Saturday, February 27, 2010

10,000 pythons breeding in Florida, says new USGS report

This post now on Google News!
Nine species of introduced giant snakes could pose risks to U.S. ecosystems, according to a report recently released by the U.S. Geological Survey. The giant species now present in the U.S. are descended from imported pets that have been released outdoors.  Already there are more than 10,000 Burmese pythons reproducing in the wild in south Florida.  Boa constrictors are also known to be reproducing in south Florida. The USGS says there's "strong evidence" that an African python may have a breeding population in Florida too.

Some snakes big enough to eat people
All nine potentially risky species are constrictors - nonpoisonous species that kill their prey by wrapping around them and squeezing until the prey can't breathe.  The USGS report says that "most...would not be large enough to consider a person as suitable prey."  But some of then are large enough to eat people, such as the reticulated python, which can grow longer than 26 feet.  This python is the snake "most associated with unprovoked human fatalities in the wild."  Reticulated pythons have been both sighted and captured in south Florida, but are not yet known to be breeding there.

Mature individuals of other species - Burmese python, northern and southern African pythons - have also been documented killing people in their native range, although unprovoked attacks are rare.

Invasive giant snakes threaten more states than Florida
Several species of giant snakes are considered more "high-risk species" for the U.S.than others because they
(1) tolerate cooler temps and could put larger areas of the U.S. mainland at risk - not just Florida
(2) are a major threat to native mammals and birds
(3) are common in the pet trade, hence likely to be released within the U.S.

Among these "high risk" species are the boa constrictors and yellow anacondas, which could breed north of Florida in areas with mild winters.  

Above, a boa constrictor in Manuel Antonio Parque Nacional in Costa Rica.  Photo by Sally Kneidel, PhD

Above, our friend Jose Luis holding up an immature boa on his farm near Limon, Costa Rica.  
Photo by Sally Kneidel, PhD

Nicole the resident biologist, Ken Kneidel and Sadie Kneidel examine an immature boa at Palo Verde Biological Station of OTS, in Costa Rica.  Photo by Sally Kneidel, PhD

Several species of anacondas have also been sighted or captured in south Florida. Anacondas can grow longer than 25 or 26 feet too, and I believe have been known to kill humans, although the USGS report didn't say that.  I've read that the record length on an anaconda is 28 feet.

Deep in the jungle, we found a beheaded anaconda 
Below are two anaconda pictures my son Alan took on a foray into the Amazon rainforest in 2008. We were slopping and tripping through a difficult swamp in an effort to spot hoatzins (birds) when we passed a family of indigenous Peruvians heading back toward the river, returning from a hunting/foraging trip. All of them, including grandma, were slogging barefoot through the most treacherous swamp I've ever experienced, having submerged 3" long thorns. (I stepped on two of those thorns; they went right through my rubber boots.) But the Peruvian family seemed unperturbed. The whole family had homemade packs on their backs, and one pack carried a chopped up anaconda they intended to eat. The head, as you see, they had left behind.

The head of an Amazonian anaconda, severed by an indigenous family hunting for food. Photos by Alan Kneidel.

Introduced snakes can devastate native wildlife
The USGS scientists who wrote the new report said that U.S. birds, mammals, and reptiles in areas of potential invasion have never been exposed to huge snakes before, snakes longer than 20 feet and weighing more than 200 pounds.  Said Dr. Gordon Rodda, a USGS scientist, "Compounding the risk to native species and ecosystems is that these snakes mature early, produce large numbers of offspring, travel long distances, and have broad diets that allow them to eat most native birds and mammals."  He also said that most of these snakes can live in a variety of habitats, including urban or suburban areas. Boa constrictors and northern African pythons are already thriving in metropolitan Miami.

"We have a cautionary tale with the American island of Guam and the brown treesnake," said Robert Reed, an invasive-species scientist with the USGS, and coauthor of the report.  "Within 40 years of its arrival, this invasive snake has decimated the island's native wildlife -10 of Guam's 12 native forest birds, one of its two bat species, and about half of its native lizards are gone."  Reed goes on to say that "these giant snakes threaten to destabilize some of our most precious ecosystems and parks, primarily through predation on vulnerable native species."

