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

Curt Vander Meer Receives Conservation Leader Award from Rainforest Trust

Rainforest Trust honored Curt Vander Meer with an award recognizing his leadership in conservation on December 8th as part of our 30th Anniversary Celebration and Species Legacy Auction. The award was given to celebrate his vision and commitment to global conservation.

Vander Meer accepting his award from Rainforest Trust CEO Paul Salaman, pictured with Lisa Vander Meer. Photo by Rainforest Trust.

Vander Meer is CEO of Indianapolis-based Endangered Species Chocolate (ESC), a premium fairtrade chocolate company that supports conservation efforts worldwide by “giving back” 10% of their profits annually. Under Curt’s leadership, in the past three years they have given $1.4 million to protect endangered species and habitats, with Rainforest Trust being one of their GiveBack partners. ESC became a supporter of Rainforest Trust in 2016, formalizing their participation in the Conservation Circle — our corporate giving sponsorship program — this year at the Chairman’s level. ESC has given over $500,000 towards Rainforest Trust projects thus far, saving rainforest land greater than the size of Indianapolis.

“We are indebted to Curt and Endangered Species Chocolate not just for their support of our important work, but also for their commitment and leadership in regards to sustainability,” said Rainforest Trust CEO Paul Salaman. “ESC walks the walk in regards to conservation, doing so much to save species at risk and care for our planet.”

The award given to Vander Meer recognizes his conservation leadership at ESC, but also his dedication to environmental sustainability writ large. Vander Meer is a passionate conservationist, and along with his wife Lisa, purchased the naming rights to a Colombian frog during our Species Legacy Auction. The event auctioned off the naming rights to 12 new to science species found in reserves created by Rainforest Trust and our local partners, and earned $182,500 total towards saving these species and their habitat.

“Endangered Species Chocolate has a 25 year history of supporting and generating awareness of conservation efforts. Our brand promise is to give back 10% of our annual net profits to organizations, such as Rainforest Trust, for the protection of species and habitats. I am honored to be receiving this recognition on behalf of the whole Endangered Species Team. Each of our employees are committed to the cause of conservation and making a difference in our world.”

The recently discovered frog from Colombia that Vander Meer and the employees at Endangered Species Chocolate will name. Photo by SalvaMontes.

Conservation Basics: The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is a Coffee Snob

Title photo courtesy of Bird Conservation Society of Thailand.

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.

“I’ll take a single origin, double-espresso, one decaf, almond milk latte with a splash of whole milk and a 70:20:10 mix of sugar, artificial sweetener and cocoa powder in a non-white porcelain mug washed with tepid water 45 seconds before pouring the first espresso but 23 seconds after steaming the milk,” said the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, before adding, “You know what, can you make two of those?”

“What’s the name?” asked the barista.

Calidris pygmaea,” said the Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

“Spelling?” asked the barista.

A Spoon-billed Sandpiper: A Critically Endangered species and a really picky coffee drinker. Photo by JJ Harrison/CC 3.0

I hate to anthropomorphize. But I’m trying to make a point here.

Before I explain why I’m being so hard on the colorful and Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper (a magnificent bird), let me ask that if you haven’t read my earlier piece on habitat, please go do so now. But assuming you have, I’ll get right to the point.

When you walk into a coffee shop, you might assume you can choose a few options such as a latte or a cold brew.

You would be wrong.

Coffee is brimming with possibilities. We can customize any variable, from the coffee tree seedling to the time you take a sip. Where did the beans grow? At what elevation? How were they roasted? When were they roasted? What’s the temperature of the water? How long is the brewing cycle? How much lactose do you want in your milk?

So many options!

The list could go on forever. But now, unlike a recent battle with an extended metaphor involving tortilla chips, I will break out of this extended metaphor involving coffee for good.

We might think habitat only comes in a few varieties such as grassland, rainforest, mountains or ocean.

But again, we would be wrong. Habitat comes in as many varieties as you could imagine.

Looking out the window here at Rainforest Trust headquarters in Virginia, I see trees. Hence, we’re in a forest. I can tell they are mainly deciduous trees, but some conifers dot the landscape. So our office is in a mostly deciduous forest.

Virginia is in a temperate climatic zone, making this space a temperate mostly deciduous forest. Besides that, we get periods of rain or snow year round, making it a seasonal temperate mostly deciduous forest.

