A New Job, a New Voyage, An Endangered Species

The rain has finally come to California, bringing with it the promise of new growth and greenery.  As it rains outside the window I am inside,  surrounded by loosely organized piles of clothes, books, outdoor gear, and laptop peripherals attempting to fit my life into two 20kg bags.  Before I go I need to take care of all those technological tasks our life is filled with as well, back up my computers, transfer my iPhone and iPad to a different computer (Apple, you really need to make that easier to do), and do the final run-through on what I am taking with me.  Despite all this, my mind is only partially on the task at hand.

Several weeks ago I was offered a position working on primate conservation in northern Vietnam and my mind is on the location, the people I will be working with, and the upcoming tasks.

The Gulf of Tonkin - NASA image

Northern Vietnam, Southern China, and the Gulf of Tonkin – NASA image

This is exciting, not in the least because Vietnam, like much of South East Asia, (and Southern China) lies firmly in one of the great biodiversity hotspots of the world.  Northern Vietnam is on the edge of Sundaland, a name for the vast expanse of what used to be land connecting the Southeast Asian mainland to Borneo and the Indonesian islands, now mainly under water and expressed as the Sunda Shelf.  During the last ice age this is thought to have been a broad grassland spotted with mountain forests and laced with broad rivers.  For nearly 100,000 years plants and animals moved back and forth across this landscape, becoming wide-spread and subsequently isolated as the rising seas flooded the lowlands, leaving the complex arrangement of islands and peninsulas we now see.

This exposure and inundation of land in this part of the world has been taking place for a long time.  This combined with the vigorous tectonic activity of the region has led to a wonderfully complex region topographically, and subsequently (or in conjunction) biologically.

Sundaland showing current and proposed past rivers

Sundaland showing current and proposed past rivers (source)

This submerged region is now thought to be the cradle of the Asian population, the “Out of Sundaland Theory”, although there is a competing “Out of Taiwan Theory” as well.  Where I will be working is only loosely in former Sundaland, a melding point between Sundaland and the complex geography of Southern China and Northern Laos.  In any event hominids, and later humans have been exploring and living in South East Asia for a long time, and that span of time has allowed tremendous cultural and linguistic complexity to develop as well.  This is one of the places that our most successful and long-lived hominid ancestors, Homo erectus, lived.

I will be on the edge of this region, just off the coast of northern Vietnam, on the northern margin of the Red River delta not too far from the Chinese border.  The location is Ha Long Bay, a dramatic karst landscape that is both mature and submerged.  The ingredients for a karst landscape are limestone and time, lots of both.  In some parts of the world the only signifying features of kart landscapes are rich soils (lots of cations) and , if it is wet, periodic sinkholes.  Where water is in abundance caves are common, as groundwater is often mildly acidic which erodes the limestone.  Over time continued erosion wears down the limestone bedrock to such a great degree that all that is left are startlingly steep sided hills, separated by flat valleys.  This is a mature karst landscape.  In Sundaland some of these mature karst regions were flooded when the sea level rose resulting in a dream-like landscape that looks like something Hayao Miyazaki would imagine if he were to direct a pirate movie.

Ha Long Bay mature submerged karst landscape (source)

Places like Ha Long Bay are excellent examples of island biogeography.  Islands are often home to endemic species, the tortoises and finches on the Galapagos Islands are the classic example of this, made famous by Darwin.  Animals and plants that make their way to an island, or are trapped by rising seas or continental drift become isolated and diverge from their ancestors.  This is the essence of island biogeography and the recognition of how finch beaks on the Galapagos changed in response to the limited food sources available on the islands helped Darwin to recognize how evolution takes place.  My personal hero in the tale of evolution, Wallace, worked in the submerged island remnants of Sundaland and experienced the same insights as Darwin.  Ha Long Bay is a small area, but has its own endemic species, many of them we probably know little to nothing about.

One we do know of is the Cat Ba Langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus poliocephalus), a dark haired leaf eating monkey with white heads and brilliant golden furred babies.  They are found only on Cat Ba Island, one of the largest islands in the Ha Long Bay, and are critically endangered.  Critically is an understatement, there are less than a hundred of these primates alive in the world.  And. That. Is. All. There. Are.

Cat Ba Langur on limestone cliffs. [EDIT – the photo I previously had here was of the closely related White-Headed Langur – it was mislabeled as a Cat Ba Langue at the source I found it]

In 25 hours I get on a flight to Hanoi to take part in an effort to both keep these primates from going extinct and to conserve the biodiversity of the island.  There are a lot of moving parts in the project, many partners at all levels, and only a few of us on the ground to keep everything running smoothly.

I’m excited, eager, and somewhat intimated.  I leave tomorrow.

The Beneficial Lady Beetles: Good Luck Bugs or God’s Little Cows

J.B.S. Haldane, one of the founders of population genetics, is credited with saying, “If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles.”  Like most quotes attributed to famous people, it is probably apocryphal, but the point is valid.  There are a lot of Coleoptera species in the world, not as many as there are stars in the sky, but 1 out of 4 animal species in the world is a beetle of some sort. Many people experience an inordinate queasiness around insects and other arthropods.  There are a few species, however, that rarely elicit distaste.  Of these the Coccinellidae or  Ladybugs (also called Lady Birds and Lady Bird Beetles) are particularly adored.  The most iconic of these are the jewel-like red and black spotted types, of which there are many.  All told there are some 5,000 species of ladybugs around the world, not all of which are red, around 450 in North America, and approximately 175 species in California alone.  All ladybugs share the endearing, rounded shape that their name, Coccinellidae (meaning “little sphere” – Note: some sources suggest that this name means “scarlet”), derives from.  These are primarily solitary little beetles that are found nearly everywhere there are a lot of plants, especially in gardens, fields, grasslands, and shrublands.

