The National Geographic Society, as venerable an institution as ever graced the shores of the North American continent, has an image problem. Since 1888 the NGS has been supporting adventurers and explorers of every stripe across all the corners of the globe, and such is their success that it is now safe to say that we know it all. Satellites and surveyors, exploring on the ground and from the air, have neatly filled in all the spaces on the old maps where there used to exist nothing but the terrifying admonition: Here be dragons! Does this mean that the Age of Exploration is dead? Is there no more geography left around which a society can coalesce for discovery? Is the NGS, as some naysayers opine, obsolete?
Dr. Jon Rebman in the Sierras
Not a chance. A glance at the interactive NGS global explorers map, which shows thousands of explorers engaged in equally numerous projects across our well-mapped continents, definitively lays that notion to rest. A zoom from the global view of the map down to our own Baja California Sur shows just how vibrant an era of discovery we inhabit. Here you’ll find a hiker symbol in the Sierra La Laguna mountains just outside of Todos Santos, which is the avatar for NGS explorer Dr. Jon P. Rebman, director of the San Diego Natural History Museum’s Botany Department, and author of the definitive Baja California Plant Field Guide. Dr. Rebman’s work demonstrates not only that the Age of Exploration is alive and well, but that we are always gaining a deeper knowledge of the areas depicted on our maps. Perhaps more importantly, we are conserving the existing knowledge of these areas that is in danger of slipping away.
Explains Dr. Rebman. “After 20 years of floristic research on the Baja California peninsula and adjacent islands, my colleagues and I created an annotated, voucher-based checklist of the vascular plants of Baja California. We published this in 2016, and when we compared it to the only floristic manual for the entire Baja California region published by Wiggins in 1980, we found that we had added more than 1,480 plant taxa to the area, including approximately 4,400 plants (3,900 vouchered taxa plus 540 reports), of which 26% are endemic to the region. As part of this process we identified several plants in Baja California that are very rare and only known from one to very few collections.”
“We got focused on the need for conservation efforts to protect the region’s rare flora during a November 2013 expedition in the Cabo Pulmo area to document biodiversity in an area slated for development. My colleagues and I documented two plant species that had been lost, meaning not collected or scientifically documented, for decades. One of these rediscoveries was Stenotis peninsularis (Rubiaceae), a micro-endemic species that was last collected in 1902 by T.S. Brandegee. Yes, that means we had not seen this species in over 110 years!”
Inspired, Rebman continued his quest for the lost plants of Baja during a workplace re-assignment from San Diego to La Paz August 2015 to June 2016. Working with local Baja botanists, he rediscovered approximately 50 plant species in the Cape region that were known from just one, or a tiny number, of historical specimens. But there were more. Specifically, there were 15 more “lost” plants, all endemic to the Baja California peninsula, that had been collected between 1841 and 1985, but had not been seen since. Rebman was intent on finding them. “With the ever-increasing detrimental impacts to native plants and natural landscapes, I realized that the time was now to attempt to re-discover some of Baja California’s very rare, unique, and presently “lost” plants before they are gone forever.” The National Geographic Society agreed to fund the project, and Rebman got his Mexican colleagues – Dr. Jose Luis Leon de la Luz, Dr. Alfonso Medel Narvaez, Dr. Reymundo Dominguez Cadena and Dr. Jose Delgadillo – to join the effort. But how do you find a “lost” plant? It’s not for the faint of heart – spiritually, physically, or intellectually-speaking.
Astragalus piscinus: an image of the holotype specimen deposited in the united States national Herbarium (uS) at the Smithsonian.
Consider. In March 1889, self-taught British botanist Edward Palmer disembarked from a boat at a place on the Baja peninsula that he called “Lagoon Head”, found what he thought was a common weedy plant, and deposited it in an herbarium without further ado. Sometime later, renowned American botanist Marcus E. Jones found it in the herbarium, realized it was a very rare, endemic Baja California plant species, named it Astragalus piscinus, (common name Lagoon Milkvetch), and that was the last time anyone recorded it. In 1884 noted California naturalist Charles Orcutt was in a place he christened “Topo Canyon” when he chanced upon the very rare Physaria palmeri, took a sample, and recorded it with the fledgling San Diego Natural History Museum. No one has noted a sighting of it since. The entire list of the 15 lost plants Rebman and his colleagues set out to find reads like this, with very precise information about the plant, but incredibly imprecise information about the location. Therefore, the first thing the team had to do was pore over the papers, books and letters of the botanists who originally discovered the plants, and do their best to figure out where, exactly, in this 1,000 mile long peninsula, these botanists were when they took their samples. As a result, one of the cool byproducts of the expedition is a map put together by the NGS team that shows the place names used by these early botanists with the actual place names in use today. As every good cartographer knows, maps are an ever-evolving business.
The team narrowed down the possible locations for each plant (“Lagoon Head” turns out to be near Scammons Lagoon and “Topo Canyon” in the mountains of northern Baja), but then they had to actually find these very rare plants in an area that they had already demonstrated held over 4,400 different plants. It would seem almost impossible to make any progress while stopping to investigate all the different possibilities. Unless, of course, you are already so familiar with all the plants that you can immediately discern the one you don’t know, the one you’ve only seen as a specimen or a drawing. John Rebman and his Mexican botanical collaborators are quite possibly the only people alive today to stand a chance of finding any single one of these 15 lost plants. Yet so far, they have looked for ten and found seven. For the others, they need to wait for rain, in Baja, to find the blooms.
