16 June 2015

California, the Delta, and the Endangered Species Act

Okay. This started out as a Facebook post, and then it grew a little too polarized and rather too long for that social space. As I'd rather not venture too far into the realm of politics or political ecology (apparently this can become somewhat guilt-inducing?) on FB, I shall transfer the righteous anger to MudSoup.

The topic is the drought in California - the prompt was observing Representative Devin Nunes being a complete numpty and claiming that the drought is manmade. He blames the protection of the Delta Smelt under the Endangered Species Act, and seems to think that letting the Smelt slide away into extinction is no big deal: after all, it is just a "stupid little fish".

So, okay... let's hit pause and analyze the key points here, before we get carried away listening to these crazy people who think the protection of endangered species is what's killing agriculture in California.

We are out of water in California because the current drought has meant less rainfall, less snowfall, and - crucially - less snowmelt during the last four years. There is therefore dramatically less water (from snowmelt) than ever before flowing into California's agricultural Central Valley, and in parallel there is dramatically less water flowing through the Sacramento River and into the Delta.

The Delta, an estuarine ecosystem, is lined with some of the richest and most fertile agricultural land in North America. It is from here that we pump water away from the Sacramento River down into the Central Valley and south to LA. Much of California's agricultural and municipal water comes from the Delta.

We have diverted water from the Delta for much of the last century. If we draw off too much water, however, we reduce the flow of freshwater out to the ocean which can cause saltwater intrusion. Too great an intrusion could permanently affect soil fertility, as well as hurting the quality of both agricultural and drinking water.

It is therefore a balance, as we draw on water from the Delta, to provide as much water as possible to CA's thirsty inhabitants (especially at times of drought) while at the same time ensuring that we don't overdraw and destroy the delicate Delta ecosystem. It provides the state with a critical resource - fresh water - and we need to be careful in our management of it, lest we destroy the health of that resource for future generations. A saline intrusion far up the river could leave the Delta's banks infertile, destroying the agricultural and ecological communities along them, thus reducing the river's ability to regulate flooding and water quality. The river is a living ecosystem, and the function it provides for us relies on its components being intact.

To this end, the protection of the controversial Delta smelt (a tiny fish species listed as Endangered) is important because it is considered an indicator for water quality in the Delta, a "canary in the coal mine" that alerts us if the Delta's waters are becoming too low-quality or too saline. So as long as the Delta smelt are present, water quality is good enough for agricultural and city use. THIS IS WHY WE ARE UPHOLDING THE ENDANGERED SPECIES PROTECTION ACT IN CALIFORNIA. It is for the long-term preservation of a fragile yet much-modified ecosystem that provides much of California with its water. Suspending the act and sacrificing the Delta smelt will only result in the loss of the Delta, and a future with even less water security than we have now.

Seriously, Nunes. This issue is just like DUH. Just because you won't have to worry about votes in the next generation when you're dead doesn't mean you shouldn't give a half of a rat's ass about their rights to our ecosystem and water, too.

What a plum. Seriously. I bet he's filling up his swimming pool right now.


In more or less the same vein (but slightly less polarized, hopefully?), I wrote a piece outlining the various pressures and players in the California drought at Hawkmoth Magazine in our spring issue: check it out here.

10 June 2015

The Enchanted Isles: a Geological and Evolutionary History

A final series of Ecuador posts (by now very, very belated). The theme? Tourism and sustainability in a fragile island ecosystem. The place? The Galápagos Archipelago.

Well-known for one very specific, very clever fellow who visited in 1835 and observed some birds (as well as loads of other plant & animal species), and made some astute observations about evolution and speciation, the Galápagos are often thought of quite simply as Darwin's natural laboratory.

But they are so much more than that. They are not just a "natural laboratory" populated by dramatically (and elegantly!) speciated animals and plants; they are home to a human population as well, with centuries of human history that have been linked with the introduction of plants for agriculture and invasive species for food and as pets; and they are the annual destination for more than 200,000 tourists, bringing with them pressures for demands that far exceed the resources available on the islands - not to mention far more invasive species, on a totally unprecedented scale.

We landed bumpily on this inauspicious assemblage of rocky volcanic islands, 1000 km (620 mi) to the west of the Ecuador coastline in the Pacific Ocean, and spent 10 days taking classes, exploring the beautiful shores and venturing up into the inland ecosystems of this archipelago. We viewed it through the lens of applied ecologists: how can one possibly begin to reconcile conservation aims with the rights of inhabitants, when it is international rather than local interests driving the conservation movement there? And how can this be balanced against the increasing pressures exerted by tourism?

We'll explore the issue in three parts: background of the islands, human presence and invasive species, and tourism.

