Italian Wall Lizards and Rapid Evolution

The last few years have been busy but have brought with them an opportunity to travel and to learn about new places, but little time to write.  Each year I spend a bit of time in Europe and extend my work trips to include a bit of time off.  Usually these trips are centered on Germany but I try to visit a few more places and in 2015 I had the opportunity to spent a few weeks in northern and central Italy.

A number of things caught my attention, for example how Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) has become invasive in much of Europe but especially in northern Italy, how different the color pattern of the Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix) is to what I’m used to seeing in the Americas or Asia, the deep similarity of vegetation assemblages and species to those in North America occupying similar habitats, and, of course, the fantastic views and towns perched on hills or nestled into narrow canyons, like Riomaggiore.

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Riomaggiore, one of the Cinque Terre, in La Spezia

Of the things I saw in Italy there is one I’d like to focus on for this post.  It is a small, common lizard, often overlooked.

The Cinque Terre coast is very similar to parts of the California coastal chaparral and dry coastal forests, so it was no surprise to find lizards sunning themselves on the trails, hiding in the stone walls of the terraced vineyards, and rustling through the oak, laurel, and chestnut leaf duff layer.  Lizards are funny beasts, sometimes bold as you please standing on their rocks as though they own the world, other times bolting at the bend of a blade of grass.  Unfortunately, these lizards were wary and fled my approach, leaving me with only vague, scaly impressions of what they looked like.

It was in Florence where I finally saw one of the little fellows clearly.  I’d had enough of the noise and crowds and escaped to the Boboli Gardens, where I paid a bit more attention to the plants than I did to the impressive array of statuary.  Near a hedge a slight twitch amongst the dried leaves caught my eye and revealed itself to be a beautiful small green lizard with black and tan patterning sunning itself on a bed of withered sycamore leaves.  It was almost done shedding its skin and the colors were vivid.

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Italian Wall Lizard (Podarcis sicula subsp. ?) in the Boboli Gardens, Florence

This is, of course, the Italian Wall Lizard (Podarcis sicula), a highly adaptable small lizard native to Italy and nearby regions.  This not an endangered or even rare species, on the contrary, it is quite common within its range, and its adaptability has led to the development of at least 62 recognized subspecies.  I did not know any of this when I first encountered the species, but something about it seemed familiar.  It wasn’t until I came across several more of them in Bracciano and had the time to identify them that the niggling sense of familiarity clicked.

In 1971 scientists transplanted 10 individuals of this species (5 breeding pairs) from the island of Pod Kopište to Pod Mrčaru, Croatia, a small island; only a few hundred meters long on its longest axis; with a resident population of a different lizard species, the Dalmatian Wall Lizard (Podarcis melisellensis) .  The goal of this experiment was to test competitive exclusion in island biogeography theory.

Pod Mrčaru map.jpg

Unfortunately the 1970s were a troubled time for that part of Europe and Yugoslavia began its fragmentation into what are now Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Macedonia.  Trouble mounted through the 1970s and in 1980 Josip Broz Tito died, opening up a power vacuum exacerbated by ongoing ethnic conflicts.  It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the dust more-or-less settled.

The long lasting conflicts in the region put a halt to the experiments of Eviatar Nevo  and his team on  Pod Kopište and Pod Mrčaru.  The lizards, of course, were undisturbed by the commotion of the excitable bipeds and the tiny island was left undisturbed until about 2004 when tourism was allowed in the area. Researchers returned to the island shortly afterward.

To the researcher’s surprise, they found that the initial 10 introduced Italian Wall Lizards had increased to a population of over 5,000 and that the native Dalmatian Wall Lizard was now locally extinct.

Further investigation revealed the real shocker; in the brief time the island had been left alone, some 30 lizard generations (abut 36 years), the introduced Italian Wall Lizards lizards had undergone profound evolutionary changes.

This is what had been tickling the back of my mind when I saw that first lizard in the garden of Florence.  Long before my trip to Italy I had seen a documentary discussing the rapid and unexpected changes these lizards had undergone.  I must have remembered the morphology of the lizard, but had lost the connection of that particular lizard to the documentary.  I can’t find the original video I saw, but there is a Richard Dawkins video on the subject:

Italian Wall Lizards are primarily insectivores, but in their new habitat they changed to become primarily herbivores.  For a omnivore like us this doesn’t seem to be a startling thing, we regularly shift back and forth between different types of foods, sometimes craving meat, other times preferring vegetables and many people make long-term dietary commitments to avoiding animal products entirely while other cultures have traditionally had a diet consisting almost entirely of animal products.  We are large animals and have evolved to be generalist gourmands.

For the lizards this switch is not so simple.  Plant matter needs time to ferment and break down to make digestion possible.  Plant matter can be extremely tough, requiring more effort to consume.  The shift from eating insects to eating plants is akin to shifting from eating exclusively fast food to eating primarily home-cooked meals.  Before you just ate what you bought, but now you need a working kitchen and utensils for preparing and cooking the food.

