Uphill Struggles: Cassowaries, Seeds, and Conservation in New Guinea
[Slide text: Uphill Struggles: Of Cassowaries, Seeds and Conservation
Andrew L. Mack; Photo: Portrait of cassowary]
[Ed] Hello, good evening. We’re gonna get going here. I wanna welcome everyone. My name is Ed Scholes, and I’m the director of research and interpretation at the Macaulay Library here at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Um I just want to let everybody know that tonight’s event is uh being live streamed, so I want to welcome everybody in the room, but also everybody watching online. Thanks for joining in.
And a couple announcements. The next Monday night seminar will be on April 6 here at seven-thirty. And that will be a seminar and a book signing by Steve Kress, who I think many of you know, um or know of, the director of the Audubon Seabird Restoration Program and instructor of the Cornell Lab Spring Field Ornithology Course. And the title of his presentation will be Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock. So please join us for that on April 6.
All right, so tonight it’s my great pleasure to be uh able to introduce you to our speaker, uh Dr. Andrew Mack, or Andy as most of us call him. Andy is currently the executive director of the Indo-Pacific Conservation Alliance, and he’s also the scientific director for Green Capacity, which is an organization that Andy founded to help support conservation and research in Papua New Guinea. From 2007 to 2011 Andy held an endowed position as a conservation biologist at the Carnegie Z—uh the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
And before that Andy worked as a conservation scientist for several major international conservation organizations. Including about a decade of time where he was the co-director for the Papua New Guinea program, the Papua New Guinea country program for the Wildlife Conservation Society. And it was about that time in Andy’s, Andy’s career where I first met him about 16 years ago. Uh back then I was a beginning graduate student, and I was dreaming of going to New Guinea some day, and maybe having a chance of just seeing a bird of paradise,
and maybe hopefully having the chance to study one one day. And it was with Andy’s advice and his mentorship, as well as the extensive infrastructure that he helped build for researchers, that was able to help me turn my dream of studying birds of paradise into reality. And uh Andy’s efforts have gone on to make that same thing possible for for many of us, not just expats going to work in Papua New Guinea, but more importantly for lots of Papua New Guineans to do research in their own country.
So I think tonight you’ll get a glimpse of some of Andy’s many accomplishments while researching cassowaries and working on conservation in the field in uh New Guinea, especially in Papua New Guinea. Um but I encourage you to learn more about Andy’s story and his work in his recently published book
[Ed holds up a copy of the book]
called Searching for Pekpek: Cassowaries and Conservation in the New Guinea Rainforest, uh which is available for sale and signing afterwards. And for you folks online, Andy’s book can be found through his website, which is cassowaryconservation.com. So I encourage everybody to check that out and get a copy there if you don’t get one, get one here. And so with that I’m going to turn it over to Andy.
[Dr. Andy Mack] Thank you.
It’s great to be here, and um get a chance to share some of this stuff with you. I’m always excited to talk about New Guinea, people aren’t familiar with it so much. And um talk about cassowaries and my research a little. So I’ll start out a little bit, if you’re not familiar with New Guinea um, and some people aren’t but
[Slide text: New Guinea: world’s second largest island, 3rd largest rainforest, Over 800 languages; Image: Map showing Asia, Australia, and part of Africa with New Guinea circled]
it’s this island here to the north of Australia. It’s the second largest island in the world after Greenland, and it’s the third largest remaining uh rainforest on earth after the Amazon and Congo Basin. So it’s a big rainforest. Uh and a lot of ways very healthy, and evolutionarily it’s unique from these other rainforests. So it’s a very interesting place.
And also you can’t, it’s dropped down there a little, but there’s over 800 languages just in the country of Papua New Guinea. So the country of Papua New Guinea is this eastern half of the island, and those islands there. So somewhere around 30 percent or more the world’s languages are in that part of this island. So it’s culturally diverse it’s, so it’s always been a mecca for anthropologists. But for biologists like Ed and I, it’s a mecca for other reasons.
[Image: Papua New Guinea placed on contiguous US map for size comparison]
Just give you an idea. It’s not a huge uh place, you know relative, you know like the California or East Coast states, but again this is the incredible diversity. Over six percent of the earth’s biodiversity, species of birds or whatever group you usually look at are on this one island, which is less than one percent of the earth’s land area. So it’s incredibly rich. Give you an idea of the size here
[Slide text: SIZE & POPULATION
Location Area (km2) Population Pop. Density (p/km2)
New Guinea 944,427 11,568,00 12. 2
Papua New Guinea 462,840 7,321,000 15. 8
New York 141,300 19,747,000 159
USA 9,629,091 318,900,000 33. 1]
compared to New York. Um, you know just size and population. And as a conservationist the key thing here is look at the population density. So even of all US including Alaska where that’s got half the population density. So it’s a big Island, a lot of rainforests, and not a lot of people on it. So there’s a lot of potential for conservation there compared to you know India, Bangladesh, places where you know you’re really struggling to find a forest that’s not already heavily impacted by people. And like I say there’s this incredible stuff
[Slide text: Why cassowaries?; Photos: A kingfisher, parrot, and bird of paradise found in Papua New Guinea]
to add you know famous for birds of paradise, and big radiations of parrots, over 30 species of kingfisher. I mean, we have one in North America. There’s 30 some species of kingfishers there. All sorts of stuff. So why I went there to study cassowaries, and why, why would I, did I choose cassowaries? Well, you know. Everyone likes to say they’re living dinosaurs,
[Slide text: Living Dinosaurs!; Photo: Corythosaurus fossil]
and you can, you can make the argument that all birds are living dinosaurs. But it’s a, it’s, it seems more true with cassowaries because they’re terrestrial. This is a fossil Co—Cor—Corythosaurus. Terrestrial, bipedal. But when you’re up close to them like here
[Slide text: Andy Mack/VIREO; Photo: Human foot next to cassowary feet]
you really get a feeling for um, you feel like this is a dinosaur. So this is a, was a, the cassowary, that’s my foot, the cassowary was dead or I would have been dead
if I were that close to a cassowary. So this is a big, potentially dangerous bird. So it feels sort of more dinosaur-like than, you know, when you’re looking at hummingbirds or a red-winged blackbird, okay. Um when you see these footprints out there,
it’s like okay we, you know,
[Photo: Loch Ness monster]
this famous for the Loch Ness monster, but really you know I think the real story there is that it was the Loch Ness cassowary.
So it was just a bad photograph.
So when you see him like this it feels like, okay this is, this is not just an ordinary bird. So my friend took this picture uh in a dugout canoe.
[Slide text: Photo courtesy of Steve Richards; Photo: Cassowary walking in water deep enough that just its head, neck, and part of its back are visible]
What he didn’t show is they got a little too close to it and they almost ended up in the soup,
this thing did not, was not happy being caught mid-river like this. And if you go to Australia and in the parks you know,
[Slide text: If confronted by a cassowary while on foot: 1. Do not turn and run. 2. Back off slowly watching the bird as you go. If the cassowary becomes aggressive place a solid object such as a tree between yourself and the bird. 3. If nothing is available, hold an item of clothing or a backpack in front of you and continue to back away slowly.; Images: Silhouette of person, cassowary, tree, and backpack depicting the steps]
they’ll tell ya you got to be careful about cassowaries. Um, you know they got advice here. Do not turn and run, which is always good advice when, which none of us will follow if presented with an animal that’s this big coming at us. And then it’s like get behind a tree, or put something in front of you. And in my case that’s what research assistants are for.