What can you do?
Don't keep snakes as pets, and if you must do so, don't get snakes that grow into large constrictors. If you have one, or know someone who does, there are alternatives to letting them go outdoors after they grow too large to keep at home. Google "reptile sanctuary" to find a facility near you that accepts unwanted pets. If googling doesn't help, call a nature center or zoo near you for referral to a nearby sanctuary for unwanted pets. Releasing non-native pets outdoors is never a good idea.

More snake pics by Sally, below

A coiled and wary Bushmaster, among the most venomous vipers in Latin America. Photo taken along a trail at La Selva Biological Station by Sally Kneidel, PhD

A coral snake at Arenal Volcano Parque Nacional in Costa Rica, photo by Sally Kneidel, PhD.

Catherine Pucket (USGS) et al.  10/13/2010."Report documents the risks of giant invasive snakes in the U.S."  USGS Release. USGS: science for a changing world.

Paul Rauber. Jan/Feb 2010. "Woe is us: ready, set, panic. Snakes on plains." Sierra magazine.

Some of my previous posts on the pet trade, invasive species, and snakes:

Keywords: invasive species snakes threats to wildlife wildlife trade endangered ecosystems python anaconda, boa constrictor python predation by housecats predation on birds

Friday, February 19, 2010

U.S. imports 20,000 primates per year

Photo of vervet monkey in Africa by Sally Kneidel, PhD

This post now on Google News and on BasilandSpice
Text and photo by Sally Kneidel, PhD

U.S. is world's leading importer of primates
I learned while researching our book Going Green that the United States is the biggest importer of primates worldwide. According to an American University document, the U.S. imports more than 20,000 primates per year!  The U.S. imports four times more primates than any other single country, and many of those primates are wild-caught.

I was shocked and puzzled to hear it. And not very happy.

The primate trade threatens populations of wild primates
This information is disturbing because more than 130 of the world’s primate species are endangered. Although the leading threats to primate populations are destruction of tropical forests and poor protection of nature reserves, the primate trade and black-market trade are major contributors to the worldwide decline of wild primates and other wildlife.. In tropical countries, wild primates are captured and sold for food, for pets, and increasingly, for use in our research labs.

Here's the real puzzler: I also learned that the U.S. is third in the world in the export of primates - those that are bred here in captivity. Why would the U.S. import wild-caught primates, and then export the ones that are bred here in cages?

Turns out the answer is pretty easy. Wild-caught primates cost only a third as much as cage-bred animals. Big savings for a research outfit on a tight budget.

Paul McCartney was right...
So what happens to the 20,000 primates that are imported here each year for medical and pharmaceutical research? When I contemplate that question, I think about Paul McCartney's saying "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we'd all be vegetarians." Likewise, if research facilities that use animals as subjects had glass walls, we'd all pay attention to those little labels on personal-care products that say "Not tested on animals." And we'd put pressure on medical schools and pharmaceutical companies to use more computer modeling, films, and plastic models for training and testing purposes.

Animals as commodities
Animals in research labs do not, in general, lead happy lives. Many suffer lives of torment and profound discomfort, boredom, or pain, equivalent to the lives of animals raised on factory farms. Research animals and animals on factory farms are regarded as commodities to generate profit for their owners, who are motivated to shave pennies off animal care by skimping on rations, on housing, on cleanliness, space, and medical attention. If you doubt it, check out the footage of Covance, one of the biggest companies to do this work under contract to medical and pharmaceutical companies. Yet...the public knows little about it. How can we care if we don't know?

Two companies make a small step in the right direction
That's why I was mildly excited to learn about a sort-of new approach announced by two North Carolina animal research facilities. North Carolina is the third largest biotech hub in the United States, with more than two dozen animal labs that keep primates, dogs, pigs, mice, and other animals for lab research.  For decades, the location and specific activities of these labs have been guarded secrets, to protect against public outrage, and sabotage by animals-rights groups. But two of those companies, Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences (in Research Triangle Park) and Synecor Labs in Durham, have recently announced a collaboration with the UNC Pharmacy School to form the N.C. Biomedical Innovation Network. (Synecor provides dogs, cats, and pigs to test medical stents and other surgical devices.)  This new collaboration requires the involved organizations to follow "good laboratory practices" that include "proper animal husbandry" says Naina Bhasin, a biologist who heads business and tech development at Hamner. "You want to reduce stress to make sure that the animals are happy and healthy," Bhasin said. Colleen Stack N'diaye, medical director for Synecor Labs, agreed, adding that crowded and dirty conditions skew lab results.