“It has not been easy” remarks Rebman. “We were in a desolate area in northern Baja where bandits are known to congregate, and I was looking for Orcutt’s
Astragalus piscinus flowers. Photo by Jon Rebman
Physaria palmeri. There were signs that the bandits were around, and alarm bells were going off in my head. But I had read Orcutt’s journals, had a firm sense of where he had been the day before he discovered the plant as well as the day after, and I really believed I was close. Yet I kept not finding the plant and kept getting more nervous. Finally, I decided that if I hadn’t found it by the time I reached the next tree, I would turn around. I got to the tree, got off my horse, looked down, and there it was. Orcutt, probably found it when he stopped to take a break in a shady spot all those years ago.”
Finding each of the 7 plants they’ve recovered so far has required serious expeditionary skills and effort, with horses, burros, camping gear, local guides, packed water and food. It’s been hot, it’s been dusty and, as we have seen, sometimes it’s been scary. But, as happens with most NGS projects, the results have been quite tidy. Says Rebman, “For each “lost” species that we encountered, we scientifically documented each population using standard protocols to make an herbarium specimen, we recorded all necessary label data, took a census of the populations, and assessed any visible threats to the well-being of the plant populations. Primary herbarium specimens have been deposited in the SD Herbarium at the San Diego Natural History Museum, and duplicate specimens have been deposited in the HCIB Herbarium in La Paz, Baja California Sur, and the BCMEX Herbarium in Ensenada, Baja California. I photographed each re-discovered plant using a digital camera, and these images, along with the map depicting old and new place names together, can be found at bajaflora.org.”
Dr. Alfonso Medel Narváez with Bouchea flabelliformis (Verbenaceae). Photo by Jon Rebman
While looking for the “lost” plants of Baja, Rebman and his team actually made several new discoveries. “From the expeditions we have taken so far, we have already encountered 30 new species previously unknown to science, all sitting in my cabinet awaiting further investigation.”
The NGS likes to quote American explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who said you never should have an adventure if your planning is good and you pull off every detail; an adventure is when things go wrong. With multiple expeditions looking for 15 ultra-rare – or possibly even extinct – plant species in poorly-described locations, there is bound to be an abundance of adventure in the process for Rebman and his botanical collaborators. But that is the essence of discovery, the essence of exploration, and Rebman and his team are showing us that there is still a huge amount to be discovered, and re-discovered about the places where the dragons used to roam.
Only a limited number of reasons come to mind when considering why someone would willingly allow themselves to be bitten by a venomous snake. There is, of course, suicide by snake, popularized by Cleopatra who reputedly smuggled an asp (cobra) into her chambers to kill herself and her hand maidens as Egypt fell to the Romans. Closely related is spirituality by snake, in which believers handle venomous snakes as a testament to their faith. The snakes snuff out the posers. And then there is science by snake, in which investigators inject themselves with venom to build up immunity, then test that immunity with actual snake bites (see suicide by snake).
So when Catarino Rosas Espinosa, widely known as Don Cata, said that his father deliberately provoked a rattlesnake to bite him, it’s initially difficult to make sense of the story. Don Cata’s father, Hipólito Rosas, was a renowned curandero, or healer, in the Sierra La Laguna mountains of Baja California Sur (BCS). Born in 1890, Hipólito was growing up at the height of the mining frenzy in BCS, a time when many Europeans were moving to Baja and bringing more “advanced” notions of medicine and civilized society. It was a time that saw a huge influx of grand pianos into the state as a reflection of increasing wealth, and a rapid decline in the number of people experienced in the traditional healing arts. People wanted to purchase their cures over the counter.
Although he worked for the mines for a time, Hipólito did not embrace all the modernizations brought by the Europeans. In fact, the Europeanization of local culture prompted him to seek out those who had been practicing traditional medicine in Baja long before the arrival of even the first wave of Europeans almost 500 years ago – he sought out families in the Sierras who still have the blood of the now largely extinct native peoples of BCS – the Guaycura and the Pericu – running through their veins. Under their tutelage he became a great healer renowned throughout BCS, working with 81 plants in the area that have healing properties, and using them to treat everything from allergies and bug bites, to cancer and diabetes. But the most important lesson he learned, and the one he felt most critical to impart to his son Catarino, is the power of mind over matter.
Don Cata and Dona Luz
By the time he was a teenager Don Cata was already an accomplished healer himself, having worked alongside his father since he was a small child. He saw that with every single patient Hipólito would end the consultation with a pep talk, telling the patient that everything was going to be fine. Don Cata says his father was cueing his patients’ minds to help heal their bodies. When Don Cata turned 16, Hipólito decided it was time to make flesh this lesson of mind over matter, and so set the rattlesnake upon his son.
Today Don Cata is a very healthy and youthful 65 years old, but he can still remember vividly the painful, lethal venom coursing through his veins, and the intense struggle to dominate it with his mind, keeping it from reaching his heart. He says that power of positive thinking, of the mind dominating the body, is critical to good health, and one of the best ways we can help ourselves prevent and/or recover from illness and injury. But how does one get a mind that is so powerful it can stop rattlesnake venom from reaching the heart? Plants. Says Don Cata, “I like to look for plants that have very long lives, lives that are longer than ours, old plants that are full of sustainable, renewable energy. When I see a really large, obviously old tree, I hug that tree with my whole body and with lots of love, and that tree shares its energy with me. When I go up in the mountains, I prepare tea from the root of a long-lived fern that grows there, and every day I drink 3 cups of this tea just before bed. I consider problems I need to resolve or areas in which I need help, and after drinking this tea at night solutions and knowledge come to me. After 15 days in the mountains of drinking this tea every day and walking in a different altitude, I have great clarity of mind and feel like a young man when I return to my ranch.”
