Archive for the ‘Background’ Category

Another snake mimic

July 5th, 2009

Ron Rutowski, Professor of Biology at Arizona State University and a lepidopterist whose major area of study is how insects produce and use visual signals in their lives, has sent this link about the snake-mimicking spicebush swallowtail caterpillar. He notes: “Although the resemblance and its potential advantage appears obvious it has never been confirmed experimentally.”

Spicebush swallowtail larva looks more like something from Disney than nature.

Spicebush swallowtail larva looks more like something from Disney than nature.

Pelliciera comparison and Belize alert

July 5th, 2009

Having just learned how to put PowerPoint presentations on the blog, I am providing two such slide shows created by Candy Feller. The first concerns Pelliciera rhizophorae mangroves, and the second sounds the alarm re the impact of development on mangroves in Belize.

More on the snake caterpillar

June 26th, 2009

Annette Aiello, an entomologist with the Smithsonian, has provided me with the following excellent information concerning the caterpillar we found in the Pelliciera forest of Peninsula Valiente (see June 22 post).

The art of deceiving.

KENNEDY WARNE
The art of deceiving.


“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.
Pholus labruscae

Pholus labruscae


“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).”

John Christy, a fiddler crab expert I met in Panama (more about his work in a later post), adds the following comment:
“Kennedy – that is an amazing (!!) caterpillar, complete with liverwort-like patterning. It would seem to be highly specialized. You may well have something new. I wonder if the pattern mimics a particular snake? A quick google search produced Liophis cobellus as a “mangrove snake” of South America. It is a colubrid and looks vaguely like the caterpillar.”

Here’s a picture of the snake John referred to. Though not restricted to mangroves, it frequents mangrove forests, feeding on frogs, geckos and fish.
liophis-cobellus

Glimpses of Cuba

June 12th, 2009

I’m not seeing as many mangroves as I’d like, but I’m covering a lot of Cuban ground, and loving it.

There is much that I find unique about Cuba. The mix of transportation modes, for a start: horse carts and buggies everywhere (they have their own special lane beside the interstate), three-wheeled “bicitaxis” in the towns, bullock carts in the country, Cuba’s famous 1950s American cars, still going strong, motorcycles with sidecars (including the Czechoslovakian Jawa, which I used to get laughed at for riding in New Zealand 35 years ago) and hordes of bicycles, often with two people aboard. (Two-up protocol is for the passenger to sit side-saddle on the carrier or bar, holding a sun umbrella to shade both riders.)

I'm seeing more tobacco leaves than mangrove leaves, but c'est la vie.

KENNEDY WARNE
I'm seeing more tobacco leaves than mangrove leaves, but c'est la vie.


The town centres are architecturally gorgeous, with their fluted columns and ornate plasterwork, open courtyards and shady arcades. The contrasts are everywhere profound. In Remedios, on one side of a walled street a cluster of people bought ham by the slice from a hole-in-the-wall butcher while on the other I stepped into the airy atrium of a stately home with spiral timber staircase and chandelier, antique furniture and Catholic statuary. Down the street, in a bodega (store) with next to nothing on its shelves, people bought cooking oil, scooped out from a drum, raw sugar and bread rolls. I rounded a corner and saw two boys walking along, cradling their pet pigeons in their hands. (At least, I hope they were pets and not lunch.)

Here I am always conscious of—and, I guess, looking for—the difference between what is on the surface and what lies beneath. A British businessman I met in Havana said Cuba is like The Truman Show. Nothing is as it seems. The man mixing mojitos behind the bar in a nightclub is probably a staid government employee by day, unable to make enough in his regular job to support his family. I stayed in Havana with a former nuclear engineer who found himself out of a job when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba’s hopes for nuclear power evaporated. He earns a living by renting a room—a common revenue source in Cuba. But you need a government licence to earn money this way (or any way). I was told the licence costs $300 a month. Rooms rent for $20 to $30 a night, so you need to count on 10 guests a month to break even. The government smothers entrepreneurial activity by a spiderweb of laws and levies—de Tockqueville’s “network of petty regulations—complicated, minute, and uniform—through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way.”

Juan Carlos buys cheese from a roadside vendor.

KENNEDY WARNE
Juan Carlos buys cheese from a roadside vendor.


