How green? Return the lizard fern river-crossing footprint

We’ve returned to Cloudbridge and it’s life life life life life life life, like usual. Definitely going to miss this place with all its variety of animals, plants, and fungi. Trying to describe any of it is an exercise in art itself and my hat goes off to any systematics and taxonomic scientist. Every day there is a new find followed by a whole load of searching to nail it down. Lou and I decided to take a morning stroll at 3am to Vulture’s Rock, an outcrop halfway up an East-facing slope. As the sun started to rise, Uran, the tallest mountain in view, lit up like an ancient temple with a glistening gem a rest on top. It was an hour or more before the sun made its way over the Chirripo-trail ridgeline and down the slope to strike us. On the way down we spotted ferns that looked like unraveling slippers out of Alice in wonderland, angel-wing shaped fungus fruiting all over a dead-standing tree, and a vibrantly-coloured and scaled lizard hiding amongst the over-grown grass, giving us enough of a glimpse before skittering off into safety.

Sceloporus malachiticus, (from google)

Life doesn’t appear to understand the distinction between inside and outside. An experience the visitors here find out all too easily at night when crickets jump over your skin as you work at the computer; where sparrow-sized moths fly at your face; and in the case of the office, where a spider claimed the underside of the desk as her maternity ward.

Spider clutching at her eggs, surrounded by a dense dome-like web

It has been refreshing to sit on the other side of the classroom now that I have returned to university, wondering about as a student instead of guiding wonderers as a teacher. However, the cornerstones of teaching that I learned in English Language Teaching of context, purpose, collaboration, and authenticity are all absent in lectures. This has been frustrating and a struggle to say the least. Fortunately, the professors of the Ecology department at Otago compensate for this by being forerunners in the world for advocating research as a means of learning. This is where I feel those cornerstones have been catered for and is definitely one of the reasons we have been able to make this journey, for without those skills we would surely be making progress like a moth to a lamp. Throughout the last two years, Otago has led us on a path towards self-motivated research, directing us towards measurable questions, assessing data validity, and cautiously inferring answers from results.

Loopy-looking fern frond

One of the angles that our professor Robert Poulin emphasised in an early ecology lecture was the difference between environmental activism and quantifiable ecology. These are not mutually exclusive but let’s tease them out, anyway. German troops occupied Norway during WWII and killed half the 95,000 reindeer population. By 1960 the population had doubled from its diminished population and recovered to 90,000. The Persian Gulf oil spill resulting from conflict in 1991 accumulated 6 to 8 million barrels of oil out at sea. Birds lose insulating properties of their plumage leading to hypothermia as well as ingestion of oil causing numerous internal dysfunctions, organ damage, and sometimes death from poisoning. Yet many species did not suffer at all, some suffered between 10 – 30 % population reductions, and none came close to extinction. We could campaign about the environmental abuses of these, but to an ecologist that does not make much sense.

Centropogon granulosus, a hummingbird favourite

What appears on the surface to be a minor difference turns out to be a profound alternative perspective. Severity of impact is one of the key distinctions between the two views. Many ecologists like to use the sick patient as an analogy for the systems researched in the field. Disturbances like the above could be seen as fevers that leave patients bed-stricken for days or weeks. Heavily impacted and urbanized landscapes are the severely sick systems, the life-threatening illnesses that can potentially disable the patient permanently, situations that need understanding of natural systems in order to provide remedies.


Stachytarpheta frantzii, another hummingbird favourite

Oil spills in the gulf can kill a few thousand birds in a year but dredging marshes and filling in mangroves with cement and landfill permanently remove habitat for decades. Sometimes the irrecoverable disasters are the gradual accumulations and seemingly mundane business as usual. The bleaching of coral reefs have a rebound and recovery time (albeit with limitations) but dumping contaminated waste and filling in coral reefs are disturbances that lead to permanent destruction.

About to find the Hansteinia blepharorbachis’ orange towering flowers on the right

Cloudbridge has been a role model and facilitator of this quantitative research. Encompassing both natural (old growth) and heavily impacted (regeneration and planted) sites, Cloudbridge has a unique ability to study these hand in hand. Cloudbridge arose out of the encroachment of local farmers being pushed further and further up the mountain passes to find grazing land for their livestock and provide sustenance for their families. What they found, instead, were poor soils that constrained most of them in poverty. Once Cloudbridge was bought and established, the initial regeneration technique was to let nature do its thing. However, from the accumulated knowledge of the nearly century-old discipline of ecology at the time, researchers starting manipulating the inputs to alter the direction the forest system was heading.

Amphibian surveys can be used as ecosystem-health indicators

All this does not entail a return to a natural forest. In fact, from the scientists perspective, this does not make any sense; as ecologist Markus Eichhorn writes, “by definition we can’t make something natural nor should we aspire to do so. Whether an island is occupied by native endemics or filled with the alien species introduced by man, it only becomes natural as soon as we pack our bags and set sail.” Natural does not mean the return of biodiversity, nor of healthy systems, natural simply means left to its human-less state.

Etlingera elatior

During the beginning of the year at Cloudbridge, two groups of high school students come down for a week each to design and implement a study over a few days. The insights, motivation, curiosity, and inquisitiveness of this bunch encourages the instructors to try and keep up and push them further. Linda has a great break-down of the 2-week stint on the Cloudbridge blog.

