Terrestrial Whales of the Great Lakes

This post is about a carpet sweeper. For information on “Are there Whales in the Great Lakes?” click here.

Humpback whale feeding. Note baleen strainers. Dr. Brandon Southall, NMFS/OPR, from NOAA Photo Library (2010) CC BY SA, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/8Uonkn


Science Friday had an interesting piece on the evolution of whale baleen for filter feeding. Baleen whales use these gigantic “mouth brushes” as sieves to filter out huge quantities of tiny animals (such as krill and plankton) from sea water. In a new study, Carlos Peredo descibes a fossil species of whale that had lost its teeth, but had not grown baleen. Like modern narwhals, this toothless & baleen-less whale probably used suction to eat fish and squid.

Brushes and suction are two strategies that we also use at the nature center for cleaning up crumbs and dirt after programs. Enter “the Blue Whale.”

“The Blue Whale” by PPJ (2018) CC BY SA 2.0

Note: It’s not an actual whale. It is a carpet sweeper (with a picture of a Blue Whale taped to it) that lives in the cleaning closet. A device of rather antique design, it uses a series of bristles and rotating blades to pull particles off of the carpet and into its maw. It does not require electricity, but relies on the muscle-power of the operator. Our site operations director presented the staff with a couple of these contraptions after several vacuuming mishaps resulted in expensive repairs to the vacuum cleaner.

Like a baleen whale filtering krill from water, the brushes and repeated sweeping motions of the operator, gather up tiny particles from the industrial carpet surface. The operator can open up an internal compartment storing the dirt and crumbs, and then can dump the contents into the trash.

Because the resemblance of the sweeper brushes to whale baleen, one of the nature center staff members started playfully referring the carpet sweeper as “The Blue Whale.” (Coincidentally, it is also a lovely shade of navy blue.)

This nickname caught on, and now a critical mass of staff members are how referring to “Blue whaling” the carpet as perfunctory part of daily clean up operation. Understandably, kids and others who hear this name are somewhat confused.

“What do you call it a “Blue Whale?” they ask.

Since we are nature educators, we then launch into a whole long speech about how whales use baleen to filter their food out of the water. Science! Nature!

There is also a fun and unintended side effect of our branding: Kids love using the carpet sweeper. Not only is it extremely satisfying to watch the Blue Whale sweep up goldfish cracker crumbs and dirt clods, it is much more fun to sweep them up yourself. Like Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence, kids find it irresistible and will wait their turn to use the Blue Whale to clean the carpet.

And now for our tangent:

Are there whales in the Great Lakes?

There are currently (as far as I know) no whales in the Great Lakes. You cannot go whale watching on any of the Great Lakes. There are no terrestrial (land-dwelling) whales in land surrounding the Great Lakes (with the exception of the aforementioned population of carpet sweepers.) For various reasons, saltwater-adapted marine mammals don’t seem to do very well for long periods in freshwater. Or on land.

The last time there may have been baleen whales living in the Great Lakes Region (albeit not exactly the Great Lakes) was about 13,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. The Champlain Sea was a temporary inlet of the Atlantic Ocean (saltwater). Fossils of whales have been found here, in what are now terrestrial (land) habitats.


Fatbergs of Chanukkah

Latkes cooling on paper towel (to blot excess oil) by PPJ (2018) CC BY-SA 2.0.

Disclaimer: This is not a post about delicious fried foods.  No, dear reader, this is a post that is kind of gross and you may not want to read while you’re eating.   Consider yourself forewarned.

I have a public service announcement for home cooks out there who might be frying up some latkes or sufganiyot in celebration of the Jewish Festival of Lights.  For the love of all that is holy (and for your local sewer workers), please do not pour quantities of used cooking oil down your kitchen sink drain.

Don’t pour the oil down the drain. Latkes frying on stove by PPJ (2018) CC BY-SA 2.0

Fats, oils and greases (collectively known the waste water world as “FOG”) contribute to the formation of a sewer-clogging menace known as “Fatbergs.”  Fatbergs can accumulate when FOG forms solid masses akin to icebergs that block the flow of wastewater through pipes. Famous fatbergs of recent memory have been documented in the London (UK) sewer system.  A piece of the Whitechapel fatberg is on display at the Museum of London.

But fatbergs happens in a lot of places. In Baltimore MD, a September 2017 fatberg clogged the sewer and caused a million gallons of raw sewage to spill into Jones Falls. Workers in Metro Detroit excavated a fatberg from a sewer in Macomb County in September 2018, at a cost to taxpayers of about $100,000.

