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Farewell, Prof Kenny

I began my UWI experience knowing a little more about the place than the average undergrad. My sister, two years into her time there, saw to it that I knew the general layout of the place, such that I was able to easily win the Orientation Week treasure hunt (and the $50 prize, which was more than a little money back in 1989).

In addition to campus geography, I was also aware fo the basics layout of the chemistry, plant science and zoology departments. And more than anyone else, I had heard of Professor Kenny, the professor of zoology who would lock the door to the lecture room at 8 o’clock, so if you were late you were out of luck. So it was with a great deal of interest that I attended my first zoology lecture as an undergraduate. I don’t recall an awful lot about first year zoology. Prof Kenny taught the first few months of the class before Mary Alkins-Koo took over (in January, I think) with Graham White rounding out the year with vertebrates. Kenny, having decided to mellow in his ‘old age’ took to leaving the doors to the lecture hall unlocked, but his comments to late-comers were enough to ensure that I was in class by 8 am (or, failing that, skip class). If I made it, his lectures were an experience worth getting out of bed for. His long, lanky frame would move across the front of the lecture hall, sitting on the front table like a large bird of prey, now standing with one foot up on the front table. He had an energy in the classroom, full of movement, full of a slightly jerk energy.

Having done A Level zoology, I didn’t feel too great a need to make it to lecture. Until Graham White’s bit at the end of the year, there was very little that was entirely new to me. The lab, on the other hand, was a very different experience, and one that I would not consider missing. Labs allowed for direct interaction with faculty, a chance to talk, to get to know people. Even after his section was done, Kenny had a habit of dropping in on the first year labs and talking to students. While his entry usually attracted a large group of admirers, there were still opportunities to talk to him, tap into his wealth of knowledge.

Kenny always struck me as an unlikely environmentalist. His contribution to th environmental movement in Trinidad and Tobago is huge, and he inspired many people to work for conservation. As I understand it, he was a major inspiration for the foundation of the UWI Biological Society around 1987, a movement that not only launched many a career among environmental professionals in Trinidad and Tobago, but which also helped transform conservation from a ‘French creole’ hobby into a serious national concern. It’s an unusual legacy for someone who was not only born to the ‘local white’ elite, but also someone who seemed profoundly skeptical about whether there was any point whatsoever in trying to conserve anything at all. Still, he taught people to value nature, to love it. And even if he had little faith in their ability to stem the tide of destruction, the love of nature he instilled in his students made them care enough to try.

While I only took first year Zoology from him, so I don’t really know if I count among “Prof’s” students (after all, I never called him “Prof”), he certainly had a major impact on me. At the end of first year, he said to me “sure, you topped the class, but you should have done better” (I only got a B+). And that backhanded compliment was really one of the most important things anyone ever said to me.


Speciose or species-rich?

As a graduate student I came across the word “speciose”.  It had an alluring sound to it that was lacking in its more pedestrian synonym “species-rich”.  Equally appealing, I suspect, was the fact that it supplied a formal-sounding alternative that was less accessible to the average person.  (If you’re lucky, you outgrow that affectation and learn that clear communication is what matters most.)

In the December issue of TREE, Michael Hart delves into the origin and use of the word speciose.  Although similar to “species”, speciose actually shares a root derives from “specious” in ‘beautiful’ or ‘lovely’.  Hart sees value in speciose – it’s no longer than “species-rich” and solves the hyphenation problem (i.e., the problem of not knowing when to join the words “species” and “rich” with a hyphen).  Both “species-rich” and “speciose” first show up in the Web of Knowledge database in 1957, and use of both terms has grown fairly consistently.  Although he cites Gill’s plea to cease ‘the misuse of ‘‘speciose’’ in the evolutionary biological literature,’ Hart sees value in this “lovely word” and urges “deliberate consideration” as to its future and fate.

I embraced “speciose” in my first or second year as a grad student.  I happily embraced it, using it both in writing and conversation.  And then, to my horror, I discovered Gill or some other pedant who insisted that “speciose” was being misused by ecologists.  With that discovery, I discontinued use of speciose immediately.  The only thing worse than using big words is misusing them.  Granted, it had been wearing thin already – my doctoral advisor, for example, had seen no inclination to adopt the word despite my repeated use of it.

