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What Is An Opossum?

W2Dopossum2In North America, many of us are familiar with the Virginia opossum, a medium-sized mammal about the size of a large cat. These are common in our North American southern states and are often seen as road kills along highways. Opossums are unique mammals–they are called marsupials and are most commonly found in Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, adjacent islands and South America. Besides the opossum, other well-known marsupials are the koala (teddy) bear and kangaroo. Some American opossums have prehensile tails, that is, tails can be wrapped around limbs, supporting the main body. Marsupials are mammals with pouches (with milk glands) in which young are carried. Newly born opossums are very poorly developed (altricial) after less than two weeks of growth (or gestation). [Human babies require nine months of pre-birth development.] Fetal or baby mouse opossums are very small (about ¼ of an inch and abt. 2 ounces) and as many as 25 can fit into a teaspoon. At birth (parturition), young opossums rear legs are only stubs whereas front legs are better developed for when they migrate to the pouch (marsupiam), a distance of about 2 inches in a swimming motion, where they attach themselves to a pouch nipple for up to 100 days. Average numbers of female teats or nipples is 13, although 25 or so young may be born at a time. Only rarely are all available teats utilized. Those young not able to find and attach to a teat soon perish.

Ecology of the Virginia opossum* suggests occupation of a wide variety of habitats, from dry areas to streams and swamps. Home range, or area in which individual opossums move about is estimated to be from 12 to 58 acres. Opossums often inhabit burrows of other animals or are arboreal (tree dwelling). They appear to have few predators, though feathered enemies may be a major source of mortality for young animals less than a year of age. Opossums may live from 1 to 4 or more years or even more. Their diet is mostly omnivorous consisting mainly of insects, carrion (dead animals) and fruits/grains. External parasites are few, but internal parasites include nematodes and trematodes and opossums are a reservoir host for important communicable diseases. The Virginia opossum may feign death if severely threatened and often exudes a greenish solution from two anal glands which ostensibly discourages enemies. Unless attacked, after feigning death for 15 minutes or so, the opossum rouses itself and moves along on its way.

One very small marsupial opossum found from northern South America (Panama, Colombia, Venezuela) to the Islands of Trinidad, Tobago, Grenada is called Robinson’s mouse opossum (Marmosa robinsoni). This species lives in dry shrublands and deciduous forests. A recent article in the Journal of Mammalogy**, a leading scientific journal devoted exclusively to mammals, compared populations of Robinson’s opossum in various geographical areas to determine which are most closely related.  The authors compared cytochrome-b genes and a transferase proteins and found that, surprisingly, central and eastern populations in Venezuela are more closely related to Trinidad and Tobago populations than to those closer on the Paraguaná peninsula in northwestern Venezuela. The Paraguaná peninsula populations of Venezuela are more closely related to more distant populations to the west in Colombia and Panama. The article authors suggest that events of the Pleistocene glacial events lowered sea level, allowing land connections from islands to the mainland over which ancestral opossums emigrated.

I personally had some experience with Marmosa elegans,  the small elegant mouse opossum in Chile. As an international service team adult member at the World Scout Jamboree near Santiago, Chile, I helped scouts from many nations better understand exploitation of exotic animals. For instance, parrots and other attractive house birds are trapped in their tropical homelands and sold. However, the cost is immense, as an average of 9 birds die for every one that is successfully marketed! Often, Stately and valuable trees are felled for the sole purpose of capturing and subsequently selling birds from nests attached high up trees trunks.

Following the jamboree, I was prepared to trap small mammals and deposit them in a stateside university mammal collection which had poor Chilean faunal representation. I traveled with a colleague from the University of Chile to a university-owned wildlife reservation. There I trapped several species of small mammals and prepared them for preservation in the museum mammal collection. Several of my trapped specimens turned out to be the elegant mouse opossum (Marmosa elegans). They were small and but quite attractive. It took awhile for me to identify them as I prepared them as study skins.

The next time you see an opossum, remember that you are looking at a unique mammal, certainly quite primitive as compared to all other North American fauna.

*Didelphis virginiana. by John McManus. Mammalian Species, No. 40, 1974.
**Phylogeography of Marmosa robinsini: Insights into the biogeography of dry forests in northern South America by Eliécer Gutiérrez, Robert Anderson, Robert Voss, José Ochoa-G, Marisol Aguilera, and Sharon Jansa. Journal of Mammalogy, 2014,

One-Eyed Sentinel of Aberdeen—A 1970’s Saga


Perched on a railing four stories up, the two Great Horned Owls appear from the street below as tiny, feathered statuettes, though in reality they approached two feet in height with a wingspan of up to five feet. For almost four years, with the exception of about a month each summer, this pair of owls has kept their vigil in the Aberdeen, South Dakota, Brown County Courthouse tower, only a few yards away from the great multifaceted clocks. Chimes boom out on the hour, but these sounds so foreign to nature appear to have had little effect on these birds of prey.

The female, with her blind right eye colored an opaque yellow, has laid a total of nine eggs in the past three seasons. In the early spring of 1976, she initially laid two white eggs which froze–perhaps due to wind chill temperatures well above minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Instinctively striving for a successful mating, she laid an additional three eggs which were subsequently incubated about 30 days before hatching three young. Due to unknown factor(s), all three died shortly afterwards and their remains vanished.

