Friday, November 4, 2011


It was great having a few weeks off to enjoy the changing of the seasons in the mountains. The aspen trees turned their glorious gold, the oaks and serviceberry turned into ruddish browns, and soon the peaks had dustings of snow. We went on little hikes to scenic Spud Lake and the ghost town of Ironton. A longer overnight hike took us to Blaine Basin at the foot of Mount Sneffels, which had really neat examples of glacial moraines still actively eroding, along with a couple of waterfalls to explore.

You might think that Mt. Sneffels and the surrounding public lands in its shadow was included in the Mount Sneffels Wilderness, but you'd be wrong. The exciting news is that there is pending legislation before congress to be reviewed on November 10th to expand it by 22,000 acres to include the mountain! Please pester your favorite politician to make it happen, since it is an uncontested no-brainer of a designation; the only industry impacted, recreation, has grandfathered exemptions to continue heli-skiing and the hardrock races.

As Aldo Leopold eloquently said, "the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech."

We made one last trip up to The Meadows to visit George before the snows set in. We're glad we did, since the upper elevations were soon socked in with snow. Wolf Creek Pass got over 36" and the ski valley had its earliest open season ever on October 8th. Since I hadn't been skiing since Snoqualmie a few years back (on its latest open day ever, May 25th), we had to check it out. The snow was great, but they only had enough staff to run 3 lifts. Whoa, I needed the practice!

Then it was time to pack up and drive the long, lonely road home.

Friday, October 7, 2011

End of the Season

One of the wonderful aspects of working at Mesa Verde is the opportunity to make casual discoveries while walking about. Last year, it was a parrot figurine we found at Yucca House that piqued the interest of the archeologists. This year we were surveying the only known population of Acer grandidentatum (big-toothed maple) to exist in Colorado, which only grow along the north escarpment in the park. The terrain is really steep in places, so it's some of the least explored, and this is when I stumbled across Squirrel-Bear. I call him that, because the body looks like a bear to me, but the long tail makes me think of a squirrel. The archies were interested in him too, so they picked him up and brought it back to the lab for scrutiny. Surface finds like this, especially without the context of an ancient ruin nearby, can be tricky to date, but squirrel-bear was unique enough to that it was important to investigate. Looking under magnification, it became clear that the quartzite was worked by steel tools, and therefore historic. While it's not 100% conclusive, it was probably a Navajo fetish, since near the area was an old hogan and sweat lodge. Alas, probably not cool enough to go on display in the new visitor center, but it made me keep my eyes open.

The past few weeks of work went by very quickly, as they always seem to do. We headed into areas of the park I had never visited before, which is always a treat. One of the archeologists had spotted Ulmus pumila (Siberian Elms) growing in an ancient kiva on Battleship Rock. The kiva was one of the largest I had seen, although mostly buried under sand and shrubs. It was an interesting place to be, mostly since the archie escorting me was kind enough to take the time to explain all that I was seeing. After that, I spent a week with the Lake Mead EPMT team chasing weeds and dodging lightning bolts.

One of the biologists had placed a wildlife camera at one of the springs and got a series of amazing images of these pumas. I had seen a few paw prints and drag marks, but I'd never seen a mountain lion before... and still haven't... but I'm certain they've been watching me.

On my 2nd to last day, they needed someone to rotate onto a wildlife surveying shift... in a helicopter! My crew-boss graciously asked them to let me go, since I had been whining about missing a helicopter flight last year (2 of my crew last year were flown to a fire). This was my first time on a 'copter, so wasn't sure what to expect, so I popped some Dramamine and waited for the shift. My job was simple; look out the window for wildlife, call out anything interesting, waypoint it, and writedown the location, sex, and count.

