Conservation Basics: Saving Frogs at the Deli

Sometimes I find myself telling people I encounter only every once in a while — like cab drivers, friend’s friends, the guy at the deli counter — what I do for a living.

“I work on protecting threatened wildlife in the tropics, like in rainforests,” I say.

“So what kind of animals are we talkin’ ‘bout here?” Sal asks as he daubs more spicy brown mustard on my pastrami sandwich.

“Oh, all sorts of stuff,” I say. “You know, elephants, monkeys, frogs…”

“Frogs!” Sal exclaims, mustard flying across the kitchen as his knife swings up with his full-body motion of disbelief. “Watcha tryna save a frog for?”

The deli. Home base of so many great conversations.

I get questions like this all the time. Which prompts the question: What are we tryna save frogs for?

In fact, let’s continue that line of questioning. What are we trying to save spiders for? What are we trying to save sharks for? What are we trying to save chimpanzees for?

For goodness sake, what are we trying to save elephants for?

Sal’s question, despite my facetiousness, isn’t a bad one. In fact, it’s a good one. It dives at a deeper question of conservation’s purpose and mindset.

Public attitudes about conservation, and, in a lot of ways, the actual work of conservation in the past century have focused on the big species. The iconic ones. Jaguars. Whales. Pandas.

Two reasons for that. Number one: Everyone knows a whale. You see a whale, the average guy on the street says “That’s a whale.” You see a Terrestrial Arboreal Alligator Lizard? Average guy on the street says “I don’t know, Iguana?”

The Terrestrial Arboreal Alligator Lizard. Or, I don’t know, an iguana? Photo by Luis Canseco Márquez.

Number two: They’re all mammals. Humans gravitate more towards species that look like us. So conservationists focus on these classic animals — pandas, whales, etc. — to keep people interested. But are these species more important?

We could get into a whole conversation (or, this is only me talking, so let’s say… a personal diatribe) on the philosophy of evolution, environmental ethics and the inherent value of organisms. But let’s talk about this with some measure of empirical evaluation.

Let’s define “ecological value” for now as relative value to ecosystem stability. As in, which species are more important to keep an ecosystem intact? Different researchers have had different theories on which species hold together an ecosystem. Plant-life is the obvious first thought, right? Every ecosystem needs a flow of nutrients, and where do nutrients always start? In plants. Photosynthesis takes sunlight (available in some quantity pretty much everywhere except cave ecosystems) and turns it into sustenance. Every species that doesn’t photosynthesize eats something that does, or eats something that eats something that does or eats something that eats something that eats something that does. You get my point. Without plants — life has nothing to stand on.

But in the later 20th century, a group of scientists made a series of discoveries that pointed to a much different reality. One scientist, a guy named Robert Paine, spent a lot of time knee deep in a patch of the Pacific Northwest coast. He, one by one, removed every individual of a predatory starfish species from one location over time. In another location, he left everything untouched.

Pisaster ochraceus, the deadly predator starfish Robert Paine focused his studies on. Look at its deadly… purple things. Ok, I don’t know that much about starfish anatomy. CC 2.0/Photo by Jerry Kirkhart.

The micro-ecosystem in the location without the predatory starfish ended up collapsing. Which led Dr. Paine — and plenty of other scientists, in what is now a widespread belief because of repeated studies in other ecosystems with other criteria — to theorize that predators, often apex predators, stabilize ecosystems.

Let’s look at a theoretical example to understand why.

If an apex predator, such as a Lion, disappears or drops in population, the dominant prey species, such as an Impala, will see population growth. Fewer Lions = Fewer Dead Impala. Impala eat plants. With more Impala, they’ll be consuming more plants. If the Impala population grows out of control, they would eat all the plants. So now, by removing the Lions, we’ve killed all the plants. And once all the plants are dead, so will be the Impala.

But you could say the same about the Impala, right? If you removed the Impala, wouldn’t you have the same impact? Not quite.

