Scores of Species

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

One thing that constantly amazes me about the environment is the staggering amount of diversity that you find in nature. Just the other day, this amazement resurfaced when the International Institute for Species Exploration released its “State of Observed Species” (SOS) report for 2011. This report sums up all of the species that we already know of and details the new species discovered in 2011. Actually, because it takes some time to confirm the findings, the data available for the SOS usually shows numbers for a couple years prior. Last year’s report is no exception, but that doesn’t make its findings any less impressive. The 2011 SOS report shows that in 2009, there were 19,232 new species discovered. Really, 19,232 new species in just one year!

(Credit: International Institute for Species Exploration, Arizona State University)

So what were these new species? A lot of them — almost 62 percent, in fact — were insects. For instance, 2009 saw the discovery of no less than 3,485 different species of beetles. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of bugs, but that’s pretty darn impressive. The next largest group of species was vascular plants, of which trees are a member. Discoveries included new species of orchids, daffodils and even asparagus.

We hear about new species most often when they are of the cute and cuddly variety, and that usually means mammals. The 2011 report revealed that of the thousands of new species discovered in 2009, only 41 of them were mammals. The majority of those were bats, which is perhaps good news since so many known species of bats aren’t doing so well. Of the new amphibians recently discovered, almost 90 percent were frogs. You can view the full report here to learn more about the different types of new species discovered. One thing worth noting is that forests seem to be an eternal cache of new species. Whether it’s the cowboy frog recently found in the Suriname tropical forest or the new snakes found in Tanzania’s forests or the newest type of lemur to be found in Madagascar, forests always seem to hold enough life to boggle the mind.

The total of known species in the world is creeping ever closer to the two million mark. This year’s report brings the grand total to 1,941,939 species. And it seems that almost every year, the number of new species discovered is even greater than the last. These gains in knowledge are enough to make me regrettably contradict one of my all-time favorite TV shows: space is not the final frontier. We aren’t anywhere near done with Earth, yet.

A Deadly Mercury Cocktail

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

For years now, there have been studies and concerns about mercury levels in our oceans and bodies of water and how they affect aquatic life and consequently those of us that rely on fish and shellfish for sustenance — from children to birds and fish-eating mammals. But these studies hadn’t really examined mercury’s affect on terrestrial invertivores, aka land-based insect eaters. Until now. And unsurprisingly, the news isn’t good.

Rusty blackbird

Rusty blackbird. Credit: Vlad Litvinov (vlitvinov)/Flickr

A new report released by the Biodiversity Research Institute last week reveals that many species of songbirds and bats in the Northeast are exhibiting high mercury levels that are leading to adverse effects on reproduction, among other things. How are birds and bats getting such high levels of mercury in their systems? It’s all about the cycle of life with a heap of emissions on top.

Industrial plants, especially coal-firing ones, release mercury emissions into the air. These emissions eventually settle onto our trees and plants and are absorbed or settle into the soil, where — under the right environmental factors, such as wet areas with the right bacteria — the mercury is transformed into methylmercury, its most toxic form. Then, invertebrates, aka insects, consume mercury or methylmercury-contaminated leaf matter. Spiders and other predatory insects eat these smaller insects, absorbing multiple sources of mercury. Birds eat the spiders. And the cycle perpetuates. Each level higher on the food chain has the potential to consume more mercury than the level before, and pretty soon, birds and bats find their systems full of mercury.

While the highest mercury levels have been detected in areas marked by strong wet-dry cycles, like bogs and marshes, the study also found elevated mercury blood levels in species living in deciduous and high-elevation forests. The study found that species such as the rusty blackbird, the saltmarsh sparrow and the little brown bat were experiencing dangerously high levels of mercury. The consequences include decreased reproduction success because it alters the animals’ neurochemistry, affecting timing, instincts and other precise requirements to breeding success. And the poor little brown bat: the mercury compromises its immune system at a time when it’s already facing a deadly bat-killer, white-nose fungus.

