Ecologist at large

June 23rd, 2009

When I was at university, involved in the cutting-edge discipline of sponge classification, I regarded ecology as “soft” science, suited to those who lacked the intellectual molars to chew more demanding meat. Ecologists, I liked to think, were the ones Mark Twain had in mind when he wrote, “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

Candy Feller and team exploring a new river.

KENNEDY WARNE
Candy Feller and team exploring a new river.


Now I think differently. Ecology is about getting the big picture. And today, with the extinction rate in overdrive and ecosystems in crisis, how sorely humankind needs that perspective. Candy Feller’s CV calls her an insect ecologist, but this really means she’s interested in everything that has to do with an insect’s world of interactions, which is a wide world indeed. Tracking those interactions may entail analysing the sugar content of flower nectar or making aerial surveys of mangrove deforestation as much as it involves slicing open twigs to see what’s living inside.

Candy is part of an ecological subdiscipline called biocomplexity, the study of the mechanisms—physical, chemical, biological—that determine ecosystem structure and function. She came to mangrove ecology in an unusual way. She was a scientific illustrator, and was assigned to draw the underwater component of a mangrove ecosystem. Actually to draw under water, using waterproof materials and a scuba tank.

Pelliciera reflections.

KENNEDY WARNE
Pelliciera reflections.


She found she liked mangroves. They reminded her of the rhododendron forests of her youth—the feeling of being enclosed and embraced by nature. These days Candy lives in Maryland, but at heart she’s a Carolina gal. I asked her what her favourite southern comfort food was. “Squirrel,” she said, without missing a beat. When she was little she and her brothers used to go out and shoot squirrels for breakfast. It was pretty much a no-brainer to find out she liked bluegrass music as much as I do. We swapped stories—I’d backed Emmylou Harris on a New Zealand TV show; she’d met Gid Tanner of the legendary Skillet Lickers. Then she opened up the iTunes playlist on her laptop and we spent an hour getting high and lonesome on four-part harmony.
Candy and Anne Chamberlain team up to trap tree crabs lurking in liverworts.

KENNEDY WARNE
Candy and Anne Chamberlain team up to trap tree crabs lurking in liverworts.


When she retires she says she’s going to work on a plant called Jack-in-the-pulpit, which was found recently to be pollinated by thrips. She finds that an interesting interaction—thrips are normally thought of as pests, not beneficial pollinators. “I don’t want to publish, just to know,” she says. “I like the idea of pushing my walking frame into the garden and studying wildflowers.”

Watching Candy in the field, I’m pretty sure the walking frame is a long way in the future. By midday I’m wilting in the heat, with Noel Coward’s lyrics about mad dogs and Englishmen running through my head, but Candy, mud-spattered and sweating, presses ahead with the work. She doesn’t miss much, either. Today she found a fish I had been hoping to see: the mangrove killifish, or Rivulus. It was swimming in a shallow puddle in the Pelliciera forest, darting down fiddler crab burrows when it was disturbed.

We bought the sweetest pineapples I've ever tasted from these paddlers passing our research site.

KENNEDY WARNE
We bought the sweetest pineapples I've ever tasted from these paddlers passing our research site.


Rivulus is the only known vertebrate capable of breeding without a mate. It can develop male and female sex organs and fertilise its own eggs. What’s more, it can breathe air through its skin, like a frog, and one specimen spent 66 consecutive days out of water, living in a hole in a tree. The fish’s ability to survive out of water comes in handy for Rivulus researchers, Candy said—they swap live specimens through the post.

When the field work was over for the day we explored a new river system. We passed groves of Pelliciera where the buttress roots and their reflections produced rows of diamonds at the waterline. Candy stood in the bow of the boat, surveying the forest, enthusing about the epiphytic orchids, wondering out loud why the Pelliciera on this coast seem to reach a certain height and then stop growing. The birders in the group had eyes only for trogons, toucans and other avian exotica, but I suspected that Candy’s mind was on the mangroves, pondering how they fit into the complex ecological pattern she is helping define.

When the collecting finishes, the analysing begins.

KENNEDY WARNE
When the collecting finishes, the analysing begins.


I came across a statement from the late great US writer John Updike. His goal as a writer, he said, was “to give the mundane its beautiful due.” It seems to me that this is what Candy Feller is doing for mangroves, and I admire her for it.

Ay caramba! A caterpillar that thinks it’s a snake

June 22nd, 2009

Today we found a caterpillar that belongs in the Guinness Book of Records in the “most bizarre” category. About 8 cm long and as thick as my little finger, it had a head like a snake, which it would lift up if you breathed on it. The tail end had a single Cyclops eye in the middle of it, complete with a fake eyelid that blinked.

