The small propeller plane vibrates alarmingly as it takes off from the main airport in the Bahamas. It’s carrying unusual cargo: besides the eight human passengers, there’s a large white cooler, over three feet long. Inside, in dozens of round plastic deli containers, are 120 live lizards, collected over the previous days on another Bahamian island.
America has the highest salamander biodiversity of any country in the world. But that incredible natural heritage is threatened by a killer fungus that has already decimated salamander populations in Europe. Now, a dozen scientists who study amphibians and conservation are calling for a total ban on amphibian imports into the United States in an effort to prevent a mass die-off of our nation’s salamanders.
Even on his year off, Frederic Brewster Loomis could not escape the dead.
The year was 1923, and this Amherst professor of geology, paleontology and biology—also a member of the class of 1896—was traveling south to Florida with his family, ostensibly “to enjoy the orange and grape fruit groves, the truck farms and sea beach.” But in Washington, D.C., the vacation morphed into a business trip when he visited the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. There he found a shipment of fossil reptiles from South Africa in need of a home. He promptly arranged for them to go to Amherst.
Hilary Palevsky ’07 is the seafaring type. She spent part of her Ph.D. years in the North Pacific aboard a Chinese container ship, collecting data on dissolved oxygen levels in the ocean. Earlier she taught marine science to K–12 students on two-masted schooners in Long Island Sound. She also spent a year as a Watson Fellow talking to fishermen, scientists and policymakers about Atlantic cod fishing.
It’s a Friday morning during harvest season, which means that it’s market day at Barberry Hill Farm in Madison, Connecticut. And Kingsley Goddard, who has been running this farm since 1987, is not happy. His broccoli is crawling with bugs. The vegetables are soaking in a cooler full of icy, salted water in the back of his beat-up, white pickup truck. Goddard hopes to drown the small caterpillars and beetles on his produce. But he’s pragmatic about the outcome: “I didn’t get skunked, you know?” he says. “I still got broccoli.”
Penguins inspire a special fascination, even among people who might not normally care about birds. Perhaps it’s their shuffling waddle,their bright, contrasting colors or their stoic, heroic huddles in the face of frigid Antarctic winds. Despite their charm, “if you annoy them, they’ll stab you in the face with their bill,” says Ron Naveen, the founder of nonprofit conservation group Oceanites. A new report issued Tuesday by the group says that although Antarctica has an abundance of these charismatic birds, some penguin populations have suffered huge losses over the past few decades.
At most public swimming pools, you can be pretty sure you won’t encounter an endangered species while taking a dip. But not at Barton Springs Pool in Austin, Texas. Here, if you walk along the concrete edge and down the ramp into the clear, unchlorinated, chilly waters, and swim out to the pool’s far side, you may come face-to-face with a small salamander that was once called “one of the most endangered vertebrate species in North America.”
Stephen Durham ignores the cold water seeping into his hiking boots as he wades into a shallow, brackish creek wending through a salt marsh in Madison, Connecticut. With each step, shells crunch under his feet and he sentences a few more oysters to an early death. Below these casualties, the remains of their ancestors lie entombed in the muck. Less than a meter down, they could be hundreds of years old—artifacts of a time before modern record-keeping. Like thousands of soap-dish-sized Rosetta stones, the shells can reveal clues about the past—if you know what you’re looking for.
he flat light of dusk settles over a small meadow in western New York. Trills of tree frogs mingle with the songs of nearby catbirds and the occasional whine of a mosquito. The grass is tall on this warm July evening, in some spots rising over the head of Sarah Sander ’06. She’s in her full field regalia: headlamp, stopwatch, tall rubber boots and, most important, a collapsible white net with a 6-foot aluminum handle. Just before 9 p.m., she spots the first dim flickers of yellow light amongst low tree branches: fireflies.
Squirming at the bottom of the Ziploc bag is a small salamander, its olive-hued back dotted with rust-colored spots. Evan Grant peers closely at the captured creature, his bearded face just a few inches away from its bright peach belly, as he checks for any abnormalities. In particular, he's looking for skin lesions: possible omens of a coming salamander apocalypse.