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),

Haleiwa-8994 Monarch

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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Looking back at 2017

On these first few days of 2018 I have been waking  up to a wintery scene at our home in south Nanaimo. The lake is almost completely frozen, and the nighttime temperature has come down to exactly what was needed to freeze the hummingbird feeders. Mild by Canadian standards, but when you are an Anna’s hummingbird, you can’t tolerate too much cold. (They can survive at surprisingly low temperatures, however. This article gives some insights on how.) Anyway, I thought it is time to take stock of my second full year as a pensioner.

Accomplishments. A while back this tweet appeared where people were encouraged to tweet 3 accomplishments they were proud of. Accomplishment tweet

Many did, but I don’t think it took off, perhaps because there was no specific hashtag associated with it. I didn’t respond because as a pensioner I didn’t feel that I had much to be proud of except staying alive (and reasonably healthy) for another year. But thinking back on it now, perhaps I accomplished a few things.

Birding: I have slowly improved my skills, but there is still a long way to go to claim any level of expertise. My backyard count reached 78, i.e., birds seen or heard without leaving our yard. Most of these were actually viewed from our living room! So no complaints there!

Bat and bird houses: My home-made bat house showed evidence of use, which was very satisfying. The bird houses on the other hand remained vacant, except for the European paper wasps, which seem to invade any structure that affords some rain shelter. Fortunately they are rather benign, so no stings yet. (By the way, I highly recommend “The Secret Lives of Bats” by Merlin Tuttle. Easy read, but loaded with good information.)

Mason bees: production is quite good. We had a bit more mite problems this year, but plenty of bees now in hibernation. We are trying to create a bee-friendly garden, and based on the numbers we had we have succeeded to some extent.

Retaining wall: finished tearing down the old termite-infested wall and replaced it with a 60 foot long terraced wall built from 10 foot long treated 6×6 inch timbers. My wife is happy with the result, so that is what counts.

Photography: Some mixed results to be fair. I certainly have some photos I am rather proud of, but I am still learning. I have done mostly nature photography, with the majority being birds and only some macro photography.Phidippus May 2017-3245 cropped I have sprinkled some results throughout this blog, but my better (or at least more interesting) attempts are posted on my Flickr site https://www.flickr.com/photos/bslindgren/.

Society activity: I did an extra year as Past-President of the Entomological Society of Canada due to the tragic illness that eventually claimed the life of my successor as president, Dr. Terry Wheeler. I also volunteered as part of the organizing committee for the 2018 ESC-ESBC-ESA meeting in Vancouver. Closer to home I have been part of a group that has resurrected a naturalist club in Nanaimo after the closest alternative, the Nanoose Naturalists folded in January of 2017.

Academic/science activities: I have volunteered at the Royal BC Museum sorting and identifying ants. It has been slow going, but I am at least getting some order in their completely unsorted specimens. I attended the Canadian Society of Ecology and Evolution meeting in Victoria, but have since been unable to attend any meetings, in part due to lack of funding. I gave three guest lectures (University of Victoria and two to Swedish foresters touring with Skogsresor), and served as Public examiner on a few thesis or thesis proposal defenses.

Travel: We have largely stayed around home, except for a few trips to visit our sons. Vancouver Island has so much to offer that there is little reason to go anywhere else. Two highlights of the year were both north of us. The first one was a kayak trip to Telegraph Grizzly mum and cub-8295Cove, which offered up fascinating invertebrates (comb jellies, Bryozoan colonies and zoea crab larvae along with the sea jellies) and a group of Dall’s porpoises that entertained us for 20 minutes or so. The second one was in association with one of my lectures to Swedish foresters. We were invited to go along on a whale and grizzly bear watching tour to Orford River in Bute Inlet. It was a trip of a lifetime and became my highlight of the year in terms of photography as well. In addition to whales, seals and sea lions, we were treated to a close-up performance by a bear sow and her three cubs. I am somewhat ambivalent about this type of tourism, but on balance I really think that people gain a better understanding of animals when they see them in real life. Television provides opportunities for everyone to get high quality insights, but many programs tend toward sensationalism, focusing on conflict, strife and predation, rather than the ‘normal’ existence of these majestic animals.

Reading: After my retirement I have taken up reading for leisure again. I have read mostly non-fiction books, and generally on topics close to my naturalist roots. Some of my blogs earlier this year describe my impressions of a few of those books. The highlight was probably reading about Alexander von Humboldt’s life. He has existed merely as a background name in my professional life, but after reading about him it is clear to me that he deserves much more than that. His demise may be yet another unfortunate fallout of Hitler’s existence, as anything German was shunted to the shadows following the two world wars. I am right now waiting to get the second book about Humboldt (Humboldt’s Cosmos) back from the liibrary so I can finish it.

