Art and Science of Nature

Understanding the Beauty of the Natural World

Youth Lost

From the day we are born our bone structure, which consists of living and non-living substances, grows with us in a process called ossification.  We are vertebrates with internal skeletons and it is how all vertebrate species grow.  But not all living organisms grow in this way.  Take for instance some invertebrate snail species in the Phylum Mollusca.

Invertebrates, which include insects, crustacea and mollusks have external skeletons.  The external skeleton of a mollusk is its shell, composted strictly of non-living substances, mostly calcium carbonate.  Now that we’ve cleared up the basic science lingo, let’s look at a group of living organisms that defy the concept of retaining bone structure from birth.

Anoma splendens

Spire truncation in Urocoptidae. Anoma splendens endemic to Jamaica showing spire truncation, and at right, a living specimen with the spire intact. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg © 2011.

Most species in the land snail Family Urocoptidae lose the early part of their shell growth in a process referred to as “spire truncation”.  In other words, as the snail grows, it adds whorls to its shell, but in doing so eventually loses the thin and fragile early spire growth of its external skeleton.  This does not hurt or harm the shell.  At a predetermined point the snail will plug or fill in the shell at the point of truncation with shell material.  When the early whorls finally fall off, the shell is sealed off on top.

Truncated Urocoptis

Truncated Jamaican Urocoptis. An adult specimen in the genus Urocoptis with its early spire whorls truncated. Size about 20mm in length. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg. © 2010.

Urocoptids are Pulmonte (air breathing) snails found only in the tropical climates of the Western Hemisphere.  In Jamaica 73 Urocoptid species in nine genera are recognized by taxonomists. All but one are endemic [only known] from Jamaica.   Each species inhabits a limited area of the island.  The smallest species grows to under 10mm, or a ¼ of an inch.  The largest exceeds 25mm or one inch.  All species sans one truncates its early spire whorls as it grows.

Mychostoma alba

An adult Urocoptid, Mychostoma alba, crawling on a wet limestone outcrop in Jamaica. Note truncate spire. Shell length about 9mm. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg. © 2012.

Over the past couple of weeks while exploring the rural and remote forests of Jamaica Dr. Stephanie Clark, Director of “Invertebrate Identification Australasia”, who has joined us in the field for some research, discovered a population of Mychostoma alba, one of the smaller species of Jamaican Urocoptids.  These calciphiles or limestone dwellers can be found in leaf litter at the base of limestone cliff faces and outcrops and during rains and at night, attached and crawling on the limestone cliff faces.  The very small yellowish  needle-like shells are at first almost camouflaged against the light colored limestone cliffs.  Once your eyes adjust to the shadowed nooks and crevices of the cliff face, you immediately begin to see glistening needles attached to the limestone and entangling vines.

Intact spire

Intact spire. A specimen of Mychostoma alba showing the young and fragile early spire whorls that eventually fall off in a process called “spire truncation”. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg. © 2012.

Among these snails you can immediately see that some shells are “truncate”, while others have a shell that tapers to a sharp needle point spire.  These latter shells are young snails, which have not yet truncated their early whorls.  Over time they lose the early growth in a rough and tumble environment of karst rock, where heavy rains and a host of predators add to the precarious environment of these fragile snails.  In fact, when plucking one of the youthful, sharply pointed snails from the limestone, the early whorls usually break off with nothing much more than blowing on the shell.  The amazing aspect of this biological cycle is that without intervention, the snail can often retain the early whorls through adulthood.  The moment the snail is disturbed, bumped or jostled, it loses its youthful shell structure.

Apoma agnesiana

A living Jamaican Urocoptid, Apoma agnesiana, with a truncated spire. Length about 25mm. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg. © 1988.

Is it simply the fragility of the shell that causes the shell to truncate, or is the snail dropping off a portion of its shell as a means of diversion to a potential predator?

Apoma agnesiana

Left: High up on a limestone cliff face; habitat of Apoma agnesiana in Jamaica. Right: The early youthful spire whorls of A. agnesiana and an adult specimen showing spire truncation. The twist of the early spire whorls is natural in this species. Photos: left – Alan Gettleman. right – Richard L. Goldberg. © 2011.

