Tradeoffs

A recent rule change by USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) is likely to reduce the number of small farms overseas that seek organic certification (and hence, at least attempt to follow organic practices), as Samuel Fromartz reports. An inspection system that relies on self-policing, applicable only to imports, has been the norm.

The new USDA certification ruling arose out of a case involving an unnamed Mexican grower group that failed to detect a farmer using a prohibited insecticide and prevent empty fertilizer bags being used for crop storage—both of which violate USDA organic regulations. NOP blamed the problem on inadequate internal controls of the self-policing system and decided to ban the practice everywhere.

Unfortunately, the only beneficiaries of the new enforcement are likely to be large plantations, who can afford the more costly inspection and certification process. If smallholdings are taken out of organic production, prices to consumers here in the States will rise.

Bioblitz!

Via Botany Photo of the Day comes word of the First Annual Blogger Bioblitz. In honor of National Wildlife Week, April 21 – 29, participants

… from across the country will choose a wild or not-so-wild area and find how many of each different species—plant, animal, fungi and anything in between—live in a certain area within a certain time.

Backpacker citizen science

Plans are underway to establish the Applalachian Trail Mega-Transect, “a long-term collaborative project to comprehensively monitor changes in the mountain and valley environments” the the famous trail from Maine to Georgia traverses.

“The Appalachian Trail’s 2,174 miles are the spine of the world’s longest publicly owned greenway, a protected home for thousands of special species and for the legacies of the eastern mountains. Downwind and downstream is perhaps one-third of the U.S. population. What happens to the Trail environment soon will happen to that environment,” notes [David N.] Startzell…. “We have a long history of engaging citizens for public benefit, and this seems an ideal way to provide many more opportunities to a broader spectrum of the public.”

Watching an invasion

David A. Fahrenthold updates the status of the local population of northern snakeheads in the Potomac River and its tributary creeks, where the fish is an alien species.

…Snakeheads are thriving. Virginia state scientists who use electric current to stun and capture fish in these creeks used to catch one snakehead every five hours. This year, they got 6.9 fish an hour, nearly 35 times more.

But the snakeheads don’t appear to have had a serious impact on the river’s largemouth or smallmouth bass, which are also top predators in the river. Scientists say they believe this might be because the snakeheads prefer shallower water or different prey.

Gary Duke

Laura Erickson remembers her Ph.D. advisor Gary Duke and explains her really interesting dissertation research.

While I was rehabbing birds in the late 80s and early 90s, I had started puzzling through why nighthawks have brown, messy, smelly droppings once a day, much different from normal bird droppings.

Shunning invasive procedures to get to the bottom of nighthawk digestion, Erickson and Duke radiographed three birds while barium-laced food traversed their entrails.

Why we put pepper in the bird feeder

Via Tangled Bank, Coturnix interprets research by Joshua Tewksbury and Gary Nabhan into the two-part evolutionary strategy of hot chili pepper plants: the fruits are brightly colored, soft, and sweet-smelling in order to attract birds, but unpleasantly spicy to repel mammals. The team fed peppers to birds (a species of thrasher, specifically), which passed the seeds in a viable state; but the seeds of peppers fed to packrats and cactus mice were usually partially digested.