Fatbergs are not just gigantic congealed blobs of FOG. The fat undergoes saponification in the presence of calcium ions in the sewer.  In effect, this is same process as mixing fat and an alkaline substance to make soap.  These huge chunks of “soap” clump together with undissolved wet-wipes (and other flushed sanitary products) to form a fatberg. Note: Generally, even if product claims it is “flushable,” it’s better to put it in the trash.

So what can the average home fry-cook do to prevent creating a sewer catastrophe?   If you’re making a lot of fried stuff and the oil is still in pretty good shape, you can strain the oil and reuse it.   Some communities have grease recycling to turn used cooking oil into biodiesel.  (Restaurants usually contract with a specialized grease recycling company to haul off their used frying grease.)  The Recycle Ann Arbor Drop Off Center accepts up to 5 gallons of  used vegetable oil. 

However, most of the time, I just wait for the oil to cool.  Then, I pour it into a lidded jar.  When the jar is full, I dispose of it in the trash.   I also try to wipe out extra-oily kitchen items with a paper towel prior to washing the dishes in the sink.

As for the fatbergs, I’m not sure what fate awaits them once they are scraped out of the sewers.  Except for the piece that ended up in the Museum of London, I would imagine that most end up in landfills.  A research team at University of British Columbia is investigating how to break down fatbergs in a biodigester to make to fuel .

Until then, give some love to your public works department: Don’t pour oil down the drain. Don’t flush “flushable wipes.”   Don’t feed the fatbergs!

Witch Hazel in Winter

A surprise this week in Michigan: Was the tree blooming out of sync? The bright yellow flowers seemed out of place against bare branches and a gray sky.

Witch Hazel blossoms in Ann Arbor, MI by PPJ (2018) CC BY SA 2.0.

Nope, the blooms were right on time. Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), native to the eastern half of North America, blooms in the late fall (October – December.) Though this plant sheds its leaves, it then displays these festive “crepe paper” petals.

This bloom time is puzzling – it’s cold outside.  What self-respecting insect is going to fly around in cold weather to pollinate this seasonally-delinquent blossom? Generally, insects body temperatures (and ability to fly) are dependent on the ambient temperatures.

However, according to the Venerable Trees blog, ecologist Bernd Heinrich observed that owlet moths (Noctuidae) are flying around on cool winter nights and pollinating witch hazel flowers. The moths warm up by shivering their thoracic muscles, and being furry probably also helps retain body heat.

In Michigan, Martin J. Andree observed one of these Noctuid moths, the Bicolored Sallow (Sunira bicolorago) feeding on Witch hazel blossoms one evening in October 2012 while he was raking leaves.

Check out the fur on the Bicolored Sallow moth. Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren (2013) CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Once pollinated, the fruits slowly form over the winter and the next season. When fruits are ripe, then can open explosively, shedding seeds far from the tree.

Opened witch hazel fruit husks. West Bloomfield Woods Nature preserve by PPJ (2016) CC By SA 2.0 via Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/HDYEgu

Is this plant called “Witch Hazel” for it’s season-defying flowering abilities? One source for its name might be that the cone – gall aphid forms structures under the leaves that appear to be tiny witches hats.

Witch Hazel Cone-Galls by John Cooper (2011) CC BY-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons

Another source of the name is the Middle English “wiche”, meaning bendy or pliable. The bendy branches of American Witch-Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) reminded European settles of a plant known in Europe as Witch Hazel/Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra).



Check out Mary Jane Borge’s beautiful Witch hazel photos on her blog, the The Natural Web.

For Lepidoptera who feel a little out of sync, check out Jerome Robbins classic ballet piece, “The Concert – Mistake Waltz”

New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center via https://gph.is/2ryAlDP

A Recipe for Crickets and Salad

Approximation of chopped salad. Cilantro in the Mix by Jamie (2011) CC By 2.0, onFlickr https://flic.kr/p/9Av8Ff

In addition to my regular work at the nature center, I have also started volunteering to take care of animals that live in our Critter House. Thanksgiving morning, while many other American humans were roasting turkeys or making pies, I found myself prepping food for a variety of animals.

First, you have to feed the food. Thinly-sliced carrots and high-calcium feed for our cricket colony in their tank of paper tubes and egg cartons. Chunks of carrot, parsnip and sweet potato for the mealworms and superworms (darkling beetle larvae) in their tubs of wheat bran.