Omar Piña is a 39 year-old traditional Mexican medicine expert who has studied with native peoples, shamans, curanderos and rancheros throughout Mexico. Omar, who holds several certifications in holistic health, says that traditional medicine is “based on a harmonious relationship with all the elements of the earth with whom human beings coexist, but do not master. (Emphasis is the author’s.) Many diseases and natural phenomena that affect people’s health are associated with a poor relationship with the beings of nature.” Omar, whose father is an MD, notes that in Western medicine, if a process cannot be readily understood it is generally dismissed. But Omar, Don Cata and other practitioners believe that people can connect with the spirit of the plant, and that plants can both heal you and prevent disease, whether this is an explicable phenomenon or not. All these healers have their go-to plants for particular ailments and issues (see The Power of Plants in Your Baja Garden) but they all believe that how you deal with the plant has as big an impact on the results that you may get as any chemical properties inherent to the plant itself. Explains Don Cata, “You must transmit love to the plant and give thanks to the plant, as well as the land and the earth. Otherwise it will die. We never take the whole plant for a medicine, we just take what we need.” Omar agrees. “To reap the full benefits of the healing or restorative properties of the plant, you must ask the plant for help. When people have a physical symptom, they must ask for the help so that they can start looking deeper for the root of the problem in their souls.”
Omar says that the rancheros of BCS like Don Cata are fully responsible for their emotional and physical well-being in ways that many of us in the west are not. “In modern times we have such large egos we think we can solve everything but we cannot. We just want to take a pill for the problem, without digging deeper into its origins. The Baja Rancheros and the native peoples of Mexico have so much respect for the earth, the things we cannot see, and for being connected to everything around us.”
Omar is living testimony to the power of plants to heal one’s soul and maintain balance in life. In 2010 Omar’s brother was kidnapped in Monterrey N.L. and has never been seen or heard from again. The shock of such an almost unimaginable event caused Omar’s mother to suffer a stroke, and plunged Omar into a profound emotional crisis. But, says Omar, “In this most difficult moment of my life, traditional medicine and plants taught me so much about life and spirituality, and brought me back to emotional health. It is this inner process of healing myself, of healing my soul, of finding balance with the help of the plants that I want to share with others.” The kidnapping of your brother – that’s a lot of venom for your mind to keep away from your heart.
Carlos Casteneda, the famed author who wrote several books about the teachings of a Mexican shaman concluded, “The aim is to balance the terror of being alive with the wonder of being alive.” Omar has succeeded in doing just that, and sharing this knowledge is now his life’s work. “Traditional medicine is sacred, it comes from god, it’s related to god” says Omar. “It is of and for the community – it belongs to everyone.” Don Cata agrees. People throughout the Sierras seek him out for healing, but he feels that his main purpose is to teach them how to use the plants themselves. “When friends visit, or when I’m working on projects on ranches with others, I always try to give them the knowledge for themselves and their families, and encourage them to pass it on to others.”
The great Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt wrote, “Nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice familiar to his soul.” Man just needs to open himself to hear that voice. Mind over matter.
Lawyers, guns and money. For the last several hundred years these have been the tools employed throughout the Americas to resolve land use and land ownership issues, and the system continues to thrive in present-day Baja California Sur. If you have enough of all three deployed in the correct proportions, you can generally carry the day. So how could the staff of a resource-restricted, government-operated, conservation-driven institution face down a large multinational company aiming to put an open pit gold mining operation in the UNESCO-certified natural area that they are charged with protecting? If you’re the employees of CONANP (The National Commission of Natural Protected Areas) in Baja California Sur you look to the earth. You invoke the powerful forces of nature. You call in the botanists.
When the CONANP team first met Dr. Sula Vanderplank of the Botanical
Sierra El Taste.Photo by Jon Rebman
Research Institute of Texas in 2014, she and her colleague Dr. Benjamin Wilder of the University of Arizona and Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers (N-Gen; www.nextgensd.com) had just completed a terrestrial biodiversity study of the lands surrounding Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park. Not coincidentally, these were the same lands targeted by a developer with plans to construct a massive 30,000-room hotel complex on the shores of the marine park. While there are likely many factors that ultimately lead to the termination of the project –massive protests, focused effort by leading local and international NGOs, international media scrutiny – it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that the findings of the team lead by Sula and Ben were a strong contributing factor. Why? In the area where they were to construct the hotel the botanists and their bi-national, multi-disciplinary team recorded no fewer than 560 species of flora and fauna. Of those, 100 (almost 1 in 5) are endemic to the Cape region of Baja California Sur, and 42 are on the Mexican endangered species list. Until that time, no one had any idea of the magnitude of the biodiversity of the area. As the authors of the study concluded, “Given the large number of endemic species present in the area, large-scale development projects risk the full scale and local extinctions of endemic species with narrow geographic ranges. Entire species could be lost forever (and their roles within the Sonoran Desert ecosystem) from the unique places where they evolved in situ during thousands or millions of years.”
Development ‘s deadly impact on biodiversity: CONANP was inspired. Gold mines operating in a protected natural area: N-Gen was invigorated. The opportunity to bring serious scientific scrutiny to Arroyo La Junta and the Los Cardones open pit gold mining project: it was too compelling to ignore. The CONANP/N-Gen team of Sierra scientific superheroes was born.
Now fictional superheroes like Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark conveniently come with immense family fortunes to back their earth-saving endeavors. Not so with reality-bound botanists and their colleagues. When Sula and Ben were first introduced to the Arroyo La Junta area in the Sierra foothills where the Mexican government had authorized the Los Cardones mining project, they couldn’t find much science on the area. A good bit of work had been done at the higher elevations of the Sierras, but the area around the proposed gold mine had remained a generally science-free zone. With the help of CONANP, Sula and Ben set out to change that and, as they had done in Cabo Pulmo, created a proposal to bring rigorous scientific investigation and analysis to determine the magnitude of endemism and biodiversity in the area. CONANP was thrilled. Potential funders were silent.
