My Thoughts Drift To Colombia

For reasons I will need to write more about another time, Colombia has been on my radar recently. When I first visited that country, the conflict was in full swing and my only task was to give a series of lectures related to the country’s potential for nature-based tourism. And I remember very clearly my sense of responsibility for not creating false expectations: as long as there was conflict, this potential would remain just that.

My most recent visit was just as the conflict was nearing formal resolution. At that time I was engaged for some weeks of work to be very specific about the potential, location by location. And I was then able to say, based on my own direct observation, that this country would be a powerhouse in the birdwatching market. And I have to admit, I did not have then the knowledge I have now, thanks to the Lab of Ornithology, about the country’s species count and its ranking in the world. The information was there, but I did not have it. Now I do, and my sense of confidence in the country’s opportunity to leverage this abundance into sustainable development is strong. The film above came to my attention in the last 24 hours from several sources, all of whom I thank. But particularly I thank the sponsors of the film for their vision, and the director of the film for his visual acuity:

The Birders, a documentary film on Colombian bird diversity and birdwatching presented by ProColombia, with support of FONTUR and directed by Gregg Bleakney. The film highlights Colombian local birdwatching guide, Diego Calderon-Franco and National Geographic photographer / videographer Keith Ladzinski as they travel through one of the most diverse bird regions in the world to capture new and rare birds that have never been filmed before. The Birders, also takes people through the Colombian landscape, highlighting several of its’ top locations, culture, birds and music. Continue reading

One More Way Technology Can Benefit Birds

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Kakapo on Codfish Island, New Zealand. Photo: Tui De Roy/Minden Pictures
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Modernization has put pressure on bird populations in so many ways, it is easy to forget that it has its occasional bright sides. We have favored on this platform the citizen science possibilities that technology allows, but even social media can add value. Thanks to Audubon Magazine for pointing this out:

Fat, Flightless, and Funny, Kākāpō Make the Internet a Much Better Place

With a savvy social media presence, caretakers of the endangered parrots have created an utterly delightful, conservation-focused corner of the web.

minden_90710440b.jpgSoon, the Kākāpō of New Zealand will have a little extra motivation when it’s time to mate. That’s because, thanks to a recent competition, some of these large, flightless, long-lived parrots will be treated to a special saxophone-laden soundtrack. The composer behind the mood music will be the winner of a recent search to find the next Kenny G. of Kākāpō smooth jazz.

Of course, there’s no evidence that critically endangered Kākāpō, which breed in leks every two to three years, find saxophone music particularly romantic. For the Kākāpō Recovery team and its partner in the project Meridian Energy, the campaign was more about raising awareness than coming up with a serious conservation strategy. But the search points to a larger truth about the Kakapo conservation effort: It’s as good at getting the word out about the Kākāpō as it is at working to save them.

minden_90710440c.jpgKākāpō, the heaviest parrots in the world, need all the help they can get. The birds evolved without natural mammalian predators, making them easy targets for the cats, rats, and stoats that arrived with European settlers hundreds of years ago. Kākāpō were nearly wiped out by these invaders, but in the mid-1990s, when the population hovered around 51 birds, New Zealand’s Kākāpō Recovery Program was formed to help bring these birds back from the brink.

The birds’ first big social media break came in 2009, when the internet met Sirocco, a 21-year-old Kākāpō who went viral for, in the words of the BBC television hosts, “shagging” zoologist Mark Carwardine while filming a documentary on the species (remember his name). The video of Sirocco wildly beating his wings against Carwardine’s head launched the bird’s career: In 2010, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key appointed Sirocco the country’s first Spokesbird for Conservation. Continue reading

Great Rivers Are Worthy Of Great Restoration Projects

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The Colorado River delta in Baja California is now a mosaic of largely dried-up river channels and tidal salt flats. TED WOOD

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Downstream from the Morelos Dam, the Colorado River delta now runs dry before reaching the Gulf of California. MAP BY DAVID LINDROTH

When the first couple of stories about the Colorado River ran in Yale e360, it was difficult to imagine how much more there might be to say about it. But now the last article in the series, Restoring the Colorado: Bringing New Life to a Stressed River, provides an example of saving the best for last:

The Colorado River has been dammed, diverted, and slowed by reservoirs, strangling the life out of a once-thriving ecosystem. But in the U.S. and Mexico, efforts are underway to revive sections of the river and restore vital riparian habitat for native plants, fish, and wildlife. Last in a series.

