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invasive species

Look out for lionfish

Hey, it’s another destructive invasive species, aided and abetted by climate change.

Scientists battling coral reef deaths caused by warming ocean waters 100 miles off the coast of Galveston might now have another climate change problem to fight in coming decades: a proliferation of zebra-striped lionfish.

Lionfish — brought to the U.S. from their Indo-Pacific home to stock aquariums and later dumped by owners unable to care for the constantly hungry vertebrate — have no known North American predators to stop their spread. As a result, they’ve been decimating reef populations from New York to Florida since the 1980s, arriving at the Gulf of Mexico’s Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in 2011.

And a recent study published in the Wilderness & Environmental Medicine journal suggests that venomous creatures like lionfish will become more prevalent as the oceans warm.

”They are the cockroaches of the sea,” said Michelle Johnston, a sanctuary research biologist. “They reproduce every four days and every four days they can release up to 50,000 eggs. Plus, nothing really eats them, they have venomous spines and the native fish are terrified of them.”

[…]

Between 2011 and 2017, researchers have recorded nearly 3,500 lionfish in the [federal Stetson Bank] sanctuary, NOAA stated, though experts believe that number is low.

And just as the lionfish did in household aquariums, they started eating everything in sight. A single lionfish can eat up to 5,000 fish per year, Johnston said.

In the Indo-Pacific, lionfish predators include sharks, grouper, frogfish, large eels and scorpionfish, according to Lionfish Hunters, a group that promotes the removal of lionfish from the Western Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf.

But fish native to the Flower Garden Banks don’t know lionfish are predators, Johnston said, which makes the venomous fish’s food gathering that much easier.

“The lionfish are virtually unchecked” in Flower Gardens, Johnston said. “The ones we’ve collected are extremely large, they’re obese, and some of them have fatty liver disease. They’re eating themselves into oblivion.”

Here’s the NOAA page on lionfish. The Chron article is long and detailed, and one we’ve heard before for other species. Scientists are looking for solutions to control the population so as to minimize the damage these invaders cause. (Turning them into human food is another idea.) In the meantime, if you or someone you know owns an aquarium, don’t add a lionfish to your collection, and if you do then for crying out loud don’t just dump it somewhere if you decide you’re done with it. Let’s at least not add to the problem.

Fire ant-killing robots

Let’s just luxuriate in the glory of that headline for a moment, shall we?

Harley Myler is working on a “war of the worlds.”

That’s what the Lamar Electrical Engineering Department chair calls his latest project: a walking robot that incinerates red fire ants.

The idea is to use a camera to identify the species the same way computers and sites like Facebook can recognize faces, and then fire at them with a blue laser taken from inside a DVD burner, he said.

Sophomore Qiuyi Ma, who recently received an undergraduate research grant to work on the project with Myler, said they just got the materials for the robot at the end of November. She expects to be working on the project through May.

The ants, which can attack and sting humans and animals, are not native to the United States and, according to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, displace native ant species.

Myler first proposed the project several years ago, but only recently received funding. He’s spent the last year working on another invasive species-targeting robot, which will help control the lionfish population in the Gulf of Mexico.

Though he originally envisioned an underwater vehicle shooting darts at the fish, which has venomous spines and preys on native species, other scientists worried about collateral damage and quickly put a stop to that.

“The marine biologists were [saying], ‘no, no, no, we can’t have a robot swimming around on reefs shooting darts at a lionfish,'” he said. Instead, the goal now is to make it easier and more efficient for humans to capture them, “just like a hunter has a trained dog,” he said.

I just want to say three things. One, Harley Myler is now my favorite scientist ever. Two, the only way this project could be any better is if the ant-killing laser-firing robots were built to resemble Star Wars AT-AT walkers. I mean, it’s obvious, right? And three, for the love of God please don’t let the Defense Department or the NSA give this guy a grant. I can’t wait till May to see what the prototype looks like, but until then if you want some more practical advice about fire ants, here’s the A&M fire ant page for you to peruse. You’re welcome.

The zebra mussels keep invading

Can anything stop them?

Zebra mussel

When zebra mussels exploded in the Great Lakes region during the early 1990s, fisheries managers in Texas and many other southern states certainly noticed, but most weren’t overly alarmed.

Yes, the alien freshwater mollusks, native to northern Eurasia and introduced to North America through the ballast water of commercial ships, had quickly become a major environmental and economic problem. Able to reproduce at tremendous rates – a single, fingernail-size mussel can produce a million eggs during spawn – and lacking any significant predators, the mussels swarmed northern waters, triggering considerable negative consequences.

But, evidence suggested, the invasive mussels were likely to remain a regional problem. They were confined to the Great Lakes. The mussels couldn’t transport themselves across scores of miles to infect river systems not directly connected to the infected waters. And, even if they escaped to new waters, the mussels’ relatively small native range was cold-water lakes; the mollusks might be able to live in the upper Midwest but almost certainly would wither and perish in the sultry waters of a southern summer.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Zebra mussels have spread at an alarming rate, thanks mostly to human actions. And the mollusks have proven much more tolerant of warm water than just about anyone suspected. They now are found in at least 30 states. By 2009, they had made it to Texas, first taking hold in Lake Texoma on the Texas/Oklahoma border.

Last week, barely seven years later, Texas fisheries officials announced discovery of zebra mussels in three reservoirs, boosting the number of lakes hosting the potentially devastating invasive species to a dozen spread across the Trinity, Red and Brazos river systems.

One of the new reservoirs on the list is Lake Livingston, the 90,000-acre lake on the Trinity River about 80 miles northeast of Houston. Livingston, a hugely popular fishing destination and a primary water source for the fourth-most populous city in the nation, is the southernmost and easternmost Texas waterbody in which zebra mussels have been documented.