Based on how food chains (or, to be more exact, food webs) work, an ecosystem will usually have more prey species than predator species. In that Lion-Impala ecosystem, you might also have Thompson’s Gazelle, Grant’s Gazelle, Wildebeest, Hartebeest, Topi, Ostrich, Reedbuck, a few species of Duiker, Eland, African Buffalo, Zebra and Giraffe. Those are all prey species. And I didn’t even list smaller mammals or birds, let alone lizard and fish species. Predator species other than Lions might include Cheetahs, Leopards, Painted Dogs, Crocodiles, two or three Jackal species and two Hyena species. Maybe some Bat-eared Fox and Honey Badger to eat the smaller stuff.

Remove one prey species — an ecosystem has more to fall back on. Remove one predator species — the ecosystem has a lot less wiggle room.

The Bat-eared Fox, who could eat the smaller stuff. CC 2.0/Photo by Derek Keats.

We know that apex predators play an outsize role in ecosystem regulation. But sometimes other species carry a lot of weight as well. Elephants, while not eating anyone else, topple so many trees, some researchers believe they keep grasslands from becoming forests. Parrotfish eat and excrete so much coral, they make much of the sand you find on the beach near a reef.

These are what Robert Paine called “keystone species.” Like the keystone in an arch, if you take these species out of the equation, the whole structure is a lot more likely to collapse than if you take out some other random stone. A lot of keystone species are predators. Some are not. A lot of the time, keystone species are also the species conservationists tend to focus public attention on — like tigers, jaguars and elephants. These species garner public attention and help regulate ecosystem stability more than other species. It’s a win-win for conservationists.

Hold on, wait a second. What about those frogs? Weren’t we going into this whole thing to learn about why saving some random frog is important?

Yes, we were. And I’m not done.

Some species make more of an individual difference. But all those other species add up. One by one, as they go extinct, you’ll have the same impact as losing a predator species: ecosystem collapse.

Imagine, from my earlier thought experiment, instead of the Lions, the Impala (and most of the other prey species I listed) went extinct. Now the predators have nothing to eat, and they’ll die, too. Only the plants would remain — and even then, not for long. I’d bet all the Impala and Zebra dung helped fertilize the soil. Or, the herbivores ate a few species enough to prevent them from overtaking the whole ecosystem. I don’t even know what all the ramifications might be.

The mighty Impala.

Neither do conservation scientists. Yes folks, despite all we understand about how ecosystems work, we don’t understand everything. And we never will. But there’s one thing we know for certain: If we let those little species, the ones who couldn’t possibly mean anything, go extinct, we might not witness any immediate crises.

But right now, scientists say we’re experiencing extinction at 1,000 times the normal rate. If all those species play some role in their ecosystems and die off one by one, wouldn’t that mean that eventually…?

Yup. Definitely trouble.

And if our theoretical ecosystem of plants, Impalas and Lions collapses, it’s not as if everything else nearby will be fine. Every ecosystem, from the poles to the rainforest, connects to another ecosystem. Mess one up, you mess up the one next door. Which affects the one next to that, and the one next to that, and so on and so forth.

You live in one of those ecosystems. Your food comes from one or a few of them, too. So does your water. One species, any species anywhere, going extinct puts us one step closer to global ecosystem collapse. I’m not trying to be an alarmist — it’ll take plenty of extinction to collapse life as we know it. But we’re on a path toward plenty of extinction.

That’s one reason saving every single species, no matter how obscure, unheard-off, freaky-looking, isolated or unimportant it might seem to be, is vital to the survival of life on Earth. Yeah, I said it.

Life. On. Earth.

So one reason we’re tryna save frogs ‘round here, is ‘cause they’s worth it, ya know? For everyone. Saving that frog is part of the difference between a world we can live in and one we can’t.

Sal, I’ll take that pastrami to go. We have a lot of work to do.

International Women’s Day

This International Women’s Day, we celebrate four women who serve as Rainforest Trust Conservation Guardians. Our Guardians are the reserve guards and rangers on the front lines of conservation monitoring. They work to safeguard biodiversity in protected areas through maintenance, patrols and community education.

These women share their work with you, in their own words.


Ednah Nyambu, Kenya

Ednah works with our partner Nature Kenya’s Saving the Taita Apalis Program, protecting a Critically Endangered endemic bird species in the future Taita Apalis Forest Reserve.

 

What is a typical day like for you in the forest?