So you have an intern or research assistant there, there to take the place of that shield, which really wouldn’t do a good job with a pissed-off cassowary. Um, but that’s Australia and in, actually there the birds are somewhat habituated to humans. They’re not afraid, and there actually it could be a little dangerous there, now and then one chases a person and it makes the news. Um but it doesn’t happen very often in New Guinea for reasons I’ll, I can talk about. And one of those is that
[Photo: Cassowary head hidden behind plants]
the birds are very secretive, okay. In New Guinea you, I, where I could work, I could go weeks without seeing one, although I’ve seen their tracks every day, I was finding their droppings every day. This is a secretive bird. It’s like working with jaguars or big cats. You hear them, you see fresh footprints. Um they make a little glugging noise when they’re walking around. It’s just a quiet noise, you can be 30 yards away you won’t hear it. But I’d hear it and I couldn’t see the bird. And they just kind of melt into the shadows with that black plumage. Um so you’re kind of lucky just in New Guinea to see a wild cassowary. And also with the um,
[Photo: Cassowary bending over with head near the ground]
the link to dinosaurs and sorts of things is they, and and you’re interesting to try, I’ve used cassowaries to try and learn about some of these uh ancient organisms. And one thing the cassowaries can do is they make this booming communication. Um it’s very low. I was going to play some tapes but it’s actually, you can’t hear it on a regular, if people listening online, you can’t hear it on a computer speaker. You need a really good subwoofer because it’s, it has, it goes down into infrasound into ranges that are inaudible to people almost.
And this is a, a video of one here. I’ll try and uh, a captive bird. I was leaning over its pen, trying to take a picture of it. Whoops, um. And they have that fleshy skin on the neck that they um kind of inflate, and they puff up a little sucking down air, and then they throw their head down and do this quivering booming. So this is how it’s producing sound now.
[Video: Cassowary bending over with head down and body vibrating before picking head up and looking at the camera]
and so it’s a big sort of resonating chamber. And remember I’m just leaning over the pen here,
and then it’s like okay, this is when the filming ended.
Because again, it’s like the bird looks at you like that and you sort of think twice about staying so close. So this, the call they make then is, is you can see here if you’re used to reading these things.
[Slide text: Dwarf Cassowary
pulsed harmonics 25, 50, 75, 100 Hz; Graph: Frequency (Hz) and Relative Amplitude (dB) over time (1 sec/div) FFT: 4096 Window: Hanning
of dwarf cassowary booming call]
This, this is hertz here, so we’re usually listening in the kilohertz range. So we’re down around 25 hertz is the fundamental frequency there. So that’s in the infrasound. That’s sort of like the range. Um elephants go even lower than that. They’re famous for making these low communications. But one thing that’s neat about, when you make a low frequency like that it can travel long distances through the rainforest. And just goes right through trees and vegetation without really being uh, attenuated.
So the birds they’re solitary and they’re alone out in these, in the forest, but they can probably be communicating and keeping track of each other with this vocalization over large distances. And so it’s kind of been an interesting sort of sideline of some of the work I did was trying to learn more about this communication. But the um, the real reason there, and I’ll get to is,
[Slide text: Double-wattled Cassowary
Southern NG and northern Australia
Up to 50 kg
Endangered in Australia; Images: Range map of double-wattled cassowary in New Guinea, and photo of double-wattled cassowary]
like was to be talking about seed dispersal. And there’s three, people don’t know there’s three species of cassowaries in the world. The Australians are proud of you know, cassowaries is a big deal for them. I like to tell my Aussie friends oh well you just have a relic population of one species. We’ve got three in New Guinea.
Um this is the one the Australians have, so it’s shared with um, in Queensland. And they have maybe about a thousand individuals left. So it’s uh considered endangered species there, but in New Guinea the populations are probably still pretty robust. Um this is the largest one, it’s getting over a hundred pounds, um hundred, hundred twenty pounds. So it’s a big, intimidating bird. This is the other big species.
[Slide text: Single-wattled Cassowary
Least known of the 3 spp.
Occurs in northern lowlands of NG
up to 50 kg?; Images: Range map and photo of single-wattled cassowary]
It’s found in the lowlands in the north, just in the north of New Guinea. Uh and it’s quite different in some ways. But nothing’s known about this bird. It’s never been studied in the wild, there’s a few observations of it. But really it’s just this huge big bird out there, no one’s ever really done any research with.
And then the species I work with is called the dwarf. So it’s just a little guy.
[Slide text: Dwarf Cassowary
20-30 kg; Images: Range map and photo of dwarf cassowary]
It’s only about 50 pounds, 55 pounds. Um and it’s found in montane New Guinea, in here. So in this part of New Guinea you have the central ranges, there’s some quite large mountains. One of the only, there’s still a glacier, a tropical glacier in New Guinea. It’s one of the last glaciers. It’s Kilimanjaro, and then there’s the Andes. So we still have a glacier there. It’s kind of melting fast with climate change. So they’re big mountains. Um and they’ll go right up to tree line in these, in these montane forests. So this was the species I wanted to work with when I first went to New Guinea. And um, so my question was,
[Slide text: Ecology of Seed Dispersal; Photo: Plant with red berries growing from the stem]
you always, you know as a graduate student you have a question. What’s, where you’re going to study. And I was interested in seed dispersal. And as you all know why do we have. If you think of an apple or a plum and cherry. You’ve got a seed surrounded by a succulent fruit, and that, that’s the part we eat. That pulp does nothing for the seed, okay. So when the seed germinates it grows on the endosperm that’s inside the seed. So the plant, the mother plant’s investing a lot to produce all this fleshy pulp which does nothing for her own, for their own progeny. So there’s a kind of question is well what’s the advantage of seed dispersal, you know why does a plant invest in producing all these, this fleshy pulp? And that was sort of the basic question I was going there to study and
[Slide text: Ecology of Seed Dispersal
- What advantages does dispersal provide to plants?
- Why produce fruits with fleshy pulp?]
I’ll be saying cassowaries were an ideal system to try and address this question. You know, why does a plant produce this? And if things like um acorns, maples, pines they produce a naked, basically a naked seed, there’s no pulp on them. So why do some, most plants do this, especially in the rainforest?
[Slide text: What are the advantages of seed dispersal?]
Well at the time that there were several thoughts that well the idea is an animal, a monkey or a bird comes and eats that,
[Slide text: What are the advantages of seed dispersal?
- Escape from seed predators or pathogens near the parent?]
and in doing so it takes the seed away from the parent plant. And it either regurgitates or defecates that seed in another place. And by doing so, the seed may escape a zone of high mortality around the parent. So the parent plant is attracting rats that eat seeds, or pathogens, uh caterpillars may drop out and chew, of the parent tree and chew on the seeds, something like that. Um so, so there is one school of thought that said well the advantage of seed dispersal is to escape high mortality.
[Slide text: What are the advantages of seed dispersal?
- Escape from seed predators or pathogens near the parent?
- Deposition in more establishment sites and/or sites more favorable than under the parent tree?]
And the other sort of theory is well, it’s not so much mortality at the parent plant but it’s getting put in a better place. So just like if you you know parents with children, you want the kids [inaudible] college, okay you’re out of here, you want to disperse, be away from me. Not competing with me, but you want them to land in a good spot.
So you don’t send them to you know the worst slum you can think of unless, well some kids maybe. Um, so these were the basic questions I wanted to ask. And so the thing, if you’re studying this with any other bird the important thing is well, where do the seeds go, and what’s happening to them after they’ve been moved. And if you were looking at say our classic, the main frugivore here in New York would be, like a classic would be a cedar waxwing. They eat fruit, they disperse seeds. But go out and try and find the seeds after they’ve dispersed them. I mean you can walk around the forest a long time before you’ll find what is definitively a cedar waxwing dropping. Not so with cassowaries.
So the, the, I very much was focused on what the back end of what comes out of a cassowary after they’ve been eating these fruit. And like what kind of advantage
[Slide text: What are the advantages of seed dispersal?
- Escape from seed predators or pathogens near the parent?
- Deposition in more establishment sites and/or sites more favorable than under the parent tree?
- Is movement random or directed in some way?
- If directed, does it confer an advantage?]
I could follow that and say what kind of advantage is coming to the plant by having been moved by a cassowary.
So one of the reasons especially in New Guinea it’s, it’s a good study system is we, um.
[Slide text: Large, hard seed gnawed by rat to eat endosperm.; Photo: Large, chewed on seeds on leaf-covered forest floor with pen next to them]
The main group, there’s marsupials and then there’s a radiation of rats. And the rats, this is a fruit that’s been chewed by a rat. And this, you see all this here is the seed. A lot of things have these big seeds, and the, the actual shell of the seed, the husk can be very, very, very strong. You can’t cut this with a, with a machete. You have to use a hacksaw, it’s that strong. It’s like cutting bone. It’s really hard. And then inside is the little bit of endosperm, and the embryo of the plant.
