Foiling Foreign Foliage: Invasive Plant Atlas

Invasive Plant Atlas

The invaders are here. Actually, they’ve been here. Not only that, they’ve put down roots. The University of Georgia’s Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health (a collaborative project with the Plant Conservation Alliance‘s Alien Plant Working Group, the folks behind Weeds Gone Wild) maintains a database of information about the perniciously pesky plants that invade natural areas in the U.S. The database, known as the Invasive Plant Atlas, contains a wealth of useful information for students interested in ecology and the effects of organisms that end up where they shouldn’t be.

Soaring Back from Certain Death: the Cahow

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés


In 1515, not too far from Bermuda, aboard a sea-going vessel bound for San Domingo, an anxious 37 year old fellow paced up and down the deck. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés wanted very much to make landfall. The nearby island fascinated Oviedo. Before 1505, no one in Europe had even known of its existence. The isle was so close. Yet, Oviedo’s ship was held at bay by less than accommodating winds. To pass the the time constructively, he observed a peculiar species of bird that was adept at feasting upon flying fishes.

The avian object that pleasantly distracted Oviedo’s is now known as the cahow (Pterodroma cahow or Bermuda petrel). In the year Oviedo observed the species, the birds most likely probably numbered well over a million. Though fun to watch, the birds were a source of an eerie nocturnal cries that spooked early Spanish seafarers. Owing to superstition–the sailors thought the isles were inhabited by devils–the Spanish steadfastly refused to colonize the islands. This turn of events bought the cahow a little time.

The respite was very brief.

The English had no problem settling down in the area. What followed was bad news for cahows. The birds and their eggs were easy prey for British inhabitants and the invasive dogs, cats, and rats that were brought over with settlers. So many birds were lost to predation that, by 1615, they were thought to be completely extinct.

But then, something remarkable happened. young cahow

In 1945 a full-grown cahow washed up on the beach at Cooper’s Island, Bermuda. The event prompted a noted ornithologist named Dr. Robert Cushman Murphy of the American Museum of Natural History to mount and lead an expedition to search for evidence of the bird’s existence. Being an amiable fellow, Murphy invited a thoughtful, adventure-seeking boy to come along. On January 8, 1951, that 15 year old boy helped Cushman re-discover the bird. The event was so moving to young David Wingate that he dedicated his life to bringing the cahow back from the edge of destruction.

Image of David Wingate as a young man

David Wingate

The story is related in Lucinda Spurling’s moving 2006 documentary Rare Bird. The exciting documentary tells how a species of bird and a determine boy teach the world about the power of perseverance. Despite invasive species, the poisonous pesticide DDT, and unbridled development and the looming threat of climate change, the cahow and its champion refuse to give up.

Related resources:

  • Official site for the Rare Bird documentary
  • Audubon works to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity.
  • ARKive has an amazing collection of organisms from all over the earth, including the cahow

Spouting Off About WDCS

WDCSIf you teach conecpts related to Biology and/or Environmental Science and have students who are intrigued with aquatic organisms, you might want to dive into the resources amassed by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. The WDCS site has engaging content that’ll inundate eager minds. For example, check out the WDCS’s visualization of a life size image of a Blue Whale. Be warned that this particular image of a Balaenoptera musculus does take a little while to load in your browser. After all, it’s huge! That said, when the image does finish surfacing, you can use your mouse to explore the length of its body without having to don a wetsuit or suffer the pressures of the deep.

Related links:

What a Difference a Day Makes: Superfund365

What do your students know–if anything–about the world they’re poised to inherit? Sure, they’re filing into a high school class to meet state requirements for their education but how much do they know about the environment they’ll one day be responsible for safeguarding? Do they care? Do your students know where the presidential candidates stand on environmental issues? What about their parents? What about you?

Even if you don’t teach Environmental Science make a point to check out Superfund365. Why? Each day since September 1, 2007, Superfund365 has been visiting a toxic site currently active in the Superfund program run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This unsettling online archive consists of almost a years worth of visualizations of some of the worst toxic sites in the United States. That’s somewhere around a quarter of the total number–YIKES!–on the Superfund’s National Priorities List (NPL).