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The Morelos Dam on the U.S.-Mexico border, where the Colorado’s remaining water is diverted to cities and farms in Mexico. SUPPORT FOR AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHS PROVIDED BY LIGHTHAWK

From the air, the last gasp of the Colorado River is sudden and dramatic. The pale green river flows smack into the Morelos Dam on the U.S.-Mexico border, and virtually all of it is immediately diverted into a large irrigation canal that waters a mosaic of hundreds of fields — alfalfa, asparagus, lettuce, and other vegetables, their vivid green color clashing against the sere desert. The slender thread of water that remains in the Colorado’s channel continues to flow south, but is soon swallowed up by a sea of sand, far short of its delta, which lies 100 miles farther on.

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A fisherman on the upper Colorado River in northern Colorado. Low water flows have endangered fish populations and led last year to the closing of parts of the river to fishing.

The Colorado River once surged through the delta during high flows, carrying so much water at times that shallow draft steamboats chugged hundreds of miles up the river into the U.S. with loads of freight. The water in the delta nourished a vast fertile landscape, a fitting end to a river known as the Nile of North America.

“The river was everywhere and nowhere,” the naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote during a 1922 canoe trip to the delta, describing the waterway as it ebbed, flowed, braided, and stalled into pools, nourishing a rich and diverse ecosystem of “a hundred green lagoons,” a “milk and honey wilderness” with thick stands of cottonwoods and willows that provided habitat for hundreds of species of birds. The delta’s marshes, mudflats, and white sand beaches were home to clapper rails, bitterns, mallards, teal, and clouds of egrets.

Bobcats, puma, deer, and wild boar wandered the delta’s forests. Leopold was searching for the jaguar that roamed there, but didn’t see any. Continue reading

Connecting the Dots Between Technology & Nature Conservation

REEF FISH, BAHAMAS Fish congregate near a shallow reef in Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. © Jeff Yonover

Those familiar with our work will recognize the word valorization, which is an essential element of what we write about and what we do. It’s increasingly important to note that Nature, made more fragile with each passing year by human impact climate change, requires human efforts to protect and hopefully, turn back the clock on damage already done; and it appears to be human nature that maintain a direct  correlation between how something is valued and the amount of attention it gets.

We’re particularly impressed by this example of tech collaboration. Thanks to the Nature Conservancy for highlighting these stories…

The Caribbean Needs Tourism, and Tourism Needs Healthy Coral Reefs

AI and social media are helping quantify the economic value of coral reefs

The Caribbean region is more dependent on tourism than any other region in the world—the sector accounts for over 15 percent of GDP and 13 percent of jobs in the region. And almost all visitors to the Caribbean take part in some activity that relates to coral reefs—either directly, like snorkeling and scuba diving, or indirectly, like enjoying sandy beaches, eating fresh seafood and swimming in crystal waters. That means the health of the Caribbean’s tourism industry—and thus the whole regional economy—is dependent on the health of its coral reefs.

But just how much value do reefs produce? After all, “what gets measured gets managed and improved.” The Nature Conservancy (TNC) recently released the results of a study that focused on reef-adjacent activities and the value they generate for the tourism industry, island governments and Caribbean communities. This study, which builds on an earlier body of globally focused research produced by TNC, found that reef-adjacent activities alone generate an estimated $5.7 billion per year in the Caribbean from roughly 7.4 million visitors. When combined with reef-dependent tourism activities, they generate $7.9 billion total from roughly 11 million visitors.

In other words, a major draw for people traveling to the Caribbean are activities related to coral reef ecosystems, and both the tourism industry and other aspects of the local economies depend on healthy coral reefs to keep this relationship afloat. This evidence offers a pivotal opportunity for advancing coral conservation initiatives not only in the Caribbean but around the world, as it can catalyze both the tourism industry and local governments and communities to invest in protecting and restoring coral reefs for the benefit of economies and incomes.

