Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Tropical Storm Halong

We had a close encounter with a typhoon (Halong) last week, but it stayed relatively mild (approx 65 mph winds), never reaching typhoon status in the Marianas. It is now a supertyphoon headed towards Japan! Out of our research islands, Rota was impacted the most, with lots of downed trees. Our sites and equipment made it out relatively unscathed though, with only a few downed trees and two overturned seed rain trays. Counts of fruit on trees on Rota were extraordinarily low across at least one site, which makes sense, given the visible abundance of fallen Premna, Psychotria, Neisosperma, and many other fruits that were on the forest floor.

This year is an El Nino year, and as such, it has already been more active in terms of typhoons/tropical storms than any recent year. The last big typhoon in Guam was 2002, and 2004 in Saipan... I wonder if we'll make it through this year without a hit. Stay tuned.

Thoughts from the field...

Here's a post from a field crew member, Kenji Tomari, about field work in the Marianas: 

Hiking through the forest, warily stepping on jagged and precarious karst stones that conspire your downfall, we enter an extrinsic realm apart from the peri-urban landscape we emerged from. As a botanist you might experience encounters with forests and wildlands differently from the casual flaneur that explores nature on a whim. We imagine mosaics and patches of varying habitats; and the paths we cut through them excite our senses and imaginings. We take special notice of disturbed habitats impacted by human action with particular acuity--segregating what we see in these disturbances from what we suspect are more native assemblages in our transitory mental notes. These near daily excursions into the tropical dry forests here are eminently engaging as an off-islander, where we encounter differing aggregates of plant species and unfamiliar flora constantly.

On different islands out here, or even in proximate yet differing forest sites on the same island, a journey through it yields extraordinary diversity both within, as well as between sites. This is personally one of the most satisfying experiences of my time here in the Marianas. Typically, after a morning of data collection through observing what bird species eat what types of fruit, I continue my observations, yet in a haphazard and qualitative manner--or, in other words, stumbling around and exploring areas new to me! We want to decipher the habits, trends, and tendencies of these birds so we can get a better idea of their role in reproducing the trees in the numbers we see and in their peculiar configurations. It's important to always find new fruiting trees to observe and explore different patches to get a broad sampling of this variegated jungle. I traipse and tumble, leap and hop over small boulders, and slip sometimes on damp slopes. Frankly, I need gloves to get through these hikes as I climb over surfaces that seemingly slice through your skin with pernicious schadenfreude. The point to underscore here is that these forests contain layers and layers of distinctions and peculiarities that have consequential impacts on biodiversity, and I hike and clamber to get some sense of it!

Once past the ostensible grove of coconuts, a few steps in at this one site yields a sweet aroma emanating from the decaying breadfruit. A myriad of fruit flies swell over this carcass, yet its' perfume doesn't readily drift to your nostrils; the air is so still it's as if you have to first cross through a spheric forcefield containing this concentrated breadfruit bouquet in order to discover the otherwise hidden fruit rotting away. Its' odiferous presence instantly constructs a sense of this place, and informs you that breadfruit trees must reign above. The characterization of this place continues as you gather a mental list of what plant species reside in the vicinity, giving you some idea of one assemblage, one configuration of the plant community here. This is my typical mode as I explore: what's here and with what?

One day, tired of the relentless mosquitos and my unfamiliarity with this new field site, I decided to scale the sloping cliff that bounded the site on one side. I slowly ascended, inspecting each promising tree for fruit, but finding little of merit. After some time, I found  a relatively flat area next to a large tree, a fish-kill tree, with little understory growth. From below the tree's dense canopy and fern covered branches, you can look out past the patchy leaves of neighboring trees where small vistas open up here and there; you get glimpses of the ocean from here, and the forest canopy along the base of the hill. A cool, and notably mosquito-less breeze would gently roll through this spot. Here, I found a fig tree with bountiful fruits. It helped demystify some confusion we had been having about the fig species. Later, I descended, going down a different route; I was in a rush, but I managed to get down safely. I did, consequently, have my first encounter with the notorious boonie bees: ubiquitous wasps that form small nests under leaves, typically hidden from view. I felt a sting on my arm with some discomfort, and I was confused at first what had caused such an unpleasant sensation. Then, I got lost for a bit. Eventually though, I found my way back to the car, crawling out from some thick understory. My colleagues gave me an inquisitive look, as if to say, why the hell did you come from over there?!

Although this small adventure was no epic saga, it was just one among a great many. Hiking off the beaten path and encountering the forest with a particular lens exposes you to new curiosities that others might not incidentally notice. It instills something of a child-like wonder in your thought process and brings you a sense of significance for this forest, this particular assemblage. These moments are what make fieldwork so worthwhile.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Bringing Dispersal Back to Guam....

In June, we got the good news that the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP, a Department of Defense program) has selected to fund an EBL project! In collaboration with Julie Savidge from Colorado State University, we will be starting a 5-year, multi-faceted project that attempts to set the groundwork for restoring seed dispersal to Guam's forests.

  • First, we will finish investigating the impacts of seed disperser loss on the forest, so we can predict what a forest with or without dispersers will look like in 50 or 100 years. 
  • Second, we will investigate the role of the native frugivores still present on Guam (e.g. Micronesian Starling) or nearby islands (e.g. Mariana Fruit Dove, White-Throated Ground Dove, Bridled White-eye) to see which are the most effective dispersers. We will also explore the role of feral pigs and rats in seed dispersal on Guam. 
  • Third, we will explore the challenges associated with using native birds (would they reliably roost in snake fences, would they play a similar ecological role on Guam as they do on other islands), as well as the negative impacts of feral pigs and invasive rats on forest tree species. 
  • Finally, we will develop candidate disperser assemblages that can provide adequate seed dispersal functions to the forest (i.e. a combination of the starling, white-eye, and rats provides almost complete dispersal services). Using these assemblages, we will develop a plan for creating snake-free or snake-reduced areas that maximize the dispersal services provided to the forests of Guam.
Research begins this fall. Stay tuned!