Cuba may be a bastion of socialism, but it is full of closet capitalists. Everyone is looking for a way to make a peso—or a “CUC,” the currency Castro introduced in 1994. Beside the autopista, men on horseback or on foot sell blocks of homemade cheese and guava paste, ready to fade into the forest if the police should drive by. There is very little street food in Cuba cities for the same reason—you need a licence to sell anything. It’s not just the fact of paying for the privilege that inhibits would-be entrepreneurs. It’s the act of making yourself visible to the authorities in the process. Visibility = risk, and the government uses this queasy undercurrent of uncertainty to foster compliance.

I had a small insight into herd timidity when the power went off in the casa where I was staying in Ciego de Avela, about 400 km east of Havana. No problem, I thought. I would go to a café in the town, buy a glass of cold mango juice, find a power point and type my blog post in style. Ah. Not so fast. I tried a couple of places, using sign language to point at my laptop and a power point. I managed to pick up some words that sounded like “consume” and “electricity” and much shaking of the head. It was not possible. Consumption of electricity was apparently verboten.

I found Juan Carlos, who was still making phone calls, and he explained the mindset. A gringo asking for electricity is an unusual request. Unusual requests are inherently risky. Suppose the police or military should show up. Questions would be asked. In a regime like this it is best not to invite questions.

Here are some more glimpses of Cuba . . .

Chevvies, Oldsmobiles and Studebakers share the road with horse buggies and bullock carts.

KENNEDY WARNE
Chevvies, Oldsmobiles and Studebakers share the road with horse buggies and bullock carts.

Bodega in Remedios is named after the boat (Granma) Castro and his fellow revolutionaries used to sail to Cuba from Mexico in 1956.

KENNEDY WARNE
Bodega in Remedios is named after the boat (Granma) Castro and his fellow revolutionaries used to sail to Cuba from Mexico in 1956.

Bicitaxis in Remedios.

KENNEDY WARNE
Bicitaxis in Remedios.

A gracious interior in Remedios.

KENNEDY WARNE
A gracious interior in Remedios.

Spanish colonial architecture is everywhere evident in Cuba.

KENNEDY WARNE
Spanish colonial architecture is everywhere evident in Cuba.

My favourite Cuban road sign. Fortunately, I escaped the fate depicted.

KENNEDY WARNE
My favourite Cuban road sign. Fortunately, I escaped the fate depicted.

Schoolchildren passing a museum in Ciego de Avela.

KENNEDY WARNE
Schoolchildren passing a museum in Ciego de Avela.

The sound of horses' hooves on the streets is one of the pleasures of early morning in Cuba.

KENNEDY WARNE
The sound of horses' hooves on the streets is one of the pleasures of early morning in Cuba.

Concheras redux

June 7th, 2009

I’ve finally had time (during two airport layovers en route to Cuba) to assemble a bit of video footage I took of the cockle collectors of Tambillo (see May 16 post, “The cockle collectors”).

Words and expressions

May 19th, 2009

I’m back in Brazil. After a week of saying “Gracias” it’s back to “Obrigado.” Instead of shrugging apologetically and saying, “No hablo español,” I have reverted to shrugging apologetically and saying “Na falo portugués.” Interestingly, some words stay the same. Por favor is por favor, whether you’re speaking Spanish or Portuguese.

The classy Spanish word for tyre repair shop.

KENNEDY WARNE
The classy Spanish word for tyre repair shop.


During the last couple of weeks I’ve been collecting the odd phrase or word that amuses me. For example, when driving in Ecuador you often see a tyre standing on the roadside with the word vulcanizadora painted on it. Show me a tyre repairman who wouldn’t prefer to be called a vulcaniser. It sounds almost operatic.

I also saw a number of ferretarias. Ferret farms, I wondered? No, ironmongers, after ferrous, for iron.

Local colloquialisms are always fun to discover. Speed bumps in Brazil are called “molar breakers” or “sleeping policemen.” There are lots of them. On each side of a town, the main highway will have two or more, sometimes not signposted, in which case they really do jolt your jaws. They are often preceded by a sonarizador, literally sound-maker, what we call a rumble strip in New Zealand. The word for pothole (of which Brazil also has a plethora) is the same as for crab burrow, which I appreciated, of course.

There must be dozens more. Any suggestions?

Shrimp v mangrove

May 18th, 2009

For the factually inclined, here is some background data on the shrimp vs mangrove conflict from a conversation with Lider Góngora, president of the Ecuadorian organisation C-CONDEM. As well as fighting for mangrove protection and empowerment of mangrove-reliant communities, Lider and his staff operate a newly opened seafood restaurant in their office complex in Quito (see earlier post).

Lider Góngora Farías, fighting for protection of mangroves and mangrove communities in Ecuador.

KENNEDY WARNE
Lider Góngora, fighting for protection of mangroves and mangrove communities in Ecuador.


