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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Wildlife Wednesday: Wildlife Videos

We know how much you all love our wildlife videos, so we figured we'd spare you the long posts this week with a couple short clips:

In case you missed it, that was two coyotes running off camera with what looks like a piglet. Soon afterwards, the rest of the sounder comes into the frame.

In this video, wildlife rehabber and Conservancy volunteer Vicki Bingaman releases a barn owl (Tyto alba) onto the ranch.

Friday, March 21, 2014

You've Got Some Gall!

Red cone galls on valley oak (Quercus lobata)

Galls on Quercus rugosa in Arizona

Have you ever been strolling around outside and happened upon a bizarre, unexpected plant growth?  Freakishly hairy, spiky, huge, or colorful, like something out of science fiction or a medical manual, these plant “tumors” are the product of one of the most fascinating and intimate relationships directly observable in the wild— galls!

Galls are grown by plants in response to chemical or mechanical stimuli by invading organisms- generally insects, mites, fungi, or bacteria. In other words, an outside organism will rasp, pierce, exchange fluid with, and often lay eggs on a host plant. As a result, the plant grows something totally unique. 

These “gall-inducers”generally use plants as hosts for reproductive purposes—to release reproductive products and agents for fungi and bacteria, and to feed and produce offspring for mites and insects. In the case of insects and mites, there is the added benefit of creating a protective home for the larvae. The resulting growth can take on bizarre shapes, colors, and textures—sometimes mimicking existing features on the plant and sometimes creating something new. 
The "oak apple" is a common gall caused by the California gall wasp

This very intimate relationship is thought to be intricately connected by species. Gall-inducers require not only a specific host plant species, but also specific microconditions-- temperature, humidity and exposure. They can also be sensitive to the particular physiological condition and chemical suitability of the host plant. This minutely connected, mini-magic is wildly complex, as you might imagine, but here is a tiny glimpse into some gall-world generalities. To narrow things down a bit, let’s discuss insect-induced galls.
Galls from golden cup oak (Quercus chrysolepis)
Beaked twig gall wasp gall
  Galls induced by insects generally develop in spring and summer when metabolic activity in host plants is highest.  They can occur on any part of a growing plant, but leaf galls are most common, due to having higher metabolic activity over a short amount of time. Common gall manifestations include leaf and stem swellings, detachable outgrowths, flattened fan-shapes at the end of stems, rolling or folded leaf  edges, hair-lined depressions on leaves, root nodules, and dense collections of small branches and shoots. Often, this is a very consistent relationship between plant and animal resulting in specific size, shape, and color galls- a relationship that researchers have speculated may be due to evolutionary genetic programming. They are so specific, in fact, that often one can identify the species of gall-inducer based on the host plant species and the formation of the gall, without ever observing the species itself.

Fuzzy gall wasp on valley oak (Quercus lobata)
Why are some plants conspicuously covered in galls while their neighbors are not? This is probably due to the environmental factors mentioned above including favorable microclimate conditions, physiological condition of the host plant, and the dispersal capabilities of the gall inducer. For instance, the bacteria that causes crown gall (Agrobactrium tumefaciens) can only enter its host plant through an open wound. Gall-inducing cynipid wasps on the other hand, can fly and probably have access to more distant hosts than the bacteria. Generally, the health and vigor of host plants is not significantly affected by the seasonal production of galls, although some localized damage or stunted growth may occur. 
Rosette (midge) gall on arroyo willow Salix lasiolepis

Although there is still much to learn, plant galls have been documented on every continent except Antarctica, and evidence of galls from 300 million years ago has been observed. Worldwide there are currently 13,000 known species of gall-inducing arthropods. Over 2,000 species have been documented in the US with nearly 1,000 cynipid wasps and 800 gall midges. Gall-inducer dominance varies by continent- while cynipid wasps are our most common gall-inducers in North America, mites and midges dominate the gall world in Asia.

Hairy bud gall on rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus sp.)

If you are intrigued by these amazing relationships, you may want to consider becoming a gall researcher. Cecidology is the study of plant galls and the insects that induce them. 

Russo, Ron. 2006. Field guide to plant galls of California and other Western states. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California.

About the Author:
 Laura has worked as a field biologist in California, Arizona, and abroad since 2001, specializing in endangered species and ecological research and mitigation.  She has a B.A. in Environmental Studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz, and a M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Arizona.  She joined the Conservancy in January 2014.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Wildlife Wednesday: Baja California Treefrog

Baja California treefrog in Comanche Creek 3/31/2013
Although the California drought has reached fabled proportions, recent rains and the persistence of nature remind us that we are indeed entering spring. The hillsides are turning green in all but the lowest San Joaquin Valley grasslands, flowers-though stunted- are beginning to show themselves, and where there is water amphibians are starting to appear. In honor of this last phenomenon, we have decided to dedicate this week’s Wildlife Wednesday to the Baja California treefrog (Pseudacris hypochondriaca).