A little further away, I can see a field of tall grass, a freshwater lake and a creek. So while this building might be in a mostly deciduous forest, this patch of land is a seasonal temperate mostly deciduous forest stand within a forest, grassland and freshwater mosaic. Add in the cow pasture next door and we’re in an agriculturally influenced forest, grassland and freshwater mosaic.

I wouldn’t know how to categorize this patch of land any further without detailed evaluations, but the specificity doesn’t stop there. Any variable you can measure or differentiate between two patches of land can be a differentiation in habitat.

A temperate, coniferous forest with freshwater patches at altitude.

You might think these minutiae are ridiculous. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper would disagree. Under the “Habitat and Ecology” section on the IUCN Red List’s description of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, it says the bird “has a very specialised breeding habitat, using only lagoon spits with crowberry-lichen vegetation or dwarf birch and willow sedges, together with adjacent estuary or mudflat habitats that are used as feeding sites by adults during nesting. The species has never been recorded breeding further than 5 km (and exceptionally once, 7 km) from the sea shore… During winter it prefers mixed sandy tidal mudflats with an uneven surface and very shallow water, mainly in the outermost parts of river deltas and outer islands, often with a higher sand content and thin mud layer on top.”

How’s that for a coffee order?

[Author Note: The fact that the the difference between 7 km and 5 km from the sea is described as “exceptional” is exceptional.]

I jest, but these specifics are tantamount to many species’ existence. That’s the wonder of biodiversity; through evolution, each species found a niche for itself, different from the niches of any other species. I dare say it’s poetic and inspiring.

Some species don’t have the same stringent requirements. Unlike the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, the White-tailed Deer has its requirements met “in practically every ecological type including grasslands, prairies and plains, mountains, hardwoods, coniferous and tropical forests, deserts, and even in woodlots associated with farmland.” That’s equivalent to walking into a coffee shop and saying “Give me something liquid.”

The White-tailed Deer’s coffee order.

Differences in habitat preference specificity mean that some species are at a higher risk of extinction than others. Spoon-billed Sandpipers occupy such a narrow range of habitat types that when one bit of habitat disappears, it can be a major blow to the species. In fact, the Red List notes that “throughout its migratory and wintering ranges, tidal flats are being reclaimed for coastal development (industry, leisure, infrastructure, aquaculture and agriculture) and are becoming increasingly polluted.” There are so few areas of habitat available that it’s easy to eradicate most of it. To do the same with the White-tailed Deer’s habitat you would need to pave most of the North American continent.

Here at Rainforest Trust, we protect habitat for endangered and critically endangered species. Often, part of the reason these species are Endangered or Critically Endangered is because most of the rest of their habitat is already gone. I can’t overstate habitat’s importance; many experts agree that habitat loss is the leading cause of extinction worldwide.

What lives in your habitat?

We look at the state of a species’ habitat — how much remains, protected status, decline rate — and use that information to help protect them. But habitat isn’t just for the wonks and researchers. You can see habitat. Look outside your window, no matter if you’re in a big city or on a farm or in the suburbs or in the woods. What is living around you? Eastern Grey Squirrels and American Robins? Giraffes? White Pelicans? Elephant Seals? Monarch Butterflies? Maple Trees? What else is living around you? I promise that no matter where you are, you’re bound to discover something in your habitat that surprises you.

So go forth! Explore! Help the future of conservation by learning more about your backyard. You can even take along a cup of coffee (no matter how you take it).

Conservation Basics: Tiny, Frustrating Tortilla Chips

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.

As I was trying to think of a way to explain the concept of species distribution, I struggled to find the right analogy. Species distribution is essentially just where a species lives, but the nuances are important for conservation decision-makers. And the nuances are weird and specific — especially when it comes to habitat fragmentation, or the splitting up of species’ distributions into smaller chunks.

So I wrestled with how to properly explain how frustrating distribution can be for conservation scientists. Until I found another frustrating medium that has many of the same properties.

See, species distribution is a tortilla chip.

In this (not perfect) metaphor, let’s imagine that guacamole is the population size of a species. More guacamole = bigger population of a species.

“Wildlife and their geographic range.”

With me? Great.

What is guacamole’s natural habitat? In the brief instance in which this metaphor is useful, the moment between dipping and chewing, the natural habitat of the guacamole is the tortilla chip. The guacamole relies on the tortilla chip, without the tortilla chip, the guacamole will never make it (to you).