Convergent Ladybug (Hippodamia convergens) on manzanita leaf

Convergent Lady Beetle (Hippodamia convergens) on manzanita leaf

The rounded shape that gives ladybugs somewhat of a bumbling appearance is actually highly effective armor to protect them from ants.  “Why do they need protection from ants?” one might ask.  Well, contrary to their appearance, they are fierce and merciless predators, specializing in aphids.  Hungry ladybugs will eat a wide variety of insects, but to reproduce they must eat aphids and eat large quantities of them.  An adult Convergent Lady Beetle (Hippodamia convergens), a common and easily identifiable ladybug found in the Americas from Canada to northern Bolivia, eats 40-75 aphids a day with the larvae eating only slightly fewer.  Aphids have a special relationship with ants. Aphids by themselves are small, defenseless, and relatively harmless, but, as any gardener or farmer knows and fears, they can very quickly reach immense numbers.  Aphids live off of plant sap, sinking their mouthparts into soft plant tissue like miniature vampires.  Plant sap is high in sugars that the aphids excrete in the form of honeydew.  Ants, like many animals, have an affinity for sugar and collect the sweet honeydew from aphids, in some cases treating them not so differently from the way we treat free range cows.  In exchange for honeydew the ants protect the diminutive aphid herds from predators.  Predators such as the voracious and heavily armored ladybug. Farmers and gardeners have a particular fondness for ladybugs as they can potentially save a whole crop from devastation.  The name “Ladybug” or “Lady Beetle” supposedly derives from vast numbers of ladybugs descending on pest infested fields after villagers prayed to the Virgin Mary to protect their crops.  In Germany one of the names was Mary’s Chicken, in Sweden The Virgin Mary’s Golden Hen, in Spain Gods Little Cow, in Turkey they have the name Good Luck Bug, and in Yiddish they are called Moses’s Little Cow.  In Russia seeing a ladybug indicates that a wish will soon be granted or is an indication to make a wish.  Before Christianity took over northern Europe their name was tied with the Norse goddess Frejya rather than with Mary.  Nearly all the names for ladybugs indicate how well respected and loved they are, though there are a few names reflect the burning aspect of the chemical defense they use to deter larger predators. The Convergent Lady Beetle is particularly favored by farmers in the US as a natural pest control method.  Despite their solitary nature one acre of alfalfa suffering from an aphid infestation can support up to 50,000 ladybugs by Dr. Kenneth Hagen’s estimate.  Many farmers take preemptive steps to control aphid infestations by releasing ladybugs in bulk, purchasing buckets containing between 70,000 and 80,000 individuals per gallon.

Convergent Ladybug (Hippodamia convergens) in a hibernation swarm.

Convergent Lady Beetle (Hippodamia convergens) in a hibernation swarm.

If ladybugs are solitary, how does one collect 70,000 of them?  They migrate; I’ve mentioned insect migration before, but this is not the extraordinary long distance flight of dragon flies or monarch butterflies.  This is a short migration up into the hills and mountains where the ladybugs cluster in protected areas and wait for the weather to warm up. Ladybugs do not fly if the temperature drops below 55ºF (13ºC) and the Convergent Lady Beetle spends the cooler months in diapause, an insect analogue to hibernation.  In California, Convergent Lady Beetles living in the Central Valley head up into the Sierras while those closer to the coast find local hollows and protected areas to gather in.  They often show fidelity to specific sites and, in the Sierras, can gather in vast numbers.  Individual sites can have as much as 500 gallons of ladybugs, or more than 37 million individuals.  Collectors scoop these ladybugs up and sell them to agriculturalists around the country. In the coastal portions of California the distances the ladybugs travel to wintering sites is not as great and they do not gather in the same density.

Hippodamia convergens in Redwood Regional Park

Hippodamia convergens in Redwood Regional Park

One place to see Hippodamia convergens gathering is in Redwood Regional Park in Oakland.  There is one spot that they return to, a glade near one of the streams.  They coat the low growing and dead vegetation, branches, and logs in an intermittent film of slowly moving red gems.

Hippodamia convergens on dead vegetation

Hippodamia convergens on dead vegetation

In some spots they clump like globs of foam stuck to old hemlock stalks, in other areas they gather on lichen covered logs.

Hippodamia convergens on log

Hippodamia convergens on log

They are not completely dormant.  If you sit and watch them for a few minutes you will see them slowly mill about.

Hippodamia convergens on twig

Hippodamia convergens on twig

In a few places they form a nearly even coat over branches.

Hippodamia convergens covering a branch

Hippodamia convergens covering a branch

In other spots they cluster between the stalks of old flower-heads.

Hippodamia convergens on flower head

Hippodamia convergens on flower head

Finding these conglomerations of ladybugs is particularly exciting, in part as it is so shocking even when you are expecting it.  We have so few opportunities to see large numbers of wild animals in their natural environment any more that when we do it is particularly impacting, especially if it is of a type of animal we usually see as solitary individuals.  The ladybugs are also very pretty, which is always a bonus. *** Macro photos taken with a 70-300mm lens and kenko macro-tubes at a high ISO due to the late time of day and shade.

Chaparral Yucca Seeds, and a Guest

My last post was about Chaparral Yucca, which is blooming in the Santa Monica Mountains right now.  A  few days after writing the post I was exploring Red Rocks Park in Topanga.  This park takes its name from the sculpted sandstone outcrops that rise from the Santa Monica Mountains.

