Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.

 

RARE: Firing back against extinction!

Although many of the most popular endangered species roam the arctic poles or scour the savannah, vulnerable species can be found in the most ordinary places—even your own backyard. Meet the black-capped vireo, an endangered songbird that once whistled around Norman, Oklahoma. But don’t worry! Unlike so many conservation stories, the inspirational tale of the black-capped vireo will leave a smile on your face.

A black-capped vireo in the wild 

Here’s the situation. In the 1980s, this species suffered a major population decline due to habitat modification. Black-capped vireos rely on dry scrubland habitats, which often are maintained by fires. When these fires are suppressed, scrublands grow into extensive wooded areas and are no longer suitable to the black-capped vireo. Other threats include agricultural development and a parasitic enemy—the brown-headed cowbird.

A brown-headed cowbird

The female brown-headed cowbird notoriously lays her eggs in the nest of other birds, abandoning her young to foster parents. This comes at the expense of the host’s own chicks since the cowbirds hatch much earlier. At their peak, roughly 80 percent of black-capped vireo nests in Oklahoma and central Texas contained these parasitic eggs, radically limiting their reproductive success.

A black-capped vireo nest with vireo eggs (white) and a cowbird egg (brown)

 What’s a poor bird to do? In 1991, affiliated research associate Joe Grzybowski developed a black-capped vireo recovery plan for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. With strategies for prescribed burns by land managers, plus new cowbird-trapping techniques, the black-capped vireo population has grown from 50-70 pairs to 4,200 pairs in the Wichita Mountains. Bravo!

 

Joe Grzybowski doing a bit of field research

Despite this inspirational success, Grzybowski’s work is not done. He is currently serving as a co-principal investigator with colleagues from Texas A&M University on a grant from the Joint Fire Science Program of the Bureau of Land Management. Through this grant, scientists hope to develop models of habitat changes created by fires to maximize the effectiveness of fire management strategies. If these strategies are fruitful, it will mean greater reproductive success for the black-capped vireo and other similarly endangered bird species.

See this Norman native for yourself in RARE: Portrait’s of America’s Endangered Species, running through Jan.19. This exhibit features both famous and lesser-known endangered species of North America, including the black-capped vireo. Supplemented with museum specimens from five collections, this exhibit offers you a glimpse of this world’s rarest residents—both near and far.

Black-capped Vireo, Vireo atricapilla

Photographed at Fort Hood, Texas

c. Joel Sartore, RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species

RARE: California or Bust!

Sun, sand, and surf—what’s not to love? Southern California is an attractive place to live for many, including Dipodomys ingens. Commonly known as the giant kangaroo rat, this rodent species lives in complexes consisting of five to 50 burrows. But in the wake of urban and agricultural development, these high-speed hoppers have been forced to fight for a spot on the western coast.

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Dipodomys ingens, Giant kangaroo rat

“More widespread species do fine with humans because they have other places to go when parts of their ranges are taken over by human development,” explained Brandi Coyner, mammalogy associate curator. “This species doesn’t have anywhere else to go. 

Despite being popularized by the 1953 Disney film The Living Desert, the giant kangaroo rat was run out of town decades ago. The state of California and the federal government declared this species endangered in the 1980s, and today the giant kangaroo rat is restricted to just 2 percent of its original habitat range. That is roughly half the size of the city of Norman. This loss of habitat pushed these rodents towards the cliff of extinction.

The Living Desert, 1953

“The black hole of extinction is darker than death,” said museum director Michael Mares. “Death is the end of an individual, but their species may contain billions of other similar individuals. Extinction is the loss of all individuals of that species that ever lived. Their like will literally never be seen again, and their genetics that trace to the dawn of life itself are lost forever.”

But there is hope. Though small, these 62 miles are federally protected—and it’s made all the difference. According to Coyner, individuals who move outside of this land are unlikely to survive or add to population growth, so the best way to help the giant kangaroo rat is to continue protecting this stretch of land.

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Giant kangaroo rats inhabit a small area in western California

“Without those federal protections that are in place now, this species would have already gone extinct,” Coyner said. “This type of intervention is critical in keeping some species alive.”

As Coyner said, government regulation halted this species on its slippery path to extinction. Although it is unlikely that the giant kangaroo rat will ever see dramatic population growth in the future, stabilization is a very real possibility. The story of the giant kangaroo rat proves that some changes are certainly for the better.

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Giant kangaroo rat from our mammalogy collection

 To get an up-close view of the giant kangaroo rat, be sure to check out RARE: Portrait’s of America’s Endangered Species. This National Geographic exhibit features over sixty endangered and extinct species, including the giant kangaroo rat. This exhibit will be at the museum until Jan. 19, 2015. Until we see you, check out the BBC special Life of Mammals for more information about these golden sandbathers.

RARE: The end of the monarch reign?

When you think of endangered animals, what are the first species that come to mind? You likely imagine mighty rhinos, herds of elephants or maybe a bale of sea turtles. Often when we consider conservation, we picture exotic fauna located thousands of miles away. But what about those threatened species living in our own backyards? 

