Sustaining a Splendid Species

CAUTIOUSLY WE PLOD THROUGH a cattle pasture trying to avoid slipping in the mud or stepping on piles of dung. In the treetops above us, we hear raucous screeching, and the closer we get, the louder and more insistent the screeching becomes. Our guide, Alexander, sets up his spotting scope and waves to us eagerly while we stumble through the tall, wet grass to reach him. Suddenly a large bird with a 3-foot wing span bursts out of the tree canopy and flies overhead. With much squawking and branch shaking another follows and then another. We stare in awe at the great green macaw, one of only 270 left in Costa Rica—a magnificent rare bird that is in danger of extinction.

Citizen conservationists such as Alexander Martinez are playing an important role in the fight to save the great green macaw. A wiry 61-year-old in constant motion, Martinez works daily on saving not only the green macaw, but also other bird species as well. He operates a small bed and breakfast in the town of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica. He and his son, Kevin, guide bird hikes and take people into the hills to visit the wildlife reserve and rescue center Martinez and a friend run. In addition, Martinez volunteers with a group of local park guards who monitor and protect green macaw nests.

In his youth, Martinez was an avid hunter, but after living in Canada for a decade he returned to a very different Costa Rica. The country had gone through a logging boom in the 60s and 70s, and the introduction of chain saws and heavy equipment greatly accelerated the process. “I was shocked that everything I left behind that was so beautiful and so green was gone,” he explains. It was then he put down his gun and picked up a pair of binoculars.

The great green macaw (Ara ambiguus) lives in wet lowlands in small pockets of forests from Honduras to Ecuador. Deforestation has shrunk their habitat and concentrated their population into 5 areas: the border of Honduras and Nicaragua, the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, the Darien region of Panama and Colombia and two small populations in Ecuador. Scientists estimate that there are only 7,000 of these birds living in the wild.

One of the first people to sound the alarm about the status of the bird was World Wildlife Fund scientist George Powell. Little was known about the bird and its behavior in 1994, so Powell, who was working at the RARE Center for Tropical Conservation, started the Great Green Macaw Research and Conservation Project. He determined that Costa Rica had already lost 90% of the great green’s nesting territory and that there were only 210 birds left in the country. Even more alarming was his calculation that the species needed at least 50 breeding pairs to survive. At that time, Costa Rica only had 25 to 35.

What makes the macaw so vulnerable is its preference for the Almendro (Dipteryx panamensis) tree for feeding and nesting. At nearly 164 feet tall the almendro is a giant in the forest. When the massive branches break off, they leave behind vast tree cavities ideally suited for macaw nests. Their height and depth keep chicks safe from predators. Smaller tree cavities and bromeliads serve as watering holes, while the nuts provide a nutritious food source.

Unfortunately the almendro tree has become a popular tropical hardwood for patios, decks and floors. During Costa Rica’s initial logging boom, the almendro was safe because its wood was too hard to cut into. Loggers would clear all the other trees in the forest and leave the almendro alone in a field of grass and tree stumps. Once steel blades that could penetrate the wood became available, even the great almendro tree fell victim to the everpresent chainsaws.

In 1998 Powell recruited two young conservationists Olivier Chassot and Guisselle Monge Arias to take over the conservation aspect of the macaw project. Their conservation strategy depended heavily on community involvement and educational programs.

Chassot and Arias traveled to small rural communities in macaw habitat to talk to people about the importance of the bird and the almendro tree. They enlisted the help of local schools and recruited citizen conservationists to be nest caretakers. “When you talk to people and take the time to visit their communities, they understand the idea [of conservation],” Chassot explains.

Realizing that the only way to save the bird was to save the forest it lives in, the conservation team identified the San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor, a 246,000-hectare geographical area connecting the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve in southeastern Nicaragua with Costa Rica’s La Selva Biological Station in the north to the Barra del Colorado Wildlife Reserve and Tortuguero National Park on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast.  In addition they lobbied for the creation of the Maquenque National Wildlife Refuge to protect the breeding range of the macaw.

The macaw population began to stabilize in Costa Rica between 1998 -2003 and increased from 210 birds in 1994 to 275 birds in 2010.