“We knew Lake Livingston could be at risk for zebra mussels, but we were hoping they wouldn’t show up,” said Brian Van Zee, Waco-based regional director of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s inland fisheries division. “You don’t want to see any new infestation; there can be a lot of negative consequences.”

Some of those consequences are economic. Zebra mussels reproduce so quickly and in such dense concentrations they can carpet lake bottoms and anything under the water. They attach themselves to water management and transportation infrastructure such gates and pump parts and, especially, intake screens and pipes. The concentrations are so thick they clog and close these crucial systems.

This damage to water infrastructure systems has cost billions nationwide. It has cost hundreds of millions in Texas.

See here and here for some background. The main defense against zebra mussels has been trying to slow their march across the landscape, but that hasn’t been much of a success, and recent flooding appears to have helped them spread out to new locations. I hope someone’s thinking of a way to try and control their population, because we’re beginning to run out of places where they haven’t yet invaded.

Another kind of feral hog to worry about

Texas now has a warthog problem.

Over its 46-year history, the Chaparral Wildlife Management Area has been the site of a long list of achievements that cemented its reputation as the premier state-owned wildlife and wildlife habitat research, education and public hunting complex in South Texas.

This year, the “Chap” added a new feat to that list. But it’s not one the staff of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s 15,200-acre tract in Dimmit and LaSalle counties wanted or covets.

“I’m guess now we’ll be known as the first public hunting area in North America where a hunter harvested a warthog,” said Stephen Lange, Chaparral WMA manager.

And not just one warthog. During public deer hunts on the Chaparral WMA this autumn, hunters have taken four warthogs, wild swine native to Africa and cousins of the feral hogs whose booming population swarms like locusts over Texas’ landscape causing millions of dollars of property damage and untold harm to native wildlife, habitat and other natural resources.

The Chaparral WMA is in the center of what evidence indicates is a growing, range-expanding, self-sustaining feral population of African warthogs, the first such population on this continent. And that worries state wildlife managers such as Lange, who see the non-native warthogs, which can weigh more than 200 pounds, as having the potential to negatively affect native wildlife and habitat.

“There certainly are some concerns,” he said of evidence warthogs are gaining a cloven-hoofed hold in South Texas. “Any non-indigenous animal competes with native wildlife for resources.”

You can say that again. Warthogs have only been seen in the wild for a year or so, after presumably escaping from a private ranch to which they had been legally imported. Feral hogs had been here for a long time before causing a problem, so maybe it will be awhile before these critters do the same. They do breed like feral hogs, though, so don’t think the problem will just go away. Like feral hogs, they can be hunted without limit, though whether they can be pork-chopped or not is unclear to me. Perhaps like feral hogs, whose menu name is “wild boar”, you will see these on the menu of the more adventurous restaurants in town. I suppose that will be a small consolation for whatever problems they do cause.

Carrizo cane and French wasps

I love stories like this.

They’ve burned it, bulldozed it, hacked it and poisoned it. Now they want to try wasps – imported from France, no less.

The target is carrizo cane, a bamboo-like reed that’s a fearsome enemy of officers patrolling the Texas-Mexico border. Dense stands have camouflaged stash houses, half-ton steers and a caged Bengal tiger someone tried to sneak into the country.

“I’ve heard agents talk about it like it was Sherwood Forest,” said Francis Reilly, an environmental consultant and adviser to the U.S. Border Patrol. “They’d hear screams or gunfire in the cane thickets, and not be able to find anybody when they went in.”

The federal government has spent millions trying to prune the stuff. Now Texas is coming to the rescue – or is at least trying to – with Governor Greg Abbott signing a law in May to create a $10 million carrizo-purge program at the State Soil and Water Conservation Board. It turns out there’s nothing in the budget to cover it, though officials are hunting for the funds. They would finance the efforts of John Goolsby, a U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist who wants to unleash armies of French carrizo-eating wasps along the Rio Grande.

Texas, in other words, aims to fight an invasive foreign species by bringing in another foreign species.

What could possibly go wrong?

[…]

The war on the cane has been raging for years along the border. Back in 2008, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security intended to annihilate carrizo with imazapyr, but the plan to spray the herbicide from helicopters didn’t sit well with locals in Laredo, who sued. Protesters, including priests and first- graders, descended on City Hall. The spraying scheme died.

Since then, the feds have thrown the kitchen sink at the stalks. They engaged bulldozers to tear up roots, but that hurt the ecosystem. They set fields on fire, but that made the reed grow back with a vengeance. They sent in crews armed with machetes and tricked-out weed-whackers, but that was just ridiculously time-consuming.

Goolsby had meanwhile tracked down the tiny Arundo wasp – a bit bigger than a pinhead – in Montepellier in France.

As it happens, Arundo won’t lay eggs in anything but carrizo. Once the larvae hatch, they act as petite saws, slicing through a plant’s fibers, ultimately stunting its growth.

Goolsby has been testing this since 2009, and swears the Arundo wasp won’t eat anything but the cane. I guess we’ll find out. According to Wikipedia, Carrizo cane, aka Arundo donax was introduced into California around 1820, and has multiple uses, including for the reeds of musical instruments such as the saxophone. I always knew reeds were made of cane, but had never thought about it any further. Carrizo also sucks up a lot of water, so beating it back from the Rio Grande also serves a drought-fighting purpose. Who knew? Finally, I will note that the state of Texas had something like $18 billion in unallocated cash lying around at the end of the legislative session. If we wanted to find a measly $10 million to do this project, we could have done. That’s just how we roll around here.

Like a bridge over Memorial Park

Some fascinating ideas for ensuring the long-term health of Memorial Park.

Today Memorial Park is a land divided.

The city’s premiere park stretches across 1,500 acres, almost twice as large as New York’s Central Park. But to Thomas Woltz of the internationally renowned landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz, it feels much smaller. Over time the land has been divided into 24 tracts by roads, an elevated railroad, a power easement and recreational amenities.