The introduced lizards developed a host of traits to aid in the consumption of tough plant matter; cecal valves (muscles that separate the large and small intestine, slowing down food digestion and effectively creating fermentation chambers – a bit like ruminates with their multiple stomach compartments-, allowed them to process the tough plant cellulose), larger, stronger jaws and bigger muscles to assist in the harvesting plant matter, changes in head morphology, and an over-all larger body size.

These changes may not seem like much, but they’ve been likened to humans evolving a new appendix in only a few hundred years.

Interestingly, the changes in food supply also changed the social behavior of the Italian Wall Lizards, leading them to be less territorial.

Changes in general should not come as a surprise considering the variability of Podarcis sicula.  After all there are some 62 subspecies of this lizard.  Even the between the individuals I saw in Florence and Bracciano there appear to be differences in head shape, color, and patterning.

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Comparison between Italian Wall Lizards (Podarcis sicula) in Florence and Bracciano

What is surprising is how rapidly major evolutionary changes took place.  We tend to view evolution as a gradual process taking place over millennia with changes taking place so gradually that they are almost unnoticeable in human relevant timescales.  We know this is not true, but this view is so prevalent that it forms the backbone for one of the common critiques of evolution by those so inclined. Here we have a lovely example of evolution in action on a human relevant timescale. Better yet, it is an unexpected change, one that could well lead to a new species developing, if given enough time.

This is the largest change seen in this species, but it is far from the only case.  Italian Wall Lizards have been introduced in Turkey, Spain, and the US.  One of their populations in the US in New York, where they were introduced in 1966 or ’67 (most likely via the pet trade) has revealed an interesting an unexpected adaptation.  In the home range of the Italian Wall Lizard the temperatures rarely drop below about -7C and do not remain cold for prolonged periods.  As a result the lizards are active throughout the year with only brief periods of inactivity.  In New York, however, temperatures can drop to -20C and remain below freezing for extended periods.  It turns out that these robust little reptiles have a hidden ability and can supercool themselves and hibernate through the colder months in New York, a behavior not seen in their native range.

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Italian Wall Lizard (Podarcis sicula) in Bracciano outside the Italian Air Force Museum

It is easy to overlook the little things and to take the common things for granted, but it is often those very things that open our eyes and our minds to greater understanding of the world around us.

These humble little lizards provide a window into evolution and adaptability, a window that might never have been noticed if not for the happenstance of a lost experiment carried out decades prior.

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The first month on Cat Ba Island – getting my bearings

My apologies for the long gap between posts, life has been a bit busy.

I recently began a new position in Vietnam, on Cat Ba Island to be specific.  My first impressions are that this is a damp and precipitous landscape.  I have not seen the sun since I arrived in Vietnam on March 4th.  For Cat Ba Island this means a riotous profusion of greenery tempered by the steep terrain and lack of soil.

Where the northern end of the road terminates

Where the northern end of the road terminates

This is a land where Ymir’s bones lie close to the surface, broken and weathered, their calcium leaking back into the waters from which these precipitous cliffs rise.  The geology is the first thing that strikes you here.  The cliffs have been weathered by millions of years of rain, the ever-so-slightly acid rainwater eating into the ancient limestone creating a mature karst landscape.  Like bones, coral, and seashells, limestone is primarily made up of calcium carbonate, which in other forms makes marble and dolomite.  This is probably one of the reasons this is a place where snail diversity is immense, ranging from tiny frilled creatures more akin to limpets to giant land snails, many of which are still unknown to science.  Snails need lots of calcium to make their shells.

Unknown frill terrestrial snail

Unknown frilly terrestrial snail

Land snail shells collected around the office - and a wasp nest

Land snail shells collected around the office – and a wasp nest

The banded limestone found here is a relic of abundant diatom (a type of plankton) skeletons laid down five hundred million yeas ago and subjected to the vagaries of time.  Limestone, while soft to the chisel and hammer, is a remarkably durable stone at the macro-scale, one of the reasons climbers like it, but at a chemical level it is easily weathered.  We are often told that water has a pH of 7, that is it neutral.  Natural rainwater, we then assume, should also have a pH of 7, but it is closer to 5.6 due to the dissolution of carbon dioxide into the water making carbonic acid.  A pH of 5.6 is about as acidic as a cucumber or an onion for comparison.  Of course, other environmental factors can reduce this tremendously, leading to extremely acidic rain.  Rain falling on the limestone erodes small channels in the rock that look like thumbprints in wet clay.

Rainwater erosion on limestone

Rainwater erosion on limestone

Eventually these concentrate water flow, carving small holes in the stone reducing it to a swiss-cheese like structure with an extremely jagged and sharp exposed surface.  These little caves connect into larger caves.  In these protected, damp environments bacteria grow, exuding waste products and creating hydrogen sulfide that mixes with the water and makes a weak sulfuric acid, increasing the chemical weathering.  This cycle persists, eventually leading to enormous caves.

