Thursday, March 25, 2010

Invasive 8-inch-long African snail reappears in Florida

Giant invasive snail, Achatina fulica. Photo courtesy of USDA.

I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago about Burmese pythons and other giant constrictors now living wild in Florida. Thousands of them are successfully breeding there. I got a lot of pingbacks from that post, mostly from indignant owners of giant constrictors.

As you probably know, introduced and invasive plants and animals are everywhere in the U.S. In one county park near my home in North Carolina, 35% of the plant species are nonnative - so I'm told by a professional botanist who frequents the park.
Florida is vulnerable
Florida is particularly susceptible to invasion by nonnative species because of its subtropical climate, and because of the number of people and shipments coming in from the Caribbean and Latin America. One invader that has been in the news lately, as a major plant pest and potential public health threat, is the giant African snail Achatina fulica. Its maximum size is 8 inches long and 4.5 inches wide - one of the world's largest land snails. One pair of mated adults can lay 1,200 eggs per year.

A child brought 3 of the snails into the Miami area as pets in 1966 and his grandmother subsequently released them into her garden. By 1973, those three had spawned a population of 18,000 snails. The government spent $1 million over the next decade trying to get rid of them.

They eat citrus crops, can carry human disease
Mark Fagan, a spokesman for Florida Dept of Agriculture and Consumer Services says the main concern is damage to agricultural crops. The snails can eat at least 500 types of plants, including citrus crops. They are known to carry a parasite, rat lungworm, that can cause serious diseases such as meningitis in humans. According to the University of Georgia website, these diseases can be transferred to humans by eating raw, undercooked infected snail meat or contaminated vegetables. Vegetables can become contaminated if the snails move across them.

The snails also eat stucco and plaster for minerals to grow their shells, damaging homes and other buildings.

Snails found in Hialeah, Florida

These giant African snails were thought to be eradicated in Florida, although present on Caribbean islands. But they have recently resurfaced in Florida, says Fagan. Multiple snails were found last month in Hialeah, Florida.

In addition to their large size, the snails can be recognized by having 7 to 9 spirals and a brownish shell that covers half the body. If you see these snails in your area, call your local department of agriculture.


Anthony Colarossi. "Florida targets giant African snails." Orlando Sentinel. Colarossi's article appeared in the Charlotte Observer March 22, 2010.

University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences

Key words: invasive species invasive snails Achatina fulica African snail Florida public health menace agricultural pest

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Great apes losing ground

This post now on Google News on BasilandSpice, a syndicated website

Text and photos (except gibbon photo) by Sally Kneidel

  Myself (Sally Kneidel) with a young orang in grad school at OU, while a student of Roger Fouts'

Southeast Asia a center for illegal wildlife trade
I'm going to Indonesia soon, to write about the current plight of orangutans who are losing their habitat. And to learn more about the illegal trade in wildlife, especially endangered primates.

If you regularly read the website of "Traffic: The Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, you know that southeast Asia is the epicenter of the illegal trade in protected wildlife. The Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok is said to be the single largest market on the planet where wildlife is traded illegally. That's one place I'm going.

New study finds endangered gibbons threatened by pet trade
I do read Traffic regularly and spotted on their website this morning a link to a recent article from the journal  Endangered Species Research, a study of the trade in seven species of gibbons native to Indonesia. All seven of these gibbon species are listed as Endangered by the IUCN, meaning that all are at very high risk of going extinct in the wild. All are protected by Indonesian law and can't legally be kept as pets.

Gibbons, courtesy of
The researchers for the ESR article I mentioned above reported on 600 gibbons found in 22 zoos and 9 wildlife rescue centers and reintroduction centers from 2003 to 2008. About 2/3 of these animals had been confiscated by Indonesian authorities from persons keeping or trading them illegally. About 1/3 were animals donated by pet owners who grew tired of the gibbons as they aged and were no longer cute pets. The article reported that prosecution of offenders is rare, and so the trade in gibbons and other endangered primates such as orangutans remains rampant.
Traffic published an excellent overview of the ESR gibbon article on Dec 7, 2010, on the Traffic website.

