I spent most of today toying with the idea of taking our kayak out to the Manatee River, factoring in how I was feeling, what things graced my to-do list, and how many of the next few days were projected to have good weather. Eventually I decided I needed to clear my head and go out for a few hours. An old family friend’s story lingered in my memory, though, as it always does when I contemplate kayaking: several years ago a very large alligator, which was as long as his 11-foot-long kayak, swam next to him as he was on the water. No harm was done, but this story serves as a sobering reality of an alligator’s potential size, which pictures often don’t do justice. However, as a Florida native, my own experience and knowledge of alligator behavior pushed the story and the concern it evoked to the back of my mind.
Putting into the water, I was excited for the opportunity to explore the river whose banks so remind me of “Old Florida,” an untouched tropical wilderness marked by high-reaching palms, thick underbrush and serene choruses of birds. Navigating different side streams, I much enjoyed my time cruising through what seemed to be a different world, a world in which animals experience relief from the ever-growing threats of habitat destruction and human-wildlife conflict. A large venue of vultures decorated a tree, squirrels and lizards rustled about the bank’s grassy undergrowth, and water birds stood wondrously still and well-camouflaged amongst the reeds.
For me, it’s one of a few places in this world that seems so familiar yet leaves so much to be discovered.
I eventually just sat, allowing my kayak to drift in the slow-flowing water. As my body was refreshed in the cool shade of overhanging trees, I sat chatting with God, speaking Biblical truths in the face of my worry and allowing my soul to be refreshed as well. How thankful am I that I serve a God — a good Father — who cares about the things we care about, who knows the depths of our hearts and the joys we gain from this world.
My brief retreat into the wilderness did have to come to an end, though. I paddled back at a consistent pace in hopes of returning in time to prepare for a 7-o’clock Bible study with a former teacher and some high school students.
The boat dock came into sight as I rounded the bend and drifted closer to shore than I realized. It was in that moment that some big animal — unnoticed by me — and I gave each other quite a fright: in an instant the water EXPLODED around me in a big, loud, frantic manner, immediately sending waves of water spraying into my face. My head snapped to the right, from whence the initial burst came, as I tried to make out what was going. Eerily, I saw nothing but brown foaming, circulating water and undulating waves in the spot where the animal had disappeared. Holy crap, I thought, trying to process what was happening. My kayak rocked with the powerful, thrashing swells from the animal’s tail, and I knew I had startled a large alligator. As I felt it move through the water and under my kayak, there was naught I could do but stare at the bulging waves around me, watch water pour into the hull, hold my paddles still in my lap, pray I didn’t tip over, and ride out the surge, hoping that I wouldn’t see the gator resurface on my left.
As soon as the water calmed in the slightest and as soon as I realized my periphery lacked the image of an alligator, I glanced over my left shoulder trying to catch a fuller glimpse of the animal. I didn’t see it, but I didn’t need to after what had just happened. Sparing time for one more double-take, I started beelining towards the dock. After only a few strokes, I slowed my pace, my hands shaking in disbelief of what had just happened. Adrenaline coursed though my body, having prepared me for fight or flight, but neither were necessary. The alligator wasn’t after me. It wasn’t chasing me. It was trying to get out of the situation just like I was. Though the ordeal took less than ten seconds, I will admit that there are only a few other notable times in which I have felt as vulnerable and helpless as I did in those seconds.
It was the inability to do anything for that brief moment that invoked within me the greatest fear. Regaining my composure, I paddled up to the dock, tossing my waterlogged camera onto dry land, dragging the kayak up the ramp, and doubling-over in awe of what had just happened. Though my body instinctively shook, it wasn’t long before I was smiling at the insanity and wildness of what took place in the water just a few hundred meters away.
The alligator and I startled each other probably the same amount. Reflecting on the whole thing, it’s obvious that the alligator wasn’t out to attack me by any means, and I would never say that it was. It was trying to get to a safer place, and I just happened to find myself between the animal and its safety, which is likely why I had that encounter at all. I would guarantee that there were plenty of gators (that I didn’t see, by the way) around during the two hours I was on the water, but I just happened to accidentally come between this one and its safe place.