And so the plants have evolved a large, strong seed to be, withstand these rats chewing on them. And the reason they can do that is because there’s a big disperser like a cassowary. So a cedar waxwing couldn’t move this fruit, it’s the size of my fist. But a cassowary, it’s not a problem. So you’ve got a system where evolutionarily has favored very large seeds.
[Slide text: Large seeds tolerate damage due to rodents and insects and produce similarly sized seedlings with up to 50% of seed removed and survive well with up to 75% damage.; Graph: Percentage of tissue removed versus percent of maximum seedling height]
And if you go to this Neotropics, or even to Borneo and places and look at fruits, and then go to New Guinea you’ll be surprised with how many large fruits you find. This is just a graph that shows basically I did experiments with a lot of things where I just chopped up seeds, and removed like a whole lot of the seed, up to 75 percent of the seed, and it would still grow and produce a nice seedling. So they’ve evolved a large seed size basically as a defense against rodents. So a rodent can have a full meal on a seed and still not kill it. So if you get big enough as a seed you can withstand a lot of predation.
You think of something like an apple seed though, not that much can be chewed off an apple seed before it’s dead. But if the seed’s the size of the actual apple, then you know the rat can’t eat, can’t kill it by chewing on it. And so you have the system where you’ve evolved large fruits
[Slide text: Courtesy of Storyteller Media; Photo: Cassowary feet standing on grass]
that are eaten by cassowaries. And, um to give you an idea. So they’ve got a little footage, you can see they’re swallowing these whole fruits.
[Slide text: Read more about Dr. Mack’s work with cassowaries at www.cassowaryconservation.com; Photo: Cassowary head, neck, and back with plants in the background]
They just slide down the throat like,
it’s like a cartoon thing almost. And I raised a few cassowaries, and you know we’re out in the forest all alone. And we’d like to see how big a something we could give them and they’d swallow. And you know, you give them a whole eggplant,
and they’d really work on it and then finally you see this huge you know thing slide down its throat. Um cucumbers, the whole cucumber. They’ll swallow that. It doesn’t hurt them. And it’s, and that’s, a lot of the fruit in the New Guinea forests are big, are like this. And it goes in the, in the cassowary. And then the gut passage is quick, surprisingly fast. So the seeds go through the gut tract, sometimes in less than an hour. And then they void them in a pile of seeds that you can find, and that’s what I was studying.
[Photo: Cassowary dropping on leaf-covered forest floor, with camera lens cap placed on top]
This is the dropping of a cassowary. So it didn’t eat my camera, uh that, put the lens cap there for a size comparison. Um, but you can see how big some of these seeds are. So that’s a pandanus, and that’s you know almost the size of my fist that it had swallowed whole. And it came through.
This is what I would call a dual dropping here because the bird, this is a place where the bird slept. And so you’d find these spots and then there’d be like a pile, a pekpek, and then they go back to sleep. Some more seeds go through the gut and they—pekpek’s the local name for a dropping—they defecate again, a smaller pile. And you can find three, sometimes four, each getting smaller in a half circle around where the bird slept. And so they’re completely clearing the gut out at night. And you find these spots with these several uh piles of droppings. And this was sort of, my mother’s quite proud, you know the subject of my research
was uh, the dung of this large bird. But the point I’m trying to make is you can learn something very interesting about ecology by looking at this. Um, so they were the ideal
[Slide text: Cassowaries: ideal for study; Photo: Cassowary head, looking directly at the camera]
subject for study. Um unlike a lot of other things you might study, cassowaries eat only fruit. So if you’re studying orangutans or elephants, they eat some big fruits too, but they also eat foliage. And of course elephants can chew up whole trees, bark, and wood.
Um cassowaries are the largest specialist frugivores in the world. So it’s hard to live just on fruit, but cassowaries manage to do it. So the droppings are easy to find.
[Slide text: Cassowaries: ideal for study
Large obligate frugivore diet > 95% fruit
Dispersed seeds (droppings) are easy to locate
Fruits can be manipulated prior to being eaten
Large-seeded plants have no other dispersers]
Like I said you can’t do that with a tanager or a cedar waxwing or something. So I could go out, and I had—a lot of people study other fruit eating animals, bats, but I could study one that had this advantage I can find these big piles.
And then another advantage is that they’re terrestrial like I am, so I could manipulate fruits on the ground before a cassowary eats them. And again if you’re doing that with a waxwing you got to climb up in the tree and risk your life and try and do something. So I could manipulate the food directly before a cassowary gets to it. And I’ll talk a little about some of the things I was able to do then.
And then lastly, because these things are so large, there’s no other animal in New Guinea dispersing them. So what I was learning about this system wasn’t like being modified because a bunch of other things are eating these things as well.
So likewise, using the cedar waxwing example. If you’re studying those and say holly berries or something, well then also robins and all sorts of other things eat holly berries too, so you’ve got a whole group of dispersers. But in this system it’s a one-on-one relationship. So it was good for study. Um, but the thing is they’re in this New Guinea, it’s tough. It’s a remote area.
[Slide text: Study site: Crater Mountain; Image: Part of a map of New Guinea, with a red arrow pointing to Crater Mountain]
And as I’d mentioned you know the infrastructure for research there wasn’t great. When I started work there. So as a probably foolish uh graduate student, uh and then anyone here who advises students would certainly tell them not, don’t do what he did. Um I decided to build a research station so I could do my research.
So I went, ended up in this part. These are those central ranges here, I was in the southern flank of it. And went there. You fly in a little Cessna to a mission landing strip. Okay you think that’s remote. But then we walked ten hours to get, to get to the study site.
[Photo: Small plane coming in to land on a grass and dirt landing strip with forested mountains in the background and local people watching]
Crossing this river so many times, zigzagging up it that I never was able to count how many times I crossed it because always got too exhausted and lost count.
[Photo: Two people wading in a river with lots of rocks in it]
Um, so it was remote. It was, it was hard to get to but the advantage was the populations of cassowaries were good, and we didn’t, weren’t being bothered by hunters. And this was my backyard,
[Photo: Forested mountains and waterfalls from above]
so I was I was very, very lucky to get to live in a place like this for, for years. And the, this down here behind this cliff face was where our study area was, and this whole drainage above, there’s no people living upstream from us. It’s a huge area with no other people living in it, except the biologists that went there, and of course the cassowaries and the animals we wanted to look at. So it’s a beautiful area. Um, and we had, you know, lots of waterfalls and um
[Photo: Waterfalls in a forest with clouds coming in from the top]
just a nice intact system to, and nice to live there. But it’s, it’s hard to live in a place like this so I’ll mention, you know, so the, you had to
[Photo: Camp living structure in the forest, with plastic sheets over a wooden frame and supplies inside]
build some kind of place to live if you’re going to be there for years. So we made a camp like this. This is just the, lived under here for about six months. It’s really easy to string some plastic over a frame. There’s, that’s bales of rice, and then everything’s up on this deck because when it rains that just, the water would flow through, everything turned to mud. So this is like the one sunny day in six months
that I took this picture. So don’t be misled by some of the pictures. And then with the local guys,
[Photo: Andy and ten local men and boys in the forest]
this is the Pawai’ia tribe, there’s me, you guess which one’s me?
And the merry colleagues here, and a few axes, and we just started making a clearing. And we’re going to build this house. And it turned out it worked pretty well. Um, I didn’t do any of the axe work. So they were good,
[Photo: Frame of structure built in a forest]
they’d just laugh. I try and cut a tree down and they’re just like ha ha, you know, because I’m, they’re very efficient with the axes. But I did all the planing and notching and [inaudible] and Debra Wright we built this whole thing up all from hand-hewn timber. So I see these TV shows of people in Alaska doing stuff, and they’re, they’re using milled timbers and chainsaws, and I think pfft, you know, the sissies.
