Historic Conservation Action: Haiti’s First Private Nature Reserve

More than 1,200 acres on Haiti’s Massif de la Hotte received protected status through the creation of Grand Bois Nature Reserve, making this the first private nature reserve on the island nation. The nature reserve, a result of the combined efforts of the international conservation organizations Rainforest Trust and Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) and their local partners Haiti National Trust (HNT) and Société Audubon Haiti (SAH), protects part of an amphibian diversity hotspot of global importance.

“Since Haiti is one of the most ecologically devastated countries in the world and the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, the establishment of the country’s first private nature reserve is a critical, positive turning point,” said Rainforest Trust CEO Dr. Paul Salaman. “In addition to being a haven for biodiversity, this mountain is also a vital watershed for surrounding communities, and its security will allow for the continued provision of fresh water, an incredibly vital resource to a nation that is still battling remnants of a horrific cholera outbreak.”

Morne Grand Bois is found in Haiti’s Massif de la Hotte mountain range, the number one priority conservation area in the country and one of the most important areas for amphibians in the world. Because 19 amphibians here are critically endangered, the Massif de la Hotte is a Key Biodiversity Area, which is an internationally identified region of global significance.

Grand Bois was first identified as a biodiversity hotspot in 2011 during an expedition led by Dr. S. Blair Hedges, Director of the Center for Biodiversity (Temple University) in collaboration with Philippe Bayard, President of SAH. This expedition documented three frog species new to science (likely to be listed as Critically Endangered once described) and led to the rediscovery of the Tiburon Stream Frog, which had last been recorded in 1985. This rare species of frog, now only known from Grand Bois, is unusual in that it made an evolutionary reversal back to an aquatic lifestyle after its ancestors evolved traits for living in the forest.

The rediscovered Tiburon Stream Frog. Photo by Haiti Audubon Society.

“We knew we needed to take action to protect the country’s staggering diversity of unique and threatened species, many of which are found only in Haiti,” said GWC Chief Scientist and CEO Wes Sechrest. “We have partnered with Haiti National Trust to directly protect, manage and restore this high-priority conservation site in an effort to begin to turn the tide of centuries of unregulated environmental destruction.”

Despite its confirmed biodiversity value, Grand Bois had been subjected to logging pressure and slash-and-burn agricultural practices. Fortunately, over 50 percent of the original forest cover on the mountain is still intact above 1,000 meters elevation. In an effort to limit deforestation and preserve the remaining habitat, the government of Haiti declared Grand Bois a national park in 2015, but the land was privately owned and there were no funds allocated for actual protection. HNT and its partners, including Rainforest Trust and GWC, are working to raise support for a network of private nature reserves across Haiti.

“When I first landed on Grand Bois mountain with Professor Hedges, I immediately thought that a new strategy had to be found to protect this rich and important place from degradation,” said Bayard. “This land hosts a rich biodiversity. It will never come back if we lose it.”

 

This protected area was made possible by supporters of the Conservation Action Fund and the SAVES Challenge.

Header photo: One of the newly discovered species of frogs in the Grand Bois Nature Reserve. Photo by Haiti Audubon Society.

 

Rainforest Trust Saves 20 Million Acres of Land for Wildlife and Communities

Last month, Rainforest Trust reached the milestone of protecting 20 million acres of rainforest since our founding. We achieved (and exceeded!) this benchmark with the designation of three community forests in the Oku region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. We continued to power through the end of the year, permanently protecting several more land parcels in Africa, Latin America and Asia.  

That is how we work at Rainforest Trust. Our mission is to protect habitat before developers, poachers and other forest exploiters can claim its resources. We work closely with in-country organizations to buy land and manage it as protected areas for wildlife. And as soon as we make one purchase or designation, we turn around and do another, often in the farthest reaches of the tropics.

But it is especially fitting that the three concessions that took us over 20 million protected acres are community conservation projects. A fundamental aspect of our approach is collaborating with local communities (often indigenous peoples). Those living closest to reserves have the most to gain — and lose — in managing forest resources.

So we help to create educational and livelihood opportunities for people on the ground. Indeed, Rainforest Trust’s success requires bottom-up participation.

“Our experience tells us that local buy-in and involvement at the community level are critical if land is to be permanently protected,” said Rainforest Trust CEO Dr. Paul Salaman. “Caring for communities is fundamental to our approach, and these forest concessions around Oku Wildlife Reserve are a great example of this.”

