wonderland Dance in Eldon, cancelled. This snowstorm hasn't kept the Christmas carollers away. Marching down Ash tonight during Molly's walk was a whole herd of MU students, belting out carols to anyone who would stop and listen (which, of course, I did.).

I almost wrecked about three times today; my car stopped two inches ahead of the bumper of a fancy SUV, and I almost slammed into a building and a stop sign. The roads are terrible, but I've been assured that my office will never close. My snowman is cute and small and probably a subject of laughter and scorn next door. I'll probably walk downtown tomorrow for light Christmas shopping in Columbia's well-decorated stores (they're all lit up so beautifully!). Central Missouri needs a few days without snow and ice so we can get on with this fun, musical, and festive season...

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Ring cycle

Back in October, during a particularly rainy week, hundreds of ringed salamanders came out from under logs and small mammal burrows to breed in small ponds scattered throughout a deep wooded tract of land outside of Camdenton, Missouri. Explosive breeders, ringed salamanders laid over 500 eggs in one small pool of water that collected in a dolomitic shut-in. Since that night, the salamanders hatched. Despite the hard freeze that slammed into the Ozarks last week, hundreds of larval salamanders are swimming around in the shut-in pool, waiting out a six to eight month metamorphosis.

Ringed salamanders (Ambystoma annulatum) can only be found in the dolomite-based Ozark and Ouachita mountain ranges. Because of the rarity of their habitat, they are listed as a vulnerable species, garnering a state ranking of S3 in the Species of Special Concern listing. They breed in the fall and, if the pools don't dry up or freeze completely, they spend the winter underwater feeding primarily on zooplankton and invertebrates. While not too much is known about these fossorial animals, the breeding habits of the ringed salamander have been well-documented. The breeding cycle is such an orchestrated process that it has been likened to the liebesspiel, the loveplay, of spotted salamanders.

Males usually appear at the breeding pool first. They begin breeding after the females arrive. Each female is met with upwards of 2 to 25 courting males. The males nudge the female's cloaca and then swim away to deposit spermatophores at the bottom of the pool. According to the fantastic book, Salamanders of the United States and Canada (James W. Petranka), the more males that come into the breeding area, the less specific they get when depositing spermatophores; they'll actually begin nudging other males and females alike. After the spermatophore is deposited (or the following night), females will swim over the spermatophore, picking up the pocket of sperm with her cloaca. She stores the sperm in a chamber at the top of her cloaca. Later that night or the next evening, she will deposit fertilized eggs in clumps attached to vegetation or rocks. Breeding lasts only a couple of days.

While ringed salamanders traditionally feed on invertebrates during their larval stage, some of them become cannibalistic. In certain species of salamanders, the cannibalistic animals have morphological differences like recurved teeth and a slightly larger alimentary canal. Ringed salamander larvae are all the same morphologically, but the cannibals have an advantage: they metamorphose earlier and are traditionally larger animals.

During my first foray into the Ozarks several years ago, I had the great pleasure of rearing a handful of ringed salamanders. I had never seen one before that rainy night in late September when this large animal (pictured) cruised across my driveway in pursuit of my sewerage lagoon. Of the animals I reared, I had at least one cannibal in the group. Every week, the number of animals in the tank dropped. In the final days of captivity, I had two animals left. One bit a leg off the other one. Salamanders can regenerate limbs, and in a few weeks on a rainy night I released two little ringed salamanders around the dried up pond where I had found them. It is estimated that the desiccation of ponds during the winter can kill upwards of 90% of ringed salamander larvae. They have a long life span, so perhaps the two who spent the winter with me in the maintenance shed returned to the shut-in and continued the cycle this fall.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Called "the most satisfying of all the annual meteor showers" by NASA, the Geminids will be arching gracefully through the skies tomorrow and Friday nights. The Geminids stand apart from the other showers (Leonids, Perseids) because they seem to have spawned from an earth-crossing asteroid named 3200 Phaethon rather than a comet. 3200 Phaethon may actually be the nucleus of a burned out comet that might have gotten trapped in a tight orbit. 3200 Phaethon recently passed a mere 11 million miles away from the Earth. It hasn't been that close since the early 1980s.

Last year's Geminid display was hindered by the moon, which was two days past last quarter phase. The moon will be a mere sliver in the sky tomorrow night, setting soon after 8p.m. The Geminids will be bright and slow, leaving few streaks behind. Mars, blazing orange, will be hanging out in Gemini tomorrow night, as well. 60 to 120 meteors each hour will cruise through the sky Thursday night. As nightfall approaches, look towards the east-northeast horizon. The meteors peak around 9 p.m. CST. I'll be standing in an old field well outside Columbia's city limits, gazing skyward in hopes of finally seeing a meteor shower in Missouri.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Quick clarification

I was asked in a one line email: "Is Columbia in the Ozarks?"
No, Columbia, my new home, is situated in the Dissected Till Plains Region of Missouri, just north of the Ozarks. The plains are characterized by clay and sandy soils, significantly richer than the dolomite/limestone/chert based soils of the Ozarks. The oaks and hickories of the Ozarks are comfortably at home in Columbia, where the older neighborhoods look like forests on Google hybrid maps. Columbia has spared lots of trees and a handful of their Arts and Crafts homes (but let others fall into utter disrepair. Mine, however, is in great shape).

No, I won't discuss how great Columbia is in this medium, because I'm sure someone else is doing that. I won't mention the great sports teams from the University of Missouri or discuss local politics (which are generally interesting and progressive). I won't mention all the great coffeeshops, curbside recycling, the bike trails, the arts theatre, or the gym where my trainer gives me nothing but encouragement.

I live in Columbia but I work in the Ozarks. I wear makeup and wool tights to my new job. I have an office that has no drawers for pencils. I have joined an office community that resembles the offices of New Yorkercartoons: secretaries with egregious holiday sweaters, territorial disputes over coffee strength, sad attempts at holiday cheer with mismatched tinsels and broken lights, an entire department playing the card game Uno in the kitchen at 9:30 a.m. on a Wednesday. I wake up really early to get to the main highway before the crush of traffic (few people who work in Jefferson City live there. They all live in Columbia). However strange an office environment may be, I'm allowed plenty of time in the field where I stomp through astonishing landscapes that vary from glades (dry, rocky, south facing slopes) to springs (that produce 80 million gallons of water a day) to virgin oak forests. The Ozarks are so rich and utterly vast, I really don't even know where to start...