Life in space – An earthling biologist’s perspective.

The other day I was listening to a CBC Summer Edition discussion about space exploration, and specifically putting human beings on Mars. The discussion centred on the risk of contaminating Mars with organisms from earth, but also the risk of introducing martian organisms to earth. There was also some discussion of the “Are we alone” question.

Based on fairly recent estimates, there are perhaps 300 billion stars in our galaxy alone, and there are around 100 billion galaxies! These are numbers that we can’t even fathom (at least I can’t). The likelihood that planet earth is the only planet that supports some kind of lifeform is clearly highly unlikely. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there are little green men flying around out there, but it does mean that there must be other forms of life. Life as we know it on earth is highly adaptable. If there is a source of energy, it is likely that some kind of organism is able to take advantage of it. On our own planet, the most simple form of life, i.e., very “primitive” organisms first emerged relatively soon after the formation of earth, perhaps as early as 3.5 billion years ago, i.e., about 3 billion years before we have good fossil evidence of the emergence of “higher life” forms during the so-called Cambrian Explosion, and only 1 billion years after earth came into existence! The first life forms were quite different from what we have today, perhaps similar to bacteria using sulfur as energy near ocean hot vents. Likewise, any life forms surviving on Mars, or existing on other planets could be completely different from life on earth. Either way, IF such life forms were introduced to earth, the consequences could be anything from no impact at all, because they earth would be unable to sustain life of them, to complete annihilation to existing life forms on earth, because our organisms have no defense against these invaders.

My thinking is based on the behavior of organisms introduced into novel environments on earth, e.g., from Europe to North America or Australia. Examples abound, e.g., rabbits, cane toads and prickly pear cactus in Australia, and gypsy moth, emerald ash borer, white-nose syndrome in bats, and chestnut blight in North America. If we think of earth as an island in our galaxy, then it may be easier to understand what space travel could mean once it ramps up in frequency. Hawaii was fairly protected before European contact, but with increasing travel and trade alien organisms were introduced on purpose as well as accidentally. Today a large number of animals have gone extinct there due to the introduction of invasive species (See my three blogs on Hawaii here, here and here for more specifics.) On earth, because organisms have evolved on the same basic “platform”, organisms have the ability to adapt, but there is no guarantee that space aliens would be similar. Space travel could potentially serve as a bridge between the space “islands” and hence, the potential risks may be substantial.

The above may be dismissed as fear mongering, of course. From a purely personal point of view, I do have another reason for questioning the wisdom of extensive space travel. I acknowledge that many inventions that we now take for granted owe their existence to space research. Also, as we exhaust resources on our little planet, we may need to figure out ways of accessing resources like minerals from space. However, those goals are very different in my mind from creating human settlements on other planets. The cost of doing so is astronomical (no pun intended). Meanwhile, we know very little about our own planet. The oceans are largely unexplored, and relatively few resources are allocated to change that. In terms of life on earth, we know very little about what lives here. We have described somewhere between 1 and 30% of the species on earth. Even fairly large organisms are discovered on a regular basis by expeditions to poorly explored areas, and sometimes even in well explored areas. It is thought that there are at least as many parasitic species as non-parasites. For example, there may be as many as many as 300,000 parasite species in 45,000 vertebrate hosts (Dobson et al. 2008). Most people would perhaps just as soon get rid of all those nasties, but the fact is that they are part of the ecological food web, and they have important roles to play, whether we like it or not. If we know that little about vertebrates, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (again, no pun intended) to realize that the invertebrate picture may be much more striking, given that they have had a much longer time to evolve.


View of Gabriola Island from my home town Nanaimo, British Columbia.

In my opinion, we need to start looking after the planet we evolved on. While not unique in terms of harbouring life, perhaps, it is uniquely suited to us (unfortunately as evidenced by our success in occupying way more of it than we are entitled to). More resources need to be made available for science to understand where we live. It is at the peril of the human species that we ignore the warning signs that are now all around us.

Posted in Conservation, Opinion, Space exploration | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Confessions of an ADD scientist


A poor quality scan from a slide, showing me (2nd from left) with scientists from the Pacific Forestry Centre. Immediately to my right is one of my important mentors, Dr. Les Safranyik, who worked diligently on bark beetles throughout his career. I always wanted to check with Les before starting an experiment, because in all likelihood he had tried it at some point! Photo: Terry Shore.