We need transparency
Animal activists are skeptical.  The fact that the two companies announce that they intend to strive for less-stressful conditions says volumes about what's going on right now. Still, their statement is an indication that these companies are feeling the heat from animal-rights activists. Change often starts small. Let's hope the rate of change accelerates rapidly. Because right now, too many animals are suffering for our medical, pharmaceutical, and personal care products, and for the animal products for sale in your local supermarket.  It's not necessary, and as Paul McCartney said, transparency could put an end to the abuse very quickly. 

Sabine Vollmer. "New team lifts veil on animal testing: 2 Research Triangle labs, UNC Chapel Hill school will employ stricter treatment standards than is the norm" The Charlotte Observer.  February 15, 2010.

Some of my previous posts about animal testing, the black market in animals, and factory farming:
U.S. labs import thousands of wild primates for research.

The wildlife trade, forestry, and the value of activism

Monkeys and parrots pouring from the jungle

Obama to fight consolidation of farms: good news for small farms and consumers.

Vervet monkey in Africa, photo by Sally Kneidel, PhD

Key words:  animal research primate research Covance imported primates medical research pharmaceutical research Hamner Institute Synecor Laboratories North Carolina Biomedical Innovation Network factory farming Paul McCartney if slaughterhouses had glass walls

Friday, February 12, 2010

Recovery of endangered fox a model for conservationists

Text and photos by Sally Kneidel, PhD, of

A red fox on San Juan Island. Photo by Sally Kneidel, PhD

Red foxes are common on lots of islands on the west coast of the U.S., many of them introduced. But Santa Cruz Island, near Santa Barbara, CA, has its own native fox species. The "Santa Cruz Island fox" looks very much like a red fox, but is a distinct species. It was added to the endangered species list in 2004, after a decline from 1500 to fewer than 100 individuals.  

DDT to blame
Their decline was due to a series of events that started with DDT.  Ocean dumping of DDT wiped out the island's fish-eating bald eagles.  When that happened, golden eagles moved in from the mainland to take advantage of the vacated space and dine on the island's feral pigs.  But the golden eagles ate not only the pigs but the foxes too. The golden eagles hunted the foxes almost to extinction.

Luckily for the foxes, the island is jointly owned by the Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service.  So when the foxes were declared endangered, 10 pairs were captured and bred in captivity.  Meanwhile, the Park Service and Nature Conservancy together relocated the golden eagles and brought in bald eagle chicks.  The feral pigs and sheep, which had overgrazed the island, were removed.

Fox dilemma fixed
Today, the island and foxes are making a speedy recovery.

Says Lotus Vermeer, the Nature Conservancy's project director for Santa Cruz island, "This is the fastest recovery of a listed endangered species in U.S. history that we know of."

Endemic succulents and other native plants are regrowing.  Oak seedlings abound, now that feral pigs no longer eat the acorns. The island has seven pairs of breeding bald eagles. And the foxes are rebounding.  Says Vermeer, "Five years ago, I never saw a fox on the island; a sighting was a rare event. Now you see foxes all the time - you can't help it."

New model for other endangered-species recovery plans
Vermeer says that the partnership between the Nature Conservancy and the Park Service is a new model for endangered-species recovery.  She expects the fox to be removed from the endangered species list in 5 to 10 years. 
 Red fox scratching, on San Juan Island. Photo by Sally Kneidel, PhD

There are plenty of other candidates who could use a successful model of species recovery, such as black-footed ferrets, gray wolves, grizzly bears, prairie dogs, red wolves, Florida panthers, mountain lions, lynxes, badgers - to name a few.  No doubt, the fact that the Park Service and Nature Conservancy jointly own  the island was a major factor in their ability to manipulate animal populations - removing invaders and reintroducing native species. As owners, they also had no complaints from private property owners or commercial outfits to contend with.  I don't know how much money was spent on this project, but with the Park Service involved, it could have been plenty.

Still, a good model is a good model. It provides hope that other ecosystems can be restored to their original state. Nothing like a good success story to thwart objectors.  And where commercial interests are involved, there will always be objectors.

Curtis Runyan. "Outfoxed: Island restoration brings record recovery." Nature Conservancy Magazine. Summer 2009.