Some snail species actually drop off a portion of their fleshy foot when confronted with a predator in a process called automizing, where the snail leaves behind a portion of its foot for the predator while the snail escapes.  It is one of the many fascinating processes found in nature, and in the case of snail spire truncation, one of many unanswered questions. Is a Urocoptid with a truncated spire a victim of youth lost?

Make My Skin Crawl

Fringe of a dry forested hillside ringed by expansive sugar cane fields north of Kinloss, Jamaica. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg. © 2009.

While shooting a series of macro photos on a dry forested hillside in Jamaica I noticed a rather bold and brazen ant strutting his stuff on a small limestone rock. The ant seemed to match the description of Solenopsis invicta, the scientific name for the much dreaded fire ant; also referred to as RIFA, or Red Imported Fire Ants.

Possibly Solenopsis invicta, the much dreaded fire ant near Kinloss, Jamaica. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg © 2009.

Its reddish-brown head and body with a brown abdomen was the tip off that my encounter with the 5mm hymenopteran was not something to just brush-off. I immediately checked to see that I did not unearth an entire colony before kneeling down on the forest floor to photograph the ant interloper — wait a minute! Was I the intruder on the isolated hillside ringed by large expanses of sugarcane fields?

Photographing an ant species on the floor of a dry forested hillside north of Kinloss, Jamaica. Who's the intruder? Photo: Alan Gettleman.

Just mentioning the name fire ant is enough to make a person’s skin crawl. Get stung by one and you can expect intense soreness and swelling for days. Stumbling onto and getting stung by a colony of fire ants is enough to take down an able-bodied outdoors man for the count. Numerous video clips on YouTube show people succumbing to attacks by fire ants; not the type of material that you are likely to see on America’s Funniest Home Videos. There is nothing funny about being attacked by a colony of fire ants, and not just for the obvious reason.

Black ants, red ants, sugar ants, crawling ants, mad ants, biting ants, rain ants, soldier ants, and duck ants are just some of the biting ant species found in Jamaica as listed on an official notification “potential invasion of the fire ant” published by the Biodiversity Branch of the National Environment and Planning Agency of Jamaica. The introduction of Solenopsis invicta, has now been confirmed in Jamaica. The notification states that no other ant species can inflict a sting as bad as the fire ant. The South American native ant species has been introduced into a number of other West Indian islands, the U.S. mainland and as far away as Taiwan and Australia.

A close encounter with a dry limestone hillside, an ideal habitat for ants in Jamaica. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg © 2009.

Ants in Jamaica are especially abundant among the dry limestone forests of central and western Jamaica. Leaf litter, tree trunks and open limestone cliff faces are especially good habitats where ants are frequently found in large numbers; the same habitats that we hike through in search of capturing other Jamaican lifeforms on film. So it is not uncommon to have RIFA encounters. Sure, ants of any type are a nuisance to people whether the biting type or not. Yet the impact of introduced ants on indigenous species is far more troubling.

Fire ants are aggressive, especially when provoked by disruption of their colony. Though one of the best know ants to inflict painful stings, the fire ant is not the only aggressive ant species.

Anolis lizard foraging in the foliage at night in the Cockpit Country of Jamaica. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg © 2009.

The myrmicine ant Crematogaster brevispinosa, a species related to the common household ant (Myrmica molesta) is known to make unprovoked attacks on juvenile and possibly adult Anolis lineatopus, an arboreal iguanid lizard native to Jamaica. In fact, when caged with almost 40 C. brevispinosa under laboratory conditions, a juvenile A. lineatopus died within hours. It seems then that such aggressive behaviors by ants can influence the local distribution and abundance patterns of animals sensitive to it such as the Anolis. This conclusion was based on a field study in Kingston, Jamaica where there was a direct correlation between the abundance of the ant with the lack of the lizard and vice versa.

Though known to feed on other insects and invertebrates, this small Jamaican centipede species lives side-by-side without harming the pulmonate snail, Dentellaria sloaneana in a delicate balance that allows both species to survive in the same habitat. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg © 2010.

It may take many tens of thousands of years for native species to find a balance in its environment. Introducing an aggressive species like fire ants into a pristine environment will quickly and negatively put the natural balance out of kilter. The University of Mona study between ants and anolids is just one of hundreds of similar ecological investigations that have revealed that introducing non-native species can and do have significantly negative impacts on native faunas.