The creature was positioned head-down on the trunk of a Pelliciera (perhaps so that a predatory bird would be attracted to the eye, the “decoy”). Pelliciera trunks here are covered with mats of tufting liverworts, which are favourite haunts of tree crabs. The trunk was bare around the caterpillar’s head, and looked to have been grazed by the animal.

I’m working on finding out what sort of moth or butterfly this magnificent beast turns into, but if it’s even half as spectacular as its larvae it must be quite a sight.*

(Click photo to see more pictures of the “snake caterpillar of Valiente.”)

Contender for the 'most bizarre' award?

KENNEDY WARNE
Contender for the 'most bizarre' award?

*UPDATE Annette Aiello, an entomologist with the Smithsonian, has provided me with the following excellent information:

“My guess is that your spectacular caterpillar belongs to the moth family Sphingidae, the sphinx moths, which include the well-known ‘tomato horn worm.’ Several sphingid genera are snake mimics, and in most of the cases I’ve seen so far, it is the ventral surface of the body that is displayed to resemble a snake. You can see that in the attached photograph of a species of Hemeroplanes. The head, mostly hidden, forms the blunt nose of the snake, then behind that you see the ventral surface of the thorax with its three pairs of true legs folded against the body, and the large, dark, false eyes (that can be opened and closed with blood pressure) on the sides of the third thoracic segment. Continuing back, you see the first three pairs of false legs (prologs), which are the large black structures on the ventral surface of the abdomen. The larva is holding on to the substrate with its fourth pair of prologs. In contrast, your caterpillar presents its dorsal surface during the display. The only record I can find of a similar caterpillar is Pholus labruscae, shown figure d, plate xiii of Miles Moss (1912) publication “On the Sphingidae of Peru,” Transactions of the Zoological Society of London 20(2): 73-134. Moss describes the final stage larva as ‘Remarkably snake-like, either end appearing as the head of a snake.’ He reports that the caterpillar eats members of the grape family (Vitaceae).”

Pholus labruscae

Pholus labruscae

Among the Pelliciera

June 21st, 2009

Here are a few more glimpses of the magic forest. (Click on photograph to start slide sequence.)

Bromeliad on a Pelliciera trunk.

KENNEDY WARNE
Bromeliad on a Pelliciera trunk.

Forest of flowers

June 21st, 2009

We’re off again, as Candy Feller says, “like a herd of turtles.”

Emily Dangremond (right) with Pelliciera blooms. Anne Chamberlain looks on.

KENNEDY WARNE
Emily Dangremond (right) with Pelliciera blooms. Anne Chamberlain looks on.


With us today are a couple of Smithsonian communications people, filming a documentary piece on Candy, and David Luther, a bird expert who works on the conservation of endangered species at the University of Maryland. A paper of David’s on vertebrates which rely on mangroves is about to be published in the journal Bioscience. This is good news for me, because I was hoping to find a list of mangrove-dependent creatures, and David has produced that very list—for vertebrates, at least. David says that almost half of these mangrove endemics—48 birds, 14 reptiles, 1 amphibian and 6 mammals—are endangered, many of them critically so.

One of his mangrove species is chattering in the branches as we wheelbarrow our gear to the boat: the mangrove yellow warbler, a canary-sized bird with canary-coloured plumage. The male has a rusty red head, as if it had been dipped in paprika.

Village in Peninsula Valiente.

KENNEDY WARNE
Village in Peninsula Valiente.


We weave our way through the Bocas archipelago and cross the bay to the Peninsula Valiente. The sea is silky calm and dotted with the canoes of the Ngöbe Buglé people native to this area. They are fishing, diving or just commuting; rivers and sea are the only roads in this area.

We stop at a village which looks like a film set: rough timber buildings on stilts at the water´s edge, blue smoke drifting through almond trees, jungle rising thickly behind. Half an hour further on and we come to Candy’s site: a forest which includes the mangrove species known as Pelliciera rhizophorae.

Candy Feller takes nectar from a Pelliciera flower.

KENNEDY WARNE
Candy Feller takes nectar from a Pelliciera flower.