My day begins with an early morning hike to one of the largest refuges for the Critically Endangered Taita Apalis. Inside the forest, I patrol to assess forest disturbance in the form of grazing, fuelwood fetching and logging. I also carry out bird monitoring through identifying and recording birds species both heard and seen to assess abundance in the forest.

What surprises you about your job?

I was surprised about how willing and eager the local community is in wanting to learn more about the endemic species of the Taita Hills forest. Most importantly, they want to see the small bird, the Taita Apalis. I have seen the values of science through fieldwork and its contribution towards decision making and knowledge generation, especially here in the Taita Hills.

What do you like most about working in conservation?

Informing the community of the uniqueness and endemism of the Taita Hills forests and the need to protect and conserve the forests is one of the activities I enjoy doing most in this job. Taita Hills is my home, and as a young, upcoming conservation leader, I feel honored to contribute whatever I can to sustainable conservation of forests for myself and future generations.

 


Ndelle Lizett Messame, Cameroon

As a project assistant with our partner Cameroon Wildlife Conservation Society, Lizett plans and implements field activities and species inventories. Here she is pictured (center) visiting with a baby chimpanzee in rehabilitation at the Douala-Edea National Park.

 

What would you like to share about your work?

As a woman conservationist, I feel very special because so many women shy away from this kind of job and consider it to be a dirty job. But they don’t know what it feels like conserving nature and ensuring sustainability of our natural resources. In addition, ever since I started working as a conservationist, I noticed that the interest I have in protecting nature is adding to my capacity as a mother to protect every person around me.

What is a typical day like in the forest?

A typical day in the forest is tedious, especially when I have to make my way through a dense forest of twisted trees. But in the end, you find yourself happy for having contributed to the promotion of nature conservation.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of my job is to get the support of a village that has never been sensitized about conservation activities.

 


Kamala Rai, Nepal

Kamala Rai is a social mobilizer assisting with our partner KTK-BELT’s empowerment and conflict transformation programs. She is seated (center), documenting local traditions with community members in the future Lumbasumba Conservation Area.

 

Why did you choose this job?

As I got to know about the Lumbasumba Conservation Project, I thought this was my best opportunity to make locals aware of threats and conservation issues, educate them and serve my village by protecting ecosystems, habitats and species through community-based landscape conservation.

What do you like most about working in conservation?

Conservation provides long-term benefits for the locals by protecting unique habitats, forests, plants, butterflies, animals and wetlands. I think conservation supports sustainable development goals rather than promoting short-term benefits.

What is the hardest part of your job?

I think the work we are doing teaches us how to work further. I feel attached to every part of the project and feel proud for serving my village and the conservation of surrounding nature. Thus, I don’t feel anything is hard about this job and assigned responsibilities.

 


Petga Feukeu Emilie Laure, Cameroon

As a field assistant for our partner Cameroon Wildlife Conservation Society, Petga supports eco-health education and outreach activities associated with Douala-Edea National Park.

 

What do you like most about working in conservation?

What I like most about this work is participating in the protection of the environment, nature, animal species, plants and rare resources. I appreciate the opportunity to sensitize and integrate the community into conservation projects, thus making it possible to shift their value to the biodiversity of a region.

What is a typical day like for you in the forest?

A typical day in the forest is full of emotions and excitement to discover new surprises, but it is also a moment of escape from the daily grind of the city and a rest for the spirit.

What has surprised you about your work?

In the course of my work, I was surprised by the hospitality of the communities bordering the national park which facilitates the completion of the teams on the ground in an area where there are no accommodation facilities.


Rainforest Trust projects thrive thanks to the important conservation work of people on the ground. The Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.

Voices from the Rainforest: Guardian Spotlight on Walter Gaona

Walter Gaona works as a forest guardian in the Copalinga Nature Reserve in southern Ecuador. Rainforest Trust and our local partner Fundación Jocotoco founded Copalinga in 2018, with an ecolodge for tourists already in place. Walter spends much of his time maintaining trails for visitors to enjoy and “learning how life unfolds in the reserve.”

But the more trying aspect of Walter’s role is monitoring the 370-acre property for harmful activities. Rainforest Trust Guardians strive to safeguard the protected areas we help create across the tropics. They are essential in this region of Ecuador, where premontane forests hold the greatest concentration of biodiversity in the country. Logging, mining, agriculture and human settlements threaten the region.