I have very deep admiration for scientists who attack a subject from numerous angles, and persist for years or decades, perhaps even a full career unravelling the mysteries of a particular system. Charles Darwin comes to mind, of course, although he dabbled in numerous systems with the intent of achieving his one big end. He spent 8 years examining and revising the systematics of barnacles, all ultimately in support of his Origin of Species theory (  A more focussed example is Stanford University’s Deborah Gordon, whose long time study of the harvester ant colonies in one specific, fairly small area shows a remarkable level of commitment to a specific system.

Personally I unfortunately lack the gene that allows such focus. I tend to get bored after a while, and switch to whatever system catches my imagination. I used to call myself a “restless scientist”, an epithet former UNBC President Charles Jago once used. Dr. Janice Cook, University of Alberta, used the term “Attention Deficit Disorder scientist”, and I have since adopted that terminology as it seems to describe my approach rather well.

My first attempts at research (if you can call it that) happened while I was a biology undergraduate student, both with or encouraged by Christer Nilsson, who is now a very successful professor of landscape ecology with a focus on stream impacts of human activities. One was an attempt at using hormones to influence coloration in cichlid fish, and the second was a survey of flat bark bugs (Aradus spp., Heteroptera: Aradidae) on lodgepole pine.  Needless to say, I had no idea what I was doing, so the former yielded somewhat uninterpretable results, while the latter never really got off the ground!

I started my real research career, not in entomology, but in endocrinology.  A very good instructor in zoophysiology had made me think that I would like endocrinology (showing the importance of inspiring instructors!), and an additional incentive was that I would actually have funding. At the time, I had two other options, but both came with uncertainty of funding. One was with Jan Pettersson at SLU in Uppsala working on aphids, and the other with Hans G. Boman at Umeå University working on insect immunology with Hylobius abietis as a study organism. I followed the money, but my time in endocrinology turned out to be nothing but a dead end detour from my passion for insects. I managed to squeeze out five publications on testosterone production in rats that we had robbed of one of their two testicles by performing “unilateral orchidectomy”! In the process I learned that in Latin, “testicle” is “orchis”, meaning that our favourite flowers are literally called testicles! This is presumably due to the shape of pseudobulbs, commonly found on some types of orchids. (Incidentally, this nugget of wisdom has never really helped me in my career). Anyway, the productivity was largely due to the brilliance of my doctoral student colleague Jan-Erik Damber, who had photographic memory along with numerous other talents, including athletics. Not surprisingly, he is now a professor of urology with a publication list as long as your arm! The lab rats repaid me for my treatment of their reproductive machinery by giving me violent allergies, so quitting was at least justified from a health perspective.  But in all honesty, endocrinology was simply not for me. It taught me an important lesson, however. That lesson was that passion is a central requirement for success in research.

Growing up in Sweden, forests had always figured strongly in my life. I spent much of my childhood in and around forests, whether bird watching or on all fours looking for spiders or other animals. I had always imagined myself doing something involving forest

Staffan jagar smakryp

A rather typical photo of me as a young boy. Photo: Unknown

insects, so after my failed endocrinological research career, I managed to get accepted as a special interest student in two forest entomology courses at what was then The Royal College of Forestry in Stockholm. Professor Bertil Lekander, an expert on bark beetle larval taxonomy, became my mentor there, and these two courses eventually set me on the path to where I am today.

My obsession at the time with applied entomology brought me to Simon Fraser University (SFU) and Canada. I describe how I cured that obsession in this ESC Blog. I can thank the Centre for Overseas Pest Research in the UK and the Sweden-America Foundation for that opportunity. My first two years were spent as a student in the Master of Pest Management program at Simon Fraser University (SFU). I was almost immediately given the opportunity for further graduate work by Dr. John H. Borden. John had (and still has) an unprecedented level of enthusiasm and energy. My topic was pheromone-based management of ambrosia beetles. John would climb steep hills to look at a potential ambrosia beetle-infested tree. Being slightly less enthusiastic about (OK – allergic to) hard physical work, I preferred flat areas, which aren’t that easy to come by in many parts of BC. In our lab, field sites became labelled as Bordenized or Staffanized depending on their steepness.