Part of the conservation strategy in Costa Rica is to provide financial incentives for protecting the birds and their habitat. Chassot’s organization, the Tropical Science Center, has been able to provide small payments to nest caretakers.  An adopt-a-tree program pays farmers fair market value to protect their almendro trees. “Most of [the farmers] who are willing to set aside land for conservation can receive payments from the government to preserve their forest,” Chassot explains. He reports that the macaw population began to stabilize in Costa Rica between 1998 -2003 and increased from 210 birds in 1994 to 275 birds in 2010. “It shows that we have been able to reverse the trend and that the population is slowly increasing.”

IN THE SMALL community of Buena Vista, Nicaragua, brightly colored awnings provide protection from the sun. A wooden stage sets the scene for music and dancing, and a poster board display of photographs showcases tropical birds. Buena Vista was the site of the 8th annual Festival Binacional de las Lapas. Since 2002 Nicaragua has joined with Costa Rica to sponsor a yearly festival in honor of the great green macaw.  Alternatively held in Costa Rica or Nicaragua, the festival includes an equal number of Costa Rican and Nicaraguan farmers, schoolchildren, nest caretakers and government officials.

Costa Rica and Nicaragua have forged an unprecedented partnership in the name of the lapa verde. “The great green macaw has no country and needs no passport to cross the border,” explains Chassot.  “[We] make sure that conservation actions on one side of the border have no negative impact on the other.”

The Nicaraguan Conservation organization, Fundación del Río has concentrated their work in the buffer zone of Nicaragua’s Indio-Maíz biological Reserve. A dense jungle with limited access, Indio-Maíz is considered one of Nicaragua’s best preserved tracts of land and one of the most important expanses of pristine rainforest in Central America. Located in the southeast corner of the country on the border of the San Juan River, this buffer zone has recently been under assault from loggers in search of lumber and clear cutters intent on planting African palm trees for bio fuel.

Fundación del Río has been monitoring macaw activities since 2002 and has documented 35 active nests. With the help of Nicaraguan citizen conservationists and local farmers, they have recorded more than 1,500 observations of macaws for their database.

Macaws are delightful birds that captivate people with their beauty, intelligence and playful nature. In Nicaragua, as in all the other countries in the macaw’s range, macaws are victims of the pet trade. Macaws are listed in the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) as Appendix 1 which is the highest classification of protection for the most endangered species on the list. Even so, poachers capture the macaw nestlings to keep as pets, to sell to others or for export to other countries.

The removal of one or two nestlings has a great impact on the entire population because macaws are slow-breeding birds. They can take four or five years to mature, lay only two eggs at a time and nest every few years. Trading in macaw nestlings is a lucrative business with the birds selling between US $150 to $300.

To foster a love for the macaw as a special resident of Nicaragua and not as a commodity, Fundación targets the youngest members of the community. Through Radio Voz Juvenil,  Fundación Del Río broadcasts a Sunday morning program titled “Arita, the Great Green Macaw” that teaches young people and adults about the Great Green Macaw and the forest it lives in. The radio program is complemented by “Arita visita tu escuela,” a lively in-classroom educational program with games, songs, drawings and videos featuring the Great Green Macaw. Arita, a human-sized macaw mascot, has visited more than 11 schools in the municipality El Castillo so far.

IN THE TROPICAL dry forests outside of Guayaquil, Ecuador, a small population of great green macaws struggles to survive in the shadow of 2.1 million people. Their sole sanctuary is the 6,000 hectare Cerro Blanco Protected Forest with 54 mammal species, 221 bird species and 100 of Ecuador’s most endangered endemic plant species. Logging, poaching and land grabbing have threatened to wipe out this population, but due to the efforts of the Pro-Forest Foundation—the NGO in charge of the reserve—the population is stable and even increasing.

The director of the Pro-Forest Foundation, Eric Horstman, has a 20-year history of conservation work in Ecuador. In 1993 after completing his 3-year assignment with the Peace Corps, he became director of the newly-formed Pro-Forest Foundation. He had heard that there were great green macaws in the reserve, but had only seen them stuffed into cages in local school zoos. “I finally saw a pair of them in the wild,” he recalls. “I was enthralled. It is a world of difference seeing a macaw in a cage as opposed to flying free in the wild.”