Part of the forest that Walter Gaona patrols. Photo by Doug Wechsler.

Walter receives his honorary inspector’s license. Photo by Fundación Jocotoco.

“In a healthy forest, you can find many things, among which I like to find very rare bird nests,” Walter shared. At least 432 bird species have been recorded in Copalinga, along with monkeys, endangered frogs and butterflies. But the illegal wildlife trade threatens animals there, and Walter said the most difficult part of his job is blocking poachers and their dogs from entering the reserve.

But Walter is now armed with more skills in combating illicit activities, along with the authority to take legal action against forest exploiters in Copalinga. In January, Walter attended a two-day training session to become an honorary inspector by the Ecuadorean Ministry of the Environment.

“Being an honorary inspector means that I can act in cases of extraction and/or transport of wild species in the reserve and other places,” Walter said. “After the training, I have legal tools to prevent these activities from happening.” He learned tactics to handle poachers and other threats, and received a license that underpins his work in Copalinga.

Walter shared his appreciation of being recognized for his work to protect the rainforest: “For me it is an honor to have been taken into account in this space. I am also grateful for this designation because I can contribute to taking better care of our ecosystems.”

Rainforest Trust projects thrive thanks to the important conservation work of people on the ground. Our Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.

Header image: The Vulnerable Military Macaw, found in Copalinga. Photo by Michell Leon.

The Pangolin, Unscienced

You might have heard of a pangolin. Or you might not have.

But Rainforest Trust’s Outreach & Communications Team wanted to show you the pangolin’s true anatomy. We hope that learning more about this animal found in Africa and Asia will lead you to learning to love the eight species of pangolin as much as we do. And, of course, we hope you’ll help protect them from extinction.

Original photo of Critically Endangered Sunda Pangolin by David Brossard.

This shy mammal has the distinction of being the one of the least known and most trafficked animals in the illegal wildlife trade. The pangolin’s Armoured Floof is attractive to many across Asia, as the scales are thought to hold major medicinal properties. And with a Chonk Level of 100, the interest in hunting pangolins for meat is a prominent problem.

While the pangolin’s main defense against poachers and other threats is curling into a tight protective ball, it does have Legs for Zooming if it needs to enter PanGOlin mode.

The pangolin subsists on ants and other insects, using T-Rex Hands to dig into termite mounds, and its Snack Sniffer to root out savory larvae. Some folks refer to pangolins as scaly anteaters, but a more apt title is “Artichoke with Legs,” considering its armored adorability. The pangolin’s Honestly Too Cute Face is enhanced by its Cuteness Extension on the other end.

It is estimated that 2.7 million pangolins are poached each year, so this World Pangolin Day, consider donating to save pangolin habitat in Nepal. All of your gift will go directly to conservation action at our project site, including being used to hire forest guards who ward off the biggest threat to pangolin survival: Us.

Click here to learn more about the plight of the pangolin.

Conservation Basics: Attack of the Pizzly Bears

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.

What is a species?

No, I’m serious — let’s come up with a definition.

Alright, well, we know specific species, like Polar Bears. A Polar Bear is a species of bear, which is a mammal, which is an animal, which is a living thing. (For more on taxonomy, see my article on spaghetti.)

A different species of bear would be the Brown Bear (AKA the Grizzly Bear). The Polar Bear’s scientific name is Ursus maritumus. The Brown Bear’s is Ursus arctos. They have different species names — making them different species.

But how did we decide this?

There’s got to be a standard system for determining where one species ends and another begins. Right?

Wrong.

Turns out, there are three systems for determining where one species ends and another begins. We have our physiological species concept where species differ by physical traits. We also have our ecological species concept where species differ by geography and which ecosystems they occupy. Finally, we have our genetic species concept where species differ by differences in their DNA.

“Hold on, hold on, hold on,” you might be thinking. “Isn’t evolution like a tree, where each species is the end of a branch? Shouldn’t it be simple to tell the difference? How could we disagree over where one species ends and another begins?”

A Polar Bear, which is definitely not a Brown Bear.

