HUTIAS: ABACO’S EXTINCT RODENTS LIVE ON… ELSEWHERE


Bahamian Hutia (Cole Fiechter)

HUTIAS: ABACO’S EXTINCT RODENTS LIVE ON… ELSEWHERE  

The Bahama hutia (Geocapromys ingrahami) has the distinction of being the only indigenous land mammal in the Bahamas. Historically found on a number of islands, the species is now confined to very limited locations. Abaco is, sadly, no longer one of them; they are officially shown as extirpated here from about 1600. Hutias had been recorded on Great Abaco by early explorers from Europe, but their survival was already threatened by hunting and land clearance as the human population expanded.

Bahamian Hutia (Cole Fiechter)

Further evidence of their long-term existence on Abaco – prehistoric, even – comes from research carried out by divers in the land-based Blues Holes. SAWMILL SINK has been a particularly rich source of the remnants of early creatures, including well-preserved skeletons, carapaces or other remains of crocodiles, turtles, birds, bats – and hutias. These date from the Pleistocene epoch of the Quartenary period, spanning roughly 2.5m years and ending some 12,000 years ago. You can see some of these treasures in the wonderful Natural History Museum at Friends of the Environment in Marsh Harbour.

A c20 hutia from the Exumas on display in the museumBahama Hutia Museum Exhibit (FOTE, Abaco)

Exhibits in the museum – there’s even a dead parrot for Monty Python fansMuseum of Natural History, Abaco Bahamas

The population of the extant Bahama hutia species Geocapromys ingrahami became so depleted that by the 1960s they were considered to be extinct. Then in 1966 a colony was discovered on East Plana Cay. Some have since been relocated (see below) and the overall population is now confined to a handful of locations, for which reason the Bahama hutia is IUCN listed as vulnerable. All the usual man-caused threats to their survival apply, as well as predation by dogs and feral cats. One place to find them is in the Exumas, but because they are mainly nocturnal creatures and there are few of them, a sighting is a rare event, let alone getting a decent photo op. 

A ‘Demarest’s Hutia’ – not the Bahamian species, but very similarDemarest's Hutia (Yomangani, wiki)

The terrific header image and the second image were taken by teenager Cole Fiechter while on a sailing trip with his parents and brother in the excellently named ‘Truansea’. On the beach of the Exumas Land and Sea Park at Warderick Wells, they encountered “a guinea pig with a rat’s tail”: a hutia. Cole’s photograph will hopefully grace the forthcoming Field Guide to the Natural History of the Bahamas, now in the late stages of production, and with which I am peripherally involved.

MARK CATESBY‘s take on the hutia in the c18, where he describes it as a rabbitHutia by Mark Catesby (c18)

The BAHAMAS NATIONAL TRUST notes that “Bahama hutias occur naturally only on East Plana Cay (located between Acklins and Mayaguana). Historically however, they were found on ten Bahamian islands. In a move to protect the species, a small Bahama hutia population was transplanted to two locations – Little Wax Cay and Warderick Wells (Exumas). These three locations now host the only known populations of this particular species in the whole world”

It looks as though Warderick Wells might be your best bet to see a Bahama hutia if you are visiting the Bahamas. Don’t be too confident of coming across one – but if you do see one, you will have had the pleasure of seeing a very rare creature.

Bahamian Hutia Drawing (Princeton UP)

 

Credits: Cole Fiechter (1, 2); Keith Salvesen / FOTE (3, 4); ‘Yomangani’ wiki (5); OS (6); Princeton UP (7). Research credits PNAS, BNT, FOTE

THE ARTICULATE WHALE (2): MARINE SCIENCE ON DISPLAY


False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

THE ARTICULATE WHALE (2): MARINE SCIENCE ON DISPLAY

A couple of months back I wrote about the fate of the false killer whale Pseudorca crassidens (in fact a species of dolphin) that was stranded on Duck Cay. After its discovery, it was cut up, buried for many months before being disinterred, cleaned… and made ready to be reconstructed for display at Friends of the Environment, Marsh Harbour for research and educational purposes. The poor dead creature was destined to have a future ‘life’ (in a sense) as an exhibit. You can read the details and see the various stages of the preparatory processes (including some gory images) HERE.