Horstman describes the great green macaw population in Ecuador as critically endangered and says the official estimate of 60-90 birds in Ecuador is optimistic. In addition to Cerro Blanco’s population of 11, there is another small group living in the humid tropical forests of the Esmereldas province in the North. The situation in Ecuador is so acute that scientists have recommended captive breeding of great green macaws.

Although La Fundación Ecológica Rescate Jambeli—a conservation organization that partners with the Pro-Forest Foundation—has successfully bred 17 chicks with their captive population of macaws, Horstman explains that they are holding off introducing captive birds into the wild until they establish a scientific protocol. One concern is that captive birds might introduce disease into a wild population, and of course there is the threat of injuries: macaws are fiercely territorial.

The great green macaw is officially protected in Guayaquil. But even though the city appointed the macaw their natural symbol with a strict set of regulations and ordnances concerning traffic of the species, clandestine sales of macaw fledglings continue. Fledglings are stolen from their nests in pigio trees, members of the bombacaceae family with smooth gray trunks.

The trees are hard to climb. Rather than risk [an] accident, people will just cut down the tree and hope that the chick will survive the fall. That’s just a double whammy,” Horstman explains.

Another threat to the macaw’s population is the rapid expansion of Guayaquil. Squatter settlements pop up on the city outskirts and push against the forest. Land grabbing is a problem and squatter communities have attempted to take over property within Cerro Blanco. “When we work with squatter settlements, we work with the leader,” Horstman explains.

First he obtains permission to enter the settlement, and then goes door to door with community leaders to ask people if they are interested in becoming honorary park guards. In one nearby settlement, the Pro-Forest Foundation has 11 people and one school on duty.

Horstman has found that the best deterrent to logging and poaching seems to be education, and the most compelling argument for saving the forest concerns water. There are at least 6 permanent sources of water in the reserve that the surrounding communities rely on. Horstman simply explains that without the forest, there will be no water.

“When we have engaged these people they, themselves, have recognized the ecological services of the reserve,” he says.

To strengthen the macaws’ chance for survival, the Pro-Forest Foundation has restored more than 200 acres of macaw habitat by planting native trees. “Trees that we planted in 1993 are now flowering and producing fruits. It’s not that long of a turnaround time,” Horstman explains. In that same time period the macaw population has grown by nearly 50% from a low of 6 to a high of 11. “The population seems to be slowly increasing,” Horstman says. “That is a hopeful sign.”

Efforts to protect the great green macaw have a ripple effect across its 6-country territory. To save the bird, the forest has to be saved first. In doing so, all the other smaller, less dramatic species retain their forest homes as well. In that respect the impact the bird has on its surroundings is truly great and truly green.

Published in Americas magazine, January-February 2011, by Chris Hardman


Python Pete—The Snake-Sniffing Puppy

BIOLOGISTS IN the Florida Everglades are using man’s best friend in their battle against invasive species.  National Park Service Wildlife technician Lori Oberhofer is training a beagle puppy—nicknamed python Pete—to sniff out pet Burmese pythons that have been released into the wild.

Burmese pythons are a popular item in Florida’s booming exotic pet trade, and according to National Geographic, more than 144,000 of them have been imported to the U.S. from Asia since 2000.

Although they are legal to own, the problem comes when they grow up. As one of the world’s largest snakes, they can reach up to 15 feet long, causing many horrified owners to dump them into the nearest swamp.

As the snake’s popularity has increased, so has the population that is invading the Everglades. In a 10-year period, park officials removed 52 Burmese pythons from the Everglades, but then in 2004 alone they removed 61 pythons from the park.

Biologists believe that the pythons are breeding in the Everglades, and like most invasive species, their success is bad news for the park’s native species. The pythons appear to be eating native wood storks and mangrove fox squirrels and taking away habitat and food from the Everglade’s threatened eastern indigo snake. Tourists have even watched the giant snakes fight with park alligators.