My dad was sure to bring to my attention, however, that it is alligator mating season. Mating takes place in early April, and nesting occurs from May to June. During this period, as occurs often in the animal kingdom, alligators may experience heightened levels of aggression. It’s a good reminder to carry with me in the back of my mind, especially if I go back out in the next few days. There is also a reality, though, that I was out on the water for about two hours and never once saw an alligator. And honestly, if I hadn’t been so close to shore and startled that alligator, I likely wouldn’t have known it was there either.
This alligator's instinct was to flee, as is the initial reaction of many surprised animals. Most of the time when people become involved it’s because they stand in the path leading to the animal’s safety. When encountering wild animals, make sure they have an available escape route, for their sake and yours.
Happy Earth Day!! Today I hope we’re able to celebrate and appreciate the wonders and beauty of the natural world that has been gifted to us by God. Unfortunately, much of our earth is now riddled with different types of pollution, including that of air, land, and water.
One way to help dramatically decrease the amount of pollution in our oceans is to use fewer plastic disposable drinking straws. You know the kind: the ones that are found and used at practically every restaurant, whether it’s five star or fast food. According to The Last Plastic Straw — an initiative to alter the nonchalant use of plastic straws that so dramatically affects the environment — about 500 million straws are used daily and discarded in the United States alone (1).
The reasons straws are so impactful in our environment and oceans is because it is easy for them to get swept away from recycling bins and trashcans. A jolting statistic shared by Strawless Ocean, “An estimated 71% of seabirds and 30% of turtles have been found with plastics in their stomachs. When they ingest plastic, marine life has a 50% mortality rate” (2). Many animals mistake these pieces of plastic for potential items of prey. With a seemingly infinite access to plastic straws, today’s society heavily contributes to the pollution that is observed and experienced in the environment. Many people aren’t necessarily aware of the impact that straws have, but there are changes that can be made to catalyze the reduction of environmental pollution.
Step 1: Make a personal commitment to stop using plastic straws. Simply saying “no straw, please” when ordering a drink is an action that can easily impact the amount of plastic that you use cumulatively use weekly, monthly, and annually.
Step 2: Ask businesses to only offer straws to guests upon request, thus reducing their overall production of plastic waste and preventing an unnecessary waste of straws.
Step 3: Expose those restaurants to the array of alternatives to plastic straws, those of which include paper (AardvarkStraws.com), bamboo (Brushwithbamboo.com), glass (BeOrganic.me/), metal (Ecoatheart.com), or silicone (Reuseit.com)!
All of these steps are actions that can help the conservation and preservation of the natural world and its inhabitants, including ourselves. With less potential to be affected by invasive plastic straws, sea life — including fish, whales, sea turtles, and birds — can continue to flourish and keep our ecosystems in-check. Though in a big world it may be hard to feel like you’re making a difference, an individual's lifestyle change to stop their use a plastic straws could be the difference between life and death for any number of creatures on our planet.
Happy World Wildlife Day! For those of you who may not know, today’s theme is Big Cats. The cats that are often associated with this category include lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, cheetahs, and pumas, among many others. These remarkable predators suffer from various threats that endanger their lives and populations. A majority of these threats are human-induced, such as poaching and illegal trade of parts, human-wildlife conflict, and loss of habitat due to deforestation and human expansion.
From the World Wildlife Fund’s website I learned the conservation statuses of some of these animals (1):
Jaguar - Panthera onca - Near Threatened
Snow Leopard - Panthera uncia - Vulnerable
Tiger - Panthera tigris - Endangered
Amur Leopard - Panthera pardus orientalis - Critically Endangered
I further discovered the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s global system for recognizing the conservation status of species (2):
Least Concern (LC)
Near Threatened (NT)
Critically Endangered (CR)
Extinct in the Wild (EW)
As is evident, the conservation status is varied across the board. Ideally, however, all of these creatures would be of Least Concern. So what can be done to help?
