Boxes, little boxes, but they are not all the same

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
1
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

Malvina Reynolds

When I taught invertebrate zoology at UNBC, I always started by going through classification systems, being careful to emphasize that classification is a purely human construct. In natural systems boundaries between closely related organisms may or may not be clear, and there is certainly no biologically functional reason for such boundaries. Each species can perhaps be viewed more like a continuum of genotypic and phenotypic characteristics, more or less clearly distinguishable from its closest relatives. The same is true for gender, where our dichotomous view of male and female doesn’t hold up even in many seemingly clear cases, e.g., human beings. A definition of species may work well for one taxon, but may be shaky for another. Even when it does appear to work well, there are always exceptions. For example, phenotypic variation of Lake Malawi cichlids (a flock of ~500 species radiated over the past 1-4 million years) would seem to show a large number of clearly definable species, but even morphologically disparate species can often produce viable and fertile hybrids under the right circumstances. A similar

Geographic-color-variation-in-a-cichlid-fish-Phylogenetic-relationships-among-selected.png

Colour variation in a Tropheus species complex from Lake Tanganyika. From Sefc et al. 2014.

radiation has occurred in Lake Tanganyika, albeit less massive. The ring species concept has been a problematic issue in some species definitions, but molecular studies has led to this evolutionary phenomenon being questioned by revealing that the distance between adjacent populations of supposed ring species are more distinct than previously assumed, with a clear break at some point along the ring.

Among invertebrates it can get extremely hairy, with extreme sexual dimorphism (e.g., in Strepsiptera) and polyphenism causing confusion. Polyphenism is when different phenotypes can be generated by a single genotype (Simpson et al. 2012). Polyphenism can be induced by various environmental influences, e.g., food, season etc. The point is that two morphologically different specimens may be the same species, which makes identification (and perhaps classification) a bit tricky.

SourakovBarcoding_Papilio dardanus

An example of polyphenism. These butterflies are all Papilio dardanus Brown, in this case due to sex-linked Batesian mimicry. Only females show polyphenism. Image from “DNA barcodes help solve butterfly classification conundrums”  by Natalie van Hoose

The problem with the approach of compartmentalizing biological systems is perhaps best illustrated by the amount of disagreement evident among biologists themselves. Different people use different approaches to determine where the boundaries should be, with one group (splitters) tending to subdivide groups, whereas the other (lumpers) tend to combine groups. This happens regardless of the level, i.e., see this discussion. Nevertheless, it is the plasticity of organisms that enable evolution to proceed, and it is through classification that we learn more and more about how organisms are linked through evolution to each other. Mostly at a pace that is not perceptible except on a geologic time scale, but proceed it does.

If you are an entomologist, taxonomy and classification become critical to your work. It may be ok to talk about mammals or even birds without knowing scientific names, but with insects and most other invertebrates it would be impossible. One reason to classify organisms is that it makes it easier to communicate about them. For example, by using the Latin name of an organism I can make a biologist understand what type of organism I am talking about, even if he/she has never encountered the particular species. Without a common language that links to a description, we would be lost.

As humans we seem obsessed with putting things in boxes. You are labelled as Christian or muslim, democrat or republican, socialist or conservative, black or white, rich or poor, man or woman etc. (as I did above with splitters and lumpers, which are of course not fixed, consistent categories). We seem to always focus on differences, rather than similarities. We are, however, all human beings, and as such we have many more similarities than differences. Perhaps we were on the way to speciation prior to ships and planes, but in our current global community, reproductive isolation has gone out the window, so to speak. Prior to that, we simply have not been around long enough to diverge into multiple species, even though we diverged enough to speak different languages and even look different. The evolution of these differences came about through reproductive and social isolation. I grew up in northern Sweden, where dialects were more similar within river valleys than between them, even when the distances were as small as 30-40 km.

Thus we are one species – not morphologically identical, but certainly not different enough that we should need to hate or kill each other. From a biological standpoint we are completely reproductively compatible regardless of phenotypic differences.  Unfortunately our obsession with compartmentalizing everything leads to artificial boundaries, which leads to misunderstanding, hate and (in the worst case scenario) war. Which is why John Lennon wrote “Imagine”.

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

                John Lennon

Imagine, indeed!

References

Sefc, K.M., A.C. Brown, and E.D. Clotfelter. 2014. Carotenoid-based coloration in cichlid fishes. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A: Molecular & Integrative Physiology. 173C: 42-51.

Simpson, S.J., G.A. Sword, and N. Lo. 2011. Polyphenism in Insects. Current Biology. 21: R738–R749.

 

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Money, so they say is the root of all evil today

Money, it’s a crime
Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie
Money, so they say
Is the root of all evil today
But if you ask for a rise it’s no surprise that they’re giving none away

                                 Roger Waters, Pink Floyd, from the album “Dark Side of the Moon”

There are many well-known songs about money, e.g., ABBA’s “Money, Money, Money” and “Money Makes the World Go Around” sung by Liza Minelli in Cabaret (yes, I am THAT old). I chose the above verse by Pink Floyd, because I think it captures the essence of the human condition when it comes to money. So what does that have to do with nature and naturalists? Quite a lot, actually! But let’s rewind a bit first.