My copy of Dictionary of Ecology by Herbert C. Hanson, published in 1962 by Philosophical Library and picked up by me for free in 2015 at a give-away by the Cleveland Park Library in Washington, D.C., defines a species as:

“A unit of classification of plants and animals, consisting of the largest and most inclusive array of sexual reproducing and cross-fertilizing individuals which share a common gene pool.”

Nature, the infamous science journal, defines a species a little differently in their online learning resource:

“A biological species is a group of organisms that can reproduce with one another in nature and produce fertile offspring. Species are characterized by the fact that they are reproductively isolated from other groups, which means that the organisms in one species are incapable of reproducing with organisms in another species.”

Neither of these definitions are (entirely) correct. (Cue: gasp)

Both come down to a few ideas.

1 – Members of a species can reproduce with another in nature.

2 – Offspring must be fertile

3 – They must be reproductively isolated from other groups — one species cannot reproduce with another species (“largest and most inclusive array of sexual reproducing and cross-fertilizing individuals”)

Here, I found two definitions of a species: one from a world-renowned scientific journal and one from some random book I got for free on the sidewalk once. But they both miss something big, gnarly and strange.

The Pizzly Bear. That’s what happens when a Polar Bear and a Brown (Grizzly) Bear mate. They create a Pizzly Bear. Otherwise known as a Grolar Bear.

As we established before, Polar Bears and Brown Bears are different species. They have different names! But let’s break them down into the three species concepts:

The aforementioned Pizzly Bear, in a zoo. Photo by Corradox/CC 3.0

Physiological Species Concept

Polar Bears have white fur and adult males usually weigh somewhere around 1000 lbs. Brown Bears have brown fur and adult males usually weigh somewhere around 500 lbs.

The two species differ in other, more specific ways, but physiologically, they look like different species.

Ecological Species Concept

Polar Bears live in oceanic, arctic climates, in Northern Canada and Alaska, through Russia and Norway. Brown Bears live in the Northern Hemisphere also but in terrestrial environments and range much further south than the Polar Bear.

Ecologically, they seem like different species.

Genetic Species Concept

I don’t have the DNA results on hand, but we can probably assume there‘s some DNA differentiation.

Hence, genetically they (probably) seem like different species.

But let’s go back to the two species definitions and their caveats. They both came down to species differing from one another by the ability to reproduce and create fertile offspring. Here’s where Polar Bears and Brown Bears miss that mark.

Where the two species overlap, people have documented the rare but definitely occuring-in-nature Pizzly Bear. The Pizzly was first discovered in 2006, with a few more discovered since then. Theories speculate that all the bears are descendants of one female, making this a unique case. In fact, some ecologists believe this never would have occurred without the impact of climate change — a warmer climate pushed Brown Bears further north and into more of the Polar Bear’s range, increasing the likelihood of contact.

But no matter what the cause, the two species could reproduce. What’s more, researchers believe some of the Pizzly bears found are descendants of a Brown Bear and a Pizzly Bear! Meaning, not only could they reproduce, but the offspring can be fertile!

This isn’t the only instance of hybridization occuring in the wild. Narwhals have mated with Beluga Whales. Dozens of bird species hybridize, often proving an identification challenge for birdwatchers. Napolean Dynamite’s pretty-much-favorite animal, the Liger, however, does not exist in the wild as Lions and Tigers have no overlapping range. But it does exist in captivity. That big cat actually has a thorny ethical reality.

A Brewster’s Warbler, a common hybrid of Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers in North America. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren/ CC 2.0

Yet Brown Bears and a Polar Bears are so clearly different species. Where does this leave our species definitions?

Neither is right. But neither is wrong. If I were to ask a random grouping of 1,000 ecologists, evolutionary biologists and taxonomists their definition of a species, I doubt I’d get two of the same answers. It’s not that no two would be worded the same — it’s that no two would be the same in their caveats. I’d likely get a few pages-long essays. I’d likely get a couple of laughs and a “No, thank you.”

Biologists debate this topic all the time. They also debate whether species are best divided physiologically, ecologically or genetically. A lot is up for debate. And that’s great! You know, scientific discourse and all that.