Anti-mine protest in Todos Santos town plaza. Photo by Kamal Schramm
“Then an interesting thing happened” says Ben. “When the government approved the MIA (environmental impact assessment) of the Los Cardones mine, the people of Todos Santos and La Paz rose up in protest and staged rallies and marches against the mine. This public outcry really gave new life to the importance of understanding the potential impact to the biosphere reserve.”
Anne McEnany, president of the International Community Foundation, had been involved in educating people about economic activities in the Biosphere Reserve for years, and immediately grasped the importance of the N-Gen project. “ICF has been working with local organizations to educate and inform the general public about the Biosphere Reserve and the La Paz watershed by developing curriculum, analyzing potential economic activities, and convening workshops. When the N-Gen research team approached ICF to finance a biodiversity assessment there, we knew it was the right next step. How can CONANP appropriately manage such a large area without knowing what is there?” The CONANP team breathed a sigh of relief. The botanists got busy.
Sula came down in September 2015 to scout out the area and to work with the director of the Sierra La Laguna Biopshere Reserve, Jesús Quiñónez Gómez, on the permitting required for the team to conduct its research. The scouting trip a little scary. Recalls Sula, “The Los Cardones people had guards and check points at several spots in the Arroyo La Junta area, and it was definitely a little intimidating. So when we came back with the whole team in December 2015, we were apprehensive about the type of reception we might receive.” The “whole team” consisted of 46 participants, including 29 scientists from 19 institutions (10 from Mexico and 9 from the US). Everyone was a little nervous, but by the time the team arrived to conduct their 8 days of investigation starting on December 4, 2015, the roadblocks and guards had been removed and the team worked without interference.
And apparently without much sleep either! The group, many of whom had worked on the Cabo Pulmo study and are part of the N-Gen network of investigators, consisted of 5 main teams of scientists: 4 botanists (the plant people), 6 entomologists (the insect folks), 8 herpetologists (the snake and lizard researchers), 7 mammologists (self-evident) and 4 ornithologists (the birders). Specialists for each taxonomic group worked almost around the clock, systematically surveying different areas as daytime collections gave way
Herpetology Team. Photo by Alan Harper
to nocturnal studies, which in turn rolled into bird surveys underway well before dawn. A CONANP management team of 10 people kept the whole project going, while the Rancho Agua de Enmedio family kept them all well fed, and Niparajá assisted with local logistics.
It couldn’t have been more perfect: a CONANP-inspired, ICF-funded, N-Gen-executed project with a multinational team of scientific rock stars to assess the biodiversity of an area that has been consigned to the ravages of open pit gold mining. It is the people of Baja California Sur’s dream team, and if ever salvation were at hand, it is now. But “now” is December. The rains of summer are but a distant memory so few annual plants persist, and the perennials are not sporting many of their distinguishing flowers and fruits; the botanists are challenged. The weather is cool and the cold-blooded snakes are not inclined to come out; the herpetologists find solace in the amphibians. There’s water in the arroyo so land mammals are around, but volant mammals (AKA bats) are the least likely to be active in the Sierras in December; the mammologists scan the night skies with few catches. Aquatic invertebrate communities often show great seasonal variability, and there are substantial taxonomic limitations to larval identification; the entomologists take pleasure in the huge number of harvestman spiders around that freak out all the other scientists. Lots of birds are in residence, but several important species frequent the Cape Region only in summer; the ornithologists make do with what they have.
Baja California Sur Tree Frogs. Photo by Michael Bogan
All of which makes it even more impressive that in the 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of land currently petitioned for use as the Los Cardones open pit gold mine project, the N-Gen team found 877 (eight hundred and seventy-seven!) species of flora and fauna, including 107 species endemic to the Cape Region alone, and 29 species listed as endangered by the Mexican government. Not only that, entirely new species were documented, including 2 insect species (and possibly more), and a completely new plant species record for the entire Peninsula, Brickellia diffusa, part of the sunflower family. And given the limitations of their research – they only had 8 days at a relatively unproductive time of year – the results are all the more astounding. In fact, the scientists reckon that their study represents only 25% (invertebrates) to about 50% (reptiles and amphibians) of the total species present in the region. It’s the frickin’ Garden of Eden on a 500 hectare lot.
But everyone knows that the Garden of Eden comes with a fast-talking serpent (apologies herpetologists) who doesn’t have the happiness of mankind at heart when he offers temptation to the innocent. As Exequiel Ezcurra, Director of the California Institute for Mexico and the United States (UC MEXUS) and co-editor of the study writes in the introduction to the soon-to-be-published study, “At the end of ten years of operations, the Los Cardones mine would have extracted about 173 million tons of rock, 135 million of which will have been deposited as waste in large pilings, and 38 million tons will have been accumulated in tailings in the form of sediments saturated with cyanide solution. In those ten years the project would have consumed about 300 million kilowatt-hours from the local power grid, releasing about 150,000 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere generated by the consumption of about 100 million liters of fossil fuels. In return, the project would generate only about 200 jobs for the entire region and only a meager eight tons of gold for the benefit of a private company.”
Scarier still, like the Garden of Eden, Arroyo La Junta is bounded by rivers, and its tributaries lie along the division of two watersheds. The ridge just to the north of Arroyo La Junta demarcates the boundary where water flows to the La Paz watershed, ending in the Gulf of California. Arroyo La Junta itself flows towards Todos Santos and empties into the Pacific Ocean. As Exequiel writes, “The mining project Los Cardones….plans to extract gold at the headwaters of the La Paz watershed treating the extracted rock with tons of cyanide, an amount sufficient to kill the entire population of Mexico.” Everyone on the peninsula knows that just one big hurricane could release a disaster of untold proportions from the mining site – it’s already happened in Sonora.