Both gibbons and orangutans (also highly endangered) are Great Apes, the animals most closely related to humans. (Other Great Apes include chimpanzees and gorillas.) What animals could be more deserving of our protection, or more interesting?

The illegal pet trade grows more significant as species dwindle
The main threats to most primates are loss of habitat and hunting, but as their numbers decline, the illegal trade in primates is having an increasing impact on the surviving populations. This trade is driven not only by pet owners, but also by demand from biomedical companies and zoos. I recently wrote a post in which I reported that the country importing the most primates is the United States, largely for medical, pharmaceutical, and other research. Many or most of these are wild-caught primates, because wild-caught are much cheaper than those bred and raised in captivity. And most research is paid for by grants, so researchers shop frugally for their experimental subjects.

But the primate pet trade is thriving in the United States too.  If you doubt it, take out a subscription to Animal Finders' Guide, or attend one of the many exotic animal auctions held across the U.S. every year, such as the infamous "Woods and Waters." Animal Finders' Guide advertises these auctions, but the weekly publication is mostly pages of ads selling wildlife, from lions to camels to primates, including chimpanzees. Selling them to anyone who'll pay. Stunned when I read my first copy, I called a man selling a young chimp from his "backyard compound" in Texas. He assured me I needed no papers, offered to drive the chimp halfway to deliver it to me. I don't remember exactly how much he was asking, but I think it was $25,000.

Many of the animals for sale in the United States arrive the same way drugs do: by boat, by private plane, in the trunks of cars. I went to an animal market in Peru that offered baby tamarins, marmosets, night saki monkeys, sloths, baby spider monkeys for sale to anyone who would buy.

A baby spider monkey for sale illegally in a market along the Amazon, photo by Sally Kneidel

An indifferent policeman plays with a baby sloth for sale illegally, photo by Sally Kneidel

The price of these endangered and threatened wildlife in that market by the Amazon?  The equivalent of $2 each. Many were sold as pets; keeping primates as companion animals is still quite popular in the villages of remote Amazonia. Some families had a baby marmoset for every child in the family, as well as turtles and iguanas that they dragged around on rope leashes.

A teenage girl in an Amazonian village with a pet marmoset, photo by Sally Kneidel

Check out my previous post about the Amazonian wildlife market, and my previous post about the popularity of wildlife and primates as pets in Amazonia - both posts with lots of pics.

What can you do?
Support organizations such as the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS), which manages a 1 million acre reserve that is home to 3500 wild orangutans. BOS is committed to rescuing orangutans displaced by the ongoing destruction of their remaining habitat for palm oil plantations.
Support Orangutan Land Trust, an organization affiliated with BOS. I know the people who manage BOS and OLT, and I know they're making a difference.

Support  SOS, the Sumatran Orangutan Society, an organization working to protect the Sumatran Orangutan.

Support TRAFFIC, an organization committed to informing the public about all species threatened by loss of habitat, hunting, and illegal trade. TRAFFIC has been around for a long time, and is associated with WWF.

I don't know much about Kalaweit, but just looking at their website, they appear to be an organization working to protect and rescue gibbons in Indonesia.

Vincent Nijman et al. October 13, 2009. "Saved from trade: donated and confiscated gibbons in zoos and rescue centers in Indonesia." Endangered Species Research (

See also:
Traffic. "Study highlights gibbon trade in Indonesia" Kuala Lampur, Malaysia.  12/7/2009.

David Adam. "Monkeys, butterflies, turtles... how the pet trade's greed is emptying south-east Asia's forests." The Observer Feb 21, 2010.

Some of my previous posts on these topics:
Monkeys and parrots pouring from the jungle..