False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

The FKW joint project (see below for participants) has taken more than a year. The final stage has been similar to doing a jigsaw puzzle, with the added complication that it isn’t entirely clear where or even whether all the pieces fit – there may even be one or two leftover small bones when the reconstruction is finished.

HEADFalse Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

Since I last wrote about the ‘rearticulation’ project, I have spent some time on Abaco. A highlight was our visit to FotE to meet the jocundly-named ‘Ducky’ of Duck Cay [I’d have gone for ‘Killer’ as a name – there’s no such thing as bad publicity]. Incidentally the strange item on the whale’s skull is in fact nothing to do with the creature’s real structure – it’s a natural historian’s unicorn-related jest…

RIBCAGE & SPINEFalse Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO) False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

Besides identifying all the bones and numbering them, those working on this project have had to devise ingenious methods for display to make the reconstruction as accurate as possible – not an easy task with a creature nearly 20 feet long.

SPINEFalse Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)         

FLIPPER 1 – COMPLETEFalse Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

FLIPPER 2 – WORK IN PROGRESSFalse Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

JAW & A TRAY OF SUNDRIES…False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO) False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

It would be against the principles of this blog to miss out on an obvious open goal of an opportunity for an apposite final caption…

A WHALE TALE THAT ENDS WITH THE WHALE TAILFalse Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)False Killer Whale Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / BMMRO)

This ambitious year-long project has involved BMMRO, FOTE, BEP (Bahamas Environment Protection Foundation), interns, and volunteers. A number of children from local schools have already been to visit Ducky and been completely fascinated. A dead stranded whale now has a new incarnation, and a new story to tell.

ARE STRANDINGS FREQUENT – AND WHY REPORT THEM?

Each year there may be half-a-dozen reports of cetacean strandings in Abaco waters, both whales and dolphins. As far as I can make out, the animals are almost invariably dead. If still alive, reporting is clearly urgent to ensure a quick response and to maximise the creature’s chances of survival. If dead, a carcass can provide scientists with valuable data on the biology and health of marine mammals and, in turn, the health of our marine ecosystems. This includes basic information, such as an animal’s age, its size, the types of prey it consumes, and the occurrence of diseases. Necropsies can provide more detailed information to add to the growing knowledge-base of marine mammal populations.

And a project like this one, with its great educational potential, can in effect enable a stranded marine mammal to tell its story even after death.

STRANDING NETWORK HOTLINE NUMBER +1 242 366 4155
(or +1 242 357 6666 / +1 242 577 0655)
Credits: all photos by Keith Salvesen / BMMRO. Special thanks to Olivia Patterson and all at Friends of the Environment for a fascinating time visiting Ducky Killer; and to Nancy Albury for showing us around the excellent Museum. If you haven’t been, go!

THE ARTICULATE WHALE (1): TELLING A TALE AFTER DEATH


False Killer Whale (Endless Ocean-wiki)

THE ARTICULATE WHALE (1): TELLING A TALE AFTER DEATH

The ‘false killer whale’ Pseudorca crassidens has a somewhat misleading name: first (as implied), it is not a killer whale; second, it’s not actually a whale at all, but a large species of dolphin. However, it does have some killer whale tendencies – attacking and killing smaller marine mammals for example – and perhaps a passing resemblance, so the species has been given something of an upgrade, name-wise.

False Killer Whale (NOAA-wiki)

Although these fine creatures are distributed widely around the globe, the overall numbers are thought to be small, and relatively little is known about them in the wild. They are, of course, used as aquarium exhibits but the knowledge gleaned in captivity cannot provide much of an overview of their oceanic behaviour, which remains relatively unstudied.

