Thursday, February 19, 2009

No Joy In Discoveries Of New Mammal Species, Only A Warning For Humanity

ScienceDaily (Feb. 16, 2009)

In the era of global warming, when many scientists say we are experiencing a human-caused mass extinction to rival the one that killed off the dinosaurs, one might think that the discovery of a host of new species would be cause for joy. Not entirely so, says Paul Ehrlich, co-author of an analysis of the 408 new mammalian species discovered since 1993.

"What this paper really talks about is how little we actually know about our natural capital and how little we know about the services that flow from it," said Paul Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford."I think what most people miss is that the human economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the economy of nature, which supplies us from our natural capital a steady flow of income that we can't do without," Ehrlich said. "And that income is in the form of what are called 'ecosystem services'-keeping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, supplying fresh water, preventing floods, protecting our crops from pests and pollinating many of them, recycling the nutrients that are essential to agriculture and forestry, and on and on."

Ehrlich conducted the analysis with Gerardo Ceballos, a professor of biology at the National University of Mexico. They are co-authors of a paper describing the work, scheduled to be published Monday, Feb. 9, in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The 408 newly discovered species amount to approximately 10 percent of the known species of mammals. As a group, mammals have been very well studied, Ehrlich said, and their size makes them relatively easy to spot compared to insects or microbes. It is not that surprising that multitudes of new insect species are still being discovered, or that new extremophile species are found in hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, he said. But the new mammals include a small antelope weighing approximately 200 pounds and surprisingly high numbers of primates, more than would be expected if the discoveries were randomly distributed across higher taxonomic groups

"Our analysis indicates how much more varied biodiversity is than we thought and how much bigger our conservation problems are if we're going to maintain the life-support services that we need from biodiversity," Ehrlich said.

Among those ecosystem services is disease control."There's an important set of diseases called hantaviruses that infects human beings and quite frequently kills them. And it turns out that if you reduce the diversity of the different species of rodents, say, in a forest, the rodents that carry hantaviruses can become more common. And the results for human beings are more death and disease," Ehrlich said. "So by reducing the diversity of mouse-like creatures in a forest, you can make that forest more dangerous for people.

"Many of the newly discovered species have small populations or limited geographic ranges, making them particularly vulnerable to extinction."The rarer of the species and the smaller of the populations often disappear without us even knowing that they are going," Ehrlich said.Although not every species that goes extinct plays a crucial role in controlling diseases like hantaviruses, that doesn't necessarily mean we can do without them.

Ehrlich said the answer to the question, "What difference does it make if we put a strip mall in here and this little fly goes extinct, or this little mouse goes extinct?" lies in the rivet-popper hypothesis, which he and his wife and colleague, Anne Ehrlich, a senior research scientist in the Department of Biology at Stanford, developed in the 1980s.

An airplane wing has a certain amount of redundancy in its design, as does much of nature. So you can pop off some of the rivets and the wing will still hold together and the plane will still fly. But at some point, you'll have removed one too many rivets and the plane will crash."Even though you don't know the value of each rivet, you know it's nuttier than hell to keep removing them," Ehrlich said. "There is some redundancy, but we don't know how much. And facing serious climate disruption, humanity is going to need more redundancy in the little rivets, the species and populations that run the world.

"We are facing for the first time the collapse of a global civilization," he said. "You have to reduce the scale of the human enterprise to having a chance at preventing that."

Ehrlich said that continually creating more mouths to feed will only chew up more of Earth's natural capital."The economy of nature is what allows us to have a human economy. If we let the infrastructure of nature go down the drain, then we just can't make up for it with human infrastructure," he added. "It just can't be done."

Friday, February 13, 2009

Visit to Samarakan

by CK Tham

On the 17th and 18th January 2009, we made a visit to Samarakan, Sarawak Planted Forest, Bintulu.