In Darkness We Shall

Over the last ten days Oli and I have been traveling around Costa Rica, periodically having our bank accounts drained by the tourist traps that litter the landscape. Our first stop was Quepos, a town just round the corner from Manuel Antonio national park, a land-marine reserve that harbours a spectactular variety of animals and plants within a small vicinity. Making our way along the trail, the rangers stopped every minute or so to point out animals they had “spotted” in a manner which seemed as if they had placed them out on the trail early that morning. Packed full of animals would be an understatement. Sloths lingered in the bitterwood tree-tops, howler monkeys rattled the forest with their calls, hermit crabs skittered away to then hunker down in dark safety, successive humans repeatedly turned a broken tap to the joke of being yet another that tried, raccoons scoured the litter in search of scraps, capuchin monkeys rough housed amongst the low-lying branches on the beach, an agouti strolled with intent on what it was sniffing out, a turtle scrambled upstream fumbling over the rubble, all the while we downed copious amounts of water to keep hydrated from the stifling heat and humidity.

Looking down a palm tree from a tree-top lookout

Onwards to the Caribbean! On this coast we laxed out in a little town down towards Panama called Puerto Viejo. A realisation hit me while I was here, the kind you get only upon encountering something that you have learnt about but never grasped or held up to reality. To get there let’s go on a round-about tangent that should make sense once we arrive.

Pacific gem through the trees

Our research question regarding soil and log invertebrates is an interesting one. Another interesting question to ask is how Oli and I can venture half-way around the world and not have a high expectation of being killed by strangers. As Peter Turchin opens similarly in a recent book “Ultrasociety,” what has forged and propelled human society towards greater and greater cooperation from spending tens of thousands of human hours building cathedrals in northern France near the beginning of the second millennium to spending billions of human hours from multiple countries constructing, launching, and maintaining the international space station. For 90-95% of Homo sapiens sapiens natural history we were hunter-gatherers and extremely territorial, so much so as to not trust and even kill strangers. The data appears to point towards an unexpected theory for our recent ability to cooperate beyond kin-ship circles, not the hydrological theory in which history has been directed by the ever-increasing need to control and secure water, nor was it the great expansion of intellectual and free thought of the enlightenment, nor was it the establishment of human rights, egalitarian movements, and the western revolutions. It appears the leading contestant is war.

An agouti, picture from

The study of warfare requires one to blur the lines between human and natural systems, observing war as a natural byproduct and natural disturbance. Just as we research bird migration patterns, amphibian breeding behaviours, or fish prey-predation dynamics, war should be viewed through a similar lens of Homo sapiens sapiens evolutionary behaviour. There are many definitions for war but a simple foundation to start with is lethal group-on-group violence, a process not unique unto humans as others like chimps and wolves also partake in it.

There are extensive data sets that validate the violent and warlike nature of pre-agricultural humans. Violence and war are high risk means of supporting the evolutionary goals of survival and reproduction. My kiwi readers will be reassured to hear the “Maori warrior gene” is a myth, but disconcerted to hear genes and hormones are universal human predispositions that interact with the environment and other genes to periodically produce warlike tendencies.

Not only is war fascinating in the extremes of the human condition but it is also interesting in that it is not an agricultural construct. The rise of the noble savage in the 1940s through 70s downplayed the natural propensity of human warfare before the neolithic and instead created a state-based and agricultural basis for warfare. This train of thought no longer coincides with what the violent data tells us in fields like zoology, archaeology, psychology, sociology, history and anthropology. The emerging field that intertwines all these disciplines, cultural evolution, is one that uses mathematical models and tests them empirically against vast data sets that have been amassed over the recent decade from the explosion of collaborative and technological capabilities. One of the compelling results from recent research shows that competition amongst groups is a destructive force whereas competition between groups is a creative and productive force, a result businesses should take to heart and reflect on in the cases where they promote and facilitate competition amongst their employees. The cooperation reached by societies, wrenched upwards by war, can then be secured by a variety of social institutions which can be all too easily unraveled like was the case for Afghanistan post 1970s.

Black-sandy beaches on the northern reaches of Puerto Viejo

Theories about the emergence of cooperation aside, I brought it up for when I was wandering the beaches of Puerto Viejo I kept being reminded about the certainty that oceanographers have about the speed that sea level is rising, a speed expected to increase in pace due to the many positive feedback mechanisms that are modeled to kick into action serially. Next to a beach-side resort lay many middle-aged men and women soaking up the sun, dunking their feet in the waves that came wafting in under their lounges to stop on the brink of the jungle. After the initial beach-side dune, the land drops away and most shops, houses, accommodation, and farms lie on this low flat plain. Scary.

Arthrostemma ciliatum

Scary as it is an extremely difficult situation to find, develop, manage, and implement a response to. As I was discussing previously, the scientific endeavour is one fraught with uncertainty, yet to make any clear decisions and responses communities need to come to a consensus about how many resources are going to be delayed for their short-term benefits and invested in their long-term resilience. This is not simply a scientific question with a quantifiable answer but one where cooperation beyond the kin, beyond the town, beyond the city, beyond the state, to our brethren across borders and overseas is going to play a critical role.

An iridescent bee that landed on the laptop

Just like any challenge we face, there are things both under our control and out of our control. Crossing the river to bath under a waterfall the other day, Fredie, Lou, and I had control over our route, over our successive steps, but did not control the flow of the river, the placement of the rocks, or the temperature of the water. The same applies for the strategy we decide to employ to foster resilience against the approaching climatic chaos.