Posts Tagged ‘biodiversity’

Autumn colours II

I’ve spent a few more days exploring the local woodlot (and the local idiot teenagers got themselves arrested, so no more competition from them, I hope. Maybe they’ll get community service and have to clean up their pop cans.). The fall colours rapidly progressed and the trees, especially the cottonwoods, are beginning to look bare. Here are some pictures from a few weeks ago, when I decided to try identifying some tree species (probably mostly failed).

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina). Look how red they are!

Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) a few weeks ago – they’re now wilted and brown.

The leaves of a couple of small ash trees (Fraxinus – hello, Xylem Up!), which dominate the understory in my little forest. The ashes seemed to fall into two types – one with with narrow leaflets on the left, and one with rounder leaflets, particularly the terminal leaflet, on the right. But I gave upon IDing them to species.

Leaves from three lovely oaks (Quercus). The one in the centre is from a black oak; I think the other two are both bur oaks, though there’s a chance the rightmost one is a white oak.

Anyone know what this tree is? It has some compound and some simple leaves, and the compound ones vary in the number of leaflets while the leaflets may or may not have multiple lobes. Some of the compound leaves look like poison ivy!

Or this one? Possibly a chokecherry?


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Seafloor Explorer

Ever wanted to be a marine biologist? Now, from the comfort of your own home, you can!

Seafloor Explorer is a citizen science project that asks participants to identify substrates and creatures in pictures of the ocean’s floor. The pictures—millions of them in the database—are all taken along the northeastern coast of the U. S. by HabCam, an underwater vehicle created by a collaborative team that includes the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and local fishers and engineers. It’s quite simple to do: a tutorial teaches you how to classify the substrate as sand, shell, gravel, cobble, or boulder. Then you mark any fish, crustaceans, seastars, and scallops in the image and note whether there are any other creatures present. There are many unexpected delights to be found, like this – a pair of eels over a gravel bed (with some scallops and a crab; click to enlarge):

All images in this post courtesy the HabCam group, a collaboration between the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, commercial fishers, and independent scientists.

Or this image, showing a squid in the lower right and anemones in the upper right:

The data from Seafloor Explorer will allow scientists to study habitat and species distribution and abundance. Even more exciting, though, is the chance that we’ll see something we’ve never seen before. Already (the site was launched Sept. 13th), members may have identified a new species! Tentatively called the “convict worm“, it appears to live in sandy tubes and has a white body with narrow black bands.

If you’re more keen on actual stars than seastars, there’s also the Galaxy Zoo project, which asks for help classifying images of distant galaxies.

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Top left: Cebu hawk owl; bottom right: Camiguin hawk owl. Source: Oriental Bird Club; painting by John Gale.

Did you know that the collective noun for owls is a parliament? Odd, because they tend to be solitary or paired. Anyways: a new parliament of seven owl species from the jungles of the Philippines.

A research team, led by Dr. Pamela Rasmussen of Michigan State University, was documenting the songs of the Philippine hawk owl (Ninox philippensis). This species was known to have geographically variable plumage, and previous taxonomists had split it into a number of subspecies. But plumage was not enough to diagnose

Because owls are nocturnal, they rely heavily on vocalizations to tell each other apart. And since they don’t learn these songs—they are in fact thought to be genetically programmed—owls with distinct enough songs probably belong to separate species. But recording owls at night in remote jungles is no easy task, and it took 15 years before the research team could confirm that they were dealing with seven hawk owls instead of just one.

Five of those seven species had previously been considered subspecies of the Philippine hawk owl on the basis of their plumage. But two—the Cebu and Camiguin hawk owls, named for the islands on which they are found—were completely new. It’s quite rare to discover a new vertebrate, and especially a new bird in this age of fanatical birding. But here were two! It’s nice, I think, to know that there are still mysteries out there to be brought to light.

The full article describing all seven species can be found here in PDF form (see page 12 for pictures of all the owls). And you can hear examples of the song recordings analyzed in this study: here’s the Camiguin hawk owl and the Cebu hawk owl.

Reference: Rasmussen PC, Allen DNS, Collar NJ, DeMeulemeester B, Hutchinson RO, Jakosalem PGC, Kennedy RS, Lambert FR, Paguntalan LM. 2012. Vocal divergence and new species in the Philippine Hawk Owl Ninox philippensis complex. Forktail 28:1-20.