The 'copter took off, turned, and started flying towards the south-east corner of the park to begin a series of North-South running transects. We were flying low, but also somewhat slow, to give us a chance to survey. It was really awesome flying over canyons... the same canyons that would take a half day long slog of a hike and were were just into the breezing blue like it was nothing but a walk in the park. The eastern mesa ends in a series of cliffs and steep slopes down to the river, so the 1st transect was fun topography... oh, there's an ancient ruin... I wonder why no sagebrush grows there... hey, is that an eeellllllkkkkk!?!?!? The co-pilot had just pointed out a herd of elk and before I knew it, the pilot had spun the copter and begun a dive at the same time, spiraling in close to allow the biologists a chance to photograph them. The first spiral-dive really caught me unawares, and I was suddenly glad for the dramamine as I fumbled with the GPS unit and tried to listen in on the counts. After I knew what to expect, it wasn't so scary, but there were certainly IMAX-like scenes of ridges and cliffs looming before us, especially along the north escarpments. The coolest thing was watching the pilot maneuver the 'copter broadsides down a canyon for survey photography-- it was really unnatural to look out the front when the motion was sideways with a pronounced yaw.

It was a terrific way to end the season; now if only I could fly home instead of drive. I won't be leaving for a little longer, since watching the aspens turn color and seeing the first major snowfalls are great incentives to stick around and I have the free time to soak it in. Meanwhile, is anyone interested in a not-so-gently-used alarm clock?

Sunday, September 18, 2011


It's about time to post an update before the clamor of blog readers impatient for the next post becomes too much to bear.

It's the final week of my season here at The Rock. I've finally managed to explore some new areas of the Verde, such as Park Mesa, Battleship Rock, south Long Mesa, and south Prater Ridge. I've learned a little more about archeology and a lot more about plants. Projects are winding down, with our Long Term Post Fire Monitoring study complete, rare plant surveys completed, and most of our major re-vegetation projects finished.

On the weekends, we've revisited a few nice sites, such as Ice Lakes, and explored new areas, such as Owen's Basin, Crater Lake and Cajon Canyon. The weather has been fairly stormy this past month, with a chance of thunderstorms each day that keeps us on our toes. We've been rained on every hike, even when traveling into the normally dry canyons of Utah.

Now it's time for the Philosopher's Corner: What's the deal with exotic species?

There is a difference between non-native and invasive, and it related to the amount of damage the species is expected to cause. In the case of managing a natural area, damage is often to the biodiversity and function of the ecosystem. A non-native species may exist in a natural habitat and not cause undue damage, or perhaps even enhance the stablility of the ecosystem, such as the african violet or european honeybees. But a species that works to unbalance an ecosystem can destroy the biodiversity or even change the fundemental nature of the ecosystem.

Good examples of this type of damage can be found in Cheatgrass in western states, or the Paperbark tree deliberately introduced into the Everglades. In the case of Cheatgrass, it acts as a fast-growing annual that dies back in the summer. Aside from it's ability to crowd out native annual plants, the potentially more nefarios problem with this growth pattern is it creates a catatrophic flash-fuel type into ecosystems not adapted to frequent wildfires. Mesa Verde National Park has old growth Pinyon-Juniper woodland with the only surviving relic stands of Bigtooth Maple trees in the state. There are many species of endemic plants such as the Cliff Palace Milkvetch and Mesa Verde Stickseed. The presence of cheatgrass has resulted in wildfires being both more frequent, more intense, and having the ability to spread across terrain. Over the past 30 years since cheatgrass has appeared in the park, fires have destroyed almost 50% of the old growth forests and cheatgrass is more prevalent. Thus cheatgrass passes the first two tests of a noxious weed for management decisions here: does it impact the ecosystem? is it's trend increasingly problematic?

The Paperbark tree was intentionally introduced into Florida as a fast growing tree that could lower water tables and there make land available to agriculture. It worked extremely well... too well, since it escaped the private lands it was introduced on and spread across the state. Lowering the watertable to a wetland and shading out understory plants is obviously a game-changing problem for most of what makes a swamp a swamp. Both the structure (watertable) and the composition (species composition) are changing and biodiversity decreases.