The Tree Frog is just one of the many native Jamaican species that can be negatively and quickly affected by the introduction of non-native species. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg © 2010.

National wildlife management agencies continually monitor the introduction of invasive species within the borders of a country. The next time you return from overseas and grumble over the numerous questions your customs card asks about bringing back living plants or animals, or spending time on a rural farm, it is because non-native species can accidentally and easily be brought back in your bags; yes, even a fire ant! More than your skin will be crawling if one of these species successfully hitches a ride in your duffel bag!

Quick! Hide!!

My recent trek through Jamaica reminded me of how animals can ably and amazingly adapt to their surroundings. Most noticeably (or maybe not so noticeable) is how an animal’s shape, form, color and pattern can completely camouflage a species into its surroundings.

Rio Grande River and the Blue Mountains of eastern Jamaica. Photo: Alan Gettleman.

As the dominant species on Earth, we {Homo sapiens} have evolved from a lineage of hominids to become anything but stealthy in our world. And, it’s not surprising.

Without any predators to speak of in our daily lives (unless a bill collector or exigent-ex is stalking you) we just envelop ourselves behind the trappings of the human world… “Quick, here they come! Hide in my BMW with the dark tinted windows!”

Animals do not always have the luxury to build a fortress to hide behind. High school science introduces us to a concept called ‘Survival of the Fittest’. Being invisible to predators is one of the best ways for a species to survive. Many examples can be found right in our own backyards. Insects, birds and butterflies are just a few classes of animals that have become seemingly one with their surroundings.

Ever wonder why Praying Mantises look like a stick with wings that mimic lanceolate green leaves? Camouflage (and in the case of mantises, more for being stealthy when preying on other insects)! Is it not just a coincidence that the colors and patterns of many animals subtlety if not completely blend into their host surroundings? And what about the peripatetic Chameleon from Madagascar that changes its appearance to suit its changing background. These animals have given themselves a better-than-average chance to survive as a species when their predators have to work harder to find them.

So what kinds of natural CAMO (my acronym for Camouflaged Animals Meandering Outdoors) did I encounter in Jamaica? Some of the animal camo I observed is almost stupefying!

Alcadia hirsuta, a 20mm Jamaican terrestrial mollusk has developed a series of hair-like structures that effectively camouflage its shell against one of its preferred host leaves. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg ©2010.

Take for instance the suitably named Alcadia hirsuta (C.B.Adams, 1856) with the species name derived from the word “hirsute” meaning covered with hair. This small arboreal species of terrestrial snail has evolved a mane of long wispy hairs spaced at close, even intervals in rows around its shell. The hairs effectively blend the shell into the hairs found on one of its preferred host leaves of a “fern-wood” (a Jamaican English word meaning “unidentified tree”).

A few weeks ago I came across this hairy snail species crawling on the forest floor at about 400 meters above sea level in the John Crow Mountains of eastern Jamaica. The dead “hairy” leaves were the pervasive ground cover of this wet forested hillside. Every time I found this snail crawling on the ground in the underbrush, it was on this type of leaf. Coincidence? I’d go out on a limb and say there’s no coincidence at all!

The shell of Pleuodonte (Dentellaria) picturata is adorned with a creamy-white cuticle of radiating streaks that darken and lighten to match the tree bark during wet and dry periods. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg © 2010.

And then there is the Jamaican snail whose shell is covered with bands of radiating cuticle that blend into the coloring of the tree bark on which it prefers to aestivate. The creamy-white cuticle of Pleurodonte (Dentellaria) picturata (C.B.Adams, 1849) mimics the striations of the dry tree bark. When wet the cuticle darkens to the same dark brown tone of the wet tree, masking the shell in the wet shadowed forest.

The 25mm (1 inch) shell of a Pleurodonte (Dentellaria) picturata as it looks when dry (top) and after becoming wet and darkened (bottom). Photo: Richard L. Goldberg.

This species inhabits the limestone forests of western Jamaica along with a few other closely related snails that have developed the same propensity for adorning its shell with a radiating pattern of cuticle.