I. Geological and Evolutionary History of the Galápagos

To appreciate the importance of the Galápagos Archipelago on the conservation and tourism scene, it is important to delve quickly into its geological and evolutionary history. The islands are formed by a volcanic hotspot situated under the Nazca tectonic plate, which moves eastward a few centimeters per year. Magma emerging from the hotspot creates the islands, which are carried eastward towards the South American mainland with the movement of the Nazca plate.

The newest islands are volcanically active, and sit directly above the hotspot; as the islands are carried away from the hotspot, their volcanoes become inactive, and erosion carves away at them until the islands disappear into the ocean. So the Galápagos islands are created through vulcanism and destroyed through erosion, and this process has been going on for the past 60+ million years.

Scientists estimate that species began to arrive on the islands (which, allow me to reiterate, are about 1000 km - 620 mi from the the nearest coastline) as early as 20 million years ago. Birds arrived by flying, either deliberately or by being caught in unexpected storms. Plants arrived as seeds that floated or were borne by wind; some may have been caught on the foot/feather/beak of a bird, or were deposited in their guano. Reptiles, amphibians and mammals likely arrived floating on "rafts" of plant material. Insects were either wind-borne or arrived via the feathers and fur of other animals.

After the difficult first step of just arriving to these distant islands, species had to establish - that is, they had to be able to find enough water and food on the inhospitable archipelago (which has very limited freshwater resources). Otherwise they would die out immediately. Species that were able to adapt to extreme condition, therefore, were selected for. And species that were able to spread out and move to the different islands were also more successful, because - remember - the older islands were disappearing into the sea.

And this is the most exciting part of the geological and evolutionary tale of the Galápagos: although some of its native species have been present on the Archipelago for as long as 20 million years, the oldest of the current islands have only existed for 3.5 million years. In other words, the original islands that the first species arrived on have long since eroded and disappeared, likely taking some species with them. The species that survive now were the ones that radiated outwards amongst the islands and adapted to the new conditions on each islands. Speciation, or the process of developing specialized traits (such as the different beaks of Darwin's famous finches), was avidly selected for in the Galápagos.

For that reason, the Galápagos are something of a gem from a scientific perspective: here is this impossible world, populated by species that crossed a vast expanse of water and then underwent multiple speciation events in an extreme environment characterized by harsh conditions and limited resources. The ecosystems of the Galápagos, therefore, are incredibly special. And from a scientific and conservation perspective, they must be protected for this reason.

But what have been the challenges to that goal? Coming in the next instalments...

II. Human Arrival and Introduction of Invasive Species

III. Tourism and the Demand for more More MORE

26 May 2015

A bike and beach day

Though my heart is with Refugio Beach in California, which is currently undergoing an oil spill and clean-up efforts, I found myself captivated by another marvelous beach in this weekend. A Saturday of brilliant sunshine and beautiful warm weather after a week of rain prompted an unplanned bike trip to Falkensteinerstrand, 16km of winding beautiful bike paths to the north of Kiel. A few wrong turns necessitated some pidgin German direction-asking, which ended up being amazingly helpful (and coherent!) despite substantial limitations on my part.

A beautiful way to celebrate a day of sunshine in the north.

25 May 2015

Coal Oil Point Reserve: steeped in oil

The current oil spill along the Santa Barbara coastline is impacting Coal Oil Point Reserve, a beautiful native plant and wildlife reserve where I worked during my last year in California. I led groups as a tour guide and wrote about it over at Hawkmoth Mag. Coal Oil Point Reserve are sharing updates about the oil impact and clean-up on their Facebook page, where you can follow along.

Meanwhile, take a moment to appreciate this beautiful misted coastline from the reserve (last summer, pre-spill):

Oh, but see that oil platform out there? It's like a lurking dark rain cloud on a bright horizon. That's where the oil came from in this current spill, although the operators of the platform (Venoco, Inc.) are different from the ones who own the pipeline that ruptured (Plains All American Pipeline). The oil is sent from the platform to the mainland via pipes operated by Venoco, Inc. (these guys seem to have a fairly good track record); and once onshore, it enters Plains pipelines. These are the bad guys. Plains All American Pipeline. The guys who don't give a crap about safety and environmental regulation, and who can't be bothered to set up the basic precautions to avoid a spill. It was of course their pipeline that ruptured, and which is painting the coastline black with oil and tar.

As a note, the platform is called Platform Holly, and I would always introduce it in a joking way in my tours. Platform Holly, Tour Guide Holly. Ha ha.

Oil on the Californian Coastline and in my heart

Last week, an oil pipeline on the California coast ruptured and poured 105,000 gallons of crude oil onto the coast and into the ocean near Santa Barbara. It's not known for how long oil was pouring out of the pipe, but what is know is that the oil company did not have an automatic shut-down valve on the pipes, and it did not have county oversight which would have required such a valve.