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A monarch butterfly from the Sam Noble Museum entomology collection 

The monarch butterfly is a native species in Oklahoma and surrounding states. According to the World Wildlife Fund, it is also a near threatened species–but private collecting, museums and science field trips are not to blame. The biggest influence on the decline of monarchs is the loss of milkweed– a plant that monarch caterpillars feed upon as they grow. This is due to significant land development. Without milkweed, monarchs cannot complete their life cycle as they morph from a caterpillar into a butterfly.

Every winter, monarch butterflies migrate hundreds of miles. This migration, known as overwintering, is one of nature’s most intriguing phenomena. Monarchs use a magnetic understanding of Earth’s poles to guide them south to escape the cold northern winter. Millions of monarchs migrate from the northern U.S. plains and Canada to a few locations in either Mexico or California, and these butterflies return to the same sites each year. It takes several generations to complete a single migration, and in 1997, it was estimated that 1,200,000 butterflies landed per migration site!  

“They have a very strong geographic preference, and it’s not exactly known why,” explained Andy Boring, recent invertebrates collection manager. “During the overwintering period, you may have hundreds on one tree and none on a tree twenty feet away.”

In 1997, those million-plus monarchs settled at multiple locations covering nearly a mile each. Now a mere 200,000 monarchs are overwintering on less than 1/100 of a square mile per site. That’s barely larger than six neighborhood homes. Over the past two decades, the monarch population has experienced a 90 percent drop from roughly one billion individuals to just 33 million.

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Graph via www.xerces.com

Scientists like Boring track and monitor the populations of monarchs and other invertebrates, studying characteristics, habitats and breeding habits. In turn, they use this information to develop local and global conservation strategies. Occasionally, they even offer counsel on land management decisions that could impact threatened species.

 “I think this sort of action-driven research should become more common,” Boring said. “I think that it’s a local service that most people overlook.”

 But there is something you can do, too. By planting milkweed and other nectar-producing plants in your home garden, you can help foster a successful monarch migration. Milkweed typically blooms in Oklahoma during the month of May, as butterflies migrate through the sooner state throughout spring and summer. Milkweed seeds are inexpensive and can be purchased online or seasonally at your local gardening store.

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Butterfly gardens like the one at the museum help foster monarch migration

“If enough people planted milkweed in their gardens, it could make a substantial difference,” Boring said. “The key is to help this species complete their life cycle.”

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A full-grown monarch

 To help foster a monarch-friendly habitat, you can also refrain from using herbicides that may damage milkweed and other plants. You may also help track populations as a citizen scientist or support existing conservation efforts. To learn more about local conservation, be sure to visit our newest exhibit RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species–opening Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014.

The Art of Philanthropy

If you’ve been around our staff for even a minute, then you know we’ve got talent! Olympic-level racers, canine rescue trainers, singers and musicians, romance novelists…we’ve got it all! Impressive? Absolutely. But what’s even more impressive is how these individuals use their gifts to better local, state and even global communities. Take Coral, for example.

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Coral McCallister

McCallister began working as a custodian at the museum in March of 2014. As lifelong artist, her eyes are always open for inspiration. Before long she found Bom Bom, a live-mounted Western lowland gorilla acquired from the Oklahoma City Zoo.

 “I saw Bom Bom many times in various enclosures at the zoo, and like most of us, I was in awe of him and the wildness he represented to me,” McCallister recalled.

 She began sketching after her shifts while mammalogy collections manager Brandi Coyner gathered donations for one of the Oklahoma City Zoo’s annual philanthropic events. As soon as Brandi saw Coral’s work, she saw a perfect fit.

 “Teresa Randall is a friend of mine and asked if the museum could donate a family membership to one of their philanthropic events,” Coyner said. “When I saw Coral’s sketch, I called her back immediately and told her I had something even better.”

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McCallister’s portrait of Bom Bom

 McCallister’s 19-inch by 24-inch pastel creation took nearly 15 hours to complete. Still, she had no reservations about donating her work to Zoobilation, a ZooFriends annual gala and fundraiser for the Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital. 

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Conceptualized Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital, OKC Zoo 

Coral made sure that her portrait really captured the essence of Bom Bom, down to the reddish tuft of hair on his head. Perhaps no one appreciates these fine details more than current owner, OKC Zoo head veterinarian Jennifer D’Agostino. D’Agostino was determined to win the piece at the Zoobilation silent auction. 

“There were several other people bidding on it but none that knew Bom Bom,” D’Agostino said. “Once, at the end of a medical procedure, he crashed and almost died. I did CPR on him, and he didn’t wake up for about 13 hours. I stayed with him trying to keep him alive. Because of that, I really had a strong connection with him.” 

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Bom Bom—OKC Zoo, Photo by Gillian Lang 

D’Agostino plans to hang the picture inside her new office at the hospital, as a reminder of Bom Bom’s role as a conservation ambassador for others of this critically endangered species in the wild. 

