Monday, 20 December 2010

Christmas bird Count -- Mayhem birding

Having returned from point counting birds in the tropics, the annual Christmas Bird Count is comparatively quite fun for all its quirky opposites to the speciose, song-rich, in-tune-with-nature sport of spring or summer. I did mine inland of Port Rowan, Southern Ontario, hiking around in silent, snowy weather, in lame pursuit of the very few winter species and lost aberrants who tough it out in the dark, cold, frozen landscape. What better way to celebrate the holy Winter Solstice, than to defy life-in-hibernation, and work hard to get what you want from Nature: stomping through icy wetlands, crashing through brush, scaring up what we could, and invading people's bird feeders to stack the count – mayhem that counts as a count, opposed to the disciplined, randomized, systematicitized, protocolized summer studies.

37 species in all, a count that was well earned for 8 hours in the cold. 103 species in total for the Port Rowan area. Christmas just took on a whole new wholesome meaning for me!

      ;_7'... _>                          
     j;-.   .::==.                        
   _yD':=._ . ;=%3XSows,,,.               
 .aY^    <=:- :<o3SdSXmmmmmww,>__.        
_7'      )=. .-vvIIv1vvYnouvX##Z##mmgywwau,
"         (... ."*nvv2inXXnvnoqmm#Q#W#U1s%>*
          +=,     -<XunXnnwwmW#T?"`.+++"  
           +;..__s, -~""""""~    ._--     
            -<QQQQQmwa,,  .     _-        
                    -4,     :W'           
                      4g    ][            
               .      =B   _2             
            .    -... =E . j'._.          
                   -::<f..:Y%*+`         .
                   .. )[....--            

Monday, 30 August 2010

Development practitioner -- a bridge between worlds

This spring and summer, I’ve had a coveted placement through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to practice sustainable development in a little known archipelago in the Southern Antilles. Known to the wider public as the tropical backdrop in Pirates of the Caribbean, the small island nation of St. Vincent & the Grenadines has lured many foreigners to its shores, from international organizations, wealthy Hollywood types, to coastal resource
developers. The fascination may be due to islands’ remoteness along the Southern Antilles chain, leaving it relatively unscathed by the environmental despoliation so common in the more colonial North. Here, foreigners come and fall in love with a glimpse of beaches, reefs, and mountains of a Caribbean that once was.

The attention has not always been beneficial, however, and it is in this context of suspicion, grudges, and hope which has shaped my placement and provided the most insights into sustainable development. The worst examples of foreign development blight the seascape in ruin, such as a foreign company’s failed marina project near Ashton, on  Union Island, where I lived. Despite a damning environmental impact assessment, the company slashed through Mangrove, dredged up coral, and constructed a long causeway of steel pilings and concrete, only to go bankrupt and leave the lagoon in devastation. The abandoned causeway has blocked tidal flushing of the lagoon, killing off most coral and conch, leaving stinky stagnant water, and stunting the growth of the nearby mangrove forest.

Enter myself: a youthful ornithologist from the Coady International Institute on a six month placement. I’ve been charged with setting up an ecosystem monitoring regime for the lagoon, as a restoration project attempts to reestablish the tidal flushing (funded by a US
grant through the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act). In this, I’ve had perhaps the paradise job: wading in hipboats through mangrove forests, recording sightings of rare exotic birds, taking water quality samples along emerald blue coastlines, and writing bird
identification software to train local persons. What could be better than working for the common good, learning a new culture, and living on an Island paradise? Such is the allure of young persons all across Canada enrolling into the Development field.

If it seems too good to be true, it is. This development model of parachuting in a foreign person to solve other peoples’ problems has long been suspect. Despite good intentions, money, and the willingness to work hard, nothing lasting will happen without local persons firmly in the driver’s seat. This came to lightly lividly as one of my CIDA-funded colleagues had to be pulled back from a Grenadine Marine Protected Area, arguably fighting the good fight for principles of environmental sustainability and community control, but doing so with too much initiative and not enough local oversight. My predecessor was brought to tears as a local organization lambasted her organization for being too controlling and arbitrary with funding. In contrast, a third organization charged us with being too lax about finances, ceding too much control to a local strongman, who then spirited away the funding. Such is the knife edge of participatory development: on the one hand, people are sensitive to the faintest whiff of paternalistic control by foreigners, and on the other hand, there is sadly an all-too-real risk of “take the money and run” in the majority world.

These lessons come late, but I may have stumbled into a way forward while struggling with a macroalgae mariculture cooperative, who had its own negative history with development NGOs. Initially frustrated with lost data and things not getting done, the slow pace allowed me time to absorb Island culture and build relationships with community groups. This culminated in a “baptism by fire” airing of grievances which paved the way for frank discussions and genuine friendships. Relationships are everything on Union Island, both as a way “in” to get things moving, and as the glue which governs people’s sense of responsibility. We’ve since won funding through the United Nations Development Programme’s Global Environmental Facility, to start capacity building and environmental monitoring.

Through the Coady International Institute Youth-In-Partnership Program, I’ve come to see international development as being about building bridges—linking the highly technical and micro-managed world of donor organizations with the realities of working on-the-ground in places abroad. Young persons interested in pursuing a life in development need to be able to listen, be likeable, and be able to straddle two worlds fluently.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Genome not as useless as previously thought (was there any doubt?)

I had written earlier that only 4% of the human genome actually codes for proteins, relegating the rest to “junk DNA”. This is only partly true, at least according to a new study in Nature by Dr. Laura Poliseno et al, which suggests that approximately 40% plays a physical, regulatory role.

While many biologists tentatively accepted the 96%-junk-DNA figure, persuaded that the vast amount of parasitism at the organismal level could be mirrored at the DNA level, the concept has been quite unsettling. Poliseno’s hypothesis returns some sanity to our most fundamental unit of self.

According to Poliseno and team, plenty of the junkish pseudo-genes resemble other protein-coding genes, just enough that they attract and bind to floating bits of complimentary micro-RNA. The soup of complimentary DNA snippets would otherwise bind to the gene proper, and hinder the normal protein-producing machinery, thereby down-regulating the proper gene’s expression. He tested this idea using the PTEN tumour suppressor gene and its pseudogene PTENP1.