Candy has a special affection for Pelliciera, which has one of the most restricted distributions of any mangrove. It occurs on the Pacific coast of Latin America from Costa Rica to northern Ecuador, and in just a few spots on the Caribbean coast. The trees have elegant fluted buttresses, straightish trunks and long spindle-shaped leaves. But their flowers are what set them apart. Almost all mangroves have small, unspectacular flowers—except Pelliciera, which breaks ranks by producing flamboyant, star-shaped, nectar-filled blooms. The nectar attracts hummingbirds (believed to be the main pollinator) as well as many insects. We even find tree crabs taking a dram. Pelliciera blooms year-round, but when flowering is at its peak the forest is alive with the whirring wingbeats and squeaking calls of hummingbirds. “Imagine being strafed by hummingbirds,” Candy says.

On a previous trip Candy discovered something unusual: when she shone a UV light on the flowers the nectar fluoresced. Today she wants to take nectar samples and have them analysed in a lab that specialises in fluorescence. This turns out to be too easy. The flowers produce so much nectar that she can fill a glass capillary tube in seconds—if, that is, she beats me to it. I’ve been in a sugar desert lately, and am making up for it by licking Pelliciera nectar (it has a delicate caramel flavour).

The fabulous blue morpho, with the fabulous blue hidden inside folded wings.

KENNEDY WARNE
The fabulous blue morpho, with the fabulous blue hidden inside folded wings.


I walk through the forest, scouting for flowers and for the peacock flash of blue morpho butterflies, whose seemingly random fluttering always seems to be out of camera range. For a while, the best I can achieve photographically is a morpho at rest on a mangrove leaf, when the heavenly blue is hidden, and all you see are an eye-patterned grey and black. Then I find a butterfly trapped in a golden orb spider’s web, with the spider feeding on its dead body. It seems unsporting to photograph the iconic creature’s demise, but it could be my only chance to record the wing colour, so I shoot a few frames. “Frames”—the old film terminology lingers. “Files” doesn’t have the same magic.
Blue morpho, golden orb.

KENNEDY WARNE
Blue morpho, golden orb.


We eat lunch of boiled eggs, tomatoes and bread, and are treated to the sight of a basilisk, or “Jesus Christ lizard” running across the river and up a mangrove tree. “Basilisk,” I learn, comes from the Greek for “little king,” a name bestowed by none other than Carl Linnaeus, father of taxonomy.

Candy, Emily and Anne follow a similar collecting pattern as yesterday, gathering seedlings, twigs and flowers, collecting crabs and, on this occasion, measuring the salinity of the peaty mud in which the trees are growing. I help with the fiddler crabs, whose large claw has an off-puttingly wide set of pincers at the tip. I find that their posture is worse than their pinch, and manage to collect several without being nipped.

Young basilisk, or Jesus Christ lizard.

KENNEDY WARNE
Young basilisk, or Jesus Christ lizard.


We arrive back at the lab at sunset, and though it’s been a long, hot day Candy can’t resist putting in a couple of hours in the lab, slicing into the twigs and seedlings with a knife to see what’s living inside.

In front of the main building two bat researchers have set up a mist net and are catching bats at a rate of one every couple of minutes. Just as in nature, institutions like the Smithsonian have their diurnal and nocturnal residents. We mangrovistas are winding down, thinking of gin and tonics and what’s for dinner, while the bat brigade is gearing up for a night of excitement. The main researcher thinks he may have captured a new species.

Night belongs to the bats . . . and their captors.

KENNEDY WARNE
Night belongs to the bats . . . and their captors.


I take a torch down to the boat ramp and spotlight the mangroves, watching tree crabs chomping leaves and flowers. Howler monkeys are making a racket in the jungle beyond the lab, while poison dart frogs keep up a constant chirruping. It’s a great life, and tomorrow I get to do it all over again!

The nutrient economy

June 20th, 2009

It takes an hour by speedboat from Isla Colón, where the Smithsonian research station is located, to reach Isla Popa, where Candy Feller has one of her experimental sites.

Anne Chamberlain (left) and Emily Dangremont tickle the mangrove roots for crabs on Isla Popa.

KENNEDY WARNE
Anne Chamberlain (left) and Emily Dangremont tickle the mangrove roots for crabs on Isla Popa.


Candy’s main project in Bocas is to look at how nutrients affect mangrove growth. “Nutrients are the currency of food webs,” she says. She studies how that currency moves through a mangrove ecosystem in the same way that economists study how money moves through an economy. The three major elements she’s interested in (the dollars and cents) are carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. She compares the ratios of each element in the mangrove trees in her study plots, and also in the herbivores that eat mangroves. Those consumers include everything from tree-climbing crabs to twig-boring miners. Candy has found more than 100 species which feed on mangrove twigs alone.