Before our intervention, tortilla chips are full triangles or circles, capable of sustaining a massive heap of guacamole. Pleasant amounts of lime, red onion and avocado can go from bowl to mouth in peace. But, as anyone who has opened a bag of tortilla chips can tell you, this harmony doesn’t last.

Tortilla chips, with too much human interference, break in two. When they do, these smaller fragments don’t support half of the original guacamole volume. Smaller tortilla chips bring in less guacamole proportional to their size, reducing the total guacamole volume scooped per square inch of tortilla chip surface area. As these pieces grow smaller and smaller, it becomes more difficult to support a meaningful level of guacamole. Eventually, the pieces will become useless to the guacamole.

Tortilla chips before becoming unusable, tiny pieces.

Still with me? Awesome.

We also have to account for your thumb space in picking up guacamole. The more tortilla chip surface area your thumb covers, the less guacamole you’ll scoop. This is the effective size of the tortilla chip.

The shape of the tortilla chip also matters. A circular tortilla chip has the proportional viability to hold a heap of guacamole right in the middle. But a long, skinny tortilla chip of the same size will support less guacamole than the circular chip. You could try to pick up the same volume of guacamole, but it will keep falling off the edges.

We should also take into account the structural viability of the tortilla chip. A good tortilla chip can pile on mountains of guacamole. A sub-standard tortilla chip will break with just a hint of tension.

Conservation scientists look at geographic range by taking into account the surface area of the tortilla chips and the effective size of the tortilla chips. They further evaluate these factors by the shape, structural viability and size of the tortilla chip.

I will now try to dig out of this unending metaphor.

The surface area of the tortilla chip is the “extent of occurrence.” This is complicated, so let’s use another metaphor to explain this already convoluted metaphor. Imagine a house with many unused rooms. While the entire house exists as habitat, in reality, only a few rooms are occupied. The whole house is the “extent of occurrence,” the used rooms are what’s known as the “area of occupancy.”

The “area of occupancy” is the actual space the species uses. To bring it back to the tortilla chips, some areas (covered by the thumb) aren’t home to any guacamole. Species don’t live in every corner of their “extent of occurrence,” but they do live in every corner of their “area of occupancy.” So the thumb space would be included in the “extent of occurrence” but not the “area of occupancy.”

Does the giraffe live in every part of this landscape or just part of it? The difference is the difference between “extent of occurrence” and “area of occupancy,” respectively.

Species need safeguards from random catastrophes — like a disease or a fire. If the entire species lives in one field and that field succumbs to a sinkhole, the species is no longer. If the species lives in three fields and one field succumbs to a sinkhole, two habitats remain.

So, on a basic level, the larger the extent of occurrence and area of occupancy, the more chance a species has to make it past a catastrophe.

The shape of the protected habitat (the shape of the tortilla chip) is also important. Protected areas suffer from the “edge effects,” meaning protected land right next to unprotected land will suffer from external influence more than protected land far away from unprotected land. A circle has more area away from the border than something long and skinny, meaning more habitat further from unprotected areas.

The size of the protected habitat (the size of the individual tortilla chips) is important as well. If you had one contiguous tortilla chip and broke it up into many smaller tortilla chips, we would support less guacamole. Same goes with habitat. We call this phenomenon habitat fragmentation. Small patches of habitat have more “edge” areas and less contiguous space, supporting fewer individuals. This also fragments populations, which can lead to inbreeding.

The quality of the habitat (the structural viability of the tortilla chip) defines how many individuals a habitat can support, or carry. Some habitats can support many individuals and species, and some don’t have the same carrying capacity.

A city park, because it is smaller and prone to more disturbance will probably support a lower level of biodiversity than a vast, undisturbed landscape.

To close, I will surrender to this metaphorical quagmire.

The point of a protected area for wildlife is to support large, contiguous and sturdy tortilla chips. Rainforest Trust keeps this idea in mind with every protected area. We’ve protected both large, contiguous areas in themselves in addition to securing gaps between areas to create new vast stretches of protected land.

Because without practical chips, we have no guacamole and the consequences of breaking our bag of tortilla chips (the planet) into tiny, frustrating pieces are dire.

So let’s stop guacamole from going extinct.