Um, and they’re near a road, too, so. Again, this is the second sunny day,
[Photo: Structure in the forest near completion]
and the next year. Um this is the house when it’s nearly done. It sat on the edge of this nice gorge, and we could sit on that veranda there as Ed would tell you, and drink tea in the rain, and enjoy the view. It was inside, so the idea was to, not just to do our research but to create
[Photo: Interior view of structure, with desk space, chairs, and supplies]
infrastructure so that other people could come, and you know have a place to go. Uh that was dry and safe, and you know. I, I bought this manual typewriter as, back then you know from a shop in Goroka, I think it was there since World War Two. But it worked. I think I’m the last person to publish a paper and like I am not mad that was written on a on a manual typewriter with carbon paper. It was, I’d get grief from editors from some of my submissions.
[Photo: Another view of inside the house]
So we built this nice house. There’s a view from the above.
[Photo: Aerial view of the two houses in the forest]
And the house for the research assistants, the Pawai’ia. Um, another house. And spent the four years out there doing this study.
[Slide text: Rainfall mean = 21 ft/yr (~7 X Ithaca)
not strongly seasonal; Graph: Average rainfall per month]
And, but I want to emphasize this was a real rainforest. So this is very wet, this is the average, it’s in centimeters. So it’s a little under an inch of rain every day on average. Um and no dry season really. So you go across the months, and you can’t really predict it’s going to be nice or dry any one month. And that, so it rained a lot.
That’s like I said look, that’s seven times what you get in Ithaca. So if you think it’s raining here, just multiply that times seven and that’s where we were. Um, when it’s that wet you begin to realize some really strange things start to grow on your clothing and skin, um that take some heavy chemicals to get rid of. But uh it was worth it because
[Slide text: Flora of 1 ha plot: High diversity
693 stems ≥ 10 cm DBH
228 app in 58 families
2 X diversity of all eastern deciduous forest
(h < 2 football fields); Photo: Small plant]
it’s just this incredible diversity that’s there. On a, we did a one hectare plot. You know, that’s a little less than two two football fields. 228 species of trees and 58 plant families. So that’s much more than we have in all eastern North America in an area of uh, you know less than two football fields. Uh so botanically it is incredible. We had 48 or at least species of frogs in our little study area. A huge number of you know compared to anywhere in the, in the US.
[Slide text: Many small fruits, but substantial number of larger than 50g; Graph: fruit masses (g) of all the fruits at CMBRS versus Count (# species), with Std. Dev = 51.31, Mean = 27, N = 400.00]
Um, but I’m there for the fruits. Let’s get back to seeds. So we looked at the fruit size of 400, this is 400 species of plants. So I found 400, it actually worked out to 400, we weren’t, didn’t stop there it just worked out that way. Species of trees and vines that had fleshy fruits, and the point is here as you would expect there’s a lot of small things here that, things like sort of sissy birds like birds of paradise would be eating and pigeons, but out here are these big things. There’s a big long tail of big fruits that nothing else can eat or move. And those were the, what I went there to study. These, the interaction between big fruits and big birds. And this is the one I focused on.
[Photo: Fruit with large seed on the leaf-covered forest floor]
Um, it’s in the Meliaceae, that’s the mahogany family. It’s, it’s just obviously adapted for dispersal by cassowaries because this capsule—so this is about the size of a cantaloupe. Think of something like this. The capsule doesn’t open in the tree, so it just falls woonk, like a cannonball and it breaks open, and makes this nice presentation for cassowaries, bright red and white fruit. The cassowary then comes along and eats. And uh, this was the thing I was able to manipulate these. I was able to put tags in them. And then when I found cassowary droppings, I’d find, go through carefully uh opening all the seeds in it and look for tags. Uh here’s another one. And so this is a big mahogany tree,
[Slide text: Focused study of one species: Aglaia mackiana Meliaceae Pannell 1997; Photo: Fruit of Aglaia mackiana on a table next to a ruler]
it’s an emergent, this big fruit, bright red, I said if any plant would be easy to identify, and get a name for, this would be it. But it turned out it was an undescribed species of mahogany and I was like thrilled to be able to get this named after me by the person who’s working on the group. Uh and not many people get to have their study organism named after them, much less a huge mahogany tree, so I, I feel really lucky. That’s, that’s the beauty of New Guinea because there’s so many undescribed species there. This is the tree.
[Photo: Trunk of a very large tree in a forest]
So it’s not, this isn’t a wimpy little tree, it’s a big canopy emergent. Uh, it has this nice colored bark. It’s really distinctive. So I put tags in these seeds, and then with a group of the Pawai’ian hunters
[Slide text: Tagged seeds dispersed by cassowaries moved mean 388 m, up to 1 km, non-random: preferentially uphill and to level sites due to resting behavior of cassowaries.; Image: Diagram of vectors showing movement of seeds, along with streams in the area and gray areas representing steep banks]
searched a huge area. And this is the sort of thing we found. These vectors would represent where seeds were moved. And the blue lines are the streams, you know remember we’re getting 20 feet or plus of rain, so there’s a lot of moving water. And the gray areas then would be the, the steep banks. So the cassowaries weren’t moving things across the steep banks and the rivers very much. Um and that’s because they’re bipeds like us. It’s hard to move for anything down these steep banks. But the thing was interesting, almost all the seeds are being moved uphill. This really mountainous terrain, but the seeds are being moved uphill. And this was because, remember that picture I showed you
[Photo: Cassowary resting on the ground with its legs sticking out in the front]
where the bird rested and, and defecated. This is the sort of posture when they rest. But if you’re going to sit down like this, you like to, why sit in the low muddy area? So they often go up the ridges and uphill to a dryer area. And that’s where they rest, and so that’s where disproportionate number of seeds are moved. Um, another thing we did. This was fun.
[Slide text: Wild bird gut transit from ingested temperature data loggers; Graph: Elapsed time (minutes) versus Temperature (C) for passage #1, passage #2, and passage #3]
So I could put, put together a temperature logger with a radio transmitter, and could embed that in a seed or a bait. And then after the cassowaries dispersed it I could go out, and I think I’m the first person to radio track dung.
Um, so I could go out and radio track and find the dropping with this uh unit in it. And then I could, I download the temperature data. And so I knew, because once the bird swallows it temperature goes up, and when it defecates the temperature goes down. So I knew not only how far it was moved, but I knew how long it was in the gut of the bird. And one of, this is, this one I show this one is a surprise because you see that little dip there, and then it goes again. So he turned around and ate it, and re-ingested from its dropping, this is coprophagy.
So it’s the first time to demonstrate this, and um, although besides just being sort of gross, um I think it’s important because that’s how some of the chicks are getting their food is picking food out of the, the parent’s dropping. Because all these things they’re eating are big, and then you saw in that picture how broken up the fruit is when it comes out. Um, but gut transit’s really fast. It’s less than an hour sometimes. So it comes out, like we could give our captive cassowaries banana or and papaya, and it still comes out looking like banana and papaya. You know I told people it’s like oh, it’s like fruit salad, you know.
Uh, they don’t believe me, but it’s really not heavily digested. And so the, the young chicks are probably picking things out of the father’s dropping. Um, think of that parents. Um, uh as a service to the chicks, breaking up these big fruits they couldn’t otherwise eat.
[Slide text: Distribution of uneaten seeds:
- 84% of uneaten seeds land or roll downhill from parent
- mean distance of downhill seeds was 9.6 m
- mean distance of uphill seeds was 7.0 m
Without dispersal by cassowaries, if replacement is random from fallen seeds, Aglaia populations will “collapse” downhill > 40 m in 10 generations; Photo: Aglaia fruit on the forest floor]
So looking at, so I can look at what happens to seeds that aren’t being eaten. And this is mountainous, and so the large number of them are falling downhill. So eighty-four percent of the seeds under trees, I was measuring a bunch of trees. And they’re moved and they’re greater distance downhill than a few seeds that stayed uphill. And so if you just made the assumption if you didn’t have cassowaries moving seeds back uphill again, over some certain number of generations those plant populations are just going to shift downhill.
So you could forget, you know you don’t need the ideas about uh pathogens, and escape from predators, or all sorts of other things. Um just by virtue of moving things, fighting entropy, fighting gravity, seed dispersal is important. And then, I won’t go through all this stuff because like I said it was four years of work, but, did a lot of study with the seedlings then, and it produces this nice vigorous seedling.
