Mexico’s Dying Desert

I recently spent 10 days traveling across Mexico documenting the country’s spectacular biodiversity, with an emphasis on endemic mammals and conifers. This is part 1 of a 4-part series from my travels…

Mexico is one of the world’s most important, yet least recognized hotspots of mammal endemism. High habitat heterogeneity and differences in climate result in a large diversity of species within small areas. Moreover, Mexico is the only country in the world in which the transition between temperate and tropical ecosystems is completely contained, resulting in a unique meeting ground of species from both regions. One of the most important areas of Mexico for endemic mammals is the Oriental Basin, a little-visited arid land near the borders of Puebla and Veracruz. And this was exactly a place I set out to visit.

I was headed for Totalco, a small town in Veracruz a few kilometers from the Puebla border, surrounded by fields of maize and potato and close to some of the last remaining natural habitat in the basin–remnant grasslands and inhospitable lava flows known as malpais covered in nopal, agave, and yucca.

This is exactly the habitat of some of Mexico’s rarest mammals, tiny relict populations of species that once had larger distributions throughout the Mexican plateau. Out on the plains live local subspecies of White-sided Jackrabbit, Long-tailed Weasel, and the endemic perotensis subspecies of Phillips’ Kangaroo Rat, Mexico’s smallest. The centerpieces of the region are its microendemics – species that evolved into new species through millennia of separation from close cousins on the Chihuahuan Desert and Altiplano–the hyperkinetic Perote Ground Squirrel (Xerospermophilus perotensis), the close relative of the ubiquitous Spotted Ground Squirrel of Northern Mexico and the Southwest; the amazingly long-eared Perote Mouse (Peromyscus bullatus), only known from a handful of localities with the exact same habitat, sandy, sparsely vegetated flats surrounded by malpais; the Oriental Basin Pocket Gopher (Cratogeomys fulvescens); and the almost unknown Nelson’s Woodrat (Neotoma nelsoni), a rare species closely related to the White-toothed Woodrat and isolated to a small region of malpais. Confusingly however, this species has also been recorded in remote cloud forest canyons near Coatepec, Veracruz. Either it’s got some amazing evolutionary plasticity or some specimens have been misidentified… There’s still a lot to learn!

I traveled to this unique and irreplaceable habitat with Juan Cruzado, a Mexican mammal expert with family from the area. Like other sites in Mexico, it was only through his local knowledge that I had a hope of locating the region’s rare mammals. But while we saw plenty of unique fauna, we also experienced more than our fair share of surprises, foremost of which was the devastating extent of habitat loss in the basin.

Juan hadn’t visited the site in 5 years, so we figure that this tour would be the perfect opportunity to find how the habitat had changed, for better or for worse, while he was gone. It was a real shock. The once expansive plains surrounding the cemetary, once a sure site to see the abundant Perote Ground Squirrels, were covered in houses, maize fields, and fences. Only a couple of acres of grassland remained, a glorified playing field surrounded on three sides by concrete wall and ravaged by goats and sheep. Herds of cows were a common sight in the area too. There were still rodent burrows, but it all seemed bleak at best.

I, however, was desperate to see the squirrel. So we figured our best shot was to drive the rough dirt road, the embankments of which were still pockmarked with ground squirrel burrows–and after one and a half hours of trying, I managed a brief glimpse. And that was it. Even after walking the road for another 40 minutes, nothing. While local shepherds insisted the little motitos (the local name for the ground squirrels) were still around, I suspect they’re confusing them with the abundant Rock Squirrels of the nearby malpais as I can’t see X. perotensis, a grassland species, withstanding so much pressure.

One the other side of town, where we searched for Perote Mice, Nelson’s Woodrats, and Phillips’ Kangaroo Rats, the situation wasn’t much better. 80 live traps caught only 1 confirmed Perote Mouse (despite very good habitat), 1 Kangaroo Rat, and not a single Woodrat (it hasn’t been caught in something like 10 years). While the situation is better at this site, where the best habitat is protected by areas of jagged, searing, inhospitable malpais, the grassy fringes are overtaken by zealously guarded fields of maize and potato. It’s only a matter of time before goats graze the site into oblivion.

