Living in Paradise

It is human nature to take our environment for granted. Once in a while we get a reminder of how privileged we are living where we do, particularly if we enjoy being out in forest and field. That is certainly the case living on Vancouver Island. We enjoy a benign climate and we are surrounded by a diversity of organisms that is unparalleled in the temperate regions of the world. Lately I have certainly been reminded of this.

During the summer I have entertained myself by bird watching and enjoying the rich diversity of pollinating insects in my backyard. I have found at least 4-5 species of bumblebee, numerous species of social and solitary bees, as well as flies, beetles and butterflies (although the latter are surprisingly sparse where I live, unfortunately). I am trying to learn to identify the more common species, but it has been tough going as I

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The American sand wasp, Bembix americana, is a common visitor in my garden.

have evolved an aversion to killing anything in my old age (insects and spiders can often only be identified if they are killed and examined under a microscope). I and my wife have also been going to the beach or kayaking, and at low tide this provides a wealth of opportunities to see the most wonderful diversity of invertebrate life. With a bit of luck, you get to enjoy sea lions, harbor seals, and river otters, in addition to ducks, gulls, shorebirds etc. And all of this doesn’t even include the incredible diversity of microfauna right under our feet!

I am not a botanist, but I do recognize that plants and algae provide the very foundation of every other life form. You don’t have to be a plant person to marvel at how a Douglas-fir or Sitka spruce tree can develop from a tiny seed into enormous, almost 100 m tall giants, seemingly without using any resources at all! In Nanaimo, we are blessed by Harewood Plains, a unique area with rich flowering plant diversity which covers the open areas in a rainbow of colours every spring. Botanist or not, this area takes your

Harewood meadow small

Harewood Meadows in bloom.

breath away when in full bloom, and as an entomologist, you can enjoy the rich insect fauna that accompanies the bonanza of flowering plant competing for pollinator attention.

It could be even better, had humans not engaged in virtual genocide against some of the most charismatic members of our biological community. Whales were driven to the brink of extinction by commercial whaling (humpback, minke, sperm and gray whales), or they were simply subjected to random killing because of a lack of knowledge, e.g., fishermen regularly shot at orcas, seals and sea lions. A friend of mine who spent part of his childhood at Hartley Bay told me that they were taught to run away from the beach if orcas were seen because of the misconception that surrounded these amazing animals. Now we tend to aggregate to get a closer look! The epitomy of the persecution folly was perhaps the wanton slaughter of basking sharks, the second largest fish in the world, which were commonly sighted in BC waters during the summer months not too long ago. Many died accidentally after getting tangles in fishing nets, but at the height of this slaughter they were even deliberately killed by ramming them with the regional fisheries patrol ship, the Comox Post, which had been fitted with ng a sharp blade on the bow. Basking sharks are now extremely rare visitors to our waters, and then only on the outside coast.

When we did not kill marine life directly, we depleted their sources of food. Seals and sea lions were killed because they competed for fish, which affected the transient orca population, salmon and herring was over-fished and their spawning grounds destroyed, affecting resident orcas. Sadly, the southern residents are now endangered.

One of the most charismatic of the marine mammals is the sea otter. Sea otters were hunted to near extinction because of their incredible fur, which is denser than any other mammal’s. Sea otters lack blubber, so the fur is critical for insulation, which is maintained by meticulous grooming by which a layer of insulating air gets trapped. Oil spills are disastrous, e.g., the Exxon Valdez disaster killed about 90% of the sea otters in the area affected. The removal of sea otters drastically impacted the coastal marine ecosystem as sea urchins, in particular, multiplied, which in turn devastated kelp forests critical as fish nurseries, among the other ecological services they provide. Recent research has shown that sea otters also impact eel grass beds positively. In California, the Elkhorn Slough eelgrass was in decline due to algal growth caused by high nutrient levels from farmland runoff. When the otters moved in, the problem reversed! To make a long story short, abundant crabs suppressed populations of algae grazers in the absence of sea otters. The otters quickly suppressed the crab, releasing sea hares (a type of sea slug) and other species that kept algae down.

I have just finished reading “Return of the Sea Otter” by Todd McLeish. When I read about something that excites me, I tend to get somewhat obsessed. I knew there are sea otters at the northwest end of Vancouver Island, as well as along the west coast further north, so I was starting to think about how to travel to where I would be able to see them. Fate intervened, and I ended up spotting one at Botany Bay, just southeast of Port Renfrew, BC, on a trip my wife and I did to visit Botanical Beach in Juan de Fuca Provincial Park recently. I literally couldn’t believe my eyes, so it took a while to register that it was a real live sea otter. It turns out that otters from the Washington State

Sea otter-0032 cropped

Sea otter, Enhydra lutris, at Botany Bay, Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, in the typical position floating on its back.

population cross the Juan de Fuca Strait and show up in the Port Renfrew area of Vancouver Island now and then, meaning they have to traverse open water over a distance of 17 km or so. Vancouver Island’s established population ranges from Cape Scott in the north, to Barkley Sound in the south. They are descendants of 89 Alaska sea otters introduced to Checleset Bay at the south end of Brooks Peninsula in 1969 and 1972. Presumably, further expansion to the south is occurring, and eventually we may again be able to see these wonderful animals along most of BC’s coast.

The otter was just the icing on the cake, as we saw lots of invertebrate tidepool life, and a black bear appeared late in the day, ambling along the beach as if it was one of the many tourists. Port Renfrew is only 2 hours by car from Nanaimo, so Botanical Beach is easily visited on a day trip (If you have a tendency for motion sickness, this trip may not be a good idea). In the summer it can get extremely crowded, so the best time to visit may be during the shoulder seasons. Even if you don’t want to travel that far, Vancouver Island’s coast offers a wealth of opportunities for enjoying nature. We truly are living in paradise.

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Black bear, Ursus americanus, at Botanical Beach. It is obviously a paradise for the bears as well, as evidenced by the girth of this lovely animal.

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Posted in Biology, Conservation, Marine ecology, Nature, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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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.

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Confessions of an ADD scientist

DougLinton.StaffanLindgren.LesSafranyik.BobBetts.xPeet.Sept1984.Princeton

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 (http://darwin-online.org.uk/EditorialIntroductions/Richmond_cirripedia.html).  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

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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.

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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.

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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

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

Malvina Reynolds

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

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

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

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

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

SourakovBarcoding_Papilio dardanus

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine there’s no countries

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

                John Lennon

Imagine, indeed!

References

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Monetaria_moneta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paphiopedilum_rothschildianum

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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