And that’s where it’s stood ever since, for me, until now.  Granted, Al Gentry used to word, and being as amazing a biologist as he was, he had the right to use whatever word he wanted, however he wanted to…and be right.  After all, he was Al Gentry.  (And he had tragically passed away, doing a rapid assessment of biodiversity.)

Reading Hart made me re-think my opposition to “speciose”.  We have the right to re-define words from time to time.  This might be a good candidate.  I’m not sure if it’s for me, but I should be willing to accept that it is, after all, an acceptable term.

Hart, Michael W. 2008. Speciose versus species-rich. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23 (12):660-661 doi:10.1016/j.tree.2008.09.001

Seeking sustainability in Amazonian palm production

buritizal-1Mauritia flexuosa, commonly known as the Moriche palm, aguaje, burití (and a variety of other names) is a large palm which is native to tropical South America and Trinidad. It grows in permanently or temporarily flooded forests, and often forms monodominant stands.  In parts of South America these stands cover thousands of hectares at densities which can exceed 300 trees per hectare.  Moriche palms are important as a source of “food, fiber, oil, medicinals, materials for construction and fishing equipment, and fallen stems serve as a substrate for raising of edible larvae of the palm beetle (suri, Rhynchophorus palmarum)”1

433px-buriti_fruchtPalm fruits are important food sources both for humans and wildlife.  The outer surface of the Moriche fruit is reddish-brown and scaly.  Beneath this is a thin layer of yellowish pulp which covers a large seed.  This pulp is used in Peru to make ice cream, popsicles and cold drinks.  Consumption in Iquitos ranges from 22-150 tonnes/month.  The harvest and sale of the fruit is an important source of income for rural people in the Peruvian Amazon.1

The idea of a non-timber product from the rainforest with a well-established market…it seems too good to be true.  And in a sense, it is.  While it would seem to be the perfect tool for forest conservation, demand for aguaje has led to the degradation or destruction of extensive areas of Moriche swamps.  You see, the normal way to harvest the fruit is to cut down the tree.  Aguaje production around Iquitos, Peru, is estimated to lead to the destruction of at least 24,000 trees annually.1 It takes 7-8 years for an individual to reach maturity, so the rate of replacement of cut trees is pretty slow.  Add to that the fact that the most productive trees are cut (it takes the same effort to cut down a tree with a large fruit crop as it does a tree with few fruit) and the end result is pretty obvious.  Not only do aguaje collectors have to travel to more and more remote sites in order to harvest fruit, the trees left behind to re-seed the area are the ones that produce the least attractive crops.  In addition, moriche swamps are important food resources for wildlife.1

The depletion of moriche stands is apparent to local people, especially those who earn income by harvesting the fruit.  In the interest of sustainable harvest, a climbing system was developed that made it possible to harvest fruit without destroying the tree.  Maya Manzi of Clark University and Oliver Coomes of McGill looked at the effect of the introduction of the climbing system to the village of Roca Fuerte in Peru.  Since 1999 Fuerte Roca has been located on the north bank of the Marañón River in the Peruvian Amazon.  Prior to that it was located on the south bank.  Relocation across the river allowed them to exploit new stands of Moriche palms.  In 1999 the stands had been nearby, but four years later it took almost three hours to reach productive stands.  Seeing this change, and being aware that a similar thing had happened when the village was located on the south bank, the villagers were willing to work with an NGO to try to find a way to sustainably harvest the palm fruit.  Purchase of the climbing system led to the designation of an extractive reserve where fruit could only be harvested by climbing, not by cutting.

Manzi and Coomes looked at the socioenomic characteristics of the villagers and tried to determine which factors made them more likely to adopt the new means of harvest.  Unsurprisingly, younger people were more likely to adopt the new technology, as were those who were more successful hunters.  Families with “fewer non-land assets” and less hunting experience were less likely to adopt the newer technology.

One constraint on the adoption of the new technology was the fact that the village had only been able to afford to purchase four sets of climbing gear.  Since climbing requires a fair amount of manual dexterity and strength, it’s probably harder for older people to learn.  (Now, granted, I’ve seen old men climb coconut trees, but they have probably been doing it all their lives.)  I would tend to assume that younger people would also be more likely to adopt new technology, but I have no idea whether my assumptions translate to rural Peru.