False Killer Whale range map - wiki

However, there is one source of valuable data – the scientific study of stranded animals. And as it happens, Abaconians will very soon be able to obtain at least a skeleton knowledge of the FKW, the end-product of a long and complicated research project by the BMMRO in conjunction with Friends of the Environment. Just a quick word of warning before you read further – some images below are not especially pleasant to look at, so be prepared for them… They are illustrative and not intended for close inspection (unless you want).

Exactly a year ago an FKW was reported to have stranded on Duck Cay, off Cherokee Sound. BMMRO were quickly on the scene, and hoping to undertake the usual procedure of a necropsy, in which post-mortem samples are taken for analysis. However the poor creature was in an advancing state of decomposition, so only skin samples and photographs could be taken.

False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)         False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

Telescoping the intervening months for the sake of brevity, the decision was made to cut up the carcass (note the face-masks) and bury it where it was, so that its integrity would be preserved for later retrieval, cleaning, reconstruction (‘re-articulation’) and exhibition for educational purposes.

False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO) False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO) False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

In December, the remains were exhumed for the next phase of the animal’s decomposition – submersion in cages in the mangroves – before the final cleaning of the bones in readiness for its re-articulation and display.

False Killer Whale bones, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)False Killer Whale, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)False Killer Whale bones, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

Cleaning the bones has been a meticulous process, leaving the resulting skeleton ready to reconstruct in situ at Friends of the Environment’s Kenyon Research Centre in Marsh Harbour. Adult FKWs can grow up to 6 metres long, so there are a great many bones from large to very small to place correctly – and plenty of teeth (see below). The re-articulation is nearly finished, and it is hoped that the completed skeleton will be on display in the very near future. I am planning to see it in about 2 weeks time, and – this sounds quite strange, I know – I’m very excited about it.

False Killer Whale bones, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)False Killer Whale bones, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)False Killer Whale tooth & bones, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)False Killer Whale skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

This ambitious year-long project has involved BMMRO, FOTE, BEP (Bahamas Environment Protection Foundation), interns, and volunteers. I am keen to know whether, in the modern way, an affectionate name has been chosen for the skeleton. ‘Duck Cay’ doesn’t provide a very promising start. Well, maybe Donald is in vogue…? 

ARE STRANDINGS FREQUENT – AND WHY REPORT THEM?

Each year there may be half-a-dozen reports of cetacean strandings in Abaco waters, both whales and dolphins. As far as I can make out, the animals are almost invariably dead. If still alive, reporting is clearly urgent to ensure a quick response and to maximise the creature’s chances of survival. If dead, a carcass can provide scientists with valuable data on the biology and health of marine mammals and, in turn, the health of our marine ecosystems. This includes basic information, such as an animal’s age, its size, the types of prey it consumes, and the occurrence of diseases. Necropsies can provide more detailed information to add to the growing knowledge-base of marine mammal populations.

And a project like this one, with its great educational potential, can in effect enable a stranded marine mammal to tell its story even after death.

STRANDING NETWORK HOTLINE NUMBER +1 242 366 4155
(or +1 242 357 6666 / +1 242 577 0655)
False Killer Whale skull, Abaco Bahamas (BMMRO)

Credits: header image, Endless Ocean / wiki; #1 NOAA; all other photos BMMRO or FOTE, with thanks; range map wiki 

GETTING THE MEASURE OF TURTLES ON ABACO


Hawksbill Turtle ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scub 4

GETTING THE MEASURE OF TURTLES ON ABACO

A recent summer course on Abaco was held in partnership between Elizabeth Whitman (Florida International University) and Friends of the Environment/Frank Kenyon Centre. Participants learned about sea turtle biology and ecology, and discussed potential threats to the vulnerable population. After a classroom session, the team headed out to Snake Cay Creek to carry out a field survey. The turtles caught were measured, weighed, tagged (if not already), and given a general health assessment. Each turtle was then released.