So these two examples pass the test of being noxious within the parameters of a given ecological community (a biome), and get branded as invasive. Before a land-manager decides to start tackling such a problem, there's a lot more decisions to be made first. How much of the management area is currently disrupted, what charactertics are resulting in the spread, and what difficulties would there be in treatment? For now, nobody has determined a good technique to halt the spread of cheatgrass. The paperbark is fortunately a difference story, perhaps as a lesson that "the bigger they are, the harder they fall", and managers in Florida have found effective ways to control its impact.

Some invasives are likely here to stay, such as russian thistle. Trying to eradicate it would be like a game of whack-a-mole across an entire landscape. Other invasives are specific to smaller regions, such as Australian Pines in the Florida Keys, and managers have a decent chance at eradicating it from the landscape.

As far as worrying about what "natural" is seems less of a problem for most land managers. Biodiversity and ecosystem integrity are the goals, and ironically some of our ecosystems benefit from manmade disturbances. It is well documented that most prairies, especially in eastern states, were maintained by fires set by Indians. Trying to put a tallgrass prairie in a bubble where no humans can maintain the landscape would likely result over time of it growing into a forest, which is called succession. These are biomes that require an occasional "reset" to maintain themselves or they slowly fade into something different. Of course, even the best intentioned researcher can create a disaster, such as the accidental introduction and spread of chytrid fungus into a nature reserve. Considering that many protected natural areas were created in response to a rare species, spending time and effort to counter threats such as invasives to their existence is certainly resources well spent.

Recommended reading: "And No Birds Sing: A True Ecological Thriller set in a Tropical Paradise"

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mesa Verde and the Monsoons

It's midsummer, and that means "monsoon" rains in the southern rockies. They are welcome for the rain they bring to keep the flowers and grasses growing, but they also are needed for keeping the heat down. The anasazi stylized the thunderhead clouds that is represented in many of their pottery and kiva paintings, so it's keeping the faith in the four-corners to appreciate them... even when it cancels your hiking plans.

Most of the storms are isolated and fast moving, just enough to make you run for cover and dampen the ground, but every now and then the mountains seem to grab hold of the clouds and not let go. In mid July, we had a storm at Mesa Verde where they recorded 1,850 ground strikes in a few hours. The bolts started a dozen small fires, and the sharp lookouts had spotted most of them. The following day the fire crews worked at full tilt, sending crews out to each blaze and using a helicopter to assist in finding new fires. Low winds and high humidity made it easy to snuff them out.

Despite the bad weather, we have been getting stuff done. We completed some surveys of the Schmoll's milkvetch (Astragalus schmolliae) along a portion of Chapin mesa, hiking past a ruined watchtower and cliff dwellings. We released a few more batches of Trichosirocalus horridus to feast upon the musk thistle. Long term monitoring plots of the burn areas are also being established; so far we've completed 25 of 100 that need to be done for sampling.

The weather also gave us enough breaks to go climb Wilson Peak and hike along Hope Lake. The wildflowers are going full bore in the alpine areas, where most of the snow is now gone. Elephant's Head, Castilleja rhexifolia, Monk's Hood, Delphinium, Bistort, Columbines, and many others are all blooming. Pikas scamper along the rock slides, harvesting grasses and drying them in little cute haystacks before storing them in their burrows for the long winter. Snow still persists along the north faces and other areas protected from the sun, but it is melting fast.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Goodbye George

This is George T. Mouser; cat, companion, and fuzz factory.

born: circa 1993
died: July 23, 2011

George was as friendly of a cat as you could ever hope to meet. I found him in an animal shelter in Texas 18 years ago, and he'd been purring ever since. If you ever found a cloud sailing overhead with a touch of grey, that was probably motes of his cat fur that have been circumnavigating the globe for the past decade.

There's so many memories he gave us, like the time he came home pink (still a mystery), the time he summoned satan to scare away an opossum, the time he bawled like an evinrude outboard gettin bogged down in the mud (and was so mournful I had to stop the car to tell him he was a good boy), the time I patrolled my neighborhood until 3:30am to bring him in before a huge storm to find him up on a roof, and that he never once tried to hurt anybody -- including the many vets that poked & prodded him painfully, and being the best nap kitty in the world.