What Plains All American Pipeline did have was an over-inflated sense of confidence, despite previous mechanical problems on the pipe on either side of the rupture point. And this is not the only instance of disregard for safety regulations they have shown: Plans All American Pipeline has a terrible history of oil spills, with 175 federal safety and maintenance violations since 2006. This is not a company that should be in charge of oil extraction anywhere on this valuable planet.

Because this is what the real tragedy of the spill is: the environmental cost. Once oil has been released into the ecosystem, it can never be fully removed. The chief executive of Plains All American Pipeline has vowed that they will help clean up until "everything has been restored to normal" - but that's just not possible. "Normal" is not something that happens again after an oil spill. The impacts of oil spills last for years, if not decades.

Why such long-lasting impacts? In high concentrations, it can poison animals through ingestion, or drown them by getting caught in feathers and fur. This usually happens during the early stages of an oil spill. But as the oil continues to spread out from the initial spill site, and disintegrate into smaller and smaller particles that are invisible to the naked eye, it continues to have a profound effect. This "invisible" oil can seep into sand, reefs, and beaches, smothering small organisms that form the foundation of ecosystem food webs. And it impacts organisms higher in the trophic web, as well: even in small amounts, oil can impair the development of fish eggs and embryos.

These impacts on organisms cause a long-term bottom-up shift in the ecological landscape. Imagine: out of 100k gallons of oil poured into the ocean, how much of that has already begun to seep into the sands of the Santa Barbara coastline? How much has already been carried off by tides and wave motion, and is no longer recoverable? Effects of this spill will be seen for years to come. What Plains All American Pipeline (and many companies before it) has done is literally irreversible.

The sad thing is: making Plains All American Pipeline pay out for this probably won't make much of a difference to their future behavior. After all, they've paid out for 175 other violations and spills over the last 9 years and it doesn't seem to have made much of a difference to their attitude toward environmental and social responsibility, so why should we think they'll learn another lesson this time? What we need to do is change how we talk about regulation and enforcement of oil companies and their pipelines: we have to fight these spills long before they even happen. Better yet, maybe one day soon we'll finally talk about scaling back these activities in favor of greener options (but that's a whole other conversation). Meanwhile, we need to make sure that irresponsible entities like this one can't slip through the cracks.

California, my heart is with you even if I can't be there in body.

11 May 2015

Kiel sunshine

Enjoying these beautiful sunny days in Kiel, and the gorgeous bike paths running through it.

06 May 2015

Earthworm enthusiasts

Back in December we had an amazing seminarist come to speak to us in Poitiers, which was a very bright light on what was at that point a rather bleak academic horizon. Patrick Lavelle, a prominent French earthworm scientist residing and working in Colombia, spoke to us about soil sciences via the principles of James Lovelock's earth-as-a-system Gaia Theory. In other words, he presented the soil as an underground world of inter-species cooperation (rather than competition) fuelled by the tireless work of soil's greatest ecosystem engineer: the earthworm.

Two of my classmates and I summed up his week-long seminar in a few blog posts for the IMAE website: mine, on competition versus cooperation, you can find below (and here); Laura & Lina's, which will give you a good background on types of earthworms and their function, is here (and feel free to dig through the blog archives to get a better glimpse into our IMAE world - that's short for "International Master in Applied Ecology" in case anyone's forgotten!).

Competition versus Cooperation Under the Ground

Among the first topics a biologist studies is Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos in 1859, and his subsequent (very famous) Theory of Evolution. This theory, which outlines the process by which organisms speciate over time, is based on the idea that competition drives species interaction. In other words, the competition for food, water and nutrients causes species to evolve certain characteristics that allow them to outcompete surrounding organisms, and achieve a higher probability of survival. In our seminar with Patrick Lavelle, however, we were introduced to a very different view of species interaction: that the relationship that predominantly governs species interaction is cooperation.

Cooperation versus competition is a controversial viewpoint for Darwinian biologists: the idea that competition drives speciation is widely accepted. Take, for example, the rainforest: the relentless competition for sunlight and a spot in the canopy has favored the evolution of (tens of) thousands of different kinds of plant species, from opportunist pioneer species that grow rapidly when canopy space opens, to epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants) that grow on tree branches high in the canopy. Bizarre species such as the strangler fig achieve their spot in the canopy by subterfuge: they start their life as epiphytes, and then send roots down to the ground that strangle their host tree and steal its place in the canopy. Meanwhile certain tree species produce flaky or toxic bark that prevents plants from growing on them and strangling them or weighing down their branches. It is easy to describe adaptations such as these in terms of competition.