The data captured by such courses is invaluable in the continuing assessment of the health of the local turtle population. In addition, such projects provide a valuable opportunity for people to become involved in a fascinating and rewarding local conservation project – with a literally hands-on experience.

Turtle measuring project, AbacoTurtle measuring project, AbacoTurtle measuring project, AbacoTurtle measuring project, AbacoTurtle measuring project, AbacoTurtle measuring project, Abaco

Credits: Beth Whitman, Friends of the Environment, Jacque Cannon, Maureen Collins, Melinda Riger

WORLD OCEANS DAY 2016: “STASH THE TRASH”


View from a Skiff, the Marls, Abaco, Bahamas

WORLD OCEANS DAY 2016: “STASH THE TRASH”

Today the NOAA and other worldwide ocean guardian organisations are celebrating World Oceans Day. Looking at the websites and FB pages, one message is clear: People Are Rubbish. To put it another way, the global pollution of the oceans is caused solely by humans. The pristine seas and beaches of the world were unsullied until, say, the last 200 years. In 4 or 5 generations, all that has changed irreversibly.

Leave only Footprints - Delphi Beach, Abaco

My rather (= very) negative intro is counterbalanced by some more positive news: there are plenty of good guys out there working hard to make a difference to the rising tide of filth polluting the oceans. Clearing seas and beaches of plastic and other debris. Collecting tons and tons of abandoned fishing gear. Rescuing creatures trapped, entangled, injured and engulfed by marine debris and pollutants. Educating adults and – far more importantly – children and young people by actively involving them in their campaigns. Conducting research programmes. Lobbying and protesting. And a lot more besides.

A marine garbage patch: the sea creatures’ view (NOAA)Marine Garbage Patch from below (NOAA)

Abandoned fishing gear: a monk seal that was lucky; and a turtle that wasn’t (NOAA)Monk Seal in discarded fishing nets (NOAA)Sea turtle trapped in abandoned fishing gear (NOAA)

Four shearwaters killed by a cone trap. A fifth was rescued (NOAA)13138799_1188762361142231_1433873125345242619_n

The NOAA and sister organisations carry out massive programmes of clearance of marine debris, with working parties of volunteers who do what they can to deal with an intractable problem.Clearing Beach Debris (NOAA) Clearing Beach Debris (NOAA)

But you don’t need to be on an official working party for a large organisation. In the Bahamas and on Abaco, the BAHAMAS PLASTIC MOVEMENT, FRIENDS OF THE ENVIRONMENT  and BAHAMAS NATIONAL TRUST among others, do wonderful work on a more local level.
Childen collecting beach debris, Abaco (FotE)

HOPE  FOR  THE  FUTUREYoung conservationist on Abaco, Bahamas

Elsewhere, some tackle the problems caused by particular types of trash, balloons being an excellent example. I have posted before about BALLOONS BLOW, the brainchild of two sisters who learnt of the serious consequences to wildlife caused by mass balloon releases. Their work has been so effective that increasing numbers of mass releases are being cancelled in favour of other forms of celebration. A minus for balloon-makers of course, but a big plus for wildlife. The BB sisters also keep their own beach clear of the junk brought in on every tide.

Balloons Blow - Beach Debris (http://balloonsblow.org) Balloons Blow - Beach Debris (http://balloonsblow.org)

And on an individual basis, any old fool can make a tiny difference to a local beach. Here is one such doing just that…

A tangle of balloon strings on Delphi beachBalloon Strings, Delphi Beach (RH)

Guinea Schooner Bay: little visited, rarely cleaned. Plastic crap from a 10 foot radiusRH & trash, Guinea Schooner Bay

Credits: NOAA, FOTE Abaco, BPM, Balloons Blow, RH, Mrs RH

“ONE OF A KIND”: LIMPKINS ON ABACO


Limpkin, Abaco (Tony Hepburn)