May 12 2017-7869 croppedAncestry: I have been able to build a rather impressive family tree for myself and the Norwegian branch of my wife, stretching back to the 15th and 14th Century, respectively. In today’s world, so much information is literally at your fingertips, enabling us in so many ways. Right now we are waiting for DNA analysis results, as we received a kit each for Christmas. I don’t expect any major revelations, but I am looking forward to seeing my Neanderthal roots!

Social media: Too much exposure to the so-called President south of the 49th has created angst and obsession. Otherwise I have been fairly moderate in my use of Facebook and Twitter (the only interactive media I use), if I may say so myself. I briefly had 700 Twitter followers, which is remarkable given my fairly sporadic comments. Right now, I am sitting at 699!

Blogging: To say that it has been sporadic may be an exaggeration. It is probably more accurate to say that it is rare. I don’t have a huge following like some of my esteemed colleagues, probably because I blog more in the same sense that someone would keep a diary, rather than to reach out to a specific audience. The main idea is to enjoy it, so while the odd blog may be of interest to someone, the majority likely will not. And that is just fine with me.

Garry oak-8568 croppedThere may be other topics I could cover (for example politics, but I don’t want to go down that hole – suffice it to say that Trumpism defies any logic I can muster), but the above seems plenty for now. Until my next rare blog, have a wonderful and prosperous 2018.

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Pet peeves: The increasing list of things that annoys me as I become a grumpier old man.

The other day I got myself in the unenviable position of having to wait for a BC Ferry from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver to Nanaimo for four hours. I missed the 5 o’clock ferry by minutes, and then the 7 o’clock ferry ended up being late due to a “marine rescue” . Luckily I had brought my latest library book with me (“The Genius of Birds” by Jennifer Ackerman if you must know). That was a stroke of luck and I got through 1/3 of it in one sitting. But I also tried to do a bit of social media and e-mail, which turned out to be less fruitful. That is because wifi at BC Ferries is spotty at best, and usually very poor.

Queen_of_Oak_Bay_475w

Queen of Oak Bay

You would think that in this day and age they could at least have decent wifi at the terminals! But no, I was unable to do anything for the entire period (I am cheap so my data package is easily exhausted if I use that). This in turn reminded me that I was planning to write a blog about my pet peeves. So here it is.

Dog poo. This is one of my top pet peeves for sure. Irresponsible owners who let their dogs poo anywhere, and then leave it for other people to step in. But I can see the odd unintentional accident happen where the owner simply fails to notice the offense committed by their pooch. But there is another variant I simply can’t abide by. Some dog owners dutifully pick up their pooches droppings in a bag, which is fine, of course. However, a subset of these responsible dog owners then throw the bag into the bushes, where as often as not it gets caught on branches. So plastic bags with dog poo is hanging like Christmas ornaments in the bushes for years! Really folks!? Really? Wouldn’t it be better to simply take a stick and move the deposit off the trail?

Tobacco purchase at grocery stores. So you are in a hurry but have to pick something up at the grocery store. You get in the shortest line you can find at the cashiers, to get through quickly. Then the person in front of you wants to buy a pack of cigarettes. The cashier now has to go to a locked cupboard somewhere to retrieve the pack, leaving you to wait so the person in front of you can continue to engage in a slow motion suicide attempt.

Politicians giving rehearsed (non-)answers. While I think this has improved both federally and provincially since the changes in governments (from conservatives to liberals federally, from so-called liberals [=closet conservatives] to NDP provincially) I find it rather offensive when a politician refuses to answer a simple question from a reporter or constituent. The worst example I have seen of this was when the Harper conservatives shut down the Coast Guard station in Vancouver. It was simply embarrassing to listen to what could be tape-recorded non-answers from the government representative (I remember that James Moore was the minister responsible, but can’t remember who the offending person was). But this type of behavior isn’t necessarily confined to any political colour, but seems to be a pattern. And it happens elsewhere as well. I remember when I was trying to get actual numbers justifying how my institution viewed the costs associated with appointing external vs. internal faculty members to CRC positions (including replacement or loss of teaching capacity when appointing internal candidates). I was simply told to come and talk about it. The numbers in black and white I wanted were refused.

Unnecessary bureaucracy (academia). My PhD supervisor, John H. Borden, once said that I was likely to spend my life banging my head against various walls fighting bureaucracy. I think he was right, as he often was. It wasn’t regulations as such that annoyed me, but rather how they were implemented. Frequently this was done with excessive bureaucratic acrobatics.

Signatures. I served as Acting Chair of one of the Academic administrative units at UNBC for two years. During this time I must have signed many hundreds of documents, all of which required additional signatures from the Dean and sometimes higher up in the chain. In many cases these were logical, but more often I questioned why my signature was required, particularly for expense claims and purchases by faculty members from their own research grants.