The next year, the female laid two eggs that hatched in a month. As the young matured, the white feathers of the two young were easily visible from the ground below. Twice, these two partially fell, partially glided to the earth below but were returned to the tower by concerned county workers. The young disappeared a few days later after learning to fly and were not been seen again.

A sizeable population of pigeons have made the courthouse tower their home for many years. Some years previously, tons of accumulated pigeon droppings and debris crashed down into the inner corridor far below causing structural damage to the building. So, as a result, prior to the owl’s presence, Brown County officials regularly paid up to $200 per month for cleaning and removal of pigeon droppings. In fact, after the pair first moved into the tower, country officials were so desirous of insuring their permanent residence, they provided raw flesh as food. The birds not only refused to eat it, but they also left the tower briefly. Subsequent to the residential occupation by the pair of Great Horned Owls, the cleanup costs have been cut by 90 per cent.

Pigeons nesting further up in the courthouse dome of the bell tower offered a convenient and ready source of food. The owls, with their sharp, grasping claws and razor-like tearing bills are uniquely equipped to capture and kill unsuspecting prey.

The term “Tiger of the Air” has been aptly applied to this courageous, powerful and bloodthirsty big bird of prey. Several times in the early predawn hours, one of the owls has been observed dive-bombing a pigeon in flight. The immediate result was a great flurry of feathers; then the hapless victim, grasped by vice-like claws in midair was carried back to the tower roost for a tasty meal.

The author remembers a wintertime personal experience with a Great Horned Owl about this time only a few miles away. I had set a number of traps with the intent of capturing red foxes for their pelts which were bringing $60 at the time. Following standard fox trapping protocol, I had carefully de-scented traps and carefully set two of them near each other in a field not far from a small pond. The double springed traps consisted of a spring on one side attached to jaws in the middle with an attached spring on the other side. I remember when checking the traps a day or so later, I found a dead jackrabbit in one of the traps and a very much alive Great Horned Owl in the other. I had no quarrel with the owl and set about to release it as harmlessly and efficiently as possible. However, due to the nature of the double springed traps which required simultaneous compression of each on each side, I had a problem. For, as I sought to release the spring with one hand on each side of the trap, the owl would attack me with wings and bill–so I had to use one hand and arm to shield myself from the owl’s attacks, which precluded compression of both sides of the trap at the same time with both my hands. After a few futile efforts to open the trap with two hands, I finally was able to use my knee to compress one spring at the same time as with the other, all the while fending off the owl’s attacks with my free arm. This done, the jaws still refused to open to release the bird, so it took a few more tries before finally coaxing the them to open by jarring the trap back and forth. Finally, the jaws opened and released the big bird–which immediately flew off. The scenario that resulted in the two trapped animals probably began when the rabbit was trapped and while flailing around trying to escape, the cruising Great Horned Owl had spied the bunny and deemed it an easy meal. However, in seeking to secure it, the owl had itself had become caught in the other trap.

Subsequently, the owl had killed the rabbit, but remained trapped itself. It is possible this was one of the Tower owls, but there is no proof one way or the other.


Owls are nocturnal; that is, they are most active during the night time. Their large disc-like eyes are capable of detecting the slightest movement in limited night light. Their wings are feathered especially to facilitate silent flight—the element of surprise to unsuspecting prey. Their diet is diverse, mainly dependent upon kinds and numbers of prey animals available. A variety of nocturnal (sometimes diurnal) animals including skunks and jackrabbits, are common owl cuisine; however, only captured living creatures are eaten, never prey already dead such as do eagles and vultures and other avian flesh eaters. Great Horned Owls, with peculiar feathery tufts at the sides of their heads which resemble horns from a distance, are among the largest of all owls and are said by some naturalists to be the most savage birds of prey. They are common throughout North America, most generally living in forested and brushy areas, canyons, cliffs, and deserts. A peculiarity of owls is that their eggs (usually two) are laid at intervals so that there may be a maturing fledgling hatched well in advance of other unhatched egg(s).

Wildlife’s Worst Enemy


Feral cats are defined as domestic (home) cats gone wild.  Domesticated cats have been and remain one of the favorite choices for pet lovers. Thus, broaching the “downside” of cats may easily raise the ire of those who treasure their favorite animal as not capable of doing anything wrong. Even reading or writing about them negatively often elicits emotional outbursts from cat lovers.

Wild or “feral” cats cast a negative downside to their domesticated house cat “siblings.”   They cause significant predation of small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Besides being a general nuisance, they can transmit such disease organisms as rabies and toxoplasmosis. Along with house pets that are allowed outside, “human-linked” feral cats are said to be the leading cause of death for birds and mammals. Their most likely prey animals are squirrels, shrews, mice, voles, rabbits, small birds, and any other likely and available “meal.”

