Shortly after sunrise on April 2nd we successfully navigated Mir back to her mooring in Banyuwedang Bay in northwestern Bali after over three months at sea— a three months that brought us clear across the Indonesian archipelago and back, covering over 2,500 nautical miles along the way, all in the name of adventure and conservation.
Calm day on the Banda Sea. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
Did That Really Happen?
The crew aboard Mir made it safely back to Bali, and our long-anticipated voyage to Raja Ampat has sadly come to an end. As can happen with any slice of time, this adventure is already beginning to take on a dreamlike quality in my mind — did that really happen? Was I truly just traveling through the most biologically-diverse marine ecosystem on the planet on a 108-year-old ship? The surest way for me to verify that it wasn’t all just a dream is by closing my eyes and reliving some of the moments from these past three months, knowing full well that my imagination could never have conjured these otherworldly visions on its own — visions of looking up from eighty feet below the water at thousands upon thousands of fish circling above me in such perfect unison they appeared to be one single, gargantuan, cyclone-shaped, super-organism. Visions of standing on the bow as we slowly approached a remote island at sunrise and expecting to see pterodactyls swooping off the turrets of stone as the land came into focus to reveal steep, jagged cliff faces speckled with broad-leafed plants overflowing out of any little spot that could hold a cup of soil. Visions of being on watch late at night and looking over the side of the ship at long ribbons of bioluminescence streaming and twisting away from Mir’s hull as she cut through the otherwise pitch-black waters. And one especially wild vision of diving in a tidal “river” between two islands where the current was so strong that when everyone else grabbed ahold of a boulder to stop themselves, and I missed it, I had to dig my hands into the sandy bottom where I was dragged away from the rest of the team while “gusts” of water threatened to tear my mask from my face and it felt like I was on a gravity-free planet about to get blown into outer space, never to be heard from again. But of all the things we saw in Raja Ampat, the most spectacular was what we went there to see in the first place: the vast trove of healthy coral reefs, all of which hosted a chaotic profusion of sea life on and around them.
Fish tornado. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
Voyage Back to Bali
We left our final anchorage in Raja Ampat on March 10th to begin our long voyage back across those big blue spots you may have seen on maps of Indonesia. Although we were sad to leave a place we had come to love so much, our adventure in no way diminished once we did; on one of our first nights underway between Raja Ampat and Sulawesi, an electrical storm came so close to the ship that the thunder was already clapping while the lightning was still spiderwebbing pink and welding torch-white across the skies beside us, causing us to throw our hands up to our ears. The four of us who were up at the time all thought the power had gone out on the ship before realizing we had each been momentarily blinded by the flash.
We saw many of these eerie, floating fish attractors in the seas around Sulawesi. Our presumption is that these scarecrow-like paddle people have a double purpose: 1) to keep birds from landing on them so fish aren’t dissuaded from gathering below, and 2) to make them easier for the fisherman to relocate. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
After spending a few days diving in Wakatobi National Park off the southeastern coast of Sulawesi, we continued on to the small island of Moyo, where the Biosphere Foundation has an ongoing “Friends of Moyo” project. There, we were reunited with our hero, Sutama, and his wonderful and hilarious wife, Wayan, who flew in to meet us from Bali. We spent a week in Moyo transplanting broken corals, and adding many small moorings to the beautiful reefs off the coast of the island. Sutama led us in these efforts, while also training the local dive leaders of Moyo who are eager to carry on the critical work of protecting their reefs from anchor damage, destructive fishing practices, and pollution.
From left to right: Sutama, Dolphin, Wayan, and Nadia. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere FoundationSutama and Wayan Chandra transplanting corals near Moyo Island. Photo by Kitty Currier, Biosphere FoundationLaser and Sutama tying a mooring buoy line to the rocky substrate. Photo by Nadia Low, Biosphere FoundationSutama certifying local Moyo divers: Chandra, Herwin, and Arif as Biosphere Foundation Coral Reef Stewards. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation.Gorgeous waterfall on Moyo Island — it felt incredible to swim in fresh water after months of salt. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
While in Moyo, we also visited a local school where we met with nearly 150 students, teaching them about the detriments of plastic pollution and the importance of healthy coral reefs. We sang and danced with them, and performed the same skit that we put on in Mansuar, where once again I played a sea turtle who nearly chokes to death on a plastic bag that I mistake for a jellyfish. In Bahasa Indonesia, jellyfish is “ubur ubur,” and apparently my pronunciation of the word is so hilarious that now every time I see one of my Indonesian friends, they yell: “ubur ubur!” in a drawn-out and exaggerated accent and then burst into laughter. Just now a boat filled with Balinese dive leaders spotted me where I’m typing this and all shouted “ubur ubur!” in unison and then nearly fell overboard with delight.