Each of the recently protected concessions in the Democratic Republic of Congo are community forest concessions that buffer the future Oku Wildlife Reserve. Each community will manage their own land and self-establish sustainability practices. These buffer zones and the future Oku Wildlife Reserve offer protection to the Critically Endangered Grauer’s Gorilla. Estimates place 30 percent of this subspecies here; fewer than 3,800 individuals remain in the wild. Endangered Eastern Chimpanzees also make their home in the primary forests of Oku.

These forest concessions, coupled with the the Oku Wildlife Reserve itself, will protect over 1 million acres of habitat for these primates, as well as other endangered species like the Grey Parrot and Okapi. We partnered with Réserve des Gorilles de Punia and Wildlife Conservation Society DRC to save this habitat.

 

The critically endangered Grauer’s Gorilla (formerly known as Eastern Lowland Gorilla). Photo by Wildlife Conservation Society DRC.

 

The Oku forest project is supported by Endangered Species Chocolate and the Conservation Action Fund, and all gifts were matched by the SAVES Challenge.

Header photo: Village schoolchildren. Photo by Wildlife Conservation Society DRC.

 

The Trees Aren’t Paranoid. There is Something Out to Get Them.

Ever see a field guide to the trees of North America? They’re hefty, with lots of pictures or drawings of elms, poplars, spruces, maples and such.

But have you ever seen a field guide to trees of a tropical region, such as the Chocó or the Congo Basin? I haven’t. And you know why?

Because it would be massive. Like… unpublishable.

The Sibley Field Guide to Trees of North America covers over 600 species. 426 pages.

A Field Guide to the Families and Genera of Woody Plants of Northwest South America? 920 pages. And it only covers families and genera — not even every specific species.

Ecologists and naturalists have long known that tropical forests are home to a higher tree diversity than temperate forests. This makes sense — tropical ecosystems often have higher species diversity.

Look at all those different species!

But, as the authors of a new paper (whose findings I’ll get to) start off by saying, the ecological work of drift and species competition tends to reduce diversity in individual ecosystems.

To oversimplify:

Drift refers to what will happen in a population as it reproduces. Dominant traits become more prevalent and recessive traits become less prevalent. (Everyone remembers their high school biology class?) So dominant traits tend to win out and replace recessive traits, and the overall diversity of a population decreases.

Species competition is when two species who use the same resources, or occupy the same niche, compete until one species wins and the other moves elsewhere or goes extinct. So, by eliminating one of those species, competition reduces diversity.

These two phenomena should mean that in individual ecosystems, one species should dominate each niche, with maybe a few other rarities present. This is true in both tropical and temperate ecosystems. The tropics have higher biodiversity despite this (at least in part). Tropical areas have more isolated ecosystems per area and more resources, leading to more niches in those ecosystems.

But why are some individual ecosystems in the tropics home to upwards of1,000 tree species?

You would think, based on the processes of drift and competition, that one or even a few species should dominate tropical forests. Not so fast.

“In the tropics, all of the tree species appear to have a similar competitive advantage,” says Taal Levi of Oregon State University, lead author of a recent paper describing an explanation to this staggering diversity. “There is an abundance of species, but few individuals of each species… there has to be a mechanism that keeps one species from becoming common, becoming dominant.”

Turns out, such a mechanism does exist.

The paper describes how microorganisms — sometimes fungi and arthropods — who live in the soil around trees target the seeds of individual tree species. As the trees drop seeds, these microorganisms attack them. But they only attack the seeds of that one species. They don’t care about seeds from other species.

See those little seeds in that fig? They don’t stand a chance against a fungus.

But these creatures live in “rings” around the trees in question, not everywhere. So if a tree’s seeds happen to end up further away, such as after a ride on the wind or a bird, they can germinate and grow, no problem. Of course, those seeds are less numerous than the seeds that fall to the ground near the parent tree. Those apple-fell-not-so-far-from-the-tree seeds? Murdered by a fungus.

These specialized microorganisms can prevent individual species from taking over an ecosystem. And this could explain the sky-high tree species diversity even over small areas of tropical forests. No one species can gain a foothold on domination because dropping a whole bunch of seeds nearby won’t do anything. This theory was actually first proposed almost 50 years ago, by ecologists Dan Janzen and Joseph Connell. But this new paper provides concrete evidence backing them up.