Biology of feral cats.* Feral cats weigh up to eight pounds, are up to 36 inches long and live in the wild up to five years. Domestic or home cats may live as long as 15 years. Feral cats may live in barns of other outbuildings, alleys, sewer systems, overgrown areas, under bridges, along creeks, or other places offering shelter. They roam in an area of 1.5 square miles, their home range. For food, they feed upon human refuse, birds, small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and human-provided food. Feral cats can potentially produce up to five litters/year, beginning generally in the spring when the increasing length of daylight triggers female estrus. Two to 10 young are born in each litter after a 65 day gestation period. The Humane Society has estimated that one pair of cats potentially can produce progeny numbering 400,000 under ideal conditions with no deaths. It is estimated that there are 60 to 88 million domesticated cats in the U.S, with an additional 60 million more belonging to the feral ranks.

A systematic review and estimate of cat caused mortality in the United States by S.R. Loss, T. Will, and P.P.Marra** suggested that cats kill 1.4 to 3.7 billions of birds and 6.9 to 20.7 billions of mammals each year. Most of the damage is caused by un-owned cats, which are most likely the greatest single source of human-related mortality of U.S. mammals and birds.

Based on these figures, the enormity of this impact on natural populations of wildlife has long been underestimated. However, cat lovers insist that cats are wrongly being blamed for bird habitat loss, and animal loss actually due to chemicals used in fertilizers, and insecticides. Human impact is to blame for the real threat to birds, they say.

George Fenwick, president of ABC, is quoted*** as saying, “To maintain the integrity of our ecosystem, we have to conserve the animals that play integral roles in those ecosystems. Every time we lose another bird species or suppress their population numbers, we’re altering the very ecosystems that we depend on as humans. This issue clearly needs immediate conservation attention.”

Past policies dealing with stray cats has been to capture them, neuter them, then return them to their hunting grounds—where they continue to prey upon the same wildlife which also serves as prey for owls, eagles, and hawks.

As a biologist, the writer has frequently encountered stray or feral cats in the field. In fact, I inadverdently caught one while attempting to trap red foxes a number of years ago during a bitter winter night underneath a highway overpass in South Dakota, though I don’t remember what I did with it.   I have, presently, a neighbor who maintains a set and baited live trap for free roaming cats. He takes his “captures” several miles away and releases them—which really only moves the problem to someone else’s “backyard.” without resolving the problem. Another well intentioned neighbor keeps a supply of cat food available for free ranging, wild neighborhood cats near her carport. She even maintains an electric warming pad available for them in the wintertime. Do these latter two examples illustrate why we continue to have the feral cat problem?

My own opinion on the feral cat subject is to seek to maintain traditional natural balance in the ecosystems. Inasmuch as humans are blamed for domesticating the European and African wild cat, seven thousand years ago, we should do our best to manage them today for the purpose intended—solely that of being house pet companions. It is irresponsible to allow cats to become wild or feral. Small mammals and birds have ample predator pressure to survive under natural conditions without the added hazard of becoming prey to prowling domesticated cats gone wild.

*Hildreth, A.M., S. M. Vantassel, and S. E. Hygnstrom. 2010. Feral cats and their management. Nebraska Extension, EC1781.

**Loss, S.R., T. Will and P.P. Marra. 2013. Nature Communications, 4, No. 1396, 29 January.

***Collins, L. M., 2013. Outdoor cats kill billions of birds, mammals. Deseret News, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Forgotten Campcraft Techniques—By the First Boy Scout



An old book entitled “Camp Lore and Wood Craft”* came into my possession some time ago. The copyright was 1920 and the by-line under the author’s name, Dan Beard, was the following: “Founder of the First Boy Scouts Society.” Having an ongoing interest in Boy Scouting, I shall briefly condense several intriguing subjects.


Fire-Making, The Pyropneumatic Apparatus.

At about the time of the American Revolution, the “fire ‘piston” was invented.   It consisted of a nine inch cylinder, ½ inch in diameter. It ends in a screw which screws on to the magazine and holds some fungus, the tinder. A rod of steel is attached to the plunger (piston) inside the tube. A small hole in the tube allows air to enter and the rod which has a milled head. Lard can be used to lubricate the piston when it is drawn up to the top. A small piece unscrews which allows lubrication. The procedure for starting a fire is to place a small piece of fungus in the chamber, then screw on the top of the piston.

Then it is important to hold the apparatus with two hands and place the end on a desk or table, either vertically or horizontally, and then force the piston down as rapidly as possibly. Rapid compression of the air causes the fungus to take fire. As fast as possible,

unscrew the magazine, allowing the air to rush in; Dislodge the burning fungus under suitable tinder and nurse it into a flame.


Food Preparation, (Un)Dressing Wildlife

To remove the skin/fur, get a forked branch with the forks about one inch in diameter at whatever height works for you when sitting. The lower end should be sharpened and stuck into the ground. The two forks should be sharpened with the distance between being similar to the width of the animal. Each sharpened fork is inserted into one of the animal’s heels. The first order of business is to remove the skin. Split the skin with a sharp knife from the throat to the tail. Be careful not to penetrate the body cavity with the intestines. At the time the tail base is reached, roll the skin back continuously. When finished, save the pelt. When the skin is completely detached, remove the internal organs and scent glands. Make cuts in forearms and meaty parts of the thigh and remove all the “little white things” which look like nerves. This will prevent cooked flesh from having a musky or strong cooked taste.