Education is the most efficient way to spread the message about the need for wildlife conservation for creatures all across the globe. Researching different trends and threats to animals will allow the education and knowledge necessary to then share the message with others. Areas of importance include the impact that the extinction of an animal would have on its surrounding ecosystem, the role the animal currently plays in its ecosystem, and the ways that the animal’s existence impacts our daily lives. Getting people to care about threatened animals will ultimately encourage their desire to support conservation efforts worldwide.
Recently in my biology lab the class was assigned a semester-long research project. My group’s project focuses on whether the presence of red wigglers, compost, or the combination of both has any influence on the growth rate and final size of bean plants. We set up an experiment that tests each of these factors, organizing our experimental design as follows:
I had some worms left over from our experiment, so I decided that I would keep them around for a while! Using some of our leftover compost and my gecko’s travel cage, I created a little worm box for my 19 new pals. I’ve placed them all in the container, and I plan on feeding them vegetable and fruit scraps! I even read online that they eat cardboard and hair. I’ll have to do a little more research, but I’m excited to keep them around!
If anyone has any advice or experience pertaining to keeping worms, please feel free to share! :)
Today organizations, parks, businesses and universities joined in celebration of Charlotte’s Arts and Science Council (ASC) Connect with Culture Day, an annual event held to promote the intertwine of art, science and history throughout the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area. On this day, visitors and patrons get free admission to local experiences, such as salsa lessons, historic tours, and pop-up performances by Opera Carolina (1). It was on this day that I happened to be scheduled for a volunteer docent shift at the Carolina Raptor Center, which was also offering free admission to the public. According to a fellow volunteer, last year 950 patrons visited the Raptor Center, and we would expect no fewer than 1000 visitors this year. Excited to help share interesting facts and amazing messages of conservation, I took my place at the Owl Information Station. Here I spent my two-hour shift educating the public about owl anatomical structure and conservation tips, using wings and talons as talking-points.
A few minutes into the first hour my boss approached me, asking if I could stay late for a “special project” she had for me. Assuring her that I would be able to stay later, she explained that there would be a raven painting taking place at one o’clock, and that I would be assisting in speaking to the audience while the raven painted. Ecstatic, I started running-through the corvid information I had learned just a few weeks earlier. Additionally, I was excited for the opportunity to see the raven paint, as I had yet to experience it yet.
Ravens are members of the family Corvidae, which is composed of crows (this includes ravens, though there is a difference between the two species), jays and magpies, among other groups. It is thought that corvids originated in Australia and now populate every continent except Antarctica. Believed to be the smartest birds, the intelligence of corvids has been ranked by scientists as comparable to that of a gorilla or chimp. The birds are known to have developed great observation skills and foraging tactics. For example, if a corvid has a nut that is difficult to crack open, it will drop it at an intersection while the stoplight is red. After the cars have passed through a green light and the signal has again turned red, the corvid will return to retrieve the now-open nut. This method is just one example of the outstanding intelligence of corvids.
Trainers at the Raptor Center have taught both a raven and a vulture to paint, but in different ways. With birds, a trainer can only enhance the actions that a bird would normally do in the wild. Pertaining to painting, the raven specifically has been taught to use a paint brush as a tool, in a similar way that it would in the wild. If a raven were to come across a colony of ants that lived in a log’s crevasse just beyond the raven’s reach, the bird could use a stick as a tool with which it would scoop ants from the log. In the same way, the raven takes the paintbrush in its mouth, makes a stroke on the canvas, and turns to its trainer for the positive reinforcement accompanied by a treat.
In addition to teaching the raven to paint, trainers have also taught her to recycle, enhancing the raven’s natural tendency to cache food. In the wild, ravens will often store berries, nuts and other food items, hiding it from other predators and saving it for the winter season. Using their knowledge of this, trainers began teaching the raven to recycle items such as soda cans, cardboard and Styrofoam. This the raven learned in only two ten minute sessions.
Thankful for the opportunity to educate during this spectacular performance, I shared aforementioned facts about ravens and the family Corvidae. The training of these birds and other animals is essential to promoting the message of conservation, demonstrating the unique ways in which each contribute to the ecosystem. The Carolina Raptor Center is an amazing organization, and I am thrilled to be a part of it.
1 Thess. 2:2
"...but with the help of our God we dared to tell His gospel in the face of strong opposition."