Of course it is the water that is the very source of the incredible biodiversity of Arroyo La Junta. The aquatic organisms that the water supports attract a vast array of predators like bats, birds and spiders, and the huge number of insects attracts reptiles and amphibians like frogs, who in turn attract larger predators like raccoons and coyotes. The arroyo is not just a source of drinking water for many of these species, it forms the actual basis for regional biodiversity. The humid air and damp areas extend the active period for many species, most especially reptiles, which means that they can extend their ecosystem functions for a larger part of the year.
CONANP discussed the study’s results. “When a company arrives to undertake a project in a protected area, the government wants to know if the project is compatible with the
Dr. Benjamin Wilder and Dr. Sula Vanderplank at Arroyo la Junta. Photo by Alan Harper
mission of that area. In this case, the protected area is the Sierra La Laguna Biosphere Reserve, and the mission of CONANP is to protect its biodiversity for future generations. The results of this study reaffirm that mining is incompatible with that mission. The mining company says that it can restore everything as it was after it digs these huge holes in the earth, but this study proves that restoration would be extremely difficult, if not impossible.” Ben is more direct. “The biodiversity numbers of the mining company’s MIA (environmental impact assessment) don’t even come close to what we documented. Restoration to what we see today after 10 years of mining would be impossible.” Exequiel agrees. “…we want to remind ourselves again, extinction is forever; our children will never be able to see the species that our generation pushes to oblivion.”
Lawyers, guns and money. In some cases these tools bring clarity, but in others they are employed to obfuscate, intimidate and renumerate away obstacles. And therein lies the beauty of the N-Gen study – it is pure, crystal clear, science. Every fact fully documented and not subject to dispute. And the timing could not be better as there is now a precedent for scientific institutions setting environmental parameters for mining operations. On February 8, 2016 Colombia’s Constitutional Court repealed Article 51 of the National Development Plan that had allowed the Environmental Licensing Authority to authorize mining projects in the Andean paramos, tropical alpine ecosystems. It ordered the Ministry of the Environment to use the map created by a scientific research institute, the Alexander von Humboldt Institute, as the basis for demarcating the boundaries of the paramo habitat. As Exequiel writes, “This was the first time a country had so explicitly put the human right to a safe water supply above the interest of big mining companies. It was also the first time that a nation had given such importance to a scientific research institute in the decision making process.”
Arroyo La Junta is in the part of the Sierras that was designated a Biosphere Reserve by the Mexican government in 1994 and by UNESCO in 2003. So the area’s value has long been suspected, but now, because of the inspiration of the CONANP team to bring in the scientific star power that is the N-Gen network, the true natural wealth of the area has finally been documented and all the players know exactly what is at stake: “Hundreds of species, many of them rare and endemic, others new to science or yet to be described.” The incredibly high rate of endemism is a result of the extreme isolation that the Sierras enjoyed for possibly millions of years. It is the natural heritage of the Mexican nation, and the very source of life for the residents of the Baja California peninsula. All the gold, all the lawyers and all the guns in the world cannot replace it. The botanists showed us that.
Endangered Species List
Reptiles & Amphibians
Botanical Research Institute of Texas
Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers
Orma J. Smith Museum of Natural History, The College of Idaho
CICESE, Unidad La Paz
San Diego Natural History Museum
San Diego State University
Fauna del Noroeste
San Diego Zoo Global
Sky Island Alliance
Rancho Agua de En medio
University of Arizona
University of California, Santa Cruz
University of Guadalajara
Vanderplank S, BT Wilder, E Ezcurra. 2016. Arroyo la Junta: Una joya de biodiversidad en la Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra La Laguna / A biodiversity jewel in the Sierra La Laguna Biosphere Reserve. Botanical Research Institute of Texas, Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers, and UC MEXUS. 159 pg.
The study will be published in June 2016, and you will be able to find it on the N-Gen web site at www.nextgensd.com.
Todos Santos Eco Adventures operates trekking and cultural programs in the Sierra La Laguna Biosphere Reserve, working with local ranchers and their families. For more information please visit www.TOSEA.net
There are four mangrove species that dominate in Baja California, and in 2010 they were all reclassified from “special protection / Protección especial” to “endangered / Amenazadas” species by SEMARNAT, Mexico’s environmental protection agency. These include: Red mangrove/ Mangle rojo (Rhizophora mangle), Black mangrove / Mangle negro (Avicennia germinans), White mangrove / Mangle blanco (Laguncularia racemosa), and Buttonwood mangrove / Mangle botoncillo (Conocarpus erectus).
Red mangroves are the most prevalent in Baja California Sur and they are easily identified by their gangly, aboveground “prop roots”, which have earned them the nickname “walking mangroves”. Like all mangrove species, red mangroves had to solve the problem of breathing and collecting nutrients in anaerobic, or oxygen-free soil, and the prop roots are a brilliant solution. These roots grow down from branches above and in the water, and eventually anchor in the mud, transporting air and nutrients. This nutrient-rich environment attracts a huge array of organisms, from protozoa to sea turtles to dolphins -creating a magnificent and complex food web. In the tropics, red mangroves can shoot past 80 feet, but in the arid climate of Baja California they rarely get past 15. On Isla Espiritu Santo, in San Gabriel Bay, the Magnificent Frigatebird uses a red mangrove canopy as a huge, elongated nursery, just a few feet off the water. It’s a sight worth seeing. Of all the mangrove species, red mangroves in Baja extend into the deepest water, the seaward zone, where conditions are harshest. Many species spend their entire life cycle among the red mangrove’s prop roots.