George began slowing down past Sunday evening. By Tuesday evening, it was clear he needed to see a vet. He was in Complete Renal Failure, and despite several days in the hospital, there wasn't anything that could be done to help him. He rallied a few times and tried so very hard to eat and drink for us, but since he could barely walk, losing energy, and in discomfort, we agreed it was time to let him rest.

We found a nice place to bury him in the mountains, close to heaven in a shaded grove with wildflowers blooming all around. If you ever find yourself in a field so beautiful and find a ring of small stones, say "hi" to George and tell him we can't wait to see him again.

We miss you George, rest in peace.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Into the Big Blue

The Seeps & Springs monitoring has completed. We were able to combine the activity with some rare plant survey work as well. As always, it's a fun assignment, since we need to find routes into the back-country canyons that are seldom visited. We were able to locate a rare orchid, Epipactus gigantea, aka Giant Helleborine. Some of the routes through the canyons were challenging, but adventurous, we passed by many ancient ruin sites along canyon walls and hunted through thickets of Rhus toxicodendron (poison ivy) as tall as us.

For the holiday weekend, we met with family for a campout at Silver Jack reservoir. My orchid radar must've still been tuned, for we hadn't been there for more than 30 minutes before we found a nice patch of Calypso bulbosa (Fairy-slipper orchid) blooming in the woods next to melting patches of old snow drifts. I had been to this area a few years ago (thanks, bro!) to climb Courthouse and explore the area. This trip the goal was to dabble into the wilderness to see what the proverbial bear could see.

We hiked along the East Fork of the Cimmaron river for 6-7 miles before turning back. The snow melt along all the ridges provided us with a grand total of 27 waterfalls seen along the hike. Only 3 of them appeared large enough to last all summer. To celebrate the end of the trip, we had planned to soak in the Ouray Hot Springs, but the pool was beyond crowded. After a huge meal and a marzipan mouse, we left happy.

And now for my 4th of July Soapbox edition: Local geographers really need some imagination! If I had a nickel for every Bear Creek, Clear Lake, Lookout Mountain, Turkey Gulch, etc... I'd have enough to pay a therpist for all the angst these repetitive names cause me. Each county here has a Bear Creek Trail, so that's 4 Bear Creek Trails within a few hours drive... Sunlight Mountain, Storm King Peak... you'd think those would be slightly more original, but there's multiples within the Colorado Rockies. Equally mind-numbing is naming a natural feature after a person. Lame! So I propose geographers comb through this lousy nomenclature and put at least 5 seconds of thought before giving a major landmark a name.

Which is a nice segue into my next rant. Botanists, get your taxomy stable for once! Not only are the names churning constantly, but even the family definitions are fluid. I know there's good reasons behind some of the churn, but some of it is just stubborness and following rules for the sake of rules. Easy for me to complain about, but common names sometimes seem more useful (although some are miseleading, redundant, and worthless too). Still, it's strange to express disdain for regional common names when the scientific names are regional and temporal.

Finally, I'd like to wish STS-135 a wonderful flight as Atlantis and the space shuttle fleet flies for one last time into the Big Blue.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Southwestern Solstice

Seeps and Springs monitoring has begun! This involves hiking out into the backcountry to springs that were known in the past and measure their current water flow. For Mesa Verde, often the flow rate is slower than a trickle, just enough to keep the sand damp; hence the term "seep". These springs are important for wildlife and can host isolated populations of riparian plants and animals, such as the Utah Tiger Salamander.