Wind and water sculpted sandstone ledges

Wind and water sculpted sandstone ledges

Like most of the Santa Monica Mountains, this is a dry area, but it is relatively low elevation and nestled in a canyon, the bottom of which has an infrequently running stream and some lovely oak and sycamore trees.

The side slopes are home to the usual assortment of coastal chaparral plants, but the relatively low elevation, slightly greater water supply, and marginally cooler temperatures means that the plants are on an ever-so-slightly different flowering cycle.

Down here some of the Chaparral Yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei) is still blooming, but other plants are well into the seed setting stage.

Chaparral Yucca seed pods slowly ripening

Chaparral Yucca seed pods slowly ripening

Each of the thorn-like stubs on the branches was a flower.  As you can seen a small percent of the flowers survive to form seed pods.  This year, this is a good crop, in other, wetter, years more might make to this stage.

The pods look like the offspring of a pickle and a ping-pong ball.  Green and slightly warty, divided into three chambers and about the size of a comfortable throwing stone.

Chaparral Yucca seed pod close-up

Chaparral Yucca seed pod close-up

As with the flowers, reaching them is a bit tricky because the basal rosette is composed of lance-shaped leaves crowned with needle tips.  Tips that only seem more aggressive and more prone to break off in your legs as the leaves dry in the increasingly hot summer sun.

Gathering these seed pods was an important activity for many of the coastal tribes as the seeds are edible and nutritious, and unlike the flowers and stalk, the dried seeds can be stored for a long time either whole or ground into flour.

At the moment the seeds are not-yet dried, but are still edible and tasty.

Chaparral Yucca seedpod cross-section

Chaparral Yucca seedpod cross-section

The seeds are flat and black or dark brown, and the capsules look very much like iris or lily seed capsules.  When fully ripe and dry the capsule splits open, disgorging the disk-like winged seeds that flutter to the ground in the frequent coastal breeze.

The green portion of the pod is extremely bitter, so it is best to separate the seeds from the pods for consumption.

The remains of the pods can last for several years in the dry climate.  They look a little like small loofahs hanging on to the dessicated flower stalks.

Chaparral Yucca dried seed pod

Chaparral Yucca dried seed pod

Chaparral Yucca grows in exposed areas in defiance of the sun and shallow soils.  This year even these hardy plants have few blooms and many of the other flowering plants here either didn’t bloom or did so quickly and finished quickly.  Despite the harsh conditions of this year, in some of the darker, damper areas a few plants still show their flowers.

In a little gully, well off the trails, I came across several blooming Scarlet Larkspur (Delphinium cardinale) plants.

Scarlet Larkspur (Delphinium cardinale) still blooming in a shady spot

Scarlet Larkspur (Delphinium cardinale) still blooming in a shady spot

Spring comes to Madrid

Spring is lurching its way through the Northern Hemisphere.  In Madrid this year this means more rain than has fallen since the 1940s, usually in a soft drizzle, occasionally spiced with small hail, bouts of hard rain, and periods of epic cloudscapes accompanied by bright sun.  It is familiar weather, reminding me of the part of California I grew up in.

In the countryside the effects of all this water are obvious, the land turns green.  This is likely to be a good year for farmers and wildflowers, though the former have a globally recognized habit of finding something to complain about no matter the weather.  For the wild plants this may mean bountiful seeds next year and the possibility of mast fruiting for woody plants that do that sort of thing (oak trees, I’m looking at you).

Within the boundaries of Madrid, where I have been living recently, the setting is considerably more urban.

The early evening view from a Madrid apartment

The early evening view from a Madrid apartment

In this landscape of stone, cement, and brick the effects of spring are more subtle and easy to overlook; they are most clearly seen in the length and material of coats worn by pedestrians.  Long black wool overcoats are being replaced by short black wool overcoats, leather jackets are replacing down, and on the few warmer days some of the women wear skirts with tights and accompanied by peculiar choices in footwear.

Nature-wise the heralds of spring are the street trees which are beginning to leaf out (especially the elms); ornamental cherries, plums, and almonds have been blooming, and, most interestingly to me, the little plants that have adapted to city life are beginning to show signs of life.

Leaves of an elm seedling

Leaves of an elm seedling

On the patio there is a planter box that has been left to what wild nature resides in the city.  A small elm has taken root and shows nice bonsai potential.  Accompanying the elm are, moss, English Ivy (planted), a few tender oxalis plants, and a small climbing vine with miniscule, but lovely, flowers; purple and white, kissed with egg-yolk yellow.

Leaves and flowers of our mystery plant - the flowers are perhaps half a centimeter across and at most a centimeter long

Leaves and flowers of our mystery plant – the flowers are perhaps half a centimeter across and at most a centimeter long

This plant starts out in a tight cluster and flowers prolifically when conditions are right.

A tangled clump of Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)

A tangled clump of Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)

This little plant, Ivy-leaved Toadfax (Cymbalaria muralis) is evergreen and originally native to the Mediterranean region, now found nearly globally, having been introduced both intentionally and inadvertently. The flowers betray the family association; snapdragons or Scrophulariaceae.

Cymbalaria muralis does not suffer from a lack of names, Coliseum-Ivy , Kenilworth-Ivy, Wandering-Sailor, Mother-Of-Thousands, Oxford-Ivy, Pennywort, and Ivy-leaved Toadflax being just a few of its common names.

