Category Archives: Canopy Life

Contact

The internet is abuzz this morning with news that a previously undiscovered tribe has been found in the remote Javari Valley region of Brazil, on the Peruvian border. There are an estimated 70 “undiscovered” tribes left in the world, people who have not ever made contact with the civilized world — most of them from the Amazon rainforest of Western Brazil — and so the existence of even one more tribe is rare and exciting news. The last discovery of an uncontacted tribe came two years ago, when unknown Indians in Brazil came out of the trees to try to shoot down a government photographer’s plane with arrows.

Indiana Jones was for real.

Yesterday morning, I was video-chatting with a friend in Australia, where it was late at night. The other day, I ate plums that were grown in Chile. Lord knows which sea the fish I eat comes from, or what brown hand sews my shirts. As fond as we are of musing about our rapidly shrinking, ever more interconnected globe, it is important to remember that there are still people in the world who exist outside of both our economy and our knowledge. There are villages where no Coca-Cola t-shirts hang on laundry lines, no hunter runs the forest in Reeboks, where no white anthropologist plays with the children between notes in his orange book. These people are neither fighting with oil companies nor being taught how to grow sustainable shade-grown coffee by non-profit do-gooders. As far as we know, these uncontacted tribes have no idea that we, the rest of the world, exist. Civilizations have risen and fallen, monuments and cities have been built, been demolished, and regrown on the rubble; world wars have been fought and revolutions both violent and scientific, artistic, philosophical, and musical have shaken governments and their people; empires have stretched their tentacles into almost every crevice of the Earth. The Eighties happened. Beyonce recently dropped her hot new single. Man landed on the moon. But for a few villages in the Amazon, none of this is true. Their reality does not include us, or what we call “history.” Their world is still the fish at the end of the spear. It is the dragonfly and its god, the rainwater and the fruiting of the blue-flowered tree, and the one and only language.

We also know that we cannot contact these tribes, because of the risk of contagion. When the Matis people of Brazil made first contact with the government after years of avoiding them as an enemy, more than half the tribe died of pneumonia; a modern-world retelling of the story of thousands of European/Indian contacts throughout history. The recently-discovered tribe in the Vale do Javari will remain a mystery to us, and we to them; we may never learn their names or customs or language, nor gain their unique knowledge of their remote corner of the planet. In fact, because we will not attempt to contact them, nor the eight to two dozen other uncontacted species in the Javari, we’ll never be able to see their forest home nor the flora and fauna therein. This got me thinking: If we never make contact with the new tribe, what else will we never contact? Brazil is second only to Indonesia in number of endemic species, and the Amazon rainforest is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. It seems logical that there would be at least a dozen species endemic only to that region. The Unknown People know what they are. Can we, sight unseen?

Beautiful Metropolitan Downtown... Somewhere

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Stranglehold

Ficus. Its name is synonymous with low-maintenance, unobtrusive office plants. But in the wide Ficus genus, there are a few species of fig trees that are anything but tame. In fact, they have a predilection for death and domination. This story is about two distinctly different creatures whose lives are inextricably linked: the strangler fig and the fig wasp. It is a story about sex and murder in Florida. Mostly, it is a story about the mentality and biology of control. One of these partners-in-crime kills by slowly choking the life from its victims, and the other is its accomplice, furthering its domination of the forest with rape and incest. To be sure, you’ll never look at Fig Newtons the same way again.

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The Fish That Climb Trees

All children are essentially monkeys. Ever since I was tall enough to reach the lowermost branches of a tree and strong enough to swing myself up, arboreal life was the life for me. I remember climbing the mastheads of swaying pines, reading books in the crooked elbows of maples, and challenging myself to steal the most unreachable apples. I felt safer in trees; they seemed less like a high wire and more like a net to me. They held me safely out of sight of real siblings and imaginary enemies. They put me closer to the birds I loved. Throughout my childhood, I felt myself pulled up into the treetops by some plant magnetism, and pushed up there by some rambunctious animal urge.

I may need a boost.

I want to go to there.

When I went to college, I decided to study canopy ecology. And one of the things that sparked my interest was a story I heard from a professor about fish living in the trees. It went like this: when the Amazon River floods, the water level can rise enough to temporarily cover the lower branches of trees. Small fish, my professor told me, will sometimes lay their eggs in the submerged bromeliads on the tree branches, and when the floodwaters subside, the eggs hatch in a leafy fishbowl of water, replenished by rain and oxygenated by the plants themselves. Voila, fish in the trees.