The airflow in these caves evaporates the mineral rich water tricking through the now porous stone and the calcium carbonate re-solidifies into stalagmites, stalactites, soda straws, and any number of strangely beautiful and complex cave structures.

Caves often form in weak portions of the stone and, eventually, gravity takes its toll and the weakened rocks collapse leaving behind steep spires and fields of slowly eroding boulders.

Limestone spi

Limestone spire in the north end of Cat Ba Island

Cat Ba and Ha Long Bay are examples of a drowned karst landscape, a mature karst landscape that has been flooded by rising waters.  What little soil does form is washed down into the many bays, coves, and channels of the region, leaving little for plants to sink roots into.  In the shallow waters of the bays mangroves find nutrients, in abundance.  Here mangroves are near the northern margin of their range, their numbers restricted and the trees short, making low dense forests.

Gray mangroves on the south western side of the island

Gray mangroves (Avicennia marina) on the south western side of the island

As in many places, the mangroves are in trouble here, often cut down to make shrimp farms.  This leads to reduction in local fisheries, increased erosion, and lack of protection from storm surges and tsunamis.  The local government is taking steps to protect what remains and to, potentially, restore some of the previous mangrove forests.  In the rich mud of the mangrove regions there are numerous animals, among them one of my favorites, mudskippers, amphibious fish that hop about in the mud protecting their little territories.

Mudskipper amongst mangrove roots

Mudskipper amongst mangrove roots

On the cliffs however there are few nutrients and plants grow in what cracks and declivities they can find.  As per many islands there are a number of endemic species, here one of the most commonly seen ones is the Ha Long Cycad (Cycas tropophylla), an ancient type of gymnosperm that looks like a cross between a fern and a palm tree.

Ha Long Cycad (Cycas tropophylla), endemic to a 400km square area, globally rare, locally abundant

Ha Long Cycad (Cycas tropophylla), endemic to a 400 square km area, globally rare, locally abundant

The season here is shifting into spring and some of the trees have begun blooming, among them the hoa gạo or Cotton Tree (Bombax ceiba), so named for the kapok-like fibers that are found in the seed pod.

Hoa Gạo (Bombax ceiba), Cotton Tree in English.  The Vietnamese name translates to "Rice Flower"

Hoa Gạo (Bombax ceiba), Cotton Tree in English. The Vietnamese name translates to “Rice Flower”

 

I still have not seen the little primates I came here to work with, they are few in number and they clamber about on the vertical cliffs like, well, monkeys.

Soon though.

A Long Flight over the Canadian Shield

Recently I flew from Istanbul to Los Angeles, following a great-circle route over Ukraine, Norway, Greenland, and Northern Canada.  As I always do when flying, I got a window seat and spent most of the flight peering out the window, developing a crick in my neck that took several days to loosen.

Much of the European and Greenland portions of the flight were shrouded in clouds, leaving me watching a vast expanse of what looked like glowing cotton.  Occasionally patches would open in the clouds and I would catch a brief glimpse of the land or sea below, and a look at one of the most talked about ecosystems on our planet.

Ice floes on the Arctic Ocean

Ice floes on the Arctic Ocean

The northern polar region, the Arctic.  This is a vast region centered on the bath-tub-like basin of the Arctic Ocean.  Discussing directions in the polar regions is tricky, for in the arctic, pretty much every direction that is not north is south, thus geography is a better indication of location than compass points.  On one side the entryway to the Arctic Ocean is narrow, shallow, and flows over the ancient land-bridge that once connected North America and Asia.  On the other side warm water flows up the Atlantic Ocean to the east of Greenland, keeping Europe warm and pushing the ice away from the Norwegian coast.  This is the primary point of water-flow into the Arctic Ocean.

To the west of Greenland a network of channels in the Queen Elizabeth Islands lets water slowly filter out of the basin, trickling back into the Atlantic via the southern opening of Baffin Bay.  Amongst the islands fierce currents keep polynyas open in the ice, providing open water for eider ducks and other sea-birds that over-winter in the Arctic.  Generally the whales will leave the Arctic during winter, but sometimes they become trapped and these polynyas provide the only places they can find air to breath.

Since we have been keeping records the sea ice extent has been getting smaller and smaller.  Records of sea ice extent and other cold-weather data can be found free of charge at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Several years ago, as part of a graduate project on Ringed Seals I looked at the changes in ice extent for the month of April over the last 30 years.  The photo of the broken sea ice above was taken on the eastern side of Greenland, a place where the sea-ice is extremely variable.

1981 - 2010 April Sea Ice Extent:  Darker colors indicate a greater number of years of coverage, lighter colors, fewer years of coverage

1981 – 2010 April Sea Ice Extent: Darker colors indicate a greater number of years of coverage, lighter colors, fewer years of coverage – green indicates areas outside of ice-cover that are shallow enough to provide foraging areas for Ringed Seals

The little flashes of ice I got to see through the grubby Turkish Airlines plane window were tantalizing, but they were only teases.  The interesting views were to come later, as we passed over the Canadian Shield.

