Biology Reference
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details, Fitch's work confirms that expensive, high-tech gear isn't essential; nor are
journeys to distant lands prerequisite, as shown by my late colleague Tom Eisner's eleg-
ant research on insects in his Ithaca backyard. 28 Anyone with a notebook and willing-
ness to pay attention can practice valuable natural history, and field biologists should
help others sharpen those basic skills. We also need to make observations part of a
universally accessible record. Digital cameras, GPS units, and other modern accoutre-
ments as well as web-based archives will help, but we can begin without them.
Bad news is all around, so I leaven it with success stories. American Naturalist,
thanks to my former student Jonathan Losos's stint as editor, now publishes natural his-
tory along with the conceptually focused papers that have long been its stock-in-trade.
Turns out the ivory-billed woodpecker might not be extinct, 29 and recently a Korean
schoolteacher discovered a spectacular new salamander, its closest relatives in Italy and
California. 30 Venomous snakes are still widely maligned, but thanks to Natalie Angier
the NewYorkTimes ran another engaging, well-informed piece on them. 31 Fitch studied
Kansas timber rattlesnakes into his nineties, finding one he'd marked twenty-four years
earlier, 32 and people in my part of New York are ever more actively conserving those
velvety pitvipers. Likewise, Ontario has education programs about massasaugas, and
Arizona firefighters perform science-based rattler and Gila monster relocations, all in
the interest of protecting dangerous reptiles. And amazingly, grassroot protests in Ge-
orgia, Oklahoma, and Texas against rattlesnake roundups might yet crush these grisly
For those seeking hope on continental scales, rewilding won't be easy, but it might
be doable. After all, wolves are once again taking elk out West, and recently the largest
coyote I've ever seen walked through my suburban New York backyard—indeed, recent
research shows our visitor carries some wolf genes picked up during her ancestors' trek
eastward. 33 As I look to the future, with luck and lots of hard work, bolson tortoises
are coming back in the northern Chihuahuan Desert, 34 and maybe someday elephants
also will return to their Pleistocene New World haunts. I smile to imagine folks travel-
ing from all over to show their kids a wild hundred-pound turtle, and wonder if in a few
dozen generations big gray pachyderms with flapping ears and long trunks, exposed to
the selective environs of a North American steppe, will look more like mammoths than
they do now.
In craving hope on a local scale, I often recall that my friend Ben claimed his best
years came after his heart transplant. He didn't surrender to hardship and he did smell
the flowers, so I strive to honor his example, savoring simple pleasures and small tri-
umphs. One night the owner of the West Texas cottage in which I first drafted this
chapter took me to the Owl's Nest Café, a little roadside joint just east of the Pecos and
north of the Rio Grande. As beers were handed all around, a huge fellow in a weathered
straw hat introduced himself as “Pooch” and revealed that he cowboyed on a nearby
spread. “Uh, no last name?” from me brought only leaden silence, then, “Nope, just
Pooch.” When he mentioned the ranch, though, I remembered a gate sign near Baker's
Crossing, on the Devil's River, and my reserve gave way to curiosity about local nat-
ural history. Queried about skinny reptiles with small legs, Pooch said, “Yep, I've seen
some scaly-looking, long-tailed things with kinda pointy heads, creepin' under leaves
and roots.” That sure sounded like Texas alligator lizards, and this guy worked right
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