Sunday, October 28, 2012

Witches and Goblins, Wild Horses and Climate Change

About this time last year we lay in the dark, listening to the violent cracking of still-leafy tree branches outside our windows. A weirdly out-of-season snow-and-ice storm was turning Halloween into a broken, droopy winter wonderland. This year, it looks as if folks around here will have to bring their pumpkins and outdoor goblins inside, for fear they might become flying missiles when the hurricane dubbed “Frankenstorm” (a.k.a. Sandy) makes landfall somewhere along the New Jersey coast late tomorrow night. Already the outer bands of this gigantic storm that can’t quite decide if it’s a tropical cyclone or a winter nor’easter—because apparently it’s setting up to be both—have been buffeting the outer banks of North Carolina and moving in on Virginia and points north.

As I always do, I think of the wild creatures with no ability to board up windows and buy electric generators. It looks as if this time, the worst will pass to the north of Assateague Island, and the horses there will survive this storm as they have so many others. I’ll be thinking of them, and all the animals and people impacted by this historic weather event.

It does make me wonder, though. Is this crazy weather we’ve been having in recent years  a harbinger of global climate change? And how might man-made climate change affect both humans and the animals who share our planet in the future? So I was glad to find a study, published late last year, that addresses that very question. An international group of scientists collaborated in an effort to answer a nagging question: What caused the mysterious disappearance of many large mammals in North America some 10,000 years ago? Was it climate change, or human activity? (You can read a lot more about these mysterious extinctions in Wild Horse Scientists soon. November 6!)

Using genetic, archeological, and climatic data together to figure out what happened to Ice-Age mammals including the wild horse, these scientists concluded that the answer to the question, humans vs. climate change, is. . . both.

You can read more about the study here. Bottom line? The researchers concluded that there was likely no single cause for extinctions of the six large herbivores studied—the wooly rhinoceros, wooly mammoth, reindeer, bison, musk ox, and wild horse. Instead, says the study, “the relative impacts of climate change and human encroachment on species extinctions really depend on which species we’re looking at.”

During the entire Pleistocene Epoch, which lasted from about 2 million to 12,000 years ago, North America experienced many climatic ups and downs, and these mammals that had evolved during colder periods did suffer population losses during the warm intervals. But they always managed to find places where the climate was just right for them and survive, even in reduced numbers. When cooling came again, their numbers rebounded. But then, after the peak of the last ice age around 20,000 years ago, something changed.

What was that something?


Our ancestors moved into the same places where the large Ice Age mammals had once thrived; they developed agricuture and hunting, and in so doing changed the landscape so dramatically that these animals were cut off from what they needed to survive. It’s an ancient drama being replayed today in passionate controversies over the place of wild horses in the remaining open lands of our American West.

One faction says that horses are not native to North America, but rather are an exotic, invasive species that can claim no natural rights to protection, while other voices argue just as forcefully that the horse evolved here in North America and nowhere else on earth. To them, wild horses have a right to exist on the lands where they evolved. Well, this and other studies lend compelling, scientific support to the second argument. Both fossil evidence and sophisticated genetic analysis support the claim that native horses driven from North America by climate change and human encroachment 10,000 years ago are biologically identical to the so-called “feral” horses we call wild today.

Says Beth Shapiro, biology professor at Penn State University and one of the study’s authors, “There are many more humans today, and we have changed and are continuing to change the planet in even more important ways.”  What will be the fate of populations threatened by climate change and habitat alteration happening in our time? Maybe this truly awesome storm—the Halloween Frankenstorm of 2012— will prompt more of us to ponder this question.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Taking Time

Exactly three weeks from  tomorrow, Wild Horse Scientists will finally go out into the world! I’m very excited; this book has been a long time in the making, as I’ll explain below. But first, another bit of good news: Wild Horse Scientists has received a starred review from the venerable Kirkus Reviews! One of my favorite lines from the review (you can find the full text here):

Underlying these particular stories are important concepts, lucidly conveyed: Scientists work together to solve problems, solutions can be a long time coming and sometimes approaches fail.

This is so true, and the long gestation period that finally gave birth to Wild Horse Scientists proves it can be as true of writing as it is of science.