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New species and weird scientific name news that has found its way to my browser over the past few months. Enjoy.

Pictures of tropical fish that will BLOW YOUR MIND. New and non-new species.

Potential cryptic species of sharks

Giant extinct turtle

Random Wikipedia browsing reveals that there is at least one species (a spider) named for Cthulhu

More cryptic species, in this case of skinks

The Taxonomic Name Resolution Service – searchable record of plant scientific names, including all documented synonyms – important for those describing new species, as well as for those trying to find historical research on species whose names have changed

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I am indebted to my hiking buddy “A” for doing all the botanizing necessary for me to write this post. And for hiking with me!

Normally, at the end of a stint in the field, I try to get back home as fast as I possibly can, rushing through the 8 mile hike then, er, adhering strictly to the speed limit in our state vehicle as we drive down the road from Koke’e State Park. But there’s another way home from the field, a little-used trail that runs from our camp all the way back to civilization. My boss hinted that trying it once would be mandatory, so a few weeks ago, armed with a GPS route and instructions to “turn left after the redwood grove”, my hiking buddy/fellow field tech A and I trekked downhill about 18 miles (29 km) from our field site in the Alaka’i Wilderness Preserve to the coastal town of Waimea.

After a week of mostly sunny weather—unusual for a site only a few miles from Mt. Wai’ale’ale, allegedly the wettest place on earth—the heavens finally opened the night before our hike. I remember lying awake fretting that the trail would become a series of mudpits connected by slip-‘n’-slides, and that the streams might be uncrossable the next day. But in the morning, another tech reassured us (sort of) by insisting that we’d miss this weather about a third of the way into the hike, when we hit dry forest.

So off we went—early, as we’d been warned the hike could take up to twelve hours, and laden with litres of water that seemed redundant at the time. What at first appeared to be a lull in the rain soon became a genuine cessation—or was that because we were leaving the rainforest already? After only three miles the understory already appeared more open, and more and more nonnative plants were showing up. And we began to hear fewer and fewer native birds. In fact, it wasn’t long before we saw our first rooster—chickens run wild on Kaua’i—and soon after that, our first mynah. A suggested marking waypoints on our GPSs for these unfortunate firsts, but I found that too depressing.

We reached the redwood grove we’d been warned about—there are a few such groves scattered around the edges of the native rainforest on Kaua’i, and the towering trees with almost no undergrowth look stark and mystical—and had no problem finding the left turn, which led us down a series of switchbacks into more mixed forest.

The switchbacks led to a river valley, our first stream crossing. The stream was, as I had worried, swollen with rain and would clearly overtop our hiking boots, so we crossed barefoot, though our socks were soaked already from the muddy trail. We took a break across the stream by an old cabin, and the newly-shining sun combined with the dripping grass convinced me to take off my heavy rain gear, too.

The next section of trail was a mix of rain-damp grasses and brambles, alternately cutting and soothing my legs as I passed. Once, ahead of us, a deer crossed the path, then froze and stared at us. We stared back until it marched away. The mixed forest gave way to a monoculture of strawberry guava, a plant with tasty fruits that has become a major invasive pest in Hawaiian native forests. This stand was truly eerie: every trunk looked the same—of the same size and with smooth, brown bark lacking the moss that covers everything in the Alaka’i—and not a bird could be heard, native or otherwise.

Our first sign of civilization was a pile of horse dung—still pretty far into the forest. I was surprised a horse could actually be taken there; not only is the terrain steep but the path itself is extremely narrow. The next sign of civilization was, I kid you not, a pink mansion with a massive lawn in the middle of the jungle. Presumably, this was located outside of the state park and on private land. A and I debated about whether we could see a road along the ridge leading to this strange building; we ultimately decided that we couldn’t see any ingress to this place by road and that the owners probably helicoptered in.