To make a long story short, I survived graduate school, and spent a couple of months working on grain beetle pheromone applications! I then did a 2-year stint as a post-doctoral fellow at UBC with Dr. John A. McLean, working on forest defoliators as well as ambrosia beetles. In 1984 I landed my first real job as a Research Director with a SFU spin-off company then called PMG/Stratford and later Phero Tech, Inc. (now defunct). Their main business at the time was ambrosia beetle management, which was made possible by my invention, the Lindgren (multiple funnel) trap baited with pheromones developed at SFU as the main tools of the trade. Incidentally, this trap came about

Trap pictures 002

A younger version of myself with one of the first prototypes of what became known as the Lindgren funnel trap. Photo: Ron Long.

because of my allergy to hard work. When I started my doctoral research, the primary tool for bark beetle research was several types of sticky traps, i.e., some kind of mesh coated in some extremely sticky material sold under the trade name Stikem Special. Retrieving captured insects was either done by picking them off with forceps, or removing them by dipping the entire trap in hot solvent (nasty stuff called Shell Solvent).  Anyway, my job was essentially product development, working mainly with various species of bark beetles. Then came my “Big Break”.

BSL with vane trap adjusted David Gray photo semiclean

Setting up a sticky vane trap. These traps were incredibly efficient, but a nightmare to handle.

In 1994, I started my 2nd and last “real” job as Associate Professor at the newly opened University of Northern British Columbia. And this is where my ADD tendencies really flourished, as I no longer had specific product goals to worry about. Quite frankly, I felt like a kid in a candy store! It was hard work, but also an exhilarating time to be part of building an institution from scratch. Consequently, I got involved in all kinds of projects. My first graduate student worked on Pissodes leader weevils, my second on Sesiid pitch moths, and my third on ground beetles. These were followed by students working on bark beetles, ants, root weevils, bark beetles, ground beetles and ant interactions, bark beetles, ground beetles, ground beetles and ant interactions, seed bugs, and finally root weevils. In addition, I had undergraduate students doing projects on ants and root weevils. The sub-disciplines ranged from biodiversity (ground beetles and ants) to insect-plant interaction (root weevils, bark beetles and seed bugs) and population genetics (ants). My knowledge of any of these organisms and sub-disciplines was rather limited, of course, so it meant long hours of catching up with the literature. As strategies go, I doubt that I picked one of the 10 most efficient ones! But I did have fun along the way.

Personality has to play a role in what you do as a scientist. My ADD tendencies are probably perfectly in sync with my broad interests as a naturalist. I am pretty much fascinated by anything that moves, and even things that don’t move. The fact that I survived my years in academia with some level of success is likely due as much to my great collaborators and students as to my own abilities. I have made mistakes along the way, and there are many wrecks along the path I took. But I enjoyed the trip immensely. If I left something of value behind, it is simply icing on the cake!

Posted in Biography, Biology, Opinion, Scientists | Tagged , | 3 Comments

A whale of a dilemma – An update

Almost 2 years ago I wrote a blog about whales in captivity and whale watching. In “A whale of a dilemma”.  Since then I have gone on a whale watching tour, which was quite exciting and rewarding. The guide was respectful of the whales, and I did not feel that we harassed the whales (humpback whales, orcas, and harbor porpoises). As I wrote in my blog, I am not so sure that all whale watchers are equally respectful.

There was some good news for the southern resident (salmon eating) orcas starting in 2014, when a “baby boom” started. Unfortunately the joy was short-lived, as several of the youngsters and several mature orcas died. The youngsters presumably perished primarily due to poor food availability, and all of the whales likely suffer in an increasingly toxic and noisy environment, exacerbated by harassment from boaters. Over the past few days, several sad news stories have appeared. One is a grieving mother orca, who has been carrying her dead calf with her for 7 days. The second is a lone northern transient Bigg’s orca (marine mammal-eating) that has been hanging out in and around Comox harbor, an hour and a half drive north of where I live. As a result of the recent deaths, and the endangered status of the southern residents, new regulations were introduced this year, mandating a 200 m approach distance to whales for all watercraft. Compliance appears variable as curious onlookers try to get a glimpse of the orca, and officials trying to educate boaters and enforce the regulations have sometimes been met by hostility.