Some of the associations are intricate and fascinating. For example, the exit hole of one borer may be the entrance way of the next species in the chain. One of Candy’s favourites is a nemertine worm which takes up residence in an empty beetle gallery. The worm traps its prey by everting its insides. Charming!

Candy Feller in the dwarf mangrove forest.

KENNEDY WARNE
Candy Feller in the dwarf mangrove forest.


So thoroughly do creatures use the mangrove habitat that a seedling with its leaves in the air and its roots in the water will have terrestrial borers burrowing down from the top and marine borers burrowing up from the bottom.

As well as measuring the nutrients in an undisturbed system, Candy has added nutrients in the form of fertilisers to see how the mangroves and their associated flora and fauna respond. This is an important line of research because nutrient over-enrichment is a growing problem for marine ecosystems around the world. As fertilisers run off the land and into the sea, the delicate nutrient balance of mangrove and other communities (seagrass beds, coral reefs) can be thrown into disarray.

As we step off the boat there’s a surprise: a golden orb web spider has spun a metre-diameter web at head height just to one side of our access point. I hope I don’t forget its location. The spider is close to 15 cm from leg tip to leg tip, and I don’t fancy the thought of it falling down the back of my shirt. (The spider gets its name from the fact that the silk of its web is a golden colour, not white.)

Golden orb web spider near the boat.

KENNEDY WARNE
Golden orb web spider near the boat.


At Isla Popa there is a marked difference in height between the mangroves on the shore and those inland. The shore mangroves are five or six metres tall, while those inland are a bonsai forest of dwarf trees less than a metre high. Candy has found that the shore mangroves are limited by nitrogen while the dwarf mangroves are limited by phosphorus. Adding phosphorus to the dwarf trees results in dramatic growth increases, but adding nitrogen to the shore trees has much less impact.

I head into the dwarf forest with Candy while Emily Dangremont, a graduate student from Berkeley, and Anne Chamberlain, one of Candy’s associates at the Smithsonian, work on the shoreline mangroves. Our tasks include counting seedlings (living and dead) and collecting leaves, seedlings, winkles and two sizes of crab from around the fertilised trees. These will all be physically and chemically analysed back at the lab.

Leaf scars provide an estimate of the age of the dwarf mangroves—as much as 300 years old.

KENNEDY WARNE
Leaf scars provide an estimate of the age of the dwarf mangroves—as much as 300 years old.


The dwarf mangroves (which Candy refers to affectionately as “Charlie Brown trees”) are a revelation. Candy points to the leaf scars on the branches. Each time a leaf falls, a permanent record of its existence is left on the branch. Between two and three leaves fall off per year, so the number of leaf scars gives an estimate of the age of the tree. (You can’t use the normal method of counting rings because mangroves don’t lay down rings annually, but on a more irregular basis.) Though these dwarf trees are smaller than a metre in height, it turns out they are several hundred years old. They grow in a layer of peat that is close to two metres thick, which has formed from the fine roots of generation upon generation of mangroves.

In Bimini, similar dwarf mangrove forests were denigrated as “stunted mangroves” by the Bimini Bay Resort development company, which justified its plan to destroy such stands on the grounds that they were biological rejects—losers in the game of life. Seeing these ancient forests in Bocas, collecting the crabs that nestled in their leaf bases and the molluscs that clung to their branches, underscored the crassness of the developer’s rhetoric. Who can say how much life owes its existence to these trees? And who has the right to deny it?

Further inland still, where the mangroves mudflats meet the terrestrial soils of the jungle, the mangroves are much higher—10 metres or more—and festooned with epiphytes. Bromeliads, orchids and arum lilies perch and twine on trunks that are felted with moss, liverwort and filmy fern. Candy thinks of the epiphytic community as a separate freshwater ecosystem suspended over the saltwater mangrove one. It is sustained by the high humidity and rainfall of Panama. (Bocas receives up to five metres of rainfall annually, spread throughout the year—but, luckily for us, not on the days we are in the field.) The epiphytes provide yet another level of complexity in an already complex system.

Epiphytes on the mangroves are a feature of Panama.

KENNEDY WARNE
Epiphytes on the mangroves are a feature of Panama.


I walk back to the shore mangroves to help Emily and Anne catch crabs. The most effective method is to “tickle” the algae-covered roots at the water line with your fingers, hoping to flush the crabs from their hiding places and cause them to climb up the tree. If you’re quick enough, you can grab the crab before it realises its danger and jumps into the water.