“ONE OF A KIND”: LIMPKINS ON ABACO

It’s 07.50 and we are trundling up the one-mile Delphi drive towards the highway in a truck towing the skiff for a day of fishing out on the Marls. We are ‘first boat out’, so the driveway has been peaceful for a while. Suddenly, some way ahead, a dark shape detaches itself from the margin of the coppice and steps into the roadway. Large. Dark brown. Kind of awkward looking. Long legs. Long decurved bill. And the bird I’ve been waiting to see for a long time. A limpkin.

My first sighting of one of the Delphi limpkinsLimpkin, Delphi, Abaco (RH) 1

Grabbing the small point ‘n’ shoot I take fishing (far cheaper to drown than an iPh@ne), I leaned out of the open window and fired off some optimistic shoots at the bird, on full (yet feeble) zoom. For what they are worth**, here are a few – and will you look at the toes on the creature!

Limpkin, Delphi, Abaco (RH) 2  Limpkin, Delphi, Abaco (RH) 3Limpkin, Delphi, Abaco (RH) 4  Limpkin, Delphi, Abaco (RH) 6

Limpkins (Aramus guarauna) have lived near the top end of the Delphi drive for several seasons, but they and I have never coincided. I haven’t even heard their weird screaming call. The guides sometimes see them when they first arrive each day, but limpkins are very shy, unsociable birds that keep themselves to themselves. Unless you see them cross a track, you might never notice them. To make matters more difficult, they are mainly “nocturnally and crepuscular”, so they are not generally active during the day.

Limpkin at Gilpin PointLimpkin Gilpin Point, Abaco (Troy Mailis)

ONE OF A KIND

The limpkin is a species of long-billed, long-legged wading bird, and is unrelated to herons, cranes and rails despite appearances. In fact, it has the honour to be the sole member of its taxonomic family. They may be found near ponds, in mangroves, in dense coppice or on the edge of pinewoods. They move jerkily, with a flickering tail and, as with any ID-cooperative bird, to see one is to know one.

Juvenile limpkin220px-Limpkin_Juvenile

TEN LIMPID LIMPKIN FACTS TO ENTHRAL PUNTERS AT PETE’S PUB

  • The Limpkin has its own ‘monotypic’ family – a one-off species of bird
  • They eat snails and molluscs (also insects, worms & frogs), using their beaks to snatch them
  • They may leave piles of discarded shells in their favourite feeding sites
  • The birds are ungainly and awkward: “limpkin” probably derives from their limping gait
  • Males and females have the same plumage (males being slightly larger)
  • The beak acts like tweezers – slightly open and closing at the tip – for tweaking snails etc
  • Territory is defended aggressively, with ‘ritualized charging and wing-flapping’ at intruders
  • Sex lives: they are monogamous; or polyandrous (a male and more than one female. Tsk.)
  • They use ‘courtship feeding’ – males will catch and shell a snail and then feed it to a female
  • They are also known as the ‘Crying Bird’ for their bizarre shrieking call, as used in films (below)

Range maparam_guar_AllAm_map

Olivia Patterson of Friends of the Environment kindly sent me this video that she posted on their FB page a while back with the comment: “Do you know what a limpkin sounds like? There are a pair of them which live around the FRIENDS office. Check out this video to hear them calling out for each other. See if you can spot the limpkin! (hint… look at the pine tree on the left). Limpkins typically live near wetlands and eat snails”.

Limpkins call mainly at dusk in the night, or at dawn. The frankly somewhat tedious and repetitive cry has been phonetically rendered as “kwEEEeeer orklAAAar“, if that helps you to remember it! The racket has even achieved fame in films: it has been used for jungle sound effects in Tarzan films; and more recently for the HIPPOGRIFF in the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Favourite food – the apple snail220px-Limpkin-snail2

** I’m not ashamed to use my more pathetic photos when context permits…

Credits: Header, Tony Hepburn; 5 rubbish photos from a moving truck, RH; Gilpin Point, Troy Maillis; 3 other images wiki (uncredited); range map, Cornell; video, Olivia Patterson / FOTE; general long-billed rootling around for info, with a nod to wiki.

