How We Protect Red Wolves

February 23rd, 2021

The American red wolf is the most endangered canid in the world. With the 10 known wild red wolves roaming a single recovery release site in northeastern North Carolina and approximately 250 in captivity, breeding is critical to this species’ survival.

Reflection Riding is a breeding and exhibit facility for red wolves and has been since its membership in the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (RWSSP) began in 1996. We’ve had litters in 2007, 2011, 2016, and 2020.

So, what’s the big deal? Why is red wolf breeding a concern? 

In 1980, the American red wolf was forced into extinction in the wild to conserve the last 17 remaining red wolves. Of these 17, only 14 were strong enough to begin a captive breeding program. That’s a really small gene pool! 

When breeding an endangered species in captivity, it is critical to maintain genetic diversity and grow the family tree. That means maintaining hyper-vigilance over the breeding coefficient and selecting red wolves that are the least genetically alike to breed. Luckily, RWSSP has a geneticist to direct us and a software program that tracks each red wolf’s pedigree — a road map of who’s closely related and who’s less related. Red wolves only breed one time per year, adding another variable to the equation.

Red wolves and coyotes can also interbreed. This causes a serious dilution of genes resulting in hybrid offspring. Hybridization can quickly kill the family tree.

What do we do with all this information?

As an institutional representative and management team member, I attend a summit meeting each summer to determine who’s going to breed with whom based on the needs of the population. We must determine how many litters need to be produced to maintain or grow the population (whichever is deemed necessary for that breeding season) and refer to the mean kinship list (a measure of the importance of an animal). We then begin the process of matchmaking. 

We’ve transferred red wolves to breed at our facility from as far away as Sioux Falls, SD. Once the red wolf arrives at its new facility, there is usually an acclimation period (we call it “Hey, howdy! time”) where the red wolves are separated by fencing and have limited visual sight and physical proximity. After about a week of this introduction, the red wolves are placed in the same enclosure, and with a little luck, they like each other and the relationship begins.

Red wolf breeding season is January through March, with the most northwestern facilities typically breeding last. After a 63-day gestation period, pups are born in April and May. Litters can range from a single pup to a litter of nine. Eyes and ears open after two weeks, and pups begin to wander out of the birthing place after about five weeks.

In some cases when a genetically valuable red wolf has not bred, artificial insemination can be an option. Reflection Riding was fortunate enough to participate in this research. Males’ sperm is collected and cryopreserved for future use. The research team that worked on this project consisted of our veterinarian, Dr. Chris Keller, his team from Mountain Hospital for Animals, and two post-doc students.

Luckily, red wolves breed fairly well in the wild and in captivity once they have found the right mate and are of breeding age. Reflection Riding has been fortunate enough to have successful pairs and has two breeding pairs this 2021 season. As a very involved cooperator in the RWSSP, it’s our duty to support this program and this magnificent species.

Posted by Tish Gailmard  | Category: wildlife

Brood X is Emerging!

February 15th, 2021

Most of us have kicked 2020 to the curb and are searching for new things to look forward to. Add this to your list for “Must Do Spring 2021” — you won’t be able to do it again for another 13-17 years. Brood X will emerge this spring in 15 states, including Tennessee.

What the heck is Brood X? 

Each labeled brood is a generation of cicadas. The 2021 Tennessee brood will be Brood X. Unlike the green, annual cicadas, periodical cicadas are known for their black bodies and five bold red eyes. They are unique to North America and at 17 years, are the longest lived insect known. Periodical broods each have their own range and are concentrated in the central and eastern regions of the United States, and some areas are home to multiple broods. Their huge, simultaneous emergence every 17 years is one of nature’s great mysteries.  Where have they been for the last 17 years? Underground, since 2004!  They are always there, just underground in a nymph form that we don’t see.

What’s going on underground?

Cicada nymphs remain underground at half a foot to two feet deep, molting through five instars (a phase between two periods of molting in the development of an insect larva), and emerge from the ground in the fifth instar. In order to grow, they suck fluids from the roots of plants. Female periodical cicadas lay their eggs in tree branches so when the ant-like nymphs hatch, they can fall to the ground, suck on some tree roots and dig in for the really long growth period. 

What makes them emerge? 

On just the right spring day, when soil temperatures reach 64 degrees Fahrenheit, after sunset and often after a rain, the nymphs climb their way to the surface and emerge together.

