Creatures Great and Small

As many of you are probably aware, the OWCN was activated this past weekend to respond to the Grove Incident Oil Spill in Ventura County.  Thanks to the quick work of early responders, the oil was contained before it could reach the ocean.  However, a stretch of dry gorge was contaminated, and cleanup efforts – including wildlife deterrence and searches by OWCN responders – are now underway.  You can get more information on the spill and response efforts from the Cal Spill Watch page, just click here.

I won’t steal Field Operations’s thunder – Hazing and Recovery have been doing an amazing job and I look forward to hearing more about their efforts in the near future! I’m sure we’ll all be discussing and learning from this early inland response over the coming months as well.

That said, I find it interesting to think about the types of animals that have been collected so far: wood rats, a gopher snake, a raccoon, and a rabbit.  (Unfortunately only one of these animals was collected alive; the collection of deceased animals from a spill zone is important for a number of reasons, including to reduce the attractiveness of the area to scavengers and to help with Natural Resource Damage Assessment).  

None of these species are highly visible or “charismatic”.  But they’re the type of animals we’re likely to encounter often in inland spill response – rodents, other small mammals, small reptiles, and in soggier habitats, amphibians too.  They’re easy to overlook and take for granted, and they’re not flashy like whales and mountain lions and albatrosses, but they each fill an important place in the ecosystem.

And that’s our mission – to provide the best achievable capture and care to oil-affected wildlife, great or small.  To meet that goal, we’ve got to get to know them all.  I know I’ve certainly got a lot to learn – probably enough to fill a lifetime.

But that’s OK with me.  One of my favorite things is how easy it is to be surprised when it comes to animals.  Just by taking a closer look at a species’ natural history, even a species you thought was boring or mundane, you can find fascinating things.

For example, let’s take the lowly woodrat.  Did you know that woodrats are also commonly known as packrats, and are usually not particularly pesky to people – unlike their invasive cousins, the Norway and black rats – except when they set up their nests in inconvenient locations or steal shiny things to line those nests with?  They drum their hind feet when alarmed, Desert Woodrats are scary good at navigating cacti without injuring themselves, and Stephens’s Woodrats eat a great deal of juniper but don’t seem to be affected by the chemical compounds that make the plant indigestible to most other mammals.

rough-canyon-midden-copy-001

It doesn’t end there!  Nests (aka middens) can be used by successive generations of woodrats, each building onto what the last generation left behind.  Fossilized middens provide an invaluable source of information to scientists looking to understand historical biomes and ecosystems.

I’ll admit that I have a soft spots for rodents (that’s what you get when you’re raised by a squirrel rehabilitator) but still!  I find it impossible to investigate a species without finding something interesting along the way.  So I invite you to join me in my quest to get to know all of California’s wildlife.  If you find anything particularly cool, let me know in the comments below, and I’ll see if can dig up some interesting facts to share in some future post.

Take care until next time!

Steph

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