Orcas and Humpbacks-8232

A male orca. Nicks and scars on the dorsal fin and the shape of the saddle patch uniquely identify individual whales. This photo is taken from the “wrong” side, however.

The latest book I have read made me feel that I needed to update the original blog. “Orca. How we came to know and love the ocean’s greatest predator” was written by University of Victoria Associate Professor Jason M. Colby.  His book is the story of how a despised and hated animal became a source of fascination and love after capture and display revealed that these animals are far from the monsters they were depicted as. Ted Griffin, the main individual around which the book is written,  was originally hailed as a hero after displaying Namu in Seattle, allowing the public to get a close-up look at the orcas. His role in changing our view of orcas eventually led to him being despised by the orca-loving public, however. The word “love” may seem a bit over the top, but Colby’s book clearly shows the strong emotional bonds that people formed with the orcas they cared for, and eventually for orcas in the wild.

Before this change in attitude kick started by the capture of Namu and Moby Doll, orcas, or blackfish as they were often called, were regularly shot at by fishermen. The appearance of orcas sent people scrambling for higher ground as it was assumed that the whales would attack anything that moved (hence the name “killer whale”). The Latin name Orcinus orca can be translated to “Demon from hell” according to Colby, although that appears to be folk-etymology, perhaps evolved from the fearsome reputation of the animals. “Orcinus” means “belonging to the realm of the dead” and “orca” simply means a type of whale.

The author tells the story of how orcas went from enemy to sought after commodity to beloved visitors worthy of protection at all cost in the Salish Sea over a couple of decades. The display of these intelligent animals at aquariums drove the change in attitude, and it sparked research on live orcas. Michael Bigg’s photo identification system provided a key tool for studying population structure, and also individualized the whales. All of a sudden they were not just “blackfish”, but individuals. Bigg’s system led to our current knowledge that different groups have different food cultures. They are very food specific, which became painfully evident when Moby Doll refused to eat seal meat and several Bigg’s whales almost starved to death when they refused to eat the fish they were offered. (this part of the story was quite touching, showing how deeply these whales care for each other). The emerging public protectionism of orcas even had a role in the rise to prominence by Greenpeace.

I arrived in Canada in 1977, at the end of the free-for-all capture and selling of orcas in the Salish Sea.  I visited Vancouver Aquarium several times, and like others I was fascinated by the whales. At the same time I was disturbed to see these obviously intelligent animals confined to a featureless pool only a few times longer than the whale itself. Over the years my feelings have become stronger, and I now feel that it is morally wrong to keep whales of any kind in captivity. At the same time I recognize that without the display era, our current view of orcas may have taken a lot longer to develop, leading to countless whales being slaughtered. Perhaps that is why I found Colby’s book so captivating. I strongly recommend that you read it. Losing orcas in the Salish Sea would be a tragedy, in my opinion. Seeing a pod is one of the most exciting wildlife encounters one can experience. Should the southern residents go extinct, there is some comfort in knowing that the Bigg’s orcas are doing well thanks to increasing seal and sea lion populations. However, that could change very quickly if we suffered an Exxon Valdez-type oil spill. (That spill wiped out one northern population).  Let’s hope that won’t happen.

Posted in Conservation, Marine ecology | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Hunting: Not my cup of tea.

IMG_2476 Moose cow and calf

Moose is a favourite target of hunters. We saw this cow and calf leisurely feeding on our way home from a paddling trip in July of 2012, and I was lucky enough to capture a few images of the pair. I have enjoyed having this memory and photos for many years, and I hope the moose enjoyed long lives after we had left

When I was around 13 or 14, I and my cousin shot a squirrel with BB guns. What started as ignorant teenage fun became an agonizingly slow death for the squirrel. The experience traumatized me so thoroughly that since that day, I have never fired a weapon of any sort towards an animal. I should confess that I have killed fish, amphibians and reptiles, and rats – not to mention insects and other arthropods – by various means, although I am finding that harder and harder as I age. As a consequence of my childhood trauma I don’t like hunting or guns, although I am not anti-hunting as such, except when it comes to trophy hunting and killing an animal for some specific body part because of some misguided ancient belief (bear gall bladders, elephant tusks and rhino horns (made of keratin!), and pangolin scales (also made of keratin) come to mind) or for the sole purpose of mounting a trophy head on a wall. Perhaps that is hypocrisy on my part, because I do enjoy fishing. When practicing catch and release, there is no question that the fish is suffering.

