Photosynthesis

PHOTOSYNTHESIS
Michael Ellis

Ok, so here’s the bottom biological line currently running on the planet Earth. There are these miracle molecules called chlorophyll, which are present in all green plants. They trap photons, particles of energy streaming from the sun and use this light energy to convert water and Carbon dioxide into a C6H12O6, which we all know as glucose – a kind of sugar. Given off from this chemical reaction is some water and Oxygen, which is released into the atmosphere.

The first living things to photosynthesize 3 1/2 billion years ago were blue green algae. The ancient atmosphere of the earth did not have an Ozone layer. This protective shield as you know keeps the extremely damaging ultraviolet light from penetrating down to the surface. UV radiation causes mutations in DNA replication and is very harmful to all living organisms. When these first green plants began emitting oxygen as a by-product, the O2 changed into O3 or Ozone. By actually modifying the atmosphere, the plants changed the Earth into a more hospitable place for life.

Now animals survive by basically eating green plants or eating other animals that eat green plants. Now the chemical reaction of photosynthesis basically runs backwards. Animals take the glucose from plants, in the presence of oxygen and water, they free that trapped solar energy and use that energy to live, thrive and build more animal tissue. This is called respiration and the by-product of this, as we all know when we exhale and pee, is carbon dioxide and water.

So to recapitulate- sunlight plus green plants in the presence of carbon dioxide and water makes sugar and gives off more water and oxygen. Animals eat plants, breathe in oxygen and use this chemical to get energy out of the sugar and then emit carbon dioxide and water. Presto there you have it – the simple but elegant miracle of life on our planet.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Peregrine Falcons

Peregrine Falcons
Michael Ellis

In my top ten list of favorite birds is the peregrine falcon. Pere (far), agra (field) – the name literally means far afield. Pilgrims make peregrinations. And what a perfect name for this widely distributed bird – found on every single continent but Antarctica! Their biological claim to fame is that they are the fastest living thing on the planet – peregrines have been clocked at over 210 miles per hour! One of the reasons they are so very successful is that they are the premier bird eaters. Wherever there are birds, peregrines can be found. In urban areas they endear themselves to city dwellers by thriving on pigeons and nesting on human made structures – skyscrapers or bridges. We had a pair nesting on the Bay Bridge for years.

One of my first close encounters with this falcon was years ago in the Sea of Cortez. We were in a small skiff exploring the shore of a remote island. There was a shorebird called a yellowlegs that was behaving rather strangely. It was skulking under a rock overhang, reluctant to fly out. I told the skiff operator to get in closer; some folks wanted a photo. Well we got too close and the yellowlegs flew out and was immediately nailed by a peregrine. There was an explosion of feathers, right over our heads. I felt awful; guilty that I caused this, but exhilarated that I had witnessed it. So that’s why the shorebird was acting so weird, now I know.

These falcons were greatly affected by the presence of DDT and were one of the first animals to be listed as an endangered species. The Peregrine Fund and several government agencies worked together to raise falcons in captivity. A total of 4000 were reintroduced into North America. It has been an astounding success, another victory for the Endangered Species Act. We probably have as many peregrines now as the habitat can support.

My most recent encounter with this falcon was in the Pt. Reyes. I was walking at the head of my group when we suddenly heard a loud whoosh.. I immediately looked up and right above us streaking straight up like a rocket into the sky was a peregrine. It had chased a bird right over our heads. We were thrilled.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

The Pantanal

THE PANTANAL
Michael Ellis

Two of my favorite places both claim to be the largest inland wetland in the world. I don’t really care who is right. Both the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana and the Pantanal in west central Brazil have incredible concentrations of wildlife and are fantastic places to visit.

I just returned from the Pantanal, which is Portuguese for BIG SWAMP. When I first went there I was reminded of the Everglades. Both are expansive water wonderlands with isolated islands of vegetation and extensive grasslands. But the Pantanal is the same size as the entire state of Florida!

The rains come seasonally in this part of the Tropics – a lot of rain for a short period. The water drains off the east slope of the Andes and from the highlands that border the southern Amazon. Flowing more or less south, the waters gather in a massive basin. The lower end of the basin essentially doesn’t drain well and the water backs up every March. It wet years 70% of the Pantanal can be covered with water sometimes only 2 feet deep. It slowly drains out and by September the grasslands are pretty dry but there are still thousands of meandering rivers, creeks, and oxbow lakes.

