Friday, October 31, 2008

Orcas, bottlenoses and other cetacean stuff

Hawai'i is known for its humpback whales. You can see them breaching from shore. You can take whale watch tours to get closer. And if you're a regular ocean user like a canoe paddler, sometimes you have to brake for whales.

Few folks know much about Hawai'i's other whales—many don't even know they're there.

(Image: A bottlenose dolphin leaping. Normally it's spinner dolphins that do the acrobatics in Hawaiian waters. Credit: Robin W. Baird/Cascadia Research.)

But they are. They show up occasionally in distress, like the dramatic black-and-white orca that washed ashore at Brennecke's Beach on Kaua'i last week—emaciated and near death, as its pod reportedly patrolled offshore.

In the San Juan Islands between Seattle and Vancouver, orcas are the whale of choice for whale-watching expeditions, just as humpbacks are in Hawai'i.

Orcas or killer whales are rare in Hawai'i, but not unheard of, said Robin Baird, of Cascadia Research. Baird is one of a premier researcher on whales in Hawaiian waters. Among local cetaceans, only false killer whales have a smaller population around Hawai'i, he said.

“They (orcas) are extremely uncommon around the Main Hawaiian Islands,” he said. Because they are so infrequently seen, little or nothing is known about their movement.

These days, in Hawai'i, monk seals are becoming more familiar to beachgoers, as the numbers in the Main Hawaiian Islands continue to grow. For folks who swim in the bays and nearshore waters, spinner dolphins are not uncommon.

Among dolphins, another species is also fairly readily seen, Baird said. That's the bottlenose dolphin. In a new paper published last week in Marine Mammal Science, Baird and co-authors say that an extensive review of photographic evidence indicates that bottlenose populations are homebodies.

Many marine mammals can be identified photographically by distinctive features like color and scar patterns.

They found that there are distinctive populations around each of the main Hawaiian Islands, including Ni'ihau, Kaua'i, O'ahu, Moloka'i, Maui, Lāna'i, Kaho'olawe and Hawai'i. There's considerable evidence that the same individuals show up in their home waters, and that they very infrequently move from one island to another.

“Dispersal among the different areas was estimated at less than 1% per year,” the authors said in a press release.

What this means for conservation is that they may need island-by-island protection.

“The evidence of multiple independent populations within the main Hawaiian Islands has a number of implications for conservation and management,” the authors said. “The fact that there are multiple isolated populations means that populations around any particular island (or group of islands) is smaller and more vulnerable to human impacts.”

Once again, the more you learn, the more you realize that on a species-by-species basis, there's no one-size-fits-all solution to managing natural resources.

Citation: Baird, R.W., A.M. Gorgone, D.J. McSweeney, A.D. Ligon, M.H. Deakos, D.L. Webster, G.S. Schorr, K.K. Martien, D.R. Salden, and S.D. Mahaffy. In press. Population structure of island- associated dolphins: evidence from photo-identification of common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in the main Hawaiian Islands. Marine Mammal Science. DOI: 10.1111/j.1748-7692.2008.00257.x

URL to see a copy:

©2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Monday, October 27, 2008

Hawaiian lobelias--all from a single original immigrant

The Hawaiian archipelago is not renowned for its spectacular native flowers, but it has them, and some of the most breathtaking examples are in the lobelia family.
From amazing spires of ivory blooms that rise from low rosettes of green to drooping delicate lavender showpieces that dangle from tree forms.
(Image: A yellow-flowered Brighamia insignis—another of the amazing range of lobelias in Hawai'i. Credit: Forest and Kim Starr.)
Purples and pales are the lobelias' favorite colors, but the range is enormous.
So, where does all this diversity come from in an island chain so isolated.
From a single introduction, 13 million years ago, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, “Origin, adaptive radiation and diversification of the Hawaiian lobeliads.”
Its authors are Thomas Givnish, Kendra Millam, Thomas Paterson, Terra Theim, Jillian Henss and Kenneth Sytsma, all of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Austin Mast of Florida State University, Andrew Hipp of Illinois' Morton Arboretum, James Smith of Idaho's Snake River Plains Herbarium, and, in Hawai'i, Kenneth Wood of the National Tropical Botanical Garden.
Their research updates earlier arguments that lobelias in Hawai'i must have come from multiple introductions.
The lobelia's 126 species in six distinct genus groups, represent an eighth of all the native plant species in Hawai'i. And, say the authors, “have long been viewed as one of the most spectacular examples of adaptive radiation in plants.”
Perhaps the most spectacular.
“The Hawaiian lobelias are the most species-rich radiation of plants derived from a single colonist to be resolved on any single oceanic island or archipelago,” the authors write.
Looking into the genetic material in Hawaiian lobelias, the researchers concluded that the first one arrived long before any of the existing main Hawaiian Islands were even formed. Thirteen million years ago, the islands we now know as French Frigate Shoals, Gardner Pinnacles and Laysan were located where the current main islands are. With the northwest movement of the Pacific Plate, those islands now lie hundreds of miles away, in the middle of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
So the ancestors of modern lobelias, once they arrived here, hopped across channels as new islands formed, riding winds, riding currents, riding birds perhaps.
The source of Hawai'i's first lobelia remains unclear. The Hawaiian group's closest relatives are in Japan's Bonin Islands, elsewhere in Polynesia, and Africa. All are about equally closely related, so there is no clear front-runner in the guessing on which is the source.
The earliest arrivals appear to have been plants adapted to forests, grasslands and bogs, and certain kinds of lobelias seem to have evolved later to suit cliffside habitats and high-elevation environments.
Those earliest arrivals also seem to have been ones with wind-dispersed seeds. Over time, some of the lobelias developed fleshy fruits that were dispersed by birds. Once genus groups like the Cyanea did this, they couldn't move as far and began developing more different species than the wind-dispersed lobelias.
©2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Monday, October 13, 2008

