Archive for Jamaica
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”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.
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.
This is not your run-of-the-mill helical garden snail trucking along in your backyard at a snail’s pace. The species with its other-worldly form is Adamsiella pearmanaeana (Adam-see-el-la pear-man-e-ana), found only in a small area within Trelawny Parish, Jamaica, another of Jamaica’s exotic endemics.
Scientists use fancy terminology to describe the sometimes bizarre ornamentation created by snails. In this case, flaring peristome (expanded lip), strongly ribbed whorls, and deep impressed sutures are just some of the many terms that help to identify a species.
Species descriptions are an essential part of animal identification. For mollusks like the terrestrial Adamsiella pearmanaeana, close observation and comparisons of the shell and animal characteristics between specimens of the same species and similar species help scientists to better understand the relationship among and between snails. If the form and structure is unique, it is then classified as a distinct species and placed in a genus with species of similar ilk. The process of observation, description and classification spans all living organisms. It is the methodology of biological sciences.
After a snail is categorized, the next logical question to ask might be, “What purpose does the exotic ornamentation serve? Why do snails need flaring peristomes?”
At best, scientists can only speculate about the functionality of shell form through observation of a species in situ (in its natural habitat) and comparison of form and functionality with similar species. Field studies become an essential part of gaining a broader understanding of a species like Adamsiella pearmanaeana.
For instance, the flaring lip is like a wide brim of a hat. In fact, scientists believe that the lip provides the snail protection when it is sealed to a hard surface, acting as a barrier around the aperture or opening to the shell (sometimes referred to as the mouth of the shell). But wait, there’s more.
Why the notch along the inner lip? And why is the tip of the spire truncate or broken off? Here’s where it gets complicated.
Okay. Let’s gather some facts. We know that Adamsiella pearmanaeana is an operculate snail. Through observation we find that when aestivating, its shell is tightly attached to a limestone rock and the operculum is set in place in the aperture. The snail is able to slightly move out the plug-like operculum to allow air and moisture in and wastes out.
Now, if you view the shell from the top down into the truncate spire, it is hollow. The spiral shell is wrapped around an open column that leads to the notch in the lip at the bottom of the shell. Essentially the notch provides a pathway from the aperture to the central column leading up to the opening in the spire; the shell structure seemingly provides a protected pathway for the snail to have contact with the outside world while keeping out beetles and other insects that prey on the snail. The shell then acts as a barrier and breathing tube. Seems plausible to me!
If, in fact, Adamsiella pearmanaeana is one of thousands of examples of how shell form has had a direct role in protecting a species from its predators, then it is no wonder that these extreme forms have played a significant role in species survival for tens of thousands of years.
Biodiversity is one of those buzz-words bounced around in the media when hailing the discovery of new species or bemoaning the loss of those species from global warming and other human-induced changes to the environment. To scientists biodiversity is the holy grail of scientific disciplines. Simply put, biodiversity relates to the variation of living organisms found within an ecosystem. And the health of an ecosystem can be measured from datum derived from biodiversity research.
Jamaica may be the biodiversity capital of the world. Much of the flora and fauna of the island is endemic, meaning it is found no where else in the world. The terrestrial mollusks (snails) are a fascinating group of living organisms to study island endemism. Most of the 500+ species of terrestrial snails are endemic to Jamaica; many are found only in narrow niches. Why is this important?
Consider this — a snail with a geographical distribution of only a few square miles can become extinct if its habitat is altered or wiped out through deforestation by farming or strip mining. In Jamaica, the reasons for habitat destruction are numerous, but not unique to the island. Deforestation is a story for another time on another Blog.
In the coming days, I will post pictures of many endemic snail species known only from small micro-habitats around Jamaica. The beautiful and exotic shapes and forms of these species belie the earthy and often harsh environments that these molluscan species inhabit. Getting to these remote habitats sometimes involves long treks through muddy rain forests fraught with insects and stinging foliage. The reward for enduring such hazards is contact with the natural beauty of Jamaica’s flora and fauna — a part of Jamaica that most people never experience when staying at coastal resort enclaves.
Among the fascinating snails found only in a small swath of territory Jamaica’s central Parishes of Clarendon and St. Catherine is the operculate snail, Adamsiella jarvisi. Operculates are classified as prosobranch, meaning the anatomical arrangement of the gills is forward of the heart. Most of the sea snails and all of the operculate terrestrial snails are prosobranch. The operculate snails on terra firma have evolved a trap door or operculum to protect the snail when withdrawn into its shell.
Adamsiella jarvisi is a small ± 10 millimeter (mm) size species that lives on limestone rock. It is often found aestivating (a form of short-duration hibernation) while attached to a rock face with the spire hanging in a downward direction. The operculum is affixed to the foot of the snail (the small thickened circular white disk visible on the back of the snail’s foot in the photograph above). When disturbed or threatened by a predator, the snail withdraws into the shell and the hard, calcarious operculum seals the snail into the shell. Snail predators include beetles and birds. More than half of Jamaica’s endemic terrestrial mollusks are operculate snails.
Stay tuned for more terrestrial trackings from Jamaica.
In a few weeks I will be blogging daily from some of the most beautiful and remote locations around the island of Jamaica in the West Indies. Best known for its Reggie music and Jerk Chicken, Jamaica is less known for having one of the highest number of endemic terrestrial land snails of any comparable land mass in the world.
And the shells that the snails have formed are not just your everyday helical-shaped shell. The snails have shells with exotic shapes, structures, patterns and colors. Photos and videos recording many of the island’s flora and fauna will be part of my daily blogging from Jamaica. Stay tuned.