The importance of science: from an invasive to an endemic species

Science is about always about making new questions, cleverly doubting the status quo. This is what makes it moves forward and improves everyone’s knowledge. Most of the time it is done in small steps, rarely as major inventions or breakthroughs.

Mauritius, a small island in the Western Indian Ocean, was once the home of the world famous dodo. Although small, because it is quite isolated, the flora and fauna evolved mostly in isolation, resulting in proportionally high levels of endemism.

Although Mauritius has one of the last places in the world where human set foot, it took no time for this rich endemic biodiversity to vanish or too become very rare and so, threatened with extinction. We know this because Mauritius flora and flora has been well-documented.

In an offshore volcanic islet 4 km north of Mauritius, named Gunner’s Quoin or Coin de Mire (Mauritius was colonised by both the French and the British, so name of many places have an English and a French version). This islets cover only 76 ha but it has some remnants of the native vegetation, and it is a stronghold of some now rare endemic species.

During a short expedition to Gunner’s Quoin, we came across a liana without leaves, having thick stem with constrictions at more or less regular intervals, which makes it resembles a line of sausages. Nearly all individuals were growing together creeping down a steep slope, looking like a green waterfall. Samples taken showed that there was no other known plant like this on Mauritius, or in the world. So it was described as a new species.

Cynanchum scopulosum, a Mauritian endemic leafless liana

Cynanchum scopulosum, a Mauritian endemic leafless liana

 

A green waterfall formed by this very rare species

A green waterfall formed by this very rare species

However, it seems that this ‘green waterfall’ was known before. Previous surveys in the 1980s and 1990s, however, saying that it was formed by an invasive species was growing there. A few years later, we also found a map from 1930s with the same information (and it also shown other places were the species was growing on the islet). This said invasive species is of the same family and superficially resembles the new endemic species.

The lesson is simple: if samples were collected and preserved in herbarium collections, the wrong field identification could have been corrected. This could have to helped to avoid this endemic species, which is restricted to this islet only, to have today a more healthy population and be less be threatened with extinction, or not threatened at all.

 

Reference cited

Florens, F. B. V.; Baider, C. 2006. On the discovery of a new endemic Cynanchum (Apocynaceae) on Mauritius with a description of its habitat and conservation status. Phelsuma 14: 7-12

Post truth handy in renewed mass culling flying foxes threatened with extinction on Mauritius

A little more than a year ago, I wrote about the government lead mass culling of the Mauritian flying foxes. At that time, I pointed out how the decision was based on nothing but thin air. This year, there is a word for it: post-truth.

Mauritius flying fox resting during the day

Mauritius flying fox resting during the day

Post-truth seems to be a fast-growing fashion worldwide. This is one desolate reality brought by the digital era. When we thought that this connectivity would make it easier to have access to knowledge and science, many people instead found it much easier to use it consolidate their own personal belief or opinion, no matter what.

Mauritius has come forward to show the world how the post-truth era is a great place indeed. Last week, it announced a new mass culling of its endemic flying foxes. Despite having wiped out over 40% of the population of this endemic threatened species in a matter of a month in 2015, now the Government of Mauritius decides that it is pertinent to go ahead with yet another mass cull. If all goes as planned, within just over a year, at least half of the world population of Mauritius flying foxes would have been wiped off the face of the Earth.

The army went to places where the animals congregate during the day, including natural forests and protected areas and opened fire. The reason for this barbaric action is simple: trying to increasing profit of a few. All tax payers to the Government of Mauritius chipped in, even if this would benefit a handful of people. Worst, profits did not increase as expected simply because the main losses to litchis and mangoes are not caused by the flying foxes.