Pleurodonte (Dentellaria) catadupae H.B.Baker, 1935 is an extreme example of a Jamaican terrestrial mollusk whose shell is naturally embellished with a zigzag cuticle.

Yet, this unusual adaptation is not unique to terrestrial mollusks of the Western Hemisphere.

Calocochlia cuticle

Cuticle of Calocochlia - Cal. depressa globosa (Moellendorff, 1898) (top) and Cal. festiva (Donovan, 1825) (bottom) are two Philippines Helicostylids whose shells are covered with intricate cuticle patterns providing effective camouflage against the tree bark on which it lives. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg © 2010.

Almost all of the 100 or so species of Helicostylids (heliko-stylids), a group of tree-dwelling mollusks from the Philippines Archipelago have also developed an epidermis or cuticle in a myriad of patterns unique to each species that help camouflage the shell during wet and dry seasons.

Terrestrial mollusks are not alone in using trees as a background for camouflage. In a dry scrub forest of Westmoreland Parish I observed a fist-sized Sphinx moth that was seemingly one with the trunk of a rather large and exposed tree. It took a few glances to realize that there was a moth anchored to the tree. So well does this moth camouflage itself against this tree that from more than a few feet away the moth was virtually undetectable.

A fist-size Sphinx moth is virtually undetectable against a hardwood tree in Westmoreland Parish, Jamaica. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg © 2010.

There are tens-of-thousands of other examples in our world where animals have been able to blend into the background of their environments for protection and stealthiness. Yet, take away stands of trees and destroy habitats and these stealthy animals become sitting ducks. Some animals will continue to survive and adapt as long as the dominant species {us} realize that saving the environment has a greater significance than for just human survival. I will now step down off my soapbox.

Back in Jamaica 2010

I am just back from another productive trip to Jamaica. My intention was to Blog while traveling around the island. Due to poor connectivity and later, the unrest and military operations against a local drug cartel in Kingston, I have had to wait until now to post my stories.

Jamaican Fern. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg

In the coming weeks I will upload stories dealing with the flora, fauna and people of Jamaica. One Blog entry being prepared deals with Jamaican ferns and will focus on the artistic patterns of some of the island’s 500+ species, and while exploring the Cockpit Country, how we stumbled upon a Jamaican elder who guided the renowned expert on Jamaican ferns, Dr. George Proctor, during his research of the island’s ferns in extreme remote regions during the 1960’s and ’70’s.

Roasted Blue Mountain coffee beans. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg.

Jamaica’s Blue Mountain coffee is revered by coffee drinkers the world over. We’ll show you how Blue Mountain coffee is still harvested and processed the old fashion way; by hand. And we’ll explore a small patch of forest on a Jamaican hillside and take a closer look at the incredible biodiversity that can be found within a few hundred square feet.

Dentellaria picturata. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg

Lots of interesting images and a couple of short films are currently being prepared for uploading to “Art & Science of Nature”. Catch you soon.

Rich.

Photographing macro-sized flora and fauna around the rim of a ± 200 foot sink hole in the John Crow Mountains

The Significance of Snail Shell Color and Pattern

[Adapted from an article that I co-authored entitled, “Isolation of Evolution of the Amphidromus in Nusa Tenggara” in American Conchologist magazine]

The almost 2 inch endemic Manus Island Green Tree Snail, Papustyla pulcherrima, is one of only a handful of tropical land snails that have a naturally green shell color.  Photo by and courtesy of Brian Parkinson from worldwideconchology.com

The almost 2 inch endemic Manus Island Green Tree Snail, Papustyla pulcherrima, is one of only a handful of tropical land snails that have a naturally green shell color. Photo by and courtesy of Brian Parkinson from worldwideconchology.com

The tropical biosphere is inhabited by animals of far greater color than any other zoogeographical zone on Earth. The Phylum Mollusca, and in particular the terrestrial mollusks, the land snails, develop shells that have some of the greatest diversity of color and pattern among all living organisms.

The often brilliant coloration and bold patterns attracted ancient societies who used the shells for ornamentation purposes. Today, naturalists with a bent on conchology are still amassing collections of these brilliantly colored snails for aesthetic reasons, but also for scientific study.

The question of why these molluscan species have developed a multitude of colors and patterns can be best understood through the foundations of evolutionary science.