Worse yet, there are no national parks in the basin–so these species have no habitat that will be protected from such disturbance. The fates of these species seem very bleak indeed, with no conservation efforts to speak of.

So what’s the future of the endemic fauna of the Oriental Basin? I hate to say it, but it’s not a good one. Maybe as soon as the next decade, the farms and settlements will close in and destroy the last habitat left. But we have to remember that not every place is like this–there are some sites that can be saved.

Going forward, let’s focus on protecting what we have, keeping the last expanses of habitat pristine before they too disappear. And for places like Totalco, maybe we can give the endemic mammals one last chance by captive breeding. It might be too late for conservation of this site’s mammals in the wild, but we can be mindful of the impacts of uncontrolled farming and settlement to prevent another extinction catastrophe like that in the Oriental Basin elsewhere…

In praise of the Plateau Pika

The Tibetan Plateau is home to some of the world’s most charismatic wildlife. Russian explorer Nikolay Przhevalsky spoke of enormous herds of antelope and gazelles and congregations of Wild Yak so huge they turned swathes of the plateau black with their shiny ebony coats. While the great herds of times past are for the most part long gone, the plateau’s sheer remoteness and austerity ensure that it continues to remain a sanctuary.

Many of Asia’s legendary megafauna are here – the Chiru, or Tibetan Antelope, famed for its soft fur and sword-like horns. The enormous Argali, Asia’s “Bighorn Sheep on steroids,” the graceful Kiang, and the near mythical Snow Leopard, the gray ghost gracefully scaling the world’s highest summits.

The region is also home to a stunning concentration of endemic mammals and birds, from tiny mountain voles and dwarf hamsters, to square-headed Tibetan Foxes, Chinese Desert Cats, majestic Blue Sheep, and numerous species of deer, antelope, and gazelle, not to mention the myriad of rosefinches, sandgrouse, accentors, and more. But beneath this exceptional biodiversity is a humble creature many would write off as a mere “rat.”

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Cute, right? The Plateau, or Black-lipped Pika in fact, is no rat, but rather a tiny, short-eared Rabbit. A species of pika, it has dozens of relatives all adapted to life in some of the Northern hemisphere’s most rugged mountains, from the familiar American Pika at home in the Western US to the rare, elusive Ili Pika of Northwest China and the Black Pika of Northeast India. Most Pikas are pretty similar, living retiring lives among boulder fields and talus slopes collected piles of vegetation for food and uttering a sharp, piercing note to warn of danger.

But the Plateau Pika is a little different from its relatives. This species lives on the desolate, windswept plains on high plateaus in huge colonies, often thousands strong. We can think of it as Tibet’s answer to the famous Prairie Dogs of the American West. And just as the Prairie Dogs, the Plateau Pika is the key fiber that holds its entire ecosystem together.

The Plateau Pika is a keystone species and ecosystem engineer. It eats huge quantities of grass and seeds, burrows through the high plains, and provides essential prey for the huge numbers of carnivores, small and large, that inhabit the plateau. Without it, the Tibetan Plateau would be completely lifeless.

However, even the humble, and seemingly innumerable Plateau Pika is in trouble. Agricultural expansion into the lower reaches of the plateau, and accompanied activities of tilling and poisoning are killing huge numbers of these pikas. Combined with the untrue belief that these animals overgraze and destroy grasslands (in fact, they only occupy areas grazed by other larger herbivores, spreading seeds to rejuvenate the grass–quite the opposite), they are going extinct across parts of their native range. It’s a sad story with eerie echoes of the decimation of the once abundant Prairie dogs of the American great plains.

Conservation organizations around the world attract funding for charismatic species–the tigers, lions, gorillas, elephants, and rhinos. But below all these majestic creatures are the smaller species that are even more indispensable to their habitats than the larger ones. The Plateau Pika isn’t just a little rabbit, it’s a keystone species holding its ecosystem together. While conserving large mammals is important, we have to try to ensure that these efforts protect the small, but equally or more essential species at the base of the food web too.