At least some hope is on the horizon, as the EPA finally created a set of regulations for mercury emissions last month, which will hopefully help curb mercury emissions and their fallout because as we’re quickly learning, it appears that it’s fallout is widespread.

And Many More!

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Yesterday, the state of Michigan celebrated its 175th birthday — it joined the Union on January 26, 1837. Around half this state is covered with forest, about 19 million acres of it. With that amount of forest coverage, it isn’t surprising that Michigan boasts a crazy number of state and national parks and forests. It lays claim to three national forests: Hiawatha, Huron-Manistee and Ottawa, all of which are fantastic for hiking, camping, and especially canoeing, and fishing. They are in lake country, after all.

Benton Lake, Huron-Manistee National Forest (Credit: NickW252)


Just one day after the state’s birthday, Ottawa National Forest celebrates a birthday of its own: it was officially declared a national forest on January 27, 1931. Ottawa contains three different wilderness areas with more than 50,000 acres total, so is a great place to find remote, untouched pockets of forest.

The Sylvania Wilderness in Ottawa National Forest (Credit: U.S. Forest Service)


Kansas will also be celebrating its statehood soon, with its 151st birthday this Sunday. It was admitted into the Union on January 19, 1861. Kansas isn’t exactly the place for forests, being smack in the middle of the Great Plains, but everybody deserves a shout-out for their birthday, so in their honor we share this photo of a beautiful cottonwood, the official state tree of Kansas.

(Credit: Mike Pedroncelli)

The Music of Trees

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

As covered in the autumn issue of American Forests, tree rings tell compelling stories. Far from just revealing a tree’s age, they record natural events like volcano eruptions, the history of civilizations like the Roman and Aztec Empires and other moments in time. And, now, they make music. Yes, you read that right: music.

Tree rings record player: Years by Bartholomäus Traubeck

Credit: Bartholomäus Traubeck

German artist Bartholomäus Traubeck created Years, a record-player-like device that translates tree rings into piano music. Traubeck gives the following description for the device:

A tree’s year rings are analysed [sic] for their strength, thickness and rate of growth. This data serves as basis for a generative process that outputs piano music. It is mapped to a scale which is again defined by the overall appearance of the wood (ranging from dark to light and from strong texture to light texture). The foundation for the music is certainly found in the defined ruleset of programming and hardware setup, but the data acquired from every tree interprets this ruleset very differently.

Translation, please? Whereas a traditional record player creates music by having a stylus pass over notches in a record that reproduce the vibrations, or sounds, of the music, in Traubeck’s device, the stylus is replaced by a camera. This camera sends the image of the tree rings to an attached computer program, which converts the thickness, spacing, color and other elements of the rings into specific sounds. Hence, music!

Now, tree rings might not provide the same musical complexity of Bach or Mozart, but they do create unique sounds with their own rhythm and beauty. On his Vimeo page, Traubeck reveals that his video composition is actually a combination of tracks from different trees — from a “minimalistic fir” to “an ash tree with a rather complex texture.” He claims that dark walnut wood is even more dramatic.

Thanks, Bartholomäus, for giving us another way to marvel in the magnificence of trees.

Managing the Wild West

by Amanda Tai

Wind River Mountains. Photo Credit: Ed Ogle/ Flickr

Wyoming is exactly what I envision as the great American West; a region of the country I have yet to (but want very much want to) visit. The western half of the state is covered by the Rocky Mountains and rangelands, while the eastern part of the state is mostly high-elevation prairie. The state is also home to several historic trails, wildlife refuges and our country’s first national park — Yellowstone, the centerpiece of the 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. At more than 62.5 million acres, Wyoming is the 10th largest state. That’s a whole lot of land.

