Saturday, September 13, 2014

On the big island, the first honeycreeper hybrid, between the redbirds `i`iwi and `apapane

There is a new native Hawaiian bird in the forest, a cross of two of the brightest jewels of the Island landscape—the red `i`iwi and the red `apapane.

(Image: The first-ever cross between an `i`iwi and `apapane. At left an `i`iwi, at right an `apapane, and at center the hybrid. All photos by Olga Lansdorp, courtesy of the authors.)
The unusual bird was caught in 2011 in the Upper Waiakea Forest Reserve on Hawai`i Island, and released after being banded. A DNA analysis performed on a single feather taken from the bird confirmed that it was the first-known cross of the two native honeycreepers.

A study on the find was published in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology by authors Jessie Knowlton of the Michigan Technological University and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, David Flashpohler of Michigan Technological University, and Rotzel Mcinerney and Robert Fleischer, both of Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. (The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 126(3):562–568, 2014)

The paper is entitled, “First Record of Hybridization in the Hawaiian Honeycreepers: `I`iwi (Vestiaria coccinea) x `Apapane (Himatione sanguinea).” The abstract is here.

Two key questions, of course, are opposite sides of the investigation: How did this happen, and why didn’t this happen before? With Darwin’s Galapagos finches, such crosses between species are known to occur. In Hawai`i, until now, they have not been known to happen.

“Our discovery is important in light of recent evidence that introgression and hybridization play important roles in speciation, maintenance of genetic diversity, and the movement of advantageous alleles within and between species,” the authors write.

DNA testing found that the bird’s mother was an `i`iwi and the father was the `apapane. 

The bird looked a little like both parents. Its size was closer to that of a male `apapane. Its color, based on a photograph with the paper, seems intermediate between the bright red of the `apapane and the orange-red of the `i`iwi. 

But its bill showed the combination most clearly. The `i`iwi has a long, curved, orange-colored bill. The `apapane has a short, black bill. The hybrid bird has a longish, curved bill about halfway between the lengths of the parent bills, and black in color.

The bird is a male, and the analysis could not determine whether the it was capable of reproducing. 

“This individual is the first hybrid ever confirmed for Hawaiian honeycreepers, despite ongoing study of these species for (more than) 40 years with thousands of individuals captured and banded and many thousands of specimens collected for museums,” the authors write.

Hawaiian honeycreepers are all believed to have evolved from a single parent bird, developing into an amazing range of colors, beak types, food preferences and habitat requirements. The `i`iwi and `apapane, then, are very distant cousins—genetic work suggested the species diverged from each other 1.6 million years ago. 

And they are different in a number of ways that argue against genetic crossing.

“The circumstances that gave rise to a mating between a female `i`iwi and a male `apapane are difficult to imagine. `I`iwi are aggressive and socially dominant to `apapane, and the average bill length of `i`iwi is more than 10 mm greater than `apapane. Further, `i`iwi are larger than `apapane, and it is unusual for a female of a larger species to choose to mate with a male of a smaller species,” the authors write.

On the other hand, they are perhaps the most likely honeycreepers to cross.

“`Apapane and `i`iwi are more similar in courtship behavior to each other than with other honeycreeper species and have overlapping breeding seasons,” Knowlton and the team write.

In the forest area where the hybrid bird was found, `i`iwi are about a quarter as common as `apapane. Avian malaria is hitting hard the vulnerable `i`iwi populations, while `apapane, while also impacted, show some resistance to the disease. 

One of the things that isn’t known is whether there might be other such crosses, or whether this bird was able to reproduce. If so, there might be birds in the Upper Waiakea Forest Reserve that are ¾ `i`iwi and `1/4 `apapane, or the reverse.

That’s potentially interesting, because disease-resistant crosses could preserve DNA from the emblematic Hawaiian redbirds.

There is still plenty of mystery in this story. The hybrid bird, known only by its band number of 2551-51657, was released back into the wild after being banded, and has never been seen again.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2014

Monday, September 8, 2014

Polynesian navigation: Robust, varied.

Smithsonian Institution geographer Doug Herman, who is following Hokule`a’s voyage around the world, has written a fine summary on recent thinking about Polynesian navigation.

The essence of the piece recalls that in the mid-1900s, standard thought was that early Polynesians could not have had the capacity to navigate long distances, to sail into the wind, and that the population of the Pacific islands could be explained by accidental drift voyages.

(Image: Hokule`a sailing in the rain during a voyage through the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Credit: Jan TenBruggencate)

This theory ignored clear indications in the oral traditions of Pacific peoples, which review repeated back-and-forth voyages. Even Capt. James Cook in the late 1700s knew Polynesians had done the hard work of active discovery. So did many of the researchers of the late 1800s and early 1900s, including the great Maori scholar, Te Rangi Hiroa.