How to Harden Green Wood Gluts or Wedges

Old farmers are said to claim that the best wedges are made of applewood or locust wood. Seasoned wedges far outperform green ones. If applewood cannot be found, dogwood and ironwood make satisfactory substitutes. Early American Southern Native Americans used cane to tip their arrows, first slightly charring them with hot fire ashes. Gluts may also be hardened similarly. Heat just enough to force out the sap and harden the surface.


The Etiquette of the Woods—Cooking Porcupines

After a porcupine has been killed, it is best to immediately throw it into a fire to singe all of the quills off. After the quills have been singed off, roll the carcass in grass to make certain the burned quills are rubbed off the skin. Then, it may be skinned with no danger from the barbed quills. With a sharp knife, slit the skin up the middle of the belly to the throat and carefully pull the skin back and peel it off. Cut off the feet. Properly prepared porcupine is indeed a delicacy—but only if it has been boiled in two or three changes of water first. Then, it may be cooked in any way a camper desires.


Beard, D. 1920. The book of camp-lore and woodcraft. Garden City Publishing Co., Inc, Garden City, NY. 2d Ed.

Rainbow Trout–My Favorite and First and Biggest Fish



I love to fish. From my earliest memories, I have been drawn to fishing as if a giant magnet were pulling me to the nearest stream. I grew up on an Idaho farm and was given typical farm boy jobs and chores around the corral and chicken house and garden.

When I was about six, my dad had a convention to attend in Sun Valley, Idaho. He took the family along, myself and three younger siblings. I wasn’t able to find a very good place to fish—the shallow stream behind the Ketchum motel didn’t seem to even have any fish. One evening during the week, after his meetings, Dad took us to the Wood River to fish, a bit and to see the ski lift. At the time, I had Perthese disease in my right hip and had to wear a (despicable) brace–which hampered my expeditions into the unknown.

Dad and I began fishing in the river. I fished from a rocky bank about two feet high, just behind the gravel bar bordering the river. I had a hook with worms and didn’t even get a bite. Finally, I came to a likely looking “hole” under a log jam. There was some foam in the corner of the hole as the water disappeared under the logs. I nonchalantly cast my worm into the promising little hole. I was still on top of the bank, probably some five or six feet from the water.

What happened next occurred in rapid fire succession. I felt a jerk on my line and it immediately yanked. A huge fish came flying out of the water and landed on the gravel bar two feet or so below where I was standing. The big fish was “dancing” on the gravel bar below me—but I saw that the hook was no longer attached. The fish was jumping around and was very close to flopping back into the water. I immediately jumped or half fell—I don’t know which—from the bank down to the gravel bar. In so doing, I broke my fishing pole. My leg with the brace further exacerbated the situation. However, I did have the presence of mind to somehow corral the fish just as it approached the water’s edge. I yelled for dad and he came running. Together we admired the big five pound rainbow trout. Back at the motel where were staying, it was the talk among the neighbors. My first and largest trout—I have caught a number of fine fish in my life, including some cutthroat trout almost—but not quite—equaling the size of my fist fish!

Back at the farm, I didn’t get to fish every day, but I managed to fish in the town creek (we pronounced it “crick”) several times a week. Nearest access to the creek was more than one half mile away. For transportation, I rode my bike and also rode my horse, bareback. During the long summertimes, I must have fished several dozen times—and caught nothing! However , lack of success didn’t seem to dampen my enthusiasm, much. Once, a neighbor invited me to come along. All I remember about that trip is that he kept catching Rainbow Trout, jerking them way over his head each time he hooked one.

When I was about 11, I fished the lower creek and caught a number of chubb. I didn’t know at the time what kind they were, but dutifully took them home for Mom to cook, which she did. Although those were quite bony, we ate them. I at long last had something tangible to show for my many hours at the creek.

Farmer Bob and the Pocket Gopher


Gopher foto1


Hello. I’m Guy Gopher. I live in old farmer Bob’s prized alfalfa field—at least I used to live there. Let me tell you about our “war.”

My two sisters and I were born several months ago in a burrow under the ground. Mama gopher’s burrows of several dozen feet in length were located in a fertile field at the mouth of an Idaho canyon. The sloping ground allowed rain and irrigation water to quickly drain away, so we didn’t have to worry much about being flooded out of our burrows—a main worry of many of our species. Our nearby cousins living in very flat nearby fields where the farmer flood-irrigated periodically experienced awful problems, even eviction from burrows for a time, exposing them to enemy predators..

Our life was like heaven. We were one happy gopher family! Then it happened—Mama called a family meeting. “Guy, you and the girls are all grown up enough to build your own homes.” Though we probably wouldn’t be going far, we said our tearful goodbyes and each began digging our own new underground tunnels, which varied in depth between one and four feet below the surface. Feeding tunnels were close enough to the surface to have access to plant roots which became our food source.

When we accumulated too much soil from our digging, we would dig a short burrow to the surfaced, called laterals, and push out the excess dirt with the front part of our body and forefeet, forming a small “mound” of dirt on the aboveground surface. The bad part about this was that it gave our enemies instant information as to our whereabouts. So, in order to disguise our main tunnel locations as much as possible, we would plug these little surface “lateral” burrows, usually located directly adjacent to the mound–with one to several feet of compact soil.