Precious corals millenia old

Hawai'i's precious deep-water corals are not only precious, but they are among the oldest living things in the Islands.

(Image: Black Coral growing, this one in the Gulf of Mexico. It's the skeleton that's black. NOAA Credit: NURC/UNCW and NOAA/FGBNMS)

The oldest corals were growing in Island waters long before the first humans arrived.

Some black corals--in this case the species Antipathes glaberrima--may be as much as 4,000 years old.

Some gold corals may date back 2,700 years.

Hawai'i ocean researcher Rick Grigg said these corals, which grow more than 1,000 feet deep, have not been a part of the Hawaiian black coral harvest.

"The sample is NOT the black coral used in the Hawaii coral industry. Those black corals are Antipathes dichotoma and Antipathes grandis. They grow 5-6 cm/yr (about two inches) and are found between 30-100 m (100 to 300 feet) depth and are harvested by SCUBA divers. This fishery has been going since 1958. The divers take about 3% per year and the population appears to have been sustainable over this long period (50 yrs)," Grigg said in an email.

Some early coral age estimates were based on the assumption that growth rings on corals are produced annually, like those of trees, but new radiocarbon research suggests that's not the case.

Early estimates were that gold corals could grow more than two inches a year, according to an amendment to the precious corals fishery management plan produced this year for the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council. In fact, the growth rate may be a small fraction of a hundredth of an inch per year. Or, viewed another way, something like an inch of growth every 700 years or so.

The upshot is that if you harvest it, it doesn't grow back anytime soon, according to researchers from Stanford University and the Laurence Livermore National Laboratory. They used submersibles to collect deep-sea corals and used radiocarbon dating to determine their venerability.

This can only be seen as bad news for Hawai'i's precious coral industry, which has been troubled for some time by a range of things.

Regulators have placed increasingly strict rules on the harvesting of corals. Divers have been reporting that coral beds recently have been overgrown by an aggressive invader called snowflake coral. Additionally, research shows that coral beds may be significant forage areas for endangered monk seals.

The researchers, led by Stanford's Brendan Roark, argue for a local and federal ban on the harvesting of the oldest corals, on the grounds that they can't replace themselves on any reasonable time scale and any level of harvesting is unsustainable.

From a scientific standpoint, Roark said the corals can be extremely valuable, since their hard skeletons may contain information about the changes in the world's oceans over the past four millenia.

They could, in fact, be the archives of the ocean, he said.

“These organisms are the equivalent of the bristlecone pine in the deep ocean,” Roark said in a press release from Stanford.

©2008 Jan TenBruggencate

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Hawai'i okay, not great, on energy efficiency

The cheapest form of energy is the energy you don't use.

That can mean conservation—turning off the lights. But more importantly, perhaps, it can mean efficiency.

A modern refrigerator that does the same work with half the power of an old model has zero impact on the quality of life, but a positive impact on both the environment and the pocketbook. (Image credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory.)

So, how does Hawai'i rank in energy efficiency?

Okay, but nowhere near great, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). The council just released its 2008 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard. (It's free to download at

Hawaii may have the highest power bills in the country, and may pay stunningly high fuel costs—but we're not in the top 10 states when it comes to efficiency.