Who manages this land? Over 48 percent of it is owned by the U.S government, the majority of which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This small agency within the Department of the Interior manages more than 17.5 million acres of public land and 40.7 million acres of subsurface mineral estate in Wyoming. Each of the state’s 10 BLM field offices has their own resource management plan (RMP) to guide the decision-making process for land and natural resource use. The BLM is currently going through a process to revise the Lander Field Office’s 25-year-old RMP to set new objectives and goals for the area’s resource management. The proposed plan will manage more than 2.5 million acres of land in Wyoming, including the Wind River Basin and Sweetwater Watershed. This area also has some of the most pristine wilderness in the country and provides habitat for endangered species like the gray wolf and grizzly bear.

Throughout the RMP revision process, the BLM will collaborate with state, local and tribal governments. In addition to governments and federal agencies, the BLM also values public input in the planning process. A 90-day public comment period for the draft RMP and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) ended last week. The agency hopes to release a final plan this fall. Environmentalists applaud the proposal because it seeks to strike a balance between conservation and other demands, like energy development and off-highway vehicle use. The Wilderness Society even gave the Lander Field Office an award for its efforts on wildlife protection and historic trail preservation and management, showing us that innovative conservation work isn’t going unrecognized.

Under the Nashville Canopy

by Melinda Housholder, Urban Forests Program Director

We’d like to introduce a new member of the American Forests team and our newest blogger, Melinda Housholder. Moving forward, Melinda will be joining us every third Tuesday to share information specifically on urban forests, aka forests and trees in cities and towns. ~K&M

I am excited to have joined American Forests as the Urban Forests Program Manager. For as long as I can remember, I have had a connection to trees, forests and nature. Growing up in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee, I was exposed to lots of great music, tasty southern cooking and wonderful urban parks.

Centennial Park in Nashville, Tennessee

Centennial Park in Nashville, Tennessee. Credit:

While Tennessee might be home to the Smoky Mountains and lots of open space, Nashville is a busy city with the traffic and chaos of many metropolitan areas. Yet, spending time outdoors, whether it was hiking in one of the local urban parks, reading under the large oak trees in my backyard or enjoying a summer canoe ride down the shaded Harpeth River, was a huge part of my childhood. Without the trees and forest ecosystem throughout the city, much of my childhood would have seemed different. As a small child, I remember crawling through hollow logs in the parks with my sisters and swinging on the large vines that crossed the path. As an art student in high school, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the unique interplay of textures, colors and shapes that came together as I walked down a trail surrounded by trees and vegetation. In fact, my AP Art concentration was based on just that — pathways — often inspired by trees and nature, and what I now refer to as “urban forests.”

So, what exactly are urban forests and why are they important? American Forests defines urban forests as “ecosystems composed of trees and other vegetation that provide cities and municipalities with environmental, economic and social benefits. They include street and yard trees; vegetation within parks and along public right of ways; water systems and fish and wildlife.” As an integral part of our urban ecosystem, urban forests help clean the water and air, reduce urban costs, improve the well-being of the population and enhance wildlife habitat and biodiversity.

In my monthly urban forest blog, I look forward to telling you more about these benefits, as well as the challenges facing urban forests, and what we are doing at American Forests to help protect and restore them. Please stay tuned for my February post to learn more. In the meantime, I would like to ask, “What does the phrase ‘urban forests’ mean to you?”

A Rainforest Without Rain

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Amazon River (Credit: Jonathan Lewis)

The Amazon rainforest is hitting the news again. I know it’s easy to get worn out hearing about the usually sad goings-on in this most vital of forests, but I find I’m always drawn to these stories. Even with the damage it has sustained, I’m still in awe of the Amazon. For one thing, it’s massive: the Amazon rainforest is 2/3 the size of the entire continental U.S. The rivers in this one forest produce 20 percent of the world’s freshwater discharge. And when it comes to carbon storage, the Amazon holds the equivalent of 10 years’ worth of global fossil fuel emissions.

So what’s happening in the Amazon lately? A study recently published in Nature is showing that despite its size and its ability to adapt to changing conditions over the millennia, the Amazon is anything but stable. In fact, thanks to expanding development, road building, agricultural clear cutting and other factors that add up to a lot of deforestation, the Amazon is changing — in some places, rather drastically.

