Guest post by University of Toronto-Scarborough Masters of Environmental Science Student Amica Ferras
In less than a week, Christopher Filardi achieved a level of cyber-fame worthy of this digital age— but for all the wrong reasons. If you haven’t heard of him yet, that’s okay. Not all of us peruse biodiversity articles over our morning cereal. Here’s what you’ll need to know to hold your own around the water cooler.
|Photo: University of Kansas|
Christopher Filardi is the director of Pacific Programs at the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. This past September he and his team were part of an international expedition to the mountains of Guadalcanal, one of the islands in the Solomon Archipelago. Lead by native islanders, the team was on a mission to assess the biodiversity and habitat constraints of this unique region in order to develop a tailored conservation strategy. It was there on those mysterious island mountains that Filardi happened upon a true legend by any biology geek’s standards — the Guadalcanal Moustached Kingfisher. Even if you have zero interest in species biology, the stats on this bird are impressive. Only three sightings of the Kingfisher have been documented in all of history: a single female captured in the 1920’s, and another two in the 1950’s. No male specimen had ever been recorded and no live animal had ever been photographed. This bird can play a mean game of Hide-and-Go-Seek.
Upon discovery of the Kingfisher colony, Filardi and his team set to work. Calls were recorded, habitat was meticulously documented, behavior and motion patterns were scrutinized and population dynamics were assessed. And then, they killed one. (Cue the angry villagers with pitchforks and hippies with signs).
The collection was purely scientific. Filardi and his team stuck to a field biology motto of collect, dissect, but ultimately respect. Filardi hoped that the Kingfisher specimen would open the door to discovering more about the elusive species and their ultra-specific habitat. But the road to media-hell is paved with good intentions, and as the story spread like wildfire Filardi’s actions fell under attack. His ‘collection’ was deemed “perverse, cruel” by a representative from PETA to the Daily News, and the UK online Daily Mail described it as “slaughter”. The story exploded, appearing in the Huffington Post, Washington Post, Nature World News and Audubon, just to name a few. For those links and more I suggest checking the wonderful world of Google, but I will personally recommend that you read Fildari’s self-defense in Audubon https://www.audubon.org/news/why-i-collected-moustached-kingfisher, and the Toronto Star’s coverage of the controversy http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2015/10/17/why-a-scientist-killed-a-bird-that-hadnt-been-seen-in-50-years.html. The Star does a fabulous job of presenting both sides of the story, and also goes into detail about the rather dubious past of field biology.
In the 1700’s and 1800’s specimen collection was more sport than science. It was a my-stuffed-animal-carcass-is-bigger-than-your-stuffed-carcass race, and rare species paid the ultimate price. Great Auks, for example, upon classification as endangered in 1775, were hunted at an alarming rate by naturalists attracted to its rareness. In 1884 a final pair of Auks was caught by fishermen, and no Auk has ever been sighted since. Specimen collection has come a long way since then though, and field biology has contributed to some groundbreaking scientific discoveries. Consider eggs— comparisons of eggshell thickness from samples collected across decades was used to identify the detrimental effects of DDT and other pesticides to natural ecosystems.
So, those are the facts. And my opinion about it? I’m siding with Filardi. Science has come a long way from naturalist trophy hunting in the 1800’s. Nowadays, before even setting foot outside of the lab scientists must undergo a rigorous evaluation process to determine if collection permits will be granted. Cost-benefit analyses, potential outcomes, and fragility of a species and ecosystem are all heavily weighted in before a decision is reached. Filardi’s expedition was no exception to this rule. (And for anyone questioning the usefulness of collections at all, I suggest you read the following article http://biology.unm.edu/Witt/pub_files/Science-2014-Rocha-814-5.pdf. I’d be happy to argue with you on that front another day).
It wasn’t as if Filardi saw the Kingfisher, pulled a net out of his pack and started swinging. After discovering the Kingfisher colony, the bird was carefully observed over several days. Input from the native islanders, assessments of habitat resilience and population robustness were all carefully analyzed before deciding to humanely collect the single male specimen. The unwilling sacrifice of the Kingfisher was honorably recognized, and the collection will be worthwhile if Filardi has anything to do with it. Scientists now have access to a complete set of genetic information for the Kingfisher. It will now be possible to undertake full molecular, toxicological and evolutionary diagnostics. Scientists may discover disease and pollutant susceptibilities that will guide Kingfisher protection efforts, or identify a direct evolutionary pressure to explain the appearance or behavior of the birds. At a more macro level, the specimen could reveal a shared trait between all high-elevation avian species or allow for an assessment of the particular environmental pressures the island ecosystem exerts over its inhabitants.
Remember though, the point of the Guadalcanal expedition was not a Kingfisher hunt, but an internationally commissioned excursion to study the biodiversity and ecosystem threats in the Solomon Archipelago. Working with native islanders and Solomon government officials, Filardi’s team was working to establish a conservation strategy to protect the unique island system. The Pacific Island tribes have tended to their mountainous lands for decades, but recent international development has threatened the natural state of the ecosystem. Intensive mining and logging ventures have already begun transforming the lowlands of the islands, and climate change at large is effecting the delicate balance of ocean and forest features that unique species like the Kingfisher rely on. For species limited to a single isolated habitat, even minor changes in soil pH, precipitation or fluid motility can have astronomical effects on species survival. These are not the resilient squirrels and raccoons we in North America watch thrive everywhere from lush forests to derelict urban alleyways. Filardi’s collection will go a long way in identifying what needs to be done to protect these habitat-specific island species.
In fact, it already has. Discovery of the Kingfisher led Filardi to talks with local tribes and the Solomon government which culminated in formal agreements to protect the island mountain region under the recently passed Protected Areas Act. Filardi has already booked a return flight to Guadalcanal to help negotiate the next steps in this exciting conservation effort.
So, what do you think?