Schoolchildren of Labuhan Aji village on Moyo Island, Indonesia. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation
On the Horizon
We’re living at a critical moment not only for humanity, but for all life on Planet Earth — a moment when many say it’s already too late to steer us off our current crash course with environmental destruction. Coral reefs are a strong indicator of overall ocean health, and alarmingly, they are projected to be nearly gone in the next thirty years if ocean temperatures continue to rise at current trends. After seeing the spectacular underwater ecosystems of Raja Ampat, those of us aboard Mir are more motivated than ever to not sit idly by as our elegant biosphere slowly fades out, and whether it’s too late to change our species’ destructive course or not, the truth of the matter is that these reefs still exist today, and that means there’s still hope. If we lose our reefs for good, there’s no getting them back, so now is the time to act; our grandchildren won’t be given the same opportunity if we do nothing.
Mir crew, 2018. Photo by Woody Heffern, Biosphere Foundation
Though our expedition to Raja Ampat is now behind us, the work of the Biosphere Foundation is only gaining momentum; as of this week, Sutama officially became the head of our NW Bali Marine Stewardship Program where he will continue to develop programs to educate local people — including officials from the local Nature Parks, and Indonesia’s National Parks — in simple, yet effective, methods to protect their oceans. Also on the horizon is the Biosphere Foundation’s new educational center that will soon be built in northwest Bali where both local and international students can participate in our land and sea environmental stewardship programs. We hope you’ll join us.
part of the massive intact north american Boreal Forest: the Sahtu region of the Mackenzie Valley, Northwest Territories, Canada (Photo J. Wells)
Due to the course of human history, there are now only a handful of places on Earth that are not severely altered by the footprint of large-scale industrial activities. Those within parts of the Earth where trees are dominant are termed “intact” or “primary” forests. A few weeks ago I joined more than a hundred other scientists and conservationists for a three-day conference at Oxford University in England to discuss the issues, needs, similarities, and differences related to the science and conservation of the world’s forest landscapes that are considered intact.
The conference, Intact Forests in the 21st Century, included presentations on the issues of how best to map and identify intact forest landscapes, methods for inventory and identification of conservation values of intact forests, ways of communicating about the importance of intact forests to the public and policy makers, elucidation of the major threats and stressors that are eliminating or degrading intact forests, and strategies for achieving conservation of these forest landscapes.
Five regions of the globe have very large forested landscapes that contain large tracts of intact or primary forest: the Boreal Forest of Canada and Alaska, the Boreal Forest of Russia and Scandinavia, the Amazon Forest of South America, the Congo Basin of Africa, and the forests of Papua New Guinea and Malayasia. While this “Family of Five” forest areas are called by some the “Last Five,” it is important to point out that there are other areas of forest around the globe, some of which, while perhaps smaller at the global scale, are intact and others which are recovering from past human impacts and that need conservation attention as well.
But certainly the “Family of Five” was a major focus of presentations at the conference and the range of research and conservation initiatives that are underway in these regions is impressive. At the same time, it was clear from all presentations that there continues to be rapid loss of these last intact forest landscapes on the planet, with consequent loss of animal and plant species as well as degradation of the ability of forests to provide clean air and water, and to store away carbon pollution.
The Boreal Forest region of Canada and Alaska was highlighted for its global significance containing as it does, at least a quarter of the world’s last large intact forest landscapes that have in storage over 200 billion tons of carbon and that support billions of migratory birds and a host of mammals, fish, insects, and plants. Also highlighted was the fact that the Boreal Forest of Canada and Alaska is the ancestral homeland of hundreds of Indigenous communities whose governments are increasingly taking the lead in achieving balanced protection and stewardship of their lands and waters, and the animals and plants found there. Some of the major problems in the region were also given attention including the plight of rapidly declining Boreal Woodland Caribou populations in Canada and the opportunity for increasing protections as governments strive to achieve conservation commitments embodied in the Aichi Biodiversity Treaty by 2020. The long-term impacts to the Boreal Forest of the very large footprint of industrial forestry as well as from mining, oil, and gas; large-scale hydro, and other global industries was demonstrated as well.