While knocking down one tenet, it does promote another—that gene expression is a complex, graded process, with nuances and interactions with the environment, that make any sort of one-to-one mapping of genome-to-phenotype, incredibly difficult.

However, this study does not entirely vindicate the genome as some well-ordered, perfectly designed recipe. 40% still leaves a lot of unexplained DNA. One of the more interesting bits are the LINE-1’s (which I wrote about in You are descended from Viruses) making up 20% of our genome, and seem to come from retroviruses, being good for nothing else but replicating and reinserting themselves in our genome.

Or are they? Dr. Gage noticed that LINE1s were more active in the brain tissue of developing mice than in other parts. He admits that they do not code for anything and really are just a random self-replicating nuisance. But could natural selection have taken advantage of such randomness as a beneficial process unto itself? Gage (GAYJuh) points out that developing brains a) have much more active LINE1s then other tissue, and b) they are over-resourced, with an initially superfluous number of neurons and connections which mostly deteriorate with age, leaving the core synapses for the more mature brain. Gage suggests that this deterioration is a sort of “survival of the fittest” of cells whose genes have been scrambled up by hyper-active LINE1s. Mostly, the random insertions of LINE1s will lead to neutral rearrangements, but sometimes they’ll disrupt another gene, and perhaps they may have a beneficial effect, and these he suggests are ones which survive to maturity.

Such a process occurs entirely in somatic cells, and is not passed on through gametes to the next generation. Rather, it is a sort of micro-natural selection that promotes an optimized network within a developing individual. Its an intriguing suggestion, and harkens suspiciously to the idea that complex networks themselves beget consciousness—an idea which is being explored more in computer science and problem solving, as in artificial neural networks.

Whether this study hypothesis bares out in the long run, it does suggest more scrutiny should be paid to the role of viruses in evolution and development. They are, after all, the most distilled essence of life possible.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Connections across the planet, off a different sort

It is not long after you’ve been birdwatching that your mind starts to expand to far off continents, high-elevation weather systems, and genomic machinations. What contrivance of weather, bad luck, and instinctual migratory clockwork colluded to drop so many new visitors to the salt ponds and mangroves of Union Island? Today, we were startled to the mangroves crowded with the a flock of juvenile Forktailed Flycatchers (Tyrannus savanna). Gone were most of the frisky Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) and breeding Spotted Sandpipers (Actitis macularius) which cluttered the Ashton saltponds just days ago. Even some of the more reclusive locals, like the Smooth-Billed Ani, the Green Heron, and the Mangrove Cuckoo, also made especially impressive turnouts at the suburban ecosystem.

Such delightful variation standout in contrast to the neat and clean distribution maps printed in birding books. The Lesser Yellowlegs, for example, spends late June and July breeding in the tundra of Canada and Alaska. However, one can easily go to, and produce a map of sightings over the entire Western Hemisphere during July. Rather than being confined to the Arctic, sightings of Yellowlegs speckle the Caribbean and North America in the thousands. Mostly, they are the (welcomed) losers: a lost lover, a predated nest, a freak arctic storm, there are so many ways that individuals fail to breed and instead gang up in early southbound flocks to entertain birders.

What started out as a great day turned far, far worse. I went to the office today to discover we'd been evicted! Such are the realities of working in a place where politics and bureaucracy are too intertwined. Stand out, and you will be quashed down.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Endemic species: a rare encounter on Union Island

The Union Island Environmental Attackers Bird Watching crew had a rare find today while hiking along the eco-trail above Chattam Bay, on the Western uninhabited portion of the Island. The humid forest with its craggy boulders is the only known location of a tiny, blue-spotted gecko, Gonatodes daudini, which is endemic to Union Island. The Attackers were lucky enough to spot the rare creature hidden in a narrow, crevice along the trail. They join the ranks of only a few dozen humans to have ever seen daudini.

Little is known about the tiny gecko, which was just described in 2005 after a discovery by Mark De Silva. With hard work, proper planning, and good luck, Union Island may be able to protect the one-of-kind gecko, and its unique forest-- a veritable Gem in the Grenadines. While the lizard and forest may not be a major attraction themselves, the key would be to link the disparate attractions together as a markable eco-tourism package: from bird-watching in Ashton Lagoon Mangrove, Salt from the Belmont Pond, turtle patrols in Bloody Bay, and forest ecology and endemic species along the once-maintained eco-trail. Union Island has plenty to offer visitors.

The Sustainable Grenadine Inc’s recently approved Ashton Lagoon Restoration Project will facilitate a tourism steering committee to orchestrate such a linked-up package, while another proposal is in the works for the National Trust.

Myself having seen the Island’s endemic species, can rest a bit more satisfied, having been involved with most of the islands more valuable natural systems. I’ve only a couple months left here, and too much work to do. I hope that others can carry the torch when I leave.

(Photo by Union Island Environmental Attacker, Stanton Gomes)

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Entropy and biodiversity: contradictory tendencies?

A reading of Vlatko Vedral’s Decoding Reality, a treatise on the physical nature of information and it’s roll in just about everything, gives a novel spin on an old question in evolution: is there a natural tendency for life to increase in complexity and biodiversity? There have been arguments for and against this idea.

Some science heavy-weights, like the late Stephen Gould, suggested an opposite trend. He viewed the fantastical array of morphology and extinct taxa in the Cambrian-period (some 530 mya) as revealed by Burgess Shale fossils, as evidence that diversity has in fact decreased. It seemed that most modern phyla appeared early on in Earth's history, and we've since lost many of the most bizarre taxa. (The Fossils were so weird looking that early discovers gave new taxa names such as Hallucigenia. Researcher Simon Conway Morris is said to have opened a box of fossils to exclaim, “oh fuck, not another new phylum!”) The suggestion was that the greatest variety of life existed early on, and has since gone through a winnowing process.