Flying over over the Melville Peninsula, looking east to Foxe Basin... I think

Flying over over the Melville Peninsula, looking east to Foxe Basin… I think

Here, over the Canadian Shield, a 3 million square mile (8 million square kilometer) expanse of heavily weathered, exposed bedrock billions of years old the signs of past glaciation are evident.  Not merely evident, the fossil tracks of vast continental glaciers shout their presence to the sky.  Fortunately, I happened to be in the sky, with a camera at the ready.

There is a common misconception about glaciers.  People have heard that glaciers carve channels into the bedrock and grind down mountains.  This is only partially true.  Ice is not very hard, by itself ice can carve channels into rock the hardness of chalk or talc, but not into tough rocks like granite, the rock much of the Canadian Shield is composed of.  Ice levers out whole boulders and picks up loose material where it lies.  These become embedded in the ice and these are what does the scouring and carving.  The ice provides the weight and movement, much like a person provides the force when sanding or filing a piece of wood or metal, but it is the sandpaper or the file that does the actual cutting.

Ice, when it comes in glacier quantities, is an elasto-plastic material.  The upper surfaces are brittle and crack, making crevasses and seracs, but the deeper ice, down below the 50 meter mark, is more akin to a slow, cold silly-putty than to the brittle thing we put in lemonade.  When the ice is kilometers deep it oozes, flowing like spilled molasses over the land, dragging with it the entrained materials, grinding down high points, smoothing jagged surfaces, and hollowing out U-shaped valleys, leaving behind a stream-lined surface replete with the marks of its passage.

Rocky Mountain Trench in the Canadian Rockies - a classic glacially carved valley

Rocky Mountain Trench in the Canadian Rockies – a classic glacially carved valley

In both photos above the U-shaped valleys are clear.  These valleys come in all sizes, some more impressive than others.  The Rocky Mountain Trench in British Columbia is one of the more impressive ones, as is the Gilkey Trench in South-East Alaska.

The Gilkey Trench, the speck in the foreground is a person and each of the ripples in the bottom is 10 meters high

The Gilkey Trench, the speck in the foreground is a person and each of the ripples in the bottom is 10 meters high

These valleys are often found in mountains, places where the glaciers ground out material between the peaks, but left the high places alone.

Billions of years ago the Canadian Shield used to be home to vast mountains, now they are all gone, only their roots remain.  Erosion from various sources and repeated glaciations have scoured the Canadian Shield over and over again, grinding even the great mountains into low mounds, leaving traces that are best seen from the air.

Exposed bedrock showing fault-lines and ancient mountain cores

Exposed bedrock showing fault-lines and ancient mountain cores

The long, straight lines are old fault lines, places where geologic stresses broke the rock and let it slide against itself.  Here the rock is already damaged and the glaciers excavated long channels that look like canals from the air.  The distorted oval in the lower middle of the photo is where a bubble of rock forced its way up in the distant past, creating a mountain or large hill.  Now it has been ground flat and shows up in the surface pattern, much like cut wood shows the pattern of knots and grain despite being smooth to the touch.

Over much of the Canadian Shield soils are shallow to non-existent.  Even south of the tree-line vast areas are sparsely vegetated for lack of soil.  Roads are difficult to make as the land is smooth only at large scale and it is riddled with lakes and rivers.

In the winter the smoothest parts of the Canadian Shield are the lakes themselves and they are where temporary roads are made.

A road on the frozen lakes to the north of Yellowknife

A road on the frozen lakes to the north of Yellowknife

The last major glaciation was relatively recent, only about 20,000 years ago and the land is still recovering from the effects.  The whole Canadian Shield is undergoing isostatic rebound; with the weight of the up to 3 miles (almost 5 kilometers) of ice coming off the Earth’s crust it is now rising, seeking a new equilibrium as it floats on the liquid rock mantle deep beneath the surface.  Rivers and lakes are draining, the courses sometimes shifting as the land rises, carving out new pathways.  Water, like the ice it came from, does not do the work of carving the rock, it is the sediment it carries, but the Canadian Shield is made of hard stuff and it takes time to carve new channels in this durable granite.

Meandering rivers in glacial sediment

Meandering rivers in glacial sediment

Further south, the land is still flat, but has been overlain by a layer of sediment, left behind as the glaciers retreated.  Here rivers carve into the land more easily, looping back and forth and pinching off sections of themselves.  These oxbow lakes and the irregular rocky ones to the north are home to untold numbers of mosquitoes and other insects with aquatic life-phases.  These insects, when they emerge, lure birds from as far away as the southern hemisphere, and the mosquitoes become the bane of any humans wandering in the vastness of northern Canada during the warm season.  These insects, both adult and larval provide feed for numerous fish, making this an excellent place for fishing.  The first time my family and I drove to Alaska much of our food was from fish we caught each evening after only a few minutes with a line in the water.