The part of the field reserved for me was at the edge of a productive alfalfa field and raspberry patch. I loved the taste of alfalfa roots and when procuring food, would fill my cheek pouches–extra pockets outside but near my mouth–with alfalfa roots and other nearby plant parts and carry them back to my home den area, located deeper underground in a more central location, even stockpiling some on occasion.

By the time winter arrived, I had many tunnels in most every direction. We gophers hardly ever went aboveground as there were so many predator dangers there, including cats, dogs, foxes, humans, etc. However, I kept warm and cozy in my deeper burrows even during below zero temperatures above. During early wintertime when there was several feet of snow on the ground’s surface, I dug only a few additional tunnels because nearer the surface, the ground was frozen and it was downright hard to dig. Later in the winter when I did begin burrowing more, I dug the short lateral tunnels to the snow-covered surface. Then I went up to the surface and carved out tunnels under the snow into which I could push my excess dirt from my new tunnels. After the snow melted these snow tunnels, now filled with compact dirt, appeared as cores of solid soil meandering across the landscape on top of the ground.

When springtime finally did come, I found out right away that old farmer Bob both detested and hated us pocket gophers—that’s when our infamous “war” began. I never completely understood why, as I only did what my instincts told me to do. I admit that I probably damaged a few of his ‘ol plants—but, he would never have probably missed them. Obviously, that was not the mindset of farmer Bob! First, he tried to drown me when he watered his alfalfa plants. He had found a recent surface mound and dug down through the plugged access tunnel until he came to my main burrow. Soon, a wave of irrigation water rushed towards me. I can swim when I have to–but it certainly is not my favorite sport! As the water level in my main tunnel rose rapidly, I first did my best to build a dam to stop the water, Then I swam to the part of my burrow which was higher in elevation than the water source and curled up and shivered awhile and slept until I felt better and drier.

A few days later after the water was dried out, I made the mistake or digging new surface lateral tunnels to deposit excess soil into mounds on the surface. That did it! Soon I felt the ponderous vibrations of a heavy vehicle overhead. I heard a shovel, digging into my main tunnel. Then, I began smelling something yukky–what I later was told was automobile exhaust—it made my head ache, so I immediately blocked my side of the tunnel with extra dirt I was pushing.


Farmer Bob must have gotten awfully frustrated, because I kept pushing up soil to make mounds on the surface. Later, I smelled a new scent, later identified as oats and corn.

They were poison, but I didn’t know it. I probably would have helped myself to them, but an uninvited meadow mouse, accidentally roaming through my burrows, ate all of the grain before I found it and lay dead in the bottom of the burrow. I began to get the idea that someone up there didn’t like me!

A few days later, I found some strange smelling metal object in my runways. I later found they were called “traps.” By now, I was becoming very cautious. As I quietly investigated the strange object, I heard a “click” as the trap tripped. It’s jaws grabbed a jawful of my fur and pinched me real proper, but I was able to free myself. That really scared me, so I was VERY careful from then on. Later, I hear the farmer say as he checked his traps, “That pesky gopher is smarter than I am.” I felt real proud of myself!

From then on, each time I made a mound, even discretely, there would be a metal traps in each direction down the main tunnel. I was wise to the traps, though, even though some were set very cleverly. I would carefully trip each one and pack dirt around them so they were very difficult to remove from above. Every day as Farmer would come to check his traps, I would hear him say something like, “Foiled again!”

With so many hazards to look out for, I finally told myself, “Guy, it time to be discrete and retreat.” So I tunneled under the nearby fence out of the nearby berry patch into the alfalfa field and begin constructing new tunnels. I noticed that Farmer Bob continued to check his dreaded traps inside the raspberry patch for an entire week—I smirked to myself.

My most dramatic near-encounter with old Farmer bob occurred the very next spring. I had moved back to the raspberry patch burrows. By now, I figured that I knew all of his sneaky, tricks. I even carefully hid my mounds of extra dirt among the nearby weeds bordering the field. Well, I was so wrong! The third day after I had concealed several mounds, the dreaded metal traps again appeared in my tunnels. While I was scurrying about trying to cover them up, I came a across a curious circular band of metal with a “rock” fastened to one side. After I had finished tripping and covering the traps, the round object was still stuck in my burrow floor. The very next time I dug a lateral tunnel to get rid of extra dirt, I made sure that I pushed the round object out with the excess soil.

Then an extraordinary thing happened!  Sure enough, Farmer had found the new mound of soil and was fussing around trying to figure out how to shoot something called “tear gas” (whatever that is) into my tunnels, when he must have spotted the circular metal object.

“Gazooks,” I heard him yell, “Here it is—my grandmother’s wedding ring, the one I lost 50 years ago when I was a little kid picking peas in her garden. That pesky gopher found it.”  I heard him shout all the way to the house as crashed headlong through row after row of his prized bushes.

Well, that’s the end of my story, sort of, that is.  Today I am sitting in a tunnel under my very own berry patch, planted especially for me by my good friend and neighbor, farmer Bob, right next to his own patch. He even planted some delicious veggies and alfalfa alongside to vary my diet.

“You see, I’m what you might call one very lucky GUY!”

Postscript – Have you ever seen a live pocket gopher?