But in 1947 an extremely popular voyage by Thor Heyerdahl reset popular thinking. Heyerdahl argued that Polynesians had simply drifted from island to island. And he built a balsa raft that drifted from South America to the eastern Pacific islands of the Tuamotu to show it was possible.

It includes the great 1983 video “The Navigators, Pathfinders of the Pacific” on navigation, Hokule`a’s first voyage, and Satawal navigator Mau Piailug. The video additionally has fascinating imagery of traditional canoe building, rope making and navigation training.

Herman makes the point, as the title suggests, that Thor Heyerdahl and Kon Tiki misrepresented the evidence.

But Herman misses the, perhaps, bigger point—the Hokule`a and David Lewis’s seminal work on Polynesian navigation occurred in large because of Heyerdahl, and his followers, like the dismissive Australian Andrew Sharp, who denigrated Polynesian skills and intellect.

Were it not for the naysayers, would Hawaiians have risked their lives to prove that their voyaging ancestors could and did navigate? 

Modern research proves not only that they could, but that they did, and that their navigational skills were not only robust but quite varied. 

Mau Piailug and Satawal navigators used  a star compass. Chief Kaveia and the Duff Island navigators of the Solomons use a wind compass and mysterious lights in the water called Te Lapa, as described by anthropologistMimi George. Modern navigator Nainoa Thompson uses still a different system ofhis own.

Different tools. Same result. Another proof. 

© Jan TenBruggencate 2014

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A fungus for all seasons: causes dandruff in humans, but afflicts lobsters, sponges and corals as well

A fungus responsible for skin diseases in humans is also turning out to be common in the marine environment, and in combination with warming oceans is implicated in coral disease.

University of Hawai`i botanist Anthony Amend reported on the endlessly adaptable fungus Malassezia in the August 21, 2014, issue of the scientific journal PLOS Pathogens.

 It turns out the various species of Malassezia are everywhere, including some of the most inhospitable climates on the planet, from icy arctic soils to hot deep sea vents. That’s a far wider range of habitats than anyone had previously recognized. Until now, they have been understood as a land-based mammal problem.

It has been associated with dandruff, eczema and other human skin ailments, and it’s on seals as well. But Amend’s genetic studies of samples of diverse marine creature tissues show it has a much larger host population. It has now also linked to skin disease in lobsters, fish, plankton, and, yes, corals.

“Studies of fungi from environmental samples show that Malassezia are exceedingly widespread and ecologically diverse. Recent studies in little-characterized marine environments point to extensive diversification of Malassezia-like organisms, providing exciting opportunities to explore the ecology, evolution and diversity of this enigmatic group,” Amend wrote in the paper.

Bizarrely, a single strain has been found both in the arctic cold and in hydrothermal deep sea vents. 

“We have found multiple new examples of these fungi on corals, sponges and algae, and in water samples, deep sea thermal vents and sediments from Hawai‘i and around the world,” Amend said in a University of Hawai`i press release.

And the genetic work suggests the fungus repeatedly evolved from the marine environment to land and back again. The kinds that cause itching in humans are genetically intermediate between some of the marine species.

At Palmyra Atoll, to the south of Hawai`i, Amend found a tight link between Malassezia and a disease of coralline algae, which increased when water got warmer. That’s of interest to the Islands in a time of climate change, since coralline algae are a dominant builder of Hawai`i’s protective reef structures.

“A study of crustose coralline algae around Palmyra Atoll found that a Malassezia phylotype was abundant in banding disease lesions. Incidence of the disease increased by an order of magnitude following an el NiƱo event. A laboratory manipulation study showed that disease virulence correlated with an interaction between increases in CO2 and temperature,” the paper said.

It is not yet clear whether the fungus is the cause of the coral banding disease, or simply occupied a weakened reef.

“Analysis of environmental sequences demonstrates that putative members of the Malassezia lineage likely rank among the most widespread fungi on the planet,” Amend wrote. 

© Jan TenBruggencate 2014

Monday, August 25, 2014

Federal court rules State, not county, can regulate pesticides and GMOs

Kaua’i’s controversial Bill 2491/Ordinance 960 was slapped down today by Federal Magistrate Barry M. Kurren.

The County may not enforce the law

And while the judge’s ruling is complex, the message is simple.

The county can’t regulate pesticides or genetically modified crops, because the state already has global” and “comprehensive” regulatory mechanisms in place.

The County, thus, is pre-empted from enacting its own regulatory scheme.