Money represents value, but before we had it, we traded goods. Imagine going to the butcher and having to drag along a 25 kg bag of flour to buy a steak. Not too convenient, particularly if you lived far away from the vendor! Of course, back then people largely lived hand to mouth, first by foraging for food and later producing food. The first evidence of using something that represented value, and could be used in place of actual goods, appeared in some areas Africa and parts of Asia. They used sea shells, particularly those of the money cowrie, Monetaria moneta (Linnaeus), as reflected in both its scientific and common names. In fact, this was so important that in written Chinese, the symbol for cowrie represents value or money to this day (贝 [貝] ~ bèi ~ cowrie, shellfish, currency (archaic), where the first symbol  is a simplified version of the second, which is the traditional way of writing it).  In some parts of Africa, this type of representation for value apparently persisted into the 20th Century. To make a long story short, stamped money first appeared in present day Turkey, and the rest is history, as they say.  Money allowed us to accumulate wealth more conveniently than by owning a bunch of livestock. Wind the story forward and even more convenient items were invented to serve as legal tender. For example, paper money appeared (Sweden led the way in 1661, see link below), but in today’s world both coins and paper money are being phased out in favour of credit and debit cards, and most recently crypto currency like Bitcoin. Thus, you can accumulate wealth without ever physically touching anything.  In fact, my native Sweden is moving towards a completely cash free economy .

Monetaria_moneta

Money cowrie, Monetaria moneta (Linnaeus). By Philippe Bourjon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Back to nature. Our planet is currently experiencing its 6th extinction, and I would argue that money is the ultimate cause of a good part of it. Largely indirectly through habitat destruction due to resource extraction driven by profit-hungry (and often paralegal) corporations , which has led to numerous organisms losing the niche they have evolved into. Rare organisms are also affected directly through killing or removing organisms from their habitat to satisfy collectors of rare animals or plants, or in many cases to feed the Chinese traditional medicine market. An organism may not have an inherent value as such, but collectors have created a market value, which increases with rarity. Take parrots, for example.  These charismatic, intelligent, entertaining and beautiful birds are among the worst affected because they are sought after by collectors. Of the world’s almost 400 species of parrots, close to a third are threatened, and a number have gone extinct. In large part this is due to illegal trapping and wildlife smuggling operations. The demand is driven by wealthy collectors, who are prepared to pay as much as $20,000 for a single bird, e.g., the Hyacinth macaw, one of four blue macaws from Brazil (The others are Glaucous macaw, Lear’s macaw, and Spix’s macaw). The glaucous macaw is probably

Spixs-macaw-in-tree-the-last-known-wild-individual

The last wild Spix’s macaw {Cyanopsitta spixii}, a male that died in 2001. Photo by Luiz Claudio Marigo.

extinct, and the Spix’s macaw is likely extinct in the wild (although one was seen in 2016, 15 years after the last known wild specimen died in 2001, having lived alone for 16 years after trappers removed his mate and destroyed the last clutch of eggs (Juniper 2002). In his excellent (but certifiably depressing) book, Tony Juniper describes how the greed and selfishness of wealthy people around the world, combined with weak regulations and enforcement to stop illegal trade in wildlife, as well as a general lack of resources in conservation, led to the extinction of this beautiful bird. Subsequent breeding and reintroduction efforts, which was difficult enough due to a small gene pool and a vanishing habitat, were thwarted by petty, greedy  and self-serving breeders who would put their own short-term interests ahead of saving the species from extinction. A number of macaw species have gone extinct from Caribbean islands, and the majority of those left are threatened.

Among plants, orchids are targeted because of their beauty. It is a speciose group with 20,000 or more species (the majority listed by CITES), but many are still to be discovered.

Taxonomic-breakdown-of-CITES-Appendices-I-and-II-showing-the-large-proportion-of-orchids

Taxonomic breakdown of CITES Appendices I and II, showing the large proportion of orchids in the total number of species listed by the Convention. From Hinsley et al. 2017.

Collectors and traffickers of orchids are sometimes introducing undescribed species into the trade before they are known to science. Scientists are now withholding location information of new species as collectors will descend on rare species. Because these are attractive to collectors, they would command a high price. Species are going extinct soon after being discovered because of over-collecting. In addition to the pressures from

Paphiopedilum_rothschildianum

Rothschild’s orchid, Paphiopedilum rothschildianum (Rchb.f.) Stein, one of the world’s rarest orchids.  By Naoki Takebayashi from Fairbanks, AK, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67250986

collectors of rare orchids, these plants are also subject to harvesting for medicinal and food purposes.  The need to possess unique organisms as ‘pets’ can lead to some odd (or should I say sad) situations, e.g., as of 2011 there were more tigers in private captivity in the United States than in all of Asia! Yes, that is tigers, big, striped killing machines! (In fact, it doesn’t take much for such a perfectly evolved organism to take down a human, as this incidence from a few years ago in BC shows.

At the bottom of it all is greed, which in my opinion stems from the ability to skew wealth distribution so that a few have a lot more than their fair share, and certainly more than they need. Greed seems to be a human trait, and it is generally expressed when something desirable is rare or difficult to obtain. If you have seen “The Gods Must Be Crazy” you know what I mean! As we move into a cash-free economy, the ability to accumulate wealth without literally lifting a finger has become easier than ever. It just wouldn’t happen if wealth was represented by cows, for example. The obscene compensations that are doled out to executives of large corporations, including guaranteed bonuses even when they fail, is the modern version of this. Greed makes otherwise law-abiding citizens do things that they might not have considered otherwise – some of the smuggling is done by people who knowingly ignore CITES regulations (Hinsley et al. 2016), and sadly even a scientist (not a biologist, thank goodness) has been implicated in the UK.

It is perhaps a sign that as I was writing this, the last male northern rhinocerous died.  Wild rhinos now have to be protected from poachers by armed guards, or their horns have to be removed, because of the value of rhino horn on the black market. Incidentally, rhino horn has about the same medical effect as my fingernails, and nobody would care to buy those, so this is truly bizarre.

References

Hinsley, A., Nuno, A., Ridout, M., John, F. A. V. S., and Roberts, D. L. 2016. Estimating the extent of CITES noncompliance among traders and end-consumers; lessons from the global orchid trade. Conservation Letters  10(5), 602–609.