A genus found in the western U.S. is called Thomomys. A widespread species of Thomomys is the  Northern Pocket Gopher, Thomomys talpoides, that inhabits parts of most of the western United States as well as several southwestern Canadian provinces. There are 58 named T. t. subspecies. Coloration is variable depending on subspecies, from yellowish brown to grayish brown, and are normally the size of a large mouse. Pocket gophers are fossorial mammals and have poor eyesight, but their short hairless tails are sensitive to backwards movements in the tunnel. Large whiskers are sensitive and also assist in movement, even in the darkest of tunnels. Forefeet have long claws. Claws and teeth are used in digging burrows. Burrows consist of a main tunnel with side branches which originate from the main tunnel. Gophers are herbivorous and often construct one nest with food caches containing shrubs, grasses, forbs and tree roots.  At times they may feed aboveground on surface vegetation. Nests average four to 18 inches below the surface. Three to four (average) young are born from March to June and there are usually only one litters/year, possibly two in the south portions of their range. The gestation period is about 20 days. Sexual maturity is reached at one year.




The Golden Squirrel Looks Like…. But is Not…… a Chipmunk

goldensqHave you ever been hiking in the summertime and suddenly seen a flash of gold that disappears almost in thin air? If so, it’s likely that you have come across a ground squirrel, a golden-mantled ground squirrel, in fact. Were you able to see where the flash disappeared to? Unless you are especially observant, you may not have noticed an partially hidden opening to an underground burrow. Ground squirrels get their names from where they live—underground!

If you have ever heard the phrase “Mother Earth,” it certainly applies to many animals, as earth gives them underground shelter and safety from their predator enemies and provides soil without which there would be no food nor aboveground cover. Some animals dig their own burrows, some take over deserted ones, and some cohabitate, invited or not.   Some common animals directly utilizing tunnels beneath the surface include mammals: voles (meadow mice), groundhogs, marmots (also known as rockchucks), badgers, beavers, weasels, moles, chipmunks, prairie dogs, gophers; Birds: burrowing owls; amphibians: crayfish or crawdads; Reptiles: snakes.           .

Ground squirrels are fairly common in western North America. The common ground squirrel genus formerly known as Spermophilus has recently been divided into eight (8) genera, one of which is called Callospermophilus,* to which the golden mantled ground squirrels belong. There are three recognized species, Callospermophilus lateralis with 13 subspecies, C. madrensis, and C. saturatus with one subspecies, each. The name Callospermophilus is derived as follows: kallos from Greek meaning beauty, spermatos for seed, and phileo for love. All ground squirrels are true hibernators and disappear in the fall until March or April. They live in nests located in underground burrows and may store food for consumption as hibernation ends in the springtime.

The golden mantled ground squirrel Spermophilus lateralis is probably the easiest of all ground squirrels to identify.   It has a white stripe running from its hind quarters to its front quarters bordered by a black stripe. The white stripe does not continue across the side of the face as do chipmunk stripes. This squirrel is found in 11 of the westernmost U.S. states and extends into Alberta, Canada, but not into Mexico.

Molly Bartels and Doug Thompson** wrote a nice summary of the golden mantled ground squirrel, its habits, habitat, reproduction, range and distribution, etc.

Breeding season begins shortly after emergence from hibernation in the spring, and two to eight young are usually born in July after an average gestation period of 30 days. They may live up to five years in captivity and seven or more in natural habitats.

Golden squirrels prefer sunny habitats and inhabit forested or sparsely brushy territory, recently burned forests and sometimes even in sagebrush or meadows.   They are usually silent, but can make several kinds of calls. These squirrels are omnivores, that is, they will consume both flesh and plants. Normal food includes herbaceous plants and pine nuts. When eating, these squirrels will customarily sit on their haunches and manipulate food with their forefeet, a fun photographing opportunity. In the fall, these squirrels store fat for survival during long winter hibernations. Food and even bedding materials may be packed into their cheeks pouches for transport to their nests. Natural enemy predators include badgers, coyotes, bobcats, skunks, weasels and hawks. They are inadverdant hosts to several kinds of parasites including fleas, ticks, sandflies, protozoans and bacteria.

* Helgen, K.M., K.M. Cole, L.E. Helgen and D.E. Wilson. 2009. Journal of Mammalogy, 90(2):270-305.                                                                                                                                                                                        ** Mammalian Species (American Society of Mammalogists publication), 1993, No. 440.



ClamIVAt 4,000 feet above sea level near Green River, Utah, two USU Eastern Prehistoric Museum personnel were searching for marine reptiles last summer and stumbled upon prehistoric giant clams strewn throughout the landscape.

Dr. Kenneth Carpenter, paleontologist and director of the museum, joined colleague Lloyd Logan, director of education and exhibits, for a hike near Green River searching for signs of ancient life.

The two were walking across the hot, dry and desolate landscape when they spotted what looked like giant clam fossils. Carpenter said, “Stumbling upon those giant three- and four-foot clams was a real surprise. In places, they were so thick we could literally walk from clam to clam. These clams lived 85 million years ago, during the Age of Dinosaurs, when this part of Utah was under the ocean.”

