Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Thursday, September 11, 2008


Like most newspapers, the Wall Street Journal has a point of view, in their case, a market-obsessed one--still, their journalism is mostly rigorous and well-informed. When they cover the conservation beat, though, it's best to beat it to the next page. Their editors love economic growth like some of us love nature, and when those two interests collide, as they inevitably do, their standards often deteriorate. Science fiction fans consistently turn to the WSJ for the latest fabrications of “scholars” like Dennis Avery, who specialize in the Armageddon that will be brought upon us all by the efforts of conservationists.

Thanks to Steve Bodio for drawing my attention to the latest of these articles, one whose theme is a sci-fi classic: Yaroslav Trofimov's When Good Lizards Go Bad theorizes that Komodo National Park's 25 year Management Master Plan, like radioactive detritus, has changed the behavior of the Park's most famous residents, turning them into maneaters. Matt Mullenix took time out from hurricane preparation to comment, and LabRat took the bait as well. Now it's my turn (mwahaha).

Since the article was written without the benefit of much background knowledge, let's try to fill in some gaps. Komodo Dragons, or Oras (Varanus komodoensis) are, of course, the largest modern monitor lizards (family Varanidae). Males can exceed 10 feet in length and 200 pounds in weight.Like all monitors but a couple, Oras are carnivores. Opportunistic generalists, they eat carrion, small prey like rodents and snakes, and kill mammals as large as Timor Deer (Cervus timorensis floriensis), Timor Pigs (Sus scrofa vittatus) and Water Buffalo (Bubalis bubalis). All three of these large herbivores were introduced by humans: the pigs probably long ago, the other two in the 19th century, the buffalo by Floresians and the Deer by the Sultan of Bima, from the island of Sumbawa. The preeminent Komodo Dragon scholar Walter Auffenberg surmised that the species originally evolved to feed on the dwarf elephants Stegodon sondaari and S. florensis that inhabited the region until a few thousand years ago, and transferred their techniques to the large newcomers. As far as I know, reports of Oras preying on the wild horses (Equus caballus) that the Sultan of Bima introduced to Rinca have yet to be confirmed.
Over 50 strains of virulent bacteria have been found in Ora saliva, including a very deadly strain of Pastuerella multocida. After being bitten, large prey often succumbs to septicemia or blood loss within a few days and can be tracked down by "scent" [update--Since posting this, researchers from the University of Melbourne published a paper describing venom glands in the lower jaw of the Ora that produce complex toxic proteins capable of inducing hypothermia, paralysis, haemophilia and loss of consciousness]. Oras are capable of stuffing themselves with as much as 50% of their own weight. Such a meal can sustain them for over a month. Usually everything but the hair and bones are digested, ultimately leaving nothing but a dry fecal pellet. Their distribution is as tiny as their mass is great; they're restricted to a section of Indonesia's Lesser Sunda Islands known as Nusa Tenggara, more specifically, to western Flores and four smaller islands to the west, Komodo, Rinca (formerly spelled “Rintja”), Nusa Kode, and Gili Motang (or “Gili Mota”). The lizard I'm befriending in the top photo is a tame one at the Bali Reptile Park. It, like practically all captive Oras, is descended from a few lizards captured on Flores in the 1980s. These lizards are distinct from those of other islands, where they lack the bluish tones. It seems like genetic transmission across the narrow strait between Flores and Rinca has been minimal, presumably due to the treacherous currents there. In the late 1980s, the population on Padar vanished after a wildfire scorched most of the island, and it's likely that the surviving Oras, unable to find prey, swam to nearby Rinca. Since the fire, Timor Deer have recolonized the island, and park officials are considering translocating Oras back to Padar, a notion I object to, since the lizards are arboreal for the first two years of their lives. Since there are not yet many large trees on the island, any experimental introductees would likely eat their offspring faster than they could produce them.