We can’t eat this shiny thing! Mealworms_1 by Josh More (2016) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 , on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/RcmUmM

Then, you have to chop the salad for the reptiles: Green, veggies and fruits from the fridge. Weigh each amount on the food scale, check against the recipe, then pulse in the food processor. Plate the salads on the exo terra dishes (or flat rocks so the turtles can sharpen their beaks). Sprinkle with vitamin powder a la parmesan cheese.

Some skink and wood turtle salads get garnished with the gut-loaded meal worms or superworms (Be sure to remove the superworms heads, those little dudes are feisty!)

Aquatic turtles get floating turtle kibbles. Sprinkle these into the appropriate tanks.

Next, kidnap the crickets. (This usually involves shaking out one of the paper towel tubes where they have taken refuse. Shake into deep plastic cup. Use tongs to feed the specified numbers of crickets to salamanders, toads, frogs and turtles. Dust the remaining crickets with vitamin powder. (This may leave the crickets somewhat disoriented.) Feed dusted crickets to bearded dragons.

Bearded Dragon at Indianpolis Zoo by Cburnett (2007) CC-BY-SA-3.0 , from Wikimedia Commons

Make sure rodents have rodent kibbles. Make sure roaches have sliced sweet potatoes and carrots. Check water levels and humidity levels. There is much misting with treat (dechlorinated) water. (Why are you skittering away? You live in a rainforest, it’s supposed to be wet. )

Bon Appetit!

Huron River Blues: Part II

Harmful Algae Blooms (HAB)

aka “Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”

For Huron River Blues: Part I  PFAS Contamination, click here

Harmful Algae Bloom, Photo Credit: Jeff Reutter (2013) CC BY-NC 2.0. Ohio Sea Grant, on Flickr url=https://flic.kr/p/fL6zbo

It’s not just any old green slime floating on your freshwater lake. Those are Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB) that made an toxic appearance on Ford and Belleville Lakes this past summer. It’s an ancient organism gobbling a breakfast buffet of phosphorus and nitrogen delivered to it in bed. The lake bed, that is.

Warning: Harmful Algae Blooms
Sign at Belleville Lake near French Landing. (2018) by PPJ.

Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB) occur when algae, the tiny single-celled photosynthetic organisms that naturally occur in aquatic habitats, grow in rapid “blooms” when nutrients wash off the land into their watershed. Side effects include a carpet of slime, production of toxins harmful to humans and other animals, and depletion of dissolved oxygen in the water.

Anabaena flos-aquae (light micrograph) (2011) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/9Rg5kY

The “Algae” in HAB is kind of catch-all term for wide variety of organisms that scientists keep re-classifying. While it is helpful to think of these as “tiny plants that live in the water,” these organisms can include cyanobacteria (aka blue-green algae,) phytoplankton and dinoflagellates. There is a lot of overlap here, none of these are actually “plants,” even though some can make their own food using the sun. Some of their cells have nuclei, some don’t.

HABs Near Boat Dock by NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laborator, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/9VdBL6

These algae are naturally around in freshwater bodies of water.   Human use of fertilizers that wash off of agricultural fields and lawns contribute an influx of nitrogen and phosphorus into the water. With lots of available food and warmer temperatures, the algae continue to grow into visible mats of slime.

The HABs (which I like to think of as “algae parties”) can release a variety of cyanotoxins such as microcystin into the water.   These compounds can dangerous to humans and animals drinking or swimming in the water.

When the algal blooms die, they sink to the bottom of the lake.   Other bacteria decomposing the dead algae gobble oxygen from the water, creating “dead zones” with very low dissolved oxygen.

Ford and Belleville Lakes are human-made reservoirs of the Huron River.  There are susceptible to HAB’s because the are 1) relatively shallow and can warm up quickly and 2) are downriver of a lot of lawns (so much tasty phosphorus and nitrogen!) (I should point on that everything that ends up in the Huron River will eventually end up in Lake Erie, which has been experiencing its own series of epic HAB events.)

All those lawn inputs are just going to end up in Lake Erie. Emptiness (2011) CC BY NC 2.0 by Beth , on Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/MdXgo

Over the last few years, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti have enacted ordinances limiting use of phosphorus in fertilizers on lawns. Researchers at University of Michigan also discovered that by manipulating the flow of Huron River water through the dam at Ford Lake could mix more oxygen into the water and reduce the amount of phosphorus released from lake sediment. Less phosphorus release, fewer HABs.