That could change during the next 20 years if a long-range master plan being proposed by Woltz’s firm is adopted next spring by the Houston City Council. Hired in 2013 by the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, the Uptown Houston tax increment reinvestment zone and the privately funded Memorial Park Conservancy, the firm is nearly three months into a 10-month design process.

At a public meeting Wednesday, Woltz presented his firm’s initial design strategies and the reasoning behind them – ideas driven by previous public input and a year’s research by a team of about 70 local experts in fields like soil science, ecology, history and archaeology.

He shared maps, drawings and aerial views to explain the park’s ecological and cultural histories, also unveiling a dramatic solution to one of the landscape’s biggest problems. He’s proposing a grass- and tree-covered land bridge, 800 feet long, that would rise gently across Memorial Drive, over a tunnel, to reconnect the park’s north and south sides.

While it’s not realistic to remove the street, which is crucial to Houston’s traffic circulation, the land bridge is “a kind of triumph … the park wins,” Woltz said.

The current pedestrian bridge on the park’s western side, completed in 2009, was an important first gesture toward stitching the park’s landscape back together, Woltz said. “This land bridge builds on that beginning at a much larger scale.”

[…]

Project director Sarah Newbery of Uptown Houston said the Uptown Houston TIRZ is committed to spending $100 million to $150 million on the restoration projects and infrastructure; a figure that could change with property values. Memorial Park Conservancy executive director Shellye Arnold said her group is studying how much it can raise in the next 10 or 20 years toward the effort.

“But we think of this in terms of a 100-year or 75-year plan. We’ll execute large parts of it in the next three to 15 years; but there can be a road map for the next generation as well.”

Woltz expects to reveal designs that incorporate Camp Logan remnants at the next public meeting on Nov. 10.

“We’re looking for ways the landscape could function as a memorial to the soldiers and maybe even reveal some of the grid,” he said.

A Jan. 12 meeting is titled “Spaces and Places: How Will It Look?” The final March 9 meeting promises a more comprehensive revealing of the plan.

See here, here, and here for some background. The TIRZ in question is also the one helping to fund the Uptown BRT line. Some more material from the architect is here. What do you think about this? Link via Swamplot.

Make sure you check for zebra mussels

New boating rules are in effect in an effort to combat the spread of zebra mussels.

Zebra mussel

Starting on [July 1], boaters are going to have to take an extra step to clean their vessels if they want to cruise around on different lakes. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department says people will have to drain all the water in and on the boat before going to a new body of water in Texas.

The department is worried about the spread of Zebra Mussels and other invasive species. The state says it grows to be about one-and-a-half inches and will have a zebra-stripped shell. The problem is it can also have a million microscopic larvae which like to hide on boats and trailers.

“Unfortunately zebra mussels have a microscopic larval stage that when they get in the water you can’t see and if you have a bunch of water taken out of one lake and you go to the next and you can transport the zebra mussels and that’s one of the main ways they get transported is by boats from lake to lake,” says Ken Kurzawski, Inland Fisheries Division, Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Zebra Mussels can clog public-water intake pipes, harm boats and motors if they’re left untreated. It can cover boat hulls if boats and motors are left in infested waters. Zebra mussels can also block water-cooling systems and pester lake property owners by covering anything that’s under water.

[…]

CLEAN DRAIN AND DRY

  • Clean boats, personal watercraft, kayaks, canoes, sail boats and other water vessels
  • Remove parts and clean
  • Drain all the water from motor, bilge, live wells and bait buckets before leaving lake
  • Dry boats and trailers for a week before going to another body of water
  • Use high-pressure washer with hot water, 140 degrees, and soapy water

The Parks and Wildlife Department also says people fishing also have to be careful. More information is listed on the state’s website.

See here for the background. The Express News has more information.

Texas Invasives, a partnership of “state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, green industry, academia and other private and public stakeholders who share in the common goal of protecting Texas from the threat of invasive species,” has information on their website for boaters for how the new law effects them, including tips on how to stop the spread invasive species. It offers advice on how to properly clean and take care of any vessel, and how boaters can report a sighting.

According to Texas Invasives, possession or transportation of zebra mussels is a class C misdemenor for the first offense carrying a fine of up to $500. Repeat offenders could face a class B misdemenor, a fine of up to $2,000, up to 180 days in jail, or both.

Here’s the Texas Invasives website. Those of you going out boating this weekend, please pay heed. We all can do a part to stop the spread of these invasives.

Eat ’em all up

It sure would be nice to think that we could solve our invasive species problems by eating them all, but we probably can’t.

Would you want this for dinner?

It seems like a simple proposition: American lakes, rivers and offshore waters are filling up with destructive fish and crustaceans originally from other parts of the world, many of them potential sources of food.

So why not control these invasive populations by getting people to eat them?

The idea has gained momentum recently from the lionfish, which invaded the Gulf of Mexico but was successfully marketed to restaurants and today appears to be in decline.

But businesses and scientists have struggled to repeat this apparent triumph with other species. Some, such as Asian carp, are not appetizing to Americans. Others, like feral hogs, reproduce too quickly to make a dent. And then there’s the question of whether turning them into sought-after cuisine undermines the larger goal of eliminating them.

“Eating invasive species is not a silver bullet,” said Laura Huffman, the Nature Conservancy’s director in Texas. But it can still be “a way to get people engaged in the topic and in the solution.”

The lionfish, a striped saltwater species with a flowing mane of venomous spines, is native to the Indo-Pacific Ocean and was first spotted in parts of the Gulf and off the East Coast a little more than 10 years ago. The skilled predators damage reefs and devour native fish, and they are eaten only by sharks — or larger lionfish.

People soon learned that beneath the lionfish’s spiky skin lies a buttery, flaky meat that is perfect for ceviche, taco filler or as an alternative to lobster. After a few years of intense fishing and brisk fillet sales, the population is dropping.

