Wednesday, February 11, 2015

10 Species Named After Star Wars Characters

Pictures courtesy of Lucasfilm
and J. Armbruster
    Leaving the movie theater in 1977, with Greedo's death at the hands of Han Solo a fresh memory, a young Jon Armbruster could not have anticipated the role that Jabba the Hutt's go-to bounty hunter would play in his scientific contributions decades later.

    And yet...when he (along with Auburn University researchers Milton Tan, Christopher Hamilton, and Dave Werneke) looked upon the un-described suckermouth catfish they had collected in South America, was there any choice but to honor the hapless bug-eyed Star Wars character it so closely resembled? Meet Peckoltia greedoi (on right).

    The description of this catfish, a part of a much larger effort to characterize and identify all species of catfish, has received a fair amount of attention in the media. And, this got me thinking: it is unlikely that this group of ichthyologists represented the only taxonomists who also happened to be Star Wars fans, were they the first to name a species after a Star Wars character? It turns out the answer is no!

   Bonus points for Samuel Turvey, who, upon describing a fossil trilobite came up with not only a new species: solo but also a new genus, you guessed it: Han. That's right, there is a trilobite with a scientific name of Han solo. Apparently a few friends had dared him to name a species after a Star Wars character. Well played Samuel Turvey.

The lair of a Trapdoor Spider. Pic M. Hedin.
   I did not actually have to look too far to find another example of a Star Wars inspired species. Jason Bond (director of the Auburn University Museum of Natural History and therefore my supervisor), in describing 33 species of Trapdoor Spiders (Aptostichus), named one of them Aptostichus sarlacc. The Sarlacc Trapdoor Spider lives in California (only two specimens are known). On the other hand, the Sarlacc Monster, you may remember, is the subterranean beast that devoured Boba Fett in Return of the Jedi (presumably for thousands of years). I have to admit the tunnels of Trapdoor Spiders are quite reminiscent of the sandy burrows you may find on Tattooine.

    Within the gills of a burrowing crab (Albunea groeningi, itself named after the creator of The Simpsons) lives a small parasite, Albunione yoda. This marine isopod earned its namesake because of the elongated shape of the female's head, which apparently resembles Yoda's ears.
Photo: David Shale
    Speaking of Yoda's ears, they are apparently what researchers thought of when they first set eyes upon this purple acorn worm (on right) that lives deep in the Atlantic Ocean. It is now named Yoda purpurata. 
    Sometimes it is not clear why a taxonomist has named a species (or genus) after something they saw in Star Wars. For example, I do not know much about the arboreal mites of Australia. But, I do know that one entire genus is named Darthvaderum and that Glenn Hunt likely knows full well the power of the Dark Side. There is also a species of ant, Tetramorium jedi, known only from Madagascar. Finally, there are three species of wasps in the Polemistus genus named, respectively, P. chewbacca, P. vaderi, and P. yoda.

    So, as far as I can tell there are ten species (or genera) named after something in a galaxy far, far away, but P. greedoi is the first vertebrate to have the honor. Kudos to the Auburn crew for recognizing one of the relatively obscure Star Wars villains (I mean c'mon, does Yoda need three species named after him?) and rest assured that should I ever get the opportunity, Salacious Crumb will one day be similarly immortalized.

For further reading: 

Armbruster, J., Werneke, D., & Tan, M. (2015). Three new species of saddled loricariid catfishes, and a review of Hemiancistrus, Peckoltia, and allied genera (Siluriformes) ZooKeys, 480, 97-123 DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.480.6540
In the course of researching this post, I came across this similar article which revealed to me the existence of the Darthvaderum mites.

Friday, February 6, 2015

A Slender Margin for Survival (Part II)

      By Sean Graham (view Part I here)

    We peered over a spill off and could see half of the world’s
 habitat for Desert Slender Salamanders directly below. At the lip of the wash was a dry waterfall straight down. There was no chance anyone who fell off the cliff would survive. The north facing wall of Deep Canyon was nearly as steep. The south facing wall was doable, but it was stocked with loose rubble and sharp plants. The plan was to tie our gear to a rope and lower it down the cliff, so that nobody had to work their way down the slope with a heavy pack. Eddy brought a 100 foot rope, which we all hoped would be long enough to do the job. We tried Eddy’s camping gear first, and he simply tossed it over the edge. With a loud thunk we heard it hit the sand below. I peered over. The rope was exactly long enough. A one hundred foot cliff. I went down first so that I could un-tie the gear and send the next shipment over. It was dicey, but I managed to avoid killing myself and avoided all the cholla. Soon Crystal and Eddy were down, and we made our first cursory inspection of the site.