Scientists don’t fully comprehend what triggers the cicadas to emerge — some think the insects have a method of counting the number of times deciduous trees cycle their leaves and emerge after the right number. Some simply agree it takes the nymphs 17 years to mature, but are unsure of the prompt that elicits mass conformed emergence. Dr. Chris Simon, a molecular systematist at the University of Connecticut’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology has a theory: “The year of cicada emergence is cued by what I and others believe to be an internal molecular clock. The clock is most likely calibrated by environmental cues that signify the passage of a year, such as the trees leafing out, changing the composition of the xylem fluid on which they feed. The molecular clock keeps track of the passage of years.”  

As proof of this theory, in 2007 in Cincinnati there was a warm January, a hard freeze in February and then a normal spring, which caused maple trees to produce two leaf sets that year. Hundreds of cicadas feeding on those tree roots emerged a year early, after the trees produced 17 leaf sets in 16 years.

Dr. Gene Kritsky, an entomologist at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, Ohio believes soil temperature drives the mass materialization within the appearance year. “During the last emergence in our area, I planted temperature probes in the ground all over campus to track the emergence,” he stated. “The cicadas emerged over a period of two weeks after the soil temperature reached 65 degrees.”

There may be 1.5 million periodical cicadas per acre! Research suggests that their huge numbers allow them to overwhelm predators, so enough of them will live on to breed and perpetuate the brood. Safety in numbers!

Leaving behind visible exit holes, periodical cicadas quickly crawl to any nearby vertical structure, preferably a tree or shrub. They shed their skins as they molt into adults, leaving behind their empty shells. Shortly after molting, their wings unfurl and their yellow-white skin darkens as the exoskeleton completely hardens.

They’ve emerged... what now?

They sing! After 17 years underground, it’s time to find a mate and time is short. Males sing to attract females using their tymbal,which are  two rigid, drum-like membranes on the underside of their abdomen.

Most cicadas love the sun, so rain and cloudy skies will dampen their song. Temperature also affects whether they will sing or not — too cold or too hot and the songs weaken. Some cicadas will sing depending on the number and proximity of other cicadas in their area. Periodical cicadas, when there are enough in a given area, will synchronize their songs and form a chorus, like a group effort to attract females. With millions of cicadas present, the sound can reach 100 decibels — the same sound as standing next to a motorcycle revving its engine!

After answering the male cicada by flicking her wings, the female will mate with a male and lay eggs, using her ovipositor like a saw to cut slits into living twigs and branches and then place her fertilized eggs inside. This may damage young branches, which makes the periodical cicada a potential temporary problem for nurseries and orchards. If you have particular trees you need to protect, you can put nets or bags over trees for the period of time the cicadas are active. 

“While they may cause cosmetic damage to trees when laying their eggs, cicadas actually provide a number of benefits to nature," comments Jim Fredericks, chief entomologist for the National Pest Management Association. These benefits include pruning mature trees, aerating the soil, providing a food source for predators, and once they die, their bodies serve as an important source of nitrogen for growing trees. A single female may mate multiple times and lay upwards of 600 eggs during the three to four week lifetime of adults. Eggs hatch in six to ten weeks. The tiny ant-like nymphs emerge from the egg and fall to the ground, burrowing in to start the 17 year cycle again.

Can cicadas harm people or pets?

In short, no. Cicadas are often mistakenly referred to as locusts. Locusts are members of the grasshopper family, which have chewing mouthparts and may damage crops. Cicadas have sucking mouthparts and do not chew, but feed on the xylem of plants. Periodical cicadas will not bite. They have been known to land on people, but don’t freak out — they won’t cause any harm. They aren’t drawn indoors, so no need to worry about them setting up shop inside your living room. 

An explosion of cicadas provides a bounty of food for wildlife and some humans. They are considered a delicacy in many countries and in parts of the United States. Some claim that cicadas are high in protein, but recent research conducted at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Engineering has determined that cicadas may contain high levels of mercury. National Geographic points out that cicadas are gluten-free, low-carb and low fat, so why not throw a dinner party featuring cicadas during the emergence? There are even cookbooks to help you decide how to serve them. 

Cicadas in adult form are so massive in numbers that even if millions of them are eaten, there are still millions left to breed. However, the nymphs can be in trouble while underground. Sucking on plant roots and living underground makes them highly susceptible to chemicals like insecticides and poisons. This classifies them in a vulnerable class of insects, and as another reason to use natural methods when gardening. 

I’ll be collecting cicadas to feed the opossums, red fox, American crow, American toad, tiger salamander, turtles and some of our raptors at Reflection Riding. It’s a free, natural prey item full of nutrients and a great form of enrichment. 

Join me in celebrating this super cool natural phenomenon this spring. Happening only every 17 years, this is something to marvel at and celebrate. Maybe a local brewery will make a periodical cicada brew!