From the First to the Largest Species Naming Auction: Rainforest Trust Leads the Way

Rainforest Trust is hosting the largest ever public auction of species naming rights with this fall’s Species Legacy Auction. The strategy of selling the naming rights of newly discovered species to raise funds for conservation is common, but it was Rainforest Trust CEO Paul Salaman that started the trend 25 years ago.

In the summer of 1991, Salaman led an expedition of Colombian and British students to a remote and isolated region of the Chocó rainforests in southwestern Colombia. His expedition discovered one of the world’s greatest concentrations of endemic species at a site called Río Ñambí, where Salaman discovered a never before recorded species of songbird. The distinctive new bird was a member of the Vireo family.

New member of the Vireo family discovered by Dr. Paul Salaman. Photo by Carlos Gustavo.

Colombia in the early 90s was in the grip of horrific civil strife with drug cartels controlling cities and guerrilla groups battling the government across the country. The expedition stayed at a former cocaine processing plant in the Río Ñambí forest and the area was at risk for illicit coca plantations. With the habitat of this vireo and countless other species threatened, Salaman was desperate to raise funds to buy the forests for the local indigenous population and establish a community reserve. With the new-to-science bird as yet unnamed, Salaman thought up an innovative fundraiser — to auction off the right to name the beautiful new vireo in an effort to raise the funds needed to create a reserve.

Dr. Paul Salaman posing with drawing of the bird he discovered in 1991.

Traditionally, the right to decide the second part of a scientific name of a species lies with the discoverer. “However, I broke this tradition for an exciting, if a bit crazy, new idea to underpin the conservation of the Río Ñambí,” said Salaman. “The idea of selling a bird’s name shocked some, but the general reaction was of eager anticipation and speculation as to who would win the honor of naming the bird and helping save its habitat!” The winning bid raised $75,000 that helped create the Río Ñambí and Pangan Reserves and saved countless species and buffers several indigenous communities from deforestation.

Rainforest destruction has not slowed in the past quarter century, and indigenous communities are increasingly negatively impacted. The preservation of rainforests and the people that rely on them is all the more critical. Salaman is applying the auction strategy now at Rainforest Trust, with the names of 12 new-to-science species being auctioned on December 8th. Pre-bidding is already underway. All Proceeds will be matched and will go directly towards protecting the ecologically rich homes of the flora and fauna being named, areas where there are likely other unknown species that enrich our planet and could have immense benefits to mankind.

Conservation Basics: Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

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.

We know why the chicken crossed the road: to get to the other side. But what was on the other side?

The proverbial chicken crossed the road, motivated by its desire to get to the proverbial “other side.” We assume the chicken made this decision of its own volition and made it with purpose. Like all heroes, The Great Explorer Chicken had a choice: stay put or face the unknown. And, like all heroes, the chicken chose the unknown, battling dangers of the road to seek the dream of the other side’s brighter tomorrow. To remember this inspiring feat, we’ve etched the chicken’s infamous bravery into the annals of history.

I first reflected on the motivations of the iconic chicken after witnessing a Helmeted Guineafowl cross a road between Mto wa Mbu and Arusha in northern Tanzania. A Helmeted Guineafowl, while not a chicken, is chickenesque. I was zipping along the road in a car. The guineafowl was in the roadside brush until, like a scene out of Frogger, it ignored the oncoming hazards moving perpendicular to its trajectory and bolted.

The Helmeted Guineafowl: A Chickenesque Species

But why?

On the north side of the road were buildings, homes and a sufficiency of cows: a human-dominated landscape. On the south side was a private ranch, managed for both wildlife and cattle. Cattle grazing occurred on the outskirts of the property and wildlife abounded in the center, including guineafowl.

As the guineafowl crossed from protected area to unprotected area, it passed from one habitat to another habitat. It did not cross from habitat to “not habitat.” Habitat is the space where living things live, so everywhere is habitat because living things live everywhere. Just as the Serengeti is habitat, the tracks of the New York City subway are habitat. In fact, subway tracks are suitable habitat for the Brown Rat.


But the Brown Rat did not evolve on subway tracks. Nevertheless, it still finds those rails a reliable place to settle down after a long day of pizza-nabbing. Each species relies on a unique combination of habitat factors to live, with some species more discerning than others. The Brown Rat, we might conclude, is not a picky creature. Some species of tropical montane hummingbirds, who only live on a few isolated mountaintops in Central America, are perhaps more choosy.