Hallucigenia sparsa, an extinct animal from the Cambrian Period

However, more recent assessments of the Burgess Shales, and literal rearrangements of body parts, suggests that the past wasn't so weird, and many of the Cambrian freaks are actually related to modern extant phyla. Furthermore, most quantifications on the complexity of life, such as the number of fossil species plotted over time, show an unambiguous upward trend (despite ~6 mass-extinction events).
Philosophers have also weighed in on the question of Life’s increasing complexity, and done so from some fairly basic principles, such as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or Entropy, the tendency for a closed system to go from organized to disorganized. For example, hot and cold want to equalize, great artworks weather and fade, litter scatters in the wind, and my desktop gets more cluttered.

Life seems pretty miraculous when compared to this Fundamental law. It seems that most creatures are hell bent on moving matter around into orderly patterns. Arguably, a basic definition for Life may be the maintenance and control of orderly gradients over membranes, which otherwise want to equalize and lose their dynamism. Your very neurons are in fact just changes in concentration gradients of K+, Cl-, and Ca2+: the brain demands a lot of energy to do so, consuming 25% of a human's glucose.

Vedral offers an interesting take on this seeming contradiction between the Universal law of Dissorderliness, and Life’s tendency to increase in complexity. He does it by linking Entropy with Information, the key that both have the same basic equation, thanks to Claude Shannon's work at the Bell Labs during the 1940’s. The information content of a phenomenon is the log of how probable the event is. This is both physical and intuitive. Consider the News: a report on an Icelandic Volcano eruption downing all European air-traffic is more news-worthy (and informative) than a report on a regular traffic congestion. One has a much lower probability of occurring than the other, and therefore its occurrence is informative.

Information, therefore, is inversely related to the probability of something happening, and has the same functional form as Entropy, the tendency for low-probability states to decay into more probably states (e.g., a clean room goes from organized to disorganized--the reverse being highly unlikely to happen on its own).
The information analogy finds obvious utility in genetics. Considering the phenotypic output of our genes--you’d guess that the genome is a highly ordered thing-- and thereby existing in a highly improbable, low entropy state. How the heck could something so ordered and useful come about naturally, when disorganization is the rule of the universe?

Enter entropy, manifesting as random mutations. Our cellular machinery employs considerable energy checking and repairing such mutations. Cancer is one consequence of the failure to do so. But at the same time, these mutations are key to natural selection: every so often, a beneficial mutation occurs and increases the heritable variation within a gene pool, thereby giving natural selection something to “select” upon. Entropy breeds variation! Think of it another way: it would be a highly improbable, extremely low-entropy affair if our cellular machines could replicate themselves perfectly and produce vast populations of identical individuals ad infinitum. Such a state of affairs is just begging for a lesson in thermodynamics.

(The “beneficial” variation also comes with an immense amount of “junk” variation too. Previously, it was thought that only 4% of a human’s genome actually does anything useful. This number has been recently bumped up to 44%-- nonetheless, that is still a lot of “junk” within the our precious Codebook for Life)

“Endless forms most beautiful” as Darwin wrote, and that’s what we have to look forward because of the degenerative tendency of the universe.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Mangrove Adventures

For the last week I’ve had the rare opportunity to explore a really unique, and endangered ecosystem in the Grenadines. I’ve been sloshing my way through the Ashton Mangrove, weary of sinkholes, cutlass in hand, spooked by thousands of crabs, and of course, an ear out for rare birds.

To my delight, I flushed out a proper tropical denizen yesterday, the Fork-Tailed Flycatcher, a rare migrant from South America.

I’ve been establishing survey points for the Caribbean Waterbird Census and the Ashton Lagoon Restoration project, while working on Union Island with Sustainable Grenadines Inc. Exciting things are happening on the ground, but it follows a dismal example of corrupt and negligent development: a foreign company hacked and dredged its way through a formerly-vibrant lagoon and the last intact mangrove forest in the Southern Antilles, for a large-marina project. The company went bankrupt and abandoned the construction, but not without leaving the marina causeway behind, which has cut off water circulation to the lagoon, killing the it off of coral, seagrass and its associated conch, fish and other marine life. A peripheral road along the mangrove forest has also cut it off the from tidal flushing on all sides, leaving it to be filled up by the sediment-laden landbased runoff.

Hopefully, the restoration project can return proper circulation and water quality to the lagoon, but the mangrove is surely going to change from a marine system to a dry scrub, if it isn’t deforested and grazed before then.

I’m here to start the ecological monitoring of the restoration effects, and train community members to takeover once I leave. But despite high unemployment, few local people are interested to participate in ecosystem monitoring. One problem is that the vast majority of the Islanders are afraid of water! Swimming, wading through tidal channels, or sloshing through pools: a local’s idea of folly. I’m having the time of my life exploring these unique coral and mangrove systems, now the challenge is to find that same interest among the Islanders.

Photo by Cristóbal Alvarado Minic, distributed freely on the Neo Birds Flickr group

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Generation Brat

Away from the Grenadines for the moment, and back to Canada, at least in text, as Michael Enright of the CBC Sunday Edition issues a long awaited public apology to my generation on behalf of the baby boomers:  “for handing over to you a world you never made, but one in which your forebearers, my generation, have pretty much made a spectacular balls-up of just about everything.”

Young persons like myself have a difficult time quite understanding the frivilous despoilation of earth and economy wrought by the baby-boomers. They were unique: riding an unprecedented confluence of riches, where most modern amenities and infrastructure were already built, wages were high, and the world’s resources still seemed unlimited. What else were the care-free 60’s and rebellious 70’s but the collective brathood of a generation that had it all and could flaunt it contemptuously (my generation never had so much fun). It also spawned a generation of Reaganites obsessed getting their money out of the system that their parents had given them: their parents paid their taxes and built a seemingly unassailable country, and they subsequently took the surplus for themselves in the form of tax cuts, rather than pass on a rainy day fund to future generations.

For example, consider sewer systems (of which I do a lot recently, living on a tiny Grenadine Island in the Lesser Antilles, who never had an infrastructure boom). Where I live now could never (NEVER!) amass the capital to install a grade A sewer which doesn’t pass raw sewage directly into the sea. In fact, new cities in Canada, like Victoria, haven't been able to amass the capital to install a sewer system which doesn’t pass raw sewage directly into the sea. Most North American cities’ sewers which we take for granted were actually built at the turn of the century (1900’s), with about a 100’s life-expectancy. Consider bridge building too: their life expectancy similarly expires in the next decade.