A good wing-shake

“TEACH YOUR CHILDREN WELL”: WHERE CONSERVATION BEGINS


Young conservationist on Abaco, Bahamas

“TEACH YOUR CHILDREN WELL”: WHERE CONSERVATION BEGINS

“Catch ’em young”. The perfect plan with children. On Abaco, wonderful work is continually being done with young children on the mainland and on each cay to teach them how precious their environment is, how fragile, and how important it is to take good care of it. The huge enthusiasm of the youngsters casts a beam of light onto the rather dark global picture of habitat destruction, pollution and ecological neglect that we have become depressingly accustomed too.

Young conservationists on Abaco

Education and training is carried out in schools; field work is done involving children of all ages; and camps are organised. FRIENDS OF THE ENVIRONMENT carries out this invaluable and rewarding task on an almost daily basis, offering students an astounding range of environment-based activities. Even the very youngest are catered for: the “Sea Beans Club”  is an after-school club for ages 3-5, which introduces young minds to their environment through educational activities and outdoor play.

Students and researchers from CWFNJ survey the beach to make sure that their activities will not disturb any plovers feeding in the areaYoung conservationists on Abaco

Students and volunteers selectively remove small invasive Casuarinas, which were encroaching on plover roosting habitat. By removing the invasive plants, native plants will be able to flourish and help stabilize the beach.Young conservationists on Abaco

The BAHAMAS NATIONAL TRUST, too, plays its part in educating children about the fascinating yet frail world around them. For example, Scott Johnson’s snake protection work, in which he demonstrates to small kids that Bahamas snakes are completely harmless and to be respected not feared, is a wonder to behold.

BNT’s Scott Johnson visits a school with his non-scary snakesScott Johnson - BNT - Bahamas Snakes - Children's Education

In addition there are strong partnerships with organisations many miles away from the Bahamas, of which the CONSERVE WILDLIFE FOUNDATION OF NJ is the prime example. Todd Pover, Stephanie Egger and the team take their remit beyond their well-known piping plover conservation work by engaging with the pupils of Abaco’s schools each year and inspiring them.

Amy Roberts Primary School CWFNJYoung conservationists on AbacoYoung conservationists on AbacoYoung conservationists on Abaco

Much of the work is done in the field, getting the children interested in birds, the shoreline, the vital ecological role of mangroves, and the problems of marine debris. Other important work can be done in the classroom.

Young conservationists on Abaco Young conservationists on Abaco(A quick shout-out to Tom Reed, who I know took the piping plover photo!)

The clear message being sent out to the schoolchildren on Abaco is this: you are never too young to learn how to appreciate, respect and look after your environment. And they are responding with intelligence and enthusiasm. We are lucky that these kids are the future.

IMG_7390

Stephanie Egger of CWFNJ writes: “This year, we’ve reached over 120 students through the Shorebird Sister School Network Program, both from the Bahamas and in the United States. We hope to foster a greater appreciation for wildlife, especially for the Piping Plover and its habitat, and inspire students to help now — and later on in their lives as adults — ensuring the recovery and survival of the bird for years to come”.

VOLUNTARY MUSICAL DIGRESSION

“Teach your Children” is the second track of Déja Vu, the 1970 CSNY album. Nash wrote it much earlier, when still with the Hollies, then stored it in his musical lumber room. Just as well: it fits perfectly with the rather fey hippy vibe of the rest of Déja Vu.

Young conservationist on Abaco

Credits: huge thanks for general use permission for material to FotE, BNT and CWFNJ; and to all the individual photographers concerned