    The place was gorgeous. The cliff walls were adorned with delicate ferns and no doubt during the growing season wildflowers grow there as well. A small grove of three California Fan Palms lived in a diagonal row just down the sandy wash. Another grew up along the north canyon wall. Their shaggy coats grew like tawny beards below their giant green fronds. The fronds made whispering sounds in the wind. The water from the seepage was a bright algal green in contrast to the dusty tans of the cliff walls. Some incongruous aquatic plant grew in the tiny rill—perhaps the rarest and most precarious life form of Hidden Palm Canyon. After all, while the Desert Slender Salamander is an amphibian, at least it belongs to a fully terrestrial group of salamanders.

    Eddy pointed out the precise location where the first Desert Slender Salamander was discovered by Russel Murphey back in 1969. It was at the very bottom of the spill off, which presently had a slight trickle, some of which was frozen. The bottom of the spill off is a marl-gravel supporting a perpendicular wall of slick grey rock; about twenty feet above that are hanging gardens of grasses, mosses, and Maiden Hair Fern perched upon the cliff face. These form a band about twenty feet tall, and are capped by another forty feet or so of bare rock up to the place where we lowered our bags. Another series of the salamanders was collected where we stood in 1970 by Arden Brame, who went on to describe the species. At that time the location was a nice hanging garden of Maiden Hair Ferns, but around 1976 a flash flood scoured the habitat out. Eddy explained that biologists in the 1980s began searching the other ferny spots along the wall to our left, and found the salamanders there. Until another flash flood scoured that spot out. Eddy then walked us over to the north facing side of the wall about twenty meters to the left of the spot where Murphey discovered the salamander. It was a pristine hanging garden of ferns perched atop the base of the canyon. This was the last place anyone saw the salamanders, back in 1997. Eddy knows this because Kimberly Nicol was the last person to ever see the salamander, and she showed him the very spot. It is incredible and harrowing to describe the places where people have found a species in such precise terms. You could fit all of these places in a modest home. It would make for a very quick survey. 

    We split up and began searching the area. We were under strict orders from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to disturb the habitat in any way. This meant we could not perform the most tried-and-true method for finding salamanders: turning over rocks. Our only hope was to find the salamanders out in the open—something that can be done at night with a headlamp, but typically not when it is below freezing. In fact the most thorough surveys for the species were done by searching at night. I tried to keep up a good attitude and optimism and told Eddy I had seen salamanders out at night under fairly cold conditions. But in the back of my mind I was pretty sure we would not find anything. But also in the back of my mind I hoped we still had a chance.

    We carefully walked the edge of the canyon and peered into the Maiden Hair fern, and went so far as to gently spread vegetation with our fingers to look underneath. The ferns were extraordinarily precarious along the edge of the wall. They held a tiny amount of black soil studded with small minerals. It was moist and rich and perfect for terrestrial salamanders. We even found a few invertebrates climbing around—a beetle, a roly-poly, and a millipede that gave us hope we could find another cold-blooded creature. 

    It was still daylight after our first effort, and it began getting cold while we set up camp. While we waited Eddy and I talked about conservation, salamanders, and his job. I love talking to professional biologists about their job. There is no end to the lunacy and dark humor of working in conservation, and these brave few usually have an endless supply of stories about maligned creatures, desk-bound bureaucrats, and disastrous projects. He was explaining to me how some farmer harvested his alfalfa field along with the state’s largest population of some endangered bird when a sharp hissing sound interrupted him. We both looked over while a dove struck down the canyon, veered upon sight of us, and then plunged down toward Deep Canyon to the east. 

