In Praise of Dead Trees

Pileated Woodpecker Flying (3753)

[D]ying and dead wood provides one of the two or three greatest resources for animal species in a natural forest … if fallen timber and slightly decayed trees are removed the whole system is gravely impoverished of perhaps more than a fifth of its fauna.
–Charles S. Elton, The Pattern of Animal Communities, 1966

I recently attended one day of the four day long Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) held at the University of Oregon.  One panel in particular titled “Rethinking Forest Health” serves as the inspiration for this post.  The panel included George Wuerthner.  The purpose of the panel was to reconsider what it means for a forest to be in good health.  Wuerthner’s portion of the presentation focused largely on the need for dead trees and down wood in a healthy forest—a requirement no less vital to forest health, according to Wuerthner, than living trees.

I was most interested in the many ways that wildlife—including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and others—depend on the presence of dead trees.  Below are some examples drawn from the available scientific and technical literature (bold emphasis on species names has been added):

  • Primary cavity excavators, such as woodpeckers, make cavities in dead trees for nesting and roosting.  Many woodpeckers explicitly require dead trees for such purposes as they are unable to puncture sound wood.  This has led Swedish researchers Angelstam and Mikusinski to conclude that the presence of woodpeckers is “not compatible with intensive forest management.”
  • Secondary cavity nesters, such as red squirrels, flying squirrels, bushy-tailed woodrats, and many species of bat, do not create their own cavities but nest in cavities made by the primary cavity excavators. (Source)
  • “Hollow logs may be homes for returning marten, fisher, lynx (Lynx canadensis), bobcat (L. rufus), bear (Ursus spp.), raccoon, and numerous other creatures.” (Source)
  • Shrew-moles (Neurotrichus gibbsii), shrews (Sporex sp.), deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus), salamanders and frogs may use smaller cavities in the decaying wood for thermal and protective cover, in addition to foraging on the various insect larvae harbored there.” (Source)
  • “[S]everal mammals use floating logs including mink (Mustela vison), river otter (Lutra Canadensis), and beaver (Castor canadensis)” (Source)
  • Beetles and ants are primary cavity excavators.  They raise their young in the cavities they create in dead wood. (Source)
  • Honey bees and wasps frequently use hollow logs, decayed trees, or other cavities to build their nests.  In turn, animals such as bears often rely on the insects who make their home in dead wood as an important food source. (Source)
  • Rodents, snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus), gray wolf (Canis lupus), and wolverine (Gulo gulo)…use down wood as maternal or resting dens” (Source)
  • Larger animals may use snags (standing dead trees) to evade predators; likewise smaller animals can use down wood as cover to avoid aerial predators.
  • “Loose bark on dead trees may also provide nesting crevices for brown creepers (Certhia americanus)” and certain other birds. (Source)
  • “Logs provide cover for mountain lions (Felix concolor) at diurnal bed sites and at natal and maternal den sites.” (Source)
  • Red-backed voles use logs extensively for cover and food, eating mostly fungi and truffles, many of which are associated with logs.” (Source)

The above examples focus exclusively on what dead trees and down wood—commonly referred to as “coarse woody debris” in the relevant literature—provide to animal species.  The list could be expanded with both by listing additional benefits to animals but also by listing benefits to plant life or things such as preventing erosion and enriching the soil.

In intensely managed forests—glorified tree farms—dead wood is often nearly absent wheras  “[i]n naturally dynamic forests dead wood is a dominating feature and makes up 30-40% of the total wood volume.” After a single logging event, dead wood may be reduced to 20 percent and after several logging rotations, dead wood may be a mere one percent of the total volume of wood that remains. (Source)

Current logging practices are often defended by pointing out that a clearcut, for example, might sometimes appear to mimic large scale fires.  The significant difference in these cases is that even intense fires tend to consume less than 10 percent of available wood whereas clearcuts can remove upwards of 95 percent of available wood.  Wuerthner describes this down wood as a “biological legacy” in contrast to the timber industry which often characterizes it as “wasted” or “squandered”.