* Ecuador was the first country in Latin America to jump on the shrimp bandwagon. The first farms were established in 1977 near Huaquillas, my first port of call in Ecuador. From there the industry spread north, cutting down mangroves as it went. Labour was cheap, profits were high and destruction was rapid.

* By 1998 Ecuador was the world’s largest exporter of shrimp. Shrimp was the country’s second largest export, oil being first.

* Ecuador originally possessed 364,000 ha of mangroves. By 2001, 70% had been destroyed. Of the 108,000 ha of mangroves remaining, 20,000 ha have been granted as concessions for communities to co-manage in conjunction with government agencies.

* It is illegal in Ecuador to cut down mangroves or to site a shrimp farm within mangroves. With reference to these laws, many of Ecuador’s 254,000 shrimp farms are illegal operations.

* More than 1 million Ecuadorians live and/or work among mangroves, and 150,000 depend directly on them for their livelihoods.

And here are some more pictures of the shrimp v mangrove situation in Ecuador.

Shrimp farm buildings glimpsed through gaps in the mangrove ´beauty screen.´

KENNEDY WARNE
Shrimp farm buildings glimpsed through gaps in the mangrove 'beauty screen.' (Click to open slide show)

The culinary mangrove

May 17th, 2009

It is hard to believe that out of the sulphurous black mud of a mangrove forest come delicacies as sweet as mangrove mud crab and mangrove cockle. I have been chowing down on these gifts of the mangroves recently—see photos below. The crab can be served whole, either plain, with an accompanying salsa or vinaigrette, or slathered with a coconut curry sauce. For a less messy dining experience, serve only the claws, legs and the two meaty parts inside the carapace, discarding the rest.

The cockles work well in a ceviche. The shellfish are steamed open and then mixed with lime juice, vinegar, spring onions and other raw vegetables. I suspect that you could use any fish ceviche recipe, substituting for the fish whatever your local cockle equivalent happens to be. In a small restaurant in Quito called Martin Pescador, which specialises in mangrove and mangrove-related seafood, I saw cockles being sizzled on the half shell, and they looked delicious, so that would be another option to try.

Any recipe suggestions gratefully received! Send to laststands@kennedywarne.com

Mud crab before.

KENNEDY WARNE
Mud crab in the hand. (Click to open slideshow)

Travels with Alex

May 6th, 2009

On the flight to Brazil I’m taking an old friend. A very old friend. Alexander von Humboldt, who died 150 years ago. I’m somewhere over the Southern Ocean, midway through the diabolical 6415-mile Auckland-to-Buenos Aires leg of my trip, reading his Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. It seems appropriate. Almost exactly 200 years ago, Humboldt explored Latin America and the Caribbean, which are my destinations, too.

Humboldt was the most famous naturalist of his day. He was a polymathic overachiever, the kind of person whose existence makes the rest of us question ours. Whereas I will spend a modest seven weeks among the mangroves, he spent five years in the field, and amassed so much scientific data on so many subjects—geology, botany, climate, astronomy, zoology, magnetism, electricity, not to mention human cultural diversity—that it took him 27 years to write it all up. No wonder he was one of Darwin’s heroes.

Humboldt was one of the first of a new breed of scientific explorers, pursuing knowledge with a heroic disregard for personal comfort and safety. What fascinates me about him is how modern he seems. He believed that to understand the world you had to look at all the individual phenomena the earth has to offer, and discover how they are connected. “I must find out about the unity of nature,” he wrote. That was his driving force, and for this reason he has been called the first ecologist. Anyone who studies ecosystems and how they fit together and function is walking in Humboldt’s footsteps.

What did he have to say about mangroves? I’ve skipped ahead to the last chapter, about Cuba, and found there a dramatic incident which occurs in the mangroves of Batabano Gulf Bay. The sailors on Humboldt’s ship, frustrated at not being able to find any lobsters, start slaughtering nesting seabirds. Blood streams from the trees, and the ground is littered with dying birds. But here’s the line that struck me like a thunderbolt: “When we arrived on the scene it was strangely silent, as if saying ‘Man has passed this way.’” Two hundred years on and the mangroves continue to fall silent—those that are left—for humankind still passes this way.

Tapioca and Antarctica

May 4th, 2009

Tomorrow I will be in Fortaleza, state capital of Ceará, walking its sun-drenched beaches (or possibly just drenched beaches—see yesterday’s post), eating tapioca pancakes for breakfast and drinking Antarctica beer, which must, according to its advertising, be served “estupidamete fria”—stupidly cold.