Ivy-leaved Toadflax prefers calcareous soils and often grows directly from cliffs and older walls.  Here in Spain it is a native plant and is as much in balance with its environment as any other plant is in a land so heavily used by humans for so long as the Iberian Peninsula has been.  Elsewhere this small plant becomes aggressively invasive and can rapidly form a dense blanket of vegetation over trees, cliffs, and buildings.  It is a popular plant for rock gardens.

If a plant could be described as being clever, this plant might qualify for the compliment.  It sends runners out in all directions, with most of the ones I have seen pointing upwards.

Ivy-Leaved Toadflax climbing a trellis

Ivy-Leaved Toadflax climbing a trellis

On a healthy plant these runners can be nearly a meter long and have a fleshy, almost succulent aspect.  The leaves and the vines are slightly waxy and smooth to the touch, helping to limit water loss.  As it grows, Ivy-leaved Toadflax builds up a dense, nearly light impenetrable, layer of overlapping leaves.  Like a forest, this little clump of shade helps to trap both moisture and organic matter.  This little reservoir of nutrients feeds the ever growing plant.

The most interesting aspect of this plant is its behavior when it flowers and sets seed.  The flowers are pollinated primarily by bees and must be placed where the bees can find and land on them.  To ensure this the young flowerbuds are positively phototrophic; they actively seek out the brightest light.

Cymbalaria muralis flowers growing towards the light

Cymbalaria muralis flowers growing towards the light

Bees can see into the ultraviolet and to them flowers look very different than to us.  I am very curious how these flowers look to the bees.

Once the flower has been pollinated a change takes place and the forming seedpods become negatively phototrophic actively avoiding light.  The change can be quite dramatic and rapid

A fertilized bud running from the light

A fertilized bud moving away from the light

Avoidance of light sends the forming seeds into the darkest places within reach, places where it is more likely to find a safe, damp spot for the small seeds to be deposited.

Light and dark seeking stems

Light and dark seeking stems

This clever approach to seed distribution combined with rooting from runners and re-rooting from broken clumps serve the Ivy-leaved Toadflax well.  This change in light preference is not unique to Ivy-leaved Toadflax, the common houseplant Monstera deliciosa (aka Swiss Cheese Plant, Window Leaf, Mexican Breafdruit, and many more names) begins life avoiding light, then, when it finds a tree trunk its preference turns towards light as it climbs to the near canopy.

We don’t often talk about the behavior of plants, we usually use more neutral terms such as survival strategy.  To us plants are fixed in the landscape with their changes slow.  Plants lack of a brain makes discussion of behavior problematic.  We often fail to have an appreciation for the senses plants posses and they way their response to stimulus drives their growth and adaptability.  We have a prejudice for organisms with a central nervous system, or at least some form of mobility, because they are more similar to ourselves and we find them easier to empathize with.

The little Cymbalaria muralis is far from the only plant in flower right now in Madrid.  In the parks Common Fumitory (aka. Earth Smoke), Fumaria officinalis, is blooming.

Common Fumitory, Earth Smoke (Fumaria officinalis) flowers

Common Fumitory, Earth Smoke (Fumaria officinalis) flowers

Common Fumitory is in the Bleeding Heart family, related to Corydalis, Bleeding Hearts, and Squirrel Corn.  Often this pretty little plant is lumped into a sub-family of the Poppy family (Papaveraceae).

In some places small fields of Red Campion (Silene dioica) dance in the breeze, making rippling patches of purple-tinged pink.

Red Campion (Silene dioica)

Red Campion (Silene dioica)

In the countryside ground dwelling orchids are beginning to bloom, but I have not seen those yet.

Perhaps soon.

Into the forest at Lubuk Baji – Part 2: Monkeys and Apes

The real temperature was not so great, perhaps 83°F (28°C), but the humidity and the still air in the forest made it seem hotter.  I took large, slow strides, my toes instinctively trying to grip the slippery, steep slope through my sandals, my sleeves rolled down to keep the constant flow of sweat from dripping down my arms onto my camera bag.  A bandanna looped around my neck served as a towel to mop sweat from my face, sweat that stung my eyes, sweat that was so prodigious that it felt like the inside of my mouth was sweating.

Bird calls, the occasional ululating call of a gibbon, and the clicks and whirrs of numerous insects surrounded us.  Despite the fecund richness of the forest around us the only animal life to be seen were insects, most obviously large butterflies, predominately black in color, some with large yellow patches, others with cerulean blue patches, many with white polka-dots scattered over their wings.  In the warm air they rarely stood still, preferring to dance in the solitary shafts of sunlight and flit erratically through the trees.

Large butterflies were common in the forest, many about the size of an open hand

Large butterflies were common in the forest, many about the size of an open hand

On the forest floor, amongst the leaf litter crawled the occasional giant woodlouse, relatives of common pillbug but far larger.  They would curl at the slightest provocation, looking like painted ping-pong balls.

Giant woodlouse curled up on the forest floor

Giant woodlouse curled up on the forest floor

We were looking for wild orangutan in the hills of Lubuk Baji.  We knew they were in the area, abandoned sleeping nests in the trees and their pungent scent attested to their recent presence but they remained hidden in the forest.

Lubik Baji is a small hill on the west side of Gunung Palung National Park in West Kalimantan, Indonesia.  This large park is one of the last remaining protected lowland forests and contains nearly 10% of the world’s remaining orangutan.  The nearby town of Sukadana is partially surrounded by the park and a large number of people live nearby, many of them relying on resources found within the park for their livelihoods, especially timber resources.

