Invading pythons threaten the Florida Everglades

The Burmese python, one of the six largest snakes in the world, was first brought into the U.S. as a pet but now threatens to take over the Everglades.

In Asia, where the Burmese python is a threatened species, they are captured as pets and killed for their skins and organs to be used in traditional medicines. In recent years, they have become extremely popular as exotic pets in the U.S. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 6,140 Burmese pythons were imported into the U.S. and thousands more were bred in captivity in 2004 alone.

The Burmese python can be easily purchased and can grow in a year from 20 inches to eight feet long. They can grow up to 20 feet, live 30 years, and weigh up to 200 lbs.

Naturally, as these pets grow, they needed larger prey to feed on, from small mice to rabbits. Many owners became tired of their pet pythons (and their expensive feeding regimens) and resorted to dumping them into the Florida Everglades. These abandoned pets successfully found food, shelter, water, and started breeding.

The Burmese python is native to South East Asia and is a carnivorous predator that normally preys on birds and smaller mammals. They capture their victim by seizing it with their teeth, wrapping their bodies around it, and contracting their powerful muscles to crush it to death. This hunting mechanism means that a Burmese python can eat almost anything that moves. Now that they have infested the Everglades, they may end up eating to extinction some of the sensitive ecosystem’s most endangered species.
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The Burmese python has bred and colonized to the extent that it is now considered an invasive species. Other members of invasive species are the famous zebra mussel in North America and parts of Europe, and the brown tree snakes in Guam that wiped out 10 of the 12 native bird species in the territory. Invasive species are the second-largest threat to endangered species after habitat loss. They are defined as non-indigenous species that heavily colonize a specific habitat they invade and threaten to adversely affect these habitats economically, environmentally, or ecologically.

Invasive species colonize so rapidly because they have no proper competitors in their new environment. In Asia, jackals, monitor lizards, disease, and parasites limit the number of Burmese pythons, but in the Everglades, once they reach up to two years old, they have very few predators. A single snake can lay one hundred eggs every three months. Once an adult, the snakes will strangle and swallow anything that lives in the Everglades. Since they began colonizing the Everglades, the pythons have risen to the top of the Florida food chain, competing for the top spot with native alligators.

Dead pythons have been found with the remains of bobcats, deer, and the previously endangered alligator in their bellies. A 15-foot dead python was found split open at the gut with the remains of a six-foot alligator bursting out of its stomach. More concerning ecological cases have arisen, include one python being caught and killed with the remains of two Key Largo wood rats in its gut—representing one per cent of the 200 members of the species believed to still be alive. There is concern that one day the Burmese python will even kill one of the 100 precious Florida panthers thought still to exist.

Burmese pythons, however, are usually fairly docile towards humans. They tend to lay in wait for their prey and shy away from people. The bad news is that now other pythons have started appearing in the Everglades, and they are not as gentle.

A report released by the U.S. Geological Survey in the fall of 2009 identified two other python species, the Northern and Southern African pythons, also pose similar threats to the area. In addition to these are six other reticulated pythons, including boa constrictors and four species of anacondas that could potentially become a threat. The Southern African python has been known to kill small children.

To combat this problem, wildlife officials are using traps and other eradication methods and are considering offering bounties to skilled hunters. As of yet, hunters are free to sell the skin and the meat of captured snakes (which can be worth up to $35 per pound) with the guts being kept for analysis. Scientists are also experimenting with ways to lure the snakes into traps using of pheromones as bait.

New regulations are being considered to limit the amount of abandoned pets, such as requiring proper licensing and implanting the snakes with identification microchips.

Let this be a lesson: if you’re going to buy a cool and carnivorous pet, go small. What are you going to do if it grows bigger than you?

Rebel prof not done yet

Denis Rancourt, a former tenured University of Ottawa professor who was fired last year after giving everyone in his fourth-year physics class an A+, wants his job back. Rancourt hopes to win a labour law arbitration case against the university so he can recover his job and laboratory.