During our time with Professor Lavelle, we were encouraged to look at systems like this from a different viewpoint: rather than being defined by competition, these systems could be defined by collaborative symbioses between species. Take the example of the rainforest, again: the pioneer species that grow rapidly in clearings usually grow after a large tree has fallen, which provides them with sufficient nutrients to grow. By germinating and filling the gap immediately, the pioneer species capture and store important and limited nutrients from the fallen tree, such as phosphorous, before these nutrients are washed away by rain and permanently lost from the forest. As the pioneer trees grow, slower-growing secondary species have time to establish: when the pioneer species fall after 10 or 15 years, the secondary species are sufficiently mature to grow and achieve the canopy. They, in turn, can capture phosphorous and other minerals from the fallen primary species. The rapid drive to grow and fill space in the rainforest, therefore, can be considered a system to maintain nutrients: preventing the loss of valuable phosphorous from the rainforest.

To test whether we supported the idea of competition or cooperation, Professor Lavelle presented us with a scenario involving earthworms. In a field in Fiji there are two species of earthworm: one large, and one small. The small worms leave small pellets/aggregates; and the large ones leave large pellets. Soil samples were taken from the field, and the distribution of pellets was mapped in the white and green grid to the left. The white squares indicate soil containing small pellets, and green squares indicate soil with large pellets. Our exercise was to predict the relationship between the two species of earthworm, based on the distribution of their pellets.

An interpretation of the relationship based on competition might assume that one of these species has an advantage: maybe the small worms are unable to break down large pellets, and therefore cannot move into areas that have been occupied by the larger worms. If the larger worms are able to break down small pellets and leave large pellets behind, then they are gradually excluding the smaller worms: only one earthworm species can exist in this space.

An interpretation based on cooperation would look like this: the small worms can break down the large pellets, and the large worms can break down the small pellets. So each mutually supports the other species: the two earthworm species can coexist in this space.

What do you think?

04 May 2015

Into the Tropical Rainforest

In which we visit cloud forests and rainforests, and navigate the slippery and difficult terrain of development, conservation, and the battle between resource extraction and native rights, in two parts.
Part II. Into the Heart of the Rainforest (rather epically long... get comfy!)
On the forest floor
Down, down, down into a warmer wetter world, where showers are fruitless, and where the gurgles and caws and cackles of the jungle surround you as you walk in the heavy shade of the understory. This is the tropical rainforest: specifically, the Amazon.

Ecuador's Amazon is a green wealth of biodiversity: the wildness of the rainforest is the pinnacle of the evolutionary arms race that drives speciation. The competition for limited light and nutrients has spurred uncounted adaptations amongst the rainforest's plants: epiphytes grow on other plants to be closer to the canopy, palms shift position using a "walking" root system to pull themselves a few centimeters across the forest floor into patches of sunlight. Some pioneer species shoot up rapidly in the gaps opened by fallen trees, and have a short 10- or 15-year lifespan. Others grow slowly, waiting for those rapid-growing pioneers to die and make space: these trees dominate the second growth canopy. With all the challenges they face in the rainforest, their lifespans are often little more than 250-300 years.
Vines and lianas rope from tree to tree, and mosses grow from roots up to leaves: some trees shed their bark regularly in order to shake off epiphytes that might become too heavy and break a branch. Others produce toxins to discourage unwanted guests, such as the strangler fig. This is one of the most dangerous epiphytes to host. Starting off innocently enough, it soon sends down woody roots from its perch in the canopy to the ground, which gradually ensnare the host tree in a lethal web. Even as the roots tighten and cut of the host tree's growth, they steal nutrients and water at the forest floor. When the host eventually collapses inside the strangler's new matrix of woody root, its decomposing material feeds the strangler's growth. This is an interaction that blurs the line between parasite and predator.

Walking palm (left) and strangler fig (right)
Amidst all this plant competition grow hosts of mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects, not to mention the bacterial richness that populates the soils. The short life spans and rapid overturn of the trees in the rainforest mean that the landscape is in a constant state of flux: therefore the animals that inhabit this ecosystem are well adapted to seize opportunity and react to rapid changes. Ants from the Amazon are famously aggressive, for instance: this derives from the constant flooding. When the rivers rise, ants and other insects are forced up into trees, where they wait until the water subsides; when they return to the ground, they need to be ready to fight for their territory.
The overground wealth of the Amazon is undeniable, as one pauses to appreciate the incredible complexity of ecosystems that have evolved there. But the underground wealth is also rich: or, at the least, it is profitable in a way that the overground wealth currently is not. There is oil under the Amazon, and it is valuable.
Black gold in the Amazon
Oil companies have been active in the Ecuadorian Amazon for decades: from the 1960s to the 1990s, Texaco (now owned by Chevron) extracted oil with wild disregard, leaving unlined and unprotected pits of oil and "product water" (a contaminated byproduct of oil extraction) to seep into groundwater sources and poison overlying ecosystems. Cities popping up at the fringes of the drilling area rapidly began to experience health issues. A lawsuit out of the contaminated region Lago Agrio has spent decades fighting for compensation from Chevron for health complications and loss of agricultural productivity in the area.
More recently, Spanish company Repsol has been the main player in the Ecuadorian Amazon, where it has been granted oil concessions in Yasuní National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its biodiversity.
Yes, you did read that right. UNESCO biodiversity hotspot. National Park. Oil concession.
Wait. What?
I mean, the risks of oil to environment are countless: the pollution by Texaco resulted in ecological devastation in the Lago Agrio region. Crops wouldn't grow, and when they did grow they had low-level concentrations of toxins in them. Imagine how those toxins move upward through the food web and accumulate, all just from spillage or leakage of crude oil and product water. And there's another risk posed by oil: open flames blaze high above extraction sites all over the eastern Amazon. They are burning up natural gas, a byproduct of oil production that cannot be returned into the oil wells (like product water), and which is not abundant enough to be sold for profit. So it is burned away. Think about the sheer number of Amazonian insects that have flown into these flames. How many uncounted species have gone extinct, flying into those bright lights over the Amazon at nighttime?