Waimea Canyon from its east slope

We left the guava grove and hiked through a forest compose of increasingly stunted and dry-looking plants. Ghostly pale ohia snags stuck up above the lower vegetation and the trail change from slippery to hard-packed and dry, with gouges indicating that the upslope forest watered this drier habitat. On a barren knoll we stopped for lunch and our first clear view of Waimea Canyon with its distinctive red soil (exposed, so I’m told, by grazing goats, which have caused serious erosion problems). Around us grew spiky-leaved lobelias and greenswords and stunted ohia trees—the dominant tree of the wet forest also thrives, in a different growth form, on the drier side of the island.

Our lunch, and the rest of the hike, was constantly interrupted by helicopters. They carry tourists over the canyon and the Alaka’i plateau, where they can see spectacular waterfalls and forested ridges. I certainly would jump at the chance myself, if I had the money and didn’t want to hike, but a copter flew by us almost once a minute for most of the afternoon, a constant reminder that we were nowhere near as remote as we felt out there.

A greensword and some ohias, with Waimea Canyon in the background.

The trail continued downhill as the forest gave way to chapparal. There was no shade, but it was fortuitously overcast, making the hike warm but not unpleasant. On a sunny day it would’ve been miserable. Having been soaked through in the forest, I began to dry off, and soon reached an equilibrium where the sweat seeping into my clothes perfectly balanced the evaporating rainwater.

The trail was also obviously well-worn. Horse and donkey hoofprints—we now saw dry dung in abundance—had worn a path as deep as a foot into the clay. In some places, charred branches littered the ground, as if a small wildfire had been contained. We encountered water catchments and little shelters (filled, sadly, with more garbage than we could carry out), probably intended for state workers but mostly used by hunters. Good conservationists, we checked any standing water for mosquito larvae, but found none—mosquito season, apparently, isn’t til the fall.

While the red clay makes Waimea Canyon iconic, we found a few places where it came in an array of colours—reds, oranges, yellows, even purples and blues. Erosion by wind or rain had sculpted it into ridges and moguls. Where harder, black volcanic rocks were scattered, the clay had eroded out from under them, leaving them on little pedestal. But for the shrubs, it looked like Mars or the moon.

This was easily the most beautiful part of the hike, but also one of the hardest. It was exposed and hot, and began to turn uphill. We approached Pu’u Ki, a conical hill in the middle of the canyon—fortunately the trail would lead us around it. A pointed out wiliwili (Erythrina sandwicensis), a  Hawaiian endemic with orange bark and strange orange flowers. Unfortunately they weren’t flowering at this time of year.

The multicoloured clay soils above Waimea Canyon

After Pu’u Ki, we descended into another river valley. Black bluffs loomed above our heads, and—finally—some shady trees grew along the riparian corridor. The path wound through tall grasses, crossing and recrossing the stream via stepping stones. Soon, this river joined up with the Waimea River—my GPS calls it Waimea Ditch. We were now on the last few miles of the Waimea Canyon Trail—actually a dirt road at this point. A noticed that all the trees here were curved in the same direction, as if regular, massive flooding had sculpted them. Piles of logs and other debris did, indeed, seem to indicate that the river was sometimes higher—several metres higher—but it was hard to imagine it. Surely the houses along the lower reaches of the river would have been swept away?

We had to ford the Waimea River twice, at shallow gravelly points where 4WD vehicles can cross. At the first of these, there’s also a long, rickety Indiana Jones-style suspension bridge which I skipped across. Bizarrely, though, there was no proper path on the other side, just a rock face with some agave, so I skipped right back. Crossing on the “road”, I made a stupid mistake: stepped on a wet rock (never step on wet rocks; it’s lesson #1 in the Alaka’i), slipped, and fell on my back. This was such a stupid thing to do, and the cold water felt so good, that I just lay there and laughed until A helped me up.

Across the river, a dog appeared down the trail, then another, and another, and finally a man on horseback and a fourth dog. A genuine paniolo? The first human we’d seen since that morning cheerfully told us that we were only two miles from the end.

At the next river crossing, I gave up trying not to overtop my boots—my socks had been wet for the whole hike anyways—and instead welcomed the refreshing water rushing in. I think A managed to keep his feet dry at both crossings. And here we were at the end of the trail—or the beginning of the road, for here were houses and families swimming in the river, and soon the mango-lined, chicken-infested streets of Waimea. Conversation ceased; subdued by the shock of civilization—even the most laid-back town in the United States—we walked with suddenly-aching feet and staring eyes.