Administration mushrooming. Early on in my academic career, UNBC was re-organized from five faculties to two colleges. The justification was to trim excessive administration. Apart from destroying the highly functional, active and productive unit I was in (Faculty of Natural Resources and Environmental Studies), it created two largely disjointed units which even after 15 or more years never became anything close to cohesive. Over those years we also experienced a slow ballooning of administration, strangely enough accompanied by periodic downloading of functions from the Registrar’s office, Finance and Purchasing to the departmental level. My cynical view is of course that administrators create system to justify their own existence. One has to wonder if anyone would have realized if one or more administrators suddenly vanished.

First name middle initial obsession in North America. My parents named me in a somewhat unfortunate way for someone ending up spending the majority of their life in North America. My first name is Bo, but my father didn’t like that name because “when he grew up, the village idiot was named Bo Lindgren”. This of course begs the question why they named me Bo in the first place! Thus I grew up as Staffan Lindgren. Over the 40 years I have spent in Canada, I have lived with the initials BS (although not far off the mark to be honest), and I have had to fight the forms that require your first name and middle initial. (NSERC applications asks for your name and your initials, which would be an easy solution). For years I refused to accept this, because it always caused confusion when I was called by my first name, e.g., at the doctor’s office, since that was not me! Nowadays I have given up. It still annoys me, but I don’t have the energy to fight it anymore. For airline bookings, which require that your name is the same as on your passport, I put both names down as my first name. This results in Bostaffan on tickets. But that seems to be OK. In this day and age, when millions of immigrants have all manner of combinations for their given names, you would think that we could move on from this non-flexible position. I don’t see that happening in what’s left of my time on this planet, however.

Litter bugs. Driving the Nanaimo Parkway, a 20 odd kilometer piece of highway that bypasses the busy downtown area of my retirement home town, you frequently see people on quads picking up garbage from the ditches and the median. Generally they end up with a garbage bag full every 100 m or so. This is just baffling to me. Nanaimo has a very efficient and easy to use recycling program, so why are people throwing garbage out of their cars? Given the national pastime of complaining about taxes, why would you contribute to tax money spending to pick up garbage? Perhaps it is a coastal thing? One of the disappointing things we encountered when moving here is that almost all forest roads are gated, because people are using the forest as a garbage dump. The gate only means that garbage is concentrated around the gates. Apparently you can call the city and staff will clean up dump sites, again causing unnecessary tax money expenditures. Yes, it costs a few dollars to go to the city dump, but surely a clean natural environment is something to aspire to! I must say that it is hard to have hope for a greener economy when people behave like this. But without hope, what do we have?

And did I mention crap wifi on BC Ferries?

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Against all odds III: Cannery Row’s ‘Doc’ Ricketts

Edward Flanders Ricketts, 1939 By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4963764

If like me, you have been around the block a few times, you probably know who I am referring to. ‘Doc’ was the somewhat eccentric biologist central to several of John Steinbeck’s novels, specifically Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. He also served as inspiration for various characters in several other Steinbeck novels. Ever since Steinbeck was named as the 1962 Nobel Laureate in Literature, I have been a fan. I have read everything he’s written, or at least I think I have. Thus, ‘Doc’ was someone I felt I knew quite intimately. But I knew him as the fictionalized character portrayed in Steinbeck’s books, not as a biologist. And it turns out that he was much more of a biologist than he gets credit for.

Cover of Beyond the Outer Shores, by Eric Enno Tamm

A few years back, a good friend recommended that I read a book by the Vancouver author Eric Enno Tamm, Beyond the Outer Shores. It was through this book I learned that Ricketts was in fact quite significant as a biologist, albeit marginalized by academics due to the lack of a university degree. He did study zoology at the University of Illinois, where one of his mentors was Professor W. C. Allee (who first described the Allee effect). Ricketts floundered for a while after dropping out, and eventually ended up in Pacific Grove, California, where he set up Pacific Biological Laboratories together with a colleague in 1926. In 1930, PBL moved to Monterey, CA, and Ricketts became sole owner. He ran the lab until his death on May 11, 1948, a few days after his car was hit by a passenger train near the lab, and only 3 days before his 51st birthday. His personal life was rather tumultuous (described by Ricketts himself in the next book I read about him, Renaissance Man of Cannery Row, edited and annotated by Katharine A. Rodger, but I will focus on his biological legacy here.

Cover of “Rennaisance Man of Cannery Row”, edited by Katharine A. Rodger.

Ricketts documented his biological observations, and he observed intertidal life in an ecological context at a time when the discipline of ecology was still in its cradle. Of particular note was that he was pretty much alone in recognizing the negative impacts of overharvesting because he maintained records of the sardine fishery. He in fact predicted its collapse, an issue that is again at the forefront of California fisheries. He accompanied Steinbeck on a collecting trip to the Sea of Cortez, resulting in the publication of The Log from the Sea ofCortez, based on Ricketts’ diary. Interestingly, the book was originally published as Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research with Ricketts as co-author. The later version with Steinbeck as sole author was missing the phyletic catalogue that was part of the first publication .