During the question and answer portion of the panel that inspired this post, Wuerthner was asked what this information meant for the prospect of “sustainable forestry”.  Admitting that his answer was likely to be “unsatisfying” and imprecise, he suggested that any rate of harvesting timber that was economically viable was almost sure to have exceeded a sustainable level.

Perhaps an alarming conclusion for those with an almost religious faith in the idea that industry and nature can co-exist; less alarming for those such as Aldo Leopold who, albeit resorting to a mechanical metaphor, asked: “who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first rule of intelligent tinkering.”


Wild Fire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy by George Wuerthner

Proceedings of the Symposium on the Ecology and Management of Dead Wood in Western Forests (2002)

“The Seen and Unseen World of the Fallen Tree”

“All Treesearch publications were written or produced by Forest Service personnel and are in the public domain.”

Animals Made to Order

Jackson Laboratory entranceThere is a scale of violence that can only be achieved by a civilized society.

Free people with simple tools are just not adequate for the realization of some tasks.  Warriors can only do so much without the support of bureaucrats and the tip of a spear cannot reach as far as a predator drone.

Most helpful to achieve certain levels of violence is rigid hierarchy, wage or slave labor, complex technology, standardization, mass society, and a cool distance (physical or psychological) between assailant and victim.  In short: people need to show up for work and the trains need to run on time.  To the extent that these things are missing, the scale of violence will almost necessarily be diminished.

Enter Jackson Laboratory.  They have achieved a scale of ongoing violence that is difficult to conceive.  They provide a key part of the infrastructure of the animal experimentation industry.

A staggering number of the mice who fill the cages in animal laboratories around the world originate from JAX Mice & Services, a division of Jackson Laboratory based in Bar Harbor, Maine (with additional locations in Sacramento, California and Farmington, Connecticut).  Approximately two-thirds of Jackson Laboratory’s $214 million 2011 operating budget was dedicated to JAX Mice & Services.  From June 2010 through May 2011, JAX Mice distributed over 3 million mice to more than 900 institutions in 56 different countries. And more than 1 million live mice are held at the Bar Harbor headquarters.

But as The Connecticut Mirror has explained:

“[t]hese aren’t just any mice. These are the product of a sophisticated, highly controlled and protected mouse-breeding operation.  They live in rooms designed to be impenetrable to the smallest unwelcome microbes, in cages stacked floor-to-ceiling and supplied with filtered air that changes once a minute. They’re cared for by handlers wearing protective suits, who know their inbred charges so well they can spot a potential genetic mutation that even a biologist might not notice.”

JAX Mice has over 7000 different genetic strains of mouse available for purchase by animal experimenters around the world.  Many of the varieties have been bred specifically to exhibit particular pathologies or to develop various diseases.  The “features”—or more accurately, ailments—of each genetic strain can be found by using the extensive JAX Mice online database.  Using their advanced search, one can search for mice by “phenotype of interest” or “human disease of interest.”  Their database can also be searched by “disease term


Stock Number: 000646
“It is highly susceptible to cortisone-induced congenital cleft palate. It has a high incidence of spontaneous lung adenomas, and lung tumors readily develop in response to carcinogens.”

To begin to understand the full scope of what JAX Mice offers it is worth taking some time to explore their database.  Here are a few examples of what can be found with even minimal effort:

  • If you were looking for mice who would develop tumors with unusual frequency you would have over 200 strains from which to choose.  You could then decide that your preference is for muscular tumors, skeletal tumors, tumors that develop on the eye, tumors that develop in the urinary system, the respiratory system, or the reproductive system.
  • You can find mice with heads that are of an abnormal shape or size.
  • You can find mice who have been bred to be obese.
  • You can find mice who suffer from paralysis and can select a strain with either front or hindlimb paralysis.
  • There are mice who age and/or die prematurely.
  • There are mice who suffer from a very wide range of eye abnormalities.
  • There are mice with abnormally high or abnormally low pain thresholds

Every one of these conditions—and countless others—is a deliberately inflicted injury.  The people at Jackson Laboratory are literally selecting for illness; breeding for disease and pathology.   They may often speak of finding cures but their routine activity is the deliberate imposition of suffering on millions of individual animals.  Furthermore, this suffering is generally amplified once the mice arrive at their final destination and are used in experiments at other institutions which can be highly invasive and most often deadly.