Venkat

The war on elephants

I thought this was a very interesting read: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-6d40b788-af2f-4646-8177-c8db7ce6a881

It covers aspects of elephant conservation that are often ignored in public discussion. Specifically, the article has a focus on Garamba NP in the DRC, one of the toughest places in the world for a conservationist to work right now. Elephants (rare hybrids between Forest and Savanna Elephants) here are being slaughtered by Sudanese and South Sudanese armies, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and nomadic horsemen in a bid to both harvest the valuable ivory and destabilize the park and local government. Only a small group of rangers and soldiers fight to preserve the park and its wildlife, which also includes Congo’s only Giraffes and Chimpanzees.

This article ends with a few lines worth thinking about:

“I think if you lose elephants you are saying something about the future of humanity.

If we can’t learn to live sustainably on Earth, if we can’t learn to share space with other creatures, what future is there for us in the long term?”

Kern County: California’s Biodiversity Hotspot

Let’s face it. When we think of Kern County, nature is one thing that really doesn’t come to mind. Endless rows of orchards, the strange sprawl of Bakersfield, and boring 85-mph drives along the I-5 corridor yes, but wildlife and biodiversity, not so much… Until about a month ago, I have to say that I agreed with that perception too.

Well, it turns out that Kern is one of the state’s most significant biodiversity hotspots. The county itself contains many of the diverse habitats we associate with Central and Southern California and also contains a host of unique species, with many endemics to boot. To best illustrate the biodiversity of this place, I think a bit of geography lesson is in order.

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Kern County is bounded on the west by the Temblor Range (1), which mark the Eastern edge of the Carrizo Plain National Monument. This area is geographically and biologically a part of the California Coast Range, but also displays significant influence from the desert ranges of the Mojave further South. While there is plenty of classic Chamise chaparral and oak woodland in these mountains, Ephedra is also a dominant component of the vegetation of these hills, something you may not expect. Add to that an eclectic mix of animal species such as Le Conte’s Thrashers, Canyon Mouse, Interior Sage Sparrow, Yellow-backed Spiny Lizard, Townsend’s Big-eared Bat, Cougar, and possibly even California Mountain Kingsnake and you see that this is a very unique habitat.

Just to the East lies a significant expanse of remnant Central Valley grasslands (2). Here, some of California’s most endangered mammals cling on, like Giant and Tipton Kangaroo Rats, Tulare Grasshopper Mouse, Nelson’s Antelope Squirrel, San Joaquin Kit Fox, and American Badger. Rare birds such as Mountain Plover, Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Mountain Bluebird, and Vesper Sparrow survive here too in some of the last pockets of their range. Further to the east is the complex of National Wildlife Refuges (Kern and Pixley) that protect  the last partially intact marshland in the Southern San Joaquin Valley. This is where Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Buena Vista Lake Shrew, and Burrowing and Short-eared Owls survive alongside some of the state’s rarest plant species.

The Southern edge of Kern is marked by the dramatic Tehachapi Mountains (3). This area holds distinct races of more common Sierra Nevada species, such as Sooty Grouse and Lodgepole Chipmunk. Mt. Pinos and Tejon Ranch in particular serve as a bridge between the montane habitats of the Sierra Nevada and the transverse ranges of Southern California. But this area also holds another extremely rare endemic – the Tehachapi White-eared Pocket Mouse. I have been lucky enough to observe this species in the wild near Cameron Canyon on Tehachapi Pass.

Further to the North lies another maze of mountain ranges that constitute the Southernmost extension of the Sierra Nevada (4). North of Lake Isabella and West of the Kern River lie the Greenhorn Mountains, an area that holds the Southernmost Giant Sequoias in California and small populations of the very rare Pacific Fisher. East of the Kern River is the Kern Plateau, a remote elevated region of the Sierra Nevada that shelters California’s Southernmost White-tailed Hares, Short-tailed Weasels, and the Sierra Nevada’s Southernmost California Spotted Owls. Even Porcupines are present in this remote mountain wilderness. To the south of Lake Isabella are the Piute and Breckenridge Mountains, a remote area where the endemic Piute Cypress is found. The Kern River itself is a marvelous hotspot for birds (some of California’s rarest, such as the Least Bell’s Vireo, occur here) while the Kelso Valley to the South is an otherworldly landscape where Joshua Trees occur among winter snows. Walker Pass is truly a meeting of East and West, where Singeleaf Pinyons and Foothill Pines grow on the same soil and Large-eared Woodrats scurry alongside the extremely localized Yellow-eared race of Great Basin Pocket Mouse.