One problem is that the dry season is getting longer. In some areas, so many trees have been cut down that it is actually affecting the weather. Didn’t know trees could affect the weather? They can — it’s just rare that we can see the effect in such a concentrated way. On average, one large tree can pull about 100 gallons from the ground and discharge it into the air in a process called transpiration. From there, it rejoins the water cycle and eventually becomes rain. The Amazon is such a large ecosystem with so many trees that it produces about one-third of its own rainfall each year. With so much deforestation, droughts are now becoming more intense and more common, which is bad news for the humans that live in the area, as well as for the trees. Those that have managed to be spared the axe are getting mighty thirsty.

With fewer trees to intercept the water, the Amazon’s many tributaries are also running higher. It may sound like a good thing during a drought, but the increase in water volume also means more sediment. Here’s just one example outlined in the Nature study: The Araguaia River in the southeast Amazon has seen a 28 percent increase in sediment. That’s a pretty significant increase, as sediment makes water harder to use for drinking or agricultural irrigation.

Another major issue the study addresses is that the Amazon may be reaching a tipping point when it comes to carbon storage. So many of the changes there could cause even more forest loss, and it’s easy for problems to have a domino effect in such a large and complex ecosystem. At some point, the deforestation could actually be releasing more carbon back into the atmosphere than the living forest is sequestering, and if we get to that point … well, that’s trouble.

Lighting the Bat Signal

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Bats. Such a simple word immediately evokes a few distinct images in my brain: running and shrieking humans being swarmed by the flying mammals, a certain playboy billionaire who likes to masquerade as one and some blood-sucking fiends of Transylvania. Unfortunately for our winged friends, false images like these mean that their vital role in nature often goes unrecognized. And, if we’re not careful, we may not realize what we had in bats until they’re gone.

Eastern small-footed bat with white-nose syndrome

Eastern small-footed bat with white-nose syndrome. Credit: Ryan von Linden/NYDEC

You see, bats are some of the best pest controls we have, as they like to feast on the insects that plague our agricultural fields, our forests and our homes. According to Bat Conservation International, a brown bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquito-sized insects in a single hour. And bats’ work doesn’t stop there: they’re also the main pollinators of many plant and trees species, including species like saguaro cacti, and help with seed dispersal. Essentially, they help keep ecosystems thriving every day.

And that’s why some news announced earlier this week is alarming: up to 6.7 million bats across 16 states and Canada have died in the last five years due to the deadly white-nose fungus. This fungus that eats through bats’ skin and membrane is indiscriminate: it’s wiping out bats across species lines. Speaking to The Washington Post, Bat Conservation International’s Mylea Bayless warns, “We’re watching a potential extinction event on the order of what we experienced with bison and passenger pigeons. … The difference is we may be seeing the regional extinction of multiple species. … We’re looking at a whole group of animals here, not just one species.” Since bats are long-lived mammals (five to 15 years on average) that only produce one offspring per year, these huge losses in their population will not be easily recovered.

Even though this news is upsetting enough on its own, it could get worse. Remember how I mentioned that bats eat insects? Well, that includes tree-destroying insects like the emerald ash borer. Since 2002, this beetle has destroyed 60 million ash trees from New York to Tennessee and beyond. And while scientists have been working on solutions to this devastating problem, the bats have been doing what they do best: chowing down on insects … like the ash borer. With fewer bats, will more beetles rise? It’s definitely possible.

With the white-nose fungus rapidly decimating bats populations, in May 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a national plan for combating the disease and saving the bats. For our sake, and the sake of our food and forests, let’s hope that this frightening fungus can be stopped and that our warm-blooded friends survive.

Saying Goodbye to the Senator

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

This week, Florida said goodbye to an old friend. A very, very old friend, in fact. The cypress tree — dubbed “The Senator” after Florida State Senator M. O. Overstreet, who donated the property around it to Seminole County in 1927 — was estimated to be around 3,500 years old, making it one of the oldest known trees in the country.

