Thursday, July 26, 2007

Article: The cutest rodent in the world

Close-up of a baby capybara named Caplin

I’m writing this article with a capybara sleeping on my lap. Capybaras are the world’s largest rodents with adults reaching 150 pounds. Caplin weighs about four pounds but she’s only fifteen days old. She has already doubled in weight since she was born.

Caplin is my new pet but she’s not the only pet rodent to have inhabited this house. When my daughter was a teenager she had a pet rat named Rainbow. Properly treated and maintained, rats make excellent pets. They’re smart, clean and personable. They can identify people and can learn tricks.

Capybaras don’t look like rats, they look like another rodent commonly kept as pets, guinea pigs. Capybaras have big, square heads, short bodies and no tails. Also like guinea pigs, capybaras are native to South America. They range from Panama down the eastern side of the continent. Unlike guinea pigs, capybaras are semi-aquatic. They have partially webbed toes to allow them to move easily on moist or muddy ground.

My kids and I went to the Los Llanos region of Venezuela earlier this year. We saw hundreds of wild capybaras sitting on the roads, wading in the swamps or swimming in the multitude of lakes. The setting looked idyllic but life in the wild is hard for capybaras. They share the swamps with caiman, crocodiles and anacondas all of whom enjoy a delicious meal of capybara. Those are some fearsome predators. And that’s not counting the occasional jaguar.

Of course, the wild capybaras main threat comes from humans. In addition to the standard issues of habitat destruction, capybaras are also hunted. This hunting is exacerbated by the fact that capybara are considered legitimate to eat by Catholics during the forty days of lent, the only mammal to have that honor. During our stay in Los Llanos, our guide told us that capybaras in that area are only eaten during lent and hunting is prohibited the rest of the year, but this is probably not true throughout their range.

Capybara gestation takes between five and six months which seems like a long time for a rodent. A typical litter contains five babies who are born with fur and with their eyes open. In the wild, baby capybaras stay with their mothers for up to eighteen months. Even though they nurse, baby capys eat grass from their first day of life.

Pet capybaras are not easy to come by. We searched the web and could find only one breeder in the United States, fortunately located not too far away in south-western Arkansas. When we contacted her we found she didn’t have any babies for sale and that her sales were booked for many litters in advance. Luckily she pointed us to one of her previous customers who had just had a litter. His location in Nacogdoches was fortunately even closer. By the time we got there less than a week later, only one of the original five babies remained.

We’ve had Caplin five days and can already see she will make a great pet. She loves being scratched or having her ears rubbed. She litter box trained herself. She’s still a bit skittish when she thinks someone is going to catch her but otherwise she will climb all over you, chew on your hair and take food or a bottle from your hand. When she’s happy she makes quiet chirping or purring sounds, more high-pitched than a cat’s.

The large size of a mature capybara probably means Caplin will have to move out to the backyard when she gets bigger. I’m hoping she’ll help with the mowing and maybe even cut back on the plants growing in my pond. Cute, friendly and useful, capybaras make the perfect pet--I hope.

Here’s a link to a YouTube video of Caplin getting her chin scratched.

Photo: Caplin sitting under a chair.

Photo: Caplin on the couch.
Photo: Coral holding a wild baby capybara in Venezuela. At night you can pick them up when they're sleeping on the road.
Photo: A capybara family swiming in Los Llanos.
Photo: When two capybaras meet, their birds swap places.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Article: A home for termites

Reproductive flight of subterranean termites

A couple of weeks ago I was outside standing in a light drizzle waiting for the vet to come look at one of my horses. Due to the overabundance of rain this year, insect populations have thrived. This fact asserted itself on me most obviously through the tiny gnats that persisted in landing on and walking across every inch of my exposed skin. More annoying than even the gnats, the constant buzz of mosquitoes and their too-frequent bites kept me busy swatting the air.

The vet took forever to arrive. I had nothing to do but stare down the drive looking for her. As I did, I noticed that there were a lot of flying insects mixed in with the raindrops. Small and colorless, I assumed they were moths and paid little attention to them. It wasn’t until my daughter Coral pointed out that they were coming out of a hole in the ground that I took an interest. I went to see what was going on.

Rising from a hole amid the caliche of the driveway, emerged a constant stream of winged insects. Each new arrival took to the air as soon as it was clear of the hole. Around them bustled smaller, whitish, wingless insects. I bent down to get a closer look. I hadn’t recognized the winged alates but I immediately knew the others to be some of the most destructive insects in the world: subterranean termites. As I watched hundreds of them were taking their nuptial flights, seeking to start their own colonies.

Termites are fascinating creatures. They are the only fully social insects that are not in the hymenoptera, the order containing wasps, bees and ants. Termites belong to their own order, the isoptera. They are most closely related to cockroaches. In fact, some roaches eat wood in the same way termites do. Uniquely, termites and the aforementioned roaches, have intestinal symbiotes to digest cellulose.