The mass culling has also a far more detrimental consequence. Mauritius has proportionally a high level of endemism per area of land. Although it was one of the last places to be colonised by humans, today it has ranks as having the most endangered terrestrial biota in the world. The reasons: deforestation and introduction of alien species that became pest. Today, the best-preserved forests of Mauritius are mostly legally protected but they are dominated by invasive alien plants. In a matter of decades, some of these best-preserved forests lost half of its large native trees due to alien plant invasion. These facts make the future of Mauritian native forest bleak indeed. The Mauritian Flying fox is the only remaining seed disperser of many of the large trees of the Mauritian forests, particularly that two other flying fox species have already been exterminated in Mauritius. Wiping out most of the surviving flying foxes will mean that less seeds will be dispersed, making forest regeneration even more difficult (as flying foxes need to be in fair numbers for effectively dispersing seeds). As the invasion of the native forest of Mauritius is progressing and the population of its main seed disperser is spiralling down, it is simple to join the dots. The Mauritian forest and its rich biodiversity is heading towards being as dead as the dodo (oops, another Mauritian), through the actions of its own government, which by the way, took commitment to protect and restore its rich and unique biodiversity.

So, why is mass culling – a means proven ineffective to increase fruit production – being done again this year? In the post-truth era, reasoning is not necessary. The answer is….uhm…because it will make some happy, or because it will….[please insert whatever belief or opinion here, especially unfounded].

 

References cited

Florens, FBV 2016. Biodiversity law: Mauritius culls threatened fruit bats. Nature 530 (7588): 33.

Florens, FBV 2015. Flying foxes face cull despite evidence. Science 350 (6266): 1325.

Florens, FBV et al in press. Long-term declines of native trees in an oceanic island’s tropical forests invaded by alien plants. Applied Vegetation Science. 10.1111/avsc.12273

Florens, FBV et al 2016. Invasive alien plants progress to dominate protected and best-preserved wet forests of an oceanic island. Journal for Nature Conservation 34: 93–100

McConkey, K & Drake, D 2006. Flying foxes cease to function as seed dispersers long before they become rare. Ecology 87(2): 271-276.

Oleksy, R 2015. The impact of the endangered Mauritius Fruit Bat (Pteropus niger) on commercial fruit farms. Final report. The Rufford Foundation.

 

 

The loneliest plant of the world

Most people heard about lonesome George, a male tortoise from the Galapagos. He was considered the rarest animal for decades until his death in 2012.

A unique palm species from the island of Mauritius is George’s counterpart of the plant world. Different from George, the last individual of Hyophorbe amaricaulis was never given a nickname.

Although Hyophorbe amaricaulis is known from very long time ago as it was first collected by a naturalist called Philibert Commerson, who visited Mauritius, between 1768-1773 – not much attention was given to it because it has been confused with another more common related species, Hyophorbe lagenicaulis, known as bottle palm.

This last individual of Hyophorbe amaricaulis was recorded first time in 1940s during a survey of palms from the botanical gardens of Mauritius. This plant survived the transformation of a patch of native forest where it was growing in the town of Curepipe. Today is fenced off as George was once too.

all plant compressed The loneliest plant of the world – Hyophorbe amaricaulis – in its cage @C.Baider

There is little hope of discovering other individuals of the species as most of the original wet forest habitat of this conspicuous plant has been destroyed, and the surviving remnants are highly invaded by invasive alien plants. Moreover, since human colonisation in 1638, palms of Mauritius have been extensively harvested mainly for their edible hearts causing precipitous declines of all palm populations.

This last plant can no more reproduce naturally since it produces female and male flowers at different times. In vitro propagation has been tried in Mauritius in late 1990’s/early 2000’s, it does not pass the stage of callus. However, attempts at Wye College (Ireland) in the 1980’s (Douglas 1987) and again at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (UK) in 2008 (Sarasan 2010); plantlets were produced but died after transplantation, but no new trials were made since due to lack of material sent to institutions abroad. The best option to save the species from extinction seems to reside in cloning done in well equipped and staffed facilities which are unfortunately lacking in the country.

Inflorescence of Hyophorbe amaricaulis @C.Baider

Inflorescence of Hyophorbe amaricaulis @C.Baider

Close collaboration with foreign institutions is therefore extremely urgent and seems the only hope of survival for this species (Florens 2015) in the brink of extinction that unfortunately does not get some much attention as George did.