Oberhofer is training her own puppy to search for the snakes and bark upon discovery. She is relying on the dog’s acute sense of smell to pinpoint the snake’s location. Then, park officials can capture the snake and remove it before it does more harm to the environment.

Working under the assumption that the Burmese python has a unique odor that is species specific, Oberhofer has spent several months teaching Pete what Burmese pythons smell like using a captive python in a mesh bag.

To protect Pete while he is working, Oberhofer will keep him on a leash and out of the water. That way he won’t risk becoming a statistic himself.

Published in Wildlife Conservation magazine by Chris Hardman


Titanoboa: The World’s Largest Snake

IMAGINE A SNAKE so wide it would barely fit through a doorway and so tall it would reach an adult’s waistline. That is how researchers describe the 2,500 pound, 45-foot long Titanoboa cerrejonensis—the biggest snake the world has ever known—who ruled the tropics 65 million years ago. “This was the largest predator on the planet for at least 10 or 20 million years,” says Jonathan Bloch Associate Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History. The massive anaconda-like snake lived 6 million years after the dinosaurs went extinct.

During a series of excavations at the Cerrejón coal mine in northern Colombia, an international team of scientists—led by Jonathan Bloch and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Staff Scientist Carlos Jaramillo—collected the remains of Titanoboa along with fossils of the giant-sized relatives of modern-day crocodiles and side-necked turtles. According to Bloch, these excavations have yielded the first fossil vertebrates ever found in tropical South America from the Paleocene Epoch 65 to 55 million years ago. “Now we have a window into the time just after the dinosaurs went extinct and can actually see what the animals replacing them were like,” he explains.

Cerrejón, the world’s largest open-pit coalmine, provides an unprecedented opportunity for paleontological research. “The tropics are a horrible place to find fossils because they are completely overgrown,” Bloch explains. To collect fossils, researchers need dry areas with exposed rock—requirements nearly impossible to satisfy in a region covered by dense jungles. Scientists are especially interested in obtaining information about the first 10 million years following the demise of the dinosaurs. “In the tropics we know nothing about that 10 million years,” says Bloch. The opening in the jungle created by the coal mine has created a window into that time period and the creatures that lived then.

Bloch suggests that Titanoboa was similar to modern day green anacondas, giant-sized boas that live in the swamps and rivers of the Amazon and Orionoco basins in South America. At 30 feet and 550 pounds, the green anaconda is the largest species of snake alive today. Without venom, these snakes incapacitate their prey by squeezing them to death and then swallowing them hole. Their strength and size enables them to take down formidable prey including wild pigs, capybara and jaguars. Researchers speculate that Titanoboa sustained a similar diet and may have fed on the giant turtles and crocodiles whose skeletons were also found in Cerrejón.

Titanoboa’s size gives clues to what the climate was like millions of years ago. “We’re looking at a land of giants here where it was much wetter and much warmer than today,” Bloch says. Because snakes and other cold-blooded animals rely on ambient temperature for their growth and survival, warmer temperatures result in larger snakes. A sampling of modern-day snakes shows that the largest snakes live in the warmest equatorial regions of the world. Based on the snake’s size Bloch and his team calculated that the mean annual temperature to support a snake that large would have to be about 91 degrees Fahrenheit—about 10 degrees warmer than today’s average temperature.

For Bloch and other researchers, Titanoboa and its giant companions provide a glimpse into a time period that has puzzled the scientific world. They can begin to answer questions about what happened in the tropics once the dinosaurs went extinct and what predators took their place. “We’re seeing the very beginning of the modern Amazonian rainforest that diversified and evolved into an incredible hot spot of bio diversity once the dinos went extinct.” Bloch says. “We’re seeing things we have never seen before.”

Published in Americas magazine by Chris Hardman


Guyana’s Kaieteur Falls

THE TINY COUNTRY of Guyana, situated on South America’s northeast coast, is called the “land of many waters” due to the large number of waterfalls, rivers, and wetlands found throughout the country. The most spectacular of all Guyana’s water attractions is the Kaieteur waterfall located about 150 miles inland on the Potaro River. At 741 feet — 5 times the height of Niagara Falls — Kaieteur Falls is the largest single drop waterfall in the world.