As the conference reached its conclusion, delegates came together to show a global voice and vision for the world’s remaining intact forests and their conservation through an Intact Forest Declaration that attendees and others will be signing and spotlighting in coming months. By sharing our knowledge, ideas and understanding among those working for conservation across all the world’s Intact Forest landscapes, we hope we can increase the collective conservation gains for all of the Family of the Five and beyond.
Me with Tom Evans (right) of the Wildlife Conservation Society who was one of the key organizers of the Intact Forests in the 21st Century Conference. Behind us is an amazing graphic put together by two artists to encapsulate the range of presentations and messages of the conference.
In an opinion piece for the Cape Cod Times earlier this month, Carl Safina and I wrote about coexisting with coyotes—as millions of people in fact do. We juxtaposed a Cape Cod coyote-killing contest against a San Francisco newspaper deliveryman who every morning gives a particular coyote their own paper. That coyote had been taking a paper to play with each morning from one of the driveways on the block. Giving the coyote a paper solved the problem for the deliveryman, the subscriber, and the coyote.
And now Albuquerque New Mexico agrees with the information we highlighted which shows that killing coyotes has various downsides and doesn’t even reduce coyote density. This week, Albuquerque’s City Council unanimously passed a resolution condemning coyote killing contests and asking for a statewide ban on this cruel practice. The resolution urges the New Mexico legislature to prohibit “contests organized, arranged or sponsored for the purpose of killing coyotes for prizes or entertainment.”
Coyote, Lake City, Colorado, between Slumgullion Pass and Creede. Photo: Larry1732 (Wikimedia Commons)
At the hearing, wildlife biologist Dave Parsons—who is also a science advisory board member of Project Coyote, a nonprofit which advocates for the encouraging respect for the U.S.’s native carnivore population—testified before the Albuquerque City Council. “Many respected wildlife experts agree that there is no scientific justification for coyote killing contests and no proven wildlife management benefit,” said Parsons. “These contests are antithetical to modern wildlife management principles. It is well past time to end this unethical practice.”
If the New Mexico legislature passes a bill, it would become the third U.S. state to outlaw the killing contests. California passed a ban in 2014, and Vermont just passed a ban this year. While coyotes occasionally have minor run-ins with pets, people and livestock, more often than not these animals choose not to interact with human lives.
Coyote on the McCormick Ranch Golf Course at sunrise. Photo: Dru Bloomfield (Flickr)
However, the states that allow coyote-killing contests vastly outnumber those that have prohibited the practice. One of the reasons is due to the incorrect notion that mass-killing coyotes and other so-called “nuisance” predator animals is an effective way of reducing run-ins. This notion is so engrained in the American psyche that even some wildlife managers are in support of killing contests. This year the State of Georgia opened up its own coyote-killing contest with a prize of a lifetime hunting license, calling the contest an “educational effort.”
We applaud states like California, Vermont, and—hopefully soon—New Mexico, which have recognized that the best available science shows coexisting with predator animals—rather than killing them—is the most effective, and peaceful, kind of management strategy.
My two recent obsessions have been hummingbird pee and hummingbird torpor.
Video: Hummingbirds may be small, but their energy consumption is huge. Learn how they do this.
Hummingbirds are tiny (and I mean, tiny) birds.
They use up energy very quickly and barely store any fat, so they really don’t have a backup generator to rely on if they come close to running out of fuel. I’m really interested in how they manage this limited energy over short time scales.
Okay, so going back to my obsessions. We all know what pee is, but here’s a hummingbird peeing, just in case you were curious:
A Rivoli’s hummingbird peeing as it is released. Photo credit: Don Powers
We injected stable (non-radioactive) double isotopes of water (Deuterium + Oxygen-18) into hummingbirds, and collected their pee just after injection, then released them. Twenty-four hours later we would try capturing the same hummingbirds to collect another pee sample. The change in the levels of isotopes in their pee over 24 hours told us how much energy they’d used in the wild in that time! How cool is that? So I was (understandably, don’t you think?) excited when they peed for us. Sometimes, as you saw in this gif, they would pee as a goodbye token to us as they were released. This was often even more exciting, because sometimes it was the only pee sample we got from that bird–we would scramble to collect it from our hands!
And what is torpor? Daily torpor is an energy-saving mode, a form of hibernation, that some animals use. Like humans, hummingbirds are endotherms; they generate their own body heat to keep warm.