We now know that these natural wonders are responsible for generating billions of dollars, sustaining livelihoods and anchoring economies in the Caribbean as well as other tropical destinations across the globe. And that should translate into a major incentive to conserve them.   Continue reading

Warrior Gems

In the South American tropics, where hummingbirds must compete for food, evolution has drastically reshaped their bills. Credit Christian Irian

Hummingbirds are some of the most gemlike and visually striking birds in the “new world”, but those who have spent any time watching them know that striking can also be used as an apt verb to describe their behavior. Fiercely territorial, it’s not surprising that scientists are making more and more discoveries related to the evolution behind their development. (Click on image above to view the video)

The Hummingbird as Warrior: Evolution of a Fierce and Furious Beak

Winsomely captured in poems and song, the birds are yielding new secrets about their astounding beaks and penchant for violence.

If you want to know what makes hummingbirds tick, it’s best to avoid most poetry about them.

Bird-beam of the summer day,

— Whither on your sunny way?

Whither? Probably off to have a bloodcurdling fight, that’s whither.

John Vance Cheney wrote that verse, but let’s not point fingers. He has plenty of poetic company, all seduced by the color, beauty and teeny tininess of the hummingbird but failed to notice the ferocity burning in its rapidly beating heart.

The Aztecs weren’t fooled. Their god of war, Huitzilopochtli, was a hummingbird. The Aztecs loved war, and they loved the beauty of the birds as well. It seems they didn’t find any contradiction in the marriage of beauty and bloodthirsty aggression.

Scientists understood that aggression was a deep and pervasive part of hummingbird life. But they, too, have had their blind spots. The seemingly perfect match of nectar-bearing flowers to slender nectar-sipping beaks clearly showed that hummingbirds were shaped by co-evolution.

It seemed clear that, evolutionarily, plants were in charge. Their need for reliable pollinators produced flowers with a shape that demanded a long slender bill. Hummingbird evolution obliged.

But hummingbirds also heard the call of battle, which demanded a different evolutionary course. Some of those slender, delicate beaks have been reshaped into strong, sharp and dangerous weapons.

In a recent paper organizing and summing up 10 years of research, Alejandro Rico-Guevara and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, shared evidence gathered by high-speed video about how the deadly beaks are deployed in male-to-male conflict.

Like the horns of bighorn sheep or the giant mandibles of stag beetles, hummingbird beaks are used to fight off rivals for mates. This is sexual selection, a narrow part of natural selection, in which the improvement of mating chances is the dominant force. Continue reading

When Squirrels Fly

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In most circumstances, the flying squirrel has a brownish color, left. But ultraviolet light reveals them to glow hot-pink. Northland College

When we last linked to a story about flying squirrels we mentioned that we had neglected to write about them while in Kerala. However, that was not quite correct. We did frequently mention the Malabar giant squirrel, especially in guest sighting posts. Their other common name is the Malabar flying squirrel. In its own way this animal could make you gasp when you saw one, but it was competing for attention with elephants, tigers and bears. This story, thanks to Veronique Greenwood, points to other flying squirrels that might cause a completely different kind of gasp:

Flying Squirrels That Glow Pink in the Dark

While ultraviolet fluorescence is common in birds, butterflies and sea creatures, scientists haven’t often observed it in mammals.

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Scientists suspect the flying squirrel may have evolved fluorescence to evade owls that hunt them. Alternately, the glow may have a mating function. Northland College

One spring night in Wisconsin, John Martin, a biologist, was in his backyard with an ultraviolet flashlight. Suddenly, a hot-pink squirrel flew by.

It was a southern flying squirrel, a small, furry creature most active at dawn and dusk. Under most circumstances, it has a warm brown color. But in the beam of Dr. Martin’s flashlight, it sported a gaudy Day-Glo hue closer to something you might see in a nightclub or a Jazzercise class circa 1988.

“He told his colleagues at Northland College, but of course, everyone was pretty skeptical,” said Allison Kohler, a graduate student at Texas A&M University.