 

References:

Douglas G.C. 1987. Embryo culture of a rare plant, Hyophorbe amaricaulis Martius (Palmae). J. Plant Physiology 130: 73-77.
Florens, F.B.V. 2015. International action required to rescue world’s rarest plant. Nature Plants doi :10.1038/nplants.2015.152
Sarasan V. 2010. Importance of in vitro technology to future conservation programmes worldwide. Kew Bulletin 65: 549-554.

Mitch Ladyman: What do mining companies do for the environment?

Mitch is out bush so he asked us to post this on his behalf.

 

I was in Bunnings the other day: Australia’s largest hardware warehouse chain with exceptionally large warehouses full of……….well, hardware (in-text footnote – I actually believe that all Bunnings stores function in a parallel universe on a different space/time continuum: men (and women) of all ages ‘pop’ in to quickly grab a hardware item and emerge three days later with a bunch of stuff they neither want nor need).

 

Accustom to the typically very friendly service I was rather taken aback by one young female employee who, upon seeing the company logo on my car and questioning me as to what I did for a living, unreservedly and assertively quipped about her ‘hatred for mining and mining companies’.

 

At this point, I had to make a choice: am I going to be dismissive of her or am I going to present her with an alternate view in an attempt to encourage her to reconsider her values. I had nothing to lose and very little to gain from either of the above.

 

I had to dig deep to muster any amount of my usual enthusiasm and effervescence. Within seconds I was waxing lyrical with countless personal experiences and examples of how the mining dollar underpins a lot of very valid ecological research and an endless array of conservation projects across this great state of ours. In a brief and fleeting display of cognizance about the subject matter this young lady rightly pointed out that mining companies are only funding said research and conservation projects because they are legally obliged to do so (though she did not put it quite so eloquently). She is correct, of course. But is it not better that the work get done out of obligation than not done at all? Moreover, there are many companies that contribute beyond their Ministerial requirements by choice. Often this results in recognition through industry environmental awards which are valued by the companies staff and shareholders.

 

The outcomes of this exchange have been threefold.

1) I may have actually influenced this young lady’s way of thinking and she has since embraced miners as conservation allies rather than enemies.

2) I have concluded that Bunnings would do well to educate their staff in communicating in a manner which is both warm and embracing, rather than abrasive, abject and affronting.

3) I am suddenly very concerned about what the nationwide slow down in mining means for conservation projects in Australia.

 

Mining companies in the Pilbara are delivering hundreds of thousands of dollars into the government coffers and that money will be used to fund many projects on Northern Quoll (a species under significant threat in W.A.), with the recent Cane Toad invasion, the Greater Bilby (threatened by feral predators), the Malleefowl (threatened by habitat loss and predation) etc etc etc.

 

Closer to home, at least for me, one of Animal Plant Mineral’s clients has spent tens and tens of thousands of dollars protecting and enhancing feeding and breeding habitat of the Gouldian Finch. That same client funded a regional helicopter survey to find new populations of a flora taxon that was thought to only exist in the Northern Territory. And while we are talking about KMG, it is worthwhile mentioning that they financed a survey to extend the known distribution of the Northern Leaf-nosed Bat, which is to this day the most exciting field survey I have ever designed and executed See this awesome clip to appreciate where I am coming from.

 

What will happen to the great work that is currently being done when the active mines shut down and no new mining proponents are seeking environmental approval for new mines. Quite simply, the research and conservation work will cease and we will see a return to the era that preceded the mining boom where the staff within government departments, such as the Department of Parks and Wildlife, are stranded at their desks sitting on their hands because they no longer have any money to go bush to do real work.

 

Taken years ago (2010) these photos capture some of the still ongoing work that APM and KMG are doing on the Gouldian Finch. But with the iron ore price in the gutter, who knows how much longer such projects will last?

 

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They are called Snappy Gums for a reason: best not lean the ladder on dead hollow limbs.

 

 

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If you were a finch, would you be happy to call this home?

 

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Yes – this looks bad. But no mine equals no money. Benefits outweigh costs.