Critter reports, health warnings

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Alabama’s official state insect, the monarch butterfly, is remarkable because of its migratory habits. For centuries each year North American monarchs have undertaken a journey of up to 3,000 miles flying across the United States and Canada to a few overwintering sites in California and Mexico. Now this extraordinary migration is on the verge of collapse.

Fewer than ten years ago, an estimated one billion monarchs travelled to Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains blanketing 45 acres of trees. This past winter these migrants numbered only 33.5 million, a record low, and settled on only 1.6 acres of forest. Sylvia Fallon, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, reports that the long-term average for overwintering monarchs in Mexico has been around 350 million. The number is now only a tenth of that and constitutes what she considers “clearly a crisis.”

According to the NRDC, one of the primary causes of the decline is the near extermination of milkweeds, upon which the monarchs’ larvae feed, across vast areas of the United States. Genetically-modified crops resistant to the weed killer glyphosate, also known as Roundup, has resulted in  an escalation of the use of the chemical, which kills milkweeds. Over the past 15 years, applications of glyphosate has increased tenfold, to an estimated 182 million pounds annually.

In addition to agricultural uses of the herbicides, transportation departments often apply them to highway rights-of-way, killing milkweeds and other desirable plants.

NRDC has filed an urgent petition with the Environmental Protection Agency, calling on it to adopt “tough new restrictions on use of glyphosate and other herbicides, thereby preserving the milkweeds upon which the monarchs rely.” Critical safeguards would limit application of herbicides along highways and include taking other measures to preserve milkweeds. Let’s hope NRDC’s petition is favorably received by the EPA and that reasonable restrictions will result in an increase in milkweeds and ultimately in a reversal in the decline of Alabama’s state insect.

Concerned individuals should go to www.letmonarchsfly.org and let their voices be heard.

Most people who recognize the song of the Wood Thrush would probably agree that it is the most pleasing sound emanating from the deciduous trees in our rural and urban landscapes. Wood Thrushes are breeding residents in Alabama; they overwinter in Latin America. Each spring I look forward to the arrival of this bird. April 26, for the first time this season,  I heard the plaintive, melodious song of a Wood Thrush, gladdening my heart, because the species is experiencing survival problems. Authorities believe the noticeable decline is the result of habitat deterioration in both Latin America and North America. Another factor is thought to be acid rain. Preservation of mature deciduous trees and reduction of air pollutants causing acid rain would contribute to the survival of Wood Thrushes as would restricting purchases of coffee to shade-grown varieties.

Two reports of public health hazards have come to my attention. The first relates to toxic chemicals in swimming pools resulting from uric acid, an ingredient in urine, reacting with chlorine to form cyanogen chloride and trichloramine. These chemicals vaporize and, when inhaled, can aggravate respiratory and other health problems. A survey revealed that one in every five Americans, exclusive of infants, admit to peeing in swimming pools. People are being advised to avoid swimming in indoor pools, where the toxic vapors are more likely to be concentrated.

The second is a warning about the effects of marijuana smoking. Smokers under the age of 25 who smoke pot six or more times weekly were found to have cognitive disorders and abnormalities in two key regions of the brain, the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala, “parts of the brain you don’t want to mess around with,” warns Northwestern University psychiatrist Hans Breiter.

(The above health reports were contained in recent issues of “The Week” magazine.)

Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn University. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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