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Entries in conservation (2)


Foot in the Jackfruit - a guest post from Kristie Cobb-Hacke

Where in the world are you when the expression “foot in the jackfruit” makes sense?  Brazil. Recognizing that this euphemism “Pé na Jaca” loses some of its finesse in English, it is nevertheless something that makes travel beautiful.

My goal during this adventure is to avoid “ na jaca.” Yesterday in our travels from Vitorio to Nova Viçosa throughout the drive we were able to see coffee plantations, sugar cane and eucalyptus farms. All of these farms were on formerly-forested areas, so interspersed we were able to spot the pink mangos, purple mangos and many other varieties of native plants. Although the jack fruit thrives in this environment, it is an invasive species. It is originally from India and archeologists have revealed it was first cultivated there 3,000 years ago. This tree has the largest tree-borne fruit and has spread quickly throughout areas of Brazil as birds and animals eat the seeds of fallen fruit and deposit them elsewhere. In recent years there have been some forestry management efforts to rid the national parks of saplings as these fruit are thought to have contributed to the decline of certain bird species. 

 During our drive we discussed the cultural challenges that come with conservation efforts. The mere idea of discussing the lack of conservation in an area may be a time where I could certainly have been through of as insensitive. I certainly don’t want to be considered as an invasive species to the crew and scientists on the Abrolhos expedition.  We discussed the change in the landscape and the growth in the farming industry, particularly eucalyptus.

This area of the world is considered a biodiversity hot spot by conservation international. This is an overview:

The Atlantic Forest or Mata Atlântica stretches along Brazil’s Atlantic coast, from the northern state of Rio Grande do Norte south to Rio Grande do Sul. It extends inland to eastern Paraguay and the province of Misiones in northeastern Argentina, and narrowly along the coast into Uruguay. Also included in this hotspot is the offshore archipelago of Fernando de Noronha and several other islands off the Brazilian coast.

Long isolated from other major rainforest blocks in South America, the Atlantic Forest has an extremely diverse and unique mix of vegetation and forest types. The two main ecoregions in the hotspot are the coastal Atlantic forest, the narrow strip of about 50-100 kilometers along the coast which covers about 20 percent of the region. The second main ecoregion, the interior Atlantic Forest, stretches across the foothills of the Serra do Mar into southern Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. These forests extend as far as 500-600 kilometers inland and range as high as 2,000 meters above sea level. Altitude determines at least three vegetation types in the Atlantic Forest: the lowland forest of the coastal plain, montane forests, and the high-altitude grassland or campo rupestre. (

The Atlantic Forest of Brazil

But in a place like Brazil that is growing and actively developing their resources, it is important to understand the ranking of conservation among the needs and challenges of a country that is home to approximately 3% of the world’s population: over 190 million people ( the vast majority living in urban cities. In many cases large numbers of citizens face much less complicated but much more personally critical decisions like food, clothing, water, waste management and health come long before thoughts of the care of the surrounding environment.

So for our bright and inspired scientists on this expedition it is going to be critical for them to be clear with their efforts and decisive with their results so that they can avoid sticking their ‘foot in the jack fruit” and they can begin the process of educating their fellow Brazilians and affecting change to preserve their native and incredibly diverse environment. On its own nature can maintain a diverse and complex system of life including production, consumption and disposal of waste. These processes are all seamless in a well-balanced system. If at any point a part of the system is disrupted the natural web may become imbalanced and threaten the health and loss of species at a minimum and, at a maximum, could be catastrophic.

Unfortunately, sometimes it takes catastrophe to serve as a wake-up call. One of our travel companions, Nina Bilton, is from the state of Rio de Janeiro and she shared that the recent torrential rains and the subsequent mud-slides have drawn tremendous attention to the environment and have activated the concern of a nation. So in all of this devastation one bright light is that dedicated committed scientists, organizations and corporations can occasionally come together to start the process of understanding the environment. At the core awareness is the science behind understanding the natural environment around us all.