The court case was brought after a messy little drama, in which the County Council passed Bill 2491 to regulate pesticides and GMOs in Kaua`i County, and then the mayor vetoed the bill, and then the County Council filled an empty Council seat in order to have enough votes to override the veto, and then the Council did override the veto by a 5-2 vote. 

That meant the ordinance could take effect. But the new ordinance was immediately appealed by Syngenta Seeds, Syngenta Hawaii, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Agrigenetics and BASF Plant Science. 

Those seed companies sued Kauai County, since was required to enforce 960. Intervenors in the action included Ka Makani Ho`opono, Center for Food Safety, Pesticide Action Network North America and Surfrider Foundation, all of whom supported 960.

There were more than a dozen claims, but two ended up being enough to kill Ordinance 960.

“The Court’s ruling simply recognizes that the State of Hawaii has established a comprehensive framework for addressing the application of restricted use pesticides and the planting of GMO crops, which presently precludes local regulation by the county." 

In short: The state already comprehensively regulates pesticides, so the county can't. And the state already comprehensively regulates dangerous weeds and restricted plans, to the county can't. 

© Jan TenBruggencate 2014

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Hanabusa's chances of U.S. Senate victory: Slim, slimmer and gone.

It remains mathematically possible for U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to pull out a victory against U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz. But realistically, not so much.

Indeed, based on their campaigns' performance since Saturday night, it may be more likely that Schatz increases his lead when the votes are counted in two Big island storm-ravaged communities. More on that further down in this piece.

After Saturday’s Primary Election, Schatz leads Hanabusa by 1,635 votes, 113,800 to 112,165. Among the votes cast for the two of them, Schatz leads by a razor thin 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent—an eight-tenths of a percent difference.

But that statewide percentage number doesn’t matter.

The entire election for Dan Inouye’s U.S. Senate seat comes down to a 1,635-vote margin, and whether the Puna residents in Districts 4-01 and 4-02, whose polls could not open Saturday and who have not yet voted, will favor Hanabusa by more than that.

How likely is that?

There are 8,269 registered voters in those two rural districts, where massive fallen albizia trees have shut down roads and power and devastated the community. The votes of 1,448 have already been counted, leaving 6,821.

The residents from both precincts are invited to vote Friday from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Keoneopoko Elementary School. Government officials say they expect to have the roads open in time.

When it’s over, there’s a good chance that these two little Puna districts will have the highest voter turnout in the state—because suddenly, their votes really matter. Whichever candidate wins, it will be a candidate for whom Puna is on the map. The people of Puna will have had face time with a likely U.S. Senator, something few of us get.

If 100 percent of the remaining voters vote in the Democratic Primary, for Hanabusa to win, she’ll need to win by a margin of 4,228 to 2,593 or 62 percent to 38 percent.

But it won’t be 100 percent. A few folks won’t show up to vote. There will be a couple of spoiled ballots. A couple of folks will vote Republican, although most Republicans will switch and vote the Democratic side of the ballot, since the Republican race for Senate is irrevocably won by Cam Cavasso and there aren’t any dogfights left in any other party.

Let’s assume that 80 percent of the potential voters actually cast Democratic ballots, call it 5,456 voters. That would be near double the statewide percentage turnout. Hanabusa would need 3,545 to get even. That’s 65 percent of the vote.

She would need two votes to every one of Schatz’ votes.

If only 50 percent come out--close to statewide voter turnout averages--she'll need three votes for every one for Schatz.

It is still theoretically possible for Colleen Hanabusa to defeat Brian Schatz, to get far, far more votes than he does. That presumes that  Hanabusa were running a tight, smart campaign targeted at the struggling Puna population.

But she’s not.

Three days before the special election, she’s already acting like she’s lost.

Three days before the vote, she is threatening lawsuits instead of campaigning. Her office released this statement: “Our campaign is currently reviewing all legal options at this time.”

Three days before the special election, she is laying the groundwork to challenge the election: “It is unrealistic to think people struggling to find basic necessities and get out of their homes will have the ability to go to the polls Friday.”

So, if voters do come out to vote in high numbers, will she drop her consideration of a challenge? Likely not, because the courthouse is probably the only chance Colleen Hanabusa has. She needs to force a revote, force a recount, or hope that someone finds a misplaced stack of a couple of thousand Hanabusa ballots in some corner.

And as for the issue of swaying public opinion in her favor, the post-election news reports are catastrophic for Hanabusa.

There are images of Schatz on the ground, personally hauling bottled water to stranded residents refusing to talk to reporters, and notably not wearing a campaign shirt.

Meanwhile, there are reports that Hanabusa was flying overhead in a helicopter, and later toured the area by car and on foot, and issuing media statements that election officials are screwing up.

Which candidate are voters more likely to remember on Friday? 

© Jan TenBruggencate 2014