Habitat types differ in geology, climate (including temperature and precipitation), geographic location, water chemistry and soil properties. Different communities of plants and animals can also create different habitats; some species may rely on another species to survive. Some wasps only lay eggs in fig trees, some ants rely on Acacia trees to colonize and some people just, like, can’t live without their dogs. There is no fixed number of habitat types, only a lengthy list of factors to describe habitat. Each combination (cold, wet and mountainous; warm, dry and mountainous; temperate, marine and sea-level; etc.) is a unique habitat. If you add another factor to the list, the differentiation grows.

The species-habitat relationship is a major tenet of Rainforest Trust’s work to help protect the specific habitats endangered species rely on to survive. Take, for example, Rainforest Trust’s project with the Critically Endangered Palawan Forest Turtle. The entire species relies on lowland swamp forest habitat in one corner of the Philippines. Without this habitat in this location, the entire species will go extinct. If you want to protect gorillas, you need to understand where gorillas thrive. If you want to protect Leafcutter ants, you need to understand where Leafcutter ants thrive. Same goes for pythons, tuna, sugar maples and every other species on the planet.

The Palawan Forest Turtle. Photo courtesty of N. Cegalerba and J. Szwemberg.

As Jeff Goldblum said in my favorite movie: “Life, uh, finds a way.” While terse, Michael Crichton’s punchy take is a decent one-line description of the entire field of biology. Life is everywhere and, uh, finds a way. There are microbes that rely on the salty water of the Dead Sea and spiders that only live on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Anywhere on Earth, we should ask, “What lives here?” not, “Can anything live here?”

So why, dare I ask, did the Helmeted Guineafowl cross the road?

Guineafowl rely on habitat traits to survive, and we can assume that both sides of the road, being adjacent, contained the necessities of guineafowl life. The south side was managed for wildlife, ensuring food availability and nesting space, while the north side was not. On the south side of the road, the guineafowl would compete with other guineafowl for resources; on the north side of the road, the guineafowl might compete with domestic chickens. Due to differences in anthropogenic influence, the plant communities, insect communities and soil properties might be different on either side. Two places on Earth, the south side and the north side of one road, vary only in minutiae, but important minutiae.

But the guineafowl and I had different knowledge of the situation. I knew which side might be empirically better for the guineafowl. The guineafowl understood the situation on the ground. Maybe there wasn’t enough food in its immediate vicinity. Maybe another guineafowl scared it. Maybe a Bat-eared Fox was trying to eat it. Maybe it was venturing off to live somewhere new. Maybe it was training for the Guineafowl Olympics. The guineafowl didn’t know the other side held, statistically, fewer opportunities for success. The guineafowl only knew what it knew in that definitive moment and, unlike me, knows what happened in the seconds, hours, days, months and years afterwards.

Our hero must make a decision.

So why did the guineafowl cross the road? After putting the pieces together, we can determine that the scientific, definitive answer is: Who knows? As much as we try to understand the species-habitat relationship, we’ll never be able to predict everything. For conservation, we do the best we can to understand every detail of each side of the equation (species and habitat) and plan for what we know, hoping the wildlife go along with the plan. I don’t know why a guineafowl runs across a road, risking its life.

Maybe the guineafowl just wanted to get to the other side.

Rainforest Trust Supports Effort to Rescue Snared African Leopard

Tokoloshe should have died within three weeks. That is the lifespan of other African Leopards caught in snares around their abdomen in South Africa’s Soutpansberg Mountains. Although an illegal practice in South Africa, snares are popular in the region, used by landowners to trap bushmeat and eliminate predators.

But this apex predator has made it six months. Tokoloshe is surviving with a metal snare wrapped around her belly, surprising wildlife researchers and those hoping to rescue her. A camera trap spotted her in an unprotected area as recently as October 11. Currently, only 1 percent of the Soutpansberg Mountains are formally conserved, meaning that leopards and other endemic species must continually traverse private farms and other properties.

Tokoloshe captured on a game camera in May 2018. Photo by the Primate & Predator Project.