Like all insects, termites have to shed their exoskeleton in order to molt. The exoskeleton actually includes the lining of the gut and so when termites shed, they lose all of their intestinal contents, including the flagellates without which they cannot live. For this reason every termite larva and every adult after molting must be re-inoculated with the correct intestinal flora. Termites do this by anal feeding. It is thought that this dependence may have the impetus that drove termites down the path to social behavior.

As I watched the seemingly endless stream of reproductives helped out of their nest by soldiers and workers, I was reminded that most termites are completely blind, only the queens and kings even have eyes. In their mounds, termites live in constant darkness and they never forage in the open. This behavior allows termite infestations in houses to persist for long periods before they are noticed.

Looking around I could see that plenty of potential for new colonies to start on or around our house. In fact, the colony that I was observing apparently lay under the driveway, the one place on our property where the availability of cellulose seems limited.

On the other hand, we also have hundreds of trees, especially along the banks of Garlic Creek which passes just in front of the house. These trees are constantly shedding small branches and leaves and the creek imports significant driftwood from upstream when it rains. Nature has a way of taking care of that stuff so that I don’t have to and that is termites. In addition, termites are a valuable food source to many birds including a family of woodpeckers that I’ve enjoyed observing this summer.

Like everything, termites have good and bad aspects when viewed from a human perspective. I guess I’m going to have to have the house inspected because the termites cannot be allowed to feed on it. On the other hand, termites are part of the natural environment and watching their nuptial flight was a unique experience and a glimpse into their nearly invisible lives. As long as they know their place, I think we can get along.

For more information:
The Insect Societies by E.O. Wilson, Harvard University Press
Dr. Don’s Termite Pages:

Photo: Note that the workers are eyeless while the winged form has prominent eyes
Photo: Termite workers and soldiers aid a alate emerging from the ground
Photo: Ladderback woodpeckers looking for wood-eating insects including termites

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Article: Lady Bird Johnson is my hero

Lady Bird Johnson advocated planting wildflowers
along roadsides like this one in Hays County, TX

I just learned that Lady Bird Johnson died today. In a way unlike any other First Lady, Ms. Johnson made a big impact on my life. It still amazes me how much she did for this country and how much we all owe her.

I can’t remember the first time I heard the slogan, “Keep America Beautiful.” When I was young it became part of the mantra of our nation. In some vague way I knew Lady Bird was responsible for that saying but as I grew up it didn’t seem important. Or perhaps more accurately, it didn’t seem innovative or insightful, it just seemed obvious.

One day when my son was a baby, I sat on the porch talking to my mother-in-law and her sister. As they played with Philip they reminisced about when their own children were young. One thing they said that stuck with me all these years is that driving across the southern US they had used some of the first disposable diapers. And when one got dirty, they simply tossed it out the window.

Neva and Goldie weren’t bad people. As they explained, it did not occur to them not to throw the diapers out. They didn’t know how long those diapers would lie there. They didn’t think about what it would look like if everyone did what they were doing. And then Lady Bird came on the scene and began her beautification projects. It was the first time anyone had spoken to them about littering. And she changed their habits.

Lady Bird also fought the plague of billboards taking over American highways in the 1960s. I can remember when billboards lined nearly every road. If limiting those signs was all Lady Bird did, I would still be greatly in her debt. Removing the billboards has made traveling much more pleasant. Imagine what our highways would look like now without her work. Driving through the Hill Country would not provide rugged vistas dotted with wildflowers, it wouldn’t provide vistas at all, just advertisements.

Speaking of wildflowers, Lady Bird Johnson initiated the movement to line roadsides with wildflowers. All those people taking Easter photos of their kids in the bluebonnets have Lady Bird to thank for their photo-ops.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson spoke on highway beautification, one of Lady Bird’s signature issues, saying “a new and substantial effort must be made to landscape highways to provide places of relaxation and recreation wherever our roads run.” He was speaking about flowers and billboards but I think the sentiment should be revisited today.

Continuing Lady Bird’s efforts means striving to include beauty and recreation in all highway improvements. The road bond bill that recently failed to pass in Hays County is a good example of what we shouldn’t do. Roads are not just about cars getting from one place to another, aesthetics and recreation must be considered too. Instead of a five lane thoroughfare with plain grass verges, maybe we should consider three lanes, native trees and hike and bike paths. Travel, beauty, relaxation and recreation.

Lady Bird Johnson provided an example for all Americans. She was a great woman who had tremendous influence on the way this country is experienced by all of us who share in her legacy. Let’s learn from her example and keep her spirit alive not just in our words but in our actions.

For more information on Lady Bird Johnson go to:

Photo: Wildflowers seem like the appropriate way to honor Lady Bird. These are Mexican Blanket flowers. Photo: A mix of wildflowers at Chapparral Wildlife Management Area