I passed through Fortaleza on my 2005 National Geographic mangrove trip, en route to some mangrove settlements on the northeastern coast which had been affected by shrimp farms. Most of what I wrote about those places didn’t make the final edit of the story, but the experience of meeting the people of Curral Velho and Porto do Céu remains a vivid memory. Here’s what I wrote:

I traveled east of Fortaleza into the shrimp impact zone. With me were Jeovah Meireles, professor of physical geography at the Federal University of Ceará, and Elaine Corets, Latin American coordinator of the Mangrove Action Project, a global conservation network.

We set out before dawn, and by daybreak we were among the farms. Ponds the size of football fields crowded the landscape like rice paddies. Paddle-wheel aerators frothed the water and workers in kayaks filled feeding trays with fishmeal. The fishmeal, explained Elaine, comes from fish caught by commercial trawlers, which deprives local subsistence fishers of a food resource. It angered her that not only did the shrimp industry destroy the mangroves, but it robbed the sea as well.

Many ponds were not in production, whether due to the white-spot viral disease that was then sweeping Brazil’s shrimp farms or not, we couldn’t tell. Wastewater the color of antifreeze was pouring into a mangrove-flanked river. On the banks, fiddler crabs waved their oversized claws. I thought of them as shipwrecked sailors semaphoring “Rescue us.”

We stopped at a roadside cantina for coffee and tapioca pancakes—a favourite of Brazilians in the north. Jeovah spoke about the fragmentation of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity caused by shrimp farming. He studies the flow of energy between terrestrial and marine food webs, in which mangroves play a vital bridging role. “Shrimp farming sticks a dagger into that whole network,” he said.

Angry fisherman at Porto do Céu protests what shrimp farms have done to the "gates of paradise."

ELAINE CORETS
Angry fisherman at Porto do Céu protests what shrimp farms have done to the "gates of paradise."

Later that day a flat-bottomed punt with an ancient outboard motor ferried us across the river Jaguaribe to the settlement of Porto do Céu. Golden light gleamed on fishing boats catching the afternoon breeze in their sails. Laughing children dived like sprites in the river; a man fished for crabs from a rickety pier. A straggle of mangroves lined the river’s edge. With their loopy, spidery roots they looked as if they had strolled out of the tide, found the place to their liking, and settled in. Who could blame them? The name of the place means “gates of paradise.”

Two residents took us through the village to see Porto do Céu’s new neighbour: a shrimp farm. We climbed to the top of an embankment and looked across a patchwork of ponds to distant mangrove forests. An electrified fence stretched the length of the village and beyond. Skull-and-crossbones signs on the barbed wire announced a blunt message: access denied.

On the village side, goats milled about in grassless yards, cut off from grazing areas just as their owners have been shut out of their mangrove collecting grounds. But there was worse. The residents showed us abandoned bores that until recently had drawn sweet water from an aquifer beneath the sandy soil. The water had been “doce, doce” they told us, repeating the word as they savoured the memory. Now it was salgado, saline, undrinkable.

Brazil’s Federal Constitution declares that all its citizens “have the right to an ecologically balanced environment, for the common use of the people,” and that government is required to “defend it and preserve it for present and future generations.” Yet of 256 applications to build new ponds in the Jaguaribe area, not one had been turned down. “Este e incrîvel,” said Jeovah—this is incredible.

Alouiso Rodrigues dos Santos stands in what was once his vegetable garden, now a saline wasteland.

KENNEDY WARNE
Alouiso Rodrigues dos Santos stands in what was once his vegetable garden, now a saline wasteland.

In the village of Curral Velho, which means “old corral,” I stood in the barren garden of Alouiso Rodrigues dos Santos. The 74-year-old told me he had grown vegetables on his plot of land since 1958: sweet potatoes, melons, cassavas, beans. The land was so productive he had to tie up his papaya trees with ropes to stop the weight of fruit from toppling them.

Five years ago a shrimp farmer built his ponds right up to the boundary, 30 metres from dos Santos’s back door. Now, with the seepage of salty water from the ponds, his land produces nothing but saltwort and weeds. Unable to grow food, dos Santos turned to the sea, borrowing money to build a fish trap. But heavy seas destroyed it.

“The land threw me out to sea, and the sea threw me back to land,” he said. “Where can I turn except to God?”

Where, indeed? The mangrove vs shrimp battle still rages along Brazil’s huge coastline. This trip, I will be looking at how people are standing up to protest the destruction of their mangrove resources. Perhaps I will find a more hopeful story this time.