In short, oil is bad news.
But then remember: Ecuador is a country that has faced and continues to face many social issues, including poverty. Money from oil could potentially be a huge boon for the economy in addressing the socioeconomic problems; and newer technologies combined with better regulation make oil extraction vastly less environmentally destructive. Using money from oil to address socioeconomic problems could even alleviate further environmental pressures caused by poverty, such as deforestation.
So, drill for oil, no? Address Ecuador's socioeconomic problems to support the Ecuadorian people, all while protecting local biodiversity and potentially increasing conservation potential... right?
Oil and indigenous rights
To answer this question, let's back up and introduce the other important players in Yasuní National Park and the Ecuadorian Amazon: the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. In particular, the Huaorani, a group that has been heavily impacted by oil extraction during the last half century. Traditionally semi-nomadic, relying on subsistence hunting using spears and blowguns, their lifestyle has changed radically since the presence of oil companies in Yasuní National Park, in a way that has been devastating for the surrounding rainforest.
Early decades of oil exploration in the eastern Amazon were met with strong resistance from Huaorani, to the point that it was difficult even to enter, let alone establish oil infrastructure in the region. To overcome this obstacle, oil companies began to use alternative means of infiltrating the rainforest: during the 1950s and 60s, many Huaorani were relocated away from the main areas of oil exploration and into sedentary lifestyles by means of missionary work (check out how culturally appropriate that was, here and here). In the new missionary-run communities, many Huaorani suffered deadly exposure to polio and other new diseases. Protests occurred. The oil companies fell into a pattern of resolving these protests via placatory gifts such as food, guns, or access to various services. Services include access to health-care that's probably better than what most Ecuadorians receive, the right to hitch lifts with oil vehicles along the oil access roads in Yasuní, and construction of local infrastructure for Huaorani settlements. The relationship of the current oil company, Repsol, with the Huaorani is lauded as a successful compromise between oil and indigenous interests.
So what then are the impacts of this drastic reorganization of the Huaorani-Yasuní landscape with oil present?
For a start, this exchange has resulted in a bizarre and patronizing dynamic between the oil companies and the Huaorani; this is coupled with a devastating loss of cultural identity. Traditional knowledge about medical plants is vanishing due to full reliance on oil-provided health care. Sedentary lifestyle combined with influence from the outside world has generated the need for money within the previously non-monetary Huaorani communities. Provision of guns has caused a shift away from traditional hunting practices.
And this is where the social impact begins to generate a devastating ecological impact.
The empty forest
This access to oil roads and to commercial markets outside of the park, combined with the new necessity for money, has caused an illegal market of wild meat to develop. Remember: the Huaorani were always subsistence hunters. But thrown abruptly into a situation where they have been expected to operate within the same parameters as the western world (job, income, money), they have begun to hunt more and to sell the meat at this local meat market. Tapirs, monkeys, peccaries, and more: meat for the market. The traditional hunting of rainforest species is rapidly expanding.
What's more, the ability to hitch rides with oil company vehicles along the access road is allowing vast amounts of meat to be hunted and transferred to this illegal market; much vaster quantities than if the hunters had to pack the meat out by foot. And this radically-increased hunting is extremely concentrated – remember the previous semi-nomadic lifestyles that the Huaorani led? That was to reduce hunting pressure in any one location – once they had inhabited one area for a few years, they would move Now, with the Huaorani's sedentary lifestyle, their hunting is concentrated close to the communities and along the oil access road: this imposes a heavy and unabated pressure on the species that live there.
This is generating what's called "empty forests": areas of the rainforest that literally don't have animals in them. And it's not just the big mammals that are vanishing; the absence of these animals is affecting the presence of other smaller species. Consider salt licks, for instance: these are open patches of mud that animals (from large to small) visit and eat from in order to get critical nutrients into their diet. In areas where large animals visit the salt licks, plants are trampled down and the area is kept clear so that smaller animals (bats, small birds) can easily access the site. In areas where large animals are absent, the salt licks can become rapidly overgrown, and inaccessible to the smaller animals. So they move to areas where they are still able to access that kind of resource. They leave behind an empty forest (articles on this concept here and here).
Think about that for a moment. Critical seed dispersers – the animals that eat fruits and then excrete the seeds elsewhere – are gone. Herbivores and other species that control certain plant species – they are gone too. The nutrients added to the soil from animal excretion, or the deposition and movement of organic material by animals carrying and dropping leaves or fruit – gone. Plant communities are changing, in the absence of these factors: distribution and abundance are shifting, without animal communities to shape them.
The many faces of oil impact, and the task of the Applied Ecologist
So in addition to the direct impacts of oil that can occur via contamination of soils and groundwater, the Ecuadorian Amazon is seeing profound secondary effects through the influence that the oil companies have had on Huaorani communities. Hunting is bleeding the forest dry of its animals, and changing the dynamics of the ecosystem –driven by the presence of oil in the Amazon.
It poses an unsolvable problem. Oil can be extracted without spillage, without contamination of groundwater, without any (severe) direct environmental complications. Technology has advanced to allow relatively low-impact oil extraction to occur. But it is so much harder to prevent the kind of social impacts observed through this case study with the Huaorani: there is no way to undo the damage that has been done to the their communities, and thus no way to undo the damage being done to surrounding ecosystems by their new hunting patterns.
There are more Huaorani in the Amazon, and other indigenous nations as well. What happens when oil exploration dives deeper into Yasuní National Park, and deeper into the Amazon? What happens when more access roads are established, making room for more human settlements and more hunting, cutting new strips of "empty forest" through the rainforest?
This was our question as we explored the rainforest for the week we were there. We hiked along the trails and observed the elegant distribution of species as governed by light availability and proximity to floodplains. We climbed through the canopy via stomach-dropping rope bridges, and felt the full baking forest of the tropical sun – of which a mere 3% reaches the forest floor. The precious driver of evolution and speciation in this incredible biodiverse landscape.