By road, Samarakan is within an hour drive from Bintulu. To get there, one has to travel along the Bintulu - Sibu road. After the airport junction, there is a turnoff on the left hand side with a signboard indicating Samarakan. Travel along this road until you see another signboard on the left again showing Sarawak Planted Forest.
Along the way, we saw some Acacia plantations and oil palm estates planted by private entrepreneurs. As we drove further, we came across termudak areas cultivated by local folks.
As we entered the Samarakan concession, we started to see different species of fast growing trees being planted for trials. These included Neolamarckia sp., Facalteria moluccana, Eucalyptus deglupta, Gmelina arborea etc.
We arrived at the plantation rather late after 6pm. Arrangement was made for us to stay at the guest house. We had a sumptuous dinner which was pre-cooked by Dr. Daisy.
For the past week, it had been raining frequently and we don’t know what sort of weather to expect. But fortunately, the sky stayed clear during our visit. Later that evening, we armed ourselves with torch lights and got ready for jungle tracking. Joanes had promised to show us some night life in a patch of conservation jungle.
As we took a short walk around the guest house in order to get ourselves accustomed with our gears, we started to see frogs, spiders, giant ant, etc.
Walking in the jungle was never easy; tracking at night was even more difficult. The hooks of rattans persistently reminded us not to walk too fast as there were many things to see. The undergrowth was thick with plenty of saplings of dipterocarps and macaranga.

We challenged each other to be the first one to spot some thing of interest. We soon started to see spiders and different species of them. Dr. Daisy kept reminding Joanes to take photos of the spiders and made sure we could see the eyes. These nocturnal spiders had extra large eyes.
Just as well, Joanes was a skillful photographer armed with macro lenses. Why Dr Daisy was interested in eyes only? Later, I remembered that she is an eye specialist. Would spiders need medical consultation for their eyes?

Figure 1. Strange looking spider.

Someone spotted some more eyes in the dark and shouted for Joanes. This time it was gecko hiding inside a hollow log. That gecko seems to like its photo taken. It just stayed still while Joanes was busy clicking his camera.
Later, we saw some more lizards. One of them is pictured below.
Figure 2. Cyrtodactylus pubisulcus

We saw many species of frogs. Most of them were pretty well camouflaged
amongst the fallen leaves on the forest floor. To find them you either listen to their calls or look for reflection of their eyes with touch light. A loud call is not necessary from a big frog. It had been observed that small frog can hide in hollow logs to amplify their calls.

Figure 3. Filed Eared Tree Frog (Polypedates otilophus)

Figure 4. Red sided sticky frog ( Kalophrynus species)

Figure 5.Rana sp.

The strangest thing we saw that night was a hammer-headed worm
(Bipalium sp). This creature is actually carnivorous and known to prey on earthworms.

Figure 6. Hammered head worm (Bipalium sp.)
Figure 7. Large land snail

While we were engrossed with different creatures of interest, Azizan had been leading the way in front. Suddenly, he signaled to Joanes that he seen something else. He whispered that there was a mouse deer amongst the undergrowth. We tried to move forward for a closer look but our noises had disturbed the animal and it shot off into the dark. Joanes was not able to take any photos of the mouse deer. From his past experience with mouse deer, Joanes felt that the animal might still be in the near vicinity. Slowly, Azizan and Joanes moved forward, flashing the touch light around and keeping their eyes open and ear propped. Sure enough they spotted the mouse deer not too far from us. We could see the animal popping its head, not quite sure to flee or stay. Joanes quickly aimed his camera and took some shots but only managed to capture shots of the hind portion before the startled animal took off into the dark.
As it was getting late, we decided to head back to camp. We came a cross patch of soggy flat. We could see the ground was covered with one species of filmy fern. We have to walk gently trying not to cause too much damage.

At the back of the training school, there was a small knoll. Right on top of this grew a Tapang (Koompassia excelsa) tree. Something moved. A leopard cat or a civet. Popped its head up to look at us and quickly swing round and disappeared into the darkness.

We kept swinging our torch lights around hoping to catch more things. Up on another young Tapang, we could see some things that reflected our light. We went nearer to catch a closer look. Just beyond the reach of our hands, there was this large lizard. It could easily measure 20 cm long. As we prepared to take photo, it swung round and scrambled up the tree well beyond camera’s reach. That was the biggest lizard we saw that night.

Back in the guest house, Lawyer Lau kept talking about the bear cub that he kept in his house as pet. It was hairy and cuddly. It behaved like a baby, he said. We kept telling him that sun bear are not pets like dogs or cats. But he didn’t seem to be convinced. We need to educate him about conservation in a proper manner. It was way after 3 am in the morning before we headed for bed.

