How to Target the Marmot


The Vancouver island marmot, as it’s name indicates, naturally occurs only in the high mountains of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. They are one of the largest marmot species and are easily identified by their unique appearance. However, this endemic Vancouver Island animal is one of the most critically endangered mammals in the world (All About Marmots, 2008).


In the mid-1980’s, the marmot population on the island was estimated to be over 300 individuals. Sadly, by 2001, their numbers had declined to less than 75 animals (Government of Canada, 2008). This decline is due to a multitude of factors, including human activities, disease, and climate change (affecting where they live and reproduce since they typically live in high-elevation environments); unlike many other cases of endangered species, habitat loss and destruction does not appear to have been a factor (Bryant and Blood, 1999). The major threat to the marmot is predation – at least 80% of mortality is attributable to predation, especially by wolves, cougars, and golden eagles (Bryant and Blood, 1999). The cougar and wold numbers on Vancouver Island have increased dramatically since the 1980’s, which doesn’t help the situation.

There has been many previous actions that groups and organizations have taken in order to help the marmot populations increase, including re-introductions.A study by Aaltonen and colleagues focus on the success rate of captive-born marmots into natural habitats in order to determine whether and to what extent survival and mortality rates of captive-born marmots differ from those of their wild-born counterparts (Aaltonen at el. 2009). By using radio-telemetry and mark-resighting methods, they estimated seasonal and annual survival rates of the marmot to compare the survival and mortality rates of captive-born marmots versus wild-born marmots. They also focused on the effect of age-at-release on survival (Aaltonen et al. 2009).

Their results indicated that annual survival of captive-born marmots released into the wild was low compared to wild-born marmots; marmots released as 2-year-old or older survived more successfully than those released as yearlings (Aaltonen et al. 2009). They found that annual survival rate was lowest for pups and highest for yearlings and adults. Forensic evidence suggested that predation was the most important cause of mortality. What their results indicated was that by delaying the release of captive-born marmots until 2 years of age, their probability of survival in the wild was increased, and thus will improve the success of the release program (Aaltonen et al. 2009).

The Vancouver Island marmot is still listed as endangered today, and their only chance for survival is ultimately up to us. By taking the results of the discussed study and re-introducing marmots at a later age, we might see marmot populations dramatically increase, making the cost associated with rearing marmots for an extra year well worth it.


Word count: 446

Aaltonen, K., Bryant, A., Hostetler, J., Oli, M. 2009. Reintroducing endangered Vancouver Island marmots: Survival and cause-specific mortality rates of captive-born versus wild-born individuals. Biol Cons, 142(10): 2181-2190. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2009.04.019

All About Marmots. [Internet]. The Vancouver Island Marmot [cited March 23 2016]. Available from

Bryant, A. and Blood, D. 1999. Vancouver island marmot: Ministry of Environment. Available from

Government of Canada. [Internet]. Species at risk public registry: Vancouver island marmot [cited March 23 2016]. Available from



Industry vs. Family: A Tale of Two Farms

Pollan, M. 2006. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A natural history of four meals. Penguin Group Inc., New York, NY. pg. 185-273.


What does one think of when they think “soufflé”? Undoubtedly, they think of the immediate taste they’re experiencing; perhaps they’re thinking of the ingredients that have come together to produce the flavors. Certainly, they aren’t thinking about where those ingredients that produce those flavors and form the dish come from, nor where they have been and the experiences they have underwent.

Once again, I am smitten by Pollan’s writing. He is so obviously passionate about his topics, and how we produce, market, and agonize over what we eat. One thing he really gets into depth about is grass. Within the first couple of pages, he regards grass as a keystone species, “the nexus between the solar energy that powers every food chain and the animals we eat” (pg.188). This is interesting, as it’s something I never really thought of: grass is ultimately a way in which we harvest energy from the sun, whether directly (eating a vegetable from the garden) or indirectly (eating an animal which has eaten grass). I never truly realized how accurate it is to call ourselves ‘sun farmers’ – well, true farmers, anyway.