So don’t worry trees, the tropical forests are all for you. What would they be without you? But if you think something is out to get your seeds…

Yeah. Something is. But it’s making those ecosystems all the more interesting.

Author Note: One of the co-authors of this paper, John Terborgh, is a member of Rainforest Trust’s Council.

New Nature Reserve to Protect Globally Unique Forest in Tanzania

Rainforest Trust has helped establish the Magombera Nature Reserve, a 6,463-acre protected area preserving a globally unique forest ecosystem in East Africa. To create this new reserve, Rainforest Trust teamed up with a consortium of stakeholders that includes a theme park, a foundation, two other conservation organizations, four African villages, two universities, and the Government of the United Republic of Tanzania.

“Magombera is a global priority for so many reasons, ranging from its value to endangered primates, to its role as a wildlife corridor, to its phenomenally diverse plant community,” said Rainforest Trust CEO Dr. Paul Salaman. “Knowing of its extraordinary importance, it is a great privilege for us to band together with such a diverse coalition to work for Magombera’s protection and management.”

The nature reserve was identified as a top 10 Priority Primate Area in Tanzania as it hosts rare primates such as the Endangered Udzungwa Red Colobus Monkey, which is found exclusively around this area of Magombera Forest and nearby Udzungwa Mountains. The cooler habitats in these montane forests shelter many other species as well, such as the Udzungwa Dwarf Galago—one of the smallest primates in the world. Large iconic species such as African Elephants and Hippopotamus are also found in the Magombera Forest, as well as a wide variety of smaller fauna, including endemic species such as the Kilombero Reed Frog and Endangered Magombera Chameleon, which was only discovered here in 2009.

Since the 1970s, conservationists have been campaigning for the protection of Magombera Forest in Tanzania, which research showed would disappear by 2018. This area is part of the Eastern Arc Mountains of Tanzania and Kenya, a mountain chain only slightly larger than Rhode Island but awash with an astounding amount of unique species. With over 1,000 endemic species, the Eastern Arcs are considered the most biodiverse forests of the African continent. Research has found that the Udzungwa Mountains are one of the most important within the Eastern Arcs for protection. However, without this protection, the forest would have remained  threatened through agricultural expansion and illegal activities including tree-cutting for charcoal and poaching of elephants.

The Endangered Magombera Chameleon. Photo by Andrew Marshall.

Despite the consortium facing significant struggles in the beginning, new financial support from Rainforest Trust, World Land Trust and the Aage V. Jensen Charity Foundation allowed it to reach its funding target, which was then used to secure land from a private owner of part of the forest.

Additional funds from Rainforest Trust are now also being used to develop and implement a conservation management plan for the new reserve. This will include extensive community engagement as there are more than 30 tribal groups with more than 10,000 people living near the new reserve. The Magombera Forest is a vitally important place for local communities who depend on the adjacent land for farming. Without the invaluable ecological services provided by the adjacent forest, this important agricultural region would be under serious threat from flood and soil erosion. Rainforest Trust’s local partner Tanzania Forest Conservation Group (TFCG) is administering ongoing conservation and education programs to these communities. The Magombera Nature Reserve will break boundaries in forest conservation by ensuring that tourist entrance fees will go to both local communities to provide alternative livelihood options and the managing government authority.

 

With the support of our generous friends around the world, our partners and the SAVES Challenge, this project is a success. A special thank you to Eric Veach and Luanne Lemmer, Harry Amin and Ariel Premium Supply for their leadership support.

Header photo: Magombera landscape. Photo by Tanzania Forest Conservation Group.

 

So, Imagine You’re a White-tailed Deer

A few weeks back, I met up with friends after returning from filming in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. Halfway up this mountain range — the tallest coastal range on Earth — is the El Dorado Bird Reserve. Rainforest Trust and our partner Fundación ProAves have worked on protecting this property for 15 years.

“How was it?” they asked. “Where were you exactly, again?”

I relayed where, exactly, I was. And from that one vantage point in the reserve I looked out onto rainforest, mountain-top glaciers and the Caribbean Sea at the same time. And there, from said point, I spotted the Santa Marta Woodstar, a hummingbird species endemic to the range.

The Santa Marta Woodstar, endemic to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Meaning, I told them, that while looking at a hummingbird on a mountain, I saw land near the ocean where this hummingbird did not live. Because it only lives on that mountain.

“Cool, right?!”

“Very cool!” they said.

Unconvinced by their displays of awe and willing to hijack the conversation for at least another few seconds, I continued.