Hinsley A., de Boer H.J., Fay M.F., Gale S.W. Gardiner L.M., Gunasekara R.S., Kumar P., Masters S., Metusala D., Roberts D.L., Veldman S., Wong S., Jacob P. 2017. A review of the trade in orchids and its implications for conservation. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society XX: 1–21.

Juniper, Tony. 2002. Spix’s Macaw: The Race to Save the World’s Rarest Bird. Atria Books, New York, NY. 304 pp. ISBN 0-7434-7550-X

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A naturalist in Hawaii Part III: Attack by the aliens

I live on Vancouver Island. As an island it is subject to the same island biogeographical factors as Hawai’i, albeit in a much less extreme way because it is much larger, and it is close to a continent and therefore affected by the fauna and flora there. Vancouver Island is huge compared to the Hawaiian Islands, and it is close to the North American continent. Therefore its isolation and habitat characteristics allow pretty much any organism with a decent ability to disperse to settle here. Yet, some animals have never made it, e.g., moose and skunks. In the case of moose it is likely because the coast habitat is unsuitable, so they have never even tried to come across, even though they should be perfectly capable. The skunk, however, would probably need some human assistance. The climate on Vancouver Island is benign, further allowing settlement of a broad range of organisms. Nevertheless, Vancouver Island is isolated enough that there are some

20180131_100130

Manoa Valley, Honolulu, HI. Even here the majority of organisms readily seen are introduced.

endemic animals. The Vancouver Island marmot (Marmota vancouverensis) is perhaps the best known example, but there are others, e.g., the earthworm Bimastos lawrenceae (Marshall and Fender 2007).

Along with human habitation has come a wide variety of alien species as well. In fact, some of the most common arthropods are exotic or invasive species, and among the mammals there are the usual suspects: rats (black or roof rats, Rattus rattus, as well as brown or Norway rats, Rattus norvegicus), house mouse (Mus musculus), house sparrow (Passer domesticus), rock doves (Columba livia)(pigeons), all of which now have circumpolar or worldwide distributions. All are also present (and widespread) in Hawai’i. Hawai’i is also home to a third rat species, the Pacific rat, Rattus exulans, and all three species are major threats to native species (Harper and Bunbury 2015).

These are far from all of the non-native species that one encounters when visiting these popular tourist islands, however. In fact, most visitors may never see a single native animal, at least in terrestrial environments. And as stated in my previous post, endemics like the Hawaiian honeycreepers require substantial efforts. Below, I will mention some that we encountered, with a bit more information on why they are there, and what damage they (have) cause(d). While I will not cover invasive plants, it should be obvious that Hawai’i has an invasive plant problem at similar a similar (or worse) scale given its climate.

I mentioned the cichlids in my first post in this series and provided a link to the many other freshwater fish species found in Hawaiian streams and lakes. Many of these can have profound impacts on endemic freshwater species as predators of the five species of endemic freshwater gobies (O’opu) and three species of shrimp (‘Opae).  Interestingly, two of those shrimp species are anadromous, by the way. Those two species have been important to native Hawaiians as food, but invasives along with stream manipulation (de-watering and channeling) have led to both being threatened today.

Living in a wet mild climate means that you are constantly fighting snails and slugs in your garden (just ask my wife!). It is not surprising, then, that numerous terrestrial mollusks have appeared in Hawai’i, including several predatory snails which have direct impacts on native fauna (Cowie et al. 2008, Curry and Yeung 2013). If you add to the invasive macrofauna threats posed by a variety of diseases and parasites, you have a perilous situation for the native Hawaiian fauna, indeed (Font 2003).

Manoa Falls-8746

Gold dust day gecko, Phelsuma laticauda, Harold L. Lyon Arboretum, Honolulu, HI.

When I was younger I had a temporary obsession with lizards as pets. My favourites were the day geckos of Madagascar. These were incredibly expensive and difficult to get hold of, so I ended up with green anoles instead. Chameleons were also fascinating to me, but completely out of reach financially, and if possible even more difficult to find. It was surprising to me, then, to run into gold dust day geckos (Phelsuma laticauda) in Manoa Valley, and not only the odd specimen, but lots of them. Supposedly there are also Jackson’s chameleon (Trioceros jacksonii) resident there as well, but we never saw one. As I mentioned earlier, there were also plenty of anoles (we saw only brown anoles (Anolis sagrei). Green anoles (A. carolinensis) are common as well, but being arboreal

Brown anole-8668 Honolulu

Brown anole, Anolis sagrei, in the garden of the house where we were staying.

they are more difficult to spot).  In addition, there are a number of other gecko species (we heard house geckos (Hemidactylus frenatus) chirping at night), and a number of skink species are also established. Fortunately, the brown tree snake, which has caused devastation to native birds (Wiles et al. 2003) and lizards (Rodda and Fritts 1992), and indirectly to a number of native plants of Guam (Mortensen et al. 2008), has yet to make an appearance in Hawai’i.

It goes without saying that numerous invertebrates have established themselves. Of most concern to the native fauna is the arrival of mosquitoes. Carriers of avian malaria, they have been major contributers to the decline of the native avifauna (Jarvi et al. 2001). For humans with little interest or awareness of the ecological distress of the Hawaiian Islands, cockroaches may be of more concern (we saw three in the house where we stayed – may they rest in peace!) But there are also ants, yellowjacket wasps and other invertebrates that may affect us. Suffice it to say that Hawai’i has been, and continues to be under siege of an army of invasive and potentially injurious organisms, because unfortunately, like us humans, the benign climate is very welcoming. In the end, humans are ultimately responsible for the situation, and responsibility for the loss of unique Hawaiian fauna and flora will rest firmly on our shoulders.