Dr. Martin asked Ms. Kohler, then a student at Northland, to look into it. After examining more than 100 specimens of flying squirrels across two museum collections and spotting five more squirrels under UV light in the wild, the researchers and their colleagues reported surprising results last week in the Journal of Mammalogy: The pink is real. Continue reading

Megafauna’s Neglected Cousin, Microflora

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Botanist Steve Perlman rappels into the Kalalau Valley, a biodiversity hotspot on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. COURTESY OF BRYCE JOHNSON/FLUX HAWAII

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A botanist collects pollen from the flower of Brighamia insignis. NATIONAL TROPICAL BOTANICAL GARDEN

The work described in this article may explain why I first missed the story when it was published in October. The heroics get lost in the delicacy. My attention, like that of many people who are fortunate enough to have plenty of exposure to the natural world, gravitates to megafauna. And next in line for our attention is usually the rest of the fauna. But without flora, none of that fauna would be possible. And so our concern for biodiversity, and perhaps especially for the hotspots of biodiversity, should reflect an equal gravitational pull. So, my thanks to Yale e360 for this story:

Extreme Botany: The Precarious Science of Endangered Rare Plants

They don’t make the headlines the way charismatic animals such as rhinos and elephants do. But there are thousands of critically endangered plants in the world, and a determined group of botanists are ready to go to great lengths to save them.

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A scientist with the Plant Extinction Prevention Program climbs through remote Hawaiian ecosystems to study endangered plant species. PEPP

To save plants that can no longer survive on their own, Steve Perlman has bushwhacked through remote valleys, dangled from helicopters, and teetered on the edge of towering sea cliffs. Watching a video of the self-described “extreme botanist” in actio­­n is not for the faint-hearted. “Each time I make this journey I’m aware that nature can turn on me,” Perlman says in the video as he battles ocean swells in a kayak to reach the few remaining members of a critically endangered species on a rugged, isolated stretch of Hawaiian coastline. “The ocean could suddenly rise up and dash me against the rocks like a piece of driftwood.”

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The plant known as cabbage-on-a-stick (Brighamia insignis) has been grown at Limahuli Garden & Preserve on Kauai, which is within the historic range of the species. SEANA WALSH

When he arrives at his destination, Perlman starts hauling himself up an impossibly steep, razor-sharp cliff 3,000 feet above the sea without a rope, his fingers sending chunks of rock tumbling down to the waters below. Finally, he reaches the plants and painstakingly transfers pollen from the flowers of one to those of another to ensure that the species can perpetuate itself. At the end of the season, he will return to collect any seeds they were able to produce. Continue reading

Rutabaga’s Moment In The Light

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Rutabaga tagliatelle, from Olmstead, in Brooklyn.Photograph by Evan Sung

In the interest of cutting back meat consumption, my eye is easily caught these days by pretty shiny things, like the image above, but even more so by rich description, especially when the history of a food is illuminated. This brief history of one root vegetable, accompanied by a couple of beautiful photos, led me to the book below right. Click the book image to go to the source. RutaB.jpg

The original is in a collection akin to the one where Seth did his History honors thesis, and akin to the one where some of my doctoral dissertation‘s historic data was sourced (if you are a Cornell geek or library geek scroll upward from the cover page to see the details). Thanks to Helen Rosner once again brilliantly for getting me exploring:

The Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin was born in Basel in 1560, and he dedicated his life to obsessively cataloguing the vegetable world. To present-day historians, he’s notable primarily for his botanical thesaurus “Pinax Theatri Botanici” (“An Illustrated Exposition of Plants”), published in 1623. But, among cooks, he’s sometimes recalled for his lesser work, published in 1620: “Prodromos Theatri Botanici” (“Prologue to the Exposition of Plants”), a compendium of flora in which he describes a plant with vivid yellow flowers, a spray of leaves, and massive, hairy roots “more or less similar to those of turnip or carrots.” It was a specimen that had never before appeared in any scientific list of plants: the rutabaga.