“I mean, I could look at a bird next to me, while at the same time spotting a plot of land where this bird species doesn’t live.”

For the hummingbird, the land by the ocean is, in the words of Frankie Valli, “so close, and yet, so far.”

One of my friends asked “Wait, why is that?”

You may now ask, “Why did his friends so clearly give him an outlet to begin some ecological pontification?”

Because they’re wonderful friends and they humor me.

I digress.

“So, imagine you’re a White-tailed Deer living in Rock Creek Park.” I said, gesturing toward the park a quarter-mile from our location.

A White-tailed Deer in the snow, which it has adapted to withstand.

“In the course of a year, you might experience temperatures ranging from -10 to 100 Fahrenheit. So deer had to evolve to live in a wide temperature range to survive in this landscape.”

“But now imagine you’re a hummingbird in the lowland Amazon rainforest. Over the course of a year, you might only experience temperatures ranging from 75 to 90 Fahrenheit. So the species didn’t need to evolve to withstand many changes in temperature. Because the climate doesn’t change much season to season in the tropics.

“But the climate does change at one place in the tropics.”

I paused for dramatic effect.

“The mountains.”

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, viewed from El Dorado Bird Reserve. Photo courtesy of ProAves.

“As you go up a mountain, it’ll get colder, right? At 5,000 feet above sea level, a mountain right next to the Amazon rainforest might have a year-round temperature ranging from 60 to 70 Fahrenheit. Hence, those lowland rainforest hummingbird species won‘t spend time up there because they aren’t adapted to withstand even a small difference in climate.

“But now suppose some of those lowland rainforest hummingbirds make their way up the mountain, over the course of a few million years. They’ll adapt — over time — to the colder temperatures and spend time only up at high elevation because the offspring that will thrive and breed are more tolerant. Meaning they’ll also stop hanging out with the hummingbirds in the lowland. And after a while, those two groups of hummingbirds — the original lowland and the new mountainous groups — will diverge enough to become separate species.

“So now there’s a hummingbird species adapted to altitude. It won‘t want to fly to the lowland because it’s too hot. And now suppose the mountains are isolated from other mountains — only lowland areas surround them. The hummingbird species won’t travel anywhere off that mountain range because everywhere nearby is unsuitable habitat.

This theory first came to light in 1967 with a paper titled “Why Mountain Passes are Higher in the Tropics” by a scientist named Dan Janzen. Mountain passes aren’t actually higher in the tropics. But a deer in Rock Creek Park, living near sea level, could cross over the Appalachians with little problem. But a lowland tropical species probably can‘t overcome a similar elevational change. The species hasn’t adapted to withstand the temperature changes. So mountain passes are, as a metaphor, “higher” in the tropics when regarding species movement.

The Peruvian Andes, one of the world’s most prominent tropical mountain ranges.

Some of his hypothesis has changed in the past 50 years, but a lot still holds up. In fact, a paper published this past November still supported many of his ideas.

This theory is also part of the reason mountains in the tropics have some of the highest levels of endemism of any ecosystems on Earth. The tropics are already the most biodiverse region on the planet. And tropical species often need hyper-specific habitats because of a lack of seasonal change. So when you put an anomaly micro-location, such as a mountain, into the equation, you’ll get many species with hyper-specific habitat requirements that only live in one anomaly micro-location.

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are not only the tallest coastal mountains in the world and the tallest mountains in Colombia, they’re also isolated. If you look at them on a map, you’ll see the Caribbean Sea to the North and lowland tropics to the East, South and West. There’s nowhere else for the micro-location adapted species to go.

The research journal Science actually named the spot “The Most Irreplaceable Site for Biodiversity.” Meaning, of all the places on Earth — from the Adirondacks to Micronesia to your backyard — losing this one site would have the biggest net impact on global biodiversity.

Rainforest Trust’s project in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, protecting (and now expanding!) the El Dorado Bird Reserve preserves some of this vital habitat. This reserve has always been important — anywhere deemed “The Most Irreplaceable” deserves protection. But in 2016, Colombia was home to a landmark treaty to end a decades-long civil war. The treaty ended one of the worst conflicts of the past hundred years and ushered in a new era of peace. But the new peace has also led to a changing reality for Colombian conservation. The country is now seeing a massive uptick in deforestation. Areas once held by rebel groups are now “open for business” and people are moving in.