The next day our programme was to visit Kapur Waterfall and Bukit Minah.
Just like the day before, the sky was clear.
On our way to Kapur Waterfall, we passed through some areas of Acacia mangium probably 7 to 8 years old. There were plenty of regrowth under the Acacia trees. As we were driving along, we saw movements on some bushes beside the road. Joanes quickly stopped the vehicles shouting that he saw monkeys. We got out and moved gently towards the bush. The animals were still there but trying to hide from our view. We tried to move closer hoping to catch a better look. The monkeys started to scurry away but I could see that there were 3 individuals of Grey Leaf Monkey (Presbytis hosei ) with white ring around the eyes. Joanes later confirmed there were more than three individuals.
These monkeys were eating young shoots from a bush right beside the road. Something was so attractive to eat that the monkeys were reluctant to move away as we motored by. On closer inspection, we saw that the monkeys had been nibbling young shoots from a low Ficus bush. The latex was still oozing from the nibbled tips.
I had seen similar incidents with orang hutan feeding on young shoots of Merrimia spp. as well as sambar deer chewing young shoots of Hevea brasiliensis seedlings.
These three species of plants, though belonging to different families, produce latex. Could it be something in the latex that attracts the animals? Something interesting to research on, maybe?
As we traveled to Kapur Waterfall, we noticed that the road condition was getting worst. Deep ruts were left by vehicles travelling to Lana in the past few days during the wet weather. Half way down the road, we decided it was best that we turn back. We then proceeded to Bukit Minah instead.
Bukit Minah is the highest point in this area. The next highest point would be Bukit Setiam near Tatou, several kilometers apart. We stopped to look at some plants at the foot hill. Our noises disturbed some birds and we could hear familiar whooshing sound from the wing of hornbills. High in the canopy, a Wrinkled Hornbill flew past, followed by a pair of Bushy Crested Hornbill.
The road going up to top was very steep. We had to engage low gear with our 4 wheel drive vehicle; the gradient was easily 45 º.
Joanes mentioned that before the road was constructed, it used to take an hour or two to track up. At the top of the hill, there was a communication tower fully equipped with solar panels that convert energy from the sun to electricity.
Beside it, there stood a lookout tower supposedly for surveillance when fire danger is high during March to May period.

Figure 8. Fire Lookout Tower

From the top of the tower, we could just about see the entire project. The 360º view indicated that the plantations were mosaic of Acacia interspersed with patches of high value

Figure 9. Mosaic of Acacia plantation interspersed with conservation forest conservation forest, riparian sites, steep hills etc. We stopped to take some pictures of an eagle sitting high on a branch, not bother by our noises.

Figure 10. Distant view of Bukit Minah

As we headed back to the nursery, we noticed something yellowish in color along the roadside. We stopped to take a closer look. And there it was an orchid with a tall inflorescence with yellow flowers. A Neuwedia sp ? growing amongst the bracken under the shade of Acacia trees. First time seeing this species around here.

Figure 11. Neuwedia sp.

The next thing that caught our eyes was a Dipodium pictum. There were several clumps growing luxuriantly under the Acacia shade. This species had flowers with reddish spots on the tepals. The strange thing is that the reddish spots are not in the front surface but on the underside of the tepals. It looked as though the flowers are turned inside out.
Figure 12. Dipodium pictum

On an open ground disturbed by logging, there were many Arundina graminifolia in full bloom. Generally, this species is common on exposed site and grows well under full sun. The flowers are like miniature Cattlyea.

Figure 13.Arundina graminifolia

When looked around the open ground, we saw some attractive reddish leaves intermingled with bracken fern.
On closer inspection, we found that the plant with reddish leaves were actually Melastoma malabathricum. What caused the plant to develop such abnormal leaves. Is it because of high acidity of the soil?

Figure 14.Melastoma malabathricum

Recently, apiculture had been introduced in the Acacia plantation. Bees introduced from China were producing good honey from Acacia.
We saw many beekeepers in Samarakan. They were husband and wife team. Each couple stayed in small shacks with solar panels providing electric power to their house. All of them kept a dog or two; it had been reported that sun bears were attracted by the honey and the dogs were supposed to keep the sun bears at bay.

As we passed the gate, I remembered that several years ago, I had seen a patch of Nepenthes hirsuta not too far from the gate. I reminded Joanes to look into this. Maybe he should collect some specimens and possibly transplant some individuals.