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The rutabaga is a culinary underdog. It struggles to shine among its fellow root vegetables.Photograph by Matthias Haupt / Picture Press / Redux

The annals of botany abound with claims that Bauhin was not only rutabaga’s biographer but also its inventor: that he found it growing wild and domesticated it; that he was a civic-minded scientist seeking a cold-resistant turnip to feed his chilly countrymen and not (more likely) a monomaniacal scholar who spent his life ensconced in an herbarium, scrivening endless latinate lists of plant names. “The turnip is older than history,” the caption on a color plate in a 1949 issue of National Geographic declares. “The rutabaga almost modern.” In fact, the vegetable has been around at least since ancient-Roman times, when the naturalist Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century, described an edible root “between a radish and a rape”—meaning the plant from which rapeseed oil derives, which is a cultivar of the same species. Bauhin writes that in his time the vegetable was widely grown in “the cold Noric fields of Bohemia,” where it was eaten pickled or mashed and was called simply “root” by its cultivators. Continue reading

In The Eyes Of Motivated Beholders

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Stacks of rosewood at a timber market in Dongyang, China, a well-known hub for the illegal trade. SANDY ONG

Thanks to Sandy Ong and Edward Carver for this story about a type of tree that is too beautiful for its own good:

The Rosewood Trade: The Illicit Trail from Forest to Furniture

The most widely traded illegal wild product in the world today is rosewood, an endangered hardwood prized for its use in traditional Chinese furniture. An e360investigation follows the trail of destruction and corruption from the forests of Madagascar to furniture showrooms in China.

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Logged wood on a path near Masoala National Park in northeast Madagascar. The park has been plundered not just of rosewood but many types of tropical hardwood. EDWARD CARVER

Fampotakely, a sandy village in northeast Madagascar, at first seems an unlikely destination for migrants. It has no hospital, no secondary school, no electricity, and limited well water. Yet its population has exploded to 5,000 in recent years. A few of the houses, usually made from dried palm leaves and stalks, now have concrete foundations and solar panels. Fampotakely’s relative wealth is due to its strategic location in the illegal timber trade: it’s downriver from Masoala National Park, home to some of the world’s most valuable rosewood.

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Waterways around Fampotakely, Madagascar run blood red from rosewood stored underwater while waiting for ships to transport it to China. EDWARD CARVER

For the last decade, men from all over the region have gone into the park’s dense forests to work as loggers, a job that pays well by local standards. They cut down the massive trees, carve grooves in the logs, and use climbing vines to drag them to the nearest waterway. With rafts made from other felled trees, they use bamboo poles to float the precious hardwood toward Fampotakely and other villages along the Indian Ocean coastline. Continue reading

Sloths, Cecropia & Cacao

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A sloth in Costa Rica.  Karen Reyes

I had never heard the name guarumo for this tree before. Cecropia is the name we have commonly heard for it in Costa Rica. Veronique Greenwood, who we have linked to twice until now, has contributed more than vocabulary to me through this article. I am particularly thankful for the realization that cacao can be more useful than I had been aware. Beyond the benefits of being grown organically it may play a key role in regenerative forest development. This, entrepreneurial conservation in mind, must become a variable by which Organikos sources chocolate in Costa Rica:

Where Sloths Find These Branches, Their Family Trees Expand

A study showed that when some animals find a crucial resource, they can survive in changing environments and even thrive.

Look closely up in the trees of a shade-grown cacao plantation in eastern Costa Rica, and you’ll see an array of small furry faces peering back at you. Those are three-toed sloths that make their homes there, clambering ever so slowly into the upper branches to bask in the morning sun. You might also spot them munching on leaves from the guarumo tree, which shades the cacao plants. Continue reading

A Pop-Up Vision Of Nature’s Future

 

Michelle Nijhuis came to my attention in 2014 by making me laugh. She has since been featured in our pages too many times to count. Now, after all those previous (nine, but who’s counting?) shout outs I thank her for bringing to my attention a book that makes me smile at the same time it makes me wince:

…Though Beyond the Sixth Extinction can be enjoyed solely for its dystopian yuks, its elegant paper sculptures tell a deeper story. The book doesn’t spend much time blaming humans for the world it imagines, or spell out exactly what has befallen Homo sapiens during the nearly three millennia between 2019 and 4847. But it does hint at a world in which the human footprint has been radically reduced. Chicago transformed into the diminished district of Cago, and life to some extent has moved on without us…

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The rex roach is one of many lively species that inhabit the Cago district in the year 4847. PAPER ENGINEERING © SHAWN SHEEHY / CANDLEWICK PRESS

076368788X.jpgWhen I first saw something vaguely akin some years ago, the creative approach to a dark topic made me smile. This time, I am drawn in by an artist’s unique vision of the future as it relates to the natural world, and my reaction is to think while smiling.