[Slide text: Numerous studies of seedlings:
Survivorship and growth are equal for dispersed or non-dispersed seeds, and seedlings live for many “dormant” years
The only seedlings with better growth were those in treefall gaps; Photo: Seedlings growing in the forest]
And by looking at those, though, I found that there’s, you know that the ones that fall under the parent reproduce a seedling that’s just as healthy and lives just as long as the ones that have been dispersed. So there’s not like a real clear advantage, and even seedlings that are, that are 10 years old, they’re still doing fine under the parent tree.
So they don’t need to really escape anything from under, under the parent. And the only seedlings we found that seemed to be doing any better were ones that were in treefall gaps. So you know, if you know the canopy of a rainforest blocks out about ninety-five percent of the light. It’s actually quite dark in there. So if the, if you get an opening above you if you’re on the forest floor that’s really, stimulates a lot of growth. So I would take these hemisphericals, a fisheye picture
[Slide text: Gap Formation
Canopy photos at 800 cassowary droppings and re-taken over 3 years
Result 1: Droppings are not deposited in treefall gaps
Result 2: P = .02-.03 /yr that a gap opens above a dropping; Photo: View of rainforest canopy from forest floor]
at different spots and over droppings, you know looking straight up. So that’s like looking straight up in the forest. And then you can use a computer and it plots the path of the sun across there, and you can measure exactly how much light is reaching that spot on the forest floor. And if, I did this with lots of droppings and uh, eight hundred or so, and found that cassowaries aren’t moving seeds in the gaps. They don’t move seeds into treefall gaps.
Um, but by taking pictures over time I found there’s a certain probability that a gap will form at any one spot in the forest. And I got several other datasets to say the same thing. I have a dent in my head from a tree branch that hit me. If you work in rainforests as you know, the thing to be worried, really to be worried about isn’t the snakes or the cassowaries, it’s falling uh branches and trees. So um,
[Slide text: “Artificial seedlings” used to quantify “lethal” physical disturbance
monitored on all terrain monthly, tallying those flattened; Photo: Artificial seedling constructed of plastic straws on the forest floor]
so they aren’t being moved into gaps, and then there’s this dynamic of, of stuff falling down from the forest. So I wanted to look at well what makes a, how dangerous is it for seedling on the forest floor? So I made these artificial seedlings out of plastic drinking straw, straws. Which weren’t available in Papua New Guinea. I had to write home the mother to send me 5,000 plastic drinking straws.
and she said I always knew he was going to be a drinker.
So um. We got, put out all these things, made big transects of them.
[Slide text: Small Scale Disturbance Results:
- Probability of “mortality” increased with ground slope (P<0.02)
- Level sites P “mortality” = 0.24
- Steep sites P “mortality” = 0.45]
And then just sort of assume that when the branch or something mashed that whoops, uh artificial seedling that that would have killed a real seedling. And so what we found was it was actually more dangerous to be on the slopes. Um whereas the probability of being smashed on a level site was about point 24 per year. On the the steeper sites was it was a lot higher, and that’s because a lot of times when things fall they off, then they slide downhill. And Ed can attest to this um, having done a famous slide downhill,
at the field station. So this stuff falls and slides downhill, and it takes out a lot of seedlings with it. So it’s, it’s safer to be in a level site, which is the kind of places where cassowaries take seedlings.
[Slide text: Synthesis and Conclusions
- For Aglaia, dispersal does not confer an advantage in terms of escape
- Seeds are preferentially moved uphill to level sites
- Undispersed seeds mostly fall downhill and are shaded
- Seeds germinate and remain “dormant seedlings” for years]
So just to summarize some of the stuff of these years. It’s not necessarily escape that’s good for the system, but there, there, this movement uphill is important um compared to seeds that aren’t being dispersed. And so once seeds germinate they stay as a dormant seedling for a number of years, and basically then um, if they’re on a level site they’re a little safer than on steep sites um,
[Slide text: Synthesis and Conclusions
- Seedlings in level locations are less likely to succumb to small scale disturbance
- Because there is a roughly .02 probability per year of a gap forming above a seedling,
- Seedlings are in a “waiting game” between the chances of a gap opening and being killed by disturbance or other stochastic events.]
but they’re basically doing like a waiting game. So the, these seedlings can live for a number of years, and they’ve got this point 0 2 probability per year that a gap’s going to open to them. But they also have a high probability that something’s going to smash them. So the seedlings are just in a waiting game, waiting for a gap to open so they get big enough to withstand the physical damage that a small seedling can experience. Um, so you know,
[Slide text: Conservation Implications
Are cassowaries threatened?
Are populations robust?; Photo: Cassowary head and neck]
it’s, the birds are important in conservation in the rainforest ecology, they’re moving these seeds. A lot of plants are dependent on them. So this sort of, my research then sort of moved into conservation questions, and my concern for the forests over there. And because cassowaries are a big animal,
[Slide text: The last thing many cassowaries see……; Photo: Pawai’ia man aiming a bow and arrow in the forest]
that’s second, the biggest native thing. This is sort of the last thing they see. This is one of our Pawai’ia friends pointing an arrow almost at me, thankfully. But um, all of these guys are carrying bows and arrows in the forest, so when they do see a cassowary it’s, it’s getting an arrow if they can do it. So that’s why I’m saying they’re very shy, the cassowaries not the Pawai’ia. Um, so I did a little study of hunting. So I’ve been with these guys,
[Photo: Hundreds of skulls, beaks, and bones of birds hunted by the Pawai’ia]
spent a lot of time with trackers in the forest. And so I set up a thing, and said okay well with different families in several clans, and say just save all the skulls of things that you eat. And uh, I knew they hunted a lot but that was just gobsmacked by how much they were, they were taking. I had no idea.
And this includes all sorts of… down here. These things are like the size, these are fantails and things. They’re the size of chickadees and titmice. So any bird they can get. Of scrub wrens, a seven gram bird, you know gets, on up to cassowaries and hornbills. So this is their only source of meat is what they can get out of their forest. So um they’re really good hunters. And um I got a sample in this first study, it’s nearly 700 skulls,
[Slide text: Hunting Study Results
696 skulls collected
Prey yielded c 1830 kg biomass
25 cassowaries were killed
Cassowaries = 27% meat biomass
This is above the estimated maximum sustainable yield for Dwarf Cassowaries]
that they had eaten um, that produced nearly a ton of animal biomass. And this was just over a little under two months. Um and included in there were 25 cassowaries. So the cassowary’s included for about a quarter of the meat they’re getting in their diet. So the cassowary’s very important um in their diets.
And if you do some math, and a bunch of assumptions there, but basically that’s not a hunting uh take that will be sustainable in the long run. Uh so there’s a cause for concern that hunting alone is uh, uh imperiling cassowary populations in places. But also the cassowary’s important for cultural reasons.
[Photo: Papua New Guinean men in traditional dress, including cassowary feathers on their headdresses]
So this, you know, this is just a group of people. And these are cassowary feathers here. All sorts of other things being used here is ornamentation. They’re important in the, in the cultures of people, too. They got legends, they use cassowaries as exchange, they’re very valuable along with pigs in a barter system. So these are important birds, not just for the reason that I was talking about for seed dispersal and ecology.
[Slide text: Conservation
Cassowaries play a keystone role in NG rainforest ecology; without cassowaries many tree species negatively impacted
Cassowaries are important for cultural reasons and in the diets of rural people]
So, a lot of trees, remember that diagram with the, all the tails. It was about twelve to fourteen percent of the plants in our study area were only dispersed by cassowaries. So this one uh bird can qualify sort of as a keystone seed disperser, a keystone frugivore. So without them, if they get hunted out that’s going to have a big impact on, on these quite a few other tree species. So important for that conservation reason, but also the cultural raise, reason, and the diets of people.
So in our study I was figuring that people are getting about 23 some grams of animal uh meat per person per day from hunting. So it’s episodic, they’re not getting that much regularly. But that’s a, you know, it’s about an ounce of meat a day, which is you know is surprisingly more than I thought they were getting. Um, and in a, but a big chunk of that, a quarter of that just comes from cassowaries.