U.S. imports 20,000 primates per year

From the Amazon to the Andes, Peru knocked me silly

Keywords: gibbons orangutans red apes Orangutan Outreach endangered animals southeast Asia BOS Borneo great apes

Monday, March 08, 2010

We were made to run barefoot, says new study from journal Nature

 Photo and text by Sally Kneidel, PhD

This post now on Google News and on BasilandSpice

New research from Harvard University suggests that running barefoot might be beneficial.  Says Daniel Lieberman of Harvard, "One shouldn't be scared of barefoot or minimal shoe running or think it odd.  From an evolutionary perspective, it's normal and, if done properly, it is very fun and comfortable.  We evolved to run barefoot."

 Bare feet strike the ground differently
 Running barefoot is different from running with shoes on. The invention of the springy running shoe in the 1970s allowed runners to land comfortably on the heel before rolling forward on the foot.  In contrast,     landing on the barefoot heel  is not a good idea. Barefoot, "a rear-foot strike is like someone hitting you on the foot with a hammer with about one and a half to three times your body weight," says Lieberman  Ouch!  But modern cushioned running shoes make landing on the heel not only comfortable, but possible without damage.

Historically, people running barefoot have landed on the front or middle of the foot first, before lowering the heel and transitioning body weight to the back of the foot..  Sprinters still run primarily on their forefeet, but the mechanics of sprinting are different from long distance running.

Researchers studied Kenyan barefoot runners
To study the mechanics of running and sprinting, Lieberman and his colleagues traveled to the Rift Valley of Kenya and taped the movements of endurance runners who grew up running barefoot.  The researchers found that these runners generally hit the ground with the forefoot or middle of the foot before lowering the heel.  Runners in the U.S. typically hit the ground first with the heel.

Barefoot runners take shorter strides, but each stride has less impact
So far, there is not much evidence about which way of running causes more injuries. But it is clear that barefoot runners flex the foot in a way that results in a shorter stride. Reed Ferber, a bio-mechanist at the University of Calgary in Canada, said that a 6-foot 2-inch barefoot man would take 7,200 more steps to finish a marathon, because the length of his stride would be shorter than the stride of a man with shoes. Would that mean more injuries? Maybe.  But not necessarily, because all those extra steps don't have that "impact peak, so that might be injury protective."

Too early to be sure...
The researchers concluded that it's too early to draw conclusions about the advantages or disadvantages of running barefoot. More research is needed to evaluate the effect of the variables, such as one's condition, the amount of calf muscle, ability to run on the forefoot or midfoot, and so on.

So, don't throw out those running shoes yet!

Daniel E. Lieberman. "Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners." Nature 463, 531-535. January 28, 2010

Laura Sanders. "Running barefoot cushions impact of forces on foot:  too soon to say if shoeless approach reduces injuries".  Science News, February 27, 2010.

Key words: running barefoot, shoes, feet, Kenya



Monday, March 01, 2010

Review of the documentary "End of the Line: Where Have All the Fish Gone?"

Review by Sally Kneidel, PhD, of

My husband, an ecologist, keeps a list of people whose profession matches their name, such as peanut specialist Shelly Nutt, ornithologist Christopher Bird, editor Zachary Read. But the best is Dr. Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Canada's Dalhousie University. He's always been our favorite, because we loved the peculiar marine worms we learned about in grad school.

Abundance of marine fish has decreased 90%
So I was thrilled to finally see Dr. Worm, on screen. He is perhaps the "star" of  the new and excellent documentary "End of the Line".  Worm is much more charming than his name might suggest, but the news he delivered was bad. A dogmatic researcher, Worm analyzed Japanese fish-capture records gathered over several decades, looking for trends in numbers of marine fish.  What he found was disturbing, to say the least. Since "large scale fishing" began in 1952,  the abundance of large oceanic fish has decreased globally by 90%!  

Worm said that when he first realized the magnitude of what we've lost, "it sent shivers down my spine."

