Thursday, June 16, 2011

Jamaica: Old Haunts

A-many years ago, when I was young and charming (well, now you know that Gilbert and Sullivan rank high among my non-naturalist enthusiasms) -- well, actually, when I was almost eleven years old -- my father Charles Orenstein was hired to oversee the building and opening of a resort hotel, the Arawak, near Ocho Rios, Jamaica.

The hotel opened on December 7, 1957.  Here I am at the festivities, flanked by Norman Manley (1893-1969), Chief Minister of Jamaica, soon to be the independent country's first premier [in an earlier version of this entry I misidentified him as his cousin and arch-rival Sir Alexander Bustamante, who was also present]; my dad (1916-, I'm happy to say!); and Sir Hugh Foot (1907-1990), the outgoing colonial governor.

We lived in Jamaica for over a year.  Imagine how it felt to be a young boy fascinated by natural history, suddenly transported to a tropical island filled with birds and butterflies, with a coral reef off the coast and a shell-laden beach to explore.  It was the happiest year of my childhood, and I though it was many years before I returned I have had a soft spot for Jamaica ever since.

I have been back several times, and in November 2010 I had a chance to go again - this time to attend a meeting of the Protocol to the Cartagena Convention on Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife in the Wider Caribbean Region (or SPAW, to its devotees).  Eileen went with me, and together we visited some of my old haunts along the north coast, where we stayed at the charming Shaw Park Resort courtesy of my old friend from childhood days, Ernie Smatt, who ran the water sports concession at the Arawak and is now a highly successful hotelman in his own right..

Morning walks around the hotel gardens brought me to some charming flowers - does anyone out there know what these are?

Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) is not only a highly attractive tree and a staple item in Jamaican diets - it has its famous (or rather infamous) place in history.  The tree, a member of the mulberry family (Moraceae), is native to Southeast Asia and the tropical Pacific.  It owes its presence in the Caribbean to the famous 18th-century botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who promoted it as a cheap and nutritious food for slaves working British possessions in the West Indies.

 The first attempt to transport breadfruit to the Caribbean, in 1787, must rank as one of the most spectacularly unsuccessful ventures in the history of botany: the ship chosen for the expedition was the HMS Bounty under the command of William Bligh.  Bligh succeeded in getting plants to their destination on a later, less mutinous venture, only to find that the slaves wouldn't eat the stuff.  Well, I'm not a huge fan of breadfruit myself....
There is no more typical tree of Caribbean coastlines than the seagrape (Coccoloba uvifera) - not a grape, but a member of the buckwheat family (Polygonaceae) with thickened, waxy leaves adapted to survive in the salt spray and edible, if not particularly tasty, grape-like fruits that are used to make a local jam.

Anything away from the coast is, of course,off the regular tourist beat.  This is a shame, because Jamaica has beautiful forested hills (and some green landscapes that look remarkably like parts of rural England).  We drove up to Brown's Town to see the local market, nature-watching on the way (and road-watching, too - driving in rural Jamaica can be something of a hazardous experience).

 Jamaica is rich in native plants, with a high number of species found nowhere else (and like tropical plants everywhere, they receive far less protection than they deserve). Here are an unidentified (at least by me) leguminous tree and a strangler fig.

A sure clue that we were in the New World tropics - not the old - was the presence of bromeliads, in some places seemingly decorating every tree of suitable size.  Only a single member of the 3000+ strong family Bromeliaceae is native to the Old World, and that one, restricted to West Africa, is probably a fairly recent colonist whose seeds were spread across the Atlantic by migratory birds.

In Jamaica bromeliads (this one looks like a member of the genus Tillandsia) are known as wild pines (presumably because the most widely-cultivated bromeliad is the pineapple).  Bromeliads tend to collect rainwater in the bases of their leaves, creating tiny arboreal wetlands that are home to a variety of specialized creatures.  Jamaican bromeliads boast, among other things, a unique crab (Metopaulias depressus) that breeds in bromeliad pools and cares for its young to a remarkable degree for an invertebrate.

Here is a particularly large and robust bromeliad, possibly a species of Aechmea.
Many thanks to Rich Hoyer for identifying this damselfly for me!  It is a female Rambur's Forktail (Ischnura ramburii), a very widespread member of the Coenagrionidae whose range extends from the USA to Chile and even Hawaii.