Gunung Palung NP wraps around Sukadana, to the east is a small hill names Lubuk Baji

Gunung Palung NP wraps around Sukadana, to the east is a small hill names Lubuk Baji

We had seemingly missed our chance to see these large forest dwelling primates, perhaps arriving too late in the day.  Our guide kept a close eye out and several times pulled us off  the trail through small tangles of spiky rattan palm to follow up on potential sightings and sounds.  Each turned out to be a false alarm.

Wandering off the trail brought its own rewards though.

Large ground orchid in the Borneo rainforest

Large ground orchid in the Borneo rainforest

Where the ground was a bit more damp large white ground orchids grew, the broad, soft leaves looking more lilly-like than orchid like.

Unknown red & blue fruit (if you know, please let me know).

Unknown red & blue fruit (if you know, please let me know).  Each blue fruit was only about 1 to 1.5cm long.  EDIT: possibly Baccaurea odoratissima

The tree above was fruiting directly from the trunk.  This is a trait called cauliflory.  Plants that exhibit cauliflory flower and fruit directly from their stems and trunks.  It is relatively common in tropical environments and rare to non-existent elsewhere.  I have seen it on many plants in the Amazon, but the fruit growing in this manner that most people will be familiar with is papaya.  I think it is one of the most striking and beautiful ways for a tree to flower, in part because it is so unexpected.

I have heard several hypotheses for why tropical trees do this; one has to do with sun protection for delicate flowers and fruits.  Tropical sun is intense and the trees may be protecting their fruits under a dark canopy.  Another thought is that it makes the fruit easier for large animals to reach as they do not have to rick precarious trips onto thin branches that may not hold their weight.  One side effect of this growth form is that trees can produce fruits of immense size.  Jackfruit (Artocarpus spp), a delicious fruit of which there are many species, produces some of the largest fruits of any tree, the largest fruits weighing up to 80 pounds (36 kilos).

Failing to see any wild primates we continued our hike along the ridge to an overlook of bare granite shaded by a grove of tall bamboo.

Looking East-Northeast over Gunung Palung National Park and parts north from the Sukadana Hills

Looking East-Northeast over Gunung Palung National Park and parts north from the Sukadana Hills

From here we finally got an overview of the surrounding countryside.  Views like this can be surprisingly rare in forested lands, even when there are hills and mountains.  Below us rice paddies infringed on the edge of the national park, then faded into a shaggy carpet of greenery.  Here and there eskers of logging tracks could be seen following stream courses and through binoculars it was clear that all the tall trees had been cleared from the lower slopes of the distant hills.

We sat enjoying the breeze and view for a time, then headed back to the stream and park building for lunch.

I grew restless and maybe 15 minutes before we were to set out I told the guide that I would go first and wait for the rest of the group later on.  Walking in nature in large groups always bothers me a bit, too many people talk too loudly, make too much noise moving through the forest, and scare off the wildlife.  I tend to walk slowly and quietly with frequent pauses to listen, look, and smell the air.

As it has so many times in the past my slow approach to nature paid off in spades.  Just downhill from the honey gathering tree I saw a large branch move across the stream and head a loud rustle, clearly not from the wind.  I froze and waited, watching the closely.  Large dark shapes clambered about, difficult to see, sometimes in deep shade, other times so strongly backlit by the sun that all I could see was a dark blob.

I waited with my camera out.  After a few minutes of quiet waiting the orangutan began moving about, foraging and breaking off large dead limbs.  I waited until they seemed accustomed to my presence, then slipped back up the trail to wait for the rest of my hiking group.  Five minutes later they came down the trail, talking and breaking dead branches on the ground.  “Shhh, tiga orangutan,” I said holding up 3 fingers.  Everyone fell silent and we crept down the hill.

The orangutan watched us for a few minutes, then returned to foraging.  One adolescent clambered directly over us, occasionally peering down through the sheltering leaves, then moving on again.

Very curious adolescent orangutan

Very curious adolescent Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus)

Most of my photos did not turn out well, the contrast was too great and the apes moved too quickly.  After much post processing one image revealed that there were at least 4 orangutan, possibly more nearby.

After about 20 minutes we continued on our way down the hill, pausing to swim in a deliciously refreshing pool at the base of a waterfall.

The trail was paralleled by a series of lovely waterfalls

The trail was paralleled by a series of lovely waterfalls

Regretfully donning our clothes once more we continued our hike out of the forest, happy at seeing the orangutan and thinking that out wildlife sights were at an end.

Just inside the margin of the forest we found that we were unexpectedly and happily wrong.

Red leaf Monkey (Presbytis rubicunda), aka Maroon Leaf Monkey

Red leaf Monkey (Presbytis rubicunda), aka Maroon Leaf Monkey

Several Red Leaf Monkeys were foraging for fruit in the semi-wild durian orchard.  They made long, graceful leaps between the trees, their tails streaming out behind them, accenting the arc of their flight.

People often think we need to protect the forest in order to protect species like the orangutan, various monkey species, birds, and other forest inhabitants.  While this is indeed true, it is only part of the picture.  The forest denizens must be protected as well because without them the forest changes, sometimes radically, becoming a completely different environment.

Many species of plants require their seeds to be consumed along with their fruit and carried far off as part of their dispersal strategy.  Many seeds must pass through the digestive tracts of specific animals before they will germinate.  The extinction of one animal species can have repercussions that are slow to manifest, are difficult to reverse, and may have a wider impact through the ecosystem.

We often talk of specific species as being keystone species.  It may be wiser to think of all species as being keystone species.