If the baby-boomers were a confluence of riches, my generation sails the perfect storm of crumbling infrastructure, a bankrupt economy, sparse oil reserves, and environmental apocalypse. These are very real issues happening right now, unlike the entertaining suite of invented calamities that dazzled the baby-boomers, like Nuclear Armageddon and the Red Tide, neither of which seriously threatened the globe.

How to respond? I’m reminded of a “Chinese curse” and a “Chinese proverb”. The curse: May you live in interesting times (check). The proverb: a crisis is also an opportunity. If my generation could manage to regain some of our stolen wealth, and stave off the shadow of elderly entitlements like cushy healthcare and tax cuts, which may yet bankrupt us (more), we might just be able to seize this opportunity.

I have a feeling that the story may be far more grime for the Grenadines and the rest of the developing world...

Friday, 11 June 2010

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Sustainable Grenadines Inc

An indigenous organization, run by Canadian Interns.

While I write this, the 2 core staff members of my organization, SusGren (short for Sustainable Grenadines) are off in different parts of the world, attending conferences and other such things on international development and the marine environment. This left only one, mostly street-based, local YES (Youth Employment Intern), plus three Canadians, to run the show. Rather than operations grinding to a halt, I realized that the minds of the Staff members had been off in other places for a long time, and things continue must as they have before. SusGren, like most NGO’s, I presume, is perennially obsessed with, and short of, funding. With the Project Manager and the Program Officer concentrating on securing funding, I'm left in the enviable position of getting to the marrow of the organization's ground-work. In their Workplan, SusGren even admits as much, calling itself “an indigenous organization…mostly run by Canadian Interns.”

I’ve arrived at a precarious time -  SusGren is undergoing a shaky transition from its piecemeal project-wise focus of Phase II, to a mysterious Phase III, where it becomes a sustainable NGO. SusGren began in 2002 with a two year planning-phase via the Center for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES) at the University of the West Indies in Barbadoes, the Grenada and St. Vincent governments, and local NGOs. Phase II kicked off with financial support from governments and the German Lighthouse Foundation, and began implementing the actual projects, such as developing a macroalgae mariculture cooperative, organizing fisherfolk cooperatives, a Green School Project, organizing a Marine Protected Area (MPA) on a Grenada Island, Carriacou, and getting World Heritage Site designation for the Grenadine Islands.

So concludes Phase II, right about now, and so too does SusGren’s funding dry up shortly. It has been registered as an NGO, as per Phase III, but without the funding. While the staff try to find big money for mega-projects, such as a restoring a lagoon that was destroyed by a bankrupt marina venture, the legacy projects have fallen mostly to the Canadians, such as maintaining support for the mariculture activities and organizing fisherfolk.

“Work”, and what it means, has been a tricky notion -  it’s a far cry from the familiar operational rigour of scientific studies, or the time-is-money blue-collar work ethic, and is set in the novel context of office culture and community-based projects. Everything is flexible, and needs to be, because a lot of what I do involves accommodating, hounding and waiting for other people to act, ruminate, and make decisions. Sometimes this means a 9-5 paper pushing job, other times it means attending community meetings afterhours or on weekends. It is also means that Communications are tantamount, and has become the organizing principle of the office -  Work can sometimes mean not seeing anyone else in the office for whole days, while a flurry of emails and skyping get things done.  (One of my tasks, if there is time, will be to implement a web-based, collaborative Project Management System).

It’s a round about way of trying to save the marine environment, but that is the reality of achieving SusGren’s dual mission of community-empowerment and fostering sustainable livelihoods.

Welcome to Union Island - a Grenadine Primer

The popular “pre-history” narrative of the Grenadines goes as follows -  the peaceful agrarian Arawaks were displaced by the more warlike Caribs, followed within 100 years by contact with Europeans, which literally changed everything -  little remains of the Caribs or their island flora and marine life. Modern Grenadine Nationhood and its cultural/ethnic heritage are really rooted in the convoluted European endeavors starting around 1500 CE.  The era kicked of with Spain serially despoiling the Greater Antilles islands looking for gold, enslaving the Arawaks, and literally working them to extinction. Nominal rulers of the Grenadines, Spain in reality cared little for the Caribbean or its many failed ports, having discovered literally mountains of bullion in South America, and later in the Manila-Mexico trade route, and involved itself in the Caribbean inasmuch as necessary to bolster safe passage of its Gold-laden galleons from the American Mainland to Europe. Left to fend themselves, Islands constantly changed over in treastises and conflicts from Carib, Dutch, French, English, and pirate/privateer rule.

The Grenadines were too arid for colonial farmers to exploit the lucrative sugar and cotton crops markets that so enriched colonial empires. Takeovers were mostly symbolic, or strategic only as raiding headquarters against other larger islands, such as Trinadad & Topago. “Union Island” supposedly gets its name from a brief period of solidarity of between Arawaks and Caribs natives against European conquerors.

Slaves from West Africa (e.g., Ghana, Cameroon) were the first permanent foreigner to occupy the islands, uniting with the Caribs, but ultimately swamping them in numbers as French/British rulers did eventually find suitable crops for the islands, namely Bananas and spices. A Treaty of Versailles finally gave Britain official control of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 1783, followed by Abolition fifty years later, and independence in 1979.

The colonial and slave history is important, revealing its legacy in such disparate community qualities as people’s ethnic mixture, to the country’s strong attachment to the Greater Commonwealth economy. Unlike St. Vincent and the Grenadines as a whole, Union Island itself is no longer a food-export economy, since the EU barred the importation of its fish due to its low fisheries standards. Tourism from North American and European countries is becoming the island’s main economic activity, especially since the recently established Topago Cays Marine Park, a marine gem in an otherwise overfished wasteland. There are no other major industries.