Often, many of the springs were known to the ancestral puebloans, so it is not uncommon to find archeological sites on or near the springs. One spring in School Canyon is along an outcropping of clay soil that looks like it had been an area were clay was collected for making pots or perhaps stucco. Pottery sherds littered the ground and a few areas look like they may have been firing pits. Other springs we monitor are at more famous cliff house ruins, such as Balcony House and Spring House. These springs were considered sacred, and still are revered by modern pueblo tribes. It is not uncommon to see offerings of shells and turquoise associated with them. Archeologists (who were mapping the Spring House ruins with a camera to track how cracks in the walls were changing over time) were gracious enough to invite us behind the leaning tower and see the spring hidden behind the walls. According to archeologists, the columns supporting the ancient roof there are rare to find outside of a kiva, so it is likely the spring chamber was a place of worship too.

On the solstice, I went on a survey to listen for the calls of the Mexican Spotted Owl. The Spotted Owl had nested in the park up to 2006, but it has unfortunately not been seen since. Before sundown, we had some time, so I helped the biologist set a few live traps to remove desert packrats from the Spruce Tree House structure. Walking behind the structure; snaking through tiny doorways in dusty rooms, and seeing the last rays of the solstice sun make beams of light on the back of the cave, was a fun experience. We heard poor-wills, great-horned owls, and a western screech owl, but no spotted owls. Let's hope for next year!

Another interesting research task was surveying the only known population of Acer grandidentatum (Bigtooth Maples) in Colorado, which exist along the north escarpment of Mesa Verde. A wildfire had swept across the ridge in 2006, which reduced the population size from 100-300 to 6-10. We had searched about 25% of the known area and found 3 saplings, so there's hope a few more are to be found when we complete the search.

Hiking out and about in the Four Corners always feels like discovery could happen around any corner... lots of geology, archeology, and varied biology lend itself to this feeling. In fact, Al Schneider, self trained in botany, has discovered a new species in the area: Packera mancosa -- the Mancos-shale Aster. So, with renewed enthusiasm, I am teaching myself botany in hopes I can both key plants out and learn what's going on all around me.

But perhaps the most exciting chance at discovery for the average Joe has been launched: imagine you have joined the crew of a sailing ship, exploring uncharted waters to a vaguely known destination. The captain asks you to man the lookout, your mission is to discover new land and steer the $650 million ship traveling at 150 times faster than a speeding bullet to the hitherto unknown destination... your only charts to study are some hazy projections pulled from Magellan's library.

Yes, this is an unprecedented chance for some schmuck like me to not only discover a new planet (ok, a minor planet like Pluto), but have it visited shortly after discovery. Icehunters here I come!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Strange Skies

I awoke early one morning at the end of May to lots of squawking from the Magpies that built a nest in one of the Utah Juniper trees near the house. I glanced up to see a huge turkey vulture glaring down from the cottonwood tree, but that was not what was upsetting the magpies. Instead, one of the chicks had died. One by one, each of the dozen magpies in the yard would fly up to the next and cry loudly for a minute, and then fly away. Magpies are one of the few species that have documented behavior of a funeral (although many species have been shown to display grieving behaviors).

For a few windy days, we've also experienced strange, smoggy skies from the Wallow Fire in Arizona. Most of the southwest has been very dry this year, so wildfire is a big concern. Over the Memorial Day weekend, gusts of up to 50mph were stirring up dust and sand across the Four Corners. We had decided to visit the canyons of Utah to explore some ancient publeoan ruins. As we hiked Mule Canyon and Butler Wash, the sky was a salmon-grey color and occasionaly sand would sting the eyes and a hat would careeen down the canyon. It seemed fitting weather for exploring 1000 year old cliff dwellings.

The morning we hiked the northern reaches of Grand Gulch, the skies were clear blue and wonderfully cool. We saw several interesting ruins, some with kivas that had views of an arch, and another with a turkey-pen still intact. Everywhere there were sherds of pottery, corn husks, and charcoal fragments. A few ghostly handprints and other art were drawn on many of the cave walls.

The mountains are still too snowy for hiking above 9000 feet, but that didnt stop us from trying. We hiked to the base of Lizard Head in drifts still as much as 4 feet deep! The whole mountain side was flowing with meltwater, so it'll be muddy for a few more weeks. Any suggestions for next weekend?