The falls were discovered in 1870 by British geologist and explorer Charles Barrington Brown. Nearly 60 years later, Kaieteur became the country’s first national park. Recent legislation has increased the park’s size to 762 square miles. The falls are named after an old Patamona Indian chief called Kaie. According to Patamona legend, Kaie saved the Patamona from a warring tribe by canoeing over the falls as a sacrifice to Makonaima, the great spirit.

The falls have served as Guyana’s most well known tourist attraction, and tours are led by small plane from Guyana’s capital, Georgetown. The one-hour flight takes travelers from the plains on the coast to the lush green mountains of the interior. Some travelers may choose the overland route to the falls that involves a 2-day drive from Georgetown, an 8-hour hike to the base of the falls, and a 4-hour climb up the side of the gorge. All tours include a guided tour of the forest surrounding the falls to see Kaieteur’s other natural wonders. Kaieteur sits on the eastern edge of the 1,500-foot-high Potaro Plateau that covers southeastern Venezuela, northern Brazil, and western Guyana. According to the Tourism and Hospitality Association of Guyana, at the height of the rainy season the falls span more than 450 feet and drop 35,000 gallons of water per second into the 741-foot gorge.

The ever-present mist from the waterfall has created a cloud forest that is rich with mosses, ferns, and orchids. One of the most spectacular plants is the giant tank bromeliad that grows as high as 12 feet. Bromeliads create microhabitats for frogs and insects by funneling and storing water in the center of the plant. At Kaieteur, the one-inch golden frog spends its entire life living in bromeliad tanks where it eats, swims, and breeds. Although these frogs are related to poison dart frogs, this particular species is endemic to Kaieteur and is found nowhere else on earth.

Along the forest trails, visitors can glimpse the Guianan cock-of-the rock. The males are easy to spot in the dark forest understory, because their brilliant orange feathers and orange crown stand out against the sea of green trees and plants. During mating season, small groups of males clear out a spot on the ground where they compete for female attention through lively dances. Another visible bird is the white-collared swift that makes its home on the cliffs behind the waterfall. Thousands of these insect-eating birds fill the sky at dawn and dusk as they exit and enter their roosts with amazing speed and agility.

Little is known about the mammals that live in Kaieteur. Howler monkeys, foxes, agouti, paca, tapir, red brocket deer, jaguarundi, raccoon, and collared peccary are found in the park, but are rarely seen during a short visit. A thorough study of Kaieteur fauna has yet to be completed. One of the few scientific publications focusing solely on Kaieteur covers the flora of the area. The Preliminary Checklist of the Plants of Kaieteur National Park, Guyana, was written by Smithsonian Institution scientists C.L. Kelloff and V.A. Funk

Currently Kaieteur is an undeveloped site. There is a small airstrip, a few cleared trails, and a rustic guesthouse. The Guianan government hopes to attract more visitors to the area by building full-service lodges and a visitor center. The challenge will be to make the area more accessible to tourists without detracting from the beauty of the environment.

Published in Americas magazine by Chris Hardman

March of the Desert Penguins

THE LIFE OF THE arctic penguin has been well represented in films and documentaries in recent years as 4-foot tall emperor penguins have marched across our movie screens. Now new research shows that the ancestors of these modern-day giants, were larger, sturdier and lived in the deserts of Peru during one of the warmest periods on Earth—some 36 to 42 million years ago. A team of scientists from the U.S., Peru, and Argentina has found two new species of penguins that are challenging accepted theories of penguin evolution and migration.

Peruvian paleontologist Mario Urbina-Schmitt of the Museo de Historia Natural de San Marcos in Lima, who has logged more than 20 years of fieldwork in Peru, helped to locate the fossils. Unexplored areas can lead to exciting discoveries like the new species of giant penguin named Icadyptes salasi, the third largest penguin known to science. With a beak that measures more than two times the length of its skull, Icadyptes had the longest beak of any penguin in the world. A true giant, this magnificent bird stood about 5 feet tall, was sturdy in constitution and waddled about the deserts of Peru about 36 million years ago. The researchers also found a second, much older fossil from a 42-million-year-old deposit. The earlier penguin, Perudyptes devriesi, was three feet tall, which is comparable in size to today’s second largest living penguin, the King Penguin.