People still retain close ties to the English world. The vast majority of Islanders have either studied, worked, or lived with family in the UK, USA and Canada. Some repatriation of foreign-earned income is no doubt beneficial, but there is also a perceived threat to the local culture and a “brain-drain.” Medical professionals are routinely “pouched” to American hospitals. Early-adults are noticeably absent from the island, either living abroad or on St. Vincent, due to both a general dispiritedness with the Islands economic future, and the lack of college-level education facilities on Union. This is also driving a strong Americanizing influence on the local people. For example, most people consume large amounts of American media, preferring CNN to St. Vincent news networks. Some people are concerned about such internationalization and perceived loss of culture, the strongest expression has had to have been a youth skit at a community culture show, featuring a proper English speaker Grenadinian girl, just back from a trip to the UK, being verbally harassed for a few minutes by young boys for not speaking the island dialect, with the happy conclusion that the girl realizes that everyone must do all they can to protect their culture.

The slave legacy is also important in more subtle ways, according to popular narrative, fostering such cultural norms as the brokenness of families, and the dominant role and greater respect for women in Grenadine society. In the first case, the popular narrative says that slave transfers between farms disrupted paternal involvement with their children, and, to this day, the norm has been that women have children with many different men, and men have many girlfriends and mistresses. Women have had to take a more predominant role in domestic, community and economic affairs, so the narrative continues, being both caregiver, income-earner and stable community members, while men seek work in distant and lucrative affairs.

Today, a Canadian visitor may notice a certain segregation between men and women -  men exclusively populate the local drinking establishments throughout the day, while women “lime” on the beach with children; men and women seen together casually are assumed to be sexually involved; even in the workplace, men and women do not casually chit-chat, unless undertaken in a playful, flirtatious way.

The picture I’ve painted of Union Island may seem a tad denigrating, from a North American perspective. Certainly, there are some woeful circumstances -  fish resources continue to decline; valuable corals are mostly bleached and getting worse; diesel electricity-generation and petroleum are affordable only because of Venezuelan handouts; municipal plumbing is non-existent; and the island has suffered near-criminal failures of “development projects” such as the bankrupt and massively-destructive Ashton Lagoon Marina.

But this is not the whole story by far. My next entry, on Union Island’s assets, reveals much too be celebrated and enjoyed. There is an enthusiasm for tackling issues and an entrepreneurial spirit. People are very friendly and well connected with each other. There is an easy, relaxed atmosphere that is very humane and attractive. Together, this makes for a very rich culture and lifestyle that one can’t help but admire.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Many Species of Homo: Update from the Neanderthals

Recently, new scientific research has contradicted my earlier statements: that while we likely interbred with Neanderthals, very few of their genes were passed on (highlighting the difference between ancestry and gene lineage). However, Svante Pääbo’s team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, suggest that perhaps 4% of some peoples’ genes are from Neanderthals. Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalis did interbreed. The conclusions come from comparing uncontaminated Neanderthal DNA to living humans, and chimpazees. Surprisingly, Neanderthals and non-African humans share some distinct markers, not found in either chimps or Africans, suggesting interbreeding. The researchers also stress that these where only “genetic markers”, DNA regions supposed not to have any function. If they do not have any function, then Natural Selection can’t work upon them. So, we don’t know if the DNA contributes in any way meaningfully to non-African humans. Any negative traits that Neanderthals may have passed on in their hybrid children, would presumably have been selected against and become extirpated from the gene pool long ago.

(See an amazing interactive website of the neanderthal genome at the Science)

It is amazing to think of two species of humans, first separated over 300 000 years ago, and coming in such (literally) intimate contact again. How many other humans were there? The recent DNA extracted from a 30 – 50 thousand year old finger in a Siberian cave is neither human nor Neanderthal, but something else from its contemporaries. There is also the supposed Homo floresiensis “Hobbit”, indicating that maybe as little as 13,000 years ago, the prehistorical landscape was abloom with many different species of humans. How, I wonder, and what did they think of each other? Did they have such separate lifestyles and separate ecological niches, enabling them to co-habitat the same geographic area, like Pygmy’s and other Africans? Did they raid, trade and communicate with each other? Perhaps. But the Neanderthals quick demise upon the advent of modern H. sapiens upon the North suggests competitive exclusion, and maybe perhaps even violent confrontation.

I can’t help but think what this study means for the perennially touchy issue of “race” among H. sapiens. Probably it means nothing. Regardless of the minor, and apparently non-functional genetic variation introduced by H. neaderthalis, H. sapiens are still remarkably homogeneous in our genes. Most genes came from a few, closely spaced “out-of-Africa” outbursts, starting 70,000 years ago.

Instead of bolstering racist arguments, this study rather helps to lay to rest an even more controversial theory, the Multiregional Hypothesis, which tried to explain how some minor features, like the mandibular cavity, seems to show a continuity from earlier hominids in Europe and Asia to their respective modern humans, by hypothesizing H. sapiens evolved indigenously and in parallel from earlier Hominids who’d already populated Eurasia many millions of years ago. This study by Pääbo gives us a way to reconcile the Multiregional evidence with the Out-of-Africa evidence, that these features common to certain modern “races” and earlier hominids are a result of interbreeding, not separate speciation, and that our genes mostly come through one species from Africa.
I hope they will look for other functionally relevant markers, though racially sensitive, one can easily imagine what a Northern-adapted Neanderthal could offer the northward expanding African humans. But then again, the Neanderthals clearly didn’t have such a great advantage.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Mothers Day Tale: Saving a seaturtle

This blog is inspired by a very special mother’s day tale. I was helping with a Seaturtle patrol on a Grenadine Island, witnessing my first ever leatherback: a massive creature relatively unchanged since the Cretaceous, among the dinosaurs. The poor creature was ensnarled in a fisher net, cutting into its own flesh as it struggled to bury its eggs. After a grueling half-hour of sawing, cutting and imploring her to stay, we managed to free her. What a great mother’s day, to let one mother live and give life another day.

It got me thinking about Reptiles. The very word is troubling to taxonomists, unlike the monophyletic mammals, it is not so neat and tidy. The Chelonia, the turtle/terrapin/tortoise clad, split off of from the Diapsids (the group containing all other lizards, dinosaurs, birds and crocodiles) some 200 million years ago, contained within the Sauropsids, the class generally thought of as reptiles.