One thing I very much enjoy about Pollan is his writing style, as I’ve mentioned a few times before. He draws us in by telling us his own stories and experiences, which in my opinion, is much better than reading plain facts. Pollan expertly and tactically writes so that his readers can imagine everything he experienced, and immerses them in his own story.

That, to me, is a wonderful thing.

For example, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is an ongoing story he writes about. He mentions previous experiences that he’s already discussed, like when he was watching the herd of cattle: “The last time I stood watching a herd of cattle eat their supper I was standing up to my ankles in cow manure in Poky Feeders pen number 43 in Garden City, Kansas” (pg. 194). This triggered my memory, recalling how disgusted I was in learning how industrial cows are raised. Their food chain reaches all the way back to cornfields in Iowa, to the Gulf of Mexico, and further still; cows that eat grasses eat the sun, so to say. It is obvious quite early that Pollan is pro-grass-eating animals, and I think his intention is to convince the reader the same via his own experiences and facts, and he does an excellent job in doing so.

He also does a wonderful job in explaining and describing how many elements of a pasture work together in order to function. Grass is eaten by cows, who spread and fertilize seed with their manure; cows keep the grass at it’s optimal growing length; chickens root through cow patties to eat the fly larvae within; pigs aerate the cows decomposition into a good compost; compost will feed the grasses, so the grasses can feed the cows, the cows the chicken, and so on. It’s beautifully interconnected, and the farm is “more like an organism than a machine” (pg. 213) – it needs separate structures for it to function optimally. Again, I’ve never thought about it this way before, and it has become more clear to me how farm-grown animals is a more natural choice.

One thing that bothered me throughout this reading is all of the sad truths Pollan points out. First of all, he grudgingly notes that “our civilization and…food system are strictly organized on industrial lines” (pg. 201). That is, they prize consistency, mechanization, and economics, and for those reasons, they use corn to feed livestock. Instead of going for a more natural, ultimately safer and higher quality method of feeding livestock grass, industries go the cheap and efficient route – it’s quite disgusting. Another thing Pollan mentions is how people “put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food” (pg. 240). This is so true. I, for one, put much more thought into that kind of thing than over where the food I eat comes from, and I’m sure most other people do as well. I think we need to become more aware of this, not just because farm-grown food is higher quality, but because we would also be supporting local farms. This can be summed up nicely by the quote, “instead of mad cow disease, we’ve got glad cows at ease” (pg. 247).

Overall, Pollan really attempts to turn the reader off of industrial-based food and instead focus on farm-grown or local food. After all, “we can still decide, every day, what we’re going to put into our bodies, what sort of food chain we want to participate in” (pg. 257). Instead of going for a bland industrial meal, why not try a tastier, more rich local meal? It’s definitely something I am increasingly considering after reading Pollan’s explanations.

So, thinking about that soufflé again. Next time I’m eating a dish, I will concentrate on the ingredients and where exactly they come from, so I can focus on “where this sublime bite began” (pg. 273).

The Desire of Intoxication

Pollan, M. 2002. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Random House Trade Paperbacks, New York, NY. pg. 113-180.


When I first read the subject of the chapter, marijuana, I thought to myself, “great, we get to read all about the high experiences when using the plant”, but boy was I wrong. Pollan takes the subject and expands it into everything we need and want to know. Almost everyone knows that marijuana can give rise to a pleasant high, but I can guarantee that few people really know about the history and mechanisms of the plant.

Pollan starts his chapter off nicely by drawing attention away from the plants that are grown to sustain life, and introducing us to plants that do other, more curious things: “some heal, others rouse or calm or quiet the body’s pain…there are plants that manufacture molecules with the power to change the subjective experience of reality we call consciousness” (pg. 114). Right there. Right there is where I got hooked on the reading, when my interest increased immensely. When Pollan uses great sentences like that, I no longer question why I find his writing to be such a joy to read.