Anyone who has spent time near western waterways, or watched a movie with a nighttime camping scene should be familiar with the treefrog’s “ribbit” call. It really is hard to beat a chorus of these animals serenading the night. One interesting fact about a treefrog chorus is that it will be initiated by one male, with the rest joining in (NPS). Aside from their sound, these frogs tend to be the most common amphibian found on Tejon Ranch.

Until recently, the Baja California treefrog was not a recognized species and instead had been considered Pacific chorus frog (Pseudacris regilla), which got split into three species based on genetic analysis in 2006. Baja California treefrog became the southernmost Pseudacris in California, with Sierran treefrog (P. sierra) to the north and northern Pacific treefrog (P. regilla) occurring in the far northwest corner of the state. As the map below shows, Baja California treefrog can be found from Kern County south, while Sierran treefrog dominates the central-to-northern part of the state. P. hypochondriaca can also be found east into Nevada and northwestern Arizona. Apparently, a few individuals have made their way to Colorado via nursery plants (USGS). 
Image courtesy of Californiaherps.

In addition to sound and range, the field observer will be able to identify Baja California treefrog by its appearance. Small in size (3/4-2in), this frog can be green, brown, or reddish. In darker individuals, it may be difficult to see the brown stripe across the eye and toward the shoulder. Some frogs may have a distinctive Y-shaped marking on top of their head. 

One amazing thing about this species is that it can change colors based on environmental conditions and nearby predators, such as bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus). However, these animals are not chameleons. According to Western Reptiles and Amphibians, “[Baja California treefrog] May change from dark to light phase in a few minutes, but basic hue does not change. With darkening, a green frog becomes dark green and a brown frog dark brown.” (Stebbins 2003; 222) It is possible to see five individuals of this species that appear to have five different color variations, but they’re still all Baja California treefrogs. 

Baja California treefrog in Monte Field 3/15/2014. Note the dark stripe along the eye.

In the lower elevations and when the weather is moderate (not too hot or cold), Baja California treefrogs may be active at all times of the day. In fact, this species may be active year-round at lower elevations (California Herps). On Tejon Ranch, we have been seeing P. hypochondriacha throughout the San Joaquin Valley, and at a couple of the springs in the Antelope Valley. We expect to continue seeing these amazing amphibians through the spring and encourage all participants on our upcoming trips to spend some extra time near the waterways looking for treefrogs, toads, and other amphibians!

NPS Channel Islands P. hypochondriaca Factsheet:
USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species account:

Nafis, G. “Pseudacris hypochondriaca – Baja California Treefrog." 19 March 2014.
National Park Service. “Baja California Treefrog.” 19 March 2014.
Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Program. “Pseudacris hypochondriaca.” 19 March 2014

Friday, March 14, 2014

Staff Interview: Ben Teton

Ben Teton is the newest staff member for the Tejon Ranch Conservancy, as a Wildlife Technician he will help gather data on wildlife populations throughout the ranch. We would like to introduce him to the TR Conservancy community by asking him a few questions.  

Where are you from? What’s your background?

I am California grown. I was born in the Bay, moved to Santa Barbara as a toddler, which is where I spent most of my formative years. After high-school I figured I might as well go check out some big trees, good beer and crappy weather, so I headed up to the Pacific Northwest where I splish-splashed my way to an undergraduate degree from the University of Oregon. From there I joined the Forest Service and began splitting my year between chasing wildland fires in the summer months and travelling abroad during the offseason. In 2012 I spent the off-season interning with the Leatherback Trust on a remote stretch of coastline in North-Western Costa Rica, where I helped take data on a population of nesting marine turtles. I returned from Central America mostly feral and entirely resolved to commit myself to field biology full-time. I signed up to intern with our local darling of endangered species conservation here in So-Cal, the USFWS’ California Condor Recovery Program. Again I found myself tracking down the eggs of animals who look like they escaped from Jurassic Park, and again I loved every minute of it. From there I got a job, again working with marine turtles, this time for the NPS out of North Padre Island in South Texas. I Returned from Texas last fall and began the enrollment process for UCSB’s Bren School and their Masters of Environmental Science Management. It was my intention to make my triumphant (more or less) return to academia this coming Fall, but having been spirited away by what I can only describe as a dream opportunity for experience and on the job training here and the Tejon Ranch Conservancy, I have chosen to forgo graduate school until 2015. I am now the most recent addition to the Conservancy’s team, and as Wildlife Technician I have been privileged with the task of surveying the great mosaic of wilderness that compose the ranch. Beneath this interview I have included some photographs depicting my first impressions of this incredible place.

Word is that you’ve done a good deal of international travel. Do you have any favorite destinations? How has your travel affected your perspective on biological work?

It is difficult to pick favorites. For me, travel memories, like junk food or old music (see below), are all about the mood I’m in when I happen to stroll down memory lane, or into the fridge, or through the stash of old mix-tapes I have strewn about my truck, whatever the case may be.