“The truth is my dismissal was a political firing to remove a dissident professor,” Rancourt wrote in an email. “In the case of a devoted independent thinker and dissident committed to exposing the Lie of higher education, any conflict leading to dismissal will always be complex and involve many factors and incidents.”

Rancourt has accused Maureen Robinson, a U of O undergrad and student journalist, of being a “covert information gatherer” for the university between 2006 and 2008 and having collected information about him.

The University of Ottawa told The Varsity it could not comment on Rancourt and must respect confidentiality and its legal obligations in the case.

In an email to Maclean’s, Robinson said Rancourt’s allegations were “libellous” and that “there was no covert surveillance.” She said she worked for U of O in an assistant administrative role and declined to say whether she worked on Rancourt’s case, citing legal proceedings.

Rancourt, who taught physics at the university for 22 years, is a critic of the grading systems used by most universities. Instead, he advocates a non-conventional grading system that is meant to focus exclusively on discussion and independence, rather than marks.

“I chose to use a student-centred grading method based [on] individual progress and effort and I expected high grades from the approach based on my experience with student response to this non-competitive self-motivated learning,” wrote Rancourt. “In my professional opinion every student deserved their grade.

While Rancourt’s dismissal concerned only one of two fourth-year physics courses given to him in the winter 2008 semester, in which all students who did not drop these courses received A+, he has handed out very high grades on other occasions.

The class average in a large first-year physics course that Rancourt taught in 2007 was over 90 per cent.

Rancourt argues that his treatment at the university was unjust because the university’s Executive Committee of the Board of Governors made its decision to fire him in the early afternoon on March 31, 2009, hours before the midnight deadline to submit his final documents to the board to consider.

“The Committee minutes about the decision state and confirm that the final brief was NOT considered by the Committee,” said Rancourt. “This was noted as one of several significant breaches in my rights and of natural justice by the union lawyers assigned to the case.”

In November 2009, Rancourt filed a union grievance accusing the university of engaging in covert surveillance.

Rancourt said he remains active in university affairs despite his ongoing legal matters: “I continue to write, to co-host a campus radio show, to expose university malfeasance, and to give lectures and teach in my colleagues’ classes.”

News and crime in brief

York student suspended for anti-Semitic postings

Salman Hossain, a student at York University, has been suspended from school for posting anti-Semitic messages online.

Hossain, a former U of T student, is also currently under investigation by the OPP Hate Crimes and Extremism unit for writing online material promoting genocide against Jews.

The Canadian Jewish Congress urged police for the past year to investigate Hossain. Bernie Farber, the group’s CEO, told the National Post that the Jewish community is “now breathing a sigh of relief” and that “York has done the right thing.”

Hossain was known to police as long as three years ago, and was facing charges last year for similar online messages. Ontario Attorney General Chris Bentley did not proceed with the case last year because the postings were removed and Hossain was undergoing rehabilitation at the time.

A hearing to determine Hossain’s fate at York will be held within the next two months.—Louise Daurio

Source: National Post

Red Loin offends some

The University of Manitoba’s equity service office is examining the latest issue of the engineering student magazine to determine if it is offensive.

For the past 35 years, U of M’s Engineer Society has published a magazine three times a year called Red Lion. The magazine is specifically for engineers and is only available in the engineering faculty buildings. Their fourth issue is a joke issue, called Red Loin.

This year’s issue contains sexually explicit articles in which male engineers tell women how to pleasure them. It also contains statistics on the speed of ejaculation, duration of erections, penis length, average size of nipples and vaginas, average duration of male orgasm, and erection angles.

Megan Lusty, the head of the Engineering Society council, said the magazine is meant to entertain, not offend. Faculty members have stepped forward to say they find the magazine offensive, that it objectifies women and is a clear example of why engineering continues to be a male-dominated profession.—Charlotte Tombs

Source: Winnipeg Free Press

U Windsor investigates cheating

The University of Windsor is looking into possible cheating on a first-year psychology midterm, which could mean 1,100 students will have to rewrite the test. According to a student, the Feb. 26 midterm had 80 questions derived from the professor’s course kit and 40 derived from course lectures. This kit, provided by the publisher, contained a disc of the answers to multiple choice test questions. The disc is believed to be the source of the answers.

