Friday Sprog Blogging: climate change and ecosystems.

Driving home with the Free-Ride offspring yesterday, we heard a story on the radio that caught out attention. (The radio story discusses newly published research that's featured on the cover of Nature this week.) When we got home, we had a chat about it.

Dr. Free-Ride: What did you guys learn from that story on the radio about the yellow-bellied marmot?

Elder offspring: That, in the short term, climate change is good for some species.

Dr. Free-Ride: Tell me more about that.

Elder offspring: Well, it made the marmots increase in size and numbers.

Elder offspring: I was going to say that!
Dr. Free-Ride: Well, tell me some other stuff. What else happened when the marmots got bigger and there were more females that survived?

Elder offspring: Well, the population of their foes got bigger.

Dr. Free-Ride: Foes such as?

Younger offspring: Such as wolves, foxes, coyote --

Elder offspring: Not wolves.

Dr. Free-Ride: I don't remember them mentioning wolves in the story.

Younger offspring: I don't care!

Dr. Free-Ride: I would imagine that if a wolf had a nice big, fat, yellow-bellied marmot, that might look like a tasty meal. But let's back up a bit. Why are the marmots getting bigger?

Younger offspring: Because of the climate change, their hibernation gets shorter, and the snow melts quicker, so they have less time to thinnen up* when they're hibernating, and they are like one pound heavier than they were before.

Dr. Free-Ride: It doesn't sound like a lot, but I guess when you're the size of a marmot, on pound is a significant percentage of your total weight. What are some other consequences of climate change that they mentioned in the story?

Elder offspring: Hotter summers equals summer droughts equals bad for yellow-bellied marmots.

Dr. Free-Ride: Why are summer droughts bad for yellow-bellied marmots?

Elder offspring: Because then they won't find stuff to drink!

Dr. Free-Ride: Maybe it also affects stuff to eat -- what kinds of plants can grow? Or, if they eat critters, what kind of critters can survive on the plants that can grow during the drought?

Elder offspring: Yeah, OK.

Dr. Free-Ride: Do you remember where this story was set?

Elder offspring: Colorado.

Younger offspring: In the Rocky Mountains.

Dr. Free-Ride: What I thought was interesting was that at first it sounded like it was just a story about the yellow-bellied marmot, but it ended up being about more than the marmots.

Elder offspring: It's a story about climate change.

Younger offspring: It's about the ecosystem and what happens to it when there's climate change.

Dr. Free-Ride: And it occurs to me that we have a back yard ecosystem that changed significantly in May.

Elder offspring: Oh yes, Snowflake.

Dr. Free-Ride: What kinds of impacts has Snowflake has on our back yard ecosystem?

Elder offspring: Om nom nom nom-ing weeds.

Younger offspring: And nasturtiums.

Elder offspring: Dandelions, carrot sticks.

Younger offspring: Nasturtiums.

Elder offspring: More dandelions, dropped apples, alfalfa pellets, timothy hay.

Younger offspring: Lemon balm, lemon thyme.

Elder offspring: Mint, nasturtium.

Younger offspring: And chewing on sticks from the apple tree.

Dr. Free-Ride: And besides eating?

Elder offspring: She generates fertilizer for the garden.

Dr. Free-Ride: Here's the thing: there's at least one big, noticeable change in our ecosystem since Snowflake came, although I think it's most noticeable in the side yard.

Elder offspring: Oh yeah, less nasturtium.

Dr. Free-Ride: We started out using the nasturtium as a tool of persuasion when it was time to get Snowflake to hop into the hutch at night.

Younger offspring: And when we were away, "offspring's friend"** [who was bunny-sitting for us] used, like all of them.

Dr. Free-Ride: I suspect that we might have run into that problem ourselves, although maybe not as quickly, since we weren't offering big bouquets of nasturtiums every night. Nasturtiums are self seeding, but if you pick all the flowers before they make new seeds, you end up running out of nasturtiums. So the nasturtiums suddenly had a predator that they didn't have to deal with before.

Younger offspring: Yikes.

Dr. Free-Ride: On the subject of ecosystems, why do we put Snowflake in her hutch at night rather than leaving her in the run?

Elder offspring: So she won't get eaten by predators.

Dr. Free-Ride: In other words, we've been working hard not to introduce a richer ecosystem into our back yard than is already there. We're trying to keep away--

Younger offspring: Raccoons, cats --

Elder offspring: Owls, hawks, eagles --

Dr. Free-Ride: Opossums.

Elder offspring: Killer snails.

Dr. Free-Ride: You know, the killer snails are more interested in killing my eggplant plants than in killing our rabbit.

Younger offspring: (laughing hysterically)

Dr. Free-Ride: You laugh, but you would be very sad if you came out in the morning to find a bunny skeleton covered with snails.

Elder offspring: They would eat the bones too.

Dr. Free-Ride: I don't want to meet your killer snails. I would have to face them with a killer soapy bucket of merciful deliverance.

Elder offspring: You mean bucket of death?

Dr. Free-Ride: To-MAY-to, to-MAH-to.
*Obviously, thinnening up is the opposite of fattening up.

**Name redacted in the actual conversation by the younger Free-Ride offspring.

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You know, there just might be another reason for the increase in marmot population numbers it the Western US since the mid-70s: Federal and private irrigation project development.

Much of Federal Hydropower system was built between the 1930s and the 1970s, and following on it's heels, came the large irrigation infrastructure projects developed in the decades between the 1950s and 1980s. All of it paid for, improved and maintained by a combination of tax dollars and user fees.

The marmots have done very, very well by this boom in irrigated field development. They love the rock retaining walls of the canals, rivers and wasteway returns.

The problem is this: the land grab boom of the 90s and 2000s meant that as much as 65% of the land served by this incredibly expensive irrigation infrastructure and it's water supply switched from irrigated agriculture to 'ranchettes', ill-considered suburban development in formerly rural areas.

Suddenly, there were massed fields of timothy hay and alfalfa, or large irrigated fields of pasturage for horses - crops that had nothing to do with feeding of America, and everything to do with Babyboomers with a yen for a second home in scenic country areas and the credit to buy it.

Rapid human population growth in the US, most of it immigrant-driven in the past 3 decades (we're talking 1/3 population surge here, no small potato numbers) is part of the story. The credit boom and over-inflated housing demand / home value pricing - meant that, under antiquated tax breaks and zero-interest loans for rural developers that were instituted in the 50s and continued unabated until last year is the other half of the catalyst for rural suburbanization. Folks bought up and developed land for residential living that was originally meant for business purpose- growing food to assure a ready supply for America's future. But that land had value of a different color, because it also came with a guaranteed water supply that otherwise would have been absent, due to rapidly falling groundwater supply in many parts of the West.

So you have many more marmots from (1) an abundant supply of water and food for most of the marmot grazing year, and (2) perfect living quarters in rocky banks of irrigation project infrastructure and (3) less severe weather in the past 3 decades.

Plus, a dwindling number of natural predators, as land use changed.

Fat marmots have more kits, but they also are apt to be more susceptible to disease, just like overweight humans and their pets.

You do your homework and come back with another post. We'll talk again on why this global warming isn't such a good thing, at second looksee, for either marmots or humans.