I found it interesting that hunting success correlated with a greater willingness to adopt the climbing techniques.  The authors explained this as follows:

Our second model reveals that participation in harvesting by climbing instead of felling tends to be higher among younger households and those with higher forest knowledge, as reflected by success in hunting large bodied animals (mainly ungulates). Hunters are well aware that large ungulates depend on the availability of aguaje palm fruit and that they play an important role in the regeneration of aguaje palm forests through seed dispersal. As such, hunters have a strong incentive to protect aguaje stands.

Other factors like having “fewer non-land assets” are interesting, but less well explained.  The paper also discusses factors related to the willingness of people to cultivate the palms – interesting stuff, perhaps for another time.

Photo credits: The first photograph, copyright Eurico Zimbres, is from Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.  The second photograph was related into the public domain by its creator Frank Krämer.

Manzi, M., O.T. Coomes (2008). Managing Amazonian palms for community use: A case of aguaje palm (Mauritia flexuosa) in Peru Forest Ecology and Management DOI: 10.1016/j.foreco.2008.09.038

Learning not to burn

As the dry season progresses in Trinidad, smoke becomes an ever-present feature.  While people blame “bush fires” on spontaneous combustion, most are either arson or agricultural fires.  While it always bothered me to see the landscape burn, it was the especially intense fire season of 1987 that really opened my eyes to the problem.

The Agricultural Fires Act, passed somewhere in the distant past, was an attempt to prevent burning.  The act made it a crime to plant annual crops on land that had burned.  I would be surprised if the act has ever been enforced; more to the point, while it may have been used for punishment a few times, it was designed to change behaviour.  And on that front, it was a colossal failure.

Fire has always been used to clear land for agriculture.  Where permanent cultivation replaces shifting cultivation, fire becomes less important as the frontier moves on.  But where land is farmed for a few years and then abandoned, fire is an essential tool.  This is especially true on poor tropical soils – not only is fire an efficient tool for clearing land and releasing nutrients from the vegetation, but the ash is also increases soil fertility by raising the pH and increased the nutrient holding capacity of the soil.  Fire is also useful for controlling pests and pathogens – in the tropics there is no winter to knock back pest and pathogen populations.

But there’s a cost to using fire.  The simplest one is the risk of escape – agricultural fires are a major ignition source for wildfires.  Fires kill beneficial soil organisms, they consume soil organic matter.  And smoke can have a major effect on health and quality of life.

The latest issue of New Agriculturist has an article on the work of a group called Sustainable Harvest International which is working with farmers in Central America to teach them alternatives to burning.  They are teaching the use of cover crops, integrated pest management, and erosion control techniques and something called bocashi as ways of reducing reliance of fire as an agricultural tool.  Bocashi is interesting

This highly effective and inexpensive natural fertiliser can be made from readily-available materials, including manure, coffee pulp, or rice hulls, together with yeast and molasses. These are then mixed with healthy soil. The yeast feeds on the molasses during a 15-day fermentation and decomposition process, aided by mixing manually twice-a-day. The bocashi mix is then added to crops, and yields either match or improve upon those obtained with chemical fertilisers – at a fraction of the cost.

They appear to be teaching the use of permanent fields as an alternative to shifting cultivation.  Back in the day when I thought of forest conservation as the most important issue, I would have supported permaculture over shifting cultivation without a second thought.  But permanent cultivation usually entails heavy chemical use, and leads to continuing losses of soil carbon, soil fertility and the general “health” of the soil.  It appears that this isn’t what is being done here – working with an eye to sustainability (rather than just forest conservation), this group appears to be getting it right.  An important factor is that it appears to be improving the quality of life for the people involved:

Don Cheyo, a graduate of SHI’s Honduras Program, says “We eat better and I live with the land – planting good food, building up the soil and planting trees. I have learned not to burn.”

It’s great to appeal to people’s better nature, but you’re more likely to make permanent changes if you also make their lives better.

Which brings me back to the Agricultural Fires Act in Trinidad and Tobago, passed in 1965.  The failure of the government to enforce this law has been a source of frustration to the conservation community in Trinidad, probably ever since it was passed.  Quite frankly though, it is and has always been a useless piece of legislation.  Granted, any law that isn’t enforced is useless, but it’s especially bad when it seeks to change established behaviour.  You can’t simply tell people “don’t burn” and expect them to stop, not when burning is an integral tool for them to earn their livelihood.  Although some people do set fires for the sheer joy of watching them burn, the people who set agricultural fires do so because it’s a tool for them to earn a living.  If you provide people with reasonable alternatives, you may be able to bring about change.  After you provide people with alternatives, you may want to add the option of the “stick” – legal penalties against the undesirable behaviour.  Laws like this only serve to convince people that government is out of touch, uninterested in them.  But then, in our post-colonial society, government has never been “of the people” – “home rule” and “independence” were merely the delegation of royal power to someone who was physically closer to you.  Neither the governed nor the governing ever really understood what “representative government” is supposed to mean.

