By Dena Spatz
I am 1,000 miles southwest of Hawaii and over 3,000 miles to the closest continent. I fall asleep to the squeaks of Brown Noddy and White Tern chicks and I wake up to the blow of the trade winds from the northeast. Before our 7:30 am breakfast, my team and I prepare our lagoon boats with a can of gas, the gear for the day, and our deep freezer-treated clothing that help to prevent insects and soils from spreading among all the islands we visit each day. By 8:30, we motor towards one of the many islets within Palmyra Atoll, a U.S. territory occupied by a handful of researchers and staff from the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
We are on Palmyra Atoll to measure the recovery of the island ecosystem in response to the removal of invasive rats, which was completed five years ago. We spend the day surveying the habitat for land crabs, rare native tree seedlings, seabird nests, and indications of forest growth. On off days, we walk the shorelines to map fiddler crab habitat or to count migratory shorebirds, like the Bristle-thighed Curlew or the Wandering Tattler, which recently arrived from their arctic breeding grounds. As I move between islands, either by boat or by wading across shallow waters with black-tipped reef sharks and eels at my ankles, I notice slight differences in each island’s biological community. Many islands are dense with coconut palms and sprouting coco seedlings, some reaching 3 meters tall (and very difficult to walk through), while others have mixed forest habitats including Pisonia grandis and Heliotropium foertheria, two native coastal trees whose branches commonly support nests of the Red-footed Booby, Great Frigatebird, White Tern, and both Brown and Black Noddy. Some islands have chest-high ferns that we wade through on our surveys while others have dense vines that hang like curtains. Exposed coral rubble and little to no soil is common on some islands, while others present deep muddy pits that are easy to overlook until you find yourself stuck in muck up to your waist.
So, despite millions of years of evolution, geological processes, and tropical weather that shaped and created Palmyra, the Atoll was essentially re-built just under 70 years ago; the ecosystem we observe today descended from that time period. I expected any obvious biological differences among islands to be eliminated. Yet, Palmyra may just be an example of what nature looks like when large densities of people (and rats) leave town - plants grow, seabirds breed, crabs disperse, cryptic species emerge. These changes are happening across the Atoll, but each island appears to experience this in slightly different ways. This is likely driven by each island’s size, location in the atoll, or the dominant species that survived the disturbances (like coconut palms). Perhaps the underlying soil types on each island control what forest communities can be sustained above. Or, maybe nesting seabirds, which drop their nutrient-rich guano on the ground below, could be fertilizing plants on some islands and not others. There are many hypotheses, and lots of evidence, for what drives the changes we can observe between islands, especially as they recover from a massive disturbance. With continued protection and research, we can learn more about this and the historical connections between Palmyra’s islands, the flora and fauna living upon them, and the food webs that unite the ecosystem. For now, as I finish up my field work, I will let my observations run wild and will enjoy each coconut crab sighting while doing my best to avoid the mud pits.
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