And we tried to look at this stunning landscape through the eyes of ecological managers: not pure conservation, not pure resource extraction, but a medium based on sustainable management. Oil will continue to be extracted in the Amazon – this is undeniable. Arguably it should be stopped – how can we even think of sacrificing the overground ecological wealth for the underground, when that wealth has such profoundly negative consequences environmentally, socially and culturally? But then think: we are over 7 billion people on the planet, and will be 8 billion by the 2020s. These resources will continue to be used, and pressure on them can only increase. Fighting it is not likely to slow or stop it (don't get me wrong - we should actively protest this kind of misuse of ecologically wealthy areas, and fight to preserve these rich areas of conservation). But where it's clear that resource use will continue no matter the objections, our responsibility becomes something new: not to stop it, but to ensure that it is being done sustainably. Set a precedent for minimal impact, which can reconcile the extremes of conservation and exploitation.
Do you think it's possible?

18 April 2015

Hawkmoth Magazine: Spring 2015

Another brief break from the Ecuador posts to let you know that Hawkmoth Magazine, that exhilaratingly sleek and beautiful science zine of ours, is picking up steam. Our spring issue came out at the start of April, and it has some very cool pieces. So throw yourself into this issue, fall in love with these cool articles and gorgeous photos.

In this issue:

Dive in, dig deep, learn a lot - and get in touch if you want to be a part of the Hawkmoth project.

17 April 2015

Into the Forest

In which we visit cloud forests and rainforests, and navigate the slippery and difficult terrain of development, conservation, and the battle between resource extraction and native rights, in two parts.

Part I. Down the Eastern Slope of the Andes

From the páramo, we wended our way down into cloud forest, on twisting roads through peering overhangs. Rest stops and human habitation are explosions of color in the calm misted green of the mountain slopes.

Here in the cloud forest, mosses, lianas, bromeliads and other epiphytes (plants that grow high up on tree branches and other plants, away from the soil) drip and dangle amid the mists that penetrate the forest. These epiphytic plants gain a significant portion of their water from the air, via clouds that hang heavy over the forest for a part of each day. Epiphytes gain their nutrients from plant matter that falls and gathers in crevices of tree branches - by living high in trees they can access sunlight with less competition than their downstairs neighbors on the forest floor. The cloud forest is a calmer version of the lowland tropical rain forest: its plants are governed by the same limitations of sunlight and nutrients that fuel that competitive race to the canopy, but its cooler temperatures and cloudy days seem to make everything happen at a slower pace.