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Here’s a new 30-minute video about the problems facing Hawai’i’s birds and the many efforts to protect them. In addition to forest birds, it also covers the sea- and shorebirds of the all the islands, and has some really nice footage. And while it’s a bit more optimistic about Hawaiian bird conservation than I am, it really doesn’t shy away from the political crap that obstructs many conservation efforts.

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The Hawaiian rainforest, I’m finding, has a way of getting under your skin.

Not just in the mud that’s permanently engrained itself in the ridges of my hands and under my fingernails, or in the leptospirosis infections that I’m sure I play chicken with every day that I slip in a stream. Something about this habitat—well, I’m sure it’s a feature of my nest-searching job, too—forces me to pay attention to this place and its inhabitants.

It’s so different from other rainforests (say, the Amazon): like them it’s a mossy wall of green in all directions, but unlike them the tangled scene is seldom interrupted by colour. There are, for example, few gaudy flowers below the canopy. There are almost no butterflies. The swarms of colourful beetles and bugs I used to see in Peru are nowhere to be found, and most of the birds are greenish-yellow.

But then I take another look. If I’m atop a ridge, I can look out over the canopy and notice that a few ohia lehua trees have started blooming, creating a red spot on the green carpet. And the ‘apapane and ‘i’iwi, two brilliant scarlet birds, are foraging in abundance among those flowers. I find few butterflies, but if you know where to look you’ll notice moths—tiny, perfectly camouflaged as moss or lichen or fallen leaves, hidden in plain sight. The lobelias are starting to bloom, too, and you’ll find long tubular flowers in strange shades of purple-green tucked in among spiky leaf clusters. (The Hawaiian lobelias have undergone an adaptive radiation, one ancestral species splitting into many different ones, as they co-evolved with long-beaked bird pollinators.)

It’s not just the visual environment that unfolds itself like this. Kaua’i’s birds are often quiet and frustratingly difficult to distinguish by ear, but they’re also sometimes difficult to see. I’ve had to attune my ears to them, and while I’m far from confident at identifying them by their calls, I’ve found I’ve developed a knack for hearing when I’m near a nest. While before I found nests mainly by randomly stumbling across the ones that happened to be near eye level, now I listen for the female bird or the nestlings begging, and try to pinpoint the nest from those calls. And suddenly I’m so very aware of what birds are around me and what they’re doing, instead of treating them as pretty background noise.

I mention nestlings because we’re now at a stage in the project where we spend more time monitoring nests to see when they fledge or fail than we do looking for new nests. Watching nestlings that are about the leave the nest is quite the experience. They are—well, the parallels to human teenagers are all too obvious. They do strange things for no reason. Their behaviours are a mixture of baby things and grownup things: they’ll try to fly, but then they’ll step back into the nest and beg for food from their parents. (Something they keep doing after they fledge, I should note, which makes the “empty nest” metaphor a bit more nuanced!)

I found an ‘i’iwi nest last week that I thought was close to fledging (I’m certain they’ve actually fledged by now, actually, but I haven’t heard from the people currently in the field monitoring them). ‘I’iwi (that’s pronounced ee-ee-vee) are everyone’s favourite native Hawaiian bird: they’re bright red with black wings, about the size of an American robin, and have pink legs and a huge, downcurved pink beak. They are mainly nectarivores, and they make a huge range of weird, squeeky, creaky calls. Their colourful plumage plus the strange noises makes them an odd combination of goofy and dignified. At least, that’s the adults. The juveniles are green where their parents are red, but their beaks are still huge and pink. And the nestlings (like most baby birds) have colourful gapes—the insides and corners of their mouths are bright orange-yellow, a cue that encourages the parents to feed them. In other words, they are all goofy and no dignified. The two chicks in the nest I found are even more so, since they still have a bit of their baby down: they each have two fluffy white “ear” tufts coming out of otherwise greenish-grey heads. They’re as big as their parents and hardly fit inside the nest, and their Gonzo-esque beaks hang over the sides. They could fledge at any time–their flight feathers are all in—but they just won’t. They’ll perch on the nest’s edge and flap, and the braver of the two will step outside onto a convenient twig, but it always steps right back in. Not that I blame them; it was a cold, rainy week and I’d rather stay in a nice warm nest too!

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