Rainforest Trust is working with one of our local South African partners, Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) to purchase such properties and convert them to reserves. Establishing the Soutpansberg Protected Area will give vulnerable wildlife space to roam without the threat of snares and conflict with humans. Conservation biologist and manager of the Soutpansberg Protected Area Oldrich van Schalkwyk shares that, unfortunately, snaring is on the rise in this region of South Africa. The growing human population is encroaching on leopard habitat, and “the economy is in a recession at the moment, increasing the need for bushmeat. Leopards caught in snares on the western Soutpansberg seem to be bycatch from the bushmeat trade, although the body parts such as skin, bones, canine teeth and dewclaws will be traded opportunistically.” These strained circumstances led to Tokoloshe’s snaring. But she’s lived with her body parts intact.

Durham University’s Primate and Predator Project (PPP) is tracking Tokoloshe with the intent to humanely trap her, remove the snare and treat her wounds. But Tokoloshe – named after an evasive sprite in Zulu mythology – never stays in one place long enough for traps to be set. Not surprisingly, capturing leopards is dangerous for both the animal and people involved. The PPP team also wants to cause as little disruption to other wildlife as possible while helping the snared leopard. “Although it’s emotional to see such a majestic animal suffer at the hand of man, and we would like to relieve her suffering by removing the snare and treat her wound immediately,” states van Schalkwyk, “we are always mindful not to accidently trap non-target leopards.” Van Schalkwyk was asked to assist PPP with rescuing Tokoloshe because of his seven years of experience trapping leopards via a non-invasive process. As part of the partnership with EWT, Rainforest Trust is sponsoring van Schalkwyk in this rescue effort and his role as manager of the Soutpansberg Protected Area.

Tokoloshe has been spotted in trail camera footage just occasionally. According to the project, her condition is deteriorated but stable. The snare is cutting into subcutaneous tissue and superficial abdominal muscles, but is not so tight as to tear deep into her belly. Theoretically, she could survive in this compromised state for a while, but the PPP and its supporters are anxious to remove the snare. Last month, PPP’s camera grid photos indicated Tokoloshe is traveling with a male leopard. If she becomes pregnant, the snare will quickly slice through her growing abdomen, slowly killing both the developing cub and Tokoloshe in the process.

EWT Field Ranger de-snaring a land parcel belonging to the Ndouvhada clan. As part of South Africa’s Land Reform Programme, this clan was repatriated ancestral communal land neighboring EWT’s Medike Nature Reserve, which is a newly formed reserve forming part of the Soutpansberg Protected Area Programme. Photo by Endangered Wildlife Trust.

Along with the potential of pregnancy, rescuers are worried because tracking information show Tokoloshe spending a lot of time on the farm where she likely picked up the snare in the first place. Rainforest Trust has already made funds available for EWT to purchase this property and other threatened land parcels to expand the Soutpansberg Protected Area. Negotiations for purchasing these properties is underway, but in the meantime, van Schalkwyk is organizing an Anti-Poaching Unit to perform community outreach. They educate the public on the dangers of using snares (valuable domesticated animals on farms are just as likely to be snared as wildlife) and spend much of their time de-snaring properties where leopards and other vulnerable wildlife live.

Rainforest Trust hopes to share good news about Tokoloshe soon. If she is freed from her snare, she will one day enjoy a new protected area in South Africa’s threatened Soutpansberg Mountains.

Snares gathered from one property by the Anti-Poaching Unit funded by Rainforest Trust. Photo by Endangered Wildlife Trust.

Conservation Basics: An Elephant in the Forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

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.

Here at Rainforest Trust, we use data – a lot of data – to conserve habitats for endangered species. We need to know where the species lives, how many of them there are and how best to conserve said species.

But that knowledge is always changing. Our Rainforest Trust scientists are constantly reflecting on the central question: How do we determine the most effective strategies for conservation when we can’t be certain of everything that might affect those strategies?

We use the power of collective knowledge to overcome uncertainty. A vague concept, I know. But let me explain. Take, for example, the case of the Congo’s elephants.

Somewhere in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is an elephant. At the moment I write this piece, the elephant – the specific individual – might be sleeping. It might be eating, drinking, cavorting with another elephant or partaking in whatever other activity a wild elephant in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo might partake in.

I don’t know where, exactly, the elephant is at this precise moment or if any other elephants are nearby. I don’t know if the elephant is sick, well-fed, hungry, stressed or relaxed. I know nothing about this specific elephant. But I know an elephant is somewhere in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

African Forest Elephants. Photo by Caroline Granycome/Flickr

As a society, we know elephants are somewhere in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since we, as a species (humans), know an elephant exists somewhere in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I, as an individual, know an elephant exists somewhere in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And now I’ve told you. So now you know.