Aratus, the tree-climbing crab we’re going after, has an infuriating knack of staying on the opposite side of the branch to the side its pursuer is on. This isn’t such a problem if the branch is narrow, but on a thick trunk I sometimes circled round and round (with occasional feints in the opposite direction) and only glimpsed bits of disappearing leg or pincer as the crab kept deftly out of sight.

It’s great to be in the company of scientists again, sharing a quest for knowledge. Je ne regrette rien, but at times like this the scientific career path I set aside for journalism has the allure of the road not taken.

Slothful in Panama

June 19th, 2009

Soon after I arrived at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Bocas del Toro, there was a commotion outside the lab. People were gathering on the balcony with cameras and tripods. A sloth had assumed a photogenic position in the fork of a tree a dozen or so metres away. I ran to the house where I was staying to get my binoculars. As I was running I thought, “Why am I running? It’s a sloth, for goodness’ sake!”

Three-toed sloth at Smithsonian research centre in Bocas del Toro.

JP LAWRENCE
Three-toed sloth at Smithsonian research centre in Bocas del Toro.


Sure enough, when I arrived back at the balcony I hadn’t missed anything. The sloth was resting its head on its arms, entirely placid and apparently asleep. After a while it favoured us with a view of its face, which is dramatically marked with a black eye mask. It began to scratch its fur with its scimitar-like claws, revealing itself to be a three-toed sloth. Panama has three species: a three-toed variety (diurnal and nocturnal), a two-toed (nocturnal) and a rare pygmy sloth which lives solely in the mangroves.

I was intrigued to see that the fur had a distinctly greenish hue. One of the researchers told me that sloth hair follicles are hollow, and that algae get into them, turning them green. From an information panel directly below the sloth’s tree (clearly this was a favourite roost) I learned that sloths come down from the treetops only once a week—to defaecate. This struck me as extremely well-mannered, though inherently unslothful, behaviour.

That night we had a discussion about whether one should pronounce sloth with a long “o” as in slow or a short “o” as in top. I said I preferred the long-“o” sloth for the animal and the short-“o” sloth for the vice, but needed to investigate the matter further—which I guess would make me a sleuth.

Even a sloth needs to take time to smell the flowers.

KENNEDY WARNE
Even a sloth needs to take time to smell the flowers.


I have come to Bocas, in the north-west corner of Panama, with a mangrove expert I first met in Belize in 2005. Candy Feller adores mangroves, and particularly a species that is found in only a few locations in Central America, known as Pelliciera rhizophorae. Over the coming days I will accompany her and her research associates Emily Dangremond and Anne Chamberlain to their study sites in the Bocas archipelago, exploring the mangrove forests and looking for pygmy sloths and any other creature that favours us with a sighting in this biodiversity hotspot.

Martin Luther King and the mangroves

June 17th, 2009

Ansil Saunders, a bonefishing guide for 50 years and the builder of beautiful wooden boats, is in no doubt about the value of mangroves to small island communities like Bimini. I caught up with Ansil in his boatshed on North Bimini. He had one skiff at the skeletal stage and one that was finished, awaiting a buyer (a steal at $40,000). The hull of the finished boat was lacquered a deep-sea blue, while much of the interior was an intensely grained blood-red-and-blond timber called horseflesh, or Bahamas mahogany, varnished to a deep sheen. Picking up a big timber “knee” that had been shaped into a bow stem, Ansil remarked: “The hardest timber comes from trees that have faced the strongest winds.”

Ansil Saunders with one of the skiffs he has built.

KENNEDY WARNE
Ansil Saunders with one of the skiffs he has built.


A big fan pushed cool air around the shed as Ansil spoke of his love of the sea and respect for its saltwater forests. “We had a hurricane come across North Bimini—Hurricane Wilma. It was not much more than 100 mph, so it was a light hurricane by the time it reached us. But it threw boulders out of the sea and into people’s houses. I went down to the Sunshine Inn and the waves had split that hotel in half. The hurricane took that hotel and knocked its walls down. Then that hurricane went around South Bimini and ran into the mangroves, and it didn’t do one iota of damage to houses behind the mangroves. Those mangroves tamed the waves right down.”

In Grand Bahama, where there are fewer mangroves, Wilma destroyed homes and raised the dead, Ansil said. “Coffins floated right out of the cemetery.”

The hurricane showed what happens with and without mangroves. “They’re not there by accident,” Ansil concluded. “They’re part of God’s creation to hold the land together. They save our boats, they save our land, and even when the water floods them they still do their job.”

He praised the mangroves’ role as marine nurseries, too. “We don’t even know what all kind of fish spawn here and go right out on the tide,” he said. “Conch [larvae] float out north, south, east, west as far as 20 miles away.”