Black mangroves, like all mangroves, must deal with the troublesome issue of being a tree growing in seawater with a high concentration of salt – which is toxic to trees. Black mangroves solved this problem by exuding surplus salt through their leaves, where it appears as salt crystals. And, in contrast to red mangroves, they solved the problem of breathing in anaerobic soil by growing aerial roots up from a subterranean main root growing in the mud. When the tide is low these aerial roots are exposed to air and they breathe, and when the roots are covered in seawater, they take in all the nutrients they need. The black mangroves grow in the shallowest water of all the Baja California species, the landward zone. Like red mangroves, the aerial roots of the black mangroves form a natural living room, dining room, bedroom and nursery for a vast array of species along a very long food chain.
White mangroves, like their other Baja mangrove counterparts, have solved the problem of how to reproduce in such harsh, watery conditions by adopting a reproductive strategy that is more commonly found in mammals than in plants: vivipary. That is to say, they bring forth live young. Unlike most plants, the mangrove seeds germinate while still safely attached to the parent plant, producing “mangroves to go” or “propagules” – complete, miniature, folded plants that have already completed almost half a year’s growth while still attached to the parent tree. When mature, these baby plants fall into the water and drift with the sea currents. When a propagule reaches land, it immediately produces roots and soon sends up a seedling. At 40 days, the drift period is longest for red mangroves and at 5 days, it is shortest for white mangroves. Uniquely, the drift period of the white mangrove also includes germination, making it the only semi-viviparious of the Baja California mangrove species. White mangroves reach maximum density between the red and black mangroves, and the three species together form the bulk of the mangrove forests of Baja California.
Buttonwood mangroves, like all mangrove species, are working to solve the problem of global carbon emissions by burying enormous amounts of carbon in their peat soils. In fact, mangroves sequester 15 times more carbon, 50 times faster, than inland forests. Buttonwood mangroves are very sparsely distributed across Baja California, and generally as individual plants of 7 to 9 feet. Only one stand of buttonwood mangrove has been documented in BCS and that is at Isla Espiritu Santo.
So what about sweet mangroves / mangle dulce / Maytenus phyllanthoides? In Baja California sweet mangroves often form part of the salt-scrub vegetation associated with mangroves on the landward side. Yet, because they grow inland, sometimes even a good distance from the water’s edge, many more people of the Baja peninsula are familiar with this species and have a great fondness for it. As sweet mangroves are typically not in watery conditions, they take a much more traditional approach to reproduction, putting their seeds in a bright red aril, or seed covering, that develops from the seed stalk. The bright color attracts birds who act as seed dispersers. Happily, sweet mangroves do not appear on SEMARNAT’s list of protected species in Mexico.
Extinction. It happens. In fact, scientists estimate that 99% of all species that have ever strutted, slithered, swum, fruited, flitted or flowered on earth no longer exist. Cataclysmic events like asteroid hits, smashing continents and massive volcanic eruptions have already caused 5 mass extinction events over the last 4.5 billion years, each wiping out 50% to 90% of extant species. So why do some people currently get so het up about the extinction of a pretty bird species here or a weird-looking fish species there? Because it’s personal this time. After only 200,000 years on the planet our poor homo sapien habits have disrupted 65 million years of peaceful evolution to trigger the 6th mass extinction. That is, this time humans are not only the major cause, we’re also a likely casualty. Let’s face it, being at the top of the food chain matters not if there’s nothing underneath.
Mangrove Circle of Life. Collage by Tori Sepulveda and her students Monica Devine, Carol Bailey, Susan Willison, Joanna Spinoza, Christina Douglas and William Dubroraw.
Two Mexican biologists – Gerardo Ceballos and Andres Garcia of the National Autonomous University of Mexico – workingwith colleagues from Stanford, Princeton, Berkeley and the University of Florida, recently published an article in Science Advances showing that if the loss of species in the world continues at its current rate, then the current extinction could be on par with the 5 previous ones in 240 to 540 years – three to seven human life spans. A mass extinction happening fast enough to be perceived within a human lifetime – it’s completely unprecedented. The study states that the triggers for these deaths – pollution, predation and habit change – are all manmade. But Dr. Ceballos, the lead author on the study, offers some hope, “I’m optimistic in the sense that humans react – in the past we have made quantum leaps when we worked together to solve our problems.”
In other words, we need to get our collective act together. The study concludes, “Avoiding a true sixth mass extinction will require rapid, greatly intensified efforts to conserve already threatened species and to alleviate pressures on their populations – notably habitat loss, overexploitation for economic gain, and climate change.” It’s perhaps not surprising that two of the study authors are Mexican, as Mexico is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, and actually is considered mega-diverse – one of only 17 countries in the world with 70% species diversity. And here in Baja California Sur, mangroves are one of the most biologically important ecosystems in the state. In fact, mangroves are one of the most productive and biologically complex systems on the planet.
Magnificent Frigatebird Rookery at Isla Espiritu Santo by Ettore Botta
Mangroves are arboreal amphibians – salt tolerant trees that have evolved to bridge land and sea in tough coastal environments. They cover over 700,000 hectares (over 1.7 million acres) of the Mexican coastline, which is 5% of the world total – only the huge coastal countries of Brazil, Australia and Indonesia have more mangroves than Mexico. And they don’t just look cool, they are a full service life support system, providing food, refuge and breeding grounds for numerous crustacean, fish and bird species, waste processing and pollutant filtering for good ocean and wildlife health, and hurricane and storm surge protection for coastlines and coastal communities; with roots deeply embedded in mud, mangroves can absorb up to 90% of a wave’s energy. On top of all that, they’re a heckuva lot of fun to explore recreationally. Dr. Octavio Aburto of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography has calculated that these services can reach an annual value of US$100,000 per hectare, which means that every year, Mexico’s mangroves contribute up to 70 billion dollars to the national economy.* Even Donald Trump would call that a lot of money.