Excavations in Peru also produced the first complete sample of a giant penguin skull. “We really only had ideas about what the skulls of these animals looked like,” says North Carolina State University Assistant Professor Julia Clarke, one of the lead scientists who analyzed the remains. “[The skull] is quite different from any living penguin,” she explains. With an actual skull to examine, scientists can more accurately determine what some of the earliest penguins looked like. Although both of the new species had longer and more pointed beaks than today’s birds, the giant penguin had a super-sized beak that is longer than any beak found in any living or extinct penguin. The super-sized beak had a sharp, spear-like point at the end that scientists suggest was used as a weapon to catch fish. To support this massive beak, the penguin’s neck was thick and muscular.

The age of these new fossils pushes back the date of penguin migration from southern latitudes to low latitudes millions of years earlier than previous data had indicated.  Scientists have long believed that penguins migrated to northern South America during a cold era, between four and eight million years ago, but these new fossils hail from a warm period more than 30 million years earlier. Penguin researchers were quite surprised to find penguins living in the tropics during a time period when the earth was even warmer than it is today. “We tend to think of penguins as being cold-adapted species, even the small penguins in equatorial regions today,” says Clarke, “but the new fossils date back to one of the warmest periods in the last 65 million years of Earth’s history. The evidence indicates that penguins reached low latitude regions more than 30 million years prior to our previous estimates.”

Clarke warns that although penguins might have started out living in warm climates, today’s penguins are cold adapted and sensitive to climate change. “These Peruvian species are early branches off the penguin family tree, that are comparatively distant cousins of living penguins,” she explains. “The data from these new fossil species cannot be used to argue that warming wouldn’t negatively impact living penguins.”

Published in Americas magazine by Chris Hardman


Galapagos’ Shrinking Iguanas

THE ANIMALS on Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands have developed amazing ways to adapt to their unique environment. In the last couple of years scientists have realized that marine iguanas are doing something once thought impossible in the natural world: when their food source is particularly low, the animals shrink, sometimes as much as 20% of their body length.

“When we put all the data in the computer and found in some years these animals were decreasing body size, we thought, this is totally wrong,” says University of Illinois Professor of Ecology, Ethology, and Evolution Martin Wikelski. “We mis-measured or we entered data in the wrong way.  Then after this long-term El Niño that happened between 1992 and 1997, we found that they shrank about 20% in body length, and we decided that this is way too big to be ignored.”

In the 12 years Wikelski has been studying the Galapagos iguanas shrinkage occurred in 1987-88, 1992-93, and 1997-98 – the same years that El Niños hit. The correlation was consistent, and the connection had to be food. Marine iguanas feed exclusively on algae, and when an El Niño turns cold, nutrient-rich waters warm, massive algae die-offs occur. Wikelski speculates that shrinking is a way to cope with decreasing food sources. Iguanas are cold-blooded and need to warm up in the sun before they can start eating. With a smaller body size they can warm up faster and feed for longer time periods. In addition, their smaller body makes them more efficient foragers.

Because El Niño is a natural weather phenomenon, animals like the marine iguanas have learned to adapt to its powerful effects in a variety of ways. Although an El Niño may kill 70% of the iguana population, the animals make a fast recovery.  They reproduce more often, reproduce at a higher rate, lay more eggs per clutch, and then after 3 or 4 years the population returns to normal. Potentially, body shrinkage can now be added to the list of adaptations marine iguanas have developed to deal with El Niños.

“We don’t know yet entirely what determines the shrinkage or what causes the shrinkage,” Wikelski explains, “So what we are looking at now are certain hormones [such as] growth hormones.” Wikelski and his team have begun to x-ray their study group of some 400 iguanas. (They started with 12,000 animals in 1981, but several El Niños have hit since then, and Wikelski decided not to add any new animals to the original group.) They are also taking blood samples of hormones that could be related to shrinkage. Future research will include simulating El Niño conditions to document the animals physiological responses to changing conditions.