Then he told me something unexpected about the Bimini mangroves. On two occasions he had taken Dr Martin Luther King Jr into the mangroves of North Bimini to think and write. The first occasion, 1964, King was working on his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. Ansil said he took him to a lagoon in the mangroves (a spot I later visited) and the two of them sat there, filled with the serenity of the place.

The channel where Ansil Saunders took Martin Luther King to think and write.

KENNEDY WARNE
The channel where Ansil Saunders took Martin Luther King to think and write.


At one part in his speech, King wrote, “I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.” I wonder if that thought came to him while he sat in Ansil’s skiff in the mangroves.

Four years later, a very different King asked Ansil Saunders to take him back to that mangrove lagoon. Whereas in ’64 King had been jovial and hopeful, in ’68 he looked like a man facing a death sentence. He sought the mangrove tranquility to get his thoughts together for a speech he would deliver to striking sanitation workers in Memphis.

In that speech, he linked his own weariness to that of his people. “We are tired of smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society. We are tired of walking up the streets in search for jobs that do not exist. We are tired of working our hands off and labouring every day and not even making a wage adequate with daily basic necessities of life. We are tired of our men being emasculated, so that our wives and our daughters have to go out and work in the white ladies’ kitchens, cleaning up, unable to be with our children, to give them the time and the attention that they need. We are tired.”

Three days later King was assassinated. The memory was still fresh in Ansil’s mind, and it moved me to hear him describe it. He was wearing an Obama ’08 baseball cap. I was glad this 76-year-old Biminite had lived to see a day that showed that King’s work was not in vain.

Battling for Bimini

June 16th, 2009

Young lemon sharks use mangroves as a nursery area.

MATTHEW POTENSKI
Young lemon sharks use mangroves as a nursery area.

Photographer Matt Potenski from the Bimini shark lab and I are snorkeling among the mangrove roots in the Duckpond, an embayment a short boat ride from the lab. The prop roots of red mangroves (the primary species here) form cloisters and grottoes through which fish glide like birds through a woodland. In a place like this you can understand how effective mangroves are as a nursery area. Fish simply melt into the forest.

The roots themselves are thickly encrusted with brick red fire sponge and other filter-feeders. Clusters of mangrove oyster grow at low-tide level. Many roots are not attached to the seabed, and bob and sway gently in the current, as if the mangroves were dangling their toes in the tide.

On the seagrass beds beside the mangroves are hundreds of upside-down jellyfish of the genus Cassiopea—a type of jellyfish which appears to wish it were a sea anemone, because it lies on its “back” (the bell) with its frilly tentacles pointing upwards.

The red mangrove's labyrinth of roots makes it an ideal fish refuge.

MATTHEW POTENSKI
The red mangrove's labyrinth of roots makes it an ideal fish refuge.


In some areas the seabed has been turned into volcanoes of sand, each about the diameter of a football. These mini-Vesuviuses are the excavations of a tubeworm which burrows deep into the substrate. The lab manager told me that if you’re really quick with a shovel you can dig up the worm, but usually it retreats to the bottom of its tunnel quicker than the shovel can dig. I figure I don’t need to see a worm badly enough to destroy its home.

Clearly, though, another shovel operator doesn’t share this sentiment. In the middle of the Duckpond a digger and a front-end loader are hard at work building a causeway across the water. They are about two-thirds of the way across. Matt is flabbergasted. Despite the fact that Bimini has been a battleground between developers and conservationists for years, the impression I’ve been getting from Sharklab staff is that progress is being made. At the beginning of this year a marine reserve was declared on the eastern side of the island, which will safeguard a large area of mangroves from a developer’s dreams. Now, almost within earshot of the lab, someone is playing fast and loose with heavy machinery.

Reclamation in the Duckpond threatens mangroves and seagrass with changes in hydrology and smothering by sediment.

MATTHEW POTENSKI
Reclamation in the Duckpond threatens mangroves and seagrass with changes in hydrology and smothering by sediment.


The outgoing tide is picking up speed and carrying a plume of sediment from the earthworks out into the lagoon. Where we were following fish through the mangrove labyrinth 30 minutes earlier, now we can’t see a thing.

In the afternoon we take a boat trip through mangrove areas in North Bimini. (Bimini has two halves, North and South. The town and the largest resort are on North Bimini; the lab is on South Bimini.) Some of these mangroves were slated for a golf course for the Bimini Bay Resort, an upscale behemoth that in its original incarnation would have brought 6000 visitors to an island with a population of 1600. The establishment of the marine reserve may have taken the golf course out of the equation, but most of the mangroves we’re passing do not enjoy reserve protection, so are still “in play” as far as development options are concerned.