The angels would weep
What exactly is "large scale fishing"? The documentary does a wonderful job of impressing upon the viewer the magnitude and power of today's modern fishing techniques. "High-tech industrial vessels are hunting down every known edible species of fish," said narrator Ted Danson.  Too many boats with too much capacity are chasing too few fish. For example, the "long-lining industry" sets 1.4 billion hooks annually, on heavy-duty fishing line that could encircle the globe more than 550 times. The mouth of a single large trawling net could accommodate thirteen 747 jetliners. Fishing vessels, and airplanes that track schools of fish illegally, are equipped with so much technological equipment, fish have no chance of escaping.  Bottom trawlers, which drag nets across sea beds and coral reefs, cut down everything in their path including the inedible, such as sea fans, corals, and sponges. The unintentionally caught or "by-catch" include sea birds, hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, sharks, whales, and dolphins.  Seven million tons of by-catch are tossed back into the ocean each year, dead.

Said Dr. Callum Roberts of York University in the U.K., "the signs of destruction brought up on deck would make an angel weep."

The film's strengths are its personal portraits
Most of the stats and data presented in the documentary are probably available from various websites, journals and books.  But the strengths of the DVD are its emotional impact, and the persuasive presentation of the whole story in one sitting. Its emotional impressions are delivered via personal stories of passionate scientists on a quest for the truth and solutions, and indigenous fishermen in handmade boats, now unable to feed their families. Said Adama, a young Senegalese fisherman, "The sea has betrayed us. If my children grow up here today where there is no future, how will they think of me as a father?".

China falsified catch data for 14 years, concealing a global decline
Until 2002, the scientific community was under the impression that, despite all odds, the world catch was increasing each year.  So, although scientists were worried, no one was too alarmed. Turns out, China had been reporting false catch data for years. The world catch is actually decreasing every year and has been since 1988.

Mitsubishi stockpiles a disappearing species - for future profits?
Another of the compelling stories told on the DVD involves the demise of bluefin tuna, as related by Roberto Mielgo, a man dedicated to identifying the perpetrators of an impending extinction. Scientists have recommended that fishing of bluefin be limited to 10,000 tons per year to allow the species to recover from previous overfishing. A ceiling as high as 15,000 might prevent collapse of the population. But for political reasons, governments have sanctioned a catch of 29,000 tons annually. In reality, 61,000 tons were caught in  one recent year - 1/3 of the entire remaining bluefin population. Fishermen and corporations cheat because they can, and they don't get caught. In the documentary, a passionate Mielgo described the role of Mitsubishi in the decline of bluefin tuna.  He believes the company is stockpiling bluefin for the day when the species will be extinct and the price of their highly regarded flesh will skyrocket. The bluefin situation demonstrates what multinational corporations, international fishing policy, and consumer demand can do to a wild species.

"We are crazy!"
Several scientists and fisheries workers expressed pessimism about human nature and the ultimate depletion of the ocean. Said professional diver Haidar El Ali, "Man is not going to change and the sea is going to be dead.  Because man is crazy.  We are crazy!"

Steve Palumbi of Stanford University said that, assuming things remain the same, the ocean will be devoid of edible fish by the year 2048.  Added Charles Clover, the author of the book on which the documentary is based, "When we start really feeling the effects of climate change, when we start running out of food to feed ourselves, at the same time we will have squandered one of the best resources we've ever had on the planet."

What will remain? Jellyfish, plankton, and.....worms.  Lots of marine worms.

Toward the end, the DVD turned to solutions. Farmed fish is not a solution, because more wild fish (such as anchovies) are harvested to feed the farmed stock than are produced for our consumption...a clearly illogical and unsustainable endeavor.  Five kg of anchovies are required to produce 1 kg of farmed salmon.

Future "global marine reserves" comprising 20-30% of the oceans were proposed with some enthusiasm in the DVD - large areas of ocean where commercial fishing would be banned.  Nice idea, but much of today's commercial fishing is carried out in violation of governmental or international regulations.  How would protection of these reserves be enforced?  The DVD said $12-14 billion per year could manage the reserves.  Maybe.