In the past two days, we had been introduced to the conservation work done in Samarakan.
Instead of the monoculture of Acacia plantation, Samarakan had been developed into a mosaic of planted Acacia interspersed with high value conservation forests, riparian sites and etc. This created a new environment that encourages biodiversity conservation. Studies had been conducted to ascertain the biodiversity status of the Acacia plantation. More information is being gathered as time progresses.
This is an example which illustrates that part of biodiversity can be conserved in degraded and fragmented forests. Increasingly, the public are aware of the importance of biodiversity conservation. There is also increasing demand on forests for recreation and ecotourism.
This project due to its proximity to Bintulu, could de developed into an education centre for the general public. Visitors could easily access the centre on day trip.
Longer stay could be developed along the home stay basis. Local folks could be trained in the hospitality industry as well as apiculture.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

200 Years of Adventure and Discovery

Sean B. Carroll, 02.10.09, 12:00 AM EST

Charles Darwin wasn't the only scientist with spirit. Less than a year into his voyage on the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin realized that what was supposed to be a two-year surveying expedition was going to be a much longer journey. Plagued by constant seasickness and increasingly homesick, Darwin confessed in a letter to his mentor, botanist Rev. John Henslow, "I know not, how I shall be able to endure it."It would be three more years before the Beagle would reach the Galapagos Islands. Had Darwin abandoned the voyage anytime before then, he would not have seen the creatures that inspired his revolutionary theory.

But Darwin did not quit. He braved the notoriously fierce storms rounding the Cape Horn, sailed the Strait of Magellan in the dead of winter, climbed the Andes, witnessed a devastating earthquake, ventured inland among hostile natives and put up with the increasingly unpredictable whims of the ship's captain. How did he bear it all? What sustained Darwin through the perils, physical hardships and loneliness of his epic five-year adventure on the Beagle?Author C.W. Ceram described adventure as "a mixture of spirit and deed." Great adventures and great deeds require great spirit--a spirit that manifested itself in Darwin as the passion to explore (to walk where no one else had walked) and in the thrill of discovery (in seeing what no one else had seen). It was also nourished by letters from Henslow, who gently encouraged his former pupil: "If you propose returning before the whole period of the voyage expires, don't make up your mind in a hurry. … I suspect that you will always find something to keep up your courage."

Indeed, Darwin did find some things--and that is why this year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species and, on Feb. 12, Darwin's 200th birthday. Comment On This Story But we should take this opportunity to celebrate more than just one man and an idea. We should celebrate the spirit that drove Darwin and many other exceptional people to explore previously unseen parts of the world and to unearth the history of life. Their adventures and discoveries have transformed our view of nature and our place in it.

I will mention just a few of these less heralded explorers.

The development of the theory of evolution and its early acceptance in scientific circles owes a considerable debt to two other men, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates, who undertook even longer voyages under more difficult conditions than Darwin.Wallace and Bates became friends through their shared hobby, insect collecting. Though both left school at age 13, they nurtured an interest in natural history. They hatched a scheme to travel to the Amazon and ship specimens back to England to pay their expenses. Unlike Darwin, who had no scientific idea in mind at the outset of his voyage, Wallace was keen "to gather facts toward solving the problem of the origin of species."

Wallace and Bates arrived in Brazil in 1848 and soon split up to cover more territory.Over the course of four years, Wallace ventured 2,000 miles up the Rio dos Uaupes. But by 1852, he had had enough. Sick, and worn out from caring for a menagerie of live animals he hoped to bring back to the London Zoo, he made his way downriver, gathered up many crates of specimens he had stored and boarded a ship for home. Four weeks out of Brazil, however, the ship caught fire. Wallace only had time to grab a few shirts and drawings before getting into a lifeboat and watching the ship burn and sink along with all of his specimens. He spent 10 days--adrift, sunburned, parched and drenched with sea spray--before being rescued. Though he swore to himself on the voyage home never to venture out on the ocean again, he soon broke that resolution. He voyaged to the Malay Archipelago for what turned out to be an eight-year journey, island-hopping from Singapore to New Guinea. The different species on different islands played the same role for Wallace that the birds of the Galapagos did for Darwin and led him to the conclusion that species evolved by natural selection.

In the meantime, Bates, Wallace's former collecting buddy, stayed in the Amazon for an incredible 11 years. After experiencing every imaginable hardship--tropical diseases, robbery, malnutrition--he returned the very same year (1859) that Darwin's great book was published. He realized that he had great evidence for natural selection in the wild in the form of harmless species that mimicked the appearance of dangerous or poisonous species. He struck up a correspondence with Darwin, and mimicry quickly became one of the strongest arguments for natural selection.