This cloud forest, nestled into the eastern slope of the Andes in the upper reaches of the great Amazonian watershed, recalled me to the cloud forest of Costa Rica where I worked. That one sat high on the Pacific slope of the cordillera de Talamanca under the shadow of Chirripó Peak. The same mist settling over the same moss-draped trees; the same tanagers darting out for insects as the afternoon rains pause and peter out; the same iron-red soils. But a different horizon, different species peeking out amidst the jumble, a different smell.

We spent only an afternoon, a night, and a dawn in this cloud forest, at the Yanayacu Biological Station. A brief stop between the soaring Andes and the sweeping Amazonian basin, this pause gave us a glimpse into the transition point between two wildly distinct ecosystems: páramo and rainforest. And then, from this moment of calm in the cloud forest, we plunged onwards and downwards... in Part II: Into the Tropical Rainforest.

16 April 2015

Es beginnt... the first weeks in Kiel

Kiel: the First Days

Allow me to break from the Ecuador updates for a brief post on my current digs. Fast forward one month from the Ecuadorian tropics, leap northwards fifty-five degrees and eastwards a continent, and shed the sandals and sunblock for a coat and thermals. Here is Kiel, Germany, a small university town sitting on the toe of the Baltic Sea: my home for the next four months.

Kiel is situated on the windy eastern coast of Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost state in Germany. It has seagulls and wild changes of weather, for which four years in Scotland have amply prepared me, and it feels calm and tranquil. My arrival to Kiel, however was anything but calm and tranquil.

Imagine: you arrive to a new city short your credit cards and all your socks (I'm really not sure about that one), without a key for your new apartment because the administrative office is closed due to a holiday that you really ought to have remembered since you've celebrated it nearly every year (it's Easter), and also everything is in a language that you really, really, REALLY don't know.


No really, GO. This was my challenge as I arrived to Kiel. From South America, I had flown to Madrid, where some sneaky fingers nabbed my wallet, and then onwards to Hamburg. By the time I arrived in Kiel, I had already figured out/realized/remembered that it was Easter weekend, and with that came the dawning realization that the office that could give me the key to my apartment would be closed. A few frantic emails confirmed this.

So, a few more hasty emails and requests, and couches materialized for the weekend: a few nights with a patient and wonderful classmate who had been clever and foresightful and had arrived before the Easter weekend, a few nights with a couchsurfing host who went out of his way to show me Kiel and the classic German breakfast of bread, cheese and spreads, and voilà: I had my keys.

At some point during all this, the little sack in my luggage that contained my socks vanished. I really can't say anything more than that. I'm very perplexed, and I don't have any socks now, except the ones I was wearing when the Great Sock Disappearance occurred.

Despite this dramatic entrance, Kiel has been a welcome new home. My dormitory, a four-person apartment, is comfortable and my housemates warm and open. The campus is easily walkable, the buses are free for students, and bikes rule the streets.

On top of that, classes look amazing: this is the semester of fieldtrips. More on that later. Meanwhile, HELLO THERE KIEL.

12 April 2015

Ecuador: the highlands

Ecuador. A plunge into a place that felt oddly familiar and totally new. Incredibly warm, both in climate and in human openness, incredibly rich in ecosystems and in colors, and incredibly complex in the environmental dilemmas that it is wrestling with.

We flew to Quito after a crazy whirlwind of packing and goodbyes and (in my case) a raging flu-fueled fever that turned the last week into a glaze of weird dreams and missed deadlines. Just two days to adapt to the head-in-the-clouds elevation of the city (2600 m / 9200 ft), and we were already climbing higher, to the soaring Andean highlands that hold the key to water and life in the mountain tropics: the páramo.

This rich ecosystem is subject to soaring temperature variation, with warm beautiful days and frozen nights: a "summer by day and winter by night" environment. The life-forms that have evolved to survive in this climate are hardy, durable, capable of enduring incredible swings in temperature. Pampas grasses (above) grow in clumps that are 80% dead material: this shields the living material, creating a buffer against the cold when the night temperatures plummet. Another survival mechanism is seen in cushion plants (below): these species form large mounds of vegetation, where only the outermost is living: everything inside is dead matter, slowly decaying - and as the material decomposes, as in any good compost pile, it generates heat. This keeps the outermost living layer warmer than the ambient nighttime temperature.

Kick-ass adaptations to an extraordinarily harsh environment? Yes ma'am.

Perhaps the coolest thing about cushion plants, as a note, is that they exhibit an extraordinary amount of cooperation between species. The cushions can be formed by five or six separate species, all co-existing in the same mound (below), and all benefiting equally from the warmth generated inside their communal compost heating system. The vicious competition frequently described in rainforest systems does not apply here at elevation: survival is so difficult, given the wild swings in temperature, that it is not worth the risk to compete here. The best and most successful way for these plants to survive is to share their space.