[Slide text: There are a lot of ‘protected areas’ drawn on maps.; Image: Map of New Guinea with areas of green throughout]
So moving on with the sort of the seed dispersal, from seed dispersal to the conservation. Um, so what’s being done for conservation in New Guinea? And like I say this is the last uh, one of the last big blocks of rainforest in the world. Third largest. It’s unique, very little has been studied there. That’s why you can have a new species of tree, you just find it. We’re talking about, a friend of mine, a herpetologist. He has got at least 80 species of frog to describe. So everywhere you go, there’s just new species of things. It’s not very well studied.
Um, and so, what’s the, what’s the conservation situation there? You know, what’s happening? Because there’s very few people working there. And you can go to some databases and things, and you find these maps. They look kind of promising, there’s a lot of. These are supposed to be parks, protected areas. In New Guinea. And I can, based from my experience I can assure you most of these I have no idea what they are. Somehow they got into the database. Someone said something somewhere. There’s no actual conservation going on in most of these areas.
Uh this one I know for example had a million dollar project in it. The money, it ended up being logged anyway. So it’s, it’s still in the database as a protected area, but it’s already been logged by Malaysian loggers. So our data aren’t very reliable for what’s going on there. Um that was the yeah, WCMC, it’s a database of protected areas. You look at that,
[Slide text: UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre:
71 protected areas in PNG
14,567,000 ha under “protection”
< 12,000 ha actually protected]
and that there were 71 areas, you know under some sort of protection. Which amounted to about 14 million hectares, it you know so you look at the statistics and if you don’t know the situation you think, oh it’s not, that’s pretty impressive, that’s good. But in reality, there’s a very small area that’s actually protected in Papua New Guinea. That you could actually say has some level of protection.
So there’s a bit of a disconnect between uh what’s going on in the country and on the ground, and what the real conservation situation is. And this is a bit disturbing to those of us who were, you know, trying to do stuff over there. Because you need a true picture of what’s really happening. And part of the problem from working over there is that you know, that you can’t make protected areas in PNG, it’s almost impossible to do.
[Slide text: What might work in one country does not necessarily work in another country, especially PNG
>95% of land is under traditional ownership
>85% of people derive their subsistence from their land and forests]
Unlike most of the world, almost all the land is still under traditional ownership, land tenure. So the indigenous people own their land. So it’d be like if all the Chippewa and the Delaware and the Iroquois, everyone still owned their traditional land here. So it’s, it’s kind of enlightened and because they had a very late colonial history, and they, the people weren’t displaced the way they were in much of the rest of the world, that’s a very good thing.
But it doesn’t work the way it does in the rest of the world where you can have a government that comes in and says okay we’re going to make a park. Because when you do that the people just say well now it’s my land, you know. You may say you’re doing that, someone may draw the line on a map, but you can’t actually make a park, it’s my land.
So almost all the land is still under traditional ownership, which is really good thing for lots of reasons. But it means you can’t do conservation the same way you would do it in the US, for example. Um and then the other thing that’s very different is, you know, you can’t move people, or do things because they’re, most of the people still live off the land.
So unlike here we go to the store for groceries or something. Eighty-five percent of people there are growing their own food. They have good soil, got lots of rainfall. And they hunt or fish, and so they’re basically living off this land. So if you’re going to try and do conservation there you have to take these two things into consideration that are quite different than a lot of the world where conservationists are already working. So you have to come up with different models or different ideas of how if you, how to do conservation. And you know, I always sort of end up with, you know, which can be
[Slide text: In the past 25 years tens of millions (USD) have been spent by large international organizations for conservation in PNG
Some projects have nothing to show despite large initial budgets, e. g. a 6. 2 million USD project in Milne Bay by Conservation International—NO TANGIBLE RESULT!!]
sort of discouraging and things, but you know the truth is that a lot of money has been spent in conservation in places like Papua New Guinea. And there’s not a lot to show for it. Like I showed that one site, the lakh there, had a million dollars had been spent there through a UN program, and they just gave up and it was logged. That’s a lot of money for a conservation project, but there’s some have been even bigger. One of the biggest ever was in New Guinea, was over six million dollars in Milne Bay, was going to be dedicated to this big ambitious conservation project. The project ended early, um and there’s like no tangible outcome. If you go there, and I got a lot of friends from Milne Bay Province, and they say we don’t know anything that ever happened to it.
So there’s a disconnect between, you know, what’s happening with uh conservationists in places in Europe and the US, and thinking that stuff’s happening, and then the, the real scene on the ground is not quite what we think it is. And um, it’s discouraging that uh, there’s a lot of opportunity in New Guinea still. Because this is good forest, and it’s loaded with people who care about it. Um,
[Slide text: Many failures derive from the lack of local leadership and capacity
Local leaders understand the culture, economics, laws, etc.
Local leaders can better gain the trust of necessary counterparts. Local organizations can function for much less money
Local organizations and leaders are there to stay and can fully invest for the long-term.]
and a lot of these failures, having lived over there for a lot of years. I’ve worked for a few conservation organizations, you know. And they stem from this disconnect that people like myself have, not understanding what’s going on there. And so like, or coming in and think okay we’re going to make a park. That’s like that area at lakh. You know, a million dollars, we’re going to make a protected area. Well it doesn’t work you know, you have to, they didn’t work well enough with local people to figure out what to do.
So someone like me it does, I don’t understand what’s going on very well. You have to work through Papua New Guineans who are going to understand the local politics, the tribal rules, those sorts of things. Um the local people can work with you know the rest of people in the tribes, and local, better than I can.
When I come into a community there they see a white guy and they just here a blah blah blah money. Blah blah blah money. That’s what they want to hear because that’s usually what a miner or a logger or someone who comes in from outside. So when they hear and see conservationists, that’s just like another well how am I getting paid by this guy? So they, it works better when Papua New Guineans are running the programs over there.
And the local organizations, they have much lower overheads, they, the ones that are in PNG operate on budgets that would be, you know, one person’s salary in the US. You know one good vice president or a CEO of some of these organizations would be a whole huge organization and program in Papua New Guinea. And the other thing is, you know, that they are there to stay, it’s their country.
When, when Papua New Guineans invest in a project, I know guys, you know, who have worked for years without salary, without being paid. They, they uh, they invest in it, and they’re, and they’re committed to it. And when, so and like when I come over there, you know I was very committed, but you know I always knew I was going to come back. And uh, it’s that way for everyone. There’s the people coming and going from outside. The people who live there, they stick with it. And the, all the examples I can think of where things are working over there are the ones that are being driven by Papua New Guineans, not by people like me.
[Slide text: The enduring projects with tangible outcomes:
are run by dedicated citizens
have small budgets compared to the Big International organizations
have a commitment that endures ebbs in funding
The same is true for conservation projects in the USA— how many foreign conservation organizations are working in New York state??]
so there’s people you know like Robert Beno and, you know, who just spent their life, you know, sticking with something against all kinds of odds. And, you know, think about in the US that’s the way things work, too. I mean a lot of parks in the US have happened because dedicated individuals here, you know, drove it to happen. Even maybe a small county park or something, um but it’s been locally driven. No one came in from Germany or France and created a park here in New York state.
Um so these, sort of the model of how we do conservation has to shift away from big organizations like the UN and Global Environment Facility, there’s all these acronyms you don’t know. But there’s a lot of money in big organizations, and somehow it has to shift to supporting the local organizations driving conservation in their country. Because you know really that’s how it works here, too.
You don’t have the French and the Swiss and the Germans all here making parks in New York state. You know it’s, it’s people here making they’re, it’s they’re looking out for their own land. And it’s no different in another country. So in the, in the conservation jargon,
[Slide text: Conservation is all about people. They are the “Stakeholders” in conservation jargon.; Photo: Papua New Guinean man in traditional dress and face paint]
you know, they call these stakeholders, which, you know, means someone invested in it, and, you know, my students think this is great funny, it’s a great joke. So when we’re having a barbecue they say oh we’re steak holders,
[Slide text: The real PNG conservation steak holders; Photo: Papua New Guineans holding up pieces of steak while smiling at the camera]
so take our picture.