Amphidromus adamsii, an extremely varied ± 1 inch (25mm) tropical land snail species from Sabah that exhibits intra-population variability. Photo: <b>Richard L. Goldberg </b>(copyright 2010) from <b>BiologySource 11</b> by L. Sandner, et. al, published by Pearson Publishing.

Amphidromus adamsii, an extremely varied 25mm (± 1 inch) land snail species that may exhibit the ultimate in intra-population variability. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg (copyright 2009) from BiologySource 11 by L. Sandner, et. al, published by Pearson Publishing.

Land snails can develop shells with myriad colors forms within one population (intra-population variability), or may vary from the norm only in separated populations (inter-population variability). Occasionally a species can exhibit both phenomena. The Darwinian concept of natural selection can best be used to explain why a snail species can vary locally or over its entire range.

Forms of the half inch-size Fly-Speckled Polymita, Polymita muscarum, a species that exhibits inter-population variability throughout its geographical range in Oriente Province, Cuba. Left - A color form found at Loma de Calixto; Right - shells from Port of Vita. The Port of Vita form also exhibits considerable variation within the population, or intra-population variability.  Photo: Richard L. Goldberg.

Forms of the half inch-size Fly-Speckled Polymita, Polymita muscarum, a species that exhibits inter-population variability throughout its geographical range in Oriente Province, Cuba. Left - A color form found at Loma de Calixto; Right - shells from Port of Vita. The Port of Vita form also exhibits considerable variation within the population, or intra-population variability. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg.

The external appearance of a shell — color and pattern, for instance — are likely to be influenced by natural selection when determining the genetic make up of a snail. Extreme color polymorphism in a population perhaps indicates that looking different from your neighbor is advantageous, making it more difficult for predators to develop a search image, such as color and contrast, to locate their prey. The unique color form can then spread rapidly in a population.

Amphidromus laevus from Timor-Leste. An example of frequency dependent selection where the typical dark banded pattern is occasionally replaced with a unicolored shell. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg.

Amphidromus laevus from Timor-Leste. An example of frequency dependent selection where the typical dark banded pattern is occasionally replaced with a unicolored shell. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg.

This phenomenon, known as frequency dependent selection, may explain why some intra-populations of snails in the genus Amphidromus from eastern Indonesia often have unpatterned or strikingly different colored shells mixed in among the predominantly multi-colored or strongly patterned shells. Natural selection is typically considered to favor one form over another, thereby shifting the bell curve, yet frequency dependent selection flattens that bell curve and spreads it out.

An example of genetic drift.  Left - Amphidromus wetaranus from Wetar Island, Indonesia.  Right - A form of the same species from a small satellite island off Wetar Island.  The red central band found on all specimens of the satellite island form is never found on the Wetar Island form.  Photo: Richard L. Goldberg.

An example of genetic drift. Left - Amphidromus wetaranus from Wetar Island, Indonesia. Right - A form of the same species from a small satellite island off Wetar Island. The red central band found on all specimens of the satellite island form is never found on the Wetar Island form. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg.

One explanation for inter-population variability may be a phenomenon called genetic drift. To illustrate this, let’s say a population gets split in two, one on island A, and one on island B. Both populations might start off identical, with chances at 50/50 for a particular trait. It is unlikely that the offspring will be 50/50. They may be 47/53, and the subsequent generation may be 43/57. Over many generations, the percentages will fluctuate up and down at random, and they can end up being very different from where they started. Yet, in the real world, a new mutation doesn’t start at 50/50. It might be only 1/10,000 or 1/100,000. By chance it can have more surviving offspring than average, and slowly increase in the population. Smaller populations will drift faster than large populations. But, if by chance that first mutant does not have any surviving offspring, that trait disappears. This is a more likely scenario. So, genetic drift tends to eliminate variation within a population and increases differences between populations. Over a period of time, the populations from islands A and B will end up looking very different.

These shells of Amphidromus columellaris from the Tanimbar Islands, Maluku Region, Indonesia show little variation within the population.  Could that balance be tipped by the founder effect?  Photo: Richard L. Goldberg.

These shells of Amphidromus columellaris from the Tanimbar Islands, Maluku Region, Indonesia show little variation within the population. Could that balance be tipped by the founder effect? Photo: Richard L. Goldberg.

