News from USGS

Tis the Season? For Holiday Place Names, That Is!
Are national holidays a time or a place? For many, the holidays represent family gatherings with delicious edibles, but for people who live in Christmas, Ariz., Mistletoe, Ky., Candle, Alaska, or Santa Claus, Ind., it is also a place called home. This year, learn about holiday place names by using the USGS Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). It is a fun and exciting research tool containing over two million place names in the United States. The database is used for local transportation planning, regional planning and emergency preparedness.  Many people also use it as a genealogical tool, exploring their family name or history through place names. The GNIS was developed with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to establish uniform name usage in the federal government and provide an index of names on federal maps. Visit to search for unique names of streams, lakes, mountains, or populated places.

More Seasons for Sugar Pines?
The holiday season brings with it the pungent fragrance of evergreen boughs and pine cones. The stately, long-coned sugar pine in the Sierra Nevada of California is such a seasonal emblem. But an exotic fungal disease, white pine blister rust, has caused declines in this and other five-needled pines throughout North America. Long-term data documenting the effects of this disease of concern and another stressor, fire exclusion, are rare, however. Now new research sheds light on the prognosis for the survival of the sugar pine in the Sierra Nevada. Using a unique long-term data set that documents 2,168 sugar pines over 15 years at several sites in the Sierra Nevada, researchers have found that all populations had high frequencies of infected trees; along with white pine blister rust, a large number of tree deaths were associated with crowding in these stands. Computer models indicated that most of these populations are slowly declining. However, while the populations appear to be compromised, they are buffered against rapid declines due to relatively high survivorship of large individuals. The use of blister rust-resistant genotypes and prescribed fire, two strategies already being used the Sierra Nevada to increase sugar pine establishment, have the potential of greatly aiding the recovery of this species. A National Park Service image of a mature sugar pine in Sequoia National Park is online at

A Kiss is Just a Kiss, But Mistletoe is So Much More
The next time you pucker up under the mistletoe, consider this: mistletoe also provides essential food, cover, and nesting sites for an amazing number of birds, butterflies, and mammals in the United States, according to the USGS. That may take some of the romance out of the kiss but it sure makes the more than 1,300 species of mistletoe worldwide (more than 20 of which are endangered) happy to know that you’re thinking about their welfare.
Mistletoes are rather strange plants that grow on the branches of trees and shrubs. In fact, according to USGS biologists, the American mistletoe’s scientific name, Phoradendron, means "thief of the tree" in Greek. Once its seed lands on a host tree, the mistletoe sends out roots that penetrate the tree and eventually start pirating some of the host tree’s nutrients and minerals. But mistletoes are not true parasites; instead they are what scientists call "hemi-parasites" because most of them have the green leaves necessary for photosynthesis. Eventually, mistletoes grow into thick masses of branching, misshapen stems, giving rise to a popular name of witches’ brooms, or the apt Navajo name of "basket on high." The common name mistletoe is derived from early observations that mistletoe would often appear in places where birds had left their droppings. "Mistel" is the Anglo-Saxon word for "dung," and "tan" is the word for "twig." Thus, mistletoe means "dung-on-a-twig." Talk about taking the romance out of that next kiss under the mistletoe! Even though bird droppings do not generate mistletoe plants, birds are an important part of mistletoe life. Birds find mistletoe a great place for nesting, and many birds eat mistletoe berries, including grouse, mourning doves, bluebirds, evening grosbeaks, robins and pigeons. Check out

No Green Martians? but Other Life on Mars? It’s Possible
The Mars rovers found evidence for water, not life. Yet in a column published Dec. 3 in Science magazine, USGS scientist Jeffrey Kargel noted that these rover missions, the European Space Agency’s discovery of methane on the planet, and other exciting finds have led to the conclusion that Mars surely was, and most likely still is, a water world and may have been or perhaps still is a living world. The planet clearly possessed a potentially habitable environment at Meridiani Planum, and the presence of methane is consisttent with the possible current existence of subsurface life. Because of the possibility of life on Mars, Kargel noted that future exploration of the planet must be approached with redoubled caution – even more caution than, say, exploring deep-sea vents or other newly discovered and highly unusual ecosystems. "We are dealing with a whole new planet," says Kargel, "one that has been isolated from Earth since the origin of the Solar System."
Because of this, researchers, engineers and policy makers must develop, test, and thoroughly review planetary protection methods that would fully safeguard both Earth and Mars from biological contamination from each other. Planetary protection issues already have been much discussed by scientists and space policy planners. Kargel says, "Because of the possibility of life on Mars, the issue of safety for both planets is the ultimate reason to ensure that we do not short-circuit planetary protection techniques." 

Lions, and Tigers, and Bears, Oh My! Coexisting with Carnivores
A whopping 32 percent of all carnivores in the world are now at risk of extinction, and human actions are directly or indirectly the cause of most carnivore losses, past and present. A newly published book chapter by USGS scientist Dr. David Mattson provides a global overview and models for the primary factors that help endanger mammalian carnivores such as tigers, leopards, spectacled bears, wolves and even brown bears. Mattson explores questions about what behaviors and human perspectives allow us to live peaceably with carnivores, and what behaviors and beliefs cause conflict. The USGS scientist also examines traits that make certain carnivores less or more resilient to persecution and conflict with humans, and what landscape features exacerbate human-carnivore interactions. The chapter, "Living with fierce creatures? An overview and models of mammalian carnivore conservation," surveys information on predators worldwide and identifies human- and carnivore-related factors that ultimately determine how well humans and carnivores can coexist. The book, published by Island Press, is entitled "People and predators: from conflict to coexistence."

Earthquake Wrap-Up for 2004
How high will 2004 go? What will the largest earthquake be for the year? [Hint: if your answer is "a 10.5 in Seattle" you’ve been watching too much TV?] If you’re looking for a year-end story that may shake up your readers, watch for the USGS "earthquake wrap-up" at the start of the New Year.  So far in 2004, the largest earthquake was a magnitude 7.5 earthquake on November 11 in Kepulauan Alor, Indonesia, that caused 27 deaths. The deadliest was a 6.4 near the n
orth coast of Morocco on February 24; 628 people were missing and presumed dead after that temblor. On average, 18 major earthquakes (magnitude 7.0 to 7.9) and one great earthquake (8.0 or higher) occur annually worldwide. Check out Earthquake News & Highlights at

Subzero Temps in Denver…Yes in December, but in June??? 
While much of the U.S. is experiencing chills now, a unique place in Denver remains frigid year round in order to study uninterrupted, detailed climate records extending back hundreds of thousands of years.  The U.S. National Ice Core Laboratory (NICL), operated by the USGS, is a facility for storing, curating, and studying ice cores recovered from the polar regions of the world.  At -35 degrees Celsius, the NICL provides scientists with the capability to conduct examinations and measurements on ice cores, and it preserves the integrity of these ice cores in a long-term repository for current and future investigations.  Fresh ice is scheduled to arrive at the facility in March 2005, and scientists who manage the NICL are planning a Greenland expedition to capture more cores in June and July of next year.