According to the filmmakers and Dr. Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington, Alaska is on the frontline in the battle to conserve the sea.  The number of fishing boats off the coast of Alaska is carefully monitored.  Catch limits are set at sustainable levels or below.  Fishing boats are given only a limited amount of time to fish.  While the catch rate in the North Sea is 50%, Alaska's catch rate is only 10%.

The documentary mentioned several companies that are making an effort to conserve marine fishes.  By 2011, Walmart will sell only fish approved by the Marine Stewardship Council, a board that certifies sustainable fishing.  Ninety percent of the fish served by McDonalds are MSC approved. Two-thirds of Birds Eye fish are from sustainable sources.

Recommendations for consumers
The filmmakers asserted that, among the world's problems, the overharvesting of marine fish is one of the easiest problems to fix. They recommended:
1) Ask before you buy. Eat only sustainably harvested seafood. (For a guide, see 
2) Tell politicians to cut the fishing fleet.
3) Join the campaign for protected marine reserves and responsible fishing.

I wish they had stressed...
The DVD mentioned the value of eating lower on the marine food chain - eating anchovies ourselves instead of feeding them to farmed fish. And it mentioned very briefly changing consumer habits. But the film never addressed, that I recall, the option of not eating fish at all. We don't need to eat fish, or food from any animal sources. Ecologists, MDs, nutrition scientists and many, many popular writers have asserted that humans can reduce our ecological impact and our carbon footprint, and improve our health, by avoiding animal products in our diet altogether. Why does a filmmaker on such a dire subject as complete depletion of the oceans not explore this avenue of future action?

The other topic I would like to have seen explored is the obvious suffering of the fish in many of the scenes in the DVD. Conscious animals were often hauled on board boats by stabbing and yanking them with large hooks, then clubbing them to death or tossing them down chutes to be buried by more live fish.  The camera many times showed rivers of blood on decks of ships. Fish are vertebrates, like ourselves, and have brains not that dissimilar from our own.  They feel pain; they feel fear. They don't look as much like us as other vertebrates, they're not cuddly - but they are sentient. For more details about studies demonstrating the sensibilities of fish, see Peter Singer and Jim Mason's book about animals as food, The Way We Eat.

Awareness is this important film to students
The strength of the DVD, in my opinion, was not its prescription for solutions, but its touching and memorable portrayal of the scientists and activists so desperately trying to educate consumers of the world....our oceans are on track to be empty 38 years from today.  If we're not part of the solution, we're part of the problem.  Awareness is the first step toward change. And this documentary does an excellent job of dramatically increasing awareness. I strongly recommend it to teachers. Show it to your classes. Talk about it and brainstorm solutions. The next generation has a short window of opportunity to take action. Or the jellyfish, plankton, and motly assortment of marine worms my husband and I found so intriguing will be the sole inhabitants of our grandchildren's seas.

Extra material with the DVD:
The DVD comes with a wallet-sized card, "National Sustainable Seafood Guide." The card lists Best Choices, Good Alternatives, and Avoid.  It also mentions these websites as useful:
Some of my earlier posts on fishing, fish farming, greenhouse gases from raising livestock:

End of the Line: new book about how overfishing is changing the world 

Farmed salmon versus wild salmon 

North Carolina's vital coastal breeding grounds vulnerable to rising seas

Lice from fish farms attack wild salmon

Number of imperiled fish doubles in 20 years

Livestock account for 51% of annual greenhouse gases

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

Celebrity Chef imbraces animal welfare and eco-friendly fishing

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

Tuna is the biggest source of mercury from fish: is it safe to eat fish?

Top 10 ways to help wildlife

My book about the hazards of overfishing and of fish farms:

Going Green: A Wise Consumer's Guide to a Shrinking Planet 

Key words: ocean fish long-lines longlines gill nets overfishing overharvesting of ocean declining fish populations depletion of the oceans marine biology trawlers trawling coral reefs End of the Line Boris Worm Charles Clover marine fish oceanography fish farms Marine Stewardship Council