Inter-population variability might also be explained by the founder effect. The snails that colonize an island may represent only a small fraction of the parent population’s genetic diversity. If a rare mutant color form is mixed in among the new colony, a colony that was 1 in 1000 in the parent population, it may instantly be 1 in 10 in the new population. Given a brand new set of environmental influences, the population may evolve in whole new directions from its parent population.

Environmental factors such as the geology, climate, flora, fauna, and food are all suspected contributors to the rise of a unique shell appearance. To reduce the competition with other species which overlap in some aspect of their niches, a phenomenon called character displacement occurs. Shell, behavioral, anatomical or biochemical characters eventually deviate from the ancestral form to allow the species to survive with its neighbors. Character displacement might also manifest itself in the color, pattern, and even the form of the shell. Changes brought on by one, or a combination of, these biological concepts can eventually render an isolated population unable to interbreed with the parent population, producing a situation which makes speciation possible.Isolation is the key ingredient for a species to evolve, and natural barriers provide the necessary separation to allow speciation to take place. Whether the barrier is a series of mountain ridges separated by deep valleys, or islands separated by wide channels as in the case of some species of Indonesian Amphidromus, isolation allows a species to evolve independently from its ancestral form.

Though these concepts are often difficult to understand when evolutionary science is not your main focus, understanding that tropical snails do change and adapt to external factors and random influences is enough to appreciate just how diverse a snail species can be.

Rain at Dolphin Head

Dolphin Head in Hanover Parish is one of the most massive geological formations in western Jamaica. It is often referred to as an island within an island.

The summit of Dolphin Head

The summit of Dolphin Head

The mountain is surrounded by a few small farming communities accessible by traversing narrow, winding and unimproved roads. The draw to Dolphin Head is that it is home to many endemic species of plants and animals, a mecca for scientists studying biodiversity.
Satellite Photo of Dolphin Head, north western Jamaica.  The trail to the base of the mountain is difficult to traverse.  Hiking up the mountain is an extreme trip in itself!

Satellite Photo of Dolphin Head, north western Jamaica. The trail to the base of the mountain is difficult to traverse. Hiking up the mountain is an extreme trip in itself!

Only a handful of trails lead to the mountain itself. The trails up the mountain are steep and thick with vegetation. Add to this mix long periods of rain each day and the trail becomes a slippery mess, and makes for a rather interesting hike.  This video includes clips from various parts of the trip to Dolphin Head.  My next blog post will include some of what we found on the mountain.

Being A Maroon Descendant

Dowdie is a thirty-something Maroon; a modern young man who transcends the ancient traditions of his Maroon heritage and the encroachment of a modern world on his remote and insular community.

Dowdie, a modern Maroon.

Dowdie, a modern Maroon. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg.

Maroons are a group of Jamaicans, direct descendants of escaped slaves that claimed the mountainous Leeward communities of the Cockpit Country as their own almost 300 years ago. Cutting themselves off from the outside world, the Maroons are self-governed and pay no taxes to the Jamaican government, an arrangement worked out in 1739-40 with the British after they lost the Maroon Wars.

Maroons are fiercely proud of their land and their heritage. When I met Dowdie this week in the Cockpit Country, one of his first questions to me in his English-like creole language was what do you think of “our” country? His question was aimed not at Jamaica, but at the town of Accompong, Nation of the Maroon descendants.

Now free to come and go; the main entrance to Accompong.

Now free to come and go; the main entrance to Accompong. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg

When entering the now permanently opened gates of Accompong, situated north of towns and villages with names like Maggoty and Retirement, the rural and pristine countryside transforms into a small, self-sufficient rural farming community. Neatly trimmed gardens of native plants and trees surround small concrete homes with tin roofs. A small provisions store at a three-way intersection near the center of town, a church and a local gathering place line steep, winding mountain roads. A quick wavy to the locals from the car while driving around the few roads in town receives an immediate likewise response.