Of course, I can find ZERO evidence to support this claim. And if fish ever do wind up imprisoned in tree branches, it would be by accident; after all, guppy fry in an epiphyte would soon make a nice snack for a hungry coati. But it turns out that there are a few fish in the world who head for the trees on purpose. Their existence challenges the public preconception about the definition of “fish,” and serves to help us understand the soul of a tree.

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Lemuria

This post isn’t about a lost, mythological animal. It’s about a lost, mythological continent.

The history of scientific thought is marked with many mythological and hypothetical places. Most famous and enduring is Plato’s lost continent of Atlantis, written about in his Timaeus and supposedly located in the ocean for which it’s named. Despite the odds that Atlantis was a parable designed to prove a philosophical point — this is Plato we’re talking about, after all — authors, adventurers, spiritualists and even some modern archaeologists have chosen to take the myth literally. The Pacific Ocean has its own mythological sunken continent of Mu, invented by French explorer Augustus Le Plongeon, who claimed to have teased the fact of its existence from hieroglyphs at the ruins of a Mayan temple. Le Plongeon claimed that descendents of Mu, fleeing the catastrophe in every direction, went on to found the empires of Egypt, Mesoamerica and India. Later fantasists connected the Mu diaspora with the cultures of Easter Island and New Zealand.

There was a third sunken continent proposed in the 19th century, this time located in the Indian Ocean. Its “discoverer” was neither a philosopher nor a deluded anthropologist, but a reasonably unromantic British ornithologist named Philip Sclater. It was a hypothetical continent proposed to answer a biogeographical mystery for which science had no answer yet: the inexplicable existence of prosimian primates in both Madagascar and the Indian subcontinent. Sclater called it Lemuria.

Biogeography, the study of why certain species live where they do, was Sclater’s forte. In 1858, he proposed six zoographical regions (Aethopian, Neotropical, Indian, Australasian, Palearctic and Nearctic) which are still used by biologists today to describe zones of life. He collected nine thousand bird specimens, wrote several indispensable books of natural history, and founded The Ibis, the official ornithology journal of Great Britain. And though it was Harry Johnston who “discovered” the okapi, it was Sclater who gets credit for scientifically describing the animal — despite never having seen one — and naming it after its discoverer.

But it was in Madagascar in 1864 where his eminent zoological legacy took a turn toward the supernatural. Astounded by the incredible diversity of lemurs on that strange island, he took to wondering why Madagascar was blessed with all the lemurs, yet mainland Africa had none. What’s more, the fossils of ancient lemurs had been found in India, where the lemurs’ distant cousins, the lorises, also lived. He reasoned that Madagascar and India must have, at one time, been connected by a now-sunken continent. Geology was a new science then, and large-scale catastrophes were much on the mind of the Victorians, so a scuttled landmass the size of the proposed Lemuria couldn’t be ruled out with complete certainty. The true story of the division of African and Asian lorids is, of course, even more mysterious and possibly even more violent.


Sclater’s Blue-Eyed Black Lemur

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The New Drake Equation

The conservationist world got some rare good news last week. A pair of researchers at the University of Queensland researched every species of mammal that had, at one time since the 1500′s, been deemed extinct, and concluded that, in approximately one-third of cases, reports of their deaths had been greatly exaggerated. This hopefully means that up a third of mammals currently considered extinct today may actually just be extremely rare and hiding. The whole article is worth the read (especially since it’s by my favorite science blogger, Brian Switek). But I’ll summarize, too.

Considering not just how many mammal species survived, but what kind of mammals survived, the researchers noticed a trend. If the species was declared extinct — which is usually official 50 years after a confirmed sighting, or after an exhaustive search — because of human hunting, it was probably truly extinct. Likewise for death by invasive species. But if habitat loss was the murder weapon, it was more than likely that a few members of the species survived somewhere. If that’s the case now, it means it’s possible to save them.

A good deal of my blog is dedicated to cryptozoology, the study of hidden animals. Cryptozoology isn’t just unicorns and Sasquatch. It’s also the search for hypothetical animals, as well as the search for animals that used to exist but haven’t been seen in some time. Is it largely a sensationalist pseudoscience? Sure. Do cryptozoologists waste their time and reputations hunting chupacabras for the benefit of History Channel specials? Absolutely. But when it comes down to finding real-life hidden animals — like, say, the possible one-third of “extinct” mammals out there — it’s a good idea to have a little faith in folklore and trust that maybe the illiterate villager who saw the shadow of an animal out of the corner of his eye is telling the truth. That’s precisely how the Horton Plains Slender Loris was finally rediscovered last summer, after having been declared extinct in 1937.