Yet every year humans clear thousands of hectares of mangroves in Mexico to make way for tourism developments, shrimp farms and other agro-industrial developments, giving Mexico the dubious distinction of having one of the highest mangrove deforestation rates in the world. Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra, Director of the Institute for Mexico and the United States at the University of California laments, “This short-term vision ignores the losses for society that are generated by degrading such a valuable ecosystem.”* Dr. Aburto and Dr. Ezcurra predict that, at current deforestation rates, in 25 years close to 50% of Mexico’s mangroves will have been lost, and countless more species will succumb to habitat loss. To put this into perspective, the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) estimates that the planet lost 50% of its wildlife in the past 40 years, and that habitat loss is the greatest threat to all remaining species.
Yellow-crowned Night Herons in Mangroves by Kaia Thomson
Dr. Patricia Gonzalez Zamorano, a landscape ecologist at CIBNOR (Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas del Noroeste) in La Paz who has been studying the mangroves of the Baja peninsula since 1997, cites a book† on mangroves recently-published by her institution and others when discussing the importance of mangroves to biodiversity in Baja California. “The mangroves of Baja California are the northernmost in the Eastern Pacific, and they support a tremendous number of species. Research over the years has confirmed that our mangroves support 159 fish species, 152 bird species – 43% resident, 57% migratory, 214 seaweed species, and 213 species of marine macroinvertebrates, including 72 species of crustaceans such as crab, shrimp, and krill, and 62 species of bivalves including oysters, clams, and mussels. While the rate of mangrove loss in Baja California is comparatively low at “only” 2% per year, between 1973 and 1981 we lost 23% of the mangrove forests surrounding La Paz alone due to development.” It can cost several thousand dollars and up to 100 years to restore a single hectare of mangrove to its full environmental services capacity.
Fish in Mangroves by Octavio Aburto
Dr. Aburto and Dr. Excurra worry that mangrove loss could cause irreparable damage to fisheries. Mangrove-related fish and crab species account for 32% of the small-scale fisheries landings in Baja California Sur, and mangrove loss, coupled with overfishing, have already had a severe impact on the state’s fishing industry. While the evidence is only anecdotal at this time, it is clear that many families who have been fishing in the state for generations are already looking to other sources of income as rapidly declining fish stocks are challenging their traditional livelihoods.
As homo sapiens we often make the short-sighted decision to allow a habitat to die, because we feel the resources required to sustain it are needed to allow mankind to live. It can take great creativity and commitment to find solutions to immediate human problems that will provide the biodiversity mankind needs to flourish past more than just the next three generations. The stakes are about as high as they come: Dr. Ceballos and his colleagues state that if the loss of species continues on the current projection, then “On human time scales, this loss would be effectively permanent because in the aftermath of past mass extinctions, the living world took hundreds of thousands to millions of years to rediversify.” In other words, save that pretty bird, that weird-looking fish, that mangrove today, and they just might return the favor tomorrow. Extinction. It happens. But it sure feels different when it’s coming for you.
*National Geographic Voices, the International League of Conservation Photographers, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mangroves in the Gulf of California increase fishery yields
†Los Manglares de la Península de Baja California, Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas, Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas del Noroeste, Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur
Rescatando Nuestros Arrecifes Y Manglares (Rescuing Our Reefs and Mangroves) is a brand new project taking place in BCS. It’s the brainchild of four marine biologists who, while sitting around the pool enjoying a cold beer, got into their favorite topic: how dirty the ocean is becoming and how plastic seems to be everywhere. Usually that would have been the end of it. But not this time.
Rescatando Nuestros Arrecifes Y Manglares
A date was set, a plan was made, and on July 22, 2015 more than 50 divers cleaned four reefs. Then less than a month later, on August 16, more than 100 kayakers and SUPers cleaned all the mangroves in La Paz Bay. Just a few weeks later, on September 6, the divers cleaned Pargo Villa, a rocky reef in 60 feet of water south of Cerralvo Island. While the divers were out a classroom of 5th graders cleaned the beach at La Ventana. Afterward the two groups got together to share what they had found, talk about how it got there, and how to prevent it from returning.
The organizers of Rescatando Nuestros Arrecifes Y Manglares – Mariana Padilla, Pepe Torres, Ronaldo Vilchis and Pablo Ahuja – have pledged to do a cleanup of a reef or mangrove every month, and so far have completed 3 cleanups in less than 3 months.
The organizers are seeking donations to purchase a laptop and computer projector so that they can begin environmental education in the schools of La Paz. To learn more about how you can get involved and be a part of the project, please visit them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Rescatando-Nuestros-Arrecifes-y-Manglares or contact organizer Pablo Ahuja at .
ROCKIN’ THE MANGROVES. The rock band Linkin Park is taking center stage in conserving mangroves in Baja California. Through their philanthropic arm Music for Relief, Linkin Park has partnered with the environmental group WildCoast to conserve 61 miles of mangroves in Baja California’s Magdalena Bay. Through WildCoast’s #MangleEsVida campaign, the program is raising funds to help protect mangroves so that they in turn can help mitigate coastal flooding to protect wildlife and coastal communities. For more information on Linkin Park, WildCoast and saving mangroves in Baja California, check out #MangleEsVida and/or contact WildCoast’s Monica Franco Ortiz at .