We can infer facts about the elephant based on general trends, but with less certainty. We know what it (probably) eats. We know how big it will (probably) become. We know how old it will (probably) grow to be. We know the individual is an African Forest Elephant, as opposed to an African Bush Elephant (although African Bush Elephants live in the DRC, too, we’ll assume I’m writing about an African Forest Elephant), but we aren’t sure if that distinction is between a species or a subspecies.

There are other tidbits of information we probably don’t know. We probably don’t know where this elephant was born. We probably don’t know what other elephants this elephant has encountered. We probably don’t know how far this elephant has travelled in the past two weeks. We may know these things, but we probably don’t.

Finally, there are some details we definitely don’t know. We don’t know if this elephant has a recurring itch on its left ear. We don’t know where this elephant will go tomorrow. We don’t know when or how this elephant will die.

Science is both fueled and limited by uncertainty. Science discovers the undiscovered, sees the unseen and recognizes the unrecognizable. But science requires certainty to move forward, state assumptions and take the next step. In conservation, science necessitates action and action necessitates science. But if we don’t know everything, how can we do anything useful? Uncertainty can be paralyzing, but paralysis is unacceptable because conservation inaction leads to extinction.

I couldn’t find any photographs of the Dodo. Because extinction is permanent.

And extinction is permanent.

As conservation grew – from a pastime to a field of study to an industry – the science and conversation around it only grew more and more complicated. This was good! The sharing of ideas, knowledge and inquiries, discussions at conferences, community meetings and camping trips, newly published papers, books and films, and policy, law, economics, biology, chemistry, geology, geography and fashion all add to the field of conservation. Every one of these methods is useful and inspiring, but not always global or continuous.

But these developments also meant that conservation science became more and more complicated. So as conservation grew – from a pastime to a field of study to an industry – fewer and fewer people were fully in the know.

We’re going to change that.

It’s completely understandable if you don’t understand the nuances of the science and policy of wildlife conservation. But I bet you know animals exist. You probably know some species are endangered and some species are not. You probably don’t know every step in the decision-making process, or who decides what is Endangered or Vulnerable or of Least Concern. You definitely don’t know how to save every species. But we need to find the solutions to protect every species on the planet. Not only pandas, lions and bees, but every moth, tree, fungus, protozoan, sea cucumber and anglerfish needs our help. Every. Single. Species.

And you (that’s right, you) play an important role in getting that done.

The conservation community can’t save the planet on our own. We don’t have the necessary time or capacity to protect every species of spider, let alone every species. So you have two options. You can take the route leading to a hilarious yet meaningful memoir the New York Times Book Review will call “surprisingly refreshing and heartfelt” and quit your job, move to Alaska and hand-rear orphaned caribou to release to the wild. If you think that’s your calling, by all means, please do so. But you don’t need to and I actually encourage you not to.

We need bankers, writers, factory workers, farmers, lawyers, politicians, air traffic control officers, grocery store clerks, retirees, students, actors, Olympic speed skaters, plumbers, recreational golfers, Yankees fans, Red Sox fans, people who don’t like baseball, people who’ve never heard of baseball, people who have heard of baseball but don’t feel one way or the other about baseball and everyone else to be aboard the Biodiversity Express. Stay where you are, keep doing what you’re doing and keep conservation in mind. By learning a little more about how conservation works, you might end up with a bigger appreciation of how important conservation is.

Look at all those potential conservationists!

I’m going to help you start doing that by unraveling some of the nitty-gritty. This series will explore how Rainforest Trust uses conservation science and everything it entails. We have big plans for conservation and want you all to understand exactly why our work is vital. I, on your behalf, will ask little questions to get to the bottom of the big questions: Who does the research? What information do we need to assess species status? Where does the Black-bellied Pangolin live? When did the Yangtze River Dolphin become functionally extinct? Why is the Giant Panda no longer listed as Endangered? Why should you care? How are we at Rainforest Trust using this information to protect our planet’s species?

Science is about uncertainty, but uncertainty does not consume science, nor does it immobilize it. (See Appendix I of the official IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria, titled “Uncertainty.”) We need not know every detail to save our planet. We only need to keep learning.

We need you to be an advocate for conservation. But that starts with a foundation of understanding. So let’s begin with the knowledge that somewhere in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is an elephant.