Finally got around to uploading a copy of a book chapter I wrote recently — you can find it here. It is a mixture of a synthesis of recent literature and my own musings on how to resurrect extinct interactions in island ecosystems with taxon substitutes. Main take-home message: Islands are wonderful laboratories that offer excellent scenarios to rapidly advance the restoration science of rewilding with taxon substitutes. Oh, and it features some wonderful artwork by the inimitable Carl Buell, too.
In a new paper in PNAS by Arthur White and colleagues from Australia, they describe a newly discovered, magnificent creature from the island nation of Vanuatu in the Southwest Pacific.
Imagine walking through the steamy lowland jungles of the island of Efate in Vanuatu. Sweat pours down your back and pretty much everywhere else on your body as you force your way through the thick growth. Finally exiting the forest onto some partly shrub-covered hills, imagine coming head-to-head with several lumbering creatures almost two metres in length: huge domed shells, each with a head in one end, a long tail at the other end. At first glance they are not unlike a giant tortoise as you can go and see them in Galapagos or on Aldabra. At second glance, however, you see that their heads are huge and sport several large horns. With your third glance that has by now turned into quite a stare, you realise they have long tails that end in horned spikes. Not just your ordinary giant tortoise, then (not that there are any ordinary giant tortoises, I should hasten to bias-fully add!).
Sadly, imagination and a few bony remains will have to do, because the latter is all the first human settlers of Vanuatu left behind in their middens some 3000 years ago. What we do know is that these creatures were likely members of the genus Meiolania a now-extinct genus of horned tortoises (or horned turtles, for terrestrial-Eucryptodire-nomenclaturally-challenged Americans) from the Austral-Pacific region. Tentatively assigned to genus level, the scientists have named this animal Meiolania damelipi.
As coincidence will, the meiolaniid horned tortoises/turtles of Vanuatu feature in a small part of an upcoming book chapter, where I review and discuss the merits of rewilding degraded island ecosystems with taxon substitutions to replace extinct native species. Moreover, in a further coincidence, I have been fortunate enough to convince the paleo-guru Carl Buell to help me with an illustration of what this critter may have looked like (pardon the copyright-thingy, but the book isn’t out yet!):
It has been a few years since I was lucky enough to work there with Yoko, Alfredo & Jens – but this superb video by Pedro Filipe took me straight back to some of the magic places we worked, particularly the sub-alpine volcanic landscapes around El Teide. There is even a clip of an endemic lizard eating fruits! Alfredo, your islands are magical! Imagine if Pedro Filipe had had a time machine, though. He’d have captured giant rats, giant tortoises and giant lizards, plus several other extinct species as well. Sigh.
Another one from my inbox, below. My best (?) guess is that one of our papers on seed dispersal for obvious reasons includes information on fruit pulp, and that this was picked up by some automated robot. By the way, because I am evil, I ignored the first email they sent me. Naughty.
Dear Professor Hansen,
I am writing to inquire whether you have received my previous email inviting you to submit an article to the Special Issue on “Vital Pulp Therapy/Pulp Regeneration,” which will be published in the “International Journal of Dentistry”.
“Professor”. Giggle. But yes, I should send them a few of the gut-passed quandong seeds I just picked up in Australia. Maybe they can regenerate the pulp on those?
Those were the words in the subject header of a recent email in my inbox. Apparently, someone got something mixed up along the way, as the email continued:
Dear Dr. Hansen,
WHO has declared H1N1 pandemic on June 11, 2009. You are probably working against the clock to create effective vaccines and discover the infection mechanisms. You do not have to fight against the pandemic alone; GenScript is at your side to help accelerate your projects.
I guess this is one of the side effects of having the Department of Biology as part of the Stanford School of Medicine. Surely, EVERYONE here must be working on that thing, right? Now forgive me, I have to go and test my latest vaccine on someone. No time to waste. Schnell, schnell.
I just started writing a book. There, I said it. So now I guess I better get on with it. Actually, it has been on the move for 10 years since its first, drunken inception, but I digress. Who am I trying to kid, right? It’s going to be an awareness-raising book on lost & disappearing mutualistic plant-animal interactions – specifically pollination and seed dispersal – and why we should give a flying hoot about this loss. The book will consist of popular scientific case stories from all over the world. I am fully aware that my writing skills leave much to be desired. Thus, I have teamed up with a rather brilliant Australian wildlife artist – Robin Wingrave – whose amazing illustrations will take up more or less half the space, and hopefully detract from the inadequacy of my ramblings. After close to a year’s worth of chatting, phoning, and skyping with Rob (and apparently quite often sounding like giggling teenagers in love, according to Rob’s wife Sharyn), we recently finally managed to meet face-to-face, in the Atherton Tablelands, Queensland, Australia. It was an absolute blast! – Fellow nerds, friends & such – I give you the Team: Robin Wingrave and Yours Truly. More to follow.
Today is a happy day for Mauro & me – our short Perspective on the relativity of the megafauna concept is out in Science! Plus, even better, we convinced the well-known and fantastic paleo-artist, Carl Buell, to do the illustrations! I think they are fantastic; especially (no bias whatsoever) his rendition of the extinct saddle-backed Mauritian giant tortoise, Cylindraspis triserrata.
And here are the two happy nerds – two weeks ago; now Mauro has left us and is back in his native Brazil, to be the King of the Castle in his brand-new lab.
Last Thursday and Friday I participated in the defaunation symposium, hosted by Rodolfo and Mauro, with Camila as the benign wizard making everything run smoothly. A thousand times thanks to this dynamic trio for the immense work they put into making this happen! (why is Mauro looking so weird…? -watch this space!).
It was a great meeting, where I got to harp on about one of my favourite topics; rewilding, or REfaunation. On the last day, as a surprise, Rodolfo revealed that the symposium had been held in honour of John Terborgh – and called up John to present him with a truly nerdy plant-animal present: a painting of an interaction that only few people have ever seen – the spider monkey Ateles belzebuth and the fruit Batocarpus amazonicus.
My dear – if somewhat Australian and thus slightly weird – friend and artist collaborator, Robin Wingrave, had spent the last two months before the symposium frantically researching about these two species, to present John with as correct a rendition of it as possible. I think the final result is fantastic, and really speaks for itself.
No, I didn’t mis-spell; that’s the name of Gael – the “moderate tropical storm”-currently having a blast a wee bit to the north-east of Mauritius, and passing us close during night. Quite fitting name, though. Fingers crossed for my guava-and-tarpaulin hut whare. Kiwi-built, and upgraded over the last 10 years by Brits, Germans & a Dane. “Na worries, mate!”. Off to bake cyclone cake & drink cyclone rum. Camp rules.
I am so happy to know that even the take-away container from our local cafe here on Campus does not contain any GMO. You know, it’s like, you know, like, totally, like awesome and stuff. But the food inside is freshly made, and of pretty high quality. Sure hell beats the old sour re-heated stuff one would encounter at the UZH mensa from time to time. GMO or not.