In fact, we're in a three-way tie for 15th.

Using the refrigerator analogy, we're still using our grandmother's old power-guzzling round-shouldered model. Came in any color you wanted, as long as it was white.

On the ACEEE's scorecard, we get just 17 out of 50 possible points for energy efficiency.
That's way out of first place, where California got with 40.5 points, and even way out of 10th place, which New Jersey won with a 25.5.

The ACEEE study looked at and ranked eight areas of state policy: utility sector and public benefit programs; transportation policy; building codes; combined heat and power; appliance efficiency standards; lead-by-example in state facilities and fleets; research, development and deployment; and financial and information incentives.

Hawai'i got zero points in three of those categories: energy efficiency standards for appliances; research, development and deployment; and financial and information incentives.

To be sure, the data is for 2007, and Gov. Linda Lingle in January 2008 signed the Hawai'i Clean Energy Initiative, although its main goal is not efficiency but renewable energy. Still, it signals a serious state concern about the energy situation.

And certainly, there are lots of states with worse records than the Islands. Alaska scored 37th with a 6.5, West Virginia 43rd with 5.5 and Wyoming ranked dead last (51st in this ranking, which included the District of Columbia) with a zero.

Why are the state-by-state rankings important? That's because the states are where the nation's serious energy efficiency work is being done—and not on the federal level, ACEEE says.

“States are leading the nation in advancing energy efficiency policies and programs, which is why it is important to recognize and document best practices among the states, both to encourage other states to follow and to encourage federal action to catch up,” the report says.

©2008 Jan TenBruggencate

Monday, October 6, 2008

Hawaiian seals genetically poor, declining in population

Hawaiian monk seals have the lowest genetic diversity of any endangered species, according to a new study.

And although the endangered seals seem to have been able to recover somewhat from severe hunting pressure a century and a half ago, the lack of genetic variation worries scientists as the seals continue declining in populations.

(Image: Monk seal mug. Credit: NOAA.)

Great genetic diversity is considered one of the hallmarks of a successful species—it means that within the population, on a genetic level there's an ability to adapt, whether to climate changes, diseases or other issues.

It means, for example, that within a genetically diverse larger population, there are at least some individuals with resistance to specific viral diseases, some resistant to some kinds of fungus attack, some capable of handling warmer climate conditions, and so forth. Thus no one threat will wipe out the entire species.

“Genetically depauperate species may have a reduced ability to mount an effective defense against pathogens or to adapt to environmental changes, thereby increasing the risk of extinction,” says the new study, “Extremely Low Genetic Diversity in the Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal (Monachus schauinslandi).”

It was published in the Journal of Heredity by lead author University of Hawai'i graduate student Jennifer Schultz, along with Jason Baker, Robert Toonen and Brian Bowen, who represent the University of Hawai'i Department of Zoology and Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology, and NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center.

The paper suggests that Hawaiian monk seals may always have been somewhat genetically short-changed, but that it's likely severe hunting pressure drove it into unprecedented conditions for mammals.

The seals populated the entire Hawaiian archipelago before the first humans arrived. Early Polynesians are believed to have killed off the seals in the main Hawaiian Islands fairly early. European sailors nearly wiped them out in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands—they're easy to catch while hauled out to rest on the beach.

A single ship's voyage through the northwestern islands in 1859 took at least 1,500 seals. That one ship's take is more than entire population today. The 1890s populations apparently had disappeared entirely from the islands of Laysan and Midway. It may be that the species was only saved because some of the population is nearly always at sea.

The paper suggests the number of seals possibly dropped as low as two dozen—and that the 1,200 or so seals now living all descend from them.

Hawaiian monk seals have been so well studied that close to nine out of ten adult seals have been genetically sampled. The finding of the latest study on seals is this: “The Hawaiian monk seal sets a new standard for low genetic diversity in endangered species.”

Despite that, the seal population rebounded to close to 3,000 animals in the middle of the 20th century. And since then, despite amazing efforts by federal and state agencies, the population has been slowly declining. Divers have been removing trapped seals from drifting nets, shooing sharks away from their birthing beaches and erecting fences to protect seals from the loving human masses. In spite of that, the population continues to drop at a rate of about 4 percent annually.

“Although genetic factors may not be driving the current population trend, we cannot ignore their potential impact on future population persistence because species with higher genetic diversity have experienced compromised fertility, reduced reproductive rates, high juvenile mortality, and disease epidemics,” the paper says.