We use infrared cameras to measure hummingbirds’ surface temperatures at night. Here’s a hummingbird spending energy to keep its body temperature nice and high at about 41oC (though because of the insulation its feathers provide, its surface temperature maxes out at about 36oC):
A hummingbird maintaining a normal body temperature. Photo credit: Anusha Shankar, Isabelle Cisneros
We also use oxygen and carbon dioxide analyzers to measure a hummingbird’s breath at night and estimate how much energy it spends per second. A hummingbird at normal body temperature spends energy something like this for an hour at night:
By using torpor at night, some endotherms allow the outside air to decide their body temperatures, and allow some of the internal processes in their body–their metabolism–to slow down. These torpid animals can drop down to using just 5-30 percent of the energy they would normally use while awake and resting.
Hummingbirds, being tiny, speedy, flying machines, often use torpor overnight, when they don’t have access to their energy-packed sugary nectar. Somewhat dramatically, they do this to avoid speeding their way to death overnight. But as a result, hummingbirds in torpor are quite useless; a torpid hummingbird cannot respond to outside stimuli for between 10-20 minutes. Here’s what it looks like when a hummingbird enters torpor (black means the bird is at normal body temperature, and red means the bird is in torpor):
And when it is in torpor for a whole hour:
Hummingbird in Torpor
And this infrared image below is what a hummingbird in torpor looks like; you’ll notice that its body’s temperature is about the same as that of the air around it (~ 17oC)!
Imagine if you were on a cold mountain somewhere, running out of food, and you could turn your internal thermostat down and save energy–all without feeling terribly cold, because your body was itself cold! Hummingbirds can save 65-92 percent of their energy every hour that they use torpor. I was mindblown when I realized this. I am so happy that scientists before me invented ways of measuring the oxygen in a bird’s breath, and ways to measure the temperature of a surface with a camera. And that I was able to take this technology to the field and explore what hummingbirds in their natural habitats do to balance their crazy energetic needs!
Beautiful Places to Work
My field team and I have gone to a number of beautiful and beautifully different places to study how hummingbirds manage their energy on a daily basis. Here are some of our sites:
Patagonia Lake State Park, Arizona, USA. Photo credit: Anusha Shankar
A view from the Santa Lucia cloud forest in Ecuador (1900m). Photo credit: Anusha Shankar
A view from El Gullan, Universidad del Azuay, in the Ecuadorian Andes (3000m). Photo credit: Anusha Shankar
Our hummingbird headquarters at El Gullan, Universidad del Azuay, in the Ecuadorian Andes. Photo credit: Anusha Shankar
Mist nets we used at El Gullan, Ecuador, to catch hummingbirds. Photo credit: Anusha Shankar
In the video, a description of our site at El Gullan (owned by the Universidad del Azuay), near La Paz, Ecuador. We studied hummingbird physiology and ecology. Check out my blog page for more details! anushashankar.weebly.com/fieldwork-blog
In a major triumph for freshwater conservation, Colombia’s Bita River basin was recently announced by President Juan Manuel Santos as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention—an intergovernmental treaty that that provides the framework for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. This decree spans 824,500 hectares, establishing the river basin as the largest of the country’s 11 Ramsar sites and one of very few protected sites in the world to encompass an entire free-flowing river watershed.
Running unimpeded for more than 372 miles before flowing into the Orinoco River, the Bita River is a treasure trove of biodiversity. It harbors at least 1,474 species of plants, 254 fish species, 201 bird species, and 63 species of mammals—from tapirs to deer and jaguars—and its extensive freshwater habitats and gallery forest ecosystems are home to iconic species such as river dolphins, the blue arowana, and the charapa turtle.
It also supports local communities who rely on the river for everything from fishing to tourism to survive.
The historic protection of the river is the result of joint efforts by WWF-Colombia and the Alliance for the Bita, comprised of the Omacha Foundation, the von Humboldt Institute, Vichada Provincial Government, the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development, and other partners. The Alliance has been working with citizens and the government in recent years to define a sustainable future for the Bita River. After years of studies and consultations, stakeholders agreed to give the river a protected status that would allow for sustainable use, ensuring that the river’s incredible biodiversity—and the important ecological processes on which its survival hinges—are safeguarded in the long term.
“The designation means that a vast wealth of species along the Bita River will be protected with support from local inhabitants and institutions,” said WWF-Colombia freshwater specialist Saulo Usma. “Critical wetland complexes, such as floodable savannah, drainage channels, and miriti palm ecosystems—which are home to a wide variety of fish—will be conserved. These are a vital source of income for local inhabitants.”