Finally, here is a list of known exotics in the Hawaiian Islands. How complete it is I do not know.

References

Cowie, R.H., K.A. Hayes, C.T. Tran and W.M. Meyer III. 2008 The horticultural industry as a vector of alien snails and slugs: widespread invasions in Hawaii, International Journal of Pest Management 54:4, 267-276.

Curry, P.A. and N.W. Yeung. 2013. Predation on endemic Hawaiian land snails by the invasive snail Oxychilus alliarius. Biodiversity and Conservation 22 (13–14): 3165–3169.

Font, W.F. 2003. The global spread of parasites: What do Hawaiian streams tell us? BioScience 53 (11): 1061-1067.

Harper, G.A. and N. Bunbury. 2015. Invasive rats on tropical islands: Their population biology and impacts on native species. Global Ecology and Conservation 3: 607-627.

Jarvi, S.I., C.T. Atkinson, and R.C. Fleischer. 2001.  Immunogenetics  and  resistance  to  avian malaria (Plasmodium relictum) in Hawaiian honeycreepers (Drepanidinae). In Studies in  Avian Biology, R. J. Raitt (ed.). Cooper Ornithological Society, Lawrence, Kansas

Marshall, V.G. and W.M. Fender. 2007. Native and introduced earthworms (Oligochaeta) of British Columbia, Canada. Megadrilogica 11 (4): 29-52.

Rodda, G.H. and T.H. Fritts. 1992. The impact of the introduction of the colubrid snake Boiga irregularis on Guam’s lizards. Journal of Herpetology. 26: 166-174.

Mortensen, H.S., Y.L. Dupont and J.M. Olesen. 2008. A snake in paradise: Disturbance of plant reproduction following extirpation of bird flower-visitors on Guam. Biological Conservation. 141: 2146-2154

Wiles, G. J., J. Bart, R.E. Beck, and C.F. Aguon. 2003, Impacts of the brown tree snake: Patterns of decline and species persistence in Guam’s avifauna. Conservation Biology, 17: 1350–1360.

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A naturalist in Hawai’i Part II: Birdwatching.

There is something special about seeing a bird species you have never seen before – a so-called ‘lifer’ in birder language. Birdwatching is the fastest growing hobby in North America, and throughout the world birders are spending lots of money buying equipment (binoculars, spotting scopes, cameras etc.) and on traveling. Serious birders (so-called twitchers) will think nothing of hopping on a plane to see very rare birds. No wonder birding has its own jargon language then. Personally, I am a fairly casual (=fair weather) birdwatcher. That is due both to my somewhat limited skill level and the effort I put into it. I may pick out about ⅔– ¾  of the species that a more accomplished birder will record given equivalent effort. Anyway, it was with some excitement that the birdwatcher in me prepared for our recent family holiday on O’ahu, Hawai’i. Since I was there (on my honeymoon) 32 years ago, I knew that a lot of the species I would see would not be lifers as I would have seen them before, but I planned to put a little more effort in it this time. Well, within acceptable bounds as this was not a birdwatching trip, but a family holiday.

Most of the birdwatching we did was in city parks and wherever we happened to be. We did two trips specifically to watch birds, and both did yield lifer species. To see some of the endemic birds that have evolved in Hawai’i you have to put a bit more effort into it. For example, viewing any of the Hawaiian honeycreepers, most of which are highly endangered (Paxton et al. 2016), requires going up on ridge trails or to more remote, high elevation native forest sites. We did none of that, in part because the weather was somewhat unstable, so the ridges often had heavy clouds hanging over them, but also because it probably would have bored half our party to tears. We did one hike specifically for birds, however, and that was to Ka’ena Point, which is the westernmost point on O’ahu. This area is quite dry, and can get quite hot. The main attraction was to see Laysan albatrosses (Phoebastria immutabilis), which breed there. A one hour hike along an abandoned railway track either from the north or

Kaena Point-8873

Approaching Ka’ena Point. The weather was favourable for this otherwise extremely hot walk, as there is simply no shade to be had.

from the south) gets you to the fence that has been erected across the entire point to keep out predatory mammals and protect birds and native plants (VanderWerf et al. 2014). Once you get through the gate. We were rewarded by good views of these magnificent birds, some of which were sitting on eggs or hatchlings only meters from the trail. The trail was lined by rope to ensure that burrows of wedge-tailed shearwaters (Puffinus pacificus) would not be damaged (the birds were long-gone when we were there). We also saw lots of great frigatebirds (Fregata minor) (lifer) soaring high above us, only rarely coming into range for photography attempts. We also spotted one immature red-

Kaena Point-8964 Great frigatebird

Great frigatebird at Ka’ena Point

footed booby (another lifer) among the albatrosses over the nesting grounds. We spoke with a volunteer naturalist monitoring monk seals, and she told us that the colony was doing well, which is good news. But anthropogenic threats still abound, including plastic debris (Fry et al. 1987).

Laysan albatrosses are goose-sized birds. On land, they have a rather comical, stilted gait,

Kaena Point-8922 Laysan albatross walk

Laysan albatross marching through the nesting area after missing the intended landing spot. When I first saw it, it was in a bush, trying to get out.

but in the air they are poetry in motion. Using a minimum of wing flapping, they effortlessly glide in a horizontally slanted sigmoid flight pattern, gaining speed and losing slight elevation with the wind and then gaining it back going against the wind. This dynamic soaring can be used in the boundary layer just above the water, where

albatross_soaring3

Illustration of dynamic soaring from (Sachs, 2005) Image from http://people.eku.edu/ritchisong/554notes3.html

wind speed changes with elevation

Kaena Point-8944 Laysan albatross

The albatrosses spent quite some time gauging the landing area before finally landing.