Red Leaf Monkey watching me

Red Leaf Monkey watching me

Travel Time Again! (remember to say “Yes”)

The trickster gods have been in good moods recently.  Life has been full of interesting surprises, unforeseen opportunities, and things that keep a smile on my face.  The frustration of having my visas delayed for my new job has opened a whole world of opportunities that wouldn’t have been there if the visas had gone smoothly.

A pack of coyotes (Canis latrans) came by to visit for the holidays.

A pack of coyotes (Canis latrans) came by to visit for the holidays.  A blue-eyed one stayed to watch me, perhaps it knew something I didn’t yet know.

Tomorrow, early, much earlier than is comfortable, I head to Spain as a result of several of these unexpected and delightful opportunities.  There I get to mix work with play, experience a new place, and get to know new friends.  From there I head to Indonesia for my new job.

Common ravens (Corvus corax) flying about.  Six of them played on the wind over my head last week for a few minutes before winging off over the mountains,

Common ravens (Corvus corax) flying about. Six of them played on the wind over my head last week for a few minutes before winging off over the mountains,

The visas still are not sorted, but it’s time to move, to see new things, to say, “Yes,” to what is in front of me.

Last time I moved to Asia I flew off into the sunset, heading east, out over the wide Pacific.

This time I chase the sunrise, seeking to lift the curtain of dawn and catch a glimpse of what’s behind it.

My last day in Vermont started with a fabulous rainbow.  It seemed a good omen for the next phase of life.

Rainbow over Hogback Ridge, Vermont on my last day there.

Rainbow over Hogback Ridge, Vermont on my last day there.

I wish you all the best opportunities in the new year and in life with both the wisdom and courage to leap for them when they appear.

If I can, I will post from Spain, otherwise my next post will be from Indonesia.

How Does the Acorn Get from Here to There? – Scrub Jays and Oak Trees

With a few exceptions trees in the Oak genus (Quercus) are easily, if not immediately, recognizable.  There are approximately 600 species in the genus divided into two sub-genera.  Oaks are found in North and South America, Europe, North Africa, and Asia.  The oaks in Asia are in the sub-genera, the Ring-Cupped Oaks (Cyclobalanopsis), whereas oaks in the rest of the world are members of the Quercus sub-genera.

Oaks have complicated relationships with a number of other species ranging from symbiotic fungus to parasitic wasps to humans.  Oaks feature in our mythology, we use the bark of Quercus suber, Cork Oak, to make stoppers for wine and for soft flooring, we make furniture and barrels from some species of oak, we made cart and early car axles from particularity strong species, they make excellent firewood, and they are fun to climb.

Climbing a Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) when I was little

Oaks also make acorns.  Sometimes, particularly when mast fruiting, oaks produce enormous quantities of acorns.  Most of these acorns are eaten by animals; insects, humans, pigs, squirrels, birds, and a host of other animals.  The survival and reseeding rate for acorns is low, but oak trees tend to be long-lived, some reaching ages of 500 years or more.  In the absence of other factors this low seedling success rate is not an issue as the tree produces thousands of acorns each year for hundreds of years.  Some seeds are bound to survive and turn into new trees.

Oaks have a particular problem.  Their seeds (acorns) are large.

Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) acorns

By themselves the trees can only drop the acorns under their own drip-line, in the shade where they will not sprout.  How does the tree send its seeds to a new place where they can sprout and are not left in a dense mat of easily found and eaten food?

Plants, being clever and manipulative in their slow vegetative manner, have all manner of methods for getting animals to carry their seeds far and wide.  Oaks harness many species to do this work, bribing them with the highly nutritious seeds they produce.  Across much of North America scrub and blue jays are put to work distributing acorns across the landscape.

Western Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica) in the Santa Monica Mountains – possibly Belding’s Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica obscura)

Meet the Western Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica), also known as the California Scrub Jay, and sometimes known as, “That damned bird!”  It is a mid-sized bird, perhaps a foot long including tail, loud, strong, clever, and imperious.  Like all jays it is in the Crow family (Corvidae), one of, if not the, smartest of bird types.  Corvids are renowned for their problem solving abilities and feats of memorization.  Scrub jays are no exception.

When the acorns are ripe jays congregate on the trees, grab as many acorns as they can, and fly off to stash them for future use.

Scrub Jay carrying acorns to hide for lean times

Each bird seems able to carry 3 or 4 acorns at a time, in the picture above there are two in the jay’s beak and at least one more in its crop.

Jays will carry acorns up to a mile and a half, hiding them in widely distributed caches of 1-3 acorns per cache.  The bird memorizes the locations of each cache, that of any other caches it sees other birds store, and will move its own caches if it knows it has been observed making its own cache.  Some of these caches will be forgotten and in some of those the seeds will sprout.

One bird doesn’t seem like it would make much of an impact, but one must recognize both the diligence of each bird and the number of birds engaged in this activity.

Scrub Jays harvesting acorns (@ 40 photographs taken over @ 10 minutes)

The photo above is a compilation of about 40 photographs taken over roughly 10 minutes.  This level of activity has been constant on this tree throughout the day over the past 2 or 3 weeks.  The scale of the endeavor starts to become apparent.  Beneath the tree ground squirrels and gray squirrels gather seeds from the ground to add to their own larders as well.

The oak tree has effectively expanded its dispersal distance from a few feet to over a mile.  Not only that, the oak tree has found a way to have its seeds hidden in safe locations and planted in the ground.  Only a small proportion of the acorns will survive to make new trees, but over the 350 year expected life-span of this particular tree it is not unreasonable that several hundred acorns will survive to produce trees that will live long enough to produce seeds of their own.