“The thing that is more interesting is not the shrinkage itself, but the re-growth after shrinkage,” Wikelski says. “They shrink and re-grow again. If we understand how they do that, we can actually do something about osteoporosis or the problems that astronauts face [of bone density loss] in space.”

Research on marine iguanas by Wikelski and others will continue only if there are enough iguanas to study. Unfortunately on some of the islands, introduced predators – such as feral cats and dogs – are destroying marine iguana populations. Wikelski warns that if that problem isn’t solved, in 10 or 15 years some of the islands will lose their entire iguana populations. Wikelski has limited his research to undisturbed islands, where animals face only natural challenges. “It’s an ideal situation because in most of the animal populations you have predation and competition and lots of interaction with other species, but in marine iguanas you only have this one species and its interaction with the environment. You can really test a lot of ecological and evolutionary theory there.”

Published in Americas magazine by Chris Hardman


The Devil Gardener

DEEP IN the Peruvian Amazon a mystery tantalizes travelers and locals alike: Who fashions the random forest clearings in which only one species of tree grows and little jungle debris litters the forest floor? Local people believe that an evil forest spirit called the Chuyachaqui creates these clearings. The Chuyachaqui  is also said to change his appearance to confuse people and lose them in the forest.

Stanford University biologist Megan Frederickson believes that ants — not evil spirits — create these gardens. “A Devil’s garden is a lot like a grove or an orchard and so it has the feel to it like something that has been planted by people,” Frederickson says.

Her research at the Madre Selva Biological Station in Loreto Peru has revealed that a species of ant, Myrmelachista schumanni, is responsible for these mysterious clearings. Because these ants nest and rear their young in only the lemon ant tree, Duroia hirsute, they have developed a gardening “technique” to remove all surrounding vegetation and only allow new lemon ant trees to thrive.

Frederickson and her field assistant, Antonio Coral, observed that worker ants chew holes in the leaves of all the plants they don’t want near their host tree. The ants stick their abdomens in the holes and secrete a few drops of formic acid to kill the unwanted plants, creating space for more lemon ant trees. The untreated saplings began to die within 24 hours, proving it wasn’t the lemon ant tree that was responsible.

With data from a two-year rainforest census, Frederickson and her team calculated that the gardens expand about 7 percent each year. They estimate that the largest garden in their study is 807 years old. That garden measures 1,300 square meters and houses 3 million worker ants and 15,000 queens. With that much competition, the Chuyachaqui may have to go to the devil and live somewhere else.

Published in Wildlife Conservation magazine by Chris Hardman


Native Lands for Wolf and Man

AS THE SPIRIT of the wolf returns to Idaho’s national forest, so does the spirit of the Native American tribe in charge of reintroducing them.

For the first time, the U.S. government has contracted an Indian nation—the Nez Percé tribe of Northern Idaho—to manage the recovery of an endangered species—the gray wolf.  The success of this project is being hailed as a cultural victory for a people with a strong spiritual connection to an elusive and beautiful animal.

The history of the Nez Percé is sadly similar to the history of the gray wolf—both were forced out of their territory to make room for white settlers.  In 1855, the Nez Percé signed a treaty with the U.S. government allowing the tribe to keep most of their traditional lands in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

The discovery of gold in 1860, made this land extremely valuable, so the U.S. government decided to take over most of the tribe’s land  by creating a second treaty in 1863. But the Nez Percé claimed that the tribe never agreed to the second treaty.

Hostilities escalated and a series of battles and forced marches ensued. After the Nez Percé surrendered in 1877, the remaining members of the tribe were shuffled around the country until they finally were placed on a reservation in Lapwai, Idaho.

At the same time the Nez Percé lived in the Northwest so did thousands of wolves, but as white settlers spread throughout  Idaho’s forests and rivers, the wolves soon learned that unlike the Nez Percé, the new people did not welcome their presence. Instead of respect and kinship, the white man possessed a deep fear of his canine neighbors.

In the 1860s, hunters slaughtered thousands of wolves by scattering poisoned bison carcasses around wolf feeding grounds. When the demand for wolf fur increased, hunters killed a many as 1,000 wolves a winter.