So those are some of the mice…but what about the services referenced in JAX Mice & Services name?  If mice are the raw material, services may be said to provide the “value added” portion of their operation.

The JAX Mice site has a page titled “JAX Surgical & Preconditioning Services”.  Experimenters can order mice with diet induced obesity, mice of various ages, and/or pregnant mice timed to deliver pups after being sent through the mail.

There are also various surgical procedures that mice may be subjected to prior to being shipped out.  There is a lengthy list of “standard surgeries” they will perform for a set fee.  They are willing to remove various organs, insert microchips, or do a brain cannulation.  The brain cannulation procedure is described on their site as follows:

The cannula implanted in mice consists of a guide cannula and a dummy cannula. The guide cannula is placed into the brain at predetermined coordinates through a hole drilled in the skull. The dummy cannula consists of a cap that screws onto the guide cannula and has a stylet that inserts into the guide cannula to prevent materials from entering it when it’s not being used.

brain cannulation

Brain cannulation

JAX Mice & Services boasts that: “We can age JAX Mice to display one or more of a variety of disease phenotypes, such as Alzheimer’s, alopecia, cancer, diet-induced obesity (DIO), and diabetes.”

The possibility of inflicting debilitating injury on an individual prior even to birth—effectively imposing cradle-to-grave suffering—may initially seem odd when in fact it is has become commonplace.  Human children are increasingly poisoned in the womb, being born with a heavy body burden of industrial chemicals.  They are then nursed on breast milk that may contain “DDT (the banned but stubbornly persistent pesticide famous for nearly wiping out the bald eagle), PCB’s, dioxin, trichloroethylene, perchlorate, mercury, lead, benzene, arsenic…paint thinners, dry-cleaning fluids, wood preservatives, toilet deodorizers, cosmetic additives, gasoline byproducts, rocket fuel, termite poisons, fungicides and flame retardants.”  (This is not to question the prudence of breast feeding for both mother and child; in a toxic world, this rocket fuel laden diet seemingly remains the best option available.)

Stock Number: 000697"Mice homozygous for the diabetes spontaneous mutation (Leprdb) become identifiably obese around 3 to 4 weeks of age."

Stock Number: 000697
“Mice homozygous for the diabetes spontaneous mutation (Leprdb) become identifiably obese around 3 to 4 weeks of age.”

In sum, the mice at Jackson Laboratory are simply further along the same trajectory of domestication that we ourselves are on.  If they are a paradigm example of what it means to be domesticated; we are nonetheless following the same path even if we have not received our Stock Numbers yet.  Not surprisingly, there is a wide gulf dividing so-called laboratory mice and their wild counterparts; for example, research results on laboratory mice cannot be reliably extrapolated to apply to field mice.  The former have been too thoroughly manipulated to shed light on the later.  But there is reason to be hopeful and to believe that the project of domestication is never complete, that fissures remain like cracks in concrete.

In 2003, Manuel Berdoy, an animal behaviorist from Oxford University, released 75 thoroughly domesticated and docile rats into an open field.  The rats who had never previously been outside very quickly began to engage in the wild behavior of their peers, behavior that was suppressed when they were confined to a laboratory.  They developed natural social hierarchies, mapped paths through their new terrain, and found food that was radically different from the pellets that were provided in the cages they left behind.  Berdoy has said that:

“This shows that while we can take the animal from the wild, we have not have taken the wild out of the animal,”

The wild remains in every one of us regardless of how long we have lived in a cage.


Stock Number: 002726
“exhibit a phenotype similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in humans; becoming paralyzed in one or more limbs with paralysis due to loss of motor neurons from the spinal cord.”

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