The course’s professor, Kenneth Cramer, sent an email to all students after the exam stating that the Academic Integrity Office has “substantial evidence to show that the test bank for [the] Lefton text has been compromised, circulating among the students.”—CT

Source: The Windsor Star

Crime briefs

  • While most of February saw routine offences, two major incidents occurred at the end of the month. On Feb. 28, campus police investigated a report of sexual assault at 44 Devonshire Ave. A car crash happened the same day at King’s College Circle.

  • The month turned up 26 thefts, 15 counts of mischief, 16 occurrences of trespassing, 12 medical assists, and a single noise complaint.

  • Five unattended laptops and a bike were stolen, as was $400 in cash. Another count of grand theft under $5,000 was reported. Six thefts happened on Feb. 8 alone, when the lockers of three students in Morrison were raided and three similar thefts occurred in other buildings.

  • On Feb. 24, as a blizzard gave way to slippery roads, medical assistance was required for a person who slipped on the sidewalk and another who fell off his bike.

  • Robarts Library took the prize for the most active spot, followed by Gerstein and 70 Harbord St.—Haman Mamdouhi

Ontario wants more students

Ontario plans to add 20,000 post-secondary students this year as part of its ambitious five-year plan, announced lieutenant governor David Onley in the Throne Speech Monday, opening the second session of the province’s 29th parliament.

“That’s the equivalent of a whole new University of Guelph,” read the speech. “Every qualified Ontarian who wants to go to college or university will find a place.”

The Open Ontario Plan aims to raise Ontario’s postsecondary education rate from 62 per cent to 70 per cent, adding to an increase of 180,000 spaces in college, universities, and apprenticeships since 2003.

The plan will also see the development of a new Ontario Online Institute that will allow students to take courses from a number of colleges and universities from home. Positions for international students, who currently spend $1 billion per year in Ontario on rent, groceries, and clothing, will increase by 50 per cent in the next five years.

The plan got mixed reviews from student leaders at U of T. “When they make an announcement like this that they are expanding the education system and making it more accessible to more students, that is pretty exciting for us,” said James Finlay, running for VP external in the upcoming UTSU elections. “But I think we’re waiting to see the fine print and the details. We’re not strangers to good news, but good news isn’t always how we expect it to pan out.”

Zexi Wang, Finlay’s opponent in the UTSU race, wrote in an email, “Without additional funding for full-time professors and quality in smaller class sizes [this plan] will exacerbate existing problems of large class sizes and inaccessible professors and teaching staff. […] I am also concerned that the plan to increase international student spaces… it’s ridiculous that they basically become treated as cash cows in our system.”

Hadia Akhtar, the current VP external at UTSU, was unavailable for comment on this story.

The Throne Speech and the Open Ontario Plan have both faced criticism from Ontario’s opposition parties.

“They remain wedded to the same out-of-control job-killing taxes, spending, and new debt that turned Ontario into a have-not province in the first place,” said Tim Hudak, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario.

“Ontario families worried about their jobs, their health care, and the growing cost of living got a Throne Speech that offers lots of talk, but little action,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

The Open Ontario Plan also proposed a Water Opportunities Act to capitalize on the province’s clean-water technology; to increase chromite mining while working with Aboriginal communities and mining companies to protect 50 per cent of the boreal forest; a Green Energy Act; and a $32 billion investments in roads, bridges, public transit, and energy retrofits for schools.

Gimme GC

Graduate Constituency I—Humanities and Social Sciences: 4 candidates, 1 seat

Olivier Sorin, the incumbent candidate, said that one of his accomplishments was improving communication between students and admin by setting up regular meetings with deans and vice-deans. His goals for next year are to increase support for first-time TAs. Sorin said he was putting the finishing touches on a proposal with fellow governor Greg West to provide funding for sixth- and seventh-year grad students, and that the lack of funding beyond the fifth year contributed to attrition rates.

