Pro tips on physical distancing from the nonhuman world

Get lit, howl and mind your paws.

 

As a service to readers, High Country News has removed the paywall from all COVID-19 stories. Please consider supporting our work by donatingsubscribing or sending us tips.

Humans are a social species, and physical interaction keeps us healthy. Or, as the late Bill Withers wrote, “The city really ain’t no bigger than the friendly people, friendly people that you meet.” But COVID-19 has made it difficult to meet those friendly people. The lucky among us, who can physically isolate without worrying about our health, our jobs or our loved ones, still have to cope with loneliness.

Here are a few tips on being social from a distance, gleaned from some of the West’s most experienced social distancers. We hope you’ll find some welcome distraction here. At the very least, may this list remind you that if you’re seeking unique ways to stay in touch, you’re certainly not alone.

Western fireflies: Let your light shine, even from afar.

Many people never notice Western fireflies, perhaps because these beetles dwell in habitats favored by mosquitoes — think grassy fields, marshes and other humid places — and they tend to get the bioluminescent party started after 10 p.m.

The West’s fireflies are pros at keeping in touch: Their flashing lights are visible across the length of a baseball field on a summer evening. To potential predators, the flashes warn: Stay away! I taste terrible. (To potential mates, they say Oh hello, though moving from messaging to meeting may be risky: Some female fireflies use flash patterns to lure in males from other species for a fresh meal.)

If you’re sheltering in place (as you should be, if you can), remember: You can still find ways to dazzle from a distance. 

Grasshopper mice: Keep the pack posted.

Hunting prey in family packs across the West, grasshopper mice are like tiny wolves — they even throw their heads back and howl to each other. They may be making territorial calls, or they may be letting their pack-members know that they’ve caught dinner. These fierce nocturnal predators of deserts, prairies, and grasslands hunt insects, other rodents, and even scorpions.

During a pandemic, it’s important to keep in touch with family and friends. Just be like a grasshopper mouse and do it from a distance — if not by howl, then perhaps over video call.

Oh, and if you’re trying to avoid the grocery? Take inspiration from these resourceful rodents: When they catch a Pinacate beetle, which defends itself by spraying a foul, toxic liquid from its rear end, grasshopper mice ram the beetle’s backside into the ground so it can’t spray, then chomp down on its head and abdomen, leaving its stinky behind, behind. You shouldn’t be afraid to eat creatively, either.

California aglajas: Heed public warnings, even the gooey ones.

A snail relative that doesn’t live in a shell, this sightless, predatory sea slug lives on the Pacific Coast as far north as central California, on mudflats and rocky beaches, and in tidepools. A dark chocolate color with thin yellow and white stripes and dashes of turquoise, California aglajas follow fellow sea slugs’ mucus trails to find a mate. (Although the species is hermaphroditic, the follower generally provides the sperm to fertilize its partner’s eggs.) If a California aglaja is seriously disturbed as it goes about its business — say by a curious human — it exudes something different from the usual mucus: a bright yellow mixture containing an alarm pheromone. If another aglaja encounters the gooey yellow roadblock, it turns away and heads off in another direction. Perhaps, the second sea slug is offended that the first one has given up on even trying to find toilet paper.

Or perhaps there’s a bigger lesson here: If you do venture out for exercise, mental health or necessities, pay attention to public information to keep yourself and others safe.

Polar bears: Leave a message.

Even if COVID-19 means you’re on a solitary journey right now, you can still find ways to leave signs and messages for others — who might be excited to discover that someone is thinking about them, too.

Bears of all kinds, from pandas to grizzlies and black bears, communicate through odor. Trail cameras in Alaska have documented grizzlies scratching and rubbing up against trees, marking them with their scent. Multiple bears will scent the same trees for years. But on treeless, barren sea ice, what’s a solitary ursid to do? The messaging gets complicated for polar bears, who range potentially thousands of miles in a year across a frozen landscape in search of seals and other prey.

Instead of marking trees, polar bears leave smelly footprints in the snow for other bears to sniff out. (Their feet have the same kind of sweat glands that make humans a little sweatier, and a little stinkier, when nervous.) By taking a whiff, polar bears can learn important things about each other — size, sex, reproductive state — without ever coming in physical contact.

Even if COVID-19 means you’re on a solitary journey right now, you can still find ways to leave signs and messages for others — who might be excited to discover that someone is thinking about them, too.

Mycorrhizal fungi: Try to be helpful, wherever you are.

Since long before Instagram existed, or even AOL Instant Messenger, the nonhuman world has had social networks. Beneath the West’s forest ecosystems, mycorrhizal fungi, webs of filaments thinner than human hair, connect trees. Sometimes, those trees are related; other times, they aren’t even the same species. In Oregon, fungi connect Douglas firs to tanbark-oaks, for example.

Mycorrhizal fungi, which can’t photosynthesize, get their sugars from trees. In exchange, the trees get nutrients such as nitrogen, an essential protein building block they can’t produce on their own. The fungal networks also carry sugars to other trees in need.

Though there’s no evidence that the trees are deliberately trying to help each other, there’s still a lesson here: There are plenty of ways to support your community, even if you’re stuck in place.

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor at High Country News. Email her at mayak@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor 

High Country News Classifieds
  • YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: THE TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO THE NATIONAL PARK
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.