H/T Jeremy, Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog

An end to Federal protection of wolves

The New York Times is reporting that wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have lost federal protection.

“Wolves are back,” said Lynn Scarlett, the deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior, in a telephone conference call with reporters. “Gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains are thriving and no longer need protection.”

The 66 wolves that were introduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in the mid 1990s has now expanded to an estimated population of 1300. Another 230 wolves live in Montana, which they settled on their own. What’s really shocking is the target population sizes

State management plans allow for wolf hunting, or outright eradication in some places — including most of Wyoming — with a target population of 150 in each of the three states.

That few? That really doesn’t strike me as a viable population size either in genetic terms, although I am not an expert on minimal viable population sizes in wolves. The Times reports that

Biologists cited by the environmental and wildlife groups say that target population is too small, and suggest instead that 2,000 to 3,000 animals are the minimum needed.

The Fish and Wildlife Service appears to disagree

“Wolves are resilient, and their social structure is resilient,” said Ed Bangs, the gray wolf recovery coordinator for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. Mr. Bangs said that even with federal protections in place almost one in four wolves die each year, either naturally or from human action, and yet the population has still been rising at a rate of about 24 percent a year.

But talking about minimum viable populations misses the point. The reason to have wolves isn’t to protect the species from extinction – as long as there are healthy populations in Canada, this subspecies isn’t at risk of extinction. The ecosystem needs its top predators. In Yellowstone they have had a profound effect on the landscape. Aspen stopped regenerating in Yellowstone around 19201 but the reintroduction of wolves has allowed aspen, willows and cottonwood to regenerate in riparian areas2.  Healthy wolf populations is likely to mean a healthier ecosystem overall.

  1. Ripple,W.J., Larsen, E.J., 2000. Historic aspen recruitment, elk, and wolves in northern Yellowstone National Park, USA. Biological Conservation 95, 361–370.
  2. Ripple, W.J., Beschta, R.L., Restoring Yellowstone’s aspen with wolves, Biological Conservation (2007), doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2007.05.006

Proposal to combat illegal logging

Logging is a major threat to tropical forests. Logging roads and clearings allow more light into the forest, resulting in a proliferation of undergrowth, and allows more desiccation during the dry season. Logging slash – large branches and the crown of the tree – are also left behind to dry out. All this makes logged forests far more fire prone, and allows fire to be transmitted further from the edge into the forest. Logging roads can also be a conduit for settlers into the forest.

Illegal logging has all these problems plus others. Legal logging results in royalties paid to local landowners or the state. There are often limits on the size of trees you can cut, and in many cases there are protected species. As with the drug trade, it’s very hard to police the trade in illegal timber at the source. Fines tend to be small, and it’s difficult to police the remote areas where the trees are being cut. It’s far easier to regulate consumers. When Western countries pontificate about tropical deforestation while still buying illegally cut timber, it ends up as nothing but pointless hypocrisy.

The BBC is reporting that a move is underway to allow people to be prosecuted for illegal logging in the countries where the logs are being sold. Continue reading

Guayanilla Windfarm EIS: Puerto Rican nightjar I

The proposed Windmar RE windfarm near Guayanilla occupies habitat of Caprimulgus noctitherus, the Puerto Rican nightjar or Guabairo. As a result of this, the Environmental Impact Statement addresses the potential impact of the project on this species. A consultant’s report* was prepared on behalf of Windmar RE by Paul Kerlinger of Kerlinger & Curry LLC. documenting surveys carried out in 2003, and a follow-up memo* from Kerlinger details additional surveys carried out in 2004. These results are also discussed (in more rosy terms) in the Habitat Conservation Plan**

Kerlinger and associates surveyed the site in 2003 and again in 2004, and estimated that there were 33 nightjar territories on the site in 2003 and 46 territories in 2004. Kerlinger attributes this increase to one of three causes

  1. That the observers had become better at finding birds;
  2. That there was an overall increase in the nightjar population; or
  3. That “the access roads that have been cut through the forest at the WindMar site provided better foraging habitat such that more territories could occupy the site”

Kerlinger favours the third explanation – that the construction of roads opened up the canopy, making foraging easier for the birds. He also says that “the trails at the WindMar site may now provide better foraging habitat that actually attracts nightjars from other areas or permits them to live on smaller territories by making foraging better.” He supports the assertion with a few anecdotes, including:

On one night at the Punta Ventana property, where more access roads were established, the data collection team reported an adult with two recent fledgling nightjars foraging along one of the access roads, and another older fledgling foraging along another.