The island of Flores is well populated with humans, although Labuan Bajo is the only town on the western end of any size. The Oras on this island have been persecuted as livestock-killers for centuries, and they persist only in a few rugged areas. In what numbers is anybody's guess, but it's likely that between 1,000 and 2,000 individuals survive on the island. At the moment, probably around 1,200 call Komodo home, while 1,000 are shared between Rinca and Nusa Kode. Fewer than 100 live on the single arid cone of Gili Motang. Oras can live as long as 50 years, and they become sexually mature at 4-5 years of age. Beginning in June, males, who outnumber females by more than 3:1, become more active, attempting to domineer and intimidate other males, while seeking, courting and eventually copulating with females. The courtship season lasts through August, and eggs are usually laid a couple of weeks after fertilization. More often than not, the female selects an orange-footed Scrubfowl (Megapodius reinwardt) mound as a nesting site. Like other members of their family, these birds construct huge piles of sand mixed with leaf litter where their buried eggs are incubated by the compost. The female Ora guards her 12-30 eggs for four months, until they hatch. From that time on, they're on their own. Oras were first protected by law in 1915 by the Sultan of Bima, just three years after Peter Ouwens described the species to European science. In 1928 the Colonial Dutch Government declared the island of Komodo a wilderness reserve, adding Padar and southern Rinca 10 years later. In 1980, the Indonesian government established Komodo National Park, which comprises Komodo, Padar, Rinca, Gili Motang, and all of the tiny adjacent islets. The park is mostly uninhabited by humans; only four villages occur within its boundaries. Today, Komodo Village (Kampung Komodo) is by far the largest of these, with over 1,600 inhabitants. Small human settlements have come and gone over the centuries, but Komodo Village is the biggest the island has known. It was established early in the 20th century by the Sultan of Bima as a penal colony. Bugis fisherman from Sulawesi, drawn to the region's rich fisheries, also settled here (the Bugis have a long tradition of seamanship; in past centuries, the region's most feared pirates were of this ethnicity, and European sailors returned with terrifying stories of them, giving rise to the term “boogie-man”).More recently, ethnic Manggarai from Flores have joined the population, which has exploded from a mere 30 citizens in the 1920s. Culturally, Komodo Village is still closer to Bima than anywhere else. It is situated across the bay from Loh Liang, the Park's main ranger station and visitor's center. On the island of Rinca, two villages, Rinca (settled near the turn of the 20th century) and Kerora (settled in 1955), are each less than half the size of Komodo. A small eponymous village on the island of Papagaran completes the list of human habitation, save a handful of research and ranger stations with part-time populations. Each village boasts an elementary school, but college-preparatory studies are out of reach. The communities are dependent on fishing, which supplies 97% of village income. Squid, shrimp and milkfish (Chanos chanos) are the most important quarry, but mantis shrimp, sea cucumber, abalone, and various groupers, tuna, sharks and billfish have historically been sought after. Most farming is subsistence-level only, although some produce is sold in markets, along with some wild products like Tamarind (Tamarindus indica), a dominant tree on the islands. A growing number of Komodo Village artisans make their living selling woodcarvings and other crafts to tourists at Loh Liang.In 1995, officials of Komodo National Park, the Nature Conservancy, the Indonesian Government and local municipalities began hammering out a 25-year management plan for the Park. This plan, designed to cope with expanding human populations, both permanent and transient (especially tourists) while maintaining a viable Ora population and a healthy Marine environment, began implementation in 2001. I consider it a thoughtful and practical attempt at a rather Sisyphean task. A pdf of the entire plan is available here. Today, the Oras are in no imminent danger. Their populations are currently declining, but not to a worrying degree. Deer, pigs and other dragon food abounds on Komodo and Rinca, but an unchecked human explosion will doom the dragons. More urgent is the situation beneath the ocean's surface. This part of Nusa Tenggara is especially rich. Its vast coral reefs contain crucial spawning grounds for Napoleon Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) and other fish of great economic importance to the region. The Management Plan bans a number of destructive and effective fishing methods, including explosives and poisons, reef gleaning, long lines, gill nets and demersal (bottom) traps, effectively restricting fishermen to using hook and line and traditional light nets. It also imposes catch limits and denies access to grouper and Napoleon Wrasse spawning grounds. A long list of fish species is proscribed, as are all marine invertebrates except squid. Some rather Draconian measures have been taken on land. All immigration has been disallowed; not even marriage confers a right to residency in the Park. Dogs and cats have been banned, as have most other domestic animals save goats and chickens, and restrictions have been put on use of fresh water. The gathering of firewood is no longer allowed and the laws prohibiting hunting of deer, pigs and buffalo are being strictly enforced. It's the fishing restrictions, though, that have impacted the already struggling villagers the hardest, and they've caused considerable anger. There have been shootouts between rangers and fishermen, resulting in several deaths. Balancing the needs of the burgeoning villagers and those of the finite ecosystem is difficult, and the fact that it's being imposed from outside causes real resentments. This is the story's true lead, but it's one that requires a nuanced hand. Mr. Trofimov opted instead for a more dramatic tale of predation on humans. For powerful predators adapted to kill large prey, it's surprising how rare Ora attacks on humans are. The earliest documented fatality was a 1931 attempted predation on a 14-year-old boy, whose adult companions frightened the lizard off, but couldn't prevent his death of blood loss. Some years later, an adult deer hunter who fell ill was left behind by his companions. They returned to find his lifeless remains partially eaten by Oras. A similar case in 1974 was the 78-year old Swiss Baron Rudolf von Rading, who, after climbing ¾ of the way to a summit, decided against completing the hike, urging his friends to to go on without him. They returned to the appointed meeting place to find nothing but his camera and spectacles. The marker above commemorates this spot (with camera and glasses placed for effect). Another death took place a year ago last June, when a 9-year-old boy named Mansur had the rudest possible interruption of a backwoods bathroom break. As in the 1931 case, the Ora was chased off by adults, but the boy died quickly of blood loss. Park officials attempted, but were unable to track the animal down, despite the contrary WSJ account. This was the fourth confirmed death (all occurred on Komodo Island) from an Ora, although there have been many non-lethal bites and unsubstantiated stories (many from Flores), a good portion of which are probably true. The fact is that Komodo Dragons are, and always have been a danger to people where the two coexist, but only a modest one. Their behavior towards humans has not changed; as always, an attack is unlikely but unpredictable.Mr. Trofimov's article makes much of a supposed ancient and mystical Komodo Village rite where Oras are fed to keep them from attacking. No such custom exists. It is true that legend considers humans and Oras relatives (actually more like cousins than reincarnations of ancestors), but the ritual described in the article most likely refers to on-site gutting of poached deer, for the Management Plan prohibits no other type of dragon feeding. The goat sacrifices that Trofimov mentions were staged for tourists in exchange for cash at the site in the photos above. The top pic shows the observation platform. Behind it is the famous commode, for which the island was named (okay, that's a fabrication of my own). The lower photo shows the view from the platform. The concrete ring was a pool built to attract Oras. A goat was staked in the clearing behind this pool for the benefit of park visitors. These sacrifices were discontinued in the '90s as a result of changing attitudes and the basic understanding that teaching Oras to associate humans with feeding is a pretty lame idea. The dilemma of Komodo village is a microcosm of what we all face. A century and a half ago, Alfred Russell Wallace traveled this region and marveled at the simplicity of island ecology. In that simplicity, he could see how organisms change and adapt, just as Darwin did in the Galápagos. In the same way it seems painfully obvious to us how limited the good citizens of Kampung Komodo are by the resources of their little island.
upper photo taken by Steve Derham at Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. All other photos taken by CPBvK at or near Komodo Nat'l Park, Indonesia