Grant Johnson among the mangroves of North Bimini.

KENNEDY WARNE
Grant Johnson among the mangroves of North Bimini.


We pass a smart launch on the outer coast, but mostly we are alone in the mangrove channels. From the bow of the skiff I see barracuda and spotted rays, jacks and conch, the shellfish which is a Bimini delicacy, and whose empty shells are a universal landscape feature. A green turtle speeds away from the boat, launching itself out of the water with a splash before diving into the shadows.

At dusk we idle past the manmade islands and marinas of Bimini Bay Resort. On board is a former Sharklab manager, Grant Johnson, who was in the front line of protest against the resort earlier in the decade. For him, it was the scale and inappropriateness of the project as much as its destructive impact on habitat that was offensive. “I found it borderline racist that the developer wanted to turn Bimini in Florida’s playground,” he says. “This is somebody’s home we’re talking about, not a desert island. The attitude was if the land’s not high enough, make it higher, it there’s water where land should be, reclaim it, if there’s land where water should be, dredge it.”

Bimini Bay Resort, Bimini's elephant in the room.

KENNEDY WARNE
Bimini Bay Resort, Bimini's elephant in the room.


We pass a dyke meant to confine sediment from an area of current construction. The high tide is lapping over the top. Grant shakes his head, as if to say “Can’t these guys do anything right?” Bimini is far from the Bahamas’ central government in Nassau, and there’s still a frontier flavour to the place—the very spirit that attracted Hemingway in the 1930s. Grant would like that frontier to be a nature one—see the sharks, swim with the dolphins, kayak through the unspoiled mangroves. If you’re lucky, spot a Bimini boa or a sawfish.

I notice that he has the word “Hope” tattooed on his arm. That’s the operative word for the mangrove-lovers of Bimini.

Tagging lemons

June 15th, 2009

Two hours after I arrive in Bimini I’m swimming with 100 sharks. This isn’t as risky as it sounds, because the sharks are less than a metre long, and they’re inside a pen in the middle of Bimini lagoon. They are lemon sharks, charcoal grey on top and white underneath, and they circle the plastic mesh walls of the pen. If I swim in the opposite direction they stream past me like cars on a freeway.

Shark census volunteer Hollie Neibert with a lemon shark she has just removed from the net.

KENNEDY WARNE
Shark census volunteer Hollie Neibert with a lemon shark she has just removed from the net.


I’m in the pen with a couple of volunteers from the Bimini Biological Field Station (aka “Sharklab”). We’re checking to see that all the sharks are healthy and swimming properly. The director of the lab, Bryan Franks, has just performed a stomach eversion on a shark caught the previous evening. After knocking out the shark with a mild anaesthetic, he gently pulled the animal’s stomach through its mouth and removed a few fragments of undigested fish from inside it. The procedure, which sounds more drastic than it actually is, took only a few minutes, and afterwards the shark resumed swimming around the pen with its fellows. Its stomach contents will be analysed as part of a study to test the long-held theory that sharks play an ecological role in culling weak and sick animals from prey populations, thereby increasing their genetic fitness.

All this activity is part of an annual census of all the lemon sharks in Bimini lagoon. Over the course of a month, nets are set each evening at strategic locations in the lagoon and monitored by volunteers throughout the night. (The work happens at night because the sharks are most active then.)

Flotilla of Sharklab boats heads into Bimini lagoon.

MATTHEW POTENSKI
Flotilla of Sharklab boats heads into Bimini lagoon.


The population study has been going for 15 years, making Bimini’s lemon sharks among the most studied sharks on earth. Researchers now have a full pedigree of the entire population (around 200 animals).

One of the current research goals is to look at the effects of nursery habitat loss on the population. Lemon sharks use mangroves as a nursery area until they reach about a metre in length and are less vulnerable to predation. On Bimini, the mangrove habitat loss is happening big-time. Resort development, channel dredging, roading and reclamation are steadily robbing the lemon shark—and other fish that use the mangrove roots as refuges—of a vital nursery ground.

A fishing guide I spoke to, “Bonefish” Ebbie, lamented the losses, saying: “Everybody chewin’ into mangroves. Sooner or later we won’t have a fishin’ village no more.”