The páramo is not just a pretty face, however. It plays a vital role in the provision of water to Andean cities like Quito and Bogotá. The huge amount of organic material stored in the soil absorbs and stores water from rain and snowmelt, making it an expansive and reliable source of clean, pure water. Quito draws its water directly from two páramos, Papallacta and Antisana, where vast reservoirs hold enough water to supply the city's growing needs.

But there are threats to the páramo, which we learned about and saw first-hand on our visits. It has been used extensively for cattle-grazing, which often involves burning away the dead material of the pampas grasses, and for growing plantations of pine or eucalyptus for wood. Studies show that these land uses are devastating for the water storage capacity of the páramo. For one thing, removing the low-lying grass and shrub vegetation means that water will run off rather than soak into the ground, contributing to the erosion of páramo soils; for another, burning or over-trampling by cattle can compact the soil and reduce its porosity - in other words, its capacity to hold water.

These threats raise an important question: what is the value of maintaining the ability of the páramo to supply water? In other words, what is the value of keeping the páramo in a healthy and pristine state, so that it can continue to supply water to Quito's growing population? When we ask these kinds of questions, we are talking about the idea of "Ecosystem Services" - the services and functions that ecosystems provide to humans. When we talk about an ecosystem in terms of the services it provides us, we can start to place a dollar value on it - a controversial practice at best.

Walking through the páramo landscape, with its stunning rolling hills and its lakes in every valley, it is easy to feel that this landscape should be conserved just for its sheer beauty. But the reality is that we live in a world that has been heavily impacted by a rapidly growing human population, and conservation for the sake of conservation is not always a viable option. So in this situation, where cattle grazing and plantations are creeping further and further into the páramo landscapes, maybe the strongest argument for conservation can be made by comparing the value of a pristine acre of páramo, with its water provisioning capacity at full, to the value of a burned and trampled acre that has completely lost the ability to retain or supply water.

The time spent in the páramo was other-worldly, lent an air of stillness and exhilaration by the elegant sweep of landscape falling away to every side. Sat amidst the clouds at over 3000 m (~ 10,000 ft), it seems to govern this kingdom of the tropics: a stately and regal royal whose duty it is to ensure no-one goes thirsty. I felt a sense of wistfulness descending back into the forest, which feels chaotic in comparison. But that lasted only for a moment, because, well, the Amazon Rainforest. Next post.

10 April 2015

A Long-Term Summary of Lots of Things

Well. Well, well. WHAT'S THIS ALL ABOUT THEN, HOLLY. Seems I fell off the old proverbial blogging horse, and entirely failed to get back on again.
Quite a few things have happened in the last few months which have been all around rather interesting, and which I'd quite like to share with the friends and family that read this (or at least, who used to read this back when I was interesting and wrote things). As such I shall start writing here again. Prepare yourselves for....
A Brief Review of the Last Six Months of Holly:
October: I broke my ankle ice-skating. Lessons learned: don't do conga lines on skates. And definitely, definitely, don't try to skate in the other direction when everyone is falling down. Your leg will get caught, and you will break it, and you will regret everything that has led to that point.

November: Sulked about my leg, got over myself, and learned to go up and down stairs on crutches (living on the third floor without an elevator helped with this accomplishment). Took a trip to the beautiful coastal town of La Rochelle with new friends. Had cast removed. Conducted field work for a behavioral ecology project, studying capuchin monkeys at the local zoo: we were observing whether they used certain foods (eg onion & garlic) for medicinal purposes, rather than eating them. Wild capuchins will use similar materials for anti-parasitic purposes and rub them on their fur; we wanted to test whether captive capuchins exhibited the same behavior. They do!

(Île de Ré, an island just off the coast of La Rochelle)

Leg free of cast (left); capuchin taking a break from eating and using onions as anti-parasitic medication (right)

December: Road trip to Lyon to see the beautiful Fête des Lumières, the Festival of Lights; slept on a mattress in the back of our van, and walked all night with lights and music and memories of my summer in Lyon doing field work on the Rhône for my undergraduate thesis. We came back to a week-long seminar with earthworm & soil scientist Patrick Lavelle, and were converted to the cult of earthworm. I met my mom in Paris after my last exam and we spent Christmas together in Bordeaux. We flew together to Chicago to bring in the New Year with my brothers, my sisters-in-law, and my nieces and nephews.

January-February: a whirlwind of work. We had a fantastic week-long course on Ecological Risk Assessment from professors Rui, Paulo & Matilde from the University of Coimbra, where I'll be doing my Masters specialization in September. Apart from that, the last weeks of our semester in Poitiers blurred into a mess of work and panic and deadlines and applications for housing & visas in Germany for the spring semester. All the while we marked an endless and exhilerating countdown, ticking off days until our field trip to........ ECUADOR (next several posts).

But meanwhile I'll leave you with this tasty pic of a French meal.