Friday, August 22, 2014

Northwest Perspectives

I've been trying to figure out a better way to post pictures. I've given Flickr a shot... and while it is a great place to store photos, I find it difficult for friends and family to actually follow the postings. Plus, the user interface is just horrid.

This blog is GREAT to share photos, but like I've said before I only post 1-2 themed posts a month, so I can't share as many photos as I'd like.

A solution has been found!

I've started a tumblr site where there will be a photo-a-day posted (around 7:30pm EST). Tumblr has a nice "queue" feature, which lets me set up a bunch of pictures to be posted in the future so I don't have to be around a computer every day to do a posting.

That being said... check out my tumblr page:

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ochre Sea Star

An ochre sea star found on the Olympic Coast in Washington.
Photo by: Matt Brincka
The ochre sea star (Pistaster ochraceus), also known as the purple sea star or the ochre starfish, is a popular site among tide pools and waters of the Washington coast and can live up to twenty years. Where ochre stars are present, it is often considered the keystone species of their environment. Ochre stars are a highly effective predator who mostly feed on muscles, but are known to eat snail, limpets, barnacles, and chitons. It has been shown that a few ochre stars have a profound impact on mussel populations. The loss of just a few purple sea stars can send mussel populations skyward, which inherently reduces the health of the ecosystem. The presence of Pisaster Wasting Syndrome on the West Coast of America highlights fears of massive starfish die-offs, effectively changing the ecosystem.

Like most starfish, P. ochraceus has five arms (rays) that give it the appearance of a star. On the ventral (bottom) side of the starfish it has small tubular suckers that allow them to adhere to rocky surfaces; a perfect tidal adaptation for being constantly pounded by the waves of the changing tides. While the majority of individuals are purple, you can also find ochre stars in oranges, red, browns, and yellows. The dorsal (top) side contains many small spines, or ossicles, that give it a rough to the touch.

Ochre stars in the crevasse between two rocks.
Perfect natural protection from the pounding waves.
Photo by: Matt Brincka
Like other sea star, the ochre star can expel its stomach from its body to help digest their meals that can't fit into its mouth... which is literally almost everything that it eats. Its stomach is so versatile that it can push it into snail shells and the narrow slits of bivalves (a shellfish that has a shell with two hinged parts... like a mussel, clam, oyster, etc) that are 0.1 mm wide. For slits that it can't push its stomach into, they will use their suckers to pry the poor, yet yummy, bivalve open.

Mussels. An ochre star's feast.
Photo by: Matt Brincka

The ochre star is actually a dioecious species, meaning there are both male and female individuals. Though there are both male and females, there is no external sexual dimorphism... meaning they look exactly alike. Reproduction actually occurs through broadcast spawning, which means males and females will expel sperm and eggs into the water column where fertilization happens. Corals are often used as a prime example of broadcast spawners.

Orange and purple ochre sea stars.
Photo by: Matt Brincka

The ochre star has very few natural predators besides the sea otter and gulls. Scientists believe one of the main sources of any types of species number disturbance stems from human collectors or casual tide pool observers. If you are wandering the coast and exploring tide pools, please refrain from stepping on or removing any organism from its natural ecosystem.

Interesting Tid-Bits

  • The gonads (sexual organs) when fully matured can take up roughly 40% of the sea star's weight.
  • Sea stars can regrown limbs! If an arm is broken off by a predator, the sea star will gladly still live on with four limbs until it can regrow a new one.

Scientific Classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Echinodermata
Class: Asteroidea
Order: Forcipulatida
Family: Asteriidae
Genus: Pisaster
Species: P. ochraceus

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Forest Fires: Bad, or Good?

For my job in Colorado, I had a lot of interactions with freshman Forestry and Natural Resource Management majors. One of the most common group of questions I received are about forest fires. Are forest fires bad? Why do we let fires burn? Don't fires completely destroy an ecosystem? Why do they do prescribed burns; isn't that counter intuitive? Why aren't there any fires in the east? The questions are endless... and often misguided, innocent misconceptions.

Hillside that burned during the High Park Fires of 2012 in Colorado.
This fire was started naturally via lightning strike, but is considered the third most
destructive fire in state history, destroying close to 250 homes. Photo by: Matt Brincka

Fire ecology is fascinating. Living in Colorado, fire season it is just a way of life for much of the year. Signs of wildland and forest fires have been found in petrified wood and the earth's strata from around 350 million years ago, so in no way is it a man-made phenomenon. Once humans learned to control fire, it was used for clearing land for agriculture, communication long distances, to prep food, keep warm, and during times of conflict.

Fire Triangle
Fire, or combustion, needs three things to burn: oxygen, fuel, and heat. Missing an ingredient? No fire. Improper preparation of ingredients? No fire. Fire needs at least 16% oxygen to burn. Thankfully... our air is 21% oxygen, which not only allows us to survive through respiration, but it also provides us fire.