Grace Karram Stephenson, one of the challengers, is a Master’s student in the higher education program at OISE. She said she turned down endorsements from student groups because she wanted to be judged on her merits. Karram Stephenson cited experience working in university administration at Eastern University in Pennsylvania and that she studies university governance in her program. She said she wanted to sit on the Academic Board and work with the School of Graduate Studies to make facilities like OISE’s Centre for Research Design and Analysis accessible to students in other departments.

Part-Time Undergraduate Students: 3 candidates, 2 seats

Jeff Peters, APUS president and former governor, is challenging incumbents Joeita Gupta and Ken Davy. Peters, who is a reliable guest presence at nearly all GC meetings, has a speech impediment. He was recently denied speaking requests by GC and asked to submit his statements in writing. “I believe the issues facing today’s student are perennial, and I have been a good steward in advancing these by carrying on the work of previous colleagues,” wrote Peters in an email. Asked about his relationship with other GC members, Peters said his role would be to do what is best for students and not to make friends. “My ability to influence the other members of the GC is sometimes hampered by my radical views,” he conceded. “However, I try and change the direction of GC to be more student-focused.”

Davy has been a governor for three years. He said he was in the process of completing a proposal to extend financial aid to part-time students, which he plans to submit to the provost by June.

Gupta echoed many of Peters’ priorities. She also has a tense relationship with Jack Petch, the GC chair. She said how well a candidate got along with other members should not necessarily be a consideration for voters. Asked how she felt about criticisms that her governing style was too confrontational, she said, “It’s not because I’m belligerent. It’s because Governing Council is a space that is so intolerant of any kind of dissenting view [it] is automatically dealt with in the harshest way possible.”

Graduate Constituency II—Physical Sciences and Life Sciences: 2 candidates, 1 seat

Incumbent Greg West, whose victory last year came as voter turnout nearly doubled, said he would continue his efforts to get Governing Council to host open town halls in order to deal with some of the tension at recent meetings. “I think what the Governing Council needs to do is open up the doors a little bit and let in the community members and let them speak,” he said. “I think it’s clear at all the Governing Council meetings that you can feel the frustration in the room from people not being able to participate in a way that they want to.”

Challenger Sepehr Ehsani is a PhD student working on neurodegenerative diseases. Asked about his priorities, Ehsani said that he will act according to constituents’ wishes and that as a governor he would not have the right to act on his own initiative.

Orange you glad it’s election season?

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Accessibility threatened by GC decision: Candidates

Two GC candidates with disabilities say U of T is failing its equal opportunity mandate by denying them suitable campaign support. Joeita Gupta and Jeff Peters appeared before election officials on March 9 to appeal a decision by the CRO, Anwar Kazemi, that gave their attendants less paid hours and a lower rate of pay than requested.

Gupta and Peters each asked for $20-25 per hour for their attendants at 12 hours per day for the three-week campaign period. Kazemi responded that they each would receive $15 per hour for a total of 28 hours per week. After the appeal, Gupta said she was told the university would revisit the issue around the rate of pay, but was keeping the 28 hours per week limit.

Both candidates are running for a part-time student representative seat. Gupta has a visual impairment and Peters has a speech impediment.

“Given that I really need an attendant to help me campaign, this severely restricts the amount that I could campaign,” Gupta told The Varsity. She said that Ken Davy, the third candidate in the part-time student constituency, was not subject to the same restrictions since he was not disabled. Davy and Gupta are incumbents. Peters, the president of the Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students, is a former student governor.

“I wasn’t shocked at how unaccommodating the university was. I thought they would at least appear to make it look like they were trying to make accommodations,” Peters wrote in an email. “I found it to be an oppressive experience.”

The Office of the Governing Council could not immediately be reached for comment.

Gupta called the response to the appeal patronizing and paternalistic, and said the university had laid down a “take-it-or-leave-it” deal that left no room for further consultation. “I felt that what I was asking for was reasonable and that I had to constantly justify myself,” she said.