Below the Mountains and the last region of Kern County is the Mojave Desert (5). Rare Desert Kit Foxes, Pronghorn, and American Badgers cling on here, alongside Desert Kangaroo Rat, Long-tailed Pocket Mouse, and Western Mastiff and Spotted Bats. The rarest species here is the endangered Mojave Ground Squirrel, which is still losing habitat to related species due to urbanization and solar energy development. The region’s most famous species, the Desert Tortoise, still survives in healthy numbers, at least for the time being… The Mojave is one of the most irreplaceable yet fragile parts of Kern County.

As part of my travels across California, I searched for mammals in Kern County last May. On the trip, I encountered many surprises, both positive and negative. The Tehachapis were full of life. In a couple of hours around Tehachapi Pass and Cameron Canyon, I saw 2 local Agile Kangaroo Rats, a couple of Panamint Kangaroo Rats, and 2 very rare Tehachapi Pocket Mice. I was expecting them to be near-extinct in this area following extreme drought conditions 2013-15 and decent (but not substantial enough) rainfall this winter. This is one of California’s rarest mammals and I’m probably one of only a handful of non-scientists to have seen this species.

I then visited Desert Tortoise Natural Area in Fremont Valley in the Mojave Desert. Kangaroo Rats were abundant (seems like the normally arid Mojave got decent rains). Merriam’s and Panamint Kangaroo Rats were everywhere, and I even saw a couple of the normally rare Desert Kangaroo Rats and one each Desert Kit Fox and Little Pocket Mouse. The Kit Fox in particular was a great sign, as these elusive carnivores require pristine areas of desert with abundant rodents. The next morning, I had a bit of shock however as I found that the Mojave Ground Squirrel, once common in this area, was now near-extinct following catastrophic drought conditions over the last couple of years (this translated into very little breeding). It took me 2.5 hours of hiking outside the reserve to briefly see 2 animals at a distance. The population within the reserve was apparently extinct, with no sightings by the reserve’s caretakers for months. I did however see a Desert Tortoise (apparently populations of this species were also depressed) within the reserve. Hopefully the ground squirrels are still doing ok at Little Dixie Wash near Inyokern/Indian Wells.

Hope you enjoyed a close look at one of California’s most underappreciated and little-known places. There’s always more to explore in this amazing state!

The Llanos – South America’s Wildlife Paradise

South America is a place I’ve written about very little on this blog and honestly, I don’t know why. It’s amazingly diverse, wild, and full of remarkable mammals in some truly pristine, remote places.

When most people think of South American nature, one place comes to mind above all else: the Amazon, that enormous labyrinth of rainforest that comprises the green heart of over a third of the continent and holds one in ten known species in the world. But what we forget is that there’s so much more to this amazing continent – the paramo and pajonal of the high Andes, the extraordinary and imperiled Atlantic forests, and enormous swamps of the Pantanal. These areas hold some of the continent’s most famous and iconic species – Spectacled Bear, Jaguar, Black Caiman, Anaconda, Maned Wolf, and more. But there’s one other fascinating region that somehow slipped under the radars of biologists and ecotourists alike: the Llanos.

The Llanos (the plains in Spanish) is a massive network of marshes and tropical savannas occupying much of the border region between Venezuela and Colombia, East of the Andes Mountains. Historically inaccessible and reputed to be a lawless and unsafe area, the Llanos received very little attention until recently. With the Llanos now secure and safe to visit, faunal surveys have uncovered a huge diversity of wildlife in the region, still untouched and holding very high densities of megafauna. Since then, a series of huge cattle ranches have been managed for conservation, providing a superb example of ranching coexisting with wildlife and ecosystem preservation. Many remote areas of the Colombian and Venezuelan Llanos are now the sites of innovative conservation efforts involving enormous ranches that safeguard impressive amounts of wildlife, particularly large reptiles, mammals, and birds.

