Thursday, December 14, 2017

One bioblitz


found his niche: Curator of the UWI Zoology Museum, Mike Rutherford. —Photo courtesy Mike Rutherford

Mark Fraser

IT’S the first place visitors to the Asa Wright Nature Centre in the Arima Valley almost always gravitate towards—the verandah with its dark stained wooden floors and bird feeders. The instant attraction has more to do with the scenery, beyond the verandah lies a large expanse of forest that goes on for as far as the naked eye can see. And inside those forests are amazing creatures and life forms ranging from the most noticeable like the agouti to those we take for granted, like diatoms (or algae)—arguably one of the most important organisms on planet Earth.

When Curator of the University of the West Indies (UWI) Zoology Museum Mike Rutherford steps on that verandah, he sees beyond the green tree tops that blanket the forests and sees the Northern Range which the nature centre sits on for what it really is: a place that sustains and supports an abundance of biodiversity—we’re talking thousands of species, collectively they are like the heartbeat of the forests.

With his well-trained eyes and inquisitive mind, Rutherford notes the larger mammals that call the forests home but also the smaller creatures; the beetles, moths, lizards, snails, spiders and even fungus whose role is small but so important and crucial for that special ecosystem to run efficiently. Little wonder then that the site for Trinidad’s second bioblitz was the Arima Valley which has over time carved a reputation as being one of the preferred destinations for researchers and scientists from all over the world.

For Rutherford whose fascination with nature goes back to his childhood days, the bioblitz in the valley did not disappoint. It was a chance for local volunteers, wildlife enthusiasts and experts to come together to locate and count the species found and marvel at the wonders of nature.

Teams were led by experts and divided into categories (bird group, arachnid group, bat group and so forth) and restricted to a certain area where they would have to locate as many species as possible in a period of 24 hours. This challenge only led to the excitement. By the time the clock struck noon on September 21 signalling the start of Trinidad’s second ever bioblitz, groups swarmed out to their assigned territories to collect as many species in their respective categories. Rutherford, who specialises in molluscs, headed out in search of snails. By the end of the 24 hours there was a grand total of 740 species collected—that’s 139 vertebrates, 247 invertebrates, 30 fungi, seven diatoms and 317 plants.

“That’s only a little touch there’s still a lot more there, there’s many more mammal species, many more bird species. Asa Wright has about 160-170 species of birds recorded in the area, during the bioblitz they only got around 90-odd. Because we only had 24 hours we didn’t get all of everything, there’s more reptiles,more snakes, more lizards, more amphibians in the valley that we didn’t record as part of the event but we still got a big chunk of it during that time.

Numbers-wise there’s thousands of species in the Arima valley itself especially when you get into the beetles, flies and the diverse groups and with the fungus we barely scratched the surface as well,”said Rutherford.

Over the years, there have been fears that the quarrying operations in the valley could have untold effects on wildlife. To gauge just how much of an impact the quarrying has had, Rutherford said, one would have to compare modern-day records with those documented by explorer, ornithologist William Beebe and other researchers who came before him decades ago to work out which species have disappeared from the valley. The size of the Northern Range means that it’s difficult to categorically state the extent to which quarrying has impacted on wildlife. That’s why the bioblitz is so important because in a matter of 24 hours amazing new discoveries can be made, including the discovery of an endemic species (a species which is found exclusively in one place).

“If we find that we have endemic species that’s even more evidence with which to pressure government and policy makers, in other words if you let this valley be entirely quarried, all the limestone dug out and the forest destroyed, well that’s two or three species gone not just from Trinidad but from the entire planet,” he said.

Getting as many locals to actively take part in the bioblitz and seeing their appreciation for nature grow, was a big reason why Rutherford organised the bioblitz in the first place. One of his favourite outcomes of the first bioblitz in Tucker Valley was building local enthusiasts and helping them along in their quest to find out more about what’s around us. The term ‘Bioblitz’ was first coined in the late ’90s in Washington DC, USA. While in Scotland, Rutherford took part in several prior to coming to Trinidad in 2010.

“Since I arrived I thought it would be a great thing to do here because there’s a wide range of tropical biodiversity and it would be a fun place to do it. The first biobltz did very well, after that I had people asking me when is the next one,” Rutherford recalled from his office at The UWI.

Plastered on his office walls are pictures of snails and other wildlife shots, a world map, a child’s drawing of a nesting leatherback and a quote by EO Wilson: ‘There is no better high than discovery’. As long as he can remember Rutherford has always been influenced by naturalist Sir David Attenborough. Rutherford grew up in Malawi, southeast Africa. Many weekends were spent at the local Safari parks or at the lake.

“It was always about what mammals, birds, fish or whatever you could see, that was the main interest,”he said.

Rutherford was keen on biology in school but never looked at it as a career. He studied science in university before branching off in zoology which is where his passion lay. He went on to do his Masters at the James Cook University in Australia because he wanted a tropical experience. Eventually he curated a tropical house in a zoo in England.

Later, while staying in Glasgow, Scotland, he happened to be at the right place at the right time when a position opened up at a local museum for a natural history researcher. At last, he had found his niche.

“I ended up being a curator almost by accident but when I finally arrived there, it just seemed right. And the fact that at my job now I have people who would volunteer to do my job for no pay tells me I’m in a good position. If you’ve got people lining up to do your job, you know you got lucky,” said Rutherford.

Some foreigners when visiting our shores immerse themselves in the culture and the food. Since arriving here four years ago, Rutherford has immersed himself in our local biodiversity and is well versed on our wildlife—what he’s found is a treasure trove. Rutherford even went on to publish a nifty pictorial fold-out guide on the mammals, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates that can be found in this country. It is a must have for wildlife enthusiasts. ‘The Trinidad & Tobago Wildlife Guide: Mammals-Birds-Reptiles-Amphibians-Invertebrates’ can be found at all major bookstores. What Rutherford hopes to achieve with the guide and the bioblitz is to stir appreciation for wildlife and to help people understand that biodiversity is everywhere, not just in the forests.

If you have a knack for wildlife and invertebrates in particular, why not brush up on your skills, Rutherford is looking for more participants with knowledge about invertebrates for the next bioblitz. And keep on the look-out for future updates announcing when and where Bioblitz 2014 would be taking place next.