Sunday, June 26, 2005

Two weeks ago, I came across a blog that proves its a small world. The soldier 1. Works for the American Red Cross Blood Services 2. Graduated from the same University as I 3. Is working on his MPH 4. Is blogging from Iraq 5. Notices the critters. He's not my doppelganger, but we do share a few things.

On his blog I noticed a few pictures of the local wildlife. He has a Uromastyx picture, posing like a prehistoric dinosaur. From what I've heard, they sometimes live in loose colonies and can be fairly abundant in some camps.

Also on his page are pictures of a large tenebrionid beetle and a camel spider.

His last picture is the first I've seen of a Fringe-toed lizard from Iraq (Acanthodactylus scutellatus). There are several species in this family found in the region. The toes have little projecting scales that help the lizard get traction while running on soft sand. There is actually an unrelated group of lizards in the US and Mexico (Uma sp.) that share the same common name and look superficially similar. The North American Fringe-toed Lizards are quite good at sand swimming and using their shovel nose and specialized toes to move beneath the sand like they are swimming in the water. Since the Iraq lizards have similar adaptations they probably exhibit similar behaviors.

One of the favorite escape techniques of some dune loving lizards is to dive under the sand just after cresting a dune. The predator sees the lizard run up to the top of the dune and gives chase. When the predator gets to the other side, the lizard is gone.

The king of the sand swimmers in Iraq has to be the Sandfish (Scincus scincus). Its really a lizard in the Skink family. The sandfish spends most of its time underground living in soft sand. It feels vibrations from insects and other invertebrates walking around on the surface. It ambushes the prey from below and pulls them under. It reminds me a little of the Sand Worms in the Dune Novels.

Monday, June 06, 2005

This week I participated in a large Bioblitz in East Hartford, CT. In all over 1700 species of organisms were identified. The birders found around 90 species, botanists cataloged hundreds of vascular plants plus many lichen, fungi and algaes, mercury vapor and UV lights were run to catch insects with hundreds of species of moths and beetles and smaller numbers of other insect orders. The DEP ran their electroshock boat and found several dozen species of fish. The parasitologists also found interesting things like one frog with six species of parasites. The purpose of this exercise was to provide a quick snapshot of the local flora and fauna and to educate the public about biodiversity. Both these could be easily translated to Iraq.

I propose a string of bioblitzes in Iraq covering the major Biomes from North to South, including the Tigris and Euphrates valleys and the remanents of the Southern marshes. Using a small team, the results would be beamed live via satellite and through the internet to a wide audience, both Iraqi and International. The internet could also be used to involve experts from around the world, taxonomists, ecologists, etc who could provide commentary and background on the species of plants and animals being found. The Iraqi Bioblitz could serve several purposes. First, a biological inventory of key areas has important scientific value. Second it could contribute to efforts of groups like Eden Again, Nature-Iraq and Birdlife International who are pursuing conservation efforts in Iraq. Third specimens could be deposited in Iraqi Museums to replace reference collections that have been looted or destroyed. Fourth, participation by Iraqi Biologists would give them international visibility and encourage collaboration with collegues outside Iraq. I think the education potential for Iraqi schools is also very important, as it was in Connecticut - perhaps setting a few children on the path of Iraq's next generation of biologists and conservationists.

The security situation may seem a hinderance, but there are many areas of Iraq that I would gladly go today if given the opportunity. When I was in Iraq, 85% of all the violence occured within a 100 km radius of Baghdad. Even in the Baghdad area, violence is focal. I'm sure with proper coordination with the government, appropriate locations could be identified. I'm betting it wouldn't be hard to get sponsors. The first thing to do is write up a technical proposal for the project, which I'll give myself a month to start. Once I have a decent outline, I'll post the document on the web and anyone who wants to help collectively construct it can have a go, a la Wikipedia. We'll see where things go from there. My binoculars and bug net are ready.

For those who haven't been regular visitors to Bigwig at Silflay Hraka, go and check out LTC Bob's recent sightings at Camp Victory. He's up over 50 species now. Recent entries include the Rufous Bush Robin, a spry little bird that I used to see along the Tigris and jumping around in Mulberry bushes near the LSA Anaconda Medical Clinic. The Bush Robin's behavior always reminded me of a Carolina Wren, very active and inquisitive.

I'm a big fan of Bigwigs commentary that goes with the pictures. For example he informs us that the Blue-cheeked bee-eater actually eats more dragonflies and damselflies than anything else. That's a fact that I can confirm. Anaconda's resident bee-eaters spent all spring and summer hanging out at either the laundry pond or off base along the many canals that crisscrossed our area. Good dragonfly territory.

Speaking of Bee-eaters, James Lewis, working in Kirkuk has taken some great photos, among them a European Bee-eater, which I looked for when I was up near Mosul, but never saw. According to my Birds of the Middle East, this species breeds in the northern part of Iraq. It looks quite different from the Blue-cheeked and yes this sort does count bees as a major food source. On the bee menu I recommend a nice 2005 large black carpenter bee...very juicy. James has emailed some of his pictures to Laura Erickson at where she's posted them with some info on the birds.