Friday, September 30, 2011

The Island of Streamertails

Are you thinking it's high time for an adventure? This next spring, after winter's deep snows and deeper thoughts, why not join me in Jamaica?

Jamaica: seabreezes, sun, misty forest, calypso––and those spectacular hummingbirds, the streamertails!

Red-billed Streamertails commonly visit Jamaican gardens.
(Photos by Peg Abbott)

We will base this week-long trip at two mountain eco-lodges, both surrounded by forest and shaded coffee plantations, and both sites lively with migrants and endemic Jamaican birds. Indeed, Jamaica has the greatest number of single-island avian endemics of any island in the West Indies––even more than its much larger neighbor, Cuba. According to World Wildlife Fund, Jamaica boasts more endemic birds than any other oceanic island in the world! That number is around 28, depending on just which splits are recognized. So, conjure up visions of Crested Quail-Doves, Jamaican Owls, Jamaican Euphonias, Jamaican Todies, Jamaican Spindalis and Yellow-billed Parrots––species found nowhere else on earth.

A delightful Jamaican Tody

World Wildlife Fund lists these endemics for Jamaica: 830 flowering plants and an additional 579 ferns; 27 reptiles; 20 amphibians; and 4 mammals including the hutia and 3 bats. Jamaica has over 500 species of endemic terrestrial snails! Of all the world's islands, Jamaica ranks 5th in the total number of endemic species it harbors.

It's a puzzle: why does Jamaica have such high levels of endemism?

Biologists have advanced several possible explanations. The island's habitats span a big elevational gradient, from sea-level coastal strand to elfin forest atop the main ridge of the Blue Mountains. Basic rock types range from limestone in the John Crow Mountains and the Cockpit Country, to igneous rocks and sedimentary shales in the Blue Mountains. Some plants are endemic to just a single limestone knoll! Conditions varied enough across the island that five distinct types of forest evolved. Complexity of soils and of vegetation supports, in turn, a more complex fauna.

Tree fern in the Hardwar Gap of the Blue Mountains

Location is also paramount. Jamaica was never connected to the mainland of Central America. But during the Ice Age when sea level was lower, three other large islands were exposed, and they provided stepping stones for island-hopping organisms. Just to the north of Jamaica, the very big island of Cuba also contributed to Jamaica's richness.

When we consider species richness, we often begin with impressive lists of the numbers of organisms for a particular place. But the true richness of a place transcends mere lists. It lies partly in the complex relationships between flora and fauna and soils, and partly in the lush, vivid sensory overload that tells us we are in the tropics.

Let's explore!

A fledgling Jamaican Owl ponders a human being.

No comments:

Post a Comment