Friday, April 29, 2011

Happy Arbor Day!

It's good to be back in the four corners once again. The mountains are still sleepy with snow on their shoulders, and it snowed on my first day of work! On the day we arrived, it was very windy and "Arizona came to visit", which is how the locals describe the dust storm that accompanies the strong southwest winds.

This season, there are only 4 members on the vegetation crew, but we have a new ecologist to help direct the program. Our immediate goals are focused on surveying for rare plants, especially in areas where the public may visit. We hiked the Petroglyph Trail to view some Wild Parsley and Cliff Palace Milkvetch. A short trail to an overlook of Cliff Palace may also be created, and we will consult the trail crew on how to route the overloook trail to prevent Cliff Palace Milkvetch and Townsend Daisies from being lost.

Especially exciting was our hike down to Square Tower Ruin. It is an iconic ruin, but previously only visible from an overlook. This year, archeologists are considering opening up a trail for the public to tour it this summer. There are many rare plants along the trail, including an endemic variety of stickseed (Aletis MacDougalli) and Schmoll's Milkvetch. Our goal is to monitor those populations, since it is inevitable some will become trampled.

Visiting Square Tower ruin from below was a real treat, since it is still so much intact without restoration. A kiva with its roof still intact and some plaster on the walls can be seen. Rock art and sherds are still present, and some of the rooms are painted. The enigmatic Crow's Nest ruin can also be seen much better from below, perched above the tower. I found a Packrat's nest underneath a boulder who had smuggled out an ancient corn cob. Ironically, it's a raven that nests in an alcove above Crow's Nest.

So this first week has been a great start to the season, and it looks like I'll learn a LOT more plants this year -- the good ones, not the bad ones.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Lionfish: the other white meat!

Just 10 years ago, researchers noted the presence of about 10 lionfish scattered across the east coast of the United States. There was concern that the lionfish would become invasive, and within a few years, hundreds were being seen along the coast of the Carolinas and northern Florida. While I was living in the Florida Keys in 2007-2008, there was alarm the lionfish was coming, but I never saw them in my dives around Big Pine and Key West.

This past March, my Dad invited me along on a diving trip to Little Cayman Island, and I saw first hand the power of of the sigmoid curve of unchecked population growth. We saw several lionfish on every dive, so clearly the population is thriving. The good news is that lionfish are a beautiful addition to the reef: it is their exotic and striking looks that made them a hit with the aquarium trade, which likely resulted in the contamination of the east coast by dumping unwanted adult fish.

The bad news: they are voracious predators, especially of juvenile fish. They will clearly have economic impacts to the grouper and snapper fisheries, and ecological impacts could be more devastating if they can exploit coral reefs in preferential ways. The immediate problem is that there are no predators that view them as a food source, except people brave enough to avoid their poisonous spines and fry em up.

Researchers have been looking into training reef sharks in the Atlantic to prey on lionfish, since sharks are their natural predators in the Pacific. This is proving difficult, apparently because sharks make crappy students. The dive team at Little Cayman Beach Resort have found some willing students: the friendly, and sometimes lovable, Nassau Grouper. Some of the grouper are excited to see scuba divers enter the water. They swim over to greet the divers and follow them around like a puppy dog. Some are so friendly, they have been given names, such as Benji and MiniMe. When the dive masters encounter a lion fish, they point it out to the grouper, which then chomps it down in one bite! Hopefully, the grouper will learn that lionfish are prey and help balance out the current unchecked population growth.

One problem with this scenario is the Nassau Grouper is often overfished. For the past 7 years in the Caymans, the Nassau has been under limited protection on Little Cayman due to devastating overfishing, but those protections are set to expire. Please sign this petition to inform the Cayman Island government that protecting the Nassau Grouper from over-exploitation is in the best interest of everyone: including the fisherman... and ultimately even the lionfish. If anything exploits a resource to the point of an ecosystem crash, everyone loses.

We had a great time in the Caymans, and saw many wonderful sights. We saw so many hawksbill sea turtles, we became acclimatized to swimming along an endangered species. Coral reefs are just a riot of strange colors and shapes, but with some practice we began seeing more and more each dive. The island itself had its own set of rare animals, such as island tree snails, lion-tail lizards, and rare rock iguanas. I was also lucky enough to add two birds to my lifelist: the largest colony of Red Footed Boobies in the Caribbean and a Bananaquit in need of voice lessons. On unrelated news: I'm returning to Mesa Verde National Park for another season!