Scrub Jay enjoying the sun

+++ Cathy commented that any discussion of oak trees in California is incomplete if Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) are not included.  They don’t live where I am at the moment, but last week I was up in my old stomping grounds and visited one of my favorite grainery trees.  Grainery trees are where these communal woodpeckers store and dry their collected acorns.  This particular tree is an ancient, wind-blasted Douglas Fir atop Mt Tamalpais, has a nearly 4 foot diameter, has been lightening struck numerous times, and sits amidst a copse of large moss enshrouded oak trees.

Old grainery trees will be used by many generations of these little woodpeckers and the trees look like an art project .

In any event, here is a photo of part of a grainery.+++

Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) use all surfaces of a tree to make their larders. They will use fence-posts and the sides of barns as well.

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As a final note, in many areas, but in California in particular, oaks of all species are severely imperiled.  Oak woodlands are often considered to be the most important ecosystem in the region, but they have been subject to a number of stresses.  Oaks have been extensively cleared for orchards, vineyards, farmland, and urban use.  Saplings are eaten by cattle in range-lands, non-native feral pigs sniff out and eat all the acorns they can find, sometimes damaging tree roots in the process, and an ill-considered introduction of turkeys to the state by Fish & Wildlife to raise hunting revenue has led to even more acorns consumed by these overly prolific birds.

On top of all this, Phytophthora ramorum, a pathogen in the fungus-like family of water-molds, was accidentally introduced to the state via exotic ornamental plants and is causing wide-spread devastation.  This is commonly called Sudden Oak Death Syndrome and foresters strongly recommend not transporting oak firewood and washing cutting tools and boots when moving between oak growing regions.

The Frontenac Arch a Critical Linkage

(this is an article I wrote for the summer 2012 newsletter of A2A – Algonquin To Adirondacks Conservation Association – a bi-national conservation association I am an adviser for – I wanted to wait until it was included in the newsletter before posting it here as well)

Between the Algonquin and the St. Lawrence a finger of the Canadian Shield, called the Frontenac Arch, reaches down from the north.  The Canadian Shield is an ancient formation of rock, heavily weathered, marked with meteor craters, and bearing the polishing scars of the ebb and flow of glaciers miles deep. Soils are shallow on the Shield, in many places nonexistent.  Nutrients are hard to come by and wetlands abound.

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

The bedrock to the east and west of the Frontenac Arch is old seafloor with thicker soils that are rich in minerals and nutrients. Groundwater flows through breaks in the flat bedding planes and does not become trapped in pockets as easily as it does on the Canadian Shield.

When we look at a landscape we often look at the plants growing on the surface and leave our thoughts on the surface with them.  Plants grow where they do because of the chemistry of bedrock, soil, water, and temperature.

On the Frontenac Arch the chemistry of the northern and the southern Canadian forests mix.  This mix shows in the wide and unusual range of plants growing in and around the Frontenac Arch.  The diversity of plants attracts a corresponding diversity in animals. All these plant communities are separated and connected by the dense wetlands, and many animals are drawn to the wetlands.  Frogs, fish, ospreys, turtles, feeding moose, waterfowl of all sorts, beavers, blackbirds, otters, sparrows, loons, and many more.

Male Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)

Healthy wetlands are rich in species, both in number and diversity; plant, animal, insect, and bird.  Wetlands are the kidneys of the planet; they filter water and keep it clean.  They slowly recharge aquifers with cool, pure water, they keep rivers and streams clear, they trap sediment, and they eventually fill in, becoming rich, complex soils full of nutrients.

Oddly, perhaps counter intuitively, all this life, more specifically all this diversity, of living things in wetlands is what keeps the water clean.  The water is strained at a molecular level for nutrients by all those living organisms.  Each looks for different things and uses them differently.  Toxins and chemicals are swept up and broken down by this process, but only as long as the diversity of life is present.

When that fabric of diversity is broken the health of the land suffers.  A healthy environment is like good glass, so clear you don’t see it and tough enough to withstand storms.

A large male Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and feral biologists

The Frontenac Arch is one of the gems of the region and is critical in connecting the northern and southern forests.

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For those who are interested the Algonquin to Adirondacks Conservation Association website is here, and a map is below:

Algonquin to Adirondacks Conservation Association map of the Frontenac Arch

Dispersal & Reid’s Paradox

The distribution of organisms in the environment is a particularly interesting subject.  We know that individual  representatives of the different kingdoms have specific requirements for establishment and growth.  We know this at an almost intuitive level and we apply this knowledge daily when we amend soils for our gardens, move houseplants into or out of the sun, and make sure our pets are fed and watered.  If we need more tomato plants, we go to the store and buy young ones or seeds and plant them, likewise we buy puppies, kittens, or fish for our homes, taking them with us when we move from place to place.  We rarely ask the question of how living creatures move about in the absence of humans.  How they disperse.

Fleabane species – note the dandelion-like seed heads

This is a problem all living things face, and they all solve it in slightly different ways.  Obviously, for mobile creatures, birds, reptiles, fish, mammals, insects, and all their cousins, this can be handled in a relatively straightforward fashion by simply getting up and going somewhere else.  Clearly there are particular variations on the theme.  Red Efts in New England are born in the water, stay there for a time, move onto land as non-breeding adolescents, then return to the water as breeding adults.  The majority of them don’t travel far, but a few adults find themselves in a different body of water than they started in, thus slowly expanding the range of the species.  Yes, legs are helpful.

Red Eft (Notophthalmus viridescens) in its adolescent dispersal stage

In earlier posts I have mentioned how some insects spend most of their life hidden from us, entering their highly visible state only to breed and find new territories.