(Sachs 2005), and it can keep the big birds on the wing almost indefinitely with almost no expenditure of energy. When coming in to the nest, they use the same technique, and it is quite an exhilarating experience to have these magnificent giants pass by you within meters at breakneck speed. They sometimes came so close that you could almost reach out and touch them. The albatrosses were lifers, and the experience will be a life-long memory!

The second specific birding trip we made was to the Ka’elepulu Wetland (aka Enchanted Lake Bird Sanctuary) in Kailua. We were actually intending to go to Makapu’u Lighthouse trail to look for seabirds, but inclement weather (=torrential downpours) kept us away.  Ka’elepulu is a conservation area with a capital C in spite being nestled among subdivisions. You cannot enter the area, but have to view the birds at a chainlink fence along a street. That limits what you can see (we did not bring scopes), but we still saw a number of interesting birds, two of which were lifers. Those were the Hawaiian common gallinule (moorhen) (Gallinula galeata sandvicensis ) and the Hawaiian coot (Fulica alai). Both are native to Hawaii, albeit similar to the mainland species. In addition, we saw hybrid mallard*Hawaiian duck, which I guess is a lifer of sorts. Black-necked stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) and black-crowned night herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) were common, but those I have seen before (although they probably increased my species count on eBird as my previous sightings were not recorded there).

Most of the birds we saw were present pretty much anywhere you went, and most were Asian or African invasives, e.g., common mynah (Acridotheres tristis), zebra dove

Kailua Beach Park-8680 Common myna

A common mynah at Kailua Beach Park. These birds were omnipresent along the coast.

(Geopelia striata), red-crested cardinal (Paroaria coronate) and many more. I have to mention the white-rumped shama (Copsychus malabaricus), the song of which is as enchanting as any birdsong I have ever heard. Rose-ringed parakeets are well

Lyon Arboretum-8778 Red-whiskered bulbul

Red-whiskered bulbul

established, and we saw them on a daily basis on the south side. Other parrots are also around, e.g., we saw a salmon-crested cockatoo. They are of great concern to agriculture, as are other invasive birds, like the two species of bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer and P. jocosus). We did spot an additional native, the  beautiful white tern (Gygis alba),

White Tern-9064 Fort Derussy Beacg Park

Adult white tern.

White Tern chick-9041 Fort Derussy Beach Park

Eggs are laid on bare branches, and chicks remain there until fledged, often left on their own for considerable periods of time while the adults forage.. It is somewhat tense to watched the little fluff-ball moving back and forth along the branch.

which nests in various parks in Honolulu. It is often referred to as the fairy tern, but that name is reserved for a different species of the southern hemisphere. On the north shore we found ruddy turnstones (Arenaria interpres) and in Kailua and at Diamond Head we found Pacific golden plovers (Pluvialis fulva), both of which overwinter on the island, but I can count them both as lifers.

Even if you don’t make a great effort birdwatching, it pays off to bring binoculars at least.  There are some good opportunities to see even endemic birds. The Hawaii Audubon Society has a good website that provides some tips, and there are a number of books that may be useful. I bought Hawaii’s birds published by the Hawaii Audubon Society which was inexpensive and served my purpose. If you have an iPhone there is a specific app for Hawaii’s birds, but several of the North American apps do not include Hawaiian birds, e.g., Sibley’s, which is the one I have. However, you may wish to go sooner rather than later as many of the endemics are rapidly closing in on extinction, with climate change being the latest threat (Benning et al. 2002).

References

Benning, T.L., LaPointe, D., Atkinson, C.T., and Vitousek, P.M. 2002. Interactions of climate change with biological invasions and land use in the Hawaiian Islands: Modeling the fate of endemic birds using a geographic information system PNAS  99: 14246-14249.

Fry, D.M., Fefer, S.I., and Sileo, L. 1987. Ingestion of plastic debris by Laysan Albatrosses and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters in the Hawaiian Islands. Marine Pollution Bulletin 18: 339-343.

Paxton, E.H., Camp, R.J., Gorresen, .,  P. M., Crampton, L.H., Leonard Jr., D.L., and VanderWerf, E.A. 2016. Collapsing avian community on a Hawaiian island. Science Advances   2016: 2 (9)9, e1600029

Sachs, G. 2005. Minimum shear wind strength required for dynamic soaring of albatrosses. Ibis 147: 1 – 10.

VanderWerf, E. A., L. C. Young, S. E. Crow, E. Opie, H. Yamazaki, C. J. Miller, D. G. Anderson, L. S. Brown, D. G. Smith, and J. Eijzenga. 2014. Increase in wedge-tailed shearwaters and changes in soil nutrients following removal of alien mammalian predators and nitrogen-fixing plants at Kaena Point, Hawaii. Restor. Ecol. 22: 676–684.

 

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A naturalist in Hawai’i

Sandy beaches, warm water, exotic life and lots of sun! That is the picture we have of Hawaii. And it has all of that, but there is another side to the islands, particularly O’ahu, which is where the capital Honolulu is situated, including world famous Waikiki Beach. My first time there was with my wife as newlyweds on our honeymoon in early January 1986. This time we traveled there at the end of January with our two sons and their respective partners. It was an opportunity to have a week together as a family, and it was everything we had hoped it would be in terms of a family holiday. In this blog I will describe some of my impressions of O’ahu, including some of the changes that have occurred in the 32 years since my first visit, but mostly focusing on animal life.

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View of Waikiki from Diamond Head with Kapiʻolani Park in the foreground.