Um, and so these are the guys that, you know, where I would invest, you know. And I try and work with people like this. They’re, they’re invested in doing conservation there. And, you know, quite a few of these, now a couple of them are in PhD programs, and master degrees have, their, already have their master’s degrees. They’re doing good stuff with very little money. And this is, you know, here’s the rub, though,
[Slide text: New York PNG
University enrollment > 650,000 (CUNY+SUNY) < 10,000
Biology faculty (PhD) > 300 (Cornell) < 15; Photo: Papua New Guineans in traditional dress]
is like you can try and compare. It’s, it’s really hard to wrap your, our head around just how difficult it is to get an education over there. And it just, you know, to give you some idea, you know, the university system here I, just looking on web, on the web, you know, just these two systems here’s, you know, got over half a million people in New York state getting an undergraduate education of some sort.
At Cornell that, the web says that you’ve got over 300 people in biological sciences with PhDs, its faculty. And there’s, there’s less than 20 maybe around 15, it ebbs and flows a little because some people move in and out of, out of academia. But there’s only a handful of PhD biologists in the whole country. So the what, you know, that the, the manpower and the intelligence, intelligencia that drive a lot of conservation action, you know, just aren’t available in PNG and countries like this.
And this is where I’ve been in my career, I’ve been trying to encourage conservation organizations to invest in people. And then they’ll make things happen, it’s, because if you go and say we’re going to make a park a lot of people like that, but it just doesn’t last. But if you invest in people like my friends there I was showing earlier, they’re making stuff happen,
[Slide text: The real PNG conservation steak holders; Photo: Papua New Guineans holding up pieces of steak while smiling at the camera]
you know. And they’re, you know, these are young, smart, ambitious, and, you know, they’re going to be there for the next 40 or 50 years doing stuff. So that’s where I would put my money if I was a conservation donor. Um, it’s just reinforcing this.
[Slide text: Main Conservation Conclusions
Millions of dollars have been squandered, and continue to be poorly invested in big ticket, foreign-driven projects
Big projects fail due to lack of local leadership and commitment
The best investment for conservation dollars is to train and educate national conservationists, then provide support to their initiatives]
You know, a lot of money goes into big ticket things. It sounds good, we’re going to make a park, but they, you know, it’s all driven from outside. They’ll have a head, one of them had a headquarters in Fiji. Another one, you know, it’s being driven from a headquarters in, in New Zealand. It’s got to be right there, local people doing it. So a, part of that is the way the book ends, is like encouraging you know, donors and conservation organizations to really invest in people, and not so much the project. And let the people there then start the project. And I’ll end up there, and uh take some questions.
[Slide text: Thank you; Photo: Papua New Guinean men in traditional dress and face paint]
And we can do the sign, the book signing afterwards. Thank you.
[Audience] What’s an example of locally supported and driven um conservation project?
[Andy] Okay, the question was, because of people online, an example of locally driven conservation project. Um, I can give a few. I was just at one recently, and it was uh an area on Mount Michael where uh, an elder from the village, you know, basically the chief had said, you know, he bought early, back in the nin—early ’80s the conservation message. And he’s, remember he’s the landowner.
And he said I’m doing conservation here. And he could do it, and he set aside a big chunk of land. And he told everyone in the, in the communities around, he said you’re not allowed to hunt there, and you can’t cut trees or do anything. And I’ve traveled around a lot in PNG, and this is the only place where I’ve been on a road where you have all these birds and things, and the forest comes right up to the road, you know not, that’s not a logging road. An old, well established road.
So you know, the people of doing it, and they’re not getting any investment, you know there’s no foreign investment in it or anything. We found bird, bird of paradise nests right near the road. Normally like all the kids, they find nests, they eat the eggs, they take the chicks you know.
So it was really working, it was obvious. And it was just because a leader in the community said I want to do this. And, and the people in the community respected him and it’s happening. And there are places like that. And so there it would be like an example of where you’ve worked with a local chief, and when they buy into it they can make stuff happen.
[Audience] Um, I find it interesting that the bird, that the seeds that these birds eat, you know, goes in and then comes out in an hour. [Andy] Yeah.
[Audience] They’re not getting a whole lot of nutrition
[Audience] from what they eat, so obviously they’re eat—did you look at that, and figure out why?
[Andy] I’d love to find someone who understands gut physiology to do experiments. Um I did lots of experiments with gut passage rates because you can put a certain seed in and just see how long it takes to come out. It varies somewhat with if they haven’t had much food, they’ll hold things in the gut longer. And if they’re getting a lot of food it’s moving through. But yeah, the largest dropping we found was, was two kilograms. So that’s like ten percent of its body mass. And any of us would be quite upset with a ten percent
uh, passage in one sitting. You’d be uh going to the doctor. So they can move a lot of fruit through there.
Um, fruit are rich in sugar, and you don’t want to digest all that sugar or you’d just be, you know, like a kid off cocoa choco bomber breakfast, you know. Calvin and Hobbes sort of thing, so. But so there may be something in there they’re processing. I’m guessing, you know, a lot of fruit and not absorbing all that sugar. But somehow they’re pulling out the nitrogen and the, the proteins and the things that they need. There’s a little bit of fat, little bit of protein.
So I’m guessing they have some mechanism to like high-grade the stuff they really want, and just ignore all that sugar and let it go through. But I’d love to work with someone with captive animals and really work on it because I think it’s interesting.
Yeah, in the back.
[Staff] We have a question from the online audience.
[Staff] If you could comment on some natural history about these birds. Like their incubation time, their survival, and things like that.
[Andy] Yeah, it’s, we don’t know a whole lot about the natural history of the birds. I pieced together a lot of information from tracking them, and being out there and um, and from hunters. So the people that are out there, the Pawai’ia and different tribes I work with give me a lot of information.
What we think is that the males do the parental care. So the female will come and mate with a male, the, lays her eggs, and then she’s off. And then the male, uh at least in our study site it appears that the male incubates the eggs for about 60 days. And they probably don’t even eat very much during that time.
So when they’re eating well they put on a big layer of fat on their back. Um it can be really big, thick. The hunters call it plenty grease, you know, it’s, then that’s good nice fat, you know. Um so they just live off that for a couple months.
And then the eggs hatch, and the, the adult male does the parental care. And the chicks follow around the adult for a year. Um, and then you know the cycle repeats. And the females come back. So I think some of that long-distance communication and infrasound is like the males communicating with each other. And females finding males.
And uh, but we, you know no one’s radio tracked them. It’s really hard to know how big their home range is. We think females do an elevational migration just because of the presence of the number of tracks and scats diminishes and then increases, and we did counts at different elevations and showed that, you know, something’s going on perhaps.
But it’s with, it’s a really hard bird to see, much less capture and put a transmitter on. So it’s hard to know what the animals are actually doing. It’s a good question.
[Audience] What is the reproductive rate, the clutch size?
[Andy] The reproductive rate on cassowaries. It varies some with species. I think the ones in Australia get more eggs in a clutch than here. Our birds, the dwarf was only getting one, two, or three eggs. Very rarely three, almost always one or two. Um with an adult bird.
Uh you get a few more apparently in the Australian birds, but again, that other one, that, the single-wattled in the north, it’s hardly any nests have ever been found even. So we just don’t know for a lot of things.
[Audience] Do we know lifespan?
[Andy] It’s hard to know for a wild bird. I mean it’s uh, there’s hardly any that well, no birds really, a few birds of paradise for a little where people have actually marked individuals and monitored them for a number of time.
I used to run a banding project, and I think it was like the only bird banding operation in the whole island. You know where you had multiple years of data. So even most birds, much less cassowaries, we just have never marked individuals to know how long they live. Some of the ones in Australia appear to live pretty long time. But, but you know they, it’s a different situation, different species. Some of them are coming into gardens and orchards and things. So, a number of decades I would say, though. Forty years maybe. Possibly.
[Audience] Um how has the population of Papua New Guinea changed over the last fifty years?
[Andy] Uh, the, how the human population in Papua New Guinea is changing quickly. And in very interesting ways. So it’s, it’s there’s probably no place that’s so rapidly changing because uh, you know, a lot of western um influence didn’t come until World War Two or after World War Two, so there’s parts of the people who are just sort of recent additions to the world cash economy.