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Silent Island

When writing about the Lesser Short-Tailed Bat colonizing New Zealand 30 million years ago, I wrote it from the perspective of the bat. But no species can colonize an inhabited island peacefully. The bat might think of itself as a pilgrim, while the native birds consider it an invader. And as humans invade and colonize each other’s lands by caravan, ship, and airplane, a form of animal imperialism has followed us.

Guam is a South Pacific island that was, at one point, idyllic. We cannot know what the ecosystem of Guam looked like 4,000 years ago when it was first colonized by humans, but when the dust and blood settled over the millenia, those early pioneers forged a sort of peace accord with the island, and the ecosystem re-calibrated itself to accommodate them. These people became the Chamorro, a culture based on the principles of respect and reciprocity. They had a mythology, but no religion; ancestor veneration took the place of deity worship. (Although there is one 17th century account of human sacrifice.)

Then, in the 15th century, the Spanish invaded. To say nothing of the misery visited on the people, the island was invaded by the rats, pigs, dogs, chickens, deer, and water buffalo the Spaniards brought with them; an ecological blitzkrieg. When control of Guam was passed to the U.S. after the Spanish-American War of 1898, we established a major naval base there (and introduced the poisonous and insatiable cane toad), which in turn was captured by the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. The Chamorro suffered torture, beheadings, and rape under Japanese occupation, and the island suffered the Giant African Snail which devastated the island’s crops. This is not to mention all of the invasive plants and pathogens introduced, which starved the local wildlife and pushed out the native vegetation. Then, in the 1950′s, when the island was again under the stars & stripes, we struck what could be the finishing blow.

This is the Guam Micronesian Kingfisher. No picture I could find could do justice to the magnificent plumage of this bird, which I have seen at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. It behaves very much like North America’s belted kingfisher: furtive, with a raspy, laughing call, and specialized for diving into the water to catch small fish. It was once found all over the island. Now the kingfisher, like most of the birds on Guam, is extinct in the wild, the victim of American imperialism and a little brown snake.

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Drunken Monkeys!

Good morning, sunshine. Or is it afternoon already? Did you have fun last night? How’s your head? Yep, you know you’re not supposed to mix tequila with Kahlua. I’m going to take advantage of this excruciatingly bright day in New Mexico to discuss a subject close to my heart, my aching brain, and my liver: Alcohol tolerance and abuse in the animal kingdom.

One of the many great things about booze is that it occurs naturally in the wild. Fermentation, the process by which a yeast transforms sugar into alcohol (and its by-product, carbon dioxide), needs no brewmaster or whiskey still. Yeast is blowing freely in the wind, and wild grapes were turning to wine long before we were cultivating chardonnay. Nutritionally speaking, alcohol is a double-edged sword: it’s extremely energy-rich, but it’s also toxic and makes you fall down. So it makes sense that animals which eat fruit would develop a tolerance to alcohol, gaining its energy while avoiding getting so drunk that they start hitting on their predators at the bar. (Or, if you’re a fruit bat, flying into a tree.) And the tolerance these animals have for liquor would put the most gin-blossomed tippler to shame.

Meet the greatest drinker in the world: the pen-tailed tree shrew. This tiny, unassuming nocturne from the rainforests of Southeast Asia may not look like a heavyweight, but pound-for-pound, it could drink you under the table. After all, it subsists entirely on a diet of palm nectar which is fermented by wild yeast to a fine 3.8 alcohol content. To mimic the tree shrew, you’d have to survive on only beer for your entire life. (Which is technically possible, I’ve heard from a bartender friend, but not recommended.) Despite consuming what would be, for us, the equivalent of nine glasses of wine a day, and having a blood alcohol level that is constantly above any country’s legal limit, the tree shrew remains sober. How it metabolizes its alcohol so efficiently is still a mystery, but scientists believe that the answer, when found, could present us with a cure for alcohol poisoning, and perhaps a weapon against alcoholism. Right now, most alcohol research is done on lab rats, and rodents tend to avoid alcohol by preference. But the tree shrew actually resembles the earliest primates on a taxonomic level, and could give us insight into our own alcohol tolerance and predilections. What’s more, we’re not the only primates out there that like to hit the sauce.

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