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, once an isolated area, is now seeing rising land prices and luxury homebuilding. Hard to blame someone for wanting to build a vacation home there — it’s gorgeous! But conserving the region’s unique wildlife has never been a more relevant concern.

Cabins at the El Dorado Bird Reserve in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. With the recent influx of development, conservation of these forests is especially important.

On a grander scale, we have to start talking about the importance of tropical mountain ecosystems. Because they’re cool and diverse, yeah, but mountains in the tropics are also some of the most threatened ecosystems. They’re facing habitat loss and development, like other tropical ecosystems. But they’re also more vulnerable to climate change — for species with narrow acceptable temperature ranges, a two-degree temperature change could be a massive upheaval of the norm.

But my overenthusiastic personal excitement over tropical mountain ecology and the species-habitat relationship may be too wonky for every audience. While my friends indulge me, that doesn’t mean everyone will. But you also have friends! And you might be (read: almost definitely are) less geeked-out about tropical mountain ecosystems. So it’s up to you to explain the importance of sites like the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in ways that people understand.

Because without you, these sites — often remote, often inaccessible and often far away — will disappear.

So do it in your own way! Write a skit! Draw a picture! Or, if you need help, I can get you started.

Try: “So imagine you’re a White-tailed Deer.”

Protection for Key Biodiversity Area Expanded in Ecuador

At the end of 2018, Rainforest Trust and Fundación Jocotoco expanded the Buenaventura Tropical Reserve in southwestern Ecuador by 362 acres.

Buenaventura is part of the Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena ecoregion. This area, restricted to a narrow strip between the Andes and the Pacific in Colombia and Ecuador, is a biodiversity hotspot. But the region is also one of the world’s most threatened. Here, only patches remain of once sprawling forests. Rainforest Trust and Jocotoco’s ultimate goal is to protect over 12,000 acres with the reserve to preserve the remaining intact forest.

The ecoregion has many microhabitats, a phenomenon stemming from shifting rainfall patterns. While one corner may only see 15 inches of rain per year, another may see upwards of 150 inches. This microhabitat diversity has lead to incredible ecological diversity. This small corner of South America is home to over 11,000 vascular plant species and 900 bird species.

Buenaventura covers both dry and wet microhabitats, thus protecting habitat for many species. The reserve is home to 61 bird species, including 15 globally threatened bird species — the most of any private reserve in Ecuador. It’s also the most important habitat for the Endangered and recently discovered El Oro Parakeet and El Oro Tapaculo.

The Endangered El Oro Parakeet, protected by the Buenaventura Reserve.

Other species in the reserve include nine recently discovered amphibian species. Out of these nine species, five have never been seen outside the reserve. The forest is also habitat for the Critically Endangered Ecuadorian Capuchin Monkey and some rare plant species.

But the real value of the new protected land comes at a landscape level. In such a fragmented forest ecosystem, connecting viable habitat is crucial to conservation. Any hyperdiverse ecosystem such as this requires large reserves to protect species. But in a mountainous region such as this, large reserves play an important role countering the effects of global climate change. As the climate warms, species move up mountain slopes to stay cool. Hence, any reserve without an elevation gradient may be defunct in a few years. Expanding Buenaventura will expand the reserve’s range of elevation, and thus, its conservation potential.

Buenaventura is part a larger conservation vision to protect a 200,000-acre corridor in Ecuador’s El Oro Province. As of now, the reserve is the only reserve in the proposed corridor. But with continued expansions, the dream of a thriving and intact Chocó gets closer and closer.

This project was made possible through the support of the SAVES Challenge and the Conservation Action Fund. A special thanks to the Butler Foundation and Hans and Hildegarde Schaefer for their leadership support.

Establishment of Galápagos Nature Reserve

Rainforest Trust and Fundación Jocotoco worked jointly to purchase a 250-acre property of threatened humid forest in the highlands of San Cristóbal Island, Galápagos. The Galápagos archipelago has an extraordinary concentration of endemic wildlife, and is recognized as an international conservation priority without equal. The property now secured for protection contains key breeding habitat for the Critically Endangered Galápagos Petrel as well as numerous other globally threatened and endemic species.

“As I saw firsthand in my recent visits to the Galápagos, Galápagos wildlife is under tremendous pressure from rapidly spreading invasive species,” said Rainforest Trust CEO Dr. Paul Salaman. “The urgency to protect this unique habitat and the exceptional species that depend on it is very real.”