But similar efforts targeting feral hogs, Asian carp and the Himalayan blackberry have been far less successful.

This subject comes up a lot, mostly in the context of feral hogs. Indeed, two years ago Texas Monthly proposed a culinary solution to our invasive species problem. It’s worked pretty well for lionfish and giant prawns, but some invasives just aren’t that appetizing, while the aforementioned hogs just reproduce too much to make an appreciable dent in their population that way. Plus, as the story notes, turning invasive species into a cash crop provides for some perverse economic incentives, and likely isn’t a net winner. Make some lemonade if you can, but don’t expect it to be more than that.

Look out for zebra mussels

Take proper care of your boat, y’all.

Zebra mussel

Fishing and boating enthusiasts take note: you’re probably going to need a little extra time as you head out on the lake this year. Rules to prevent the spread of the invasive zebra mussel will be going into effect statewide.

“All boats operating on public fresh water anywhere in Texas be drained before leaving or approaching a lake or river,” according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TWDB).

The mussels have spread rapidly since 2009, and now “the Highland Lakes are in the cross hairs, as are many of the public waters in Central Texas,” says Brian Van Zee, Parks and Wildlife Inland Fisheries Division regional director, in a statement.

The rules will go into effect July 1.

[…]

The rules originally applied to 17 North Texas counties. Now they’re being expanded along the I-35 corridor to try and beat the mussels before the spread further. “The Interstate Highway 35 corridor, which traverses the basins of the Trinity, Brazos, Colorado, and Guadalupe rivers, facilitates relatively easy movement of vessels by large numbers of boaters and anglers,” the commission writes, so it’s the route by which the mussels are most likely to spread.

The mussel is originally from Eurasia, and has traveled across Europe, “where it is considered to be a major environmental and industrial menace,” the department writes. It first showed up on our shores in the late 1980s, and within a decade “it had colonized in all five Great Lakes and the Mississippi, Tennessee, Hudson, and Ohio river basins.” The department says that once the invasives establish themselves, “they are impossible to eradicate with the technology available today.” And you can’t eat them, either.

See here for more. It’s likely a futile effort, but what else can you do? Preserving Texas’ natural resources is everyone’s job.

Educating people about invasive species

Worth a shot.

Zebra mussel

Every two months, Christopher Churchill, a U.S. Geological Survey biologist, scuba dives in Ray Roberts Lake, northwest of Dallas, to monitor the growth rates of zebra mussels, which have wreaked havoc on several Texas lakes and rivers.

“A year ago, it was hard to find just one zebra mussel,” Churchill said. “They’re everywhere now.”

Churchill’s assignment follows the 2009 discovery of the non-native zebra mussels in North Texas’ Lake Texoma. That year, the area lost 28 percent of its water supply when local water officials halted pumping water from the lake for fear of spreading the mussels through a pipeline that pumped water to a second reservoir, which is connected to a water treatment facility.

Officials embarked on a $300 million project to build infrastructure that would pump the water from the infested reservoir directly to the treatment facility, eliminating the possibility of infecting the second reservoir.

One way zebra mussels are introduced to new waterways is via boats that are not cleaned properly. Legislation passed this spring aims to increase awareness among Texas boaters about how to prevent the spread of the mussels and other invasive species.

To be certified to use their boats in Texas, individuals must take a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department boating education course. The department certifies about 12,000 individuals a year. The new legislation adds test questions on preventing the spread of invasive species to existing courses.

“If we can educate boaters, fisherman and those out with water craft then they can be our real front line defense against the spread and introduction of invasive species into new water bodies,” said Ross Melinchuk, deputy executive director of natural resources for the department. In addition to the courses, officials hope signs along lakes and reminders painted on boat docks will help decrease the spread of invasive species through boats.

I think the legislation in question is HB1241, but I can’t swear to it. Eradicating invasive species like the zebra mussel, or just holding them in check, will mostly involve ways to kill them or prevent them from breeding effectively. How to do that is a very difficult question, since you don’t want to introduce new and potentially worse problems into the ecosystem. Steps like this are fairly small-bore, but they can’t hurt and they are necessary to help keep the problem from getting any worse than it already is. I wish the TPWD good luck with this effort.

The drought affects the coast, too

Even more reasons to hope for rain.

A growing body of research into the effects of the state’s ongoing drought, which began in late 2010 and peaked in 2011, reveal a coast deeply affected by the prolonged dry spell.

“Coastal areas don’t get much attention during a drought,” said Anna Armitage, a marine biologist at Texas A&M University at Galveston. “But we have found a significant effect on the coastal ecosystem.”

Since 2009, Armitage has been studying an estuary – an area where the current from rivers and streams mixes with sea­water – in the Sabine Neches area along the upper Texas coast.

As the drought peaked and freshwater flows slowed to a trickle, the salinity of the estuary spiked from 3 to 5 parts per thousand to around 30 parts per thousand, making it nearly as salty as water in the Gulf of Mexico.

This wiped out much of the plant and marine life living in these brackish waters, Armitage said.

“The reason I’m so interested in all of these tiny plants, tiny fish and shrimp is that they provide food for other more important fishery species,” she said. “This is the base of the Galveston Bay food web, and I’m worried about the stability of the food web.”

[…]

It’s not clear when the drought will improve to the point of restoring the Texas coast to more normal conditions.

John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist, noted that Texas’ reservoirs are only about 65 percent full, the lowest they have been in a long time.

“The reservoirs are a good indicator of streamflow into Texas bays and estuaries,” he said, noting that the flows from the Brazos to the Guadalupe “are already at record or near-record low levels for this time of year.”

Absent substantial rain, this summer will bring the most severe drought conditions to Texas bays and estuaries since at least the 1960s and probably the 1950s, he said.

The drought has had the effect of helping to beat back one invasive species that couldn’t handle the increased salinity. On balance, though, it would be better to have more rain. More rain, please.