In Montana alone more than 80,000 wolves were killed in a 40-year period. The U.S. government joined the slaughter in the 1900s by hiring hunters and trappers to kill wolves thought dangerous to livestock. Thirty years later, the gray wolf had been eliminated from most of the U.S.

“Our history has mirrored one another’s,” says Jamie Pinkham, Nez Percé  Tribal Council member. “The settlers had two obstacles: that of the Indian people and that of the predators such as the wolves, who were both in conflict as to access to the land.  [As a result] both the Nez Percé  and the gray wolf were dispossessed. Today we see that mirror continue but in a more optimistic journey.”

The same government that persecuted both the wolves and the Nez Percé in the past is supporting a conservation program that is providing rebirth for both groups today.

Between 1995 and 1996, as part of a three-state reintroduction plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released a total of 35 gray wolves on one million acres of federally protected land in Idaho’s Frank Church-river of No Return Wilderness. At the same time the FWS hired the Nez Percé tribe to manage, monitor and research the wolves.

Not all residents of Idaho welcome the wolves’ return. Ranchers fear that reintroduction of this crafty predator is a danger to their livestock.

Led by the American Farm Bureau Federation, a group of protesters sued to prevent the return of the wolves to Idaho before they were released. The case languished in court and the wolves were released anyway.

To compensate livestock owners for their financial losses, a program supported by the conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife pays ranchers market price for any cattle wolves kill. To ease the continued tension between ranchers and conservationists, the Nez Percé  work hard to establish good relationships between biologists and ranchers.

In 1996 the Nez Percé invited the Wolf Education and Research Center, to relocate on tribal lands in Winchester, Idaho. “It became a natural marriage,” Pinkham says. “On one hand, we’re handling the wild reintroduction and on the other hand, we have these 11 ambassador wolves who help create a positive message for the recovery of their wild cousins.”

The center’s captive-born pack of 11 wolves living in a 20-acre enclosure gives the public an opportunity to view a secretive animal in a natural setting. The center’s primary goal is to develop management plans that will allow wolves and humans to coexist in the same environment. With more knowledge, better and more informed decisions about wolf conservation can be made.

Wolves figure prominently in the Nez Percé religion. They are admired because of their hunting skills, their language and their tradition of sharing food. Having the wolves return to Idaho is viewed by the Nez Percé as the return of a brother, a vital link to their culture and traditions of the past.

“We are both regaining a rightful place on the land we were once removed from,” Pinkham says.

Published in Americas magazine, April 2000, by Chris Hardman

Radio-Tagged Tarantulas

THE THOUGHT of studying tarantulas up close causes most people to shudder as images of gigantic, hairy monsters flood their imagination.  But a more accurate picture, according to Steven B. Reichling of the Memphis Zoo, is that of a fascinating animal providing an invaluable service to conservation research. Reichling and veterinarian Chris Tabaka have radio tagged 75 individuals of two common tarantula species to document the rate and result of deforestation at the Lamanai Archaeological Reserve in northern Belize.

Tarantulas make effective bio-indicators because they can live to be 20 years old, they are identifiable, and they stay in one area. By monitoring tarantula survivor rates, Reichling will be able to document the impact of agricultural trends in Belize.

Historically, farmers planted crops on small plots of land for a few years and then cleared a new area. This “slash-and-burn” farming allowed the land to rest and recover. But modern farming techniques create large clearings that are left fallow briefly or not at all. Large-scale farms cultivate the land continually, and once all the nutrients in the soil are used up, the farm becomes cattle pasture. The behavior of Reichling’s two study subjects, the Lamanai tarantula—a resident of open fields—and the redrump tarantula—a dense forest dweller—will provide insight into how other species of flora and fauna are affected as well.

The first challenge the researchers faced was how to identify an animal that sheds its exoskeleton on a regular basis. They decided to use some kind of internal tag. Because tarantulas have an open circulatory system and no clotting ability, Reichling says, “It’s a lot like trying to insert a grain of rice inside a water balloon.” Tabaka and Reichling developed a technique to surgically implant miniature radio transponders into the spider’s abdomen without harming the animal. These long-lived archachnids will generate valuable scientific data for years to come.

Published in Wildlife Conservation by Chris Hardman