And now, you know they have cell phones, and you know that. When I started working with the Pawai’ia there was no one, there wasn’t a school in the village and no one could read or write. Okay and that was back in the late ’80s. Now I get guys finding me on Facebook, you know, who are Pawai’ia. And so they’re working in some of the mining camps, and they’ve gone to school, and they’re, you know, they’re working computers and things.
So it’s like they’ve gone from the transition where their parents who were in the village you know subsist—living subsistence lives to uh, you know, modern day, you know, working computers.
[Audience] Have the numbers increased?
[Andy] The pop—human population is growing quickly, yeah. It’s 2.5, 2.6 percent. It’s really fast. Because of good, yeah cause of good healthcare. Or it’s, I don’t know good. Good health, improved healthcare. There’s a lot of improvement needed in healthcare there. But just, the, what has been done with some control with malaria and things is, it’s really going up. So everywhere you go there’s lots of kids. And they’re all going to need to live off the land, so it’s, it’s a challenge that’s, that’s coming. Yeah.
Any other questions? Any other questions back there, or?
[Staff] We do have one from the online audience wondering whether cassowaries will raid gardens and spread exotics.
[Andy] Um, that’s a, an interesting question. I, in New Guinea they don’t raid gardens much. I’ve seen tracks nearby, but if there’s people around they’ll have bows and arrows, and uh it’s pretty dangerous to, to get in there. Um most of the invasives that are being moved that are a problem don’t have large fleshy fruits. Though the cassowary, they’re not the sort of things cassowaries are moving.
There are some invasive plants that are a problem, but they’re getting moved by other things, not cassowaries.
[Audience] How large are the eggs?
[Andy] Um, yeah it’s a good. Eggs, I don’t know if you can see.
[Andy holds his hands up in an “o” shape]
About like, about like that for a dwarf. A little bigger for the big ones. I mean it’s a big egg. And it’s green, it’s a very beautiful green. Uh and it has like a coarse, reticulated surface. It’s got a really nice texture on it. So it’s a really interesting egg and uh, but they’re really hard to find. I mean even the hunters. You know this big bird, that’s the thing. It gets into a dark shadow somewhere with a nest and it just sits on it, and doesn’t move very much for a couple months.
So that, even the local guys say it’s really hard to find the nests with eggs on it. They do, because they’re really good hunters. But it, you know. I never saw a fresh, a fresh nest. I saw ones with the eggs hatched and gone. The chicks are only about that big
[Andy holds his hands up about a foot apart]
when they, you know, when they hatch. And so then they follow along the parent. And I should mention that one of the other conservation issue is the people, the chicks are easy to catch for a hunter. And so if you catch the chick it just imprints on the person pretty quickly, and follows you around.
And so people raise the chicks, and then when they get big then they got to be careful they might, often kicking village dogs and things like that. But they can kick people too. But they get big and then they’re either traded or eaten. So there’s no point in keeping a big bird, just feeding it if it’s not still getting bigger. But they’re very vulnerable to, to being, to being captured that way, even when the adults are shy.
So part of our, some of our conservation work is like trying to get people to let some chicks get through that vulnerable period. Because once they’re adults then they’re very secretive, and you know the, the hunting pressures. They can live a long time.
[Audience] Are there any recordings of the noises they make?
[Andy] Yeah, asking about recordings of the noises. I’ve made a few. And I was going to play them, but they, they didn’t play very well because they’re so low. If you play them online you can’t even hear it on a computer speaker. So you need a really good subwoofer or some really low frequency response. But it’s like, uh I was with a student, a Papua New Guinean in Locky Camu in this big forest, and there was a cassowary near us vocalizing. And he said is that an earthquake? You know you, he felt something. I said no, that’s a cassowary. And he’s Papua New Guinean.
You feel it, like a big pipe organ in a church or something. But, and you can’t tell which direction it’s coming from, it’s just sort of like this a sensation almost. So it’s, it’s really hard to repeat that with normal speakers. But it’s, it’s pretty cool. It’s like definitely Jurassic Park television, you know movie sort of thing.
[Audience] Do the females ever come back and find the original male that they mated with?
[Andy] It’d be really good to know. Um, we, there’s people working on perhaps with some good genetic techniques we can find out whether females re-mate with the same males. We don’t even know if like when a male has a clutch if they’re both from the same female. Uh or, you know a female may mate with one male and put her egg in another male’s nest. You know that happens a lot of other birds, well why not cassowaries? So but we just don’t know, it’s, they’re so hard to study. Some of these genetic techniques could get at that. But you know, there’s no one there to do the work. To do the study.
[Audience] So the male could be sitting on eggs that aren’t even his chick?
[Andy] Could be, yeah. Yeah. They have no way of knowing, so. It happens in a lot of other birds, so it could, could be there.
[Audience] How long does it take for a chick, or for the bird to grow to maturity?
[Andy] It, how long to reach maturity for a cassowary, would be at least two, two to three years. Um, for the dwarf, because I’ve raised a few. So I have a sense of it there. But uh, I’m not sure for the, probably another year or two longer for the, for the big species. They, they’re very, they’re brown plumage when they’re young, and it takes a few years till they’re into the black plumage.
Takes a few years to acquire those, the colors. It kind of happens slowly. You know one, two, three years, four years. They’re still getting more blue and red, the wattle gets bigger. The, the casque grows through time. So it takes, you know, you can, the ones with the really tall casques are you know seven, eight years old probably, at least.
[Audience] So it takes five to six years at least before they, they can breed, too?
[Andy] We’re, guessing, yeah. I mean, you can guess based on plumage, but that you know, you’d have to like inspect the gonads to really know for sure. And so again, it takes a while to get to adult plumage, but they may be capable of reproducing when they’re younger.
[Audience] Is there any particular behavior surrounding them trying to attract a mate? Like do they sing, or do they…?
[Andy] Good question. Yeah, how do they, do they do a, an attraction thing? I mean there’s, there’s something probably going on with all that color. And the, and some people think the casque may be related to an adornment, just like bird of paradise tail or something like that, you know. Um, but there’s so few observations of, of pairs. I mean they don’t spend long together.
I know that because I could, because I can. By tracking birds, you know, could see when there’s a new bird in the area. I kind of got a feel in my study area I had four or five adults. I kind of, you know, they had their range. And then there’d be a short while maybe when there’s, they’re overlapping. But it’s, it’s not very long. So I think the female wanders in, and something happens. Once I observed a fight of two birds. And it was really scary. Um, because they had had no interest in me, they were just, and I thought they could easily run into me. They were just all around in the, thrashing, the, whole saplings are getting snapped over.
And, and there was a, there was a third bird lurking somewhere, I could just couple times saw it. So I don’t know. But I have no idea anyway, if it was a male on male, and the female, or who was chasing who, or you know. But something goes on, but it’s just ornithologists never see it.
[Audience] Do the sexes look alike?
[Andy] Yes, the sexes are almost identical. Because we, you can’t really tell without. The way that the zoo people do it is they, they insert a finger in the cloaca and check for a cloaca protuberance. Which indicates a male. Now I don’t know who first figured that out, you know,
but they were very brave or very foolish.
So yeah, we actually had brought some rubber gloves out and were going to try and sex our captive birds, but I, I never had that kind of courage.
So cuz I’m sure it would piss them off, yeah.
So our birds that we thought were males, went, ended up being females so when they died.
[Audience] Are you going to with this research or do you hope to move on from the field?
[Andy] I’m not doing much with cassowaries anymore. So my, the, the, the, the, the, the course of the talk kind of went with how my career is. It started out doing research, and now I’m mostly training and teaching. Um, I’d love to have a Papua New Guinean student doing something. Um, so it’s a long story, that’s why I wrote a book.
Like what happened with the research station and what’s going on there, but um. There’ll be people, you know someone will pick it up. But there’s just very uh, few compared to Costa Rica or places in the New World, Mexico, it’s just very few people working in that part of the tropics, ornithologists working there.
Yeah. Okay. All right, any other questions, or. I guess I should wrap it up, I think, and then we’ll, can talk with people afterwards if you want. And sign some books.
[Ed] Yeah, we’ll let Andy head out for the book signing. Thanks for, thanks for coming. He can answer more questions out there.
[Applause]End of transcript