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Critter Corps: Tinker is home to hundreds of species

More than 350 species of animals, including this Texas horned lizard, call Tinker Air Force Base home. Find out about the different species on pages 8-9. Also, see page 10 for an article on a local author who has made the horned lizard the star of her newest book. (Courtesy photo)

More than 350 species of animals, including this Texas horned lizard, call Tinker Air Force Base home. Find out about the different species on pages 8-9. Also, see page 10 for an article on a local author who has made the horned lizard the star of her newest book. (Courtesy photo)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- It may come as a surprise there is an entire ecosystem with more than 350 species of animals living within the gates of Tinker AFB.

The list includes mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. While they all have an important role to play, it is amazing to find that they help us just as much as we help them.

Among the animals here are deer, squirrels, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, beavers, owls, scissortail flycatchers, painted buntings, bobwhite quail, snakes, spiders, bats, small mammals and lizards, including the Texas horned lizard (which is also known as a horned toad).

"By building a healthy, native urban ecosystem, we strengthen our warfighter and the surrounding community by enhancing the base's standard of living, while demonstrating responsible stewardship of our natural world," said John Krupovage, Natural Resources manager.

Texas horned lizard
Jenn Mook, a graduate student from Oklahoma, and lizard tech with Southern Illinois University, is here at Tinker to study the Texas horned lizard. She tracks them by way of the tiny transmitters the lizards wear on their backs. Currently, she is tracking eight lizards, though Tinker officials like to track 10 to 15 at a time.

"Working with the students is the most fun," said Ray Moody, biologist with 72nd Air Base Wing Civil Engineering Directorate's Natural Resources. "With their help, we have been able to learn so much to manage the species and keep a balance between the lizards and the mission."

The horned lizards are state-protected. Mr. Moody reminds everyone that, though cute, the horned lizards do not make good pets.

"The lizards require a diet of mostly ants, about 200 a day, and, being cold blooded, need an environment they can both warm themselves and cool themselves in," he said. "Without a way to regulate their temperature, they couldn't survive."

Armed with a pretty unique defense, the horned lizard holds its own out in the world. The lizard puffs himself up to look bigger, he can lie flat so as not to cast a shadow and can even burrow into the sand. One very unique way he protects himself from predators is by squirting blood from a special gland in his eyes.

It gets extremely hot sometimes in the Oklahoma summer, but the lizards have adapted to find ways to keep cool. One way they keep cool is by climbing up in the vegetation and another is lying in the shade of broad-leafed plants like the Maximilian sunflower. They have also been found down in the deep cracks of the land during drought conditions.

Most of the moisture the lizards require comes from their diet, but they have a unique behavior called "rain harvesting" in which they can arch their back so water flows down to the corners of their mouth.

Not a lot yet is known about their hatchlings. Mr. Moody said they are still trying to find a way of tracking the babies.

"The transmitters are too heavy for the babies," he said. "We like to keep the transmitter to 10-percent of their body weight. The 76th Software Maintenance Group engineers helped build tiny diodes, but the antenna still proved to be a problem, creating a drag in the tall grass."

Bats
Tinker is home to six different species of bats.

"Bats are better than any pesticide," said Mr. Moody. "Bats eat 'bazillions' of pest insects like mosquitos."

Dr. Jason Shaw, an expert bat professor from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, put out eco-location sensors to pick up calls of bats and identify the species. The aircraft hangers make a nice cave for them, Mr. Moody said. Studies on the bats will continue this summer.

Spiders
Tinker has plenty of spiders also happy to eat at the bug buffet.

For example, the common wolf spider eats more pest insects than pesticides kill each year in the U.S., said Mr. Moody. Even the brown recluse spider and the Black Widow, Oklahoma's only venomous spiders typically inflicting dangerous bites to humans, also help to control the pest population.

Snakes
Snakes are abundant here on Tinker. There are Yellow-Bellied Racers, King snakes, Diamondback and blotched watersnakes, ribbon snakes, black rat snakes and many more. Some are aggressive, but not venomous.

"With the aggressive snakes, people could still be bit, so it is best to leave them alone," Mr. Moody said. There are many snakes that will flare up their heads and shake their tales and mimic venomous snakes, but there have been no venomous snakes confirmed on the base proper.

Birds and geese
Biologists have documented 209 bird species on Tinker AFB through class and non-class specific surveys. There are neo-tropical birds such as bluebirds, scissortail, blue gross beaks, birds of prey, gold finches, painted buntings and indigo buntings. Typical Tinker hawks include the Red-tailed, Cooper's Northern harrier and the Mississippi kite.

For birdwatchers, there is a good chance to see some of the many colorful birds on the greenway trails. The majority of bird species found in Oklahoma and at Tinker is considered migratory and is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and other treaties and acts.

Tinker manages its avian species under the Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard Program. The base safety office is primarily responsible for BASH and the Natural Resource Program acts as liaison to agencies and consultant to the BASH committee, which is chaired by the 72nd Air Base Wing and Tinker installation commander.

Resident Canada geese populations are on the rise and can cause a huge problem with aircraft, Mr. Moody said. "With geese populations rising, aircraft strike risks increase, so we do all we can to move these waterfowl away from the base," he said. "The local community can help, too, by not feeding or attracting geese to local waterways."

The Air Force policy is to first scare or haze the birds away. If this doesn't work, the base has a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take a limited number of birds, Mr. Moody said.

"We don't want them to be sucked into the engines causing a serious aircraft disaster, directly impacting the mission and Air Force personnel," he said.

Fish and turtles
The University of Oklahoma and base biologist conducted a cooperative study in 2010 on the streams at Tinker. They found 21 different species of fish in the streams, doubling the number of species since the 1980s, indicating a healthier and improved stream ecosystem, said Mr. Moody. The base ponds are also stocked with bass, bluegill, catfish and even rainbow trout in the fall and winter for recreational fishing.

The tree canopies over the streams also help to maintain healthy water by cooling the water and providing healthy oxygen levels, allowing the fish to thrive, according to Mr. Moody.

Beavers
Beavers are in Tinker's stream systems and ponds.

"They are primarily nocturnal so most people won't see them out and around very often" Mr. Moody said. "They are considered to be part of our ecosystem, so we try to live with them without interfering with them."

Beavers do present problems occasionally with damaging and cutting down trees, especially around waterways. Most of the time they performing favorable ecosystem functions like thinning out willow trees around the ponds.

"We typically only control them when they are causing an issue such as backing water up on the airfield," Mr. Moody said. "We also usually place hardware cloth enclosures to prevent beaver damage to trees when they are in certain areas."

"People should never try to catch, chase or harass wildlife at Tinker as most wildlife is protected by law," said Mr. Moody. Every situation is handled on a case-by-case basis and that is on reason why there is a Natural Resources office on Tinker AFB, he said.