Beautifying Buffalo Bayou

I’m really looking forward to seeing how this winds up.

The nonprofit Buffalo Bayou Partnership is overseeing $58 million in ecological restoration and enhancement to upgrade the 2.3-mile stretch between Shepherd and Sabine into a green gem with a slew of amenities and surprisingly diverse landscapes where native plants will star.

The Kinder Foundation’s $30 million catalyst gift launched the ambitious project in the 160 acre-park. The Wortham Foundation’s $5 million moved the partnership closer to its $23 million fundraising goal, and Harris County Flood Control District is contributing $5 million, partnership president Anne Olson said. One of the city’s tax zones will contribute $2 million per year for the park’s maintenance and operations when it’s completed in 2015.

The private-public effort will add trails, pedestrian bridges, public art, a nature playground, two ponds for dogs, quiet areas and recreational spaces and parking.

But one of the project’s key goals is restoring the diversity of landscapes historically found along the bayou.

“We’re trying to keep the park natural and green but take it to a more refined level by removing non-natives and invasives,” Olson said.

The flood control district has been clearing unwanted plants, dredging silt and sculpting bayou banks to improve water flow, decrease murkiness and ease erosion.

I’ve written about this project before, and the more I hear about it the more I can’t wait to see the finished product. If you’ve driven down Allen Parkway lately or were there for the Art Car Parade, you’ve seen some of the progress that they’ve been making. Where things go after the work is done is even more interesting to contemplate. There’s already a B-Cycle kiosk the Sabine end of the bayou; adding another at the Montrose/Studemont entry point, and another at the nearby Regent Square Alamo Drafthouse would be good ideas. Connecting the Bayou at the west end to Memorial Park would also be awesome. Lots to be excited about here.

On a fascinating little tangent, a couple of weeks ago a rare alligator snapping turtle, which had been thought to be extinct in Harris County, was found in the Bayou. It’s since been nursed back to health (it had fish hooks in its mouth) and released in the wild where it belongs. This doesn’t have anything to do with the story, I just thought it was cool.

Watch out for snails

The invasive species keep coming, and there’s only so much we can do about it.

Would you want this as a pet?

Ominous red dots pepper the war room maps, and the story they tell is ugly. Foreign enemies are advancing on Texas by the millions – by wing, by foot and free ride. They are coming to chomp, sting, slime and clog, and in their arrival’s wake lies the prospect of devastation and disease.

In the advance guard are zebra mussels, Russian immigrants that have vanquished Michigan lake species and clogged water intake pipes with their concreted shells; red-streaked leafhoppers capable of transmitting devastating disease to sugar cane; and giant east African snails, rat-size intruders with voracious appetites for more than 500 varieties of plants.

The mussels, which colonized 100 Michigan waterways in just 25 years, have hit the Trinity River in Denton County. The leafhoppers, natives of Australia, Asia and the Mediterranean, are in the Rio Grande Valley and marching across Texas to Louisiana sugar fields. The snails, known to charm unwary humans with their soulful eyes and mucilaginous good looks, have landed in Austin.

Enter Sam Houston State University’s Institute for the Study of Invasive Species, a consortium of biologists from four universities whose mission is to track, analyze and defeat the nastiest of nonnative plants, animals, insects and microbes that imperil the state’s well-being.

In the war between Texas and voracious invaders, the institute may be the best hope.

“The scope is giant,” says institute Director Jerry Cook. “The truth is, we don’t know how much damage is being done. Texas is a big state. We have the longest border with Mexico. We have major highways along which invasive species can travel. We have Chihuahuan desert to piney woods and everything in between.”

[…]

Also of concern are zebra mussels, which likely traveled to the Trinity River via contaminated boats, and the giant African snails, which, although illegal to possess, have been dispersed through the pet trade.

The snails, which can grow to 8 inches, arrived in Miami in 1966. Within seven years of being released in a garden, 18,000 of the creatures were munching their way across Florida.

“We like to say they’re ‘rat-sized,’ ” says Smith-Herron, emphasizing the intruder’s least-endearing quality. “The problem is that people think they have cute eyes.”

Yes, someone thought that a giant African snail would make a good pet, and the ne=xt thing you know they’re wreaking havoc on ecosystems across the country. Don’t be a part of the problem, OK? Hair Balls has more.

Environmental drones

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! A plane! A drone!

One year into a $260,000 two-year grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, [civil engineer Thom] Hardy and his crew of biologists, geographers and spatial analysts have used the drone to track bird habitat in Galveston Bay and the growth of invasive tamarisk on Texas rivers.

It has identified pockets of water in the drought-ravaged Blanco River for removing nonnative fish and conducted surveys of fly-fisherman on a portion of the Guadalupe River. The drone can track ecosystems along a proposed pipeline or power line route, Hardy said, and map canal vegetation to help weed control.

“If you need an image and take the pilot out of it, this is cheaper and quieter” and safer, he said.

Once launched, via a kind of bungee cord, the battery-powered plane can reach 60 miles per hour, though it typically flies at half that speed.

The drone generally flies at an altitude of 400 to 600 meters and has a range of roughly 10 miles. In each trip, the cameras can take up to 700 overlapping images, which the researchers upload to computers and inspect using spatial analysis software. After a whoosh on launch, the plane has a soft whinny, and silhouetted against the sky, it looks like a miniature version of a stealth fighter plane.

[…]

The Texas State drone program is one of several state or local agencies authorized to fly unmanned craft in Texas, according to a list the Federal Aviation Authority released in April in response to a suit from the Washington-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, the A&M Texas Engineering Experiment Station headquartered in College Station, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Houston Police Department also have had authorization to operate drones, according to the list.

Seems like a pretty reasonable use of the technology, and as the story notes it’s a lot cheaper for researchers like these than hiring a Cessna to do the same work. But if you think this is a conspiracy theory waiting to happen, you’re not wrong.