Not only do I like the sentence structure Pollan uses, but he also seems to have quite the sense of humor, which makes reading his content even better. For example, I had quite the time reading his personal experience of growing his own marijuana plants. I found myself literally laughing aloud when I came across the sentence “there they were, a couple of jolly green giants lurking behind the barn” (pg. 122). I also found good humor in the way he described doing any measure to keep the chief of police from discovering his plants. His comical aspect is another reason why I really enjoy Pollan as an author.

Pollan also brings up many interesting points about the marijuana plant and drugs plants in general. He writes that “many drug plants do confer advantages on the creatures that consume them – fiddling with one’s brain chemistry can be very useful indeed” (pg. 142). When I think drug plants, I generally think about the high that one can get; however, they have so much more purpose than that, including relieving pain, increasing concentration, enhancing endurance, and of course relieving stress and helping people sleep. I think the media has conditioned us to believe that drugs and drug plants are all bad, though in reality the truth is that their purposes serve us many benefits – people are just too brainwashed to really recognize this.

Drug plants, in that sense, really are a beautiful thing.

One concept I definitely wasn’t familiar with was the history of marijuana, and Pollan does an extraordinary job of walking readers through it. “The moment humans discovered what these molecules could do for them…the plants that made them suddenly had a brilliant new way to prosper” (pg. 145). I love how Pollan constantly questions who really controls who, plants or people. It always has my mind thoroughly thinking about it, and I can never truly answer it. In the case of marijuana, people recognized its potential, and both humans and plant prospered from such a discovery.

Something I found to be especially interesting is the mechanism behind the compound THC within marijuana works within the body. The human brain was discovered to have its own specific receptor for THC, “a type of nerve cell that THC binds to like a molecular key in a lock, causing it to activate” (pg. 153). This activation can trigger cognitive, behavioral, or physiological changes. It’s almost like we were built to interact with THC, and that to me is fascinating.

Overall, it was both fun and interesting chapter to read. Like I mentioned before, I had no idea about the history or mechanism of marijuana, just knowledge about what it does to the body. However, after reading Pollan’s chapter on the desire of intoxication, it’s much more clear to me why we crave the forbidden plant and its temptations.


Owl They Need is Love


Burrowing owls have got to be one of the most adorable avians, being small, ground-dwelling owls with long legs, brown bodies speckled with white, and no ear tufts (Parks Canada, 2014). If you live in Kamloops, the probability of coming across one is quite high; they prefer flat, open, and sparsely vegetated terrain (Government of Canada, 2016), which Kamloops is notorious for. As the name suggests, burrowing owls tend to live underground in burrows that have been dug out by other small animals like ground squirrels, prairie dogs, or badgers.

burrowing owls

Once, burrowing owls were abundant and a common sight on the grasslands. However, their populations have been steadily declining since the 1930’s – in 1979, they were first labelled as a threatened species, and in 1995, the status decline from threatened to endangered, facing possible extirpation and extinction (Parks Canada, 2014). The main cause of the burrowing owls decline is habitat loss via fragmentation and degradation of remaining grasslands. Grasslands are favorable for agriculture, and thus are disappearing at a frighteningly fast pace. Road kills, pesticides, food shortage, fewer burrow providers, and mortality on migration and wintering areas are other major factors contributing to the species’ decline (Parks Canada, 2014).

A study conducted by Clayton and Schmutz (2010) examined population and ecosystem patterns of burrowing owls in Alberta and Saskatchewan – including dispersal and survival – in hopes of informing conservation strategies in Canada (Clayton and Schmutz, 2010). By radio-tagging the owls, they found that they did not disperse nearly as much as expected for the populations. Limited dispersal was related to the highly fragmented agricultural landscape, increasing search time for both nesting sites and mates and also reducing dispersal success. In addition, where grassland patches were isolated in 90% cultivation, owls dispersed later, for shorter distances and less often (Clayton and Schmutz, 2010). During the study, mortality rate was high, which may have contributed to local declines in the areas. Mortality occurred during migration, winter, and with high predation rates. In this study, they found that ecosystem changes (plant succession, owl dispersion, and predation) was the major contributing factor to the high mortality rates in the burrowing owls (Clayton and Schmutz, 2010).