This Wednesday, June 15th, will be a great chance to see a total lunar eclipse, and get ready for a Vesta Fiesta soon as Dawn releases its first images of Vesta.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Mesa Verde National Park

Here's my Top Ten list of things you may not know about Mesa Verde National Park:

1. Identified as an IBA (Important Bird Area) by the Colorado Audubon Society

2. Designated by UNESCO as a World Hertitage Site for it's nature and history.

3. Under the Clean Air Act, it was designated as a Class I Air Shed, which means the air quality is supposed to be as good as it gets, and is protected by law.

4. Part of the Nature Conservancy's southern Rockies Network of Conservation Areas.

5. A component of the Park Mesa Research Natural Area.

6. Recognized as a Colorado Outstanding Waters due to the Mancos River forming the eastern edge of the park's borders.

7. Considered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to be in the top 25 National Parks most vulnerable to climate change, with a climate monitoring station established at Far View.

8. A member of the SCPN (Southern Colorado Plateau Inventory and Monitoring Network), which conducts surveys of Long Term Monitoring Plots inside the park.

9. the Colorado Plateau is considered by the International Dark-Sky Association to be one of the best night skies in the country.

10. In the top 28 Places to See Before You Die, a bucket list published by Smithsonian Magazine.

Meanwhile, my crew-leader's boss's boss has established a reward to the person who reports the most interesting (from the general public's perspective) wildlife sightings during the summer season. The list is weighted towards the classic charismatic megafauna, with Big Foot topping the list at 100 points! Wish me luck!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

May Daze

Work is progressing swiftly. The wildland firefighter red-card refresher course was held last week, along with the dreaded pack test. Fortunately, my flat-lander feet could keep up the pace and finished in plenty of time. Whew! While I was off doing that, my coworkers were assisting a botanist from the University of Colorado's state Natural Heritage Program. They visited several pre-existing study sites and inventoried the plants they found. The exciting news is they may have found a new species of Astragalus to add to Mesa Verde's species list. It's preliminary, but if they are positive in their identification, they hope to submit a voucher for it.

I suppose to counter a possible first, I should include a photo of a definite last. This skull is the last known Desert Bighorn to have lived in Mesa Verde. The wildlife biologists are still hard at work to attempt a reintroduction, and perhaps soon the bighorn will be seen once again along the cliffs of Mesa Verde.

This year, there is much more emphasis in qualitatively analyzing the native flora, as well as accurately mapping out weed infestations. Dare I say, I have been blind-sided by science. The new crew is well versed in botany, so I need to catch up so that I can contribute what I can.

To help me gain some traction, I attended a field trip this past Friday to Narraguinnep Canyon Natural Area. In a rare moment of political precognition, these natural areas were set aside to serve as reference types for a particular ecosystem. Therefore, Narraguinnep can be studied to understand what a "natural" (as natural as humanely possible) Ponderosa ecosystem should look like. Of particular interest in this area is the realization that old growth Ponderosa forests are the best defense against forest fires, much like a mangrove hammock resists the destruction of a hurricane.

I'm slowly learning my plants, so be prepared for more latin words and a "Plant of the Week". Today's plant of the week is Lithophragma parviflorum the Woodland Star. It is common saxifrage upon the mesa tops, and blooming now. It also highlights why I need to learn the real names of plants, because another common plant Lithophragma glabrum, also called Woodland Star, is a different species, which can be distinguished by tiny, red buds along the infloresence. There will be a quiz later!

For a weekend reprise from plant ID, we went to see the mountains still buried in snow and hunt down a few geocaches. The highlight was seeing Cornet Falls breaking free of its icy prison.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Happy Arbor Day!

It's good to be back in the four corners once again. The mountains are still sleepy with snow on their shoulders, and it snowed on my first day of work! On the day we arrived, it was very windy and "Arizona came to visit", which is how the locals describe the dust storm that accompanies the strong southwest winds.