In 1835, Charles Darwin arrived at the Galápagos Islands and over the course of five weeks discovered an astonishing diversity of unique species found nowhere else in the world. His observations, which began on the island of San Cristóbal, laid the groundwork for what is considered one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of all time — the theory of evolution by natural selection. His insight changed forever the way we perceive the world.

The Critically Endangered Galápagos Petrel. Photo by Lip Kee.

This relatively young island chain, comprised of 128 islands, islets and rocks, was formed millions of years ago by volcanoes – some of which are still active and shifting land masses today. However, only 18 of the islands are considered large and only four are inhabited by humans. While 97 percent of the archipelago’s emerged and uninhabited landmass is protected as a national park, the four islands on which humans reside – including San Cristóbal – are extremely vulnerable to development threats, including invasive species arriving with container ships. With three extinct volcanoes dominating this island, its rich soils and lush montane vegetation have long attracted farming and settlements, such as the capital of the Galápagos province, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. The southern highlands of San Cristóbal are dominated by private properties which are used for agriculture, and the remaining habitat is highly threatened by invasive species ranging from plants and livestock to parasites.

“The communities and governmental agencies have done tremendous work on the Galápagos. Fundación Jocotoco is happy to join forces with them on San Cristóbal, the only island where no colony of the Galápagos Petrel is found within the national park. Jointly, we will protect this critically endangered species and other threatened species,” said Dr. Martin Schaefer, President of Fundación Jocotoco.

To protect the vulnerable species on San Cristóbal, Fundación Jocotoco and Rainforest Trust established the Galápagos Nature Reserve. Rainforest Trust is supporting Fundación Jocotoco’s work to protect additional habitat that will combine with this purchase for a total of 568 acres. With these efforts and our subsequent, sustained conservation activities, we will permanently secure one of the most unique, scientifically important and biologically outstanding areas on Earth.

This purchase was made possible with the support of the SAVES Challenge and the leadership gifts from the Avaaz Foundation, Global Wildlife Conservation, The Marshall-Reynolds Foundation, Shayde Christian, Spindrift Family Foundation, Emmerson Bowes, Biha Chen and Jackson Loomis and David B. Donsker.

 

Header photo: The Endangered San Cristóbal Mockingbird. Photo by Rainforest Trust.

 

Conservation Basics: Good Spaghetti!

Rainforest Trust’s work to protect habitats for threatened species is grounded in cutting-edge conservation science. But in this series, we explore the basics of conservation science and how they inform Rainforest Trust’s scientists.

Our species loves to categorize things. Categories can be simple to understand, such as spotting the distinction between red and blue. Categories can be complex, such as identifying the distinctions between Impressionist and Fauvist paintings. Categories can also confound, such as trying to understand the distinctions between grunge metal, prog metal and thrash metal; each style should be in one category of “fork in the garbage disposal.” (Opinions of the author on the musical quality of any style of music are not reflective of the opinions of Rainforest Trust on the musical quality of any style of music.)

Inevitably, we ended up categorizing our fellow inhabitants of this fine planet. Early in our recorded history we figured there were different species; we could see that a crab differed from a turtle. But species were classified on an ad hoc basis solely based on visual evidence. Hence, we often got things wrong. We figured out that birds and lizards and mammals were different, but we sometimes mis-categorized bats as birds and dolphins as fish. We had the beginnings of taxonomy, but no way to move forward. Until, in the 18th century, came Carl Linnaeus.

A diagram of the taxonomical hierarchy.

Linnaeus was a Swedish botanist with an idea. He decided on a rigid, hierarchical classification in which every species’ description fits into the same number of ranked levels. Let me break that down. Linnaeus decided on six levels of categorization: kingdom, class, order, family, genus and species. We later added phylum between kingdom and class. Kingdom is the broadest category and species is the most specific. (We’re going to ignore an even broader category, “domain,” for the sake of this blog post.)

Much like a forced game of 20 Questions, Linnaeus used the three kingdoms of animal, mineral or vegetable. Minerals are, of course, not alive and no longer classified like living things. Each kingdom is divided into phyla, which are divided into classes. Classes are divided into orders, orders are divided into families, families are divided into genera (plural of “genus”) and genera are divided into species.

Get all that? No? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Stay with me, I promise I’ll get you there.