Posted by Tish Gailmard  | Category: wildlife

Happy Groundhog Day!

February 2nd, 2021

Did you know that the groundhog has three other names? It is also known as a woodchuck, although it doesn't chuck wood. However, it does move dirt, and lots of it — up to 700 lbs of dirt and rock in a day with its feet, claws, and teeth! The name woodchuck is derived from a Native American word, wuchak, used to describe several different animals of the same size and color. They are nicknamed “land beavers” since they are cousins to the beaver, but they don't live in water. Their most unique name is “whistle pig,” because they whistle to alert others when alarmed. 

Who are they? 

Groundhogs are the largest member of the squirrel family. They are covered with a dense gray undercoat and a longer coat of banded guard hairs, giving them a frosted appearance. They have short bushy tails, short legs, and big incisors. Their heads are like submarine periscopes with their small ears, eyes, and nose set high on their head so they can poke out of their burrows and scan their surroundings. These diurnal mammals are good climbers and swimmers, and often climb trees to escape predators. 

Where are they? 

Groundhogs are widely distributed throughout North America and are common in the northeastern and central United States. They can be found as far north as Alaska, and extending southeast to Alabama. They live near woodlands and prefer fields, roadsides, streams, and farms. They are usually seen standing on their back legs eating greens while very close to the roadside. Groundhogs excavate elaborate burrows up to 5 feet deep (below the frost line) and 45 feet long, with one entrance and multiple exit holes for quick escapes. Groundhogs stay within 50 feet of their den. The entrance to the burrow has a built-in flood bump so water will not flow down the main tunnel. The burrows have multiple rooms including a bedroom, bathroom and living area, and are kept neat and orderly. 

In addition to using the burrow for regular daily life and rearing young, one time per year the groundhog hibernates in its den. Besides bats, groundhogs are the only true hibernators in our area. The groundhog packs on fat in late summer and when the temperature drops, the groundhog's internal clock goes off, it goes into its burrow and seals itself in a lower chamber called a hibernaculum. Its breathing and heart rate plunge to astonishingly low levels! They take only 1 breath every 6 minutes, have 1 heart beat every 4-5 minutes and the body temp drops to 40 °F. About every two weeks or so, they must wake up to move around a bit and use the bathroom. 

The groundhog's internal clock is believed to be affected by changes in sunlight. Hormonal responses are thought to trigger the body to hibernate and then to come out of their hibernaculum near February 2. Groundhog Day is a cross quarter day about halfway between the winter solstice in December and the vernal equinox in March and can be referred to as the midpoint of winter.

What's the scoop on Groundhog Day? 

Thousands of years ago, folks in Germany believed the badger had the power to predict the coming of spring. They watched the badger to know when to plant their crops. By the time the first Germans settled in Pennsylvania, they most likely understood this was not true, but the tradition continued. There were no badgers in Pennsylvania, so the groundhog was substituted. Tradition says that if the groundhog sees his shadow on February 2, he will be frightened and return to his burrow for 6 more weeks of winter. If he does not see his shadow, then spring is near. 

What's for dinner? 

Greens! Dandelion, clover and plantain are favorites. In early spring when greens are not readily available, they may eat bark, buds and twigs of shrubs and fruit trees. 

How do they communicate? 

In addition to the whistle used as an alarm, teeth grinding and chattering are common when they feel cornered. Groundhogs have also been seen barking and squealing. They may also rub each other's cheeks where their scent glands are located. Groundhogs smell very earthy near their cheeks! 

How do woodchucks benefit nature? 

While an over-population can damage crops, gardens, and pastures, woodchucks are beneficial in moderate numbers. Their defecation inside the burrow fertilizes the earth; their digging loosens and aerates the soil, and their eating habits can determine which plants will grow. Abandoned burrows can be homes for other animals. Woodchucks can also be an important and abundant food source for large predators like hawks, owls and coyotes. 

How do woodchucks benefit humans? 

At Cornell University, woodchucks have been studied for 15 years and have led researchers to discoveries in the treatment and prevention of hepatitis B infection and the liver cancer it can cause. Woodchuck hepatitis B virus has a nearly identical effect on woodchuck livers as human hepatitis B virus does on human livers except that time is compressed. Disease processes that take 30-40 years in humans occur in 3-4 years in woodchucks. The only other model for HBV studies is the chimpanzee, an endangered species. 

While the groundhog's weather predictions are not always dependable, you can certainly see how important and unique groundhogs are. Think of these wonderful and beneficial creatures this Groundhog Day! 

Posted by Tish Gailmard  | Category: wildlife

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