The problem is that genetics and morphology show that Birds, once thought of as a grand class on equal rank as mammals, reptiles, etc., is nestled within the Reptile clad. In fact, a goose is more closely related to a crocodile than a turtle, i.e., they share a more recent common ancestor to crocodiles than they do with Turtles. They also share a more recent ancestor with geckos, monitor lizards, caymens, and most of other “reptiles” than the very reptilean-looking Turtles.

The confusion is that the Sauropsids are a very fragmented and persecuted group. Had it not been for the asteroid that whipped clean the dinosaurs, and could have had before us a continuous gradient of morphologies from a crocodile to a cormorant: big and small, scaled and feathered, beaked and toothed, all the extinct intermediates would be obvious to such a lucky taxonomist, who would easily classify all these things --all lizards and birds and dinosaurs -- as being related without batting an eye. Our laymen language would do away with a “reptile” word altogether, instead having something unique for the birds/lizards/dinosaurs (Diapsids) and the turtles (Chelonia).

Perhaps this uniqueness of the sea turtles is their alien allure. Staring into the snapping, jagged maw of the wounded mother, was like staring into an ancient earth.

A mother's day gift: saving a leatherback

Midnight, Mother’s Day 2010: At the beach, we killed our lights upon emerging from the dark forest, knowing how skittish seaturtles are to flashes of light on potential nesting sights. After a few moments adjusting to the darkness, the white foam of the surf, and the coral-grain sand become relatively bright beacons on the dark, midnight island. Then we see it: 6 feet voluminous dome, in dark contrast to the sand. Thought we can’t see its details, the size and smell mean only one thing: a nesting leatherback burying her eggs.

We’re on Union Island, a small Grenadine Island in the Caribbean, on a turtle patrol to monitor the population and protect against poachers. We approach the ancient turtle from the rear and turn on redlight, to which they’re insensitive. I crack a smile as I see the back flippers strain dexterously in an ancient ritual to move sand about the nest.

But all is not as it should be. The scales buckle and purse to the tug of a thin, taut thread. The turtle is covered in a net. Its face and front flippers are a horrifying sight, as the fishing net has found its complex peace ensnarling its entire front, cutting into pinkish flesh and carapace. What can the sad creature do, but try to live on, try to satisfy its unrelenting urge to live and pass on new life. It surely would not have lived much longer.

We moved quickly. She had finished and was trying to leave, digging massive flippers into the sand and throwing us off as it drove its tonnage towards the sea. We cut and sawed at the convoluted knots, and begged the creature to stand still. It frothed and groaned to the molestation. I tried to lure it back to the beach with the mesmerizing red light.

In time we see it free, and with new-found mobility she made a quick dash to the breakers and was gone. I thought "what a perfect way to celebrate mother’s day", by letting one ancient mum live and to give life another day.

It was also an appropriate introduction to seaturtles. This is the sad norm for most of them: dangled, choking, and drowning in the littered, despoiled seas we have wrought. They’re numbers are on the brink of extinction, an accomplishment that 110 millions years of dangerous and variable Earth’s could not trump. I hope they outlive us.

Monday, 3 May 2010

You are descended from Viruses, not Apes

The blog title is a cheeky play on a chapter in the Matt Ridley book, Genome, which compares the fact that our genome has more genes of useless viral origin than genes which actually code for something useful: only 4% of the human genome actually do something (99% of which is the same as our closest relatives, the chimpazees), while a whopping 21% is composed of self-propagating remnants from retrograde viruses (e.g., LINEs, see Griffiths Introduction to genetic analysis 2009). We’ve been hijacked. Does this make you feel incredulous, or give you a sense of awe? No doubt it does, so long as you adhere to the illusion that you are some cohesive whole, and that “your” genes exist solely for your benefit. A view more in line with the facts, however, is that the “I” is just the accidental ambassador for a troublesome nation of genes.

I like this fact as a way to set the context for two paradigm-smashing themes in evolution and genetics, namely, a) our genome is a demonstrably flawed “set of instructions” (if viewed through the lens of a “Designer”), and b) We, or rather, “I”, the seemingly unified human individual, is merely a vehicle for the selfish propagation of many genes, among them with great schisms and outright war, competing to do what they exist only to do: getting themselves duplicated.

Consider the most common protein gene in the human genome, Reverse Transcriptase gene, which has no useful application for us or our cellular machinery, but is employed by retroviruses such as HIV. Reverse Transcriptase takes RNA (say, from a virus), transcribes it into DNA, wherein other enzymes can inserts it into our genome. Why do we have a gene that does nothing else but potentially insert viral RNA into our genome? Other genes have done away altogether with their viral middleman, such as Retro-Transposons, and do nothing but replicate themselves with Reverse Transcriptase.

(See a video on Reverse Transcriptase and HIV)

These facts, and others, such as 96% of the human genome being “junk DNA”, challenge all attempts to “make common sense” of the genome. Forget all the info/media analogies you’ve heard about the genome, such as it being like a blueprint, a recipe, an instruction manual, or a program for proteins. The genome is absurdly far from being a coherently “authored” document. For example, an analogous “Instructions Manual For How to Build a Protein”, would make Pulitzer Prize-winners of the most hopefully convoluted IKEA Instruction Manuals in comparison:

“At least [Instruction Manuals] do not insert… five copies of the Schiller’s Ode to Joy, or a gargled version of a set of instructions for how to saddle a horse. Nor do they generally include five copies of a complete set of instructions for how to build a machine that would copy out just that set of instructions. Nor do they break the actual instructions you seek into twenty-seven different paragraphs interspersed with long pages of irrelevant junk, so that even finding the right set of instructions is a massive task. Yet, that is a description of the human Retinoblastoma gene, and as far as we know, it is typical of human genes: 27 brief paragraphs of sense, interrupted by 26 long pages of something else”(Matt Ridley, in Genome).

This is because our genome is a document which wrote itself, rather being Authored, Designed, or Created. And (to extend the absurd analogy) rather than the whole document having its own interest at heart, individual paragraphs are clamouring and competing for selfish verbosity.

Some genes increase themselves in the greater gene-pool by genuinely improving their hosts’ chances of staying alive and reproducing, such as genes which code for language or blood-clotting. Other’s do it by hijacking our DNA-replication machinery.