In April, U.S. Reps. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Joe Barton, R-Ennis, co-chairmen of the congressional bipartisan privacy caucus, told the FAA acting administrator that they were concerned about “potential privacy implications” involving drones.

Austin-based conservative talk show host Alex Jones has taken those anxieties and amplified them. In a YouTube video taken at the Steiner Ranch and posted in late May, Jones and members of the Steiner family take turns firing weapons at remote-controlled helicopters meant to stand in for the drones. The video has been viewed nearly 500,000 times.

See the recent kerfuffle about non-existent “EPA drones” in Nebraska for the way this will eventually play out. I’d post a link to the Jones video but I fear for my sanity even looking for it.

If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em

Texas Monthly proposes a way to deal with those bothersome invasive species.

Keep your invasive species sweet; you may have to eat them. Late last week StateImpact Texasput together a list of the “Top Ten Invasive Species in Texas.” But what’s the best way to trim back their numbers? Helping eliminate invasives by eating them is an idea that has received a fair amount of press in the past year. “Humans are the most ubiquitous predators on earth,” the Nature Conservancy’s Philip Kramer told Elisabeth Rosenthal of the the New York Times. “Instead of eating something like shark fin soup, why not eat a species that is causing harm, and with your meal make a positive contribution?”

Maybe a large part of the problem is branding. “While most invasive species are not commonly regarded as edible food, that is mostly a matter of marketing, experts say,” Rosenthal wrote. Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food and Water Watch, was of that mind: “What these species need now is a better — sexier — profile, and more cooks who know how to use them,” she said.

“The whole outdoors is like a grocery store, if you know where to look,” Cecilia Nasti, the host of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s weekly radio series, “Passport to Texas” and KUT’s “Field and Feast,” told the TM Daily Post. When internal emails circulate through TPWD about the latest invasive species, Nasti said her first question is always ‘Is this something we can eat?’”

In that spirit, we’ve drawn up together our own subjective list, ranking five of Texas’s species by deliciousness and collecting recipes to help you prepare each.

Some of these critters, like the giant tiger shrimp, you may have already seen on your menu. Some, like the feral hog, a/k/a “wild boar”, don’t have a branding problem so much as they have a supply chain problem. There’s so dang many of them that mere hunting and trapping strategies are woefully inadequate. We allow people to shoot these things from helicopters with machine guns in order to try and control their population, for crying out loud. If there were an efficient way to harvest and butcher them, believe me it would be done. Anyway, there’s merit to what they suggest, though good luck to whoever has to come up with an appetizing name for nutria. I just figure that if someone could have come up with a way to make money off of this, they’d have done it by now.

“Crazy” ants come to Austin

They’re on the move.

Hello, Austin!

There’s a new ant in town, and wherever it goes, fire ants start disappearing. It also doesn’t sting or bite. But don’t get excited yet. The Rasberry crazy ant which showed up in Travis County and Round Rock this fall swarms into homes by the hundreds of thousands in search of food.

In the Houston area, where the ants are much more prevalent, they have already made some homeowners miserable, said Roger Gold, professor of entomology at Texas A&M University.

“People that have them said they wish they had the fire ants back,” he said. “We have pictures of families sweeping them up with brooms where there are piles of ants. … They can get into AC systems and short them out.”

When the ants get electrocuted they produce a pheromone that causes other ants to rush in, Gold said, leading to so many ants in the electrical system that it shorts out. An infestation of the ants temporarily shut down a Pasadena chemical plant, causing a $1 million loss, he said.

“They have huge populations made up of hundreds of thousands to multiple millions,” Gold said.

Ed LeBrun, a research associate at the University of Texas’ Brackenridge Field Laboratory, said the crazy ants haven’t caused Central Texas the problems that have been seen in the Houston area, where they were discovered in Pasadena in 2002 by exterminator Tom Rasberry.

Not yet, anyway. See here, here, here, and here for more. The map on the sidebar of the story shows that the ants have been sighted in Travis, Williamson, and Bexar counties, but not in counties in between them and the Houston area. Seems to me that means they just haven’t been spotted, not that they’re not there. At this point, it’s just a matter of time before the take over the state. Brace yourselves.

Bastard cabbage

All that recent rain benefits good plants and bad plants.

Bastard cabbage

With its thick outcropping of leafy green branches topped with small yellow flowers, an invasive weed commonly called bastard cabbage is blotting out large swaths of wildflowers, including the beloved bluebonnets, in some areas across Texas.

“It turns out that the good weather conditions that give us good wildflower seasons also favor the bastard cabbage,” said Damon Waitt, senior director and botanist at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

“I’ve seen areas that used to be bluebonnet hillsides along roadways that are now bastard cabbage hillsides,” he said.

Waitt said it’s not known exactly when or where or how the invasive weed with the scientific name of Rapistrum rugosum got introduced to Texas, but it may have happened when the seed of the weed native to the Mediterranean area got mixed in with grass seeds.

He said bastard cabbage’s proliferation in Texas has gotten worse in recent years. He said bastard cabbage — which though part of the mustard family resembles broccoli or cabbage plants because of the flowers at its tips — is growing everywhere this year from parks to front lawns, but is especially prevalent along the state’s major roadways.

Waitt says most wildflowers grow as tall as 1 to 2 feet. Bastard cabbage grows anywhere from 2 to 5 feet tall.

I don’t really have a point to make, I just like saying “bastard cabbage”, which as I noted a few years ago would make an excellent band name. Reading that story pointed me to the Texas Invasives webpage, where you can go to learn more about various invasive species in our state. Like, you know, bastard cabbage.

When monkeys are outlawed, only outlaws will have monkeys

Or something like that.

Cebus capucinus

Even in their Texas hideout, Jim and Donita Clark are terrified that wildlife agents from their home state of Louisiana will descend on their motorhome and seize the four Capuchin monkeys they’ve reared for 10 years.