    After a pause I started telling some story—I think I was telling him about the incredibly stupid effort to remove Red Hills Salamanders from a hillside in southern Alabama to straighten out a perfectly good road—and I got about thirty seconds into my story when four, then six, then eight Mourning Doves careened down the canyon, each with a whistling, wind-tearing hiss. I opened my mouth for maybe two seconds when another dozen birds dove by. Then another, and then another. Some perched in evergreen shrubs growing from the side of the canyon, and looked at us nervously, as if they were wondering how we humans had the audacity to monopolize this desert trickle when we had taken the entire Colorado River and turned it into Los Angeles. Whoosh. Whoosh. More doves descended the canyon. Whoosh. I tried to speak—whoosh, whoosh—and then my mouth was shut. Whoosh. Whoosh. More birds. We couldn’t talk over their wings. 

    I managed to say one more stupid, barbarian quip over their wondrous sounds, and babbled “Ok, at first this was cool, but now it’s starting to feel like an Alfred Hitchcock movie.”

    What an incredibly, irretrievably daft and unforgivably cynical thing to say under the circumstances! We were witness to a miraculous, wonderful display of natural beauty, and I made a lame movie reference.

    The birds continued to whistle down the canyon, slicing the air with their sharp wings each time up until it got cold and dark. We then made another pass looking for the salamanders. I made three slow, complete circuits around the perhaps 50 meters of cliff walls available to search. You’d need ropes to check all the habitat, and it would be better to search when it was warmer. I probed amongst the Maiden Hair, admiring the loose black grit, hoping for the tell-tale loop of a supple little salamander. 

     Some of the hanging plants concealed mysterious small chambers that disappeared back into the cliff. These were eroded from a strange, thin band of limey rock shoved between layers of tortured metamorphic rock. This thin band of foreign, secreted rock was probably responsible for the seepage. The best habitat was there. Tiny particles of grit sprinkled from the Maiden Hair roots when I spread the plants. I wondered how long it would take for such a deposit of soil to develop and become entangled and stabilized by plants. Surely centuries. I wondered how frequently flash floods would scour these delicate habitats in the past. I wondered whether runoff from the paved road a half mile upstream could be responsible for tearing these habitats down. I wondered whether these salamanders had a chance and thought that more than likely they did. The canyon is hidden and protected. There is water here, and moist soil. Hanging gardens still decorate much of the cliff face, and nobody has ever looked up there. They had survived here since the Ice Age ended, and will perhaps even out survive us. 

    None of us got much sleep that night. It got well below freezing and we didn’t bring much camping gear because of the cliff. We tried once more to find the salamanders in the morning, and struck out. I clamored up the hill and lifted our gear back up the cliff face, and everyone made it up the slope without mishap. When we made it back to our vehicles Eddy revealed that he had recently sustained a head trauma and felt dizzy and unbalanced the whole way back up. His doctor told him not to do anything like what we just did. A real field guy.

    Our little survey down in the canyon started something. Eddy is going to start sending somebody down into Hidden Palm Canyon once a month. Hopefully they’ll find them again soon, and they won’t forget about them again. Eddy will make it happen, despite being underpaid, overworked, and despite his head injury. But he’ll probably send someone else down there in his staid. I wish I could go look again and I’d love to be the one who found them again. But I’ll just be looking forward to getting an email from Eddy with a picture of the little desert survivor doing what it does best. Surviving. 

    In the desert, where water is scarcest, we are all close to the edge of survival. Whether a Desert Bighorn, a Desert Agave, Desert Iguana, or Desert Slender Salamander. We need the water—humans and Mourning Dove alike. In the desert, humans are for a brief moment closer to death than to being alive. Our need for water reveals our kinship to the other desert organisms. We are perhaps closer to survival here, but also in this way we are closer to being alive too. 

    It is said you can find water in the desert by following doves to an oasis. It might just save your life. Damn right.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Slender Margin for Survival (Part I)

It is said that in the desert you can follow doves to water. Look for them heading to tinajas or oases in the evening, and keep your eyes on them. Watch for them to disappear over the horizon and mark the spot. They make a straight line flight, and you can follow them. They may save your life.