The clams were found eroding out of the Mancos Shale, the soft, gray rock that lies at the foot of the Book Cliffs. Although smaller clams and Nautilus-like ammonites have been found in the Mancos Shale in the area, giant clams had never been reported before. According to Carpenter, there are no reports of giant clams ever being found in Utah, and only a handful of giant clams are on display in museums throughout the country. Thus, the find was a serendipitous moment for the museum.

These giant clams look like large dinner-plates, hence the scientific name Platyceramus means “flat clam.” Today, giant clams are nowhere near the giant four- foot clams in size. The modern pip-squeaks are only two feet or so across and are native to the shallow coral reefs of the South Pacific and Indian oceans. They have also been found off the shores of the Philippines and in the South China Sea. They have never been found in Utah, let alone near Green River.

The areas where the clams were found was once a flat, muddy seafloor and that is a key to understanding why they grew to such monsters. The large clams could spread their weight over a large area to keep from sinking into the seafloor. “These clams became the home to oysters that grew over the shells, as well as the home to small fish that lived within the shells,” Carpenter said. “Numerous fish bones were found within the shells during the excavations.”

After finding the clams, the two secured the site and returned to it later with museum personnel and volunteers to retrieve the giant clams. Because the clams are so thin, a wooden frame was built around the shell, and then Plaster of Paris was poured directly on the shell. When dried, the plaster-covered shell was flipped over and taken to the museum, Carpenter said.

John Bird, paleontology technician for the museum, worked with Carpenter for several months to prepare the clams for display at the museum. While Carpenter and Bird were working on the clams, Logan was creating and designing an exhibit to house the fossils for the public to view. The giant clam is 44 inches by 48 inches, but in life might have weighed 50 pounds. Their average life span might have been 100 years or more.

Located in the Hall of Paleontology, the giant clam display is open and ready for the public to view at the museum located at 100 North and 100 East in Price. The hours are Monday-Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (general admission rates apply).


Chipmunks and Chipmunk Ecology

chipmunkIAmong the most common kinds of wildlife observed by backpackers, campers, picknickers are smallish member of the squirrel family called chipmunks. These inquisitive and handsome animals often entertain family members during forays into natural areas. Chipmunks range throughout the U.S, and into Canada and Mexico. They have stripes (usually white) lengthwise along their brownish bodies, from their tails to their noses. They commonly sit upon their “haunches” (rear feet) with their somewhat bushy tails waving and jerking as they vocalize, or chirp.

Chipmunks are not true hibernators, but rather store up food in the summer times for wintertime use. They may sleep for a few days at a time while holed up in their dens, but intermittently wake up and feed upon their stored food. Dens may be located in rocky cliffs, underground in burrows, or other places offering relative security. They are quite adept at handling food with their forefeet as they sit. They are herbivores and mainly feed upon seeds, but also consume other plant parts.

The Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) species has the largest areal presence in North America. It ranges from southern Canada through most of the southern U.S. states, and from the Mississippi River east. I count 39 additional chipmunk species* belonging to the Genus Tamias (formerly Eutamias) scattered mostly west of the Mississippi River, some extending well into Canada. There are a number of locations where ranges of more than one species overlap. Scientists call this “sympatry,” as opposed to “allopatry” (which means that ranges do not overlap).

Perhaps the chipmunk with the most extensive distribution west of the Mississippi into much of Canada is called the Least chipmunk. I have encountered this small member of the squirrel family in many unlikely habitats including in sagebrush stands, ditchbanks, roadsides or other disturbed habitats. One often hears a “chattering “ call as the chipmunk streaks away to safety, with its tail high in the air. Chipmunks are found in a variety of different habitats. They are seen on cliffs to pine forests to aspen stands to other natural habitats, even including disturbed habitat such as old strip mining areas, clearcut lumbering areas, abandoned roads, etc. The ways in which chipmunk species are differentiated from one another includes: differences in coloration and stripes, skull measurements and skull shape, bacular differences, etc.

I am particularly fond of chipmunks. I researched the ecology of the cliff chipmunk (Tamias dorsalis) as a thesis requirement many years ago in Logan Canyon, Utah. Unlike its sister species, cliff chipmunks have dark rather than white striping. In the canyon, cliffs contour the mountainsides high above the river in the bottom of the canyon. The cliff chipmunk is aptly named as it inhabits these perpendicular cliffs; some cliffs are up to a hundred or more of feet in vertical height. This chipmunk with its unique toes and toenails is able to navigate over the face of vertical rocks with impunity.

My study consisted of capturing the chipmunks in the springtime in live traps, marking them with dye, recording locations of capture. Then I traversed the mountainside rock slides below and above the cliffs to identify my previously marked animals. With binoculars, I kept track of their locations and the kinds of plants they were feeding upon. My objective was to determine the size of the area in which they travel about (called home range) over time. Also, I identified and compared the different kinds of plants they fed upon as the seasons progressed. It was also quite intriguing to observe these small animals carry seeds in their cheek pouches and then bury them in the dirt in small surface “caches.” Later in the fall, they would return to these caches and retrieve the seeds, carrying them to their individual den areas within the rocky cliffs for wintertime use.

I published a small 45 page soft bound booklet ** entitled, “How to Study Chipmunks – Ecology,“ that I am making available FREE for ordering; cost is only $2 for U.S. (residents) postage and handling. Send to “Chipmunk,” 11 East 500 North, Orem, UT   84057.