The cardón cactus, endemic to Baja California, is one of the most massive and ubiquitous cacti on the planet. Huge groves of multi-limbed old timers that witnessed the arrival of the first Europeans over five centuries ago can still be seen the length of the peninsula, and single young upstarts that haven’t even sent up their first arm yet crowd the desert landscape. What accounts for such rampant success? In a word, bats. Now of course there are many factors that help the cardón survive – isolation, summer rains, water retaining skeletons – but none of this would matter if it wasn’t for the bat, because the cardón is a cactus that deigns to open its flowers for pollination only as the sun is setting, a time when the kings of the PM pollination scene are emerging from their caves ravenous for their first meal of the night. That’s right, bats.
But not just any bat. Researchers have known for years about the role of the lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae) in cardon pollination. In fact, when a young graduate student named Winifred Frick arrived in Baja in 2004 to work on her dissertation in bat ecology, the lesser long-nosed bat was considered the only cardón pollinator game in town. Says Frick, “The lesser long-nosed bat is highly specialized for nectar-feeding. It can hover at an open cardón flower and use its
Lesser long-nosed bat. Photo by Rick Jackson.
long tongue to extract nectar, transferring pollen from one flower to the next in the process.” Clean, precise, targeted. Evolution at its most elegant. “So I was really surprised to see this other desert bat, the pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus), regularly visiting cardón flowers. The pallid bat has a short face, long ears and loves to eat scorpions off the ground. At first I thought maybe it was visiting the bat-adapted flowers of the cardon to opportunistically glean insects attracted to the flowers. But as we observed it over 2005-2007, we realized that the pallid bat was actually indulging in cardón flower nectar. Apparently it likes a little something sweet to wash down savory scorpion meals. However, unlike the lesser long-nosed bat, the pallid bat doesn’t hover but dives onto the whole flower, caking its whole body in pollen.” A cardón pollinator usurper?
Frick, now Dr. Frick of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was doing her dissertation on “the relationship between the size and isolation of (Baja) islands and bat species richness in a near-shore archipelago …” so didn’t follow up on her pallid bat observations at the time. But she didn’t forget the pollen-laden pallids, and a few years later teamed up with some of her UC Santa Cruz colleagues to study bats and cardón pollination in more depth, resulting in game-changing research that was published in American Naturalist in 2012 (Frick is the lead author of the study conducted with her colleagues Ryan Price, Paul Heady and Kathleen Kay). For the study, which was funded in part by the National Geographic Society and UC MEXUS, Frick and her team monitored cardón flowers at several sites in southern Baja. When they saw a bat visit a flower they would identify which of the two cardón-nectar-loving rivals it was, then retrieve the stigma of the flower to determine how many grains of pollen the bat had deposited. They also recorded the total number of flower visits by each of the two species at each study site. Turns out, pollination’s not just for the long-nosed crowd.
Pallid Bat on Cardon Flower. Photo by Merlin Tuttle. http://merlintuttle.org
“The results blew us away. The lesser long-nosed bat has an ancient cardón-pollinating lineage that has been co-evolving with the cardón flower for a very long time. We were therefore very surprised to see that the newby, the pallid bat, is a far more effective pollinator, delivering about 8 times as much pollen per visit. We observed several factors that account for this. One is that the pallid bat rests its body on the flower and plunges its whole head into the flower to get at the nectar. It therefore gets far more pollen on its body than the hovering lesser long-nosed bat, who is using its tongue only to access nectar. So this new pollinator is actually better than the more specialized pollinator because it is not well-adapted to nectar feeding. (The pallid is the only nectar feeder from an insect-feeding family, Vespertilionidae). Its stats are also helped by the fact that the lesser long-nosed bat uses pollen as a source of protein, so therefore regularly eats the pollen off its fur, reducing the amount available for pollination. Finally, the lesser long-nosed bat is migratory while the pallid bat is a year-round Baja resident, a fact that makes the pallid bat especially important to the cardón.”
The cardón. Amazing record of longevity and survival. How has it done that? It has been scientifically shown that plants respond to stimuli such as sound and touch. Some wounded plants produce a chemical that acts as an alarm signal, prompting nearby plants to produce chemicals that help them defend themselves against insects – or attract insect predators. Venus fly traps just eat the interlopers. So is it possible that the cardón has sensed that it’s a hair risky to continue entrusting its future solely to an endangered, migratory, picky eater like the lesser long-nosed bat? Has it therefore made its flower scent / nectar taste so enticing that even – or perhaps especially – a scorpion-loving, insect-grubbing, and – until recently – flower-snubbing permanent Baja resident like the pallid bat would literally plunge in head first to its rescue? Says Frick’s co-author Kathleen Kay, “What is actually happening in terms of how species are mutually interacting can be more complicated than what meets the eye.” Wily cardón. Lucky bats.
Pallid bat photo by Merlin Tuttle. http://merlintuttle.org
Photographer Merlin Tuttle
MerlinTuttle decided to devote the remainder of his career to bat conservation in 1982 “as an act of desperation. It was obvious that without major improvement in public attitudes, the situation for bats would continue to worsen.” Battered by centuries of harmful myths and misinformation, bats were despised and casually slaughtered around the world. Merlin has made education – correcting those myths and teaching the economic and ecosystem benefits of bats – a major part of his work. Distressed that most bat photographs showed roughly handled bats snarling in self-defense,Merlin taught himself photography. He became a world-class wildlife photographer whose images have appeared in books and magazines around the world and played a crucial part in his education efforts. To view his amazing photographs and contribute to his bat conservation efforts, please visit http://merlintuttle.org/.