It has long been recognized that our understanding of how plants, fungus, and all the traditionally non-mobile creatures disperse is poorly understood and very, very important.  In 1899 Clement Reid introduced what is now known as Reid’s Paradox in his marvelous book, The Origin of the British Flora.  Reid’s Paradox is more formally known as “Reid’s Paradox of Rapid Plant Migration”, an unwieldy, if accurate title.  Simply put, the paradox is that every measurement we take of plant seed dispersal indicates that range expansions and colonization of new areas should take place extremely slowly, but everywhere we look plants have colonized new areas far, far faster than all predictions indicate is possible.  By orders of magnitude in some cases.

Reid recognized this problem when trying to calculate how long it would take oak trees to colonize Britain once the glaciers left.  There was a tremendous mismatch in where oaks were and where they should have been.  In modern times this mismatch has been expanded to a wide variety of other species and, despite advances in dispersal calculations, we don’t really have a good answer for it even now.  We lump it under the heading “long distance dispersal” and leave it at that.  I will return to this.

With fungus the dispersal question is a bit easier to understand.

Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) fruiting bodies on a Hemlock tree

Two fungi of the same species meet and produce mushrooms (the sexual reproductive organ), scattering billions of spores smaller than dust particles that drift on the wind or in the water.  Except that fungi are really strange and ancient and have developed some special techniques for dispersal (EDIT:  Slime Molds have been removed from the fungal kingdom.  Now they are considered to be a polyphyletic group of protists representing convergent evolution from several origins.  A large branch of the slime mold group is closely related to amoeba).

Setting aside mobile slime-molds as a special case, the solution to dispersal that fungus use is one of numbers, astounding numbers, unbelievable numbers.  Only a very small portion of the released spores will disperse any great distance and an even smaller portion of the spores will germinate, but when you are dealing in the tens of billions even a small percentage can be a large number.

This, with some variation is the same answer to dispersal plants use, it’s a numbers game.  If a tree has a seed producing lifespan of 90 years and produces thousands of seeds each year and only 99.9% of the seeds never travel more than 100 feet from the tree that’s ok.  If the tree is living there, conditions are likely good, so it makes sense for most of the seeds to stay near home.  That 0.1%, well, who knows what odd event will carry the seed beyond that 100 foot (or whatever is is for that species) radius?  Storms and animals are common agents of long distance dispersal, as are humans now.

Plants are crafty though, they weigh the odds.  They may time the release of seeds to favorable environmental conditions.

Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) seeds in their hollow sheaths

Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) produces a dangling cluster of separate seeds, each individually packaged in its own balloon-like capsule.  Over time these seeds break loose and fall to the ground, similar to how grass seeds break from the rachis and fall to the ground when disturbed.  These seeds fall during winter, landing on the snow and blowing across the landscape, coming to rest in small hollows that also trap water and nutritious debris during spring melt.  Birch trees use this technique as well, blowing across the snow like grains of sand in a storm, as, to a lesser degree, does American Basswood (Tilia americana).

American Basswood (Tilia americana) seeds on snow

Another crafty plant technique to aid in dispersal is to hijack animals.  This is not much of a stretch for them, they already hijack animals for reproduction via pollination, but the ingenuity and range of techniques by which plants co-opt animals is truly astounding.  It is the kind of thing that really should, if you think about it, make you question who or what is actually in charge.

Phoresy is when one organism uses another to disperse.  Hitching rides on animals is a common version of phoresy plants employ.  It  is an extremely selfish and cheap way for plants to hijack animal legs or wings.  Seeds may have hooks, barbs, or be sticky, and the animals get no reward for helping the plant.  If plant times this right it may latch onto a migrating animal that may carry the seed hundreds or even thousands of miles.

A more targeted technique is to bribe the animal.

Lowbush Blueberries and Rock Polypody fern

Fruits (like the blueberry in the background of the image above) are sacrificial bribes for animals, like free drinks at a casino.  Often the fruits are targeted to specific animals or classes of animals.  The colors and smells let birds and beasts know when the fruit is safe to eat (meaning, when the seeds will survive a passage through the animal’s digestive system).  Just as with flowers, specific colors and odors are targeted at specific animals or suites of animals.  Certain plants have been very successful in hijacking humans for their purposes.

Also, notice the developing spores on the fern frond.

In some cases the plant simply sacrifices a portion of the seeds themselves so that a few may survive.  Oaks are a classic example of this.  Woodpeckers, blue-jays, chipmunks, and squirrels will cache acorns in a variety of places like leprechauns with pots of gold.  Some of these caches will be forgotten and will sprout.  This is why, in some areas, you may find 3 or 4 oak trees growing from a rock-pile all joined at the base.  Most likely they were separate seeds in a single food cache.  Again, oaks games the system by slowly dropping seed production year after year, then mast fruiting, producing an overabundance of food, far more than the now decreased animal population can possibly eat.

Wind and water are effective distributors as well, maples, coconuts, dandelions, and mangroves all use one or another of these techniques.  In most cases seeds don’t travel far, but in rare occurrences wind or water will carry seeds tremendous distances, and all it takes is that one or two times.

Right now the question of long distance dispersal and Reid’s Paradox is experiencing a revival in light of climate change.  Tree species in New England are moving north rapidly, and whole populations of plants and animals are moving away from the equator rapidly as well.  Others are climbing up or down mountains depending on whether temperature or moisture is the limiting factor.  If we want to know what the future holds we need to understand these action better than we currently do.

This hardly does justice to the complexity of methods and techniques used for dispersal, but it opens the door.

Canada Geese and goslings