The glaciers that covered the Canadian Shield were continental in scale.  There are only a few places where vast sheets of ice like that remain, but many places (for now) where small alpine glaciers are present, and even more places where signs of past glaciation are common.

One of the most famous of the post-glacial relics is Half Dome in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.

Half Dome

Half Dome

The last interesting views I had out the window of my plane were of Half Dome, or Tis-sa-ack in the local native language.  This sheer rock-face is a batholith, a granite upwelling often making the core of a mountain.  Despite its appearance, Half Dome was not split in half, it seems to have formed more or less in the shape it has now.  Glaciers have smoothed and rounded the upper surface and carved out the characteristic U-shaped valley below though.

Glaciers have had a far larger impact on the world than most people realize.  Humans reached Australia some 60,000 years ago, able to walk over-land all the way to where Bali is now, needing boats only for a short stretch from Bali to Lubok.  Fifteen thousand years ago people walked from Siberia to Alaska over a broad grassy plain when the sea level was some 300 feet (91 meters) lower than today as a result of the water locked up in the ice.

When Greenland and Antarctica melt (which they will eventually do with or without our presence, the only difference is when it happens) sea level will rise by some 200 feet (67 meters) above present day levels.  At the moment there is a lot of talk of halting climate change via geo-engineering projects.  This is talk that completely and painfully misses the point.

The climate is a dynamic system, one that experiences wide changes over long periods of time, with the changes sometimes happening rapidly.  Yes, we desperately need to stop messing with the climate by releasing fossil CO2, methane, CFCs, and all the other greenhouse gasses we pump into the atmosphere with such abandon.  We are pushing the natural changes hard, forcing them to be of greater magnitude and to happen faster than they would otherwise.  We need to stop this, but what we do not need to and should not do is compound our mistakes by dumping iron into the oceans, pumping sulfur into the upper atmosphere, or place orbiting mirrors in space to deflect sunlight in a misguided attempt to keep the climate the way it was during the early 1900s.

We are driven by our economic system to keep things in some idealized stasis based on the time when we built our current infrastructure.  We may want things to stay static, but the earth is dynamic and fluid.  In our short-sighted, profit driven efforts to “save” our political and economic systems we will destroy the very thing that those systems and our societies are based on.

Seeing the earth from new perspectives and thinking about what we see tells us about the world is important.  We are on a cusp, we are standing on the edge of our metaphorical Half Dome.  We can tumble off the steep edge with disastrous consequences, or we can ease our way back down the slightly less steep slope, and once more enjoy the rich valley floor below.

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

Into the forest at Lubuk Baji – Part 1: Hikes and Honey

The small Indonesian town of Sukadana, where I was to be living and working, is surrounded by Gunung Palung National Forest on a bit more than 3 sides and the ocean on the fourth.  The town rests in a small valley, and like many of the towns I saw in Borneo, it sits in the middle of what was once a mangrove estuary.

The hills surrounding the town are within the national park and supply the water that fills the estuary and the water that provides drinking water to the local population.

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 named Lubuk Baji

The harbor sits at the mouth of the estuary and had been cleared and hard-banked to support buildings and boats.

Sukadana Harbor

Sukadana Harbor

Like many such places there is tension concerning how to manage the local environmental resources, some want the hills taken out of the national park system so that they can be logged, others realize their value in maintaining the water table and wish to keep them protected in some fashion, others have different concerns.  Concerns focused more on biodiversity, especially of the large, rare local primates and of the incredible diversity of plants, insects, and animals in the region.

In general, the hills surrounding Sukadana are simply called the Sukadana Hills, but, as in most places, each place has a particular and specific name as well.  To the east of the town is a larger hill called Lubuk Baji.

The road there is narrow and bumpy, a raised affair passing between the numerous “wallet” houses, large buildings put up to house formerly cave dwelling swifts, the nests of which are harvested for bird’s nest soup.  The road passes through wet-rice fields and finally comes to an abrupt termination at a partially collapsed (or unfinished) brick building next to a shallow dam that keeps the flow of water from the hills to a judiciously controlled amount.  Behind the dam rice fields and coconut trees rest a the base of the Lubuk Baji hills.

Below the hills of Lubuk Baji lie coconut palms, rice paddies, and a small dam

Below the hills of Lubuk Baji lie coconut palms, rice paddies, and a small dam

The at the base of the hills surrounding Sukadana are groves of partially domesticated durian trees that we had heard the orangutan were visiting in search of the strong smelling ripe fruit.  For those of you who have never had durian, this is a large spiky fruit that a pungent odor that some liken to old socks and others to rich, sweet cream.  The texture of the fruit is like stringy custard and the flavor varies from person to person, ranging from a deep, lemony custard to green onions, to sweat soaked T-shirt armpit.  Those who like the fruit love it, and those who dislike it tend to hate it.  I am one of the few people who falls in the middle ground, to me the fruit is tasty, the texture and smell inoffensive, but I can’t see why such a big deal is made of it when there are fruits like mangosteen in the area.