    When I was a kid I spent too much time thumbing through field guides and nature books and not enough time playing basketball with the neighborhood kids. So instead of a real estate agent I became a biologist. I remember looking through Robert Stebbin’s Field Guide to Western Amphibians and Reptiles and being captivated by all the exotic desert creatures of the great western deserts. Gila Monsters. Sidewinders. Snakes with patches on their noses and lizards with fringes on their toes, all for dealing with sand. It was like opening up a book about the Sahara Desert, but these beasts lived in my own country. I wanted to see them all. As I grew up I made frequent trips “Out West” and got to see many of them. Now I’m fortunate enough to call the desert my home.

    One improbable creature in particular captured my imagination. I would flip back and forth from the pictures in the field guide to range maps in the back—checking to see how close I was to each species. There, on plate 8, in the amphibian section, was a small tan colored salamander with a totally inappropriate name. It was called the Desert Slender Salamander. Confused, I checked the range map. There, on the bottom left of the map, down at the base of California, was a single “x” marking the spot.

    The Desert Slender Salamander was discovered in 1969 by a California game warden digging out a pit to make water more available for Desert Bighorn. As he dug out the gravel at the base of a wet cliff, the salamanders wriggled out. He knew this was unusual because the location was positively surrounded by desert. And everyone knows salamanders need moisture—if not permanent, cool water—to survive. The steep slopes leading down to the wet cliff face were covered sparsely with Cholla, Agaves, and Beavertail Prickly Pear.  This was the Colorado section of the Sonoran Desert, which stretches from southwestern Arizona to southern California into Mexico. Parts of it are nearly as hot and dry as Death Valley. Yet in some places subsurface water flows in protected canyons. Where a trickle of permanent water flows you will find the California Fan Palm: a stately, shaggy relict of wetter times. During the last Ice Age it was cooler and wetter and the palms and salamanders were widespread. Now the palms dot southern California sporadically and give some of its cities their names: Palm Desert. Twenty-nine Palms. Palm Springs. Thousand Palms. And in one tiny protected palm oasis a tiny salamander similarly clings to existence.  It’s called Hidden Palm Canyon. 

    These salamanders are a very long way from their nearest neighbors, so they too are considered a relict of the ancient past. They show primitive features not found in close relatives found along the coast and in the mountains, so they were described as a new species: Batrachoseps aridus.  Not long after their formal description, due to the fact that their entire global habitat totaled no more than about 20 square meters, they became protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  Repeated surveys in the 1980s discovered one additional population about 4 miles away from the original, and determined there was perhaps about 100-500 Desert Slender Salamanders in the original locality. Their fragile habitat was set aside as a permanent preserve by the California Department of Fish and Game and people were forbade entry.

    Decades went by and flash floods destroyed some of the habitat. Since the 1980s dedicated searches for the salamanders ceased. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote reports about the salamanders every five years but stopped keeping tabs on their populations. Biologists checking out the canyon for bats would occasionally look around for the salamanders. But the last time anyone saw them alive was during an impromptu search back in 1997.

    Over winter break from classes, an excellent opportunity presented itself: I needed to do reconnaissance for a desert biology class I teach over the summer, so the school picked up the tab for my travel. An idea crossed my mind when I saw how close one of the locations I was scouting was to the home of the Desert Slender Salamander. I started making calls. After some phone tag and not a little bureaucratic navigation, I contacted the right people and arranged to search the canyon. An official with the California Fish and Game would have to accompany me, and he only had a day to spare. It would be a one shot chance. And it would be a dream come true.

    We drove through Palm Springs the day we were to meet Eddy Konno of the California Fish and Game. The sun was bright, but a cold snap had descended on southern California. They were predicting snow in a few days, and in fact they were right. We drove along stoplight-infested two lane highways lined with lawns and date palms. The Coachella Valley to the east is developed with dense clusters of homes, convenience stores, and shopping malls. Within and around this irrigated sea of humanity there are patches of pure desert. The roads wriggle their way up the slopes of the Santa Rosa Mountains and abruptly stop. I looked to the west up the steep slope of the mountains and could see a lump of dark rock straight ahead—Black Hill. The rock up there is stark and barren. I could see the sterile brown slopes folding down to form Deep Canyon. Somewhere up there Hidden Palm Canyon led into Deep Canyon. It really is desert. I couldn’t believe it.

