This Week in Natural Disappearances
Should you care to hear about the vanishing of bats, islands that melt under the relentless hand of time, and the problems facing modern birds, then this is the week for you. I even managed to scrounge up a bit of cave-related news, although I should warn you now, it isn't very good news. I never promised you I would only bring you rosy-colored cave information; I only promised to talk about caves as much as I possibly could before someone at Gawker Headquarters got wise and fired me.
Scientists in Utah have announced that the mountains of Oahu are slowly dissolving from the inside out due to "the slow but inexorable onslaught of groundwater." The dissolving part comes as no surprise; the moment an island breaks through the surface of the water, free at least from the watery prison of an unforgiving sea, the forces of erosion have already set in motion a long con designed to exhaust it back underneath the waves.
This time, however, external erosion will not be what finally does the mountains in. They will be betrayed from within; the groundwater in the very soil has been carrying away the bulk of the mountains' mineral mass every year. There is perhaps another million and a half years left before the sea claims its next inevitable victory over land.
In one of this week's more poignant headlines, California songbirds are falling ill with a strain of salmonella that scientists believe is being spread through bird feeders. It is perhaps less notable than the imminent disappearance of entire mountain ranges, but it matters quite a lot to birds.
Sick birds commonly appear lethargic and, contrary to expectations, a little larger than usual, as their feathers are puffed up. They may also have red or irritated eyes.
These little finches have been driven south in search of food as pine cones, the mainstay of their diet, have become less readily available. If you can think of anything sadder than a sick and weary songbird, feathers puffed up from illness, too weary even to hum, looking desperately for a pine cone, keep it to yourself. I can't bear it.
Birds are dying abroad, too; South African Cape parrots have been reduced to less than a thousand in number after losing their primary food source to deforestation. Whatever food they manage to scrounge in its absence leaves them highly susceptible to beak-and-feather disease (There is a video, should you care to watch it, that shows a number of the sick and dying birds. I would not recommend such a thing to you were it not for the manly tears of conservationist Steve Boyes, who has nursed a number of the birds back to health and releases several of them into the wild toward the end of the clip).
Viewers looking to draw parallels between these events and the mass bird deaths of 2011 should bear in mind that "large mortality events in wildlife aren't that uncommon," according to the U.S. Geological Survey. They should also ask themselves what the U.S. Geological Survey might stand to gain by lulling us all into a sense of complacency about bird deaths, because a skeptical citizenry is the bulwark of our civilization.
The same article goes on to point out that nothing is wrong with birds, birds are fine, it's the bats we have to worry about:
In the past three years or so, more than one million bats in the U.S. have died from a fungal affliction called white nose syndrome.
The bats are important pollinators for several plant species, and "the mortality is astoundingly greater" than the blackbirds, says Mr. Slota. But public interest is meager.
There is an entire website dedicated to the study of this disease, which has grown so widespread that the Forest Service was forced to restrict cave access:
Regional Forester Daniel Jirón signed an extension to an emergency order today to restrict access to all caves and abandoned mines on National Forests and Grasslands in the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service (Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas). The intent of the closure is to minimize the risk of the human spread of the fungus (Geomyces destructans) that causes White-nose Syndrome.
Nothing good can come of leaving abandoned caves and mines to their own devices. They have already shown themselves to be independent of the evolutionary process and there is no telling what subterranean race will heave itself up from the cold black riverbed and open unseeing eyes for the first time if we withdraw our presence from caves. We cannot leave them; we must not leave them.