Before this, Ricketts co-authored a book, Between Pacific Tides, first published in 1939 and now in its 5th edition. Because of his lack of a university degree, he had difficulty getting the book accepted by the publisher, but luckily the manuscript had been sent off shortly before a fire destroyed the PBL building and all its contents in November 1936. The loss included all of Ricketts’ notes, scientific literature, and poetry books. Between Pacific Tides was somewhat unique in that organisms were classified by habitat, rather than by taxonomy as was customary. It described the most common intertidal organisms, including their habits and ecology.

One of the many organisms named after Ed Ricketts.

Ricketts and Steinbeck had planned a second trip, this time to the west coast of British Columbia. It is this that is described in Tamm’s book Beyond the Outer Shores.
Ricketts is certainly remembered in Monterey, California, no doubt in large part thanks to the popularity of Steinbeck’s books. But this is perhaps more as the fictional character ‘Doc’ than as the man he truly was. More telling is that a number of organisms have been named after Ricketts, e.g., the blenny illustrated here. It is time that the real Edward F. Ricketts is more widely recognized for his contributions to marine ecology, I think.

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Alexander von Humboldt: Naturalist Extraordinaire

It has been a while since I wrote a blog post. As a retiree, you’d think I would have lots of time, and I do. But I also have lots of activities, admittedly combined with a tendency to procrastinate more than I should (and perhaps waning motivation). One of those activities is to read books. Some time ago I read a book that really influenced me profoundly, particularly because I was so ignorant of the subject of that book. The book was Andrea Wulf’s “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World”.

Cover of Andrea Wulf’s book about Alexander von Humboldt

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806.

I highly recommend this book to any biologist or naturalist. What I write below doesn’t even scratch the surface of this remarkable man, so Wulf’s captivating book is a must read. If you can’t plow through Wulf’s massive book, you should at least read the entry about Humboldt in Wikipedia.

The name Humboldt is quite familiar to most of us, because Humboldt was in his time the most celebrated scientist of all. Consequently his name is attached to numerous places, animal and plant species, and geographical features. Examples are the Humboldt squid, the Humboldt penguin, Humboldt’s lily, and the Humboldt current. There are several universities, including Humboldt State University in California, and eight communities in the US bear his name. In fact, he has more recognition in this way than any other human being. At the centenary of his birth, Humboldt was celebrated throughout the world with parades and numerous initiatives in support of science. How is it possible that such a prominent scientist seems all but forgotten today?

Announcement of centenary celebration of the birth of Alexander von Humboldt.

Alexander von Humboldt was born 1769 in Berlin, Germany, and he died there four months short of his 90th birthday. Not unlike Charles Darwin, he had a propensity for going his own way early on, worrying his mother and older brother about his future prospects. He dreamt about being an explorer early on, and after many delays, in part because of the Napoleonic war, eventually managed to get support for an expedition to South America 1799-1804. Like Darwin’s voyage on the beagle, this experience became the foundation for his remarkable scientific exploits.
To make a long story short, Humboldt’s impact on natural sciences has been immense. He was the first to view nature holistically. In other words, he was an ecologist long before the discipline really existed. He also saw the impact of human exploitation on nature, including effects on climate. In other words, he warned about climate change almost 200 years before we started paying attention! He was also the first to suggest continental drift as he suggested that Africa and South America had once been attached. He laid the foundation for biogeography with his “Naturgemälde”, showing the zonation of plants with elevation, and that the types of plants he saw when climbing Chimborazo (while risking life and limb), a 6,268 m high mountain in Ecuador (as a curiosity, when measured from the center of our planet, it is the highest mountain on earth) were consistent with what he had observed in Europe.

Alexander von Humboldt’s Naturgemälde.

Humboldt published prolifically throughout his long career. One of the books he produced, “Personal narrative of travels to the equinoctial regions of the New Continent during the years 1799-1804.“ inspired Darwin and thus, Humboldt indirectly influenced the career of Darwin. Interestingly, Humboldt also was ahead of his time in that he was interested in uniting science and art. He spent lots of time with poets like Goethe and Schiller, and Goethe, in particular and Humboldt influenced each other quite profoundly (interestingly, Humboldt is not mentioned in the Wikipedia entry above).
Today, Humboldt is more or less forgotten outside of South America and Germany. This may in part be due to anti-German sentiment in the wake of two world wars. Andrea Wulf’s book is a timely attempt to restore him to his rightful place in history. His name may not be prominent now, but his influence on science is.

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