Not more than 30 years ago, the gates to Accompong were closed to outsiders. Permission had to be granted to enter the community by The Colonel, leader of the Maroons. The Colonel still governs this peaceful society, but in recent years he has opened the Maroon community to tourism. Peace Corp projects and the Jamaican government encourage Jamaican visitors to see the “other Jamaica”, the Jamaica that few have ever seen. With all of this new-found openness, the Jamaican government still recognizes the Maroon’s sovereignty. No direct descendant of a Maroon living here pays taxes to the government.

The dining area at Baboo's Garden.

The dining area at Baboo's Garden. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg

Dowdie works for Tony Kuhn, an American ex-patriot who built and operates “Baboo’s Garden”, an ecotourism enterprise on a Cockpit mountainside north of Accompong. Four years ago the Maroons granted Tony a 30-year lease on the land. Baboo’s Garden grew from here. His place is immersed in nature. Thatch-roof bungalows with tents inside are built into massive limestone outcrops. Tony’s vision and Dowdie’s Maroon sensibilities made Baboo’s Garden a most unique experience for guests like myself and my travel companions Alan Gettleman, a recently retired NASA employee and an orchid aficionado, and Homer Rhode, best known as the namesake of the “Homer Rhode knot”, well-used by fly fishermen.

Orthalicus undata jamaicensis, an arboreal molluscan species with a ± 2 inch shell, uncommonly found crawling on Gumbo Limbo trees at night.

Orthalicus undata jamaicensis, an arboreal molluscan species with a ± 2 inch shell, uncommonly found crawling on Gumbo Limbo trees at night. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg

Dowdie took an immediate interest in our like-minded pursuit of Jamaica’s terrestrial mollusks. And why not! For his entire life Dowdie has been exposed to the unique natural character of the Cockpit Country and its many endemic species of plants and animals. But he knew little about mollusks. The few larger species that are commonly found crawling on the coconut, mango and Gumbo Limbo trees were the only snails he was familiar with. The smaller, more difficult-to-find ground dwelling and limestone loving snails were new to him.

Dowdie joined us during one of our treks deep into the Cockpit Country north of Quickstep, a small village northeast of Accompong. He had never been this far into the Cockpit Country. Using his keen sense of observation Dowdie became an expert at looking for the small snails.

Tudora humphreysiana, a rare ± 15mm operculate terrestrial mollusk from the Cockpit Country of Jamaica. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg

Tudora humphreysiana, a rare ± 15mm operculate terrestrial mollusk from the Cockpit Country of Jamaica. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg

The habitat-specific ground dwelling species found under leaf litter and those species living in fallen rain forest debris on narrow ledges of vine-entangled cliff faces of the Cockpits exposed Dowdie to yet another aspect of his natural world.

As the day wound down and the afternoon rain saturated the Cockpits with its daily soaking of life-giving moisture, Dowdie showed us a two-foot long, single stalk ground plant that he unearthed at the base of a limestone cliff. He did not recognize the plant species with its lance-shaped leaves, iridescent purple on the top and blood red underneath. With a smile and lilt in his voice he quipped, “could this be a new species?”

Dowdie's botanical find at Quickstep.  Photo: Alan Gettleman

Dowdie's botanical find at Quickstep. Photo: Alan Gettleman

He is well aware that field researchers from all zoological disciplines are discovering record numbers of species of plants and animals every year that are new to science. Even though Dowdie did not have a name for his new-found botanical, he did know that it would end up transplanted at Baboo’s Garden in a continual process of diversifying the flora growing in and around his world.

Over dinner that evening Dowdie relayed a story that seemed far removed from his idyllic crime-free world. Two weeks prior to our arrival he drove with a friend to a small town far west of Accompong. Call it a case of bad timing, but he was caught in the crossfire of a drug-related altercation and was wounded by three bullets to his torso.

The Cockpit Country, home to Jamaica's Maroons and greatest concentration of biodiversity. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg

The Cockpit Country, home to Jamaica's Maroons and one of the greatest concentrations of biodiversity in the world. Photo: Richard L. Goldberg

How could this have happened? And why did he not show the signs of such trauma? Dowdie was lifting and climbing as if nothing had ever happened to him. He did not complain or make light of his wounds. His take on the incident is that the Lord had a reason to spare him at that moment. If true, Dowdie was spared so that he can continue his Maroon heritage and ensure that he plays a part, hopefully great, in the survival of the natural world of the Cockpit Country.

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