Four months ago, the couple fled before authorities showed up at their house for an inspection, and ever since they’ve been hiding out with their monkeys — all of them cooped up in the recreational vehicle.

Exotic animal owners like them say wildlife agents have been cracking down in Louisiana and around the country after high-profile cases of exotic animals getting loose or attacking people. At least six states have also banned the ownership of wild animals since 2005, and Congress is also mulling tighter restrictions.

The couple fears the monkeys will be confiscated and sent to a zoo if they return home to DeRidder, La.

“It’s not what I fought for … to be treated like this,” said Jim Clark, a 60-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran, as tears streaked his face. “It’s not right to think they can come into your house and do this to you with or without a warrant.”

[…]

Crackdowns in Louisiana and elsewhere have gained momentum since a man in Ohio released his personal zoo of lions, tigers, zebras, bears and monkeys before killing himself. The 2009 face-mauling of a Connecticut woman by a chimpanzee also highlighted the dangers of keeping wild animals in residential neighborhoods.

“It was a wakeup call to the nation that we should no longer tolerate the reckless decision-making by a small number of people,” said Wayne Pacelle, the head of the Humane Society of the United States.

Veterinarians and primate experts generally agree that monkeys — like all wild animals — shouldn’t be adopted as pets.

“They are not animated toys. They’re so intelligent they’re difficult to keep in a stimulated environment long term,” said Dr. Patricia V. Turner, the president of the Association of Primate Veterinarians.

She said monkeys kept in homes often end up obese and suffering from emotional stress that takes the form of self-biting. Monkeys are garrulous social creatures and need to be around their own kind, she said.

With all due respect to the Clarks, I agree with the experts. Monkeys and other wild animals should not be kept as pets. It’s dangerous, it’s bad for the animals, it’s often bad for the local ecology, and it’s just not right. I support efforts to tighten restrictions on who can buy, sell, or possess exotic animals. TM Daily Post has more, and the Trib has a related article about the Humane Society pushing for a ban on “exotic” pets.

The giant prawn menace

Yet another thing to add to your list of Things You Didn’t Realize You Needed To Worry About: Giant prawns in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Asian tiger prawn, a foot-long crustacean with a voracious appetite and a proclivity for disease, has invaded the northern Gulf, threatening prized native species, from crabs and oysters to smaller brown and white shrimp.

Though no one is sure what the ecological impact will be, scientists fear a tiger prawn takeover could knock nature’s balance out of whack and turn a healthy, diverse marine habitat into one dominated by a single invasive species.

“It has the potential to be real ugly,” said Leslie Hartman, Matagorda Bay ecoystem leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “But we just do not know.”

The tiger prawns from the western Pacific – which can grow up to 13 inches long – have been spreading along the Gulf Coast since 2006, but their numbers took off this year. Shrimpers pulled one from Texas waters for the first time in June.

[…]

Some speculate that the Gulf invasion began with an accidental release of farmed prawns in South Carolina in 1988. Another theory: The prawns may have escaped from flooded industrial shrimp ponds in the Caribbean Sea during recent hurricanes.

The threat underscores concerns about large-scale fish farming, also known as aquaculture, in the Gulf. The federal government opened the waters to fish farms in 2009 despite fears from environmental and fishing interests over how to protect wild stocks.

They’re going to do some genetic testing to try to determine where these things came from. What to do about them if they’ve gained a foothold in the ecosystem is less clear. These shrimp do make good eating, and could be another cash crop for shrimpers, but it would be at the expense of existing stock, which isn’t a good trade. Let’s hope something can be done before it gets out of control.

Deer smuggling

I had no idea.

The smuggling operation across the Texas border proved lucrative, netting over $2 million for hauling the undocumented 41 who went by such aliases as “Hit Man” and “Spike.”

But the illegal cargo wasn’t immigrants from Mexico.

It was white-tailed deer, secretly brought into Texas from northern states to breed with native deer in an effort to produce trophy bucks with chandelier-sized antlers.

The imports are illegal as the state tries to protect Texas deer against diseases that could decimate native herds.

When the smuggler — a prominent East Texas deer breeder named Billy Powell — was sentenced three weeks ago to six months home confinement and fined $1.5 million, it sent shock waves through a growing Texas industry.

Some people might find deer-breeding a strange niche, since the state’s deer are so plentiful they can be nuisances, munching on gardens and straying onto roadways.

But Texas game warden Capt. Greg Williford said breeders cater to high-dollar hunters who want that “trophy showpiece for their mantle.”

Just proving that size does indeed matter. You learn something new every day.

“Crazy ants” update

The march of the so-called “crazy ants” continues unabated.

It sounds like a horror movie: Biting ants invade by the millions. A camper’s metal walls bulge from the pressure of ants nesting behind them. A circle of poison stops them for only a day, and then a fresh horde shows up, bringing babies. Stand in the yard, and in seconds ants cover your shoes.

It’s an extreme example of what can happen when the ants — which also can disable huge industrial plants — go unchecked. Controlling them can cost thousands of dollars. But the story is real, told by someone who’s been studying ants for a decade.

“Months later, I could close my eyes and see them moving,” said Joe MacGown, who curates the ant, mosquito and scarab collections at the Mississippi State Entomological Museum at Mississippi State University.

He’s been back to check on the hairy crazy ants. They’re still around. The occupant isn’t.

The flea-sized critters are called crazy because each forager scrambles randomly at a speed that your average picnic ant, marching one by one, reaches only in video fast-forward. They’re called hairy because of fuzz that, to the naked eye, makes their abdomens look less glossy than those of their slower, bigger cousins.

And they’re on the move in Florida, Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana. In Texas, they’ve invaded homes and industrial complexes, urban areas and rural areas. They travel in cargo containers, hay bales, potted plants, motorcycles and moving vans. They overwhelm beehives — one Texas beekeeper was losing 100 a year in 2009. They short out industrial equipment.