In all of these, Kerlinger fails to consider a variation of (1) – that construction and widening of roads makes it easier for researchers to move through the forest and may change their perceptions of the direction and distance of bird calls. Dry forests are difficult to move through in the night. While narrow trails had been cut for the 2003 survey, wider trails make for easier access, and allow the observers to travel more quietly. It is rather curious that Kerlinger neglected to address this possibility. In addition, his anecdotes about observing adults with fledglings is really pretty meaningless – basically he says that, once the roads were cut, he was able to see fledglings along the roads. Is it really worth mentioning that the presence of roads makes it easier to see animals along roads?

In discounting the idea of population increase, Kerlinger suggests that “[i]t is important to note that the density of nightjars on a per hectare basis was higher on the Wind Mar project site than has been reported in most parts of Puerto Rico. Given the high density, one would expect birds to disperse to other locations rather than become even denser at the Wind Mar site. In the Habitat Conservation Plan Guarnaccia expands on this by noting “Besides, singing territory size did not decrease as one would expect in more densely packed habitat (Weeden 1965). Instead, it appeared to increase slightly.” Guarnaccia uses this to argue in favour of the idea that increased road density has improved the habitat for nightjars.

I find this rationale puzzling. As Guarnaccia indicates, as density increases, territory size usually shrinks. Territory size tends to be driven by two things – access to food, and competition with conspecifics. Competition with other animals consumes resources, so it’s unprofitable to fight for more territory than you absolutely need. But if you don’t have enough territory to raise your offspring, then there is a strong impetus to compete for additional territory. If you can’t secure enough territory at a site, then you are likely to look elsewhere.

If the construction of the roads increased the resource base and led to an increase in population size, then you would expect territory size to shrink. An increase in territory size (assuming it is real) is more likely to be driven by a decline in habitat quality. It is the opposite of what you would expect given an improvement in habitat quality. Therein lies the problem – it is unreasonable to use the same explanation for conflicting observations. While increased population density is consistent with the explanation favoured by Guarnaccia and Kerlinger, increase territory size is inconsistent with that explanation. While there isn’t enough data to distinguish between an observer effect or a real population increase, I think it’s reasonable to reject Kerlinger and Guarnaccia’s explanation, based on the data provided.

It’s possible to attribute the observations to either an observer effect or a real population increase. An increase in the number of territories is consistent with a road effect: better access made for better surveys. On the other hand, an increase in population size (or degradation of habitat elsewhere) would result in additional territories being occupied. Increased territory sized (if the increase is real and not just a statistical artefact) would be consistent with habitat degradation (perhaps as a consequence of road construction).

What’s more important in all this is that they have only presented two years of data. Two data points will always appear to show a trend, whether one exists or not. But the reality is that it takes a minimum of three data points to be able to say anything about your estimate. Kerlinger emphasises that their sampling intensity was greater than that of Vilella and Zwank. While an increase in nightjar population over the last two decades is reasonable (based on sightings in the last few years which suggest range extensions), it is also possible to attribute these to increased awareness of the species leading to an increased observer effect.

It turns out that I am not the only one unimpressed with Curry and Kerlinger’s work (scroll down to the story after the one about this project).


*Kerlinger, Paul. 2003. A Preconstruction Study of Abundance and Distribution of the Federally Endangered Puerto Rican Nightjar at the WindMar Re Project, Guayanilla, Puerto Rico;
Kerlinger, Paul. 2004. 2004 Territorial Boundaries of Puerto Rican Nightjars at the WindMar Project Site in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico.

**Guarnaccia, John. 2005. Final Draft: Habitat Conservation Plan. WindMar RE Project Guayanilla, Puerto Rico

Other posts on the subject:

  • Guayanilla Windfarm – general thoughts on the topic.
  • Species-area curves – when they get the get the most basic biology so badly wrong, you tend to lose confidence in what they have to say rather rapidly.