This season, there are only 4 members on the vegetation crew, but we have a new ecologist to help direct the program. Our immediate goals are focused on surveying for rare plants, especially in areas where the public may visit. We hiked the Petroglyph Trail to view some Wild Parsley and Cliff Palace Milkvetch. A short trail to an overlook of Cliff Palace may also be created, and we will consult the trail crew on how to route the overloook trail to prevent Cliff Palace Milkvetch and Townsend Daisies from being lost.

Especially exciting was our hike down to Square Tower Ruin. It is an iconic ruin, but previously only visible from an overlook. This year, archeologists are considering opening up a trail for the public to tour it this summer. There are many rare plants along the trail, including an endemic variety of stickseed (Aletis MacDougalli) and Schmoll's Milkvetch. Our goal is to monitor those populations, since it is inevitable some will become trampled.

Visiting Square Tower ruin from below was a real treat, since it is still so much intact without restoration. A kiva with its roof still intact and some plaster on the walls can be seen. Rock art and sherds are still present, and some of the rooms are painted. The enigmatic Crow's Nest ruin can also be seen much better from below, perched above the tower. I found a Packrat's nest underneath a boulder who had smuggled out an ancient corn cob. Ironically, it's a raven that nests in an alcove above Crow's Nest.

So this first week has been a great start to the season, and it looks like I'll learn a LOT more plants this year -- the good ones, not the bad ones.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Lionfish: the other white meat!

Just 10 years ago, researchers noted the presence of about 10 lionfish scattered across the east coast of the United States. There was concern that the lionfish would become invasive, and within a few years, hundreds were being seen along the coast of the Carolinas and northern Florida. While I was living in the Florida Keys in 2007-2008, there was alarm the lionfish was coming, but I never saw them in my dives around Big Pine and Key West.

This past March, my Dad invited me along on a diving trip to Little Cayman Island, and I saw first hand the power of of the sigmoid curve of unchecked population growth. We saw several lionfish on every dive, so clearly the population is thriving. The good news is that lionfish are a beautiful addition to the reef: it is their exotic and striking looks that made them a hit with the aquarium trade, which likely resulted in the contamination of the east coast by dumping unwanted adult fish.

The bad news: they are voracious predators, especially of juvenile fish. They will clearly have economic impacts to the grouper and snapper fisheries, and ecological impacts could be more devastating if they can exploit coral reefs in preferential ways. The immediate problem is that there are no predators that view them as a food source, except people brave enough to avoid their poisonous spines and fry em up.

Researchers have been looking into training reef sharks in the Atlantic to prey on lionfish, since sharks are their natural predators in the Pacific. This is proving difficult, apparently because sharks make crappy students. The dive team at Little Cayman Beach Resort have found some willing students: the friendly, and sometimes lovable, Nassau Grouper. Some of the grouper are excited to see scuba divers enter the water. They swim over to greet the divers and follow them around like a puppy dog. Some are so friendly, they have been given names, such as Benji and MiniMe. When the dive masters encounter a lion fish, they point it out to the grouper, which then chomps it down in one bite! Hopefully, the grouper will learn that lionfish are prey and help balance out the current unchecked population growth.

One problem with this scenario is the Nassau Grouper is often overfished. For the past 7 years in the Caymans, the Nassau has been under limited protection on Little Cayman due to devastating overfishing, but those protections are set to expire. Please sign this petition to inform the Cayman Island government that protecting the Nassau Grouper from over-exploitation is in the best interest of everyone: including the fisherman... and ultimately even the lionfish. If anything exploits a resource to the point of an ecosystem crash, everyone loses.

We had a great time in the Caymans, and saw many wonderful sights. We saw so many hawksbill sea turtles, we became acclimatized to swimming along an endangered species. Coral reefs are just a riot of strange colors and shapes, but with some practice we began seeing more and more each dive. The island itself had its own set of rare animals, such as island tree snails, lion-tail lizards, and rare rock iguanas. I was also lucky enough to add two birds to my lifelist: the largest colony of Red Footed Boobies in the Caribbean and a Bananaquit in need of voice lessons. On unrelated news: I'm returning to Mesa Verde National Park for another season!