My impression of Honolulu was that it was much busier than 32 years ago. Looking at some population statistics it would appear that the population has grown, but not by that much. It is likely that the change is largely due to tourism, and it is indeed impossible to find a place where you are more or less on your own. The closest spots we found were at the Harold L. Lyon Arboretum, a 200 acre garden in the Mānoa Valley, and the Ka’ena Point State Park (and neither of those were exactly deserted!) Everywhere else tourists were not in short supply. As a result, traffic was generally heavy, particularly around Honolulu, and at some of the attractions it was more or less impossible to find parking, e.g., Hanauma Bay and Waimea Falls. The latter we missed altogether because of absolute mayhem due to the Volcom Pipe Pro 2018 surfing festival.

Driving around the island the incredible gap between rich and poor was striking. Along the highways were numerous vandalized vehicles (including a Mazda Tribute that had been pushed over a cliff along the southern access trail to Ka‘ena Point. In addition, many beach parks had vast tent cities, often displaying the Kanaka Maoli flag. It turns out that Hawai’i has a huge homeless problem (we drove by the huge tent city in Waianae, described in that article), in part because of a migrant crisis. So while tourism is thriving, largely driving the Island State‘s economy and no doubt making some people very wealthy, the native Hawai’ian people are often marginalized. What was once their paradise, is now overrun by tourists and those who profit from us sun-seekers. Waikiki is kept pristine, but outlying areas often have a component of poverty which is hard to reconcile with the affluence of the privileged.

There is also an ongoing and (apparently) deepening ecological crisis. Small Indian mongoose (Herpestes javanicus) is now established and widespread on O’ahu and most

Hanauma Bay-0040 Mongooses

Two mongooses at Hanauma Bay, which was also heavily populated by feral cats.

other Hawai’ian Islands (except Lanaʻi and Kauaʻi, but see this article). They were introduced in a poorly thought out attempt to control rodent populations in sugar cane, resulting in dramatic impacts on native Hawai’ian fauna. We literally saw mongoose wherever we went.  The mongoose is about the size of a ferret, but its body posture is interestingly stiff, making it almost look like a large, running stick as they duck in and out of the vegetation. Leaving any food unattended will draw them in very quickly. Another mammal species of concern is the feral pig (Sus scrofa), both because of destructive habits to plants, digging which causes erosion,  as well as making wallows where mosquitoes (also exotic to the islands) can breed. Pigs were originally introduced by Polynesian settlers, and later by Europeans. We did not see any, but in Manoa Valley we saw a notice about feral pig hunting.

What really struck me as most disturbing were perhaps the feral cats, however. In places they were as numerous as the feral rabbits at Vancouver Island University, if you have ever witnessed that (I know that University of Victoria had a similar problem, but I am unaware of the current status). Most people are aware that feral cats (and domestic allowed to roam outdoors) can have devastating impacts on bird populations. In Hawai’i that is a serious problem since many of the indigenous bird species, most of which are threatened or endangered, have few or no evolved defenses against mammal predators. But that is not the only problem. Another serious threat is the potential for the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii to spread to susceptible animals, including the Hawaiian monk seal (Neomonachus schauinslandi). Several of these endangered seals have died from toxoplasmosis. The parasite depends on cats for reproduction, and the huge number of cats ensure that it is in Hawai’i to stay. As is the case everywhere with feral “pet” animals, powerful animal rights lobbies make management of this situation very difficult. Trap, neuter and release tactics have been used, but with a population of cats on O’ahu alone perhaps pushing half a million cats, plus a potentially long life of cats in a benign environment, the impact would be fairly minimal.  (The link above takes you to a long article, but it explains the situation quite well).

Amphibians and reptiles have also been introduced, either deliberately or accidentally (=pets released or escaped). The most common reptile was the brown anole (Anolis sagrei), which is plentiful in suburban areas. Geckos are also present. At night you could hear house geckos (Hemidactylus frenatus) chirping, although we never saw one. Several other gecko species also occur, as do at least two species of chameleon (neither of which we saw). In addition, bull frogs (Lithobates catesbianus) and the infamous cane toad (Rhinella  marina) have been introduced as biocontrol agents.  We spotted a cane toad

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A cane toad hiding in a pond at the Harold L. Lyon Arboretum in Manoa Valley, Oahu, HI.

and a wrinkled frog (Rana rugosa) sharing a pond at the Lyon arboretum, and a dead poison arrow frog (Dendrobates auratus) along the Manoa Falls trail. Other amphibians are listed here, including the coqui frog (Eleutherodactylus coqui), which keeps people awake with its loud call.

A surprise to me was the huge numbers of cichlids occupying lagoons and rivers.

Cichlids in Ala Wai Canal, Waikiki

Cichlids in Ala Wai Canal, Waikiki, O’ahu, HI

Invasive aquatics are of course not as obvious as terrestrial organisms, but the cichlids were front and center, e.g., in the Ala Wai Canal at Waikiki. A quick check on the web shows that numerous “aquarium” fish are present. We also saw guppy (Poecilia reticulata), mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis), and sailfin molly (Poecilia latipinna) in various ponds. Some of these were presumably introduced for mosquito control.

We spent some time birding, which is fun even though the vast majority of species you see is non-native. Red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus)  can be found just about everywhere, with roosters driving people mad.  I don‘t recall seeing any in 1986, but apparently this species is thought to have arrived with Polynesian settlers as much as 1300-1500 years ago. The original taxon probably disappeared on most islands with the introduction of predators, and although reintroductions of true jungle fowl have been attempted, the current population is largely mixed with domestic chicken. A recent paper showed that Red jungle fowl genes from the original introduction still exist on Kauaʻi (Gering et al. 2015). The rest can probably be characterized as “cage birds”, i.e., they are the kind of birds that people have as pets in cages. That includes several species of parrot, which can be quite destructive.  We saw 32 bird species, of which only a handful were native, and none endemic.