    We met Eddy and followed him up the Santa Rosas to a pull out. Along the way Eddy frantically gestured out his window at something. My wife Crystal looked up in time to see a pair of Desert Bighorns—another kind of desert survivor. The road was too curvy for me to look while driving, so I leaned up low just in time to see them out of the rear view mirror. There they stood almost comically at the very edge of a steep road cut and looked over at the cars below. They were tan and pale and much smaller and more yellow than their Rocky Mountain cousins.

    Eddy led us from the pull out down a wash cutting through rocky desert terrain planted with Jojoba, Catclaw, Cacti, and Bursage. He was maybe in his fifties with just-graying hair but he was fleet footed like most field biologists. I was a little worried that he might have been a city boy or out of shape by the way he talked about the canyon. He said it was really a cliff that led down to the spot and the last time he was in there he came out with cholla stems sticking to his butt. Cholla, if you’re not familiar, is a vicious cactus species of the desert Southwest that has detachable stems with sinister, microscopic barbs that make them very hard to remove. They call it Jumping Cholla because it seems to leap on to you from nowhere. They are sticky, such that by removing the stem from your butt with your hand, you will only succeed in getting the stem stuck to your fingers. Inexplicably, Crystal came to breakfast with Cholla sticking out of her scalp one morning near Tucson. But I believe the dangers of Cholla have been overstated by southwesterners. Unlike the impenetrable thickets of briars and blackberries we have to deal with in the southern Swamps, the chollas are very sparsely distributed in the desert, and in mind anyway, they are easy to avoid.

    Regardless of Eddy’s feelings about Cholla, he set a blistering pace down the arroyo and into the canyon, and so I knew immediately he was a true field biologist. And soon enough I found he was indeed correct about the cliff that leads to the fragile oasis of the Desert Slender Salamander.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Don’t Be That Guy: Reasons Not to Feed Wildlife

    Over the holidays, I had the pleasure of visiting Grand Canyon National Park for the fourth time (one of these years I’m going to do it properly and hike to the bottom of the damn thing). The park is full of sheer vertical cliffs, dangerous rapids, and mountain lions, and in summer is dangerously hot and dry. In the park gift stores they sell a book titled Death in the Grand Canyon. But you know what one of the most common injuries rangers have to deal with is?

Squirrel bites.

    Parks are often full of signs reminding people not to feed the wildlife, and the Grand Canyon is no exception; at one of the most popular overlooks we passed signs about keeping wildlife wild about every twenty feet along the path. So why do people do it anyway? And what’s so bad about feeding wild animals, anyway (other than the risk of squirrel-related injuries)?

    In fact, feeding wild animals is bad for both the animals and the people who do it. Forget squirrel bites, I once watched a woman in Yellowstone Park encourage her young son to feed some grass to an enormous bull elk so she could take a picture, a situation that very easily could have ended with the boy gored to death. Animals can also pass diseases on to humans when they come into close contact.

    Taking handouts often leads to suffering for the animals involved. Human food is often harmful to animals’ health, since their digestive systems aren’t adapted to it and it may not contain the nutrients they need to survive. Over time, animals who get fed lose their fear of humans, a process called “habituation,” which makes them increasingly dangerous to people and increasingly at risk of accidents such as being hit by cars. When this happens, rangers and wildlife managers sometimes try to relocate problem animals to backcountry areas where they’re less likely to encounter humans, but relocation is stressful and many relocated animals eventually die after failing to establish a new territory.

    Of course, it’s important to note that not all wildlife feeding is harmful—there’s nothing particular terrible about backyard birdfeeders, as long as you clean them regularly and can live with the fact that hawks may use them as all-you-can-eat buffets.

    Returning to our car at one Grand Canyon scenic viewpoint, my fiancĂ© and I watched a man with a very large, very expensive camera (the conspicuous kind that you buy if you want everyone else to know how much you can afford to spend on a camera, my fiancĂ© informed me) baiting ravens in the parking lot with pieces of bread, enticing them to come closer and pose for photographs. This after presumably having walked past multiple “please don’t feed the animals” signs over the course of his day. Don’t be that guy, okay?

Further reading:

·       Four Reasons Not to Feed Wildlife, from the Humane Society
·       Don’t Feed Wildlife, from USDA-APHIS
·       Keep Wildlife Wild, from Grand Canyon National Park
·       Keep the “Wild” in Wildlife: Don’t Touch or Feed, from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service