Both the diversity and density of megafauna of the Los Llanos are among the highest anywhere in South America, rivaling the famous swamps of the Pantanal in the frontier region of Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia. The Llanos is famous for its large mammals, notably globally significant populatins of Giant Anteater, Capybara, White-tailed Deer, and Brazilian Tapir. Remote areas of the Llanos such as Hato el Cedral host numerous Jaguars and Pumas. Alongside these impressive species live  nearly 100 other mammal species, including endemics such as the Llanos Long-nosed Armadillo, small cats such as Ocelot and Jaguarundi, Pink River Dolphins, and primates such as Weeper Capuchin and Venezuelan Red Howler Monkey. The Llanos also hosts amazing bird life, with some stunning species such as the Sunbittern, Jabiru, and the unbelievably red, restricted-range Scarlet Ibis.

The Llanos is also known for its reptiles. This labyrinth of marshy plains and palm savannas is the stronghold for the Critically Endangered Orinoco Crocodile, one of the world’s rarest and least known crocodilians. It’s also home to the marvellous Mata Mata, an alien-looking wonder restricted to the Amazon and Orinoco Basins. Last, but not least, the region is home to monster Anacondas – some of the largest specimens ever recorded, some growing to over 5.5 m long!

So next time you’re looking to read a little about nature, search for the little-known and under-appreciated too. You might be amazed by what you find!

Mexico’s Overlooked Diversity

When we think of nations that are biodiversity hotspots, our minds instantly wander to places like Ecuador, Peru, Australia, Madagascar, DR Congo, and India. So, it may come as a surprise that the third largest total of mammal species of any country is none of those nations – rather, it is Mexico.

A number of factors account for this impressive diversity (536 species, or about 1/10th of the world’s total). As a start, Mexico is located at the meeting ground of North American and tropical species – thus, in the mountains of Chihuahua, you can see White-tailed Deer, Black Bears, Chipmunks, Bobcats, and other familiar North American fauna while observing Howler Monkeys, Jaguars, Agoutis, and Tamanduas in the rainforests of Oaxaca and Chiapas. An then there are marvelous places such as El Cielo Biosphere Reserve and the Sierra Gorda where these two groups of fauna intermingle, with Black Bears occurring alongside Spider Monkeys! Add to that some seriously impressive altitudinal variation (sea level along the coast to 18500 feet on the summit of Pico de Orizaba), 9300 km of coastline, and significant rainfall variation (practically nil on the Northern Deserts to more than 2.7 m in Tabasco) and you begin to see how Mexico is something of a living laboratory for evolution. To give some statistics, Mexico is home to 50% of all species of pocket gophers and 65% of all species of kangaroo rats and pocket mice.

And if that’s not enough, one only needs to turn to the 1000+ bird species present in the Mexico and the country’s position as the world’s second great center of conifer diversity.

However, Mexico’s wildlife is under threat. With all these distinct microclimates harboring unique species, it’s easy to understand that many can go extinct within the blink of an eye if sufficient action is not taken to protect them. Take pocket gophers for example – burrowing rodents with relatively limited dispersal ability and a preference for fertile soils. These characteristics put endemic pocket gophers’ distributions squarely in areas that humans favor for agricultural and urban development – the result: the endemic Big, Tropical, and Alcorn’s Pocket Gophers are all critically endangered while the endemic, monotypic Michoacan Pocket Gopher is endangered. As a further example, look to Heteromyids (Kangaroo Rats and pocket mice) – generally seen as pests in desert wastelands – the San Quintin Kangaroo Rat is likely extinct, the Oriental Basin Phillips’ Kangaroo Rat reduced to less than a tenth of its former distribution, the Dalquest’s Pocket Mouse threatened by agricultural expansion, and the Lined Pocket Mouse not definitively recorded in decades. As a grim reminder of our impact on the environment in such biodiversity hotspots, look to the stunning Imperial Woodpecker – a two-foot long bird with a dagger-like beak and an imposing front-face red crest – that is now almost certainly extinct, reduced to a ghostly memory in the old growth pine forests of the Sierra Madre Occidental, now a region actively destroyed every single day by opium poppy and marijuana growers affiliated with the infamous Sinaloa and Los Zetas cartels.