Eating fresh, semi-wild durian in the Indonesian rainforest

Eating fresh, semi-wild durian in the Indonesian rainforest

The hike up to the top of Lubuk Baji was not difficult, though it was hot, humid, and steep.  At times we could smell orangutan, we found edible fruit dropped by these large primates, and several times we spotted their broken branch sleeping nests high above us in the canopy, but we did not see any orangutan.

There were a variety of interesting things to see other than primates along the way.

One of the most interesting to me was the remains of a honey harvesting operation.  The bees in this part of the world are large and make big, exposed honeycombs.  The heat is so great that the wax is in danger of melting, so the place the hives high in the trees hanging from the bottom of large branches where there is a breeze and they are sheltered from the sun.  The bees stand on the exposed comb and fan air over the wax with their wings when extra cooling in necessary.  The bees are usually fierce enough to chase away any animals seeking their honey, but humans have a particular love of sweet things and harvest the honey when they can.

This is a dangerous process as the bees pick only certain mature tree species.  These special trees are carefully protected by the humans and climbed when the honey is ready to harvest.  The hive may be 150 feet (30 meters) or more above the ground and the trunks of these trees are smooth and unbranched until the canopy.

Bamboo ladder hammered into the tree rising more than 50 meters into the canopy

Bamboo ladder hammered into the tree rising more than 50 meters into the canopy

Bamboo stakes are pounded into the tree and a set of bamboo canes is tied to the stakes with rattan strips, making a narrow and dangerous ladder to the canopy.  The lumps in on the tree in the photo are scars from a previous ladder put up perhaps 40 or more years ago.

At the top of the ladder the branches spread and the remains of old honeycomb can be seen clinging to the bottom of the branches from which it was harvested.

The reamins of honeycomb on the bottom of the branches above the terminus of the ladder

The remains of the honeycomb look like yellow stains on the bottom of the branches.  To the right the bees are building a new hive.

I was tempted to try climbing the ladder, but it seemed like a bad idea… no safety gear, uncertain footing, and a long climb up.  The people who climb up to harvest the honey must cope with those problems while being attacked by angry bees, carrying baskets and harvesting poles, and breathing smoke from fires lit below, the smoke of which is supposed to help confuse and stupefy the bees.

On the ground was an old piece of honeycomb, long since emptied of the tasty honey.

Old honeycomb, about 1 foot long (30 cm) long the long axis

Old honeycomb, about 1 foot long (30 cm) long the long axis

Coming up: Part 2 – seeing apes and monkeys in the forest.

Pontianak to Sukadana: through the mangroves at high speed

It has been a while since I’ve written a new post.  Quite a bit has happened in the last few weeks, the key bit being that the position in Borneo has fallen apart on me unexpectedly shortly after arriving in Indonesia.

Despite the unexpected disappointment there was a lot to see and experience.  I last left off in Pontianak, a rough and tumble Indonesian city in West Kalimatan, a hardy workman’s city perched on the borders of one of the largest rivers in Borneo.  The name, Pontianak, refers to a specific type of vampire, a woman who died in childbirth, a somewhat strange thing to name a city after.

Boats and buildings line the riverside in Pontianak

Boats and buildings line the riverside in Pontianak

To get from Pontianak to Sukadana one may either take a round-about bus that runs over poorly maintained roads and may not make it during the rainy season, or a boat that races through broad channels in the mangrove swamp.  The slow boat takes more than a day and the speedboat takes between 5 and 6 hours, more if either of the two massive outboard engines are damaged by the numerous floating logs in the water or fouled by vegetation, old fishing nets, or garbage.

Speedboat returning to Pontianak from Sukadana

Speedboat returning to Pontianak from Sukadana

I had been expecting the boat to head out into the ocean and run down the coast.  I was pleasantly surprised that the route ran along the interior channels of the Kapuas River delta  instead.

Inland route from Pontianak to Sukadana.  Roughly 130-140 miles along the winding channels through the mangrove forest

Inland route from Pontianak to Sukadana. Roughly 130-140 miles along the winding channels through the mangrove forest

Mangroves are one of the most mysterious and interesting ecosystems to me, perhaps because I have spent so little time in them and because there are so few intact mangrove forests left in the world.  In terms of carbon sequestration mangroves are one of the most effective ecosystems for carbon storage.  Mangroves are the nursery for many species of fish and crustaceans, and protect coastal areas from storm surges and tsunamis.

The center for diversity of mangroves is in South East Asia where there are some 40 or so tree species from a variety of families that all have adopted the “mangrove” lifestyle.  Trees falling into the general category of mangroves share a number of features despite coming from different families; some form of air-breathing apparatus on the roots (stilts, knees, aerial roots, root spikes that lift above the mud, etc), high tolerance to salt, and floating fruits/seeds.