The first thing to remember is the order of the ranked levels. While Linnaeus may not have created a simple way to remember these levels and their sequence, many since have attempted to do so with mnemonics, often involving King Philip. The most common: “King Philip comes over for good spaghetti.” Sometimes, King Philip comes over for great spaghetti. For others, King Philip is gluten intolerant and comes over for good soup. Some even beg of him, “King Philip, come out for goodness sake!” I do not know why King Philip has entrenched himself but I can only imagine the stress of having to go places to eat mediocre spaghetti has taken its toll on the poor monarch.

The best taxonomy mnemonic I’ve found is, “King Penguins congregate on frozen ground sometimes.” This is true, King Penguins will (sometimes) congregate on frozen ground. Sometimes, King Penguins congregate on other types of ground, including ground that isn’t frozen. Not only is this taxonomically relevant, it’s ecologically thoughtful.

Now that we can remember the order, the next thing to understand is how the ranked levels work. Let’s follow the King Penguin from kingdom to species.

King Penguins congregating on frozen ground, which they do sometimes.

At the broadest category, King Penguins are in the kingdom “Animalia,” the Animal kingdom. This is the same category as humans, lobsters, cockroaches, coral (yes, coral), tuna and worms. Not in the animal kingdom: plants, fungi, bacteria or algae, to name a few. Most species on earth, by a wide margin, are not in the animal kingdom.

Within the Animal kingdom, King Penguins reside in the phylum “Chordata.” Often confused with vertebrates, Chordata includes the sub-phylum “Vertebrata,” the vertebrates, but also includes some species that aren’t quite vertebrates. (The actual distinctions are complicated.)

Within Chordata, King Penguins fall into class “Aves,” the birds. All birds are Aves, all things not in Aves are not birds. Within Aves, we classify King Penguins into the order “Sphenisciformes,” or penguins. All penguins are Sphenisciformes, all things not in Sphenisciformes are not penguins.

Now, in the case of penguins, there is only one family, “Spheniscidae.” This happens sometimes. Other bird orders, like Passeriformes, the passerines (perching birds), have many families such as Troglodytidae, the wrens, or Emberizidae, the buntings. But penguins have only one.

An indigo bunting, which is in the same Class as a penguin (Aves), but not the same family.

Within the family Spheniscidae, King Penguins are in the genus “Aptenodytes.” (Genera and species are always written in italics.) The only other species in Aptenodytes are the Emperor Penguins. The other living penguin species are in other genera, but only King Penguins and Emperor Penguins are in Aptenodytes.

Finally, the species name of the King Penguin is “patagonicus,” which bring us to Linnaeus’ seminal legacy: good spaghetti. This is the so-called “binomial nomenclature,” whereby we refer to a species by its genus and species names. For example, the King Penguin’s scientific name is Aptenodytes patagonicus. The Emperor Penguin is called Aptenodytes forsteri, with the same genus name but a different species name. There are other species named patagonicus, such as Lyncodon patagonicus, the Patagonian weasel. (The only relation between the Patagonian weasel and the King Penguin are that they are found in the Western Southern Hemisphere.) But only one species has the name combination Aptenodytes patagonicus. That’s great spaghetti.

Linnaeus’ legacy

We still eat some of Linnaeus’s spaghetti. While many of his rules and categorizations have changed, the principles have stayed the same. We still use binomial nomenclature. Other sublevels (subspecies, subphylum, subfamily, etc.) were added to further classify differences within levels but every species still fits into the same rigid hierarchy. We still even use some of Linnaeus’s names for species, such as Panthera leo, his name for lions.

Two Critically Endangered Hirolas. Photo by Hirola Conservation Programme.

For conservation, taxonomy is king. (See footnote #1) The concept of species is just one color in the tapestry of biodiversity, but a dominant color. If we thought a Hirola (Beatragus hunteri, classified as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List) was the same as a Hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus, Least Concern), there wouldn’t be a serious effort to save the Hirola. Cue: Extinction.

While not always clear-cut, taxonomy is a useful, and (pun intended) evolving tool. There are programs to save entire classes and programs to save subspecies. But to conserve wildlife, we don’t need to understand every facet of taxonomy. We only need to see it as a useful, fluid organization filled with good spaghetti.

  1. Philip

New Protected Area Designated to Safeguard Endangered Bats and Rats

The Municipality of Tubajon in the Philippines just announced the designation of a new protected area on Dinagat Island, one of the country’s smaller islands off the north coast of Mindanao. The Tubajon Bat Sanctuary is approximately 3,500 acres and secures habitat for numerous threatened and endemic species such as the Dinagat Bushy-tailed Cloud Rat, the shrew-like Endangered Dinagat Gymnure (also known as the Dinagat Moonrat) and the endemic Dinagat Tarsier, a recently discovered primate distinct from its relatives, the Philippine Tarsier.
 