Lately, opinions have been put forward to the effect that trophy hunting can benefit conservation efforts, e.g., in this article in National Geographic. The idea is essentially that by selling licenses to rich hunters, money is generated for conservation. It is a bit hard for me to swallow that logic, but in the end the proof is in the pudding. If that is what it takes, then perhaps that is the approach that has to be taken, at least in some cases. When it comes to controlling poaching of elephants and rhinos in Africa, however, it is questionable in my mind if a few rich tourist safari hunters contribute enough to make a difference. Depending on who you listen to, the opinions vary. Although hunting can certainly eliminate a species (there is no shortage of examples, e.g., the passenger pigeon is a spectacular case), it is not normally the main culprit. Habitat destruction and loss is more likely to put the final nail in the coffin of an endangered species, except in the case of above-mentioned groundless medicinal beliefs. (Chewing on one’s fingernails should be highly beneficial if rhino horn or pangolin scales are of any medical value).

Humans have always hunted. I have many friends and colleagues who hunt. One argument often used against me is that it is likely more humane to hunt for wild animals to put meat on the table than to raise livestock only to slaughter them. I can’t argue strongly with that, particularly given reports of animal abuse of chickens and cattle in today’s mass production facilities.  However, I have a feeling that death is not always a quick affair for an animal depending on the skill of the hunter and the distance from which an animal is shot. For example, the death of Cecil the lion took 10 to 12 hours, allegedly because the hunter wanted to be able to claim that he shot it with bow and arrow!

In my mind there are two basic types of hunters. I respect capital H hunters, i.e., the people who enjoy and respect nature and hunt for food in a sustainable and responsible manner. In my mind such a person may opt to NOT shoot an animal because they find pleasure in leaving it to live its life. However, there are also hunters that I would call “shooters”, i.e. people who take pleasure in killing animals, whether to prove their ability to kill an animal or simply because they want to have bragging rights about their trophy collection. A few years ago, I met a guy on a quad, who I probably would have assumed to fall in or close to the latter category. However, he told us that he had just chased a young grizzly bear who was wandering along the road into the forest to make sure it didn’t get shot. Assuming that he was telling the truth, I would put him in the capital H hunter category, in spite of the quad. I realize that hunters can’t be put in distinct categories, but as with everything we classify, it makes the discussion less ambiguous, so I pretend that it is the case!

I recognize that sometimes hunting is necessary, e.g., when animals become so abundant that they destroy their own habitat. However, that is frequently a result of a lack of predators, which in turn is due to relentless persecution by humans. The example of wolf re-introduction in Yellowstone National Park shows that healthy ecosystems depend on a balance between predator and prey populations. Similar information can be found about other ecosystems, e.g., the apparent impact of sharks on coral reef health (but see this article for another view). Even the most carefully regulated hunting cannot completely emulate predator effects, just as clearcutting cannot replace the impact of wildfire! The examples of our clumsy failed attempts to restore ecosystems we have impacted abound!

Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, so it is not surprising that we still engage in activities such as harvesting clams, picking mushrooms, fishing, and hunting. When it comes to hunting (and commercial fishing in particular), however, our technological advances have tilted the field in our favour to the point where animals have little chance to escape unscathed. The result is all too frequently that the animal populations go into decline. I grew up in Sweden when wolves could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and the other three large native predators (lynx, wolverine and brown bear) were


Grizzly bear sow and two of her three cubs. A wonderful experience my wife and I had at Bute Inlet last year.

exceedingly rare, numbering in the low hundreds. I was lucky to see a wolverine in the wild, but never had the opportunity to see any of the other three. Here in Canada I am still missing wolf and cougar on my bucket list, but I have had the pleasure of seeing lynx, bobcat, and the two species of bear in the wild. Sharing the environment with these magnificent animals is truly a privilege. The only shooting I do is with my camera, and having photographs of animals that may still wander the forests gives me a great sense of satisfaction. And that is the way I like it!

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

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
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


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!


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 .


Money cowrie, Monetaria moneta (Linnaeus). By Philippe Bourjon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, 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


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 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


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,

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.


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


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.


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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