Monday, September 01, 2008


Which came first, the chicken or the egg? It's a famous conundrum, but a bogus one; the mutation that created the genus Gallus induced a chicken to hatch from an egg laid by a bird not quite of that taxon. Of course, it was the egg that came first.An understanding of eggs is prerequisite to a true comprehension of the birds they deliver. Much of our modern knowledge of bird eggs, and the diverse nests that harbor them, is based on the work of egg-collectors (oologists) from a century or more ago. At the height of its popularity, commercial and otherwise irresponsible egg collecting tarnished oology's image, but its scientific value persists and cannot be underestimated. A staggering database survives in the form of well-tended egg collections, including those of the British Museum, the Smithsonian and others. Less well-known is the biggest collection of them all, that of the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, founded in 1956 by Ed Harrison, with over 190,000 sets and a million individual eggs, as well as 18,000 nests and 54,000 study skins.Harvard University Press has just produced a beautiful new book celebrating this collection. Egg & Nest is first and foremost a picture book, featuring spectacular photographs by the gifted Rosamond Purcell, whose collaborations with Stephen Jay Gould and her own books, including Dice, Bookworm and Owls Head, are well-known. Over 175 color photographs of the WFVZ collection are featured, each one an aesthetic and zoological pleasure. Many of the images simply glorify the obvious beauty of their subjects: the deep glossy greens of tinamou (family Tinamidae) eggs, the marbled copper patina of Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) eggs, the dainty hieroglyphics gracing Icterid (family Icteridae) eggs, and the 2-dimensional calcium carbonate filligree shrouding the eggs of the Guira Cuckoo (Guira guira). Others aim to inform us: desiccated maggots still clinging to the collapsed hull of a Brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) egg, a victim of organochlorine pesticides; a series of deformed chicken (Gallus domesticus) eggs, some resembling pallid gourds, one of them double-shelled—a window bored into the outer shell reveals its hidden twin. Some of the plates thrill us with their rarity: eggs and study skins of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers (Campephilus principalis), Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius), and Carolina Parakeets (Conuropsis carolinensis) stand beside centuries-old Elephant Bird (Aepyornis sp.) eggs and a mounted Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupida cupida). Others charm us with their novelty, like a number of wren (family Troglodytidae) and hummingbird (family Trochilidae) nests built in and upon chunks of human hardware. Each plate is captioned with collection data, and, in most cases, with background on the subject's natural history.

The plate section is contained within bookends: the first one containing a general introduction by biologist Bernd Heinrich and an introduction to the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology written by Linnea S. Hall, its executive director, and René Corado, its collections manager. This section includes a history of the collection and its founder, and of the practice of oology. The final bookend was penned by the photographer, and includes poetic reflections on her experience photographing the collection. Throughout, the text is well-written, with the layperson in mind, but containing enough good information to satisfy the expert.

Hardcover 232 pages ISBN-13: 978-0674031722 Available October 15.