As I write I am witnessing, for the first time, a completion of a submersible dive. I am excited to hear about what our researchers are seeing and learning and I’m looking forward to seeing the results. The data they have collected today is just one small piece to understand and protect the integrated web of life in the Abrolhos area.

(Kristie Cobb-Hacke is a vice president at Georgia Aquarium)


Mountains of Pelagic Diversity

If you ever saw the dramatic seamount scene in Blue Planet (and if you haven’t, where ya been??), then you are probably familiar with the idea that submarine mountains can attract lots of animals; as Attenborough puts it, they “create oases where life can flourish in the comparatively empty expanses of the open ocean”.  In that spectacular BBC sequence, jacks and tuna swarm an Eastern Pacific seamount peppered with colourful schools of barberfish, Anthias and goatfish.  Then the sharks cruise in, including silkys and hammerheads, there for a clean from the faithful barberfish.
There’s a paper in the latest issue of PNAS that quantifies the richness of seamounts, so beautifully depicted by those geniuses at the BBC Documentary department.  The authors, led by Telmo Morato from the Secretariat of the Pacific Community in New Caledonia, analysed data gathered by longline fisheries in the western and central Pacific, close to and remote from seamounts .  In a sense, a longline is a standardized sort of sampling unit like a quadrat, so they can be analysed across locations to measure differences in diversity.  They accounted for differences between total catch per longline using the statistical process called rarefaction which is a practical application of one of my favourite fundamental biological patterns – the species accumulation curve - which I’ve discussed before (here and here).  It looks like a great dataset with great spatial resolution and pretty good coverage in the tropics, though the equatorial zones are less well-represented.
I don’t think anyone would be surprised by their result that, yes, seamounts are diverse places.  When they broke it down by species, about 2/5 (15 species) showed positive association with seamounts; this group included both sharks and fish.  Interestingly, 3 species (pelagic stingrays, albacore and shortbilled spearfish) showed negative associations with seamounts, while 19 showed no measurable association.  So, the net effect is positive, but there's clearly some structure in the data, depending on what species you look at.  Nor, I think , would most people be surprised by the distance effect they found, wherein sample diversity decreased with distance moved away from the peak of a seamount, and most sharply in the first 10 or so kilometers.  What was surprising, to me at least, was that both the absolute diversity and the distance effect they found were greater on seamounts (left) than they were for coastal zones (center). 
I would have thought that coastal zones, with their larger area, more complex topography and currents, coastal upwelling and inputs from the land, should have had higher diversity.  Indeed, it kind of goes against the island biogeography ideas, that as we go away from the largest habitat towards smaller more distant patches, diversity drops; if you think of seamounts as underwater islands and continental shelves as underwater mainlands, perhaps you’ll see what I mean.
There’s a couple of reasons I can think of to explain the observed difference.  Perhaps there is something intrinsic to seamounts, some feature of topography or productivity that makes them real magnets for diversity.  Under this scenario, they are true biodiversity hotspots.  Alternatively, perhaps coastal zones once were more diverse than seamounts but have been denuded by our actions, so that only the remote and submarine mountains remain as examples of what once was.  Perhaps it’s a bit of both, or some other concept (that you should propose in the comments).  Either way, Morato et al. show us that we may be successful at protecting widely roaming pelagic species by strategically preserving relatively tiny specks of submarine oases.  Since reading their paper, I have enjoyed thinking of schools of pelagics, hopping from mountaintop to mountaintop, skipping across vast plains of abyssal ocean, and as usual dreaming about diversity and all the fantastic forms of life in the 3D wonderland of the open ocean.  It just makes you want to down tools and grab the next slow boat bound for Cocos, doesn't it?

Morato, T., Hoyle, S., Allain, V., & Nicol, S. (2010). Seamounts are hotspots of pelagic biodiversity in the open ocean Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0910290107