So, off to Candlewick Press (click the image of the book to the left). Even though I am not inclined to dystopia, I like what the author / artist / pop-up engineer says about what looks to be its hand-made progenitor:

popupbookIn his book The Sixth Extinction, Richard Leakey describes five major catastrophes in Earth’s history that led to significant extinctions—the last of which was the meteor impact that eliminated the dinosaurs. He theorizes that the sixth big extinction has already begun, and that it is human-authored. Be it through over-hunting, global warming, or habitat destruction, humans have the power to destroy species at alarming rates.

PopupBook2.jpgEvolutionary theorists like Stephen Jay Gould have studied and written about the speciation that followed these previous die-offs, like the mammalian bloom that followed the extinction of the dinosaurs. I myself wonder which species might survive and flourish in a new environment if humans are successful in instigating a profound die-off. I wonder what anatomical adaptations they might acquire in their proliferation.

popupbook3All of the creatures in this book are based on organisms that have high survival ratings, including: ubiquity (or nearly so), omnivory (linked to high intelligence), adaptability (especially to human-made habitats), and escape mobility. Since I am interested in representing a single system, they also had to have the potential to entertain plausible interdependencies.

popupbook4Though the content of this book is bleak, the tone is cautiously optimistic. Some ecological theorists believe that humans—being the most adaptable species in the history of the planet—will be the very last species to be exterminated, but there is still hope that a sustainable balance can be found between human resource use and the resource use of everything else. Continue reading

Hunting Wild Coffee

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Drying coffee beans in Ethiopia. More than half of all species are at risk of vanishing in the wild because of climate change and deforestation. Maheder Haileselassie/Reuters

As much as I thought I learned in the last year about coffee, I got a hint just now, reading the article below, how steep my learning curve remains. 124 species of coffee? So much to hunt, so little time! Thanks to Somini Sengupta for this story:

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Picking coffee berries on a farm in Ethiopia. Maheder Haileselassie/Reuters

Aaron Davis, a British botanist, has spent 30 years trekking across forests and farms to chronicle the fate of one plant: coffee.

He has recorded how a warming planet is making it harder to grow coffee in traditional coffee-producing regions, including Ethiopia, the birthplace of the world’s most popular bean, arabica. He has mapped where farmers can grow coffee next: basically upcountry, where it’s cooler. He has gone searching for rare varieties in the wild. Continue reading

Too Many Romeos

When I last posted about an animal with a name like this the ending was sad. As it usually will be, given the state of things. There are not enough Juliets, but that should not keep scientists from trying to make matches. As reported by the great science writer JoAnna Klein, who has written about some of nature’s great comeback stories and its unexpected cases of animals expressing affection, she had me at the headline:

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Romeo, who was thought to be the last Sehuencas water frog: “Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.” D. Alarcol and D. Grunbaum/Global Wildlife Conservation

Romeo the Frog Finds His Juliet. Their Courtship May Save a Species.

The lonely male in a Bolivian museum was thought to be the last Sehuencas water frog, but an expedition has found him a potential mate.

Romeo was made for love, as all animals are. But for years he couldn’t find it. It’s not like there was anything wrong with Romeo. Sure he’s shy, eats worms, lacks eyelashes and is 10 years old, at least. But he’s aged well, and he’s kind of a special guy.

Romeo is a Sehuencas water frog, once thought to be the last one on the planet. He lives alone in a tank at the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny in Bolivia.

And there is more. In this same story as reported by National Public Radio (USA), I cannot be happy about the long-term macro situation, but the shorter-term micro situation for this Romeo looks like it may have a happy ending:

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While Shakespeare’s Romeo spent only about two days banished in Mantua, away from his beloved Juliet, Romeo the frog has remained in complete isolation — sans love interest, cousins, friars or friends — living in a laboratory for the last 10 years. But that’s all about to change.

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Juliet appears to be a perfect match for Romeo — she’s a Sehuencas water frog and of reproductive age. Robin Moore/Global Wildlife Conservation

The world-famous amphibian was believed to have been the last of his kind – a Bolivian Sehuencas water frog (Telmatobius yuracare) – and lived under the protection of researchers at the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny in Cochabamba City. They have made it their mission to find Romeo a special lady friend who might respond positively to his plaintive mating calls and help save the species from becoming extinct.