Some of my previous posts about wildlife on the west coast of North America:
Best place in the world to spot Orcas from shore

Puffins and whales endangered by fishing industry: online guides to choosing healthiest fish

In search of Northwest birds

We saw one humpback whale: the good and bad on whale-watching

I fell off a cliff while seeking whales, seals, and other marine mammals

Some of my previous posts about wolves:
Gray wolves booted from endangered species list

On Friday, Wyoming condemns wolves to slaughter

Wolves in danger from the U.S. government, once again

Keywords: Santa Cruz Island fox red fox west coast wildlife endangered species recovery plan Nature Conservancy wolves whales

Friday, February 05, 2010

Why do girls fear snakes and spiders more? Does it start in infancy?

Text by Sally Kneidel, PhD, of
Photos by Alan Kneidel
See Alan's blog at 

 Photo of gopher snake by Alan Kneidel

I love snakes. Every time I take a walk around the neighborhood, I stop and examine every squashed snake carcass I see on the road, of which there are many. I lament the loss of every one of them.

My parents, on the other hand, killed every snake they saw when I was a kid, and called all of them "copperheads."  They were protecting us young'uns, or so they thought. I didn't realize how many people kill all snakes until I spent three years teaching elementary science.  I used to bring a lot of snakes in to show my students. Every single time I did this, a dozen hands would shoot up begging to make a comment.  And almost every single comment was "My daddy killed a snake last week with a shovel" or "My granddaddy chopped a snake in half in the garden."  No one ever said that a snake their family saw was a welcomed or even a tolerated sight. And all of the snakes were allegedly "copperheads." After awhile, I began my snake lessons by banning stories about family members killing snakes; I couldn't take it anymore.  It's a miracle that the U.S. has any remaining snakes at all. 

Why are we so afraid of snakes? As a person partial to snakes, I have little patience with it.

Are girls genetically primed to fear snakes?
I read recently an intriguing study about fear of snakes, published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior. That study is the subject of this post.  Researcher David Rakison of Carnegie Mellon University looked at differences in the way 11-month-old humans react to pictures of snakes and spiders.  Specifically, he looked at differences between male and female children. His findings surprised me.  

Rakison showed pairs of images to the youngsters in his study.  First he paired either a happy or a fearful cartoon face with a snake, a spider, a flower, or a mushroom.  After that, Rakison timed how long each baby looked at new pairings of images that were different from the orignial pairings they had viewed. He wanted to see if the new pairings would seem odd to them and would cause them to look longer, out of puzzlement or curiousity.

Here's what Rakison found
Apparently the girls more readily associated the snake or spider with a fearful face. When the girls were subsequently shown a happy face with the snake or spider, they looked at it a long time (as if trying to make sense of something surprising).  With the little boys, no pairings of images were more interesting than any others. The boys did not find the snake or spider paired with a happy face surprising or interesting.

Photo of tarantula in Amazon rainforest by Alan Kneidel

Rakison said that this finding (if confirmed by other studies) indicates that human females have evolved an aversion to snakes and spiders. That trait evolved because women in our evolutionary history were in charge of protecting their children from the bites of snakes or spiders. Another study in Sweden found that snake and spider phobias are four times more common in women than in men.

Photo of black-tailed rattlesnake by Alan Kneidel

Not so fast...
says Vanessa LoBue of the University of Virginia. She disagrees with Rakison's findings. If girls gaze longer at the pairing of a snake with a smiling face, it's because 11-month-old girls are better at recognizing facial expressions than male babies, and therefore understand the pairings better. This understanding would account for their surprise and longer gazes.

LoBue offers evidence from her own studies that 5-year-old girls recognize threatening and nonthreatening expressions faster than boys. Do 11-month-old girls have that capacity too? We need to find out! What do you think?

Maybe women are squeamish because of gender stereotypes
I personally don't believe that girls are "primed" genetically to be more fearful of snakes and spiders. I think it's cultural, that little girls learn to act squeamish and fearful by watching older females. I believe women often behave as though they're fearful and vulnerable because that's the sexy female prototype that's been promoted by our Western culture since who knows when. Powerful fearless women are, in popular culture, not widely admired. That's changing slowly. But women are still encouraged (often very subtly) to appear helpless and afraid like Olive-Oyl, while Popeye eats his spinach and beats the tar out of Brutus. I agree with LoBue. Rakison's results can be explained by female children's acuity in reading human facial expressions.

Or maybe girls already been affected by cultural expectations for their gender, at the age of 11-months!