The Senator before the fire. (Credit: the Florida Big Tree Program)

At about 118 feet tall and more than 35 feet around, The Senator fell short of being a national champion tree, but easily claimed the state crown in Florida — no small feat in a state so full of champion trees; it currently boasts 106 of them.

The Senator spent thousands of years quietly watching the land around it warp and change and fill with people. It saw civilizations spring up, wars lost and won, and cities sprout out of the ground. But on Monday, the ancient tree succumbed to an intense fire that burned it from the inside out. Firefighters did their best, but it took 800 feet of hose just to reach the tree, which was nestled deep inside a park. Though arson was suspected at first, authorities could find no evidence to support it and now think the blaze may have started when the tree was struck by lightning earlier in the week.

The massive cypress tree grew in the aptly named Big Tree Park and was a chief attraction in Florida’s Seminole County for the better part of a century. In 1929, President Coolidge designated the remarkable tree a national historic landmark. All this before its astonishing age was even known. In 1946, the American Forestry Association (that was us, at the time!) took a core sample and estimated the tree’s age at 3,500 years old. In 2005, when the park was rededicated, officials found a companion tree: a nearby bald cypress, now named Lady Liberty, estimated to be 2,000 years old. Thankfully, this tree was saved from the fire and has inherited The Senator’s title of the oldest tree in the park.

For many Florida natives, losing The Senator is like losing an old friend. I have to admit that for me, it is difficult to wrap my mind around the fact that something that stood for 3,500 years could simply vanish in the course of a day. Losses like this give us all the more reason to recognize and protect our most remarkable trees; they may seem ageless, but even they won’t be around forever.

Planting Trees With Lemurs

by Amanda Tai

I’ve loved lemurs ever since I saw the movie Madagascar in 2005. Two years later, I did a summer internship in Madagascar, working for a nonprofit organization in a remote village on the southern coast. One of the highlights of my summer was when we visited Berenty Reserve, a small private forest along the Mandrake River, where we actually got to hold lemurs and feed them bananas!

(Credit: Amanda Tai)

Madagascar is a hotspot for lemurs — there are more than 100 species and subspecies of lemurs alone. But the lemurs also have a unique role in Madagascar’s ecosystem: they help trees grow. Kara Moses, a biologist and nature writer, has been studying the furry primates and their link to trees and forests. One species in particular, the black-and-white ruffed lemurs (Varecia variegata), plays a key role in dispersing and germinating large-tree seeds. Fruit from trees is a primary source of food for ruffed lemurs and their digestive juices actually help germinate the seeds. From the lemur droppings, these seeds then grow into trees that have a large carbon-storing capacity. Without these lemurs, Madagascar’s forests could look completely different and have far lower carbon-storing potential.

I knew I liked lemurs for a reason. They’re cute and useful! However, ruffed lemurs are becoming increasingly threatened due to habitat loss and hunting. Much of Madagascar’s agricultural economy has turned to logging and slash-and-burning of forests. This clear-cutting process involves cutting and burning forests to create fields for agriculture. Ninety percent of the island’s forests have already been cleared for logging and agriculture. “The forest then becomes one composed mainly of trees with low carbon-storage potential, and the carbon-storage capacity of the whole forest is affected,” explained Moses. “This may have obvious global implications with respect to climate change, for example.”

When I was in Madagascar, I saw several forests that had been slash-and-burned and replaced with quick-growing trees like eucalyptus. Moses says that if there more alternative agriculture options were readily available, many people would stop implementing slash-and-burn. “[They] are aware of how destructive practices like slash-and-burn agriculture are, but have no alternatives — so alternatives need to be provided.” She says that a two-fronted approach of conservation education and community development is necessary to protect the lemur’s habitat. With this approach, the people of Madagascar can start improving their lives as well as their environment.