Year after year, scientist scoured Bolivia’s cloud forests for signs of other googly-eyed, orange-bellied Sehuencas, but they’ve always come up empty, until recently. Continue reading

Enigmatic Fungi

A nematode pierces the cell walls of a mushroom’s hyphae to feed on them.Credit By Markus Künzler

The mysteries of nature never cease to amaze, and fungi rank high in all aspects. Since the inception of this site we’ve highlighted this special branch of the animal kingdom.

When Fungi Fight Back

A mushroom species was found to sense predators and sent warning signals to other parts of its body, but how it does that remains a mystery.

It’s known as fight or flight — the message the brain sends your body when it detects something frightening. Something like it happens to plants when they are under attack, too. And then there are fungi — perhaps the most mysterious kingdom of multicellular life.

Fungi too can sense attackers and manufacture powerful weapons to combat them, including the toxins and poisons that can send you to the emergency room if you eat the wrong mushroom.

But little is known about the built-in threat detectors of these limbless, brainless beings. Humans send messages through their nervous systems. A plant’s vascular system is its relay apparatus. But fungi have neither. Continue reading

Floral Communication Better Understood

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A bee collects pollen from a flower. DARREN STAPLES / REUTERS

 Thanks to Ed Yong, 6+ years in our pages, whose work we always appreciate:

Plants Can Hear Animals Using Their Flowers

And they react to the buzzing of pollinators by sweetening their nectar.

When people pose the old question about whether a tree falling in an empty forest makes a sound, they presuppose that none of the other plants in the forest are listening in. Plants, supposedly, are silent and unhearing. They don’t make noises, unless rustled or bitten. When Rachel Carson described a spring bereft of birds, she called it silent.

But these stereotypes may not be true. According to a blossoming batch of studies, it’s not that plants have no acoustic lives. It’s more that, until now, we’ve been blissfully unaware of them. Continue reading

Livestreaming Conservation

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A northern royal albatross inspects the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s ‘Royal Cam’, a 24/7 livestream that documents an albatross nest in breeding season. Photograph: Department of Conservation

The revolution may not be televised but conservation may be livestreamed from time to time, conditions permitting. Thanks to the Guardian for this story from New Zealand:

On a wing and a player: hopes webcam can save endangered albatross

Footage of tiny colony of birds on the southern tip of New Zealand captivates millions around the globe

nzalbMillions of amateur naturalists around the world have been tuning in to the secret lives of albatrosses as New Zealand rangers employ YouTube in a bid to save the mysterious giant sea birds.

New Zealand conservation teams set up a 24-hour live-stream of an albatross nest at Taiaroa Head on the Otago peninsula in 2016. Three years on, the feed has become an unexpected global hit, with 2.3 million people from 190 countries tuning in to watch the endangered birds rear their chicks on a frigid peninsula at the bottom of the world. Continue reading

Looking Forward Requires Rethinking

Olympia1The new morning, the first of the new year, started just like any other. Coffee. But a theme related to looking forward was set in motion yesterday, and so it was time to taste this new coffee. I was drinking mostly coffees from the Tarrazu region for all of 2018, but today’s coffee is from the Brunca region.

Olympia2It is organic, washed (as opposed to natural process, or anaerobic or other new fangled methods) and medium-roasted. I use a nondescript filter brew machine, and I grind the beans slightly on the coarse side. Maybe I just woke up ready to enjoy the new year, but this tastes like one of the best new coffees I have sampled in the past 12 months. I lost track of the count, but certainly I have tasted several dozen varietals. This one stands out, perfect for my palate. The fact that it is organic, selected and roasted by friends for their own cafe, makes me think that we should consider it a candidate for offering it in the Organikos portfolio, in the Authentica shops. I realize now that I have not even hinted at this new medium for sharing what we love, so will use this week’s posts to explain the rethinking we have done in the process of looking forward.

Closure Requires Looking Forward

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The zoologist George Schaller, whom Matthiessen accompanied to the Himalayas, says that, forty years after “The Snow Leopard” ’s publication, the animal has grown only slightly less mysterious. Photograph by George Schaller

9781137279293.jpgWhen I see the name Peter Matthiessen the first thing I think of is a recording of his voice on my telephone ten years ago. I knew he would be passing nearby and had invited him to see what we were doing in Patagonia. His message was a very warm decline of the invitation.