So what is causing the seal numbers to decline? The 2007 NOAA recovery plan for the seals suggests these are the major factors:

“• Very low survival of juveniles and sub-adults due to starvation (believed to be

principally related to food limitation) has persisted for many years across much of the


“• Entanglement of seals in marine debris has and continues to result in significant levels of

seal mortality

“• Predation of juvenile seals by Galapagos sharks has significantly increased

“• Human interactions in the Main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) including recreational fishery

interactions, mother-pup disturbance on popular beaches, and exposure to disease

“• Hawaiian monk seal haul-out and pupping beaches are being lost to erosion in the

Northwest Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), and monk seal prey resources in the NWHI may

have been reduced as a result of climate cycles and other factors

“• Potential disease outbreaks could have a devastating effect due to small population size

and limited geographic range” --

©2008 Jan TenBruggencate

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Seeking anonymous poster on 1837 Gledstanes shipwreck

Raising Islands is looking for reader help here.

In our August 15 post on the discovery of the 1837 Gledstanes shipwreck at Kure Atoll, a reader wrote in anonymously about a personal connection to the ship—that he or she was descended from crew member Thomas King.

(Image: A diver measures a cannon from the Gledstanes shipwreck. NOAA photo)

The original post on the shipwreck discovery is at

Marine archaeologists would love to be able to make contact with the writer.

Researcher, Kelly Gleason, of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, wrote Raising Islands:

“I was wondering if there is any way that I might be able to find out and communicate with someone who wrote in to the blog about the Gledstanes discovery in the NWHI and said that he/she was descendant of Thomas King who signed on the ship. I'm dying to hear more...but am not sure the best way to get in touch or find out who this person is.”

The reader can respond to me privately at, or directly to Gleason at

©2008 Jan TenBruggencate

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Prized ono carry international passports

Many anglers think of ono as a local, coastal fish, caught on ledges and dropoffs around the island, but a new genetic study shows they may be genetically more closely related worldwide than any other fish.

“They share genotypes between here and the Bahamas, which is unheard of in other tunas, billfish, and sharks,” said fish researcher Brian Bowen of the University of Hawai'i's Institute of Marine Biology.

(Image: a couple of anglers hold a fresh caught ono, also known as wahoo or Acanthocybium solandri. Photo:

The ono is a powerful, slim fish with tasty white meat. The fish is found throughout the world in warm to temperate waters. In Hawai'i, it is often caught trolling. Because ono do not school, they are not readily overfished by netting—and there are still quite a few of them as other fished species are declining in population.

A genetic study suggests all ono worldwide are comparatively closely related—much more so than many of the other fish with which they swim.

The study in the journal “Molecular Ecology” is entitled “High connectivity on a global scale in the pelagic wahoo, Acanthocybium solandri (tuna family Scombridae).” It was written by T. C. Theisen and J.D. Baldwin of Florida Atlantic University, Bowen of the University of Hawai'i's Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology, and W. Lanier of the University of Iowa.

Hawai'i's Bowen said Hawaiian ono are very closely related to, for example, the ono swimming in the Bahamas, on the other side of the Americas. While a particular species of fish might be found both in different oceans, they normally are genetically quite different in distant locations—on account of having been isolated from each other for so long.

Not so with ono.

That doesn't mean Bahamian ono are cruising around the coast of South America or Africa for Hawaiian amorous vacations, but it does suggest there is something interesting going on.

One piece of the puzzle is that the fish do swim great distances. One O'ahu ono was tagged and was later recovered 2,700 kilometers away. That's about 1,700 miles.

But swimming isn't everything. It is also possible, the authors say, that the ono tend to spawn near oceanic currents that disperse their keiki dramatically.

“The combination of adult and larval dispersal yields the only globally-distributed animal with no population separations,” Bowen said.

That creates a unique challenge for fishery managers, who don't normally deal with fish that lack regional population boundaries.

“The challenge for managers is how to deal with a single worldwide stock. (Ono) are not overfished yet. Is it possible to overfish a global stock? We'll find out in the next few decades,” he said.

The paper does suggest that the ono seems to be the poster child arguing for international cooperation in protecting fisheries.

“The size of the wahoo population may still resemble pre-industrialized levels, and thus an increase in fishing pressure that reduces the overall size of the wahoo population and hence, the number of migrants per generation, may reduce or even eliminate their apparent global connectivity,” the authors write.

“For wahoo, an opportunity still exists for agencies to manage and study a pelagic fishery before it becomes over-exploited. Continued research on this apparently still-healthy pelagic fishery will almost certainly provide data valuable to the management of other, over-exploited pelagic species,” they write.

©2008 Jan TenBruggencate