But despite some losses, there’s also reason for hope: Volcano Rabbits cling on in the heart of a megalopolis home to 20 million people; Mexican Wolves and California Condors have been successfully reintroduced to the Sierra San Luis and Sierra San Pedro Martir, respectively; and one of the world’s rarest pines, the incredible Martinez Pinon (Pinus maximartinezii), is the focus of a community conservation effort, the first of its kind in Mexico, in the Sierra Morones of Zacatecas. Recent surveys are revealing species previously thought extinct and expanding the ranges of others – take the rediscovery of the Big Pocket Gopher and range expansions of Rzedowski’s Pine as examples. If there’s one thing that can be said about Mexico’s wildlife, it’s that the nation’s biodiversity remains insufficiently known. This is a country where fabulous discoveries will continue to be routinely made as the nation’s remote mountains, deserts, and forests are opened up to science.

So maybe next time you’re thinking about enhancing your knowledge of the natural world, read a little about Mexico – I can guarantee you’ll be surprised by what you find. I sure was…

Venkat

The TL2 Forest: Africa’s Last Frontier

Deep in the heart of Africa lies the Congo basin, a legendary sea of emerald green tropical rainforest second only in size to the Amazon. This region is home to some of the planet’s most iconic, yet least known, wildlife – Eastern (Mountain and Eastern Lowland) and Western Lowland Gorillas, Central and Eastern Chimpanzees, Bonobo, Okapi, Forest Elephant, and Bongo – all hidden deep in the heart of an impenetrable wilderness.

Over the years, a scattering of places has been slowly opened up to outside attention – Dzanga Sangha, Ituri, Nouabale-Ndoki, and Salonga – as researchers have aimed to unearth the secrets of their wildlife. Increasingly, intrepid researchers are going remoter than ever before, exploring places so pristine and untouched that they are making an amazing array of discoveries – huge populations of Bonobos and Congo Peafowl in the Lomako-Yokolala Faunal Reserve, a distinct community of tens of thousands of naive Chimpanzees in the Bili-Uere, a forest-savanna mosaic of unparalleled diversity in the Chinko basin, and a monumental migration of almost a million antelope in South Sudan’s Boma-Badingilo ecosystem. But there’s one place to rule them all – a jungle so remote and untouched that even the locals rarely traveled there: the interfluvial rainforests between the Tshuapa, Lomami, and Lualaba Rivers, or TL2 forest, in the East-Central Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The TL2 was brought to outside attention in 2007 by Drs. John and Terese Hart, two American researchers who had working in the DRC’s Ituri forest for decades previously. At the time, they were truly entering the unknown, exploring a place that at the time, was little more than a blank spot on the map. Accompanied by a team of Congolese naturalists, they found a sanctuary of amazing diversity forgotten by time…

Biogeographically, the TL2 forest is the meeting point of the faunas of the left and right banks of the Congo River. Here, species thought to never occur alongside each other such as the Bonobo and the Okapi – emblems of the left and right banks of the Congo respectively – were found living together. In this living laboratory of biodiversity, they found a stunning diversity of primates: 2 subspecies of Red-tailed Monkey hybridizing; the endemic Lomami Red Colobus, Kasuku River Wolf’s Monkey, and Lomami River Blue Monkey; and the incredible combination of Leopard, Four-toed Elephant Shrew, White-bellied Duiker, and Giant Pangolin. They even discovered an intact population of Forest Elephants of global significance, long safe from poaching. Most amazingly, they discovered a new population of the Dryad Monkey and a new species of monkey, the marvelous Lesula.

However, this wilderness is under threat. Marauding bands of rebels and elephant poachers threaten the integrity of this intact ecosystem and the lack of governance at the regional level precludes the stability of this precious region. Extrajudicial killings, disappearances, extortion, and banditry are the facts of life here. Desperate poverty and widespread corruption and violence deal a harsh hand to the people of this remote part of the world.

Fortunately, there is hope – the TL2 project, founded by the Harts, aims to create a functional protected area in the landscape to save the Bonobos, Okapis, Forest Elephants, and Lesulas of this precious forest. In doing so, they hope to bring long-lost peace to this most deserving region. Read more at http://www.bonoboincongo.com/.