Things had been looking better for Ford and Belleville Lakes in terms of reduced algae bloom slime, until this September. According to the Huron River Watershed Council, warm temperatures and little-to-no rainfall contributed to low water levels in Ford Lake. “The problem this year is that the flow level was too low to keep the dam turbines running AND send enough water through the bottom gates to mix the lake. Ford Lake went anoxic at its deepest levels for a period of time, releasing large amounts of phosphorus from legacy sediment, and this likely led to the HABs in Ford Lake, and then downstream in Belleville Lake.”

With climate change, the Great Lakes region is likely to experience warmer temperatures and more unpredictable precipitation events, leading to an increased potential for HABs.

Huron River Blues: Part I

Huron River Watershed MAP By Tim Kiser (User:Malepheasant) (Own work, data from w:The National Map) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

PFAS Contamination

I love my non-stick frying pan, my waterproof hiking boots and the propensity of manufactured items to actively resist stains. I’m just not sure I want those magic, miraculous chemicals that make these modern feats possible in my drinking water.
PFAS (perfluorinated alkylated substances) are a family of synthetic chemicals that have been used in manufacturing and fire-fighting foams. PFAS contamination has been all over the news in Michigan for last few months.

waterproof fabric droplet
A water droplet DWR-coated surface by Brocken Inaglory [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Some PFAS, such as PFOA and PFOS, are persistent organic pollutants that bio-accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals and humans.
The health effects of long-term PFAS exposure are not well understood. PFAS may affect developing fetuses and young children, and increase risk of cancer, kidney disease, thyroid conditions and auto-immune disorders.

In Michigan, PFAS pollution was detected around Air Force bases where the military used special fire fighting foam, and also around manufacturing sites. It showed up in water near the now-closed Rockland, MI Wolverine Worldwide leather tannery. Turns out that the company was leaking Scotchgard-laced chemical waste in the groundwater and river for years.

Water flows, and carries dissolved chemical contamination with it. While it’s only taken 60 years for someone to start looking, water tests revealed PFAS contamination was a much bigger problem than anyone knew.  Private landowners discovered high PFAS levels in their wells. Due to high levels of PFAS found in tap water, the city of Parchment had to shut down its municipal water system and start getting water from Kalamazoo.

The City of Ann Arbor gets 85% of its drinking water from the Huron River (Source: Huron River Watershed Council.) Since elevated PFAS levels were detected in 2014, Ann Arbor has been specially filtering its water using granular activated carbon to remove PFAS contamination.

And it’s not just the drinking the water that presents a problem.
The “Do not eat fish” advisories first started showing up for areas closest to the PFAS contamination hotspots, they are now extended to the entire Huron River.

Do Not Eat the Fish
Sign at the North Fishing Site at Lower Huron MetroPark. by PPJ (2018) CC BY-SA 2.0

The PFAS contamination of the Huron Watershed has probably been there for awhile – it’s only now that we’re actually looking for it. There are likely to be other point sources that haven’t been identified yet. No one is sure whether the PFAS can be cleaned up and when it will be safe to eat the fish again.

It looks okay, if a little greenish. Huron River from the North Fishing Site at Lower Huron MetroPark. by PPJ (2018) CC BY-SA 2.0.

Next time: Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Cyanobacteria blooms on Ford and Belleville Lakes.

A deer was here

Someone took a nap in my tomato patch! Note the smushed and well-nibbled stems.  by PPJ (2018) CC BY-SA 2.0 

As the days get shorter and season draws to a close, there comes a certain point when the garden plants quit. The tomatoes stop producing, the patty pan squash withers up and the flowers all go to seed.   This year, we had some 4-footed visitors who helped hurry that end date along.

To be fair to my visitors, my garden patch is not fenced and I haven’t had too many problems with nibblers all summer.  I don’t even mind a few bites here and there, there has been plenty of garden snacks for everyone. I noticed that the cherry tomato plants, which had been done for a week or so, now looked like someone (fairly large) had taken a nap on top of them.

There were some other clues, too.  First, the hoofprints in the soft soil.

When you see hoofprints, think deer (not unicorns).  by PPJ (2018) CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/2b7bgyM

Next, the poor denuded sunflowers and okra stalks:  Tasty, tasty leaves and flowers!

Finally, the stuff they left behind: Spicy nasturtiums they did not touch (too spicy!)  and a deer scat “calling card.”

I don’t really begrudge the deer their end-of-season buffet.  (I think I would be far less magnanimous if the nibbles happened in the early spring.)   The days are a little colder and the wind a little sharper.    I would just have to tear anything still left in the garden next month when it closes for winter.  At least this way, the deer get a last hurrah before a long winter of  eating bark and stems.