In addition to triggering that memory, M.R. O’Connor’s essay below reminds me that my family’s subscription to the New Yorker began in 1978, possibly with the late March issue in which Peter Matthiessen’s article about the snow leopard appeared. I can trace my interest in conservation back to that, and perhaps this accounts for why that magazine has been arriving weekly for me in the mail ever since. In the meantime this interest has exposed me to books like the one to the right. Which is as good a reason as anyway to make this link the 2018 coda (for me) on this platform:

In the autumn of 1973, the naturalist and writer Peter Matthiessen and the zoologist George Schaller set out on a gruelling trek into the Himalayas. They were headed toward the Dolpo region of the Tibetan plateau. Schaller wanted to study Himalayan blue sheep; Matthiessen hoped to see a snow leopard—a large, majestic cat with fur the color of smoke. Snow leopards, which belong to the genus Panthera, inhabit some of the highest mountain ranges in the world, and their camouflage is so perfectly tuned that they appear ethereal, as though made from storm clouds. Two of them feature on the Tibetan flag of independence, representing harmony between the temporal and spiritual planes.

For Matthiessen, a serious student of Zen Buddhism, the expedition wasn’t strictly scientific. It was also a pilgrimage during which he would seek to break “the burdensome armor of the ego,” perceiving his “true nature.” After it was published, in 1978—first, in part, in The New Yorker, then as a book—“The Snow Leopard,” his account of the trip, won two National Book Awards, becoming both a naturalist and a spiritual classic. It overflows with crystalline descriptions of animals and mountains: “The golden birds fall from the morning sun like blowing sparks that drop away and are extinguished in the dark,” Matthiessen writes. But it’s also an austere Buddhist memoir in which the snow leopard is as alluring and mysterious as enlightenment itself. Continue reading

Tigers, Tales, Illumination

ImpossibleOwl.jpgBrian Phillips has not featured once in our pages until now, nor has The Ringer. If you read his essay below, featured also in the book to the right, the fit with our platform here is clear. Strange, though; I would not have expected to see it featured on a website that looks to be mostly focused on sports.

But it is a welcome surprise. It serves as another welcome reminder of some of the highlights of our years in India. And it provides a reason to track the author. The blurb the publisher chose to accompany the book (click the image to the right) is telling: “…Dogged, self-aware, and radiating a contagious enthusiasm for his subjects, Phillips is an exhilarating guide to the confusion and wonder of the world today. If John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead was the last great collection of New Journalism from the print era, Impossible Owls is the first of the digital age.”

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Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Man-eaters

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Of the twelve tigers I saw in India, one might have been a ghost; two were in water, eight were on land, and one was sleeping in a tree. One stepped out of high grass, crossed the road in front of me, and disappeared into grass on the other side. One walked along a low ridge on the edge of a different road, oblivious or indifferent to the tourists taking her photograph. One looked out from a cover of branches and red leaves, so perfectly concealed that from thirty feet away he kept stereoscoping in and out of sight. Three were cubs, just four or five months old. Three were juveniles, aged around one year. The rest were fully grown. All were tired, because the days were hot, and because the days were dry they moved and breathed and slept in a film of clay-colored dust. Continue reading

Fungi, Bees & Future

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Lilli Carré

Fungi first appeared in our pages thanks to Milo. And the name of the essayist below was mentioned a couple times earlier as well. He deserves more attention, especially if his attention is focused on bees:

Will Mushrooms Be Magic for Threatened Bees?

We might be able to save honeybees from viruses transmitted by invasive parasites without chemical treatment.

By Paul Stamets

Mr. Stamets is a mycologist.

Sometime in the 1980s, microscopic mites that had been afflicting honeybees outside the United States found their way to Florida and Wisconsin and began wreaking havoc across the country. These parasites have invaded and decimated wild and domestic bee colonies. Along with other dangers facing bees, like pesticides and the loss of forage lands, the viruses these mites carry threaten the bees we rely on to pollinate many of the fruits, nuts and vegetables we eat. Continue reading