A bat roost on Dinagat Island. Photo by Green Mindanao.

 
Rainforest Trust teamed up with local partner GREEN Mindanao to create this new reserve as the second stage of a much larger project that will establish four new protected areas for a total of more than 16,000 acres — an area larger than Manhattan — in order to save the island’s unique and endangered fauna and flora. Dinagat Island is home to 400 plant species and more than 100 bird species.

“This designation by the Tubajon government will help provide a permanent safe haven for many unique species on Dinagat,” said Rainforest Trust CEO Dr. Paul Salaman. “It is an important step in protecting this vital habitat from mining and other threats.”

Community engagement and involvement in the creation and management of the new protected areas are integral components of the project. Led by teachers, church workers and local indigenous groups, there is a palpable desire for conservation and sustainable development on Dinagat Island, as evidenced by community-led protests against destructive mining companies. A management council composed of representatives from the municipal government and local people will oversee the new protected areas, with forest guards and local police enforcing new regulations

An anti-mining congresswoman native to the island along with local officials are negotiating with mining interests to select where the new protected areas will be established. So far, these officials have secured the approval of nine out of 10 participating mining companies. Financial support will be utilized to map and delineate the new protected areas, as well as enable workshops for management and protection training. Patrol equipment, ranger stations, wildlife habitat assessments and policy adoption are key components of this project.
 

Header photo: The Near Threatened Dinagat Tarsier. Photo by Kok Leng Yeo.

 

Major Acquisition Campaign to Protect World’s Most Unique Site for Biodiversity

On Colombia’s Caribbean shores stands the highest coastal mountain on earth. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a corrugated pyramid of rock that rises almost four miles high. This ancient massif dates back to the Jurassic period and contains a microcosm of the entire planet from deserts to rainforests to glaciers, with an extraordinary diversity of plants and animals found nowhere else. It is regarded as the planet’s single most important site for threatened and endemic biodiversity as it boasts the highest concentration of endemic bird species in the world. As a result, the prestigious journal Science dubbed the area the “Most Irreplaceable Site on Earth” and a major priority for biodiversity conservation.
 

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Photo courtesy of ProAves.

 
Located on the Sierra Nevada’s most vulnerable northwestern flank – less than ten miles from the city of Santa Marta – is perhaps the world’s most important nature reserve – El Dorado. Established in 2006 with Rainforest Trust support, we have helped our Colombian partner Fundacion ProAves greatly expand the reserve’s protected area over the past decade, safeguarding habitat for threatened species such as the Critically Endangered Santa Marta Toro and the Santa Marta Harlequin Frog. Only one individual of the Santa Marta Toro has been documented in over 100 years, and it was found in the El Dorado Bird Reserve in 2011 and identified by Rainforest Trust CEO Dr. Paul Salaman. The elusive species is restricted to the northwest slope of the Santa Marta mountain range, making it exceptionally vulnerable.
 

The Santa Marta Parakeet. Photo courtesy of ProAves.

Following decades of uncontrolled colonization and agricultural expansion, only 15 percent of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta’s original vegetation remains unaltered. Principle threats include the expansion of farms, pasturelands and coffee plantations. In addition, the construction of new vacation homes poses a growing danger to the forests.

In a final push to consolidate this crucial reserve, Rainforest Trust is seeking $1,824,957 to strategically acquire key properties and protect 12,179 acres to provide a safe haven for the planet’s most important biodiversity hotspot. With rampant deforestation placing this biodiversity jewel at tremendous risk, our partner has surveyed the landscape to locate the most critical areas for endangered and endemic flora and fauna. These are the areas that will be urgently protected in perpetuity. In addition, a multifaceted conservation program has been implemented that includes reserve protection, eradication of invasive and non-native Mexican pines, a massive habitat restoration program and installing nest-boxes to help the Santa Marta parakeet populations rebound. The ongoing expansion of the reserve is critical to safeguard the area’s wildlife. The new 12,179-acre sanctuary will safeguard the future of countless endangered species that depend on this unique area for their survival.
 

Header photo:

Landscape view of El Dorado. Photo courtesy of ProAves.