June 21st, 2009

Forest of flowers

By KENNEDY WARNE

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!

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