According to Gupta, the university’s rationale was that they needed to account for her academic commitments when calculating her campaign hours, which she found offensive. “I don’t think it was their place to do that,” she said, adding that it was her responsibility to balance academic obligations and extra-curricular activities.

Gupta said she is calling attention to the issue partly out of regret that she didn’t say anything last year when she encountered the same problem. “I’m even disheartened that I had to appeal because it meant that I had to talk about it publicly, which was uncomfortable for me. My hope is that by having put myself through the appeals process, this discussion will at least get on the public record.”

An earlier version of this article reported that CRO Anwar Kazemi allotted Joeita Gupta and Jeff Peters $15 per day for a total of 28 hours per week. In fact, the amount is $15 per hour. The Varsity regrets the error.”

Mister Darcys

“On Thursday, some people might be turned off by us forever,” shrugs Wes Marskell, drummer for Toronto-based indie darlings The Darcys. “I mean, we are a band going through a change and there’s always going to be the cliché opposition to that.”

Recently-appointed frontman and long-time guitarist Jason Couse joins Marskell, nestling in a booth at the Red Room. They have the timed synchronicity of people who have spent an obscene amount of time together in the back of a cramped van.

Given that The Darcys have played about 110 shows in the past year, and have been touring Canada almost non-stop since the release of their 2007 debut album, Endless Waters, it’s pretty obvious that the boys have seen each other at their worst. They interact with the intimacy that comes from taking care of a bandmate when he’s puking in his sleep, ganging up on a knife-bearing 16-year-old who’s trying to steal their van in Guelph, and pushing that same van through -42º weather in Kingston to the only repair shop in town.

On March 11 the band, clad in their usual formal attire of vests and bow ties, will take the stage at El Mocambo for Canadian Music Week. They’re experimenting with both material from their upcoming album, Young Believer, and guitarist Couse replacing Kirby Best as their new singer.

“This change is inevitable,” Marskell explains. “Jason’s always been one of the musical backbones of the band.”

“I’m not nervous,” Couse says finally, after a slightly longer than usual pause. “I’m more excited than anything. It’s a lot to wrap my head around—”

“But he’s manned up. He can handle the guitar parts and the vocals now,” Marksell finishes.

“The live show has become more of a force than the old live show,” says Marskell. “It’s definitive, loud, and brazen. It forces you to listen to it. The new record’s not boring. People might not like it, but it definitely won’t be boring.”

“The last eight months have been intense work—all day, every day,” Couse adds. The band recorded their new album in Montreal with producer Murray Lightburn from Canadian indie outfit The Dears. Set to be released in August of this year, Young Believer also features guest spots from members of Broken Social Scene, Islands, and Stars.

“It was great having Murray Lightburn on board, because at least we knew that the album wasn’t going to suck,” says Marskell. “We liked The Dears so much growing up as a band, and we really had an inherent trust in him. It was our first step towards knowing that this was going to be something worthwhile.”

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Endless Waters had been a romantic experiment for a guitar-based band that uses creative elements to make influences from Radiohead to My Bloody Valentine sound fresh and unique. But on the brink of releasing their sophomore album, The Darcys seem piqued for change and—dare I say it—professionalism.

“Musically, I think it was all about progress and going from being a university student to being a guy in a band who has to work a crappy day job just to get by,” Marskell continues. Couse nods, likely thinking about his day job as a waiter. “We’re not just going to make pop songs. If we’re doing this, we have to do something that we can really stand behind.”

“It’s always about pushing ourselves and pushing the limits of our abilities,” adds Couse.

“Our priorities have changed. We’re not just trying to pass school and get in essays,” says Marskell. Couse launches into the story of how he wrote his philosophy thesis at the back of their tour van while driving from Halifax to Vancouver.

“And now we’re just excited to get the new album out there, and then we’ll be touring until we die. Jason first.”

“Yeah, I am allergic to peanuts,” Couse quips. “That’s kind of bound to catch up with me.”

The Darcys play the El Mocambo tonight as part of Canadian Music Week. For more information, visit cmw.net.