I neglected the insects, pretty much, but one prominent insect could not be missed, and again it was a surprise to me. It was in fact the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus),

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Monarch butterfly in Haleʻiwa, O’ahu, HI

which was seen almost everywhere we went.

In summary, O’ahu is really a poster child for how human manipulation of fauna and flora impacts a sensitive ecosystem. Enormous efforts are being made to conserve the remnants of native Hawaiian fauna and flora, but given the enormous pressures from human populations, it may be too late for most. There have been some success stories, however, so all may not be lost! O’ahu still offers plenty for the tourist, but if I went to Hawai’i specifically for a nature experience, I would probably pick one of the less populated islands.

Reference

Gering, E, Johnsson, M, Willis, P, Getty, T, and Wright, D (2015) Mixed ancestry and admixture in Kauai’s feral chickens: invasion of domestic genes into ancient Red Junglefowl reservoirs. Mol. Ecol. 24: 2112-24. doi: 10.1111/mec.13096.

Postscript: This post from BBC describes the evolutionary history of the Hawaiian Islands, discussing what we have lost and what we stand to lose if the remaining endemic species cannot be saved..

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Here today, gone tomorrow?

When the forest on the ridge was cut a decade ago, a large number of rare species were extinguished. … Around the world such anonymous extinctions — call them “centinelan extinctions” — are occurring, not open wounds for all to see and rush to stanch but unfelt internal events…

Edward O. Wilson

Lately I have been entertaining myself by reading various books that in one way or another touch on the biodiversity crisis – the 6th Extinction as it were. Most of these deal primarily with endangered charismatic megafauna, e.g., species of rhinoceros, elephants, wild cats, primates, whales etc., with birds thrown in for good measure. Invertebrates Grizzly mum and cub-8295and other flora and fauna are left on the sidelines for the most part. It seems to me that it is in my own backyard that I can see changes in abundance, e.g., butterflies that I used to see every spring now seem rare, with a few exceptions. The presence of exotics is certainly obvious if you pay attention. Meanwhile, so-called Centinelan extinctions are probably happening all over the world at an ever increasing rate, including in our own backyard.

While this is happening, one primate species, Homo sapiens, is forever expanding its populations and crowding what little is left of true wilderness. Along with procreating at an exponential pace, humans also promote “desirable” species such as cattle, goats, pigs, cats and dogs, all of which contribute to the assault on biodiversity. Add to those undesirables like rats and mice, and accidentally or intentionally (but foolishly) introduced animals like mongooses, brown tree snake, and cane toads to name just a few, and you’ve got yourself a disaster in the making. What we don’t occupy outright, we impact upon indirectly with our consumerism paired with greed on the one hand and a general lack of environmental awareness and conservation actions on the other. Many who read this (OK, I know it won’t be that many) may be offended by that last statement because you may be quite aware, and you may even be very active in conserving resources. On the whole, however, human beings are ignorant, and most are not actively trying to stem the tide of garbage that is increasingly littering our surroundings. What is worse, the majority appears to care little or not at all as garbage dumps fill up and oceans become clogged by human debris. By the way, I include myself in the categorization of humankind. We differ only in degree of awareness or carelessness – it is not a black and white issue.

Even when we are aware, we tend to forget the hidden impacts of what we do, or perhaps it is these unintended impacts that create a sense of helplessness, and therefore an unwillingness to act. Take wind turbines, for example. They produce a fair bit of CO2 during the construction phase, although that is offset fairly quickly. When placed in the wrong location, or run at some critical times, they directly impact on both birds and bats.

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The Eurasian curlew (Numenius arquata) was one species affected by wind turbines in the UK (Pearce-Higgins et al. 2012)

Whether that impact is significant when compared to habitat destruction and other impacts (e.g., window collisions by birds, cat predation etc.) is anybody’s guess. For birds we may have some pretty good data, but what about bats. For many species we don’t know enough about them to adequately estimate population impacts! Add to that a life expectancy that has now been adjusted down from 25 to 12-15 years.

In the two areas of the world where I have spent most of my life, Sweden and British Columbia, Canada, electricity is largely generated as hydroelectric power, and hence it is clean if one assumes that the environmental costs from dam construction, and the consequent impacts on aquatic life can be justified. Once built, this power is more or less sustainable. It also appears that impacts are reversible, at least in moderately sized river systems. But in many parts of the world electricity is generated by burning coal or oil with a fairly low benefit:cost ratio as described in this article. Solar panels and batteries require the use of resources like rare minerals, which also cause impacts. Regardless of the type of energy we use, increasing consumption will have negative impact.

In the end, however, money makes the world go around, and there lies pretty much all of the problem. Business program graduates at universities I am aware of have zero exposure to conservation biology or any biology at all for that matter, and they are unlikely to have a burning interest in anything other than to make our capitalist system work for them. Humans seem to have this urge to control nature, and we frequently do so with little or no understanding of the consequences. Large predators are eliminated, with downstream consequences like exploding deer, small rodent, and tick populations, which in turn lead to increasing disease transmission. When I grew up in southern Sweden, I never saw a tick. Now you can’t go out in the bush in the province where I was born without worrying about ticks and their Borrelia companions. Interestingly, while we are quick to wrestle nature to the ground, we also tend to resent change. Conservation when I was young included the preservation of the ‘cultural landscape’, whereas in BC the focus is almost exclusively on the untouched and unique natural temperate rain forest and its wildlife.

Those of us who are biologists are more or less trapped in the capitalist system, and we have to put up with it for the most part. For example, my pension depends on how the stock market performs – an economic crisis like in 2008 would mean some severe belt-tightening, so it is in my interest that businesses and markets do well. This places me in a clear conflict of interest position, of course. Ironically, projects like oil and gas extraction generate jobs for biologists, particularly in the consulting sector. The fact that biologists are involved at all is of course good, but the conflict should be obvious. Sometimes we may just have to hold our collective noses and hope for a good outcome, at least in our current financial and political reality! But the ultimate cost due to climate change and biodiversity loss may become too high unless we change our ways!