I would love to hear reader comments.

 Photo of a hunting spider in Bolivia by Alan Kneidel

David Rakison. "Does women's greater fear of snakes and spiders originate in infancy?" Evolution and Human Behavior. Volume 30. November, 2009.

Bruce Bower. "Girls but not boys may be primed for arachnophobia, ophidiophobia: Fear of crawly, slithery things could begin before first birthday. Science News, September 26, 2009.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Antidepressants may not work for the mildly or moderately depressed

 Text and photo by Sally Kneidel, PhD, of

According to the CDC, about one in five Americans are affected by depression and/or anxiety. That seems about right to me, or maybe even a low estimate. Perhaps women talk about it more, but it seems to me at least half my close friends struggle with anxiety or depression at some point. Could be because it's February right now. You know, seasonal affective disorder (SAD).  SAD is depression brought on by the diminished daylight hours of winter. Check out the symptoms and solutions for season affective disorder on WebMD. It's more common than I used to think.

But anyway, I didn't start this post to discuss depression.

What caught my attention, and what I want to tell you about, is a recent report about antidepressants. This  report was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.. The authors of the study concluded that antidepressants don't seem to work well for people with mild or moderate symptoms of depression.

A depression-rating questionnaire
To back up for a moment, it turns out that pharmaceutical companies test their new medications only on subjects who are severely or very severely depressed, because the tests are then more likely to show that the medicines are effective.  In order to qualify for a clinical trial of a new antidepressant, a subject must score over 19 on a standardized test (the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale ) that rates the degree of depression. A score of 20 or more qualifies you as severely or very severely depressed.  I understand the pharmaceutical companies' perspective - they want their drugs to be approved by the FDA, so they pick the subjects most likely to improve on the med being tested.

But is it ethical, to then claim that the medicine is effective for people with any degree of depression?

Perhaps not. Says Gregory Simon, a mental health researcher in Seattle, "About half the people treated by doctors fall into the moderate or even mild range."

Do antidepressants work better than placebos?
In the JAMA study referenced below, Fournier and DeRubeis and their colleagues compared depressed people taking an antidepressant with depressed people taking a placebo. They grouped their subjects according to their score on the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale. For subjects who scored less than 25 on the test, the antidepressants had so significant effect or only "a small effect" over the placebo.  For subjects scoring higher than 25 on the test, the antidepressants did have "a clearly significant effect."

The authors of  the JAMA article concluded that "the magnitude of benefit of antidepressant medication may be minimal or nonexistent, on average, in patients with mild or moderate symptoms."

So what does it mean? Should mildly or moderately depressed people be prescribed antidepressants? Is there any chance of their being significantly helped by the medications?

Dr. Philip Wang, deputy director of the National Institute of Mental Health, says that consumers with mild symptoms shouldn't necessarily be scared off drugs.

"They don't not work for everyone, and they don't work for everyone," Wang says. "I think buried within the group are people who do respond if they have mild or moderate depression." He recommends that doctors monitor patients who don't respond to meds, and offer then alternative treatments instead.

Wang sounds a bit evasive.

$9.5 billion in 2008 sales of antidepressants
One option for doubtful patients is to take the test (link below), print this post, and show it to your doctor. Why take meds if they're not helping? Most antidepressants have side effects that can be unpleasant...including sexual dysfunction, headaches, constipation, and stomach upset. Are we being bilked by the pharmaceutical companies?  According to, antidepressants were the third most popular type of drug dispensed in 2008, with $9.5 billion in sales! The strategies of the huge pharmaceutical companies are working, that much is clear. But then again…..when meds do help with depression, they can help a lot.

It’s hard to know for sure. I do know that we need more studies to tell us definitively if antidepressants can help mildly or moderately depressed people, who comprise a huge segment of our population.

"Treatment works: get help for depression and anxiety". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"What is seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?"

Jay C. Fournier, Robert J. DeRubeis et al. "Antidepressant drug effects and depression severity." Journal of the American Medical Association 303:47-53. January 6, 2010.

Alix Spiegel. "Meds may only help those with severe depression." All Things Considered, NPR. January 6, 2010.

Hamilton Depression Rating Scale

Rebecca Ruiz. "America's most medicated states." 8/17/09

Keywords:: depression, health, medication, antidepressants, antidepressants work only for severe depression, depression questionnaire, depression rating scale