One of the more interesting plants in the mangrove forest is the Nipa Palm (Nypa fruticans).

Nipa Palms (Nypa fruticans) growing along the banks of the river delta

Nipa Palms (Nypa fruticans) growing along the banks of the river delta

This palm is unusual in several ways.  It often grows in areas where the trunk is completely submerged for long periods, making me wonder how it establishes itself in the first place.  This in and of itself is only mildly remarkable, what is truly odd is that the trunk is horizontal, growing underground, parallel to the surface, with all the greenery visible comprised of individual fronds acting as mini-trees growing from a single stalk.  In some ways the growth habit of this palm is more like that of a fern than a palm.

The fruits form in a large round mass, a little bigger than a basketball, divided into fist-sized floating seeds that break off and float away, sometimes germinating while still afloat.  The flower stalks are rich in sugar and this is one of the palms used to make palm sugar, a laborious process akin to making maple sugar, but limited to collecting sap from the flower stalks rather than tapping the tree.  Some studies indicate that this palm has a promising potential for biofuel production, but the process of cultivating or collecting enough to make this feasible would spell ecological devastation for immense regions of sensitive and already threatened habitat.

Mangrove forests are one of the most imperiled and under appreciated ecosystems in the world.  They are limited to tropical and near tropical regions.

Mangrove forest distribution from Charter Science

Many of the great tropical fisheries of the world owe their existence to mangrove forests; they provide nursery grounds for many aquatic species.  When mangrove forests are cleared to make room for development or for the shrimp farms that feed the developed nation’s voracious consumption of shrimp and prawns, these fish nurseries wither away, taking with them the tropical fisheries hundreds of millions of people rely on for their primary source of dietary protein.

Mangrove forests are found in low-lying, flat areas, areas subject to immense tidal run-ups, storm surges, and, in earthquake prone regions, areas where tsunamis can travel great distances inland.  The presence of mangroves acts as a buffer to these great movements of water, protecting both inland environments and human settlements.

In Southeast Asia the mangrove forests themselves provide a number of immediate resources for local people, including food, building supplies, medicines, and protected navigable waterways.

Local fellow collecting vegetation from the mangrove forest

Local fellow collecting vegetation from the mangrove forest

As in all areas people must make a living.  For some the only option is land clearing, whether for agriculture or timber.  In the Indonesian mangrove forests land is cleared for rice agriculture, aquaculture, and logging, primarily illegal.  Logging in this area is an enormous problem.  Large rafts of logs are often seen moored on the banks of the rivers and small-scale loggers carry short logs to local mills.

A small two person logging operation bringing palm logs home

A small two person logging operation bringing palm logs home

A larger logging operation bringing intermediate sized hardwood logs into the mill

A larger logging operation bringing intermediate sized hardwood logs into the mill

People fishing from a large raft of hardwood logs floated down from the interior forests

People fishing from a large raft of hardwood logs floated down from the interior forests

Nearly all the current logging in Indonesia is illegal.  The legal logging concessions have been cleared, in many cases converted to palm oil agriculture.  New land is legally cleared for palm oil, but current regulations prohibit the felled wood from being sold, thus this wood is often destroyed, resulting in an increased spread of illegal logging.

It is a cycle difficult to break.

In these areas dry land is a rare commodity and whole villages rest on stilts rising over the rivers and soggy ground.  Boats and motorcycles are the primary methods of transport, motorcycles being driven over narrow plank walkways with a casualness that makes the uninitiated cringe and wonder how many motorcycles lie in the mud at the bottom of the river.

Midday conversation on a stilt-village

Midday conversation on a stilt-village

The trip from Pontianak to Sukadana took a little more than 5 hours, an exhilarating 5 hours spent zipping through wide channels amongst one of the more interesting and briefly glimpsed ecosystems it has been my privilege to view first-hand.  I desperately want to go back to a diverse mangrove forest and spend months at a time clambering about, exploring and learning how it functions, but that will now have to wait until some undefined time in the future.

For this job in Indonesia I sold many of my things, put the rest in storage, spent a lot of money I would not have otherwise spent, and tossed my life in the blender with the assurance that the next step on my career path was well and firmly in hand.  Instead of an interesting and tasty life-shake emerging from the blender, the blender was casually and abruptly knocked off the counter, leaving my plans and work spread across the metaphorical floor in a sticky mess from which I am now attempting to salvage what I can.

Back to the job hunt, back to evaluating my life choices, back to laughing at the impracticality of my dreams.

Despite all, I had an opportunity few ever have and was able to see things most never even think about.  For that I am grateful.

Make the jump, take the risk.  If you make that leap you don’t know where you will land, but if you don’t nothing interesting will ever happen.

From Madrid to Kuching: new places, new sights, & oil palm plantations

I am nearly at my final destination. The little town of Sukadana in West Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) is only two more hops away, either a flight or bus ride, followed by a speedboat ride down the west coast of Borneo, a ride that passes through mangrove swamps and over muddy sea water.