The Origin of Species set an agenda for paleontology: to find the fossils that would document the origins of major groups. 2009 also happens to be the anniversary of two landmark discoveries in that arena, made by some of the most tenacious and dedicated naturalists who have ever roamed the planet.Although Charles Walcott never finished high school nor earned any kind of degree, he turned a boyhood fascination with trilobite fossils into a career that carried him to expeditions throughout North America, from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the tops of the Rocky Mountains and eventually to Washington. But despite his duties as director of the U.S. Geological Survey, secretary of the Smithson­ian Institution and an adviser to seven presidents, Walcott always spent summers prospecting in the field. In 1909, at age 59, after riding his horse high up on Burgess Pass in the Canadian Rockies, Walcott found a mother lode of exquisitely pre­served animal fossils. The Burgess Shale, as it was called, contained the first appearance of many major animal groups in the fossil record and vivid evidence of the "Cambrian Explosion" of animal evolution.

It may seem strange now, but for the first half of the 20th century, most anthropologists thought Asia was the cradle of mankind. But not Louis Leakey. For more than 30 years, he and Mary Leakey combed East Africa. They unearthed tens of thousands of tools, but no evidence of their makers until 50 years ago this summer. In July 1959, Mary discovered the first hominid skull at Olduvai Gorge. Her find, dubbed "Dear Boy" (now known as Paranthropus boisei) and dated at 1.75 million years old, electrified the world and swung attention on human origins back to Africa for good. In short order, the Leakeys also discovered Homo habilis and Homo erectus fossils at Olduvai, providing key links in the evolutionary sequence from apes to humans.What the Leakeys and their peers set in motion continues to unfold today; the best days of evolutionary science are far from past. Spectacular transitional fossils have been unearthed in the Arctic, China and elsewhere by a new generation of intrepid explorers and molecular biologists who are currently mining the massive new DNA record to decipher how we evolved. And the question of all questions--the origin of life here and elsewhere in the universe, remains as open and unexplored as the world was to Darwin and Wallace. Great adventures lie ahead.

Sean B. Carroll, a professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin, is the author of the new book Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

60 second Extinction Countdown

By John Platt

Few species have come as close to extinction as the milu (Elaphurus davidianus) and survived. For centuries, the rare Chinese animal, also known as Père David's deer, has existed only in captivity. Now, more than 100 years after the species disappeared from its homeland, it is taking its first steps back into the wild.
Overhunting drove the milu to near-extinction for the first time around A.D. 200. For centuries after that, the deer lived only within the walls of Imperial Hunting Park, near modern Beijing, where only China's emperor was allowed to hunt. A flood in 1894 wiped out all but 20 to 30 of the animals. The rest were shot and eaten during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.
But the milu's story didn't end there. A few decades earlier, a French missionary named Armand David brought several milu to Europe, where they earned their Western name, Père David's deer. The last 18 deer eventually made their way to the estate of England's Duke of Bedford, where they once again became a private hunting stock.
The deer bred in England for decades, until 1985, when the first milu were returned to China. More soon followed, and the deer continued to breed. The worldwide population, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources's Red List of Threatened Species, today stands at over 2,000.
Now some of these deer are, for the first time, leading "semiwild" lives, according to the China Daily: "About 300 milu at Dafeng [Milu Nature Reserve] are now 'semiwild', meaning they are still fed by staff during the harsh winters. The deer are picky eaters, preferring only the tenderest shoots of water plants and grasses, meaning the colder months issue a challenge to their survival."
Of course, the milu's problems aren't over yet. Because the entire population is descended from just 18 animals, the species faces a potentially dangerous lack of genetic diversity. The China Daily reports that "inbreeding had led to a number of reproductive problems, including low birth rates affected by frequent abnormal and difficult births" as well asan imbalanced sex ratio.
Meanwhile, potential habitat for the milu continues to shrink. According to Wu Haohan, technical advisor with the State Forestry Administration's China GEF Wildlife Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Use Office, "we have to protect their habitat, because only then can we introduce them into nature. If that's destroyed, they can only live in captivity."
Still, after so many centuries of beating the odds, it's nice to see the species thriving, and taking steps toward returning to nature