The point is that the focus of evolution is not at the species-level, nor even at the individual-level, but at the level of the gene. Just like it is wrong to say that natural selection promotes traits which benefit the species (consider 2-tonne male Elephant Seals pulverizing young pups – even their own – in their frantic race to rape females), so too does natural selection sometimes promote genes which are bad for the individuals who harbour them (but are good at getting the gene’s replicated more, so all the better).

How to think of this gene-level view of evolution and natural selection? One way is to build family trees for each individual gene. As an organism, you have a unique family tree which branches backwards in time with 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grand-parents, 16 great great-grand-parents, and so on, all of which, more or less, contributed a corresponding proportion of their genome to you. However, each individual gene has a different story: each copy came from only 1 parent, 1 grand-parent, 1-great-grand-parent, and so on ad infinitum. This difference between genetic lineage and ancestry is key to understanding evolution. For example, we may have genes whose origins do not show up at all in the parental ancestry, such as from viruses. Likewise, we may have ancestors who contribute next to nothing of our genome, but nonetheless mated with one of our great-, great-, great- … grand-mothers. For example, African Homo sapiens likely interbred with European Neanderthals passing on hybrid-children, but the children with proportionally more H. sapiens genes were favoured by natural selection, until the exo-species genes were culled away. (This is one way to reconcile the seemingly contradictory evidence for an “Out-of-Africa” hypothesis that all homo sapiens are descended from Africa, and the Multi-Regional hypothesis, that Homo sapiens evolved from different Homo erectus variants already in different parts of the globe. Nearly all of our genes have a family-tree that traces them back to the march of H. sapiens spreading out of Africa. But, some people have features which seem to come from Neanderthals, such as the mysterious bridged-form of the mandibular nerve canal, present in 6% of Europeans today, but no where else. Very little else of the neanderthals’ genes survived.)

In future blogs, I’ll discuss how this flawed genome with its various competing genes can explain many mysteries of the human experience.

See Genome by Matt Ridley.

6 months in the Grenadines

I’m living in the Grenadines at the moment. A very brief intro to the Grenadines: mostly harmless.


This is the first time in about 7 years that I’m spending my summer in doors, which is challenging both psychologically and to my gut, but in a way, kind of welcome, given that the dry Grenadines are a scorching 30 degrees all the time, and it only gets worse. This is quite the contrast to the last 3 summers, which have included a very different repertoire of environments and activities, such as photographing polar bears, prancing across snow drifts, and falling through ice. At least the sea is modestly cool here, and I spend most of my outdoor snorkeling on real coral reefs, in various states of bleaching and overfished, but nonetheless exciting to a northerner, in the same way that a German tourist might gawk at a cedar in Stanley Park.


I work at the Sustainable Grenadines Inc, on a CIDA-backed Internship through the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University, mostly assisting local groups to organize, get funding and carry out their activities. My favourite group is a band of mostly school teachers you've made a quasi-successful macro-algae mariculture cultivation, processing and sales cooperative! I’m also hoping to start a bird monitoring project. I seem to be busy all the time, which is great.


More on the culture and history of the Grenadines later. This blog is now my travelblog, while more serious ideas are to be taken over in

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Grenadines 2010

St. Vincent and the Grenadines for 6 months while doing an internship with a CIDA backed environmental NGO: Sustainable Grenadines.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Winter 2009-2010 Unemployed

Ecology Department Lund

Some shots of Ontario in the Winter, plus Copenhagen at the Climate Summit 2009

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

California 2009

California trips, from Yellowstone, Albany Bulb, Great Basin, Tomales Point, and Berkeley!

Monday, 26 April 2010

Prince Leopold Island 2009

A second field season on Prince Leopold Island, 2009, a remote seabird colony in Nunavut.

Evolution of our Preoccupation with Race

Having grown up in a fairly homogeneous “white” area, just hours away from the extraordinarily multicultural Toronto, the idea of race has been on my mind for a long time. More recently, I am once again a “minority race”, living now in the Grenadines, and I find myself thinking of it more.

And not just me, humans are absolutely obsessed with race and racism. But why? The magnitude and cruelty of our preoccupation with race is not at all proportional to the actual genetic differences between people, as Richard Dawkins writes in the Ancestor’s Tale “there is less difference between any two humans living anywhere in the world than there is between two African Chimpanzees.” Homo sapiens went through a population bottleneck perhaps 70 000 years ago, with perhaps only 15 000 individuals founding the entire species. Far from having different subspecies, this means we are remarkably homogeneous, leaving little ground for arguments about differences in aptitudes and attitudes in the genome.

Furthermore, the genetic differences which do exist, sometimes don’t actually fall along our “common sense” ideas of race. For example, comparing 650 000 genetic markers in nearly 20 000 individuals, researchers at Standford, led by Marcus Feldman, shows that the oldest and deepest divides are actually among Africans, with the rest of H. Sapiens rather mixed. According to this lineage, if someone were to make a case based on ancestry for different “classes” of humans, there would be several African “races”, and the rest of us an afterthought.

These and other studies are hammering away at the “common sense” notions of race. A more fruitful endeavour for the natural sciences, instead of looking to bolster racist ideologies, is to shed light on why we are so preoccupied with minor differences among humans. A recent study led by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, at the Central Institute of Mental Health, Germany, used children afflicted with a genetic disorder called Williams syndrome to test a hypothesis that racial stereotyping has a genetic component, linked to social fear. The Williams syndrome children, vs. a control group of non-Williams syndrome children, were given tests of racial attitudes, such as being shown pictures of two boys, one dark-skinned and one lighter, then asked which one they thought had might be the naughty culprit who drew crayon pictures all over this walls. The control group gave negative qualities to dark-skinned individuals 83% of the time, while the Williams children did so only 64% of the time. The study suggests that racial stereotyping and a genetically-linked fear of strangers have a causal relationship.