May you, as I have, find immense enjoyment from watching and interacting with these small and attractive wild cretures.

*Hall, E. R. 1981. Mammals of North America. John Wiley, New York.

**Hart, E.B,  1971. How to Study Ecology  —  Chipmunks

What is a Wildlife Notebook?

Have you ever been in the out-of-doors and seen something that pricks your curiosity?  Then, later, you wish you had taken better notice of it because you cannot remember some of the details? This is one of the purposes of the wildlife field notebook.

A typical wildlife notebook may consist of a small 8 inch binder filled with loose-leaf paper. Waterproof paper is better. Also, the pen or writing instrument should be permanent such as an indelible pen or permanent ink pen. Writing should to be legible, but may be either cursive or printed. Nowadays, computers have made the old traditional process of applying ink or lead to paper somewhat obsolete —for especially younger people. For those of us old timers who often cling to the traditional and familiar ways of recording wildlife field observations, some ideas are presented below. For those of you who are wed to your electronic device, adapt this to your own specific situation as you wish. Video cameras and recording devices may be substituted as per your situation. Remember, “Wildlife” includes plants as well as animals.

The purpose of the wildlife notebook is to record anything of interest while outside or, “in the field” as some would say. Some seemingly unrelated observations may become of value later on. I had a good friend many years ago, James Bee, a complete naturalist who thrived in taking nature walks in the environs of Kansas University in Lawrence and in eastern Kansas—he filled 80 + field journals with his observations and insights; no details in nature were too small to escape his sharp eye and pen. He was the consummate naturalist.

Especially before and during the last century, natural scientists focused on studying wildlife directly in the out-of-doors.   Skin and skulls of animals were kept and carefully measured, along with sex recorded and localities documented. Museums were established with thousands of specimens maintained in permanent collections. Individual scientists who were studying single species would regularly visit different museums to evaluate collected specimens and compare them, often to determine naming or nomenclature (genus, species, subspecies, etc.). Botanists collected plants, dry pressed them and then preserved them in herbariums in an orderly and systematic manner for later reference.

In your nature walks, such items as color patterns in an unrecognized bird, dust bathing by a ground squirrel, antler abnormality in a whitetail buck, paw print of an unknown mammal, an abandoned nest, colored eggshell pieces, and/or the flowering color, shape and pattern of a bright newly blossomed plants—all are acceptable field book journal entries. Scientists and naturalists fixated on specific kinds of wildlife need to be aware of all aspects of the local environment. A single observation may lead to the unraveling of a previously erroneous understanding in scientific knowledge. It is not true that science already knows everything about all plants and animals. New knowledge of the natural world continues to come forth regularly, often from unlikely sources. Your observations might solve one of nature’s heretofore unknown riddles. When anything arouses your curiosity, write it down, sketch it, photograph it. You can research it out later on in the library. Time spent in nature is valuable and should be used 100% of the time observing and recording. Carry a camera and photograph interesting wildlife sign and/or make drawings along with writing or recording.

Hall and Kelson (1959)* described field notebooks that mammalogists (scientists who study mammals) use a number of years ago that still apply. They suggest notebooks be divided into three parts: 1) the Catalogue, 2) the Journal or Itinerary, and 3) Accounts of Species. For your purposes, the journal alone will probably be the one you will want to use.

The Catalogue is a summary of measurements of collected field specimens, sexes (for animals), along with collector name, exact location and date. The catalogue will probably apply to only a very few of you reading this piece.

The Accounts of Species consists of observations of anything about only a single species. The name of the species should be placed at the top of the page, with date and exact location at the beginning of each entry, and the author’s initials, surname, year on the next line—this is to be located above the lines on the upper far left margin. Write and underline the date and location which precedes written observations. Always write full notes, even of information you may consider trite. Again, one never knows when a snippet of information may become very useful later.

The Journal or Itinerary will probably be the most useful portion of your field notebook, so write “Journal” in top center. At the top left, place your first name initials then last name and underneath, the year. At the top of the page, write exact location (such as 0.2 mi south 8 mi. west of Courthouse, Paris, Bear Lake County, Idaho) and altitude. The date extends out into the right margin. Every entry should have this basic information–underlined; update every time you make an entry if either location or date change. Location information is very important, so be very careful to be as exact as possible. GPS coordinates are okay, but in the past, geological Sections, Townships and Ranges have been the preferred locality descriptions. If you are not sure of the exact location, estimate it to the best of your knowledge based on nearby road distances using primary directions of north, east, south, and west of the local courthouse or other permanent landmark. Many of the same kinds of things written in the Accounts of Species are written here, with no separate page for each animals or species observed; all observations of any number of different plants/animals are recorded all together in this section. Remember to note weather conditions at the time of writing.

Write such things as vegetation description (identify plants by keeping leaves/flowers), nature of ground, slope exposure, drainage, underground burrows—possibly noting burrow contents, burrow height, width, and length, overhead drawings of burrow meanderings, especially following floods, fires, overgrazing, tree cutting, road building, etc.

There is no limit to what you may write. Just begin now!


*1959. Hall, E. R. and K. R. Kelson. The Mammals of North America. The Ronald