“We’re here to get people to see and care about these animals,” D’Agostino said. “Conservation is a global effort, but everything we do has an impact on conservation. We can all make a difference, even in Oklahoma.”

Of course, Coral is as humble as can be about all of her philanthropic efforts, including those with the Norman Chocolate Festival and Nature Conservancy. For her, art is a connection—both human and animalistic. In this way, McCallister hopes to continue using her art to engage with others.

 “I like feeling tied into everyone else,” McCallister said. “Art has gotten me through some of the hardest times of my life, and it makes life worthwhile. Giving back creates a kind of oneness, and it’s really a beautiful thing.”

Project Passenger Pigeon

1914: The first stone of the Lincoln Memorial is placed in Washington D.C. Charlie Chaplain stars in his second film, “The Tramp”. Doctors complete the first successful blood transfusion in Brussels, and World War I begins. When looking back on this most historic year, one critical event is often overlooked– the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon.

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The Passenger Pigeon in 1898

With a population between 3 and 5 billion birds, the Passenger Pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, and possibly even the world. Written accounts describe how flocks would darken the sky for hours and days, and how the beating wings sent a chilling draft down from the sky. However, in just a few decades, the species became extinct. 

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Passenger Pigeon shooting illustration

 Human exploitation, namely hunting and commerce, destroyed nearly every major nesting area over the course of 40 years. No one documented a successful mass nesting during this time, which had in the past contributed greatly to the survival of the species. This bird occurred only in North America and was no stranger to the Sooner State. 

Prior to the twentieth century, the Passenger Pigeon often frequented eastern Oklahoma during winter. It is even possible that a handful of lesser-known Oklahoma landmarks were named after this species: Pigeon School (Cherokee County), Pigeon Roost Church (Choctaw and Seminole counties), Pigeon Creek (Latimer and Le Flore counties) and Pigeon Mountain (Le Flore County).

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Le Flore County has two sites named for the Passenger Pigeon

Unfortunately, the story of the Passenger Pigeon is not the only tale of exploitation and extinction. Now, The Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum are using this tragedy as a cautionary tale through a notable conservation initiative, Project Passenger Pigeon. 

According to the project website, the international campaign seeks to promote awareness about the Passenger Pigeon and other endangered species while encouraging people to take action against human-caused extinction. Ultimately, the project is about fostering biodiversity by prompting people to question their role in the larger ecological community.

 As a strong advocate of wildlife conversation, The Sam Noble Museum commends the work being done by Project Passenger Pigeon and other similar efforts. From Sept. 13 to Jan. 18, the Sam Noble Museum will showcase portraits of engendered and extinct species, including the Passenger Pigeon, as part of the exhibit Rare.

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Red Wolf (Canis rufus), photographed at Great Plains Zoo, Sioux Falls, S.D.

If Project Passenger Pigeon has inspired you to get involved, there are several environmental advocacy groups to join: The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Sierra Club, Conservation International and Wildlife Conservation Society, to name a few. Of course, joining an organization isn’t the only way to support conservation efforts. 

"You could become informed about conservation issues, volunteer in community environmental projects or become a citizen scientist,” suggests Janet Braun, staff curator. “You could also join or donate to a museum or conservation organization while living and promoting a conservation lifestyle.”

Scientists estimate that there are over 8.7 million species of living organisms on Earth at this time. Biodiversity is a precious thing that must be protected, as the tale of the Passenger Pigeon reminds us. They say that history always repeats itself - but by promoting the conservation of species and habitat, perhaps we can build a better tomorrow from yesterday’s mistakes.

An Annual Affair

A few weeks ago, the Sam Noble Museum welcomed back annual visitors to the museum grounds. A batch of wild Penstemon oklahomensisan endemic species of flower occurring exclusively in Oklahoma, began to flourish in a vast field located just behind the museum.

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Although the P. oklahomensis is not a federally recognized endangered species, it is state rare.  The plant consists of a tall stalk that branches into several white, tubular flowers, with the pollen nestled cozily inside. The blossoms at the end of this knee-high plant typically bend downwards, toward the ground.

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“The population in the field south of the Sam Noble Museum is healthy and robust,” said Dr. Wayne Elisens, a professor and curator of the Robert Bebb Herbarium at the University of Oklahoma. “Because the species flowers in April into May and fruits into June, one strategy to promote its persistence is to mow after fruit set, probably by mid-June at the earliest.”

 In an effort to preserve the flowers, the Sam Noble Museum has requested to refrain from mowing until the plant has finished blooming and dropping seeds for next year. Dr. Bruce Hoagland, a plant ecologist and coordinator of the Oklahoma Natural Heritage Inventory, said that he supports the decision to let the field grow naturally.

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In honor of the May 19 and 20 tornados, the Sam Noble Museum will be offering complimentary admission to all throughout the month June. Since Dr. Hoagland and Dr. Elisens predict the flowers will be with us until mid-June, why not stop in and say “hello” to our yearly guests?