[…]

The ants are probably native to South America, MacGown said. But they were recorded in the Caribbean by the late 19th century, said Jeff Keularts, an extension associate professor at the University of the Virgin Islands. That’s how they got the nickname “Caribbean crazy ants.” They’ve also become known as Rasberry crazy ants, after the exterminator.

Now they’re making their way through parts of the Southeast. Florida had the ants in about five counties in 2000 but today is up to 20, MacGown said. Nine years after first being spotted in Texas, that state now has them in 18 counties. So far, they have been found in two counties in Mississippi and at least one Louisiana parish.

See here, here, and here for more. Note in that last link that as of 2009, only 11 counties had reported being invaded by the crazy ants. I don’t know about you, but I find that unsettling.

Piranha!

You never know what you might find in Texas’ lakes.

When a pre-teen girl dunked a hook baited with a piece of hot dog into the 23-acre lake in Tom Bass Park on Aug. 27 and pulled out a flapping, snapping, hand-size fish, she unexpectedly uncovered evidence of a crime and underscored what fisheries managers and natural resource law enforcement see as an increasing threat to Texas waters.

The fish she caught from the popular Harris County park wedged at the intersection of Texas 288 and Beltway 8 was perch-shaped, but with a blunt head and a mouth rimmed with razor-sharp, pointed, wedge-shaped teeth. Adults with the girl knew they had a fish that needed investigation.

The fish ended up in the hands of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries staff who made an identification confirmed and verified by outside experts.

It was a piranha – specifically, a red-bellied piranha.

It was not a pacu, the mostly vegetarian relative and fellow South American native of the carnivorous piranha. Almost invariably, “piranhas” caught from waterways in the United States are misidentified pacu.

But not this fish. It was the real thing – Pygocentrus nattereri, a native of the Amazon basin and the stuff of legends built around piranhas’ aggressive carnivore behavior and a set of teeth that can easily and efficiently rip apart its victims.

The rest of the story recounts once again the problem with invasive species in Texas. There’s a lot of damage done to Texas’ ecosystem by ignorant and careless people who think that dumping a no-longer-wanted fish down the sewer or at the park. There are penalties for doing so, but good luck catching someone at it. For all the good that it will do for me to say this, if you own an exotic pet and need to dispose of it, please contact a pet store or the zoo or your local animal control department for help. Don’t just dump it somewhere.

Invasive species report

Interesting story about a group of scientists cataloging invasive species in the area.

Termed the Texas Rapid Assessment Team — Galveston, the group includes scientists from across the spectrum of disciplines and expertise conducting surveys and collecting samples to document all the alien/invasive species they can find. Their focus is strictly the Galveston Bay area, particularly the watersheds feeding the bay.

“We have cooperators looking at everything from phytoplankton and algae to fish, vegetation, mammals — the whole spectrum,” said Leslie Hartman, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department coastal fisheries scientist and coordinator of the TxRAT project.

More than 30 state and federal agencies, universities and private organizations are helping support the effort with personnel, equipment and funding. The aim is to catalog as many alien/invasive species as possible and include information on their locations and distribution. This information will serve as a “baseline” for future monitoring of alien species and their impacts, Hartman said.

Among the places they’re looking are in urban areas, such as Houston’s bayous, as these are the entry points for a surprising number of unwanted visitors.

The armored catfish are South American natives. Commonly called plecostomus, “plecos,” “sucker catfish” or “algae eaters” in the aquarium trade, juvenile armored catfish are sold to hobbyists. The small catfish eat the algae growing on aquarium glass.

But little plecos grow into big armored catfish. And when owners tire of the fish or the fish get too large for the tanks, they end up in streams and bayous.

Houston’s bayou system swarms with armored catfish, which thrive in the near-tropical water. They face no natural enemies or other population controls and get big, with some growing to more than 2 feet long.

While their impacts on native species remain unclear, armored catfish do have a definite environmental and economic impact.

Like most catfish, they are “cavity nesters.” The well-named armored catfish, their heads and bodies encased in a bone-hard exterior, carve “nest” holes in the clay sides of the bayou. When water levels are low, the holes can be seen along the banks of the bayou. In some places, dozens of these cavities pock the bayou.

Those holes weaken the bayou bank, causing sections to slough into the water and otherwise accelerating erosion, costing the public money to maintain the banks for flood control.

So please don’t dump your unwanted fish down the toilet or sewer, aquarium enthusiasts. Those fish don’t belong here, and dumping them like that costs us all money.

That cold was good for something after all

It won’t do anything to control the mosquito population, but that cold front did help with some other nuisances.

The worst invasive plants are natives of warm climates — South America, mostly — and have limited tolerance to cold temperatures. Freezing temperatures kill them — particularly the floating plants such as hyacinth and salvinia.

“A good hard freeze can kill a lot more (invasive aquatic plants) than our crews ever could with herbicides,” [Howard Elder, of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s inland fisheries division] said.

And East Texas, where water hyacinth and giant salvinia have established colonies that cover thousands of acres of water, got a good hard freeze this past week.

“It was down to 16 degrees, here. And it lasted for three days. There was ice everywhere. That’s going to help us a whole lot,” said Elder, based in Jasper.

[…]

The same thing can be said for the freeze’s impact on invasive fish species that have thrived, to the detriment of native fish, in some local waterways.

Bayous, streams and other waterways in and around Houston are infested with large and growing populations of invasive fish such as tilapia and armored catfish — species that compete with native fish and, in the case of armored catfish, burrow into banks and accelerate erosion.

Like the invasive plants, the invasive fish are natives of tropical or semi-tropical areas and can’t handle truly cold temperatures.

Every little bit helps. If only it had had the same effect on the mosquitoes.