Before humans learned how to ignite a fire, it was naturally caused by lightning and lava. Now, roughly 90% of all wildland fires with the United States are caused by humans, leaving only 10% of fires being ignited by natural causes. Not all human made fires are ignited on purpose. Negligence is a major factor in wildland fire ignition, including leaving campfires unattended and the improper disposal of cigarettes. Other causes of wildland fire include arson and prescribed burns.

Hiking through the Fern Lake burn scare in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Notice the lack of vegetation on the ground, even two years after the 2012 fire. This
fire was started by an illegal, high elevation campfire. Photo by: Matt Brincka

Benefits of Fire
Many ecosystems require fire to survive as productive and sustainable habitats for wildlife. Fires that naturally occur in ecosystems burn quickly and at a low intensity. This low intensity fire destroys plants above ground, but below ground their root systems are still intact. Since fire during natural cycles can return nutrients to the soil, the root systems thrive and often produce new growth with a few weeks. This tender new growth is full of nutrients, making it prime grazing habitat for herbivores.

The hillside by Cub Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park was burned during the
Fern Lake Fire in 2012. Though it looks scared now, the hillside will go through succession
and return to a beautiful forest. Photo by: Matt Brincka

When fire is 100% suppressed and their is a lack of the natural fire cycle, the risk of catastrophic fires increase greatly. These are the fires many people see on the news; roaring flames that often result in the loss of property and human life. Fire suppression was a very common practice before we truly understood fire dependent habitat. During that suppression period, fuel - flammable material such as wood - slowly built up until what was normally an average fire turned into a high heat, high damage burn. We are talking heat so hot that it destroys the habitat completely, destroying below ground root systems, leaving a barren wasteland. These high burn, high damage fires are often the ones we see which destroy homes as well.... and can lead to much sorrow.

Today, wildland firefighters still suppress fire, but not to the extent that we use to. The main goal today is to allow the fire to burn as much as we possibly can without it damaging property and harming lives. All fires are handled on a case-by-case basis. If they think the fire will be a low burn, firefighters may let it run its course, but still keep an eye on it. If the fire looks like it can get out of control or do damage, that is when you'll see the calvary (planes, helicopters, hundreds of firefighters) storm in.

Prescribed Burns
Being humans, we didn't like the randomness of wildfires. We, as a species, don't like random. We like to now what is coming our way. We don't want to wait an guess on where and when the next fire will come. There are instances where fuel build-up naturally occurs, even without fire suppression. Like during the suppression era, this build-up of fuel can lead to intense burns that threaten property. To try and prevent this, and to keep a natural cycle within certain habitats, we will actual conduct a prescribed burn. These prescribed burns mimic those low-intensity, quick burning fires that happen naturally. Prescribed burns can be used for other management practices, such as the removal of invasive species, but we won't get into that in this blog.

Fire Prevention
One of the largest social marketing triumphs for fire prevention lays at the feet of Smokey Bear (not Smokey The Bear... don't believe me?). Smokey's famous "only you can prevent forest fires" resinates throughout much of the population. The goal behind it isn't to say that "all fires are bad." The message is saying that human generated forest fires are not natural and that it is important that we both understand fire and actively try to prevent human-made fires. Remember, 90% of forest fires in modern society are human generated... that is an absurd number.

Smokey Bear

National Fire Danger Rating System
The National Fire Danger Rating Systems helps you and I understand proper care practices that we can do to help prevent human-made fires under different conditions. The color coded system is broken down into five categories, including Green (low), Blue (moderate), Yellow (high), Orange (very high), and Red (extreme). To learn more about each category and what you can and cannot do during each ranking, go to the National Park Service website.

It is important to know the benefits and dangers of wildland fires. Not all fires are dangerous and not all fires are bad. Fire is a natural force that humans have a history of mismanaging. It is important to not rely on firefighters to put out our erroneous fires. We, as citizens, need to take it upon ourselves to help prevents man-made fires... so fire can at least partially transfer back to its natural, habitat enhancing state.

What Can You Do?: Put Out Your Campfire!The following procedure on how to put out your campfire comes from Smokey himself.

  1. Allow the wood to burn completely to ash, if possible.
  2. Pout lots of water on the fire, drown ALL embers, not just the red ones.
  3. Pout until hissing sound stops.
  4. Stir the campfire ashes and embers with a shovel.
  5. Scrape the sticks and logs to remove any embers.
  6. Stir and make sure everything is wet and they are cold to the touch.
  7. If you do not have water, use dirt. Mix enough dirt or sand with the embers. Continue adding and stirring until all material is cool. Remember: do NOT bury the fire as the fire will continue to smolder and could catch roots on fire. This will eventually get to the surface and start a wildfire.
Do us a favor... when you leave camp, don't leave a campfire still hot... and it better not still be burning.