My perspective on biological work was entirely transformed by my experience working with the Leatherback Trust in Costa Rica, in tandem with my experience a year before, visiting a sloth-bear rehabilitation facility outside of Agra, in Uttar Pradesh, India.  In both cases small groups of motivated, impassioned people, were working with extraordinarily few resources towards the conservation of endangered wildlife. In both cases not only were they making a real positive impact on the condition of the species of concern, but were doing so in a way that incorporated those local community members most impacted or displaced by the conservation efforts themselves. In Agra’s Bear Sanctuary I saw gypsy families hand over their livelihood by relinquishing their captive “dancing” bears to the facility in exchange for trade skills that they could use to support themselves in a more ecologically sustainable way. In Guanacaste I met life-long turtle poachers turned conservation biologists using their knowledge and understanding of local wildlife to protect the very animals they used to harvest. In this way I have come to appreciate the need for holistic conservation strategies that include the interests of impacted communities and invest in grassroots stewardship at the local level, in addition to the direct protection of wilderness and wildlife species of concern.     

Is there anything in particular on Tejon Ranch you are excited to see?

Rain! Familiarizing myself with the ranch over the last few weeks has left me with the impression that everybody is feeling pretty parched out there. I believe I speak for the seed beds when I say that this year has left something to be desired in the way of precipitation.

Please describe one amazing nature moment you had in 2013.

Last year around this time I was working for the Condor Recovery Program out of Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. I was hiking out one late afternoon to do some remote nest observations when I crested the ridge of a deep canyon to find no less than ten condors flying in concert with one another at almost exactly eye level with me. They were so close I could hear the wind rushing through their great wings. I remember thinking they looked like severely sunburned old men, expertly hang-gliding. They made three or four passes over me while I fumbled with settings on my camera and tried not to stumble of a cliff in awe. To see even a single condor riding thermals in that way is to witness a rare and uniquely Californian expression of natural grace and wild freedom; to see such a grouping (especially considering that for many years that number did not exist in the wild), and in that setting, was an absolute all-timer for me.

We at the Conservancy are pretty big audiophiles. Can you list 5 of your favorite albums?

In no particular order…
Taj Mahal - Recycling the Blues (1972): Taj is my all-time favorite musician, he has been so prolific over the years it is impossible to pick a favorite record. Recycling the blues is an early example of his range and depth.

Talking Heads- Stop Making Sense (1984): There are old home-movies of me at three years old dancing around in my underpants to the original concert movie. What can I say, I’m a David Byrne guy.

DJ Quik- Rhythm-al-ism (1998): Smooth West Coast hip-hop from the golden-era. Reminds me of my high-school days, pretending to be cool, chasing girls and getting into trouble.  

Radiohead- In Rainbows (2007): Seeing this played live was the greatest stage performance of any kind I’ve ever seen. Also, this was the first major band to self-release a record without a record label, offering a pay-what-you-want download direct from the band’s website.      

Valerie June- Pushin’ Against a Stone (2013): Favorite new artist and number one celebrity crush. If you have never heard of her, she’s worth a google, truly amazing talent.

We like to talk about how Tejon Ranch is at the confluence of 4 of Ca’s major ecoregions (southwestern Ca, SJV, Sierra Nevada, Mojave Desert). Do you have a favorite one?

The Eastern Sierra is where I learned to love wild places and so it will always hold a special place in my heart. A as a toddler, my folks threw me in a backpack and hiked me into Tuolumne Meadows. I’ve been a sucker for the woods ever since.   

Besides Tejon Ranch, can you list 5 California locations you love?

Tuolumne Meadows- Like I said, it’s where the dream began!

Henry’s Beach, Santa Barbara- I think it goes by a different name now, I grew up down the street from this beach. I spent more time here than at my house, it is the landscape of my childhood.

Big Caliente Hot Springs, Los Padres National Forest- Santa Barbara’s local hot spring, beautiful and well maintained, minimal old naked men.

Heather Lake, Desolation Wilderness- Desolation gets crowded in the summer, but in the between seasons and off the beaten path, it is absolutely breathtaking.

Lost Coast, Mendocino/Humboldt county- The longest stretch of undeveloped coast-line in the continental 48, may it stay that way forever! 

As I am new to the Conservancy and new to the Ranch, I have spent my first month or so immersing myself in the amazing diversity of plants, animals and landscapes that the ranch has to offer. My camera was by my side throughout this introductory period, and I would like to share with you all my first impressions of the ranch through this brief photo montage. I hope you enjoy!
Sunrise on Cordon Ridge.
Deep beneath the cedars, masses of ladybugs dog-pile for warmth and wait out the winter.
       Hundreds of turkey vultures migrate over the Tehachapi’s from the Antelope Valley
Love conquers all! Colony Collapse, habitat decline, penetrating drought- against all odds, sparks still fly between these two evolutionary soul-mates. 

These Rocky Mountain elk look as stiff and groggy as I did on this foggy morning at Comanche Point.

Red Tailed Hawk taking flight across the Tejon Hills.

Not much variety on menu for this heifer at the mouth of Tejon Creek.

You never know what you might find in among the Joshuas

Tired mounts get a much needed feed after a day on the trail.

Horned lizard looking sporty in profile here on the slopes of the Blue Ridge.

Rudely awakened ravens are thrown about by the high desert winds of Antelope Valley.

Moonrise over the bull pasture.