I first started thinking seriously of writing a book about the wild horses of Assateague Island in 1995, but the seeds of my interest go back even further, to a horse-obsessed and book-loving childhood. You could trace it to my reading of two beloved children’s novels by Marguerite Henry: Misty of Chincoteague and Mustang, Wild Spirit of the West. Both are fictionalized versions of real events—the first involving the wild horses of Assateague and their traditional swim and “pony penning,” and the second a story based on the life and work of Velma Bronn Johnston, later known as Wild Horse Annie, who almost single-handedly created the first real legislation protecting wild horses in America.

But it wasn’t until I happened to read an article in the July 23, 1995 issue of the Baltimore Sun Magazine that I decided to research and write a book. 

By this time, both Ron Keiper and Jay Kirkpatrick, two of the scientists I write about in my book, had separately been studying and working with these wild horses for more than 20 years, and Allison Turner, National Park Service biological technician and wild horse specialist, had already begun her work on the island, too.

If you asked them today, they’d tell you they never expected this wild horse project to continue for so many years when they started. For biologist Jay Kirkpatrick, a problem he first tackled as a young researcher in 1971 has turned into a lifelong quest that still continues in 2012.

So back in 1998, after much enjoyable research that included a visit to Assateague, Chincoteague, and the annual pony penning and auction, I wrote a long proposal for a very different book, for an adult audience. It never sold. But I kept on collecting articles, books, and photos in my “Chincoteague pony” folder, not knowing if I’d ever use them. By 2009, when I started thinking about another sort of book, Google had made it simple for me to locate and approach both Dr. Keiper and Dr.Kirkpatrick. I was thrilled to meet them after all those years. Better yet, they were both enthusiastic about working with me on this project! Everything came together after that, when my wonderful editors at Houghton Mifflin Books for Children said they shared our enthusiasm.

Nowadays everything seems to move so fast. A million fascinating things vie for our attention every waking minute, and often we find ourselves posting “status updates” from our phones to social media sites even before the experience we’re posting about has finished happening.

But it turns out that some things just can’t be rushed. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Finding Joy

Wild Horse Scientists will be released five weeks from today! I'm very excited about this, and will soon have a bit of good news to share about the book. Keep watching this space! In the meantime, I came across an article about a study published a couple of years ago in the journal Animal Behavior that I wanted to share. The study suggested that some horses never forget the humans who have treated them well, even after a separation of months or years. This bond with humans is believed to be an extension of horse behavior in the wild—social relationships described in Wild Horse Scientists, too. Wild horses maintain long-term bonds with members of their family group, but they also interact temporarily with members of other groups when forming herds.

"Equid relationships," say the study's authors, "are long-lasting and, in some cases, lifelong." You can read more about it here.

Lifelong bonds. I've been thinking about this a lot today, because my heart is kind of breaking over the loss of one of those bonds in my own life.You may have seen his photo, along with his best friend, Finn, if you've visited my website, or my last blog post. Asa's the guy on the right.

I write about horses and other animals because I love them, and I've never loved any animal more than Asa, a ridgeless Rhodesian Ridgeback who joined our family 12 years ago this summer, when he was a wrinkly puppy with long ears, no bigger than the Jack Russell terrier who was then the other dog in the house. Asa grew quickly to over 100 pounds, but he never lost his puppy sweetness. He was beautiful and gentle and loved everyone, but what I will always remember the most about him is that he was a very happy dog. He could be silly, such as this time when he decided to fit his very big body into his "brother's" very small bed:

Or he could be quiet and comforting, happy just to stretch his big body out next to me on the couch and lay his broad, soft head on my lap. And even as he got older and developed some physical issues that made it harder for him to run and prance as he'd always done, he never let it bother him much. He was still a happy dog. Until the very end, when he suddenly became very sick, he loved every day of his life, no matter what. He found joy in the simple, doggy things he did, which is the most important attribute, to me, of the scientists I wrote about in Wild Horse Scientists. They, too, love what they do, so that even hard work must seem, at least some of the time, like play. Because I wish that for everyone, including myself, today I dedicate this page to the memory of Asa. I'm so very sad that he's not lying here on the ottoman in my office where he belongs, but I found a quote, attributed to both Dr. Seuss and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I don't know to whom the words belong for sure. But this is what I will tell myself when I think of my lovely, happy dog: 

Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened.

June 17, 2000—September 30, 2012