Bimini has been called the bonefishing capital of the world. Hemingway lived here on and off in the 1930s and wrote about the experience in Islands in the Stream—the “stream” being the Gulf Stream. Bimini, the smallest of the 700 islands of the Bahamas and the closest to the US, lies on the edge of the Gulf Stream. This strategic location gives Bimini an ecological importance that exceeds its tiny size. Marine organisms spawned in its wetlands and seagrass beds may disperse for hundreds of kilometres on the aquatic conveyor belt that lies just offshore. Development threatens that process, and the Sharklab researchers want to quantify its impact.

One end of the net is tied to the mangroves, a vital nursery habitat for lemon sharks.

KENNEDY WARNE
One end of the net is tied to the mangroves, a vital nursery habitat for lemon sharks.


A couple of hours before sunset I join one of the net teams for a night of shark catching. One end of the net is tied to a mangrove trunk and the other to a pole sunk into the sediment. The lagoon is shallow, no more than about knee deep—except for soft spots where you suddenly sink to your waist. The water is 34 degrees—three shy of body heat. Every 15 minutes the net teams wade through this bath-temperature water, removing sharks or the occasional fish that gets caught in the nylon meshes. Sharks are whisked to a centrally located tagging boat for measurement and the injection of an electronic tag (which can be read with a scanner like a barcode). They are then released into the holding pen.

It’s a slow night. I’ve come to the island midway through the census, and two-thirds of the shark population has already been caught and corralled in the pen. Our team captures four sharks in the space of five hours. There’s a lot of bonhomie out here on the water. The crews are constantly on the radio, congratulating each other on a capture, ribbing each other, playing music from their iPods, posing obscure trivia questions (one of the catchers is an expert on Pirates of the Caribbean).

The two dozen volunteers come from as far afield as the UK and Holland to spend a sleep-deprived month swatting mosquitoes and being drenched by tropical rainstorms for the shark cause. I ask the crew in my boat if it’s the sharks or the camaraderie that draws them here (some come back year after year, and they pay for the privilege)? With one voice they say: “The sharks!”

Checking the net at sunset.

MATTHEW POTENSKI
Checking the net at sunset.


Around midnight everyone is thinking about the imminent food run. The radios are busy with confirmation of people’s burrito orders: One or two? Guacamole or sour cream? The skiff with the goodies is due around 12.30 am, but as the magic hour approaches so does a thunderstorm. The sky rumbles and heavy drops of rain start to fall. Before long we are all huddling under raincoats and plastic net bins as the downpour hits.

It could be worse. If the electrical activity is severe (usually heralded by the net girls’ hair standing on end with the static) crews either crawl into the mangroves and shelter under insulating plastic covers or race hell for leather back to the lab, everyone lying flat on the floor of the skiffs. You don’t mess with lightning in this part of the world.

To everyone’s relief, when the dinner boat arrives the rain eases. Sodden jackets are peeled off and the boat bilge is pumped dry. I leave the net teams to their burritos and join the boat going back to the lab. I tell them I’m feeling guilty for bailing out halfway through the session, but that I’m sure the feeling will pass. In about half an hour, as soon as my head hits the pillow.

Driving taxis or cutting hair

June 14th, 2009

This morning there was time once more to walk the Malécon, the seawall promenade that borders the city, past the fishermen, the patriotic statues, the 16th-century forts guarding the entrance to the harbour.

Black flags flutter in front of the US Interests Section obscuring the 'imperialist' messages from the electronic billboard.

KENNEDY WARNE
Black flags flutter in front of the US Interests Section obscuring the 'imperialist' messages from the electronic billboard.


I stopped to snap a picture of one of the most ludicrous sights in Havana: the building which houses the “US Interests Section.” Clearly, given the mutual acrimony, the US does not have an embassy in Cuba; what it has instead is a presence in its former embassy building, now home to the Swiss embassy. In 2006, USINT staff took it into their heads to install an electronic billboard to display anti-Castro messages. Among them was a George Burns quotation, “How sad that all the people who would know how to run this country are driving taxis or cutting hair.”

Castro responded by erecting a forest of flagpoles flying black flags in front of the building (which was referred to as the ‘imperialist lair’) so that the messages could not be read. Such is the level of tit for tat that exists between the two ideological rivals. In my opinion the USINT would do better to airdrop a few million DVDs of the movie Antz.

'So tell me, Che, was this Cuba you had in mind when you fought with Fidel?' (Author musing outside communist party offices in Pinar del Rio.)

KENNEDY WARNE
'So tell me, Che, was this the Cuba you had in mind when you fought with Fidel?' (Author musing outside communist party offices in Pinar del Rio.)


And so to Bimini.