Sometimes scientific progress prompts us to revise species boundaries to divide two groups, but sometimes we merge two groups. Sometimes one species living on two different islands or mountains are actually two species. Sometimes two species living on two different islands or mountains are actually one species.

It’s always changing. But that’s part of the fun.

I wrote this to give you more answers. I’m realizing I may not have been entirely successful. Sorry. But now you know how weird, complicated and nebulous some elements of taxonomy can be. I guess that’s an answer to something, maybe.

Point is — if you ever see a dusty white/brown bear, somewhere way up in the taiga, take a closer look.

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.

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.”

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

Rainforest Trust Fellows & Guardians Programs’ Conservation Action

As part of Rainforest Trust’s mission to purchase and protect threatened tropical forests through innovative in-country partnerships, we support hundreds of people across the tropics who are working on our projects in various conservation capacities. We recently launched the Conservation Fellows and the Conservation Guardians programs to honor these unsung heroes of conservation in celebration of our 30th anniversary.

Conservation Fellows are managers and coordinators that perform the essential work necessary to implement our protected area projects on the ground. As the Fellows represent the variety of careers available within conservation, our goal is to inspire these dedicated professionals to continue to apply their skills to tropical forest conservation.

The Guardians team of the Southern Africa Tortoise Conservation Trust are devoted to the conservation of the Critically Endangered Geometric Tortoise (Psammobates geometricus), which is restricted only to the far south-western corner of the Western Cape Province, South Africa. By clearing invasive plant species, they’re creating an environment where these rare and beautiful tortoises can thrive. Photo credit: Jim Juvik

“The Conservation Fellows and Conservation Guardians programs are our most important initiatives since the SAVES Challenge,” said Rainforest Trust CEO Dr. Paul Salaman. “They represent our continuing efforts to recognize and support our partner conservationists.”

Carlos Mauricio Mazo has been working for more than 14 years to conserve critically endangered bird and tree species. In 2015, he founded the NGO Corporación SalvaMontes Colombia to initiate protection of the cloud forests in the north-central Colombian Andes and the numerous endemic and threatened species that live there. The conservation of biodiversity is his life’s work. Photo credit: Carlos Mauricio Mazo

By supporting Conservation Guardians, Rainforest Trust recognizes and assists reserve guards and rangers on the front lines of conservation monitoring. These are the integral members of the team responsible for safeguarding irreplaceable biodiversity and the crucial protected areas that we help establish.

The Conservation Fellows and Conservation Guardians programs have currently enrolled 137 men and women from 17 different countries and 23 partners. Profiles of all participating Fellows and Guardians are being featured on the Rainforest Trust website. We are busy enrolling more, and foresee the programs growing significantly over the next year.

Guardian Akshay Gawade, junior field researcher for AERF in the field. He specializes in the biodiversity of ants and moths (catalogued 150+ species of the latter), but is mainly now focusing on scat analysis to determine the dietary preferences of Indian ground pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) in the proposed Prachitgad Community Reserve. He is also involved in general biodiversity surveys. Photo credit: Jayant Sarnaik

“The Fellows and Guardians programs are an important way for Rainforest Trust to connect directly with the on-the-front-lines conservationists working for our partner organizations around the world,” said Mark Gruin, Director of Institutional Development & Partnerships. “Through these programs we can share knowledge and experiences, promote their accomplishments, and inspire others to pursue conservation as a career.”

Through these programs, we engage with passionate and hardworking individuals all over the world to help promote their work and improve their capacity for conservation success. These programs highlight people within our partner organizations as not only part of a global network of conservation professionals, but part of the Rainforest Trust family.

Kamala Rai, originally from Pawakhola, Nepal, is a social mobilizer at KTK BELT. She has more than eight years of experience as a social mobilizer in FECOFUN, while also working in a women empowerment program for 18 months and a natural resource conflict transformation program for six years. Kamala is most interested in documenting local culture, flora and fauna.

 

Mohan Pandey, an ecologist working for KTK-BELT in Nepal, specializes in research related to endangered plant species, use and harvesting patterns of wild plant resources, local ethnobotanical knowledge, impact study and management of invasive plant species, climate change and conservation. He is passionate about sharing his work with others, and is an active member of the Fellows Program with Rainforest Trust. Photo credit: Rajeev Goyal