Ecology And Environment

A look at Communities within Ecosystems

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An Exciting Day at the Ecotarium, a Study in Ecosystems.

The exhibit that I observed for fifteen minutes was the pond ecosystem, where I focused on the interactions surrounding one of the Musk turtles. This exhibit also includes another Musk turtle, a few other types of turtles, frogs, snakes, and some insects that are found in a pond ecosystem.

The habitat for these organisms contains two main parts: the land, marked by dirt, logs, and plant life, and the pond water part, marked by pond water and aquatic plant life such as algae. When my observations began, the Musk turtle was swimming at a medium depth in the pond water. Although the Musk turtle has claws, its feet are rounded and webbed which helps it adapt to swimming in the underwater pond environment. The claws are useful for when the Musk turtle is on land. The Musk turtle remained under the water for the first twelve minutes of my observations.

Musk turtles are exothermic and use swimming underwater as a way to cool themselves, so perhaps the land environment was too hot under the lights for the turtle. The other Musk turtle was underwater the entire time I observed the exhibit. This second Musk turtle was perfectly still and lodged between a log and a rock. Its behavior seemed to indicate that it was at rest, or perhaps sleeping. The behavior of this second Musk turtle seemed to make the first Musk turtle curious, because the first turtle approached the resting turtle on three separate occasions during my observations. Each time, the first turtle would swim up behind the second turtle, and nudge at it with its head. The second Musk turtle seemed to not even acknowledge this first turtle's presence. I think that the first turtle may have been trying to get the second turtle to move, so that it could steal this prime underwater resting place.

The Musk turtle was able to stay underwater for long periods of time because it breathes through its skin while swimming. Towards the end of my fifteen minutes, the Musk turtle gave up its attempts to rouse the second turtle and exited the water part of its habitat. The turtle climbed onto a log and sat in the light for the next three minutes. The Musk turtle was probably basking in the light to warm itself after its long swim.

There were many endemic and non-native species found at the Ecotarium. Some of the endemic species include fresh water mussels, bald eagles, and the red tailed hawk. The fresh water mussels are filter feeders; this means that they eat microscopic aquatic organisms and filter the rest of the water through their bodies. The manner in which the mussels eat actually improves the clarity and quality of the fresh water in which they live.

In Massachusetts, seven of the eleven known fresh water mussel species are protected by law because of declining populations. Although the zebra mussels have been a major threat to native mussel species in the Midwest, our native Massachusetts mussel populations are threatened by agricultural run-off from farms. Once the mussel populations fall to a certain level, reproduction can be hindered simply because the population density is so low that the mussels are not in close enough proximity to each other to reproduce.

The red tailed hawk population in Massachusetts is remaining steady. Many speculate that certain settling practices in the past have favored the survival and reproduction of this species. For example, the clearing of some land and construction of tall telephone poles has allowed the red tailed hawk to perch and hunt its prey, which eats small mammals, birds and reptiles. Furthermore, the red tailed hawk has very few natural predators, although humans often use them in falconry to hunt or pursue game.

The trapping and use of red tailed hawks by humans is regulated by state and federal governments. Red tailed hawks, like all native organisms, are an integral part of the Massachusetts biome.

Some non-native species found at the Ecotarium include the scarlet macaw, the African millipedes, and the polar bear. The scarlet macaw is naturally found in humid forest climates in Mexico as well as in Central and South America. The African millipedes are found in tropical and subtropical environments in Africa. Polar bears are native to the arctic areas in Alaska, Canada, and Russia.

One ecological principle that I was not aware of before our trip to the Ecotarium is the idea of keeping a member of a certain species safe in captivity, but not breeding or raising any more members of that species in captivity. I encountered this principle at the river otter exhibit.

The river otter, like most of the animals at the Ecotarium, was either injured and rescued, or born and raised in captivity. Thus, these animals do not have the skills necessary to survive out in the wild. The Ecotarium cares for these animals, but does not promote breeding and raising animals in captivity.

Although I was not aware of this policy before visiting the Ecotarium, I think that it is a wonderful idea. I believe that by taking in injured animals, we are doing that particular animal a great service because it may have died if left out in the wild. In exchange for taking care of it, the local community benefits by being able to observe and learn about a species they would not have otherwise seen, particularly in the case of non-native species.

I am pleased with the Ecotarium's policy of not breeding any species in captivity, because the idea of animals being born into captivity has always seemed unfair to me. Humans and animals are all part of the delicate environment that we share, and it is a cruel manipulation of nature to try to breed these animals in captivity and alter their lives and populations.

I am glad that the Ecotarium chooses to not interfere with natural populations and the balance that is achieved through species interactions (such as symbiotic relationships) and the food web. Animals raised in captivity lack the ability to live outside of that captivity, and are so far removed from a truly natural habitat that they do not have natural predators and are given their food on a timed schedule. In fact, both the river otter and the polar bear would move towards where their food is delivered every time they heard the sound of the cars that the staff drive around in, even if it wasn't their feeding time. These captive animals have been conditioned with entirely different stimuli than they would encounter in the wild.

The barn owl, or Tyto alba, is a species native to Massachusetts that is currently of special concern to the U.S. Dept. of Wildlife. This status means that there has been an observed decline in the local barn owl population, and that if this decline continues unchecked, then the barn owl will become an endangered species and be in danger of extinction.

Because the barn owl is of special concern in Massachusetts, it would be a likely candidate to end up as an exhibit in the Ecotarium if one were found injured in the wild.

If the Ecotarium selected me to plan and design an exhibit for a barn owl, I would first design a large outdoor exhibit. I would choose the outdoors because this is a native species that can tolerate the local weather. The exhibit would need to be large in area so that the barn owl could fly and hunt in a similar manner to how it had done these things in the wild.

The average wing span of the barn owl is 38 to 44 inches. The barn owl prefers grassy areas, such as those found near fresh or salt water marshes. My design for a habitat would include a marsh with a large amount of grasses and local plant life. The barn owl makes its nest in hollow trees, and so my exhibit would include a couple of trees with hollow parts so that the barn owl could choose where to build its nest.

The barn owl hunts small rodents, such as mice or meadow voles. My barn owl habitat would include giving the barn owl live rodents to hunt on a nightly basis, since barn owls are nocturnal.

If at all possible, it would be ideal to recreate a fresh water marsh ecosystem so that natural populations of rodents could thrive, but the food web is very complicated and with just one barn owl the rodent population could grow incredibly fast. This is why I would suggest adding one or two small rodents to the exhibit nightly, rather than letting the rodent population go unchecked in the barn owl's habitat.

As long as the barn owl's habitat includes trees to nest in, grass to make the nest, and small rodents to eat, the barn owl should be able to thrive in the environment and live a comfortable life in captivity.

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