At the moment I am in the city of Kuching (Cat City), in Sarawak, Malaysia. The Indonesian border is to the south and east, not far way, hidden by mountains and clouds. The province takes its name from the slow moving Sarawak river that runs through Kuching. As you might imagine, this part of the world is heavily boat centered.

River boat on the Sarawak in Kuching, Malyasia

River boat on the Sarawak in Kuching, Malyasia

The trip from Madrid to Kuching was an extension of the now ludicrous collection of hiccups, trials, and frustrations that have ridden on my coat-tails ever since I was nearly prevented from boarding the plane from Los Angeles to Madrid. Fortunately, these obstructions have only added spice to an unexpectedly fantastic voyage so far, full of delightful surprises, wonderful people, excellent food, and meat for a rich assortment of unbelievable stories.

I took Qatar Airways from Madrid, paying more in baggage fees than for my ticket (moving over-seas has even more unexpected expenses than regular moves do), caught the sunset from 35,000 feet over North Africa, a glowing pink/purple-amber layer of clouds that swiftly fell into gray, then black, and changed planes in the Doha airport. The flight path dodged and jinked in order to stay out of, let’s say “difficult”, airspace.

Qatar Airways flight path from Madrid to Doha

Qatar Airways flight path from Madrid to Doha

From Doha to Kuala Limpur, through immigration, then on Malaysian Air to Kuching.

One of my first views of Malaysia was of the vast oil palm plantations surrounding the Kuala Limpur airport.

Oil palm plantations are increasingly wide-spread through South East Asia

Oil palm plantations are increasingly wide-spread through South East Asia

The world appetite for palm oil is vast and ever growing. China and India use it for cooking, the US and Europe use it in shampoos, hand lotions, and face creams. All over the world is is added to foods, often called “coconut oil”, an act of creative labeling.

Enormous regions of diverse tropical forests are logged, razed to the ground, and replanted in monoculture stands of oil palms, stands that reach to the horizon in many areas. As one might imagine, the once great biodiversity of these areas drops precipitously.

Processing oil from the oil palms is labor intensive, requiring machinery that locals cannot afford and the process is only effective at a large scale. Thus, any money that is made from the oil palm industry remains in the hands of the investors and wealthy, with a miniscule portion of it dripping down to the people whose homes and land have been taken and transformed.

This is one of the great conservation concerns for the well being of both the people and biodiversity of South East Asia.

The plane lifted swiftly from Kuala Limpur, hiding the oil palm plantations under a dense layer of clouds that thinned once over the waters of the South China Sea. Several hours later I had my first sight of Borneo, my new home.

Mt Santubong, a small coastal mountain in Sarawak

Mt Santubong, a small coastal mountain in Sarawak

Just near the small mountain of Santubong, lies a town, not unlike the town that will be my new home.

The small town of Kampung Buntal in Sarawak at the base of Mt Santubong

The small town of Kampung Buntal in Sarawak at the base of Mt Santubong

I avidly peered out the window of the plane, in that awkward combination of a hunch and twist that you are forced into to see out of the tiny, smudged plane windows.

The rivers fascinated me. This part of the world receives an astounding amount of rain and even short rivers are wide with tremendous volumes of flow. Enormous amounts of sediment are carried by the waters, turning the sea around much of Borneo the color of hot chocolate. Some of the rivers originate in the flat areas and are nearly back from tannins released by decomposing vegetation. Each of these rivers leaves a swirling mark where it enters the ocean, and all twist and meander on their way to the sea.

Deep meanders as the rivers approach the sea

Deep meanders as the rivers approach the sea

Kuching is the capital of Sarawak, the southernmost province of Malaysian Borneo. It is a low, wet city with rainfall approaching 4.5 meters a year (depending on what source you read). This makes it one of the wettest cities on the planet, this morning and last night the thunder was frequent, shaking the buildings, and the rain violent in its path to the ground.

The riverfront has a nice park with shade trees and wide walk-ways. The humidity and heat lends itself to a rich collection of plants, of which ferns are well represented. Most of the river-front trees have climbing ferns creeping up them, some trees are completely covered by them.

Climbing ferns covering a small tree on the Kuching waterfront

Climbing ferns covering a small tree on the Kuching waterfront

Ornamental stands of Lipstick Palm (Cyrtostachys renda) add color to the walkways.

Lipstick Palms (Cyrtostachys renda) are planted in small stands

Lipstick Palms (Cyrtostachys renda) are planted in small stands

Bronze river dragons guard the banks of the Sarawak.

River dragon

River dragon

And Chinese temples have their own collection of guardians as well.

Chinese dragon guarding a Buddhist temple

Chinese dragon guarding a Buddhist temple

The internet connection at my hotel is growing erratic, so I will pause here and continue with another entry later.

I will be in Kuching for several more days, then, if all goes well and there are no other complications, on to Indonesia for both work and language school.