This puts racism in the broader domain of anthropology and evolution. Consider the evolutionary benefit of an innate fear of strangers--not the friendly law-abiding strangers on Young Street, but the capital S variety of Strangers, among Pleistocene hunter/gatherer groups. According to anthropologists, such as Jared Diamond’s study on Papua New Guinea tribes, and similarly Wade Davis’s study of pre-Contact peoples in the Amazon (see One River), hunter/gatherer people live in a state of constant fear and war with Strangers: a neverending cycle of preemptory raids and retaliatory raids. Our closest living relatives, the Chimpazees, behave similarly: stealthily seeking out lone males from neighbouring troops, and bludgeoning them to death.
There is a macabre Evolutionary Stable Strategy to such paranoia. A simple mental experiment shows how: imagine a world of non-paranoid hunter-gatherers who resolve territorial disputes peacefully. The system is vulnerable to a single behavioural mutation, of “cheaters” who always kill their naïve conspecifics. Soon, the peaceful alleles decline in frequency, and the paranoid allele becomes the norm. The reverse is not true: a behavioural mutation in the opposite direction is quickly snuffed out in a world of social fear. Social fear, and hence a propensity to racism, is selected naturally.

But what if so-called Strangers in neighbouring tribes are our relatives? Perhaps the caveat to the perpetual state of fear among hunter/gatherers is the ability to discriminate among a vast spectrum of relatedness in the facial features of Others, opposed to fear of just anyone. It is my conjecture, that the benefits of a Pleistocene “relatedness-radar” led to our ability to recognize and discern nuances in thousands of different faces. And that this ability is overwhelmed when taken out of the context of Pleistocene tribes and we are presented with someone from different continents: perhaps the ur-Stranger.

In another blog, I’ll think of some testable hypotheses for this idea. In the meantime, I hope that an evolutionary perspective, coupled with genetics, will help to challenge “common sense” ideas about evils such as racism.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Oregon Cascades - Spring 09

Avian Point Counts in an experimental forest in the Western Cascades, Oregon.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Eaarth day and the speedy Anthropocene

Today is the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day! I’ll be celebrating two ways: 1) A coastal clean-up on a small Grenadine Island in the Lesser Antilles, where I live for the moment, and 2) launching Colugos – this blog, about news from an evolutionary perspective.

To start it off, I’m inspired by a new book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben. No, its not a typo: This new Earth he calls “Eaarth” because our old familiar planet is gone. The power of naming is important. It focuses attention on the sort of organismal whole of the entire planetary system: it’s the same physical planet, 3rd from the Sun, but all the interactions of soil, atmosphere and oceans are rearranged into something new, and something that cannot “return to normal” or “heal itself” back to what we’ve enjoyed for 2.5 million years. Rather, it achieves its own nightmarish stability, one that may, for example, favour its own ecosystems such as sulfur-belching bacteria rather than a well-oxygenated ocean (See Dr. Peter Ward’s Under A Green Sky for a Scientist’s perspective).
This is all a big “may”, of course (But the uncertainty is no grounds for inaction).

But what are we really saying goodbye too? Taking a longer term perspective, the earth we know and, indeed, love, is actually quite young. Our troublesome civilization sprang into existence only during the last interglacial of 10,000 years. Our species has only been around for 150 – 200 thousand years, all of which has been during the last 2.6 million years of glaciations that started during the Pleistocene. Before that, you might be surprised to learn that a variety of Planetary Systems / Geological Epochs have existed. Only 15 million to 20 million years ago, back in the balmier Miocene, did grasslands and all their associated herbivores, such as the magnificent Buffalo, Wildebeests, Caribou and Antelopes, come into prominence as one of the planet’s great biomes. How to even imagine such a planet without grasslands?

Despite Bill McKibben’s popular writing, the idea of a wholly new “manmade” earth is not new, and the idea was even given a name in 2000, the Anthropocene, by the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen., in a newsletter of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme No. 41. The idea is that just like our modern scientists who can unearth obvious discontinuities in rock chemistry, ice-cores, tree-rings, fossil records, and ocean levels, that indicate geological regime changes (e.g., Pliocene to Pleistocene), so too will future geologists (homo sp. or otherwise) see a sharp boundary at the beginning of the industrial revolution: goodbye >50% of all species; hello jellyfish, crows, mercury, ash, etc.

The Anthropocene is just getting started. Every generation of living humans has been passing off a radically different Earth to succeeding generations. It is the “shifting baseline” phenomena: I come to think of the highly degraded ecosystem as natural, normal, and beautiful. I wonder what my great-great-great-grandfather would have thought to look up onto our skies, only to find it empty of the sun-darkening, horizon-to-horizon, multi-day flock of billions of passenger pigeons? Writing in the geological records, human “civilization” will look as dramatic as an asteroid impact, so says Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz, interviewed recently on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks.

Listen to the full interview of Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks
See Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben
See Under a Green Sky by Dr. Peter Ward

Monday, 18 January 2010

Climate Change sceptics peddle dangerous analogy

CNN just recently fired its entire science department. Not surprising, and part of a disturbing trend of myopic and distored converage of science issues. This was the topic of a panel discussion on the CBC's beloved Sunday Edition with Michael Enwright, talking about why journalists are failing the public on Climate Change. The discussion stood my hair on end after hearing a dangerous analogy proposed by Globe and Mail columist Margarat Wente. She says that media coverage on Climate Change is becoming more religious, with either side embedded in ideology. Since when did advocating that we act according to evidence become ideological? Isn't policy based on evidence and reality just... well... reasonable?

Her "religion" analogy is dangerous and underscores the failure of journalists' handling of Climate Change: that the best course  of action is some reconsilitation between two extremes. This "middlepath" is a phoney solution that insidiously suggests comfortable images of Catholics happily living beside Protestants. Perhaps greenies can have their electric cars and wind-turbines, while oil men keep their tarsands, right? Wrong, there is no compromise with reality. There is only one atmosphere, one planet, and one climate trajectory that will we eventually follow. The most credible evidence suggests that its a very grim trajectory, and any prudent response means deep GHG cuts. Would someone please tell me what relgion or ideology this view represents?

Perhaps it should be called "climate-realism", and I will keep screaming it from the hilltops. Please excuse me if I have that panic-striken, wild-eyed look of religious furvor while I do so, because so far, no political leader is doing what the evidence says we should be doing.