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Dancing with Mr. D

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Bird by bird I’ve come to know the earth…Pablo Neruda

Broad-billed Tody, Sierra Bahoruco by Ted Lee Eubanks.

The name says it. Aves Caribe (The Caribbean Birding Trail) is all about birds. Birds serve as a pathway to nature, and delineate a trail to lead the adventurous to truths behind the obvious. Birds are colorful, active, gregarious, and engaging. Who can resist a tody?

Yet at times birds and language fail us. Biodiversity is a word stripped of poetry. We need to bring it alive. A scientist describes the feeding habits of the Hispaniolan emerald. Neruda celebrates the small bird on fire which dances out of the pollen.

We look to every creature in the wild and to every word in the dictionary to bring our neighbors to an understanding of the kaleidoscopic world enveloping us. Yes, the Dominican Republic is blessed with 32 species of endemic birds. An island’s lack in numbers of species is often replaced by endemicity. But at times orchids, anoles, and Calisto butterflies demonstrate evolutionary radiation more directly than birds. If we wish to affect public sentiment, and to influence public policy, then we can’t afford to be hamstrung by an abbreviated lexicon or a narrowed focus.

Endemic orchid from Cachote in the Sierra Bahoruco Oriental in the Dominican Republic by Ted Lee Eubanks.

The orchid in this photograph is endemic to the Sierra Bahoruco Oriental around Cachote. One may visit Cachote to see the jilguero (the rufous-throated solitaire), but why ignore the endemism that surrounds you extending beyond birds?

Consider the butterflies of the genus Calisto. As an aside, the genus is named for the mythical Callisto, who,

As a follower of Artemis, Callisto, who Hesiod said was the daughter of Lycaon, king of Arcadia, took a vow to remain a virgin, as did all the nymphs of Artemis. But to have her, Zeus disguised himself, Ovid says, as Artemis (Diana) herself, in order to lure her into his embrace. Callisto was then turned into a bear, as Hesiod had told it:

…but afterwards, when she was already with child, was seen bathing and so discovered. Upon this, the goddess was enraged and changed her into a beast. Thus she became a bear and gave birth to a son called Arcas.

Calisto grannus grannus (M. Bates, 1939) butterfly photographed above Zapoten in the Paque Nacional Valle Nuevo by Ted Lee Eubanks.

There are 42 species in the genus Calisto, many of which are endemic to Hispaniola. The radiation in Calisto is so profound as to inspire some to call this group “Darwin’s butterfles.” Why did the Calisto diverge in such a dramatic fashion? Here is a quote from a recent study of the genus.

Though it is tempting to assume some role of geological events in speciation of Calisto, it has been shown repeatedly that adaptive radiation process is the main driving force behind evolution of species richness in the Caribbean (e.g., Losos et al. 2006). In our opinion, the genus shows a remarkable degree of diversification in comparison with other Caribbean clades, presumably because of low dispersal ability of these butterflies that interacts with topographic isolation within an island of Hispaniola and with exploitation of different habitats with varying rainfall patterns. Inter-island isolation, of course, also contributed to the overall diversity of the genus. However, it is the incredible diversity of habitats, ranging from the hot, dry deserts of the Hispaniolan lowlands to montane forests and grasslands at over 3000 m in elevation, that is responsible for the todays diversity of Calisto.

Calisto h. hysius (Godart, [1824)
(Godart’s Calisto) photographed at Cachote, Sierra Bahoruco Oriental, Dominican Republic by Ted Lee Eubanks.

Hispaniola is a continent shoehorned into a postage stamp. One recent afternoon we drove over a bone-jarring road from sea level at Pedernales to the mountain pine forests at Villa Pajon in a few hours. We sweated under an air conditioner in a seaside motel one night, and the next we were scrounging for blankets to keep us warm.

Within each range, valley, barranca, and watershed in this vertical landscape organisms such as the Calisto have been dancing to Darwin’s music for millions of years. Birds are an invitation to watch. Yet the endemism we see in birds may be less dramatic than we see in other groups such as Calisto, anoles, and frogs. Why not watch the entire troupe?

This vertical world has been under assault since the arrival of Colon. The sugar cane of yesterday is the climate change of today. Read the conclusions above;

…it is the incredible diversity of habitats, ranging from the hot, dry deserts of the Hispaniolan lowlands to montane forests and grasslands at over 3000 m in elevation, that is responsible for the today’s diversity of Calisto.

Calisto archebates (Ménétriés, 1832)
(Yellow-banded Calisto) endemic to the Hispanolian Sierra de Bahoruco by Ted Lee Eubanks.

The “incredible diversity of habitats” today is at risk from climate change as these elevational strata are transformed (and in some cases lost) through a warming climate. The Calisto radiated because of “low dispersal ability…interact[ing] with topographic isolation.” The constraints are the same with many of the species we have seen and photographed, from orchids at Cachote to the Calisto at Zapoten. These species have evolved within the context of a delicate balance of temperature, rainfall, and elevation. Climate change will reorder all of this.

At first I thought that climate change might be peripheral to our interests in Aves Caribe. I have changed my mind. Climate change threatens to undermine the fundamental underpinnings of Caribbean existence. Wildlife, ecosystems, agriculture, and societies will be reshaped and reshuffled in a wink of an eye. The Calisto invested millions of years to reach a diversity that climate change will impoverish within a geological nanosecond.

I understand the nature of denial. I would never argue that politics is rational nor amnesiac ignorance logical. Yet along our trail I spy Darwin at every twist and turn, I see his troupe twirling in the shadows, and I see the storm clouds gathering over the horizon as we inch our way up this brain-battering road.

Ted Lee Eubanks
12 July 2012


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The Caribbean Birding Trail is a project of BirdsCaribbean (formerly the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds), a 501(c)3 non-profit.

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