There are 13 species of damselfly on Jamaica. At least one, the endemic Diceratobasis macrogaster, is a bromeliad specialist, laying its eggs in the plant's water traps where its young feed on the other invertebrates swimming there (see Rich's photo of this species here).
Anolis lizards are widespread and familiar in the West Indies.  There are seven species on Jamaica, six of them endemic. As you might expect, the seventh  is the likeliest to be found around coastal resorts, and that is where I photographed this one.  It is a Cuban Brown Anole (Anolis sagrei), a species that has been introduced, very successfully (at least from the lizard's point of view), in South Florida.

The six native species are the result of a radiation from a single ancestral form that invaded the island long ago.  This is one of them, the Jamaican Turquoise Anole (Anolis grahami), photographed in the forest near Brown's Town above Ocho Rios.
Here is a Tropical Buckeye (Junonia genoveva).  Notice the extensive whitish area around the eyespot on the forewing - that is one key to distinuish it from a very similar butterfly, the West Indian Buckeye (Junonia evarete).

This magnificent spider is a Golden Orb Weaver (Nephila clavipes).  Nephila spiders are found around the world in warmer latitudes.  This is apparently the only member of its genus in the Americas, where it lives from the southern United states through Central America and the West Indies into South America.
As a boy, I was less interested in the forest (after all, I couldn't drive) than in the sea, and the wonders that the sea might cast up on the beach below us.  I spent many happy hours collecting shells washed up on the sand, or poking about in the shallows in search of strange marine creatures.  A brief stroll along the beach at the Shaw Park Hotel, where Eileen and I stayed, brought some of those memories back again.
The delicately-coloured valves of tellins (this appears to be the Alternate Tellin (Tellina alternata)) lay among sand grains and the remains of smaller molluscs.

Snail shells decorated the sand (this is a common one, but I'm not too sure what it is - the thickened lip recalls not so much a marine shell as one of Jamaica's land snails (Lucidella sp.?), incongruously washed up on the beach.

Not all the small objects cast up on a beach are the remains of marine animals.  large seeds from a variety of land plants - so-called "sea beans"  - are common in beach wrack, where sea-bean fanciers collect them as enthusiastically as shell-collectors do mollusc shells.  This one appears to be the seed of Jamaican Navelspurge (Omphalea diandra), a shrub in the euphorbia family with relatives in tropical America, Africa and Madagascar.

My walks usually led me to outcrops of limestone interrupting the flow of sand along the beach, where I could find a further range of creatures clinging to the rocks or living in the tidepools.

A closer look reveals that the rock is actually the skeletons coral, the remains of an ancient reef.

Nerrite snails (genus Nerita) cluster together at the tideline, often in large numbers, lending a touch of colour and pattern to the bare rocks.  Here two species sit side by side: on the left, the Tessellated Nerite (Nerita tessellata), and on the right, the Plicate or Four-toothed Nerite (Nerita versicolor).
In Jamaica, chitons (this appears to be the West Indian Green Chiton (Chiton tuberculatus)) are known as "sea beef".  Though they might look, I suppose, like a slab of raw meat (and they are eaten, and used as bait), chitons are actually mollusks (Class Polyplacophora).  They are distinguished from other mollusks by the row of eight overlapping shell plates running down their upper surface.  Chitons cling tightly to the rocks, move little and seem singularly unexciting animals.

A very recent discovery, though, published only in April 2011, has shown that some adult chitons (this one is probably a Squamous Chiton (Chiton squamosus)) have at least one remarkable feature: eyes made of, essentially, stone.  Their shells contain hundreds of light-sensitive cells linked to crystals of aragonite, a form of calcium carbonate.  This network of crystalline eyes can actually see shapes, admittedly at very low resolution.  By human standards chiton vision is pretty poor, but it may be good enough to warn them of the approach of a predator (they cannot run away, but they can clamp down more tightly to the rocks if threatened).  Furthermore, the light-bending properties of aragonite means that chiton eyes work both in and out of the water - a useful feature for animals that spend their lives along the tide line.

Chitons are they only known animals with aragonite lenses.  Only some chiton species have eyes, and they seem to have acquired them only in the last 25 million years - not a long time, considering that chitons have been around since at least the Cambrian, 500 million years ago.  This (if I have identified it correctly) is one of the eyed species (and in fact the one in which the discovery was made): the West Indian Fuzzy Chiton (Acanthopleura granulata).

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