There has been a cattle ranching here for over 250 years. The local cowboys are called Pantinerios and their lifestyle is more or less compatible with wildlife. And what wildlife. I have seen – ocelots, giant anteaters, tapirs, Hyacinthine macaws, Capuchin and marmoset monkeys, crab eating foxes, piranhas, toucans, anacondas, caimans, and giant river otters. When nature film companies doing shows on the Amazon actually want film the animals they are taking about, they come on down to the Pantanal where everything is easier to see.

The local cattle ranchers are not the original inhabitants. When they think of food they don’t think of Capybara Stew, they think cow parts. So they don’t hunt the local animals. Secondly the number of cows is limited by flooding, much of the available grass in under water for months. Therefore there has been little overgrazing.

Large wetlands are precious resources and so far this one is safe.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Ownership

Ownership
Michael Ellis

I have the illusion that I own my house and yard in Santa Rosa. After all the title is in my name, I pay the mortgage…..it must be mine. But the boundaries of my so-called property are ignored by many denizens of my neighborhood. Now my neighbors are not intruding on my territory but the squirrels, birds, cats, and possums have a very different idea about who owns what. I do not live in the country; I live in the city but I don’t have to go to the savannahs of Africa to see real animal drama.

In the spring there are major turf wars going on in the avian world. The breeding birds in my yard are California towhees, scrub jays, morning doves, and this year a pair of black phoebes. These different species seem to tolerate each other but woe to a foreigner of the same species who tries to invade the yard. The resident pair mobilizes and attacks the intruder immediately letting him or her know in no uncertain terms this yard is OURS.
 
We have a corner lot so some of the natural boundaries seem to be defined by the road on two sides. However the trees along the back edges (which technically belong to my neighbors) appear to be included in most of our bird’s territory. What??? They are ignoring property lines???
 
The local felines also have their own idea about who is in charge of our yard.  We had a short time without any cats and suddenly our yard was incorporated into a neighborhood cat’s territory. When we did get another cat, the intruder had the audacity to fight with our cat over our yard! I think that is when I first realized that neither I nor my opinion really matter to these animals.
 
In the fall the western gray squirrels mate and I have witnessed some major battles. I was able to track one squirrel with a severe bite out of his back for weeks. Once during a fight a squirrel fell out of the redwood tree. It looked like a barroom brawl over a girl. Which it was. Last October one of our male squirrels got flattened by a car, no doubt affecting the entire social structure of squirreldom.
 
 I feel just like the animals in our yard treat property lines – totally irrelevant.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Ngorongoro Crater

Ngorongoro Crater
Michael Ellis

It has been said often that if you had only one day left to live on the planet earth then spend it in the Ngorongoro Crater. I have visited this remarkable place well over a dozen times and I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. The Ngorongoro Crater is located in northern Tanzania, right on the edge of the Great African Rift valley. It should actually be referred to as a caldera. A crater is caused by an impact of a meteorite or the explosion from a bomb; it comes from the Greek word for mixing bowl. A caldera on the other hand is created by volcanic activity. It derives from the Spanish word for caldron.

Two and a half million years ago there was a volcanic mountain that rivaled Kilimanjaro in size, probably rising to over 20,000’ in elevation. As the magna chambers feeding this volcano became depleted, the overlying mass of the mountain collapsed upon the empty chamber. This resulted in a nearly perfectly round caldera that is eleven miles in diameter, surrounded by a 2000’ circular vertical wall.

There are only three roads that drop down into the crater, which is home for somewhere between 35 and 70 thousand mammals. I hate to use this analogy but it is like a perfect zoo and a microcosm for the surrounding ecosystems. In the same way that we save dessert for the end of the meal, I save the Ngorongoro Crater for last part of our trip. While it is a bit disturbing to see the large number of safari vehicles in the crater, it does create a perfect situation for photography. The animals are habituated to all the people and therefore easy to approach.

When I first visited Tanzania years ago, tourists could camp in the crater. But no more. After the great slaughter of the 1980’s and 90’s Ngorongoro was one of the last refuges for the highly endangered black rhino. No camping means the rangers can keep better tabs on the rhinos at night and keep them safe from poachers. The rhinos now number 17 in the crater and several years ago a few wandered out and started breeding in the nearby Serengeti National Park. This is a great victory for all of us.

I have seen many people cry when they first see and then when they must leave the crater. It really is one of the major natural wonders of our left in our modern world.

This is Michael Ellis with a perspective.