Both these dispersal and mortality rates are likely to be irreversible, and although the burrowing owl is protected under the federal Species at Risk Act, the species may face extinction in Canada. The public and industries need to become much more informed and involved. Otherwise, the burrowing owls may face an unfortunate fate which could have been potentially avoided.



Word Count: 408


Clayton, K. & Schmutz, J. 2010. Is the decline of Burrowing Owls Speotyto cunicularia in prairie Canada linked to changes in Great Plains ecosystems?. Bird Conservation International, 9(2): pg 163-185.  doi:10.1017/S0959270900002288

Government of Canada. [Internet]. Species at Risk Public Registry: Burrowing Owl [cited 2016 March 9]. Available from

Parks Canada. [Internet]. Grasslands National Park of Canada: Burrowing Owls [cited 2016 March 9]. Available from





Seeds That Kill

Hanson, T. 2015. The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History. Perseus Books Group, Basic Books, New York, NY. pg. 161-175


“Death by Umbrella”. Well that definitely sounds interesting. I thought this book was about seeds? After gaining knowledge about the more innocent, wholesome seeds in the earlier chapters (like beans and spices), it was an abrupt change to read about seeds that have the potential to kill.

Right away, readers are thrown into a dark and disturbing story about Georgi Markov, and how he got assassinated by a seed toxin. Not a classic weapon we expect to see in assassinations, such as guns or explosives, but a tiny amount of product that came from a seed. It’s truly amazing to think about how a seed can produce such a thing, and the author does an amazing job at capturing the attention of the reader right at the beginning of the chapter by introducing such a troubling story of murder.

Hanson definitely focuses a lot on Markov and his death within this chapter, but it is very suitable, especially when he explains just how much (or little, I should say) of an amount it takes to kill a person. He described that the pellet removed from Markov’s body that contained the poison measured less than 1.5 millimeters in diameter and had a capacity of 450 micrograms. Although I wasn’t sure how much this was, Hanson did an excellent job in comparing it to a pen: “press a ballpoint pen lightly onto a piece of paper. The tiny ink-speck it leaves behind  is the size of the pellet” (pg. 164). That is TINY! I would never have expected that little of an amount to harm someone, never mind killing a man.

I’ll be honest, when I first started the read, I knew absolutely nothing about any toxic seed. What they were, how much toxin they contained, how they worked to kill a living organism, nothing; but again, Hanson does an incredible job in taking the reader through all of these, so we get a clear understanding of the concept as well as keeping it interesting at the same time. As a biology major, I found it awesome that he described how ricin works. By describing it’s “double-chain structure” and how it uses both chains, with “one chain piercing the surface while the other detaching inside and wreaking havoc on the ribosomes” (pg. 165), I understand how toxins work to a degree.

That is something I find phenomenal: how such a tiny seed can wreak so much havoc.

Hanson also made me realize how many seeds actually contain toxins, like apple seeds and cherry pits, which are both common fruit. I knew apple seeds contained cyanide, but I never realized people were using it in high quantities to actually kill people. It’s almost scary to think about. However, at the same time, Hanson reminds us that the toxins can also serve as a medicine for many species. For example, primates “shop around the apothecary of the rainforest to help rid themselves of parasites, or relieve the pain of injury and disease” (pg. 169). Seeds are like a double-whammy, possessing the ability to both kill and heal.

Personally, this has been my favorite read so far. Maybe it was because I find the fact that seeds can contain so little yet do so much, or maybe it was because I love a murder mystery story; either way, Hanson captivated me yet again by the simple yet breathtaking triumph of seeds.