I could drone on forever, but the above is probably more than anyone cares to absorb. As much as I would like to offer some gold nugget to solve the problem, I don’t know what the answer is. I am pretty sure it is not moving to Mars, however! I do know that the current trajectory is unsustainable, and that I will probably not suffer, but younger generations certainly will. In spite of it all, there are positive signs showing that we can change direction. I just hope the message is heard before it is too late for our species.

References:

Pearce-Higgins, J. W., Stephen, L., Douse, A. and Langston, R. H. W. (2012), Greater impacts of wind farms on bird populations during construction than subsequent operation: results of a multi-site and multi-species analysis. Journal of Applied Ecology, 49: 386–394.

Wilson, E.O. (1999) The Diversity of Life. W W Norton & Company Incorporated

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A naturalist’s brain exercise

The online game Lumosity has been touted as being beneficial in keeping an aging brain from seizing up. The company that has marketed the game has gotten themselves in a bit of trouble because of marketing tactics and a general lack of evidence that the game actually works, however. Gaming has never been something I have enjoyed a great deal, although I have to admit that my wife and I did enjoy some of the Nintendo racing games when our kids were young. There was also the game we referred to as “bubble fart” (some kind of falling balls that exploded) which I used to get ahead of my wife in, only to lose when the speed exceeded my capacity to react fast enough. Unfortunately, my lack of interest is definitely not genetically based as both my children are avid gamers.

The activities I prefer nowadays are bird watching and (somewhat sporadically) insect identification. I have been thinking about why bird watching is such a popular activity in North America for some time. Obviously it has some clear benefits, like getting outside (although I can do a fair bit of birding from my living room window). Personally, I also get a lot of joy from just watching birds. For as long as I can remember the arrival of swallows in the spring has always lifted my spirits. Hummingbirds always make me smile, and a flock of bushtits likely make somewhat silly, staring at them with a big grin. With respect to the latter, it is in part that they are cute, but also that they don’tBushtit Garden April 2017 -7703 fight over the food. Having 10-15 of them all on one suet feeder is always a joyful experience for me. But bird watching also requires that you focus and pay attention.And recording a new, unexpected species is always exciting.

Some groups of birds are not that easy to identify, e.g., gulls. I am just starting to tackle the challenge of separating the many gull species that occur along the coast of Vancouver Island, which becomes quite a task when you start including hybrids and immatures. But the satisfaction when managing to identify a species with confidence is worth the effort for sure. Similarly, learning the songs of local birds is a different type of challenge. When I was a kid in Sweden, I knew the songs of most of the common song birds, but I have only now started to focus on BC birds. I use a recorder to reinforce what I learn, and I also use an app (yes, there is an app for that – several in fact) when I try to match what I hear to one of (usually) several suspects.  I also try to get photographs of birds, which is easier said than done as the little blighters often refuse to sit still! But on occasion even a less than perfect photograph helps with the identification. I am not a hard core birder, however. I don’t go traveling for miles to see some “lifer”, although I will occasionally travel up to 50 km or so if a bird is particularly interesting to me. Particularly interesting birds are owls and some of the more unusual song birds, like orioles, for example. I am not obsesses about the species count either, although I have done fairly well. Using eBird to report the birds I see also helps me keep track of the species without obsessing over them. An added bonus is that it contributes to data acquisition for various citizen science projects. This is something I have been engaged in since I was a kid although I wasn’t really aware of it then. The Swedish young naturalists (Fältbiologerna) collected data on migrant bird arrival dates and other phenological events in nature, which is obviously citizen science. This makes me FEEL useful, if nothing else! There is of course a social component to it as well, particularly when participating in Nanaimo bird walks, Christmas Bird Counts and other similar activities.

Insect identification is a bit more solitary, but every bit as challenging for the “little gray cells”. Over the past year or two I have volunteered for the Royal BC Museum in Victoria to bring some order to their ant collections. I am not particularly skilled at ant identification, but I know enough to be dangerous. I initially became interested in ants because they have fascinated me since I got a book about ants by famed Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson. (It is quite amazing how many scientist have at one time or another done something ant-related.) I then started doing some research on ants in Camponotus herculeanusthe central interior of BC based on the flawed logic that “there can’t be that many species, so it should be an easy group to work on”. Anyway, identification of ant workers can be very frustrating, particularly as (surprisingly for such an important group) the status of Canadian ant taxonomy is not where it should be. Thus, resources (=taxonomic keys) are scattered and geographically more or less irrelevant (i.e., species may be missing from the key or many species do not occur where the specimen was collected). Add to that genera that are in dire need of revision (e.g., Myrmica), and you have a problem at your hands. As keys are generally based on major workers, singletons can be particularly difficult to pin down (pardon the pun). In some cases ants have to be mounted in certain ways to allow proper identification, but they rarely are. For example, some Lasius pallitarsis, one of the more common species is keyed by the arrangement of the basal mandibular teeth, which means that mandibles should ideally be open, and for Formica fusca group ants the initial couplet relies on the presence or absence of metasternal processes that require removal of legs and mounting upside down of at least one ant from a nest series. So I may only get to genus or species group on many of them. As with bird watching, finding an unexpected species among the samples is an exciting and rewarding experience. So the brain gets to work overtime to figure out what is under the microscope!

My point after this long-winded explanation is that, in my humble opinion, being a naturalist beats Luminosity as brain exercise fodder any day. It brings brain exercise, happiness and a sense of worth.

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