Category Archives: Tenerife

Is the angry response of (some) environmentalists in the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire reasonable?

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Last night Karin and I returned from two weeks of field work plus a period of writing in Tenerife.  The first week was devoted to our annual University of Northampton undergraduate field course which I’ve written about before – see this recent book review for instance.

I don’t normally watch much television when I’m in Tenerife; we tend to get back from field work early evening, jump in the shower, then go for a beer and a meal, then early to bed for field work the next day.  But there were two bits of TV that I made a point of viewing, and actually for the same reasons: news reports about the fire that severely damaged Notre Dame Cathedral and David Attenborough’s documentary about the current effects of climate change.  Both of these were about the destruction of heritage (cultural and natural) and how this affects people.  I have to say that I shed a tear watching them.

The response of some billionaires and large companies, offering millions of Euros towards Notre Dame’s restoration, was criticised by some environmentalists and others concerned with social justice.  Here are some examples:

https://www.joe.ie/amp/life-style/notre-dame-feature-665670

Over at the Ecology for the Masses blog, Sam Perrin in turn criticised these responses, suggesting that “What environmentally-minded people need to start doing is examine the other cause. Why do they get more attention? How have they gone about making their issue so ubiquitous? Try and examine WHY the Notre Dame Cathedral has received over 1 billion USD in reconstruction pledges when the Great Barrier Reef languishes every day.”

Jeremy Fox of the Dynamic Ecology blog clearly agrees  with this sentiment (read his comments) and posted a link to Sam’s piece.  I have to say that I got a bit irritated at Jeremy’s use of the phrase “pet causes”, and responded that: “I wouldn’t describe wholesale destruction of habitats, over-exploitation of natural resources, species’ extinction rates orders of magnitude higher than the background, environmental degradation that is affecting people’s health and livelihoods, and the accelerating effects of climate change as a “pet cause”. We’re not talking about raising funds for new books in the local library here!”

If you follow that series of comments and replies on Dynamic Ecology you’ll see that Jeremy pushed back strongly against my response, and I replied in return.  I stand by what I said though, that people do not react to these sorts of events logically, they react emotionally.  Hence the initial emotional outpouring of offering millions of Euros to restore Notre Dame is matched by an equally emotional response of “think of all of the other things that we could do with that money”.   The response from environmentalists and others was a reasonable one, as was the offer of millions of Euros for Notre Dame.  Both are equally valid.  Whether both are equally “important” is something that we could debate forever and I urge you to read through the posts and comments and make up your own mind.

On our last full day in Tenerife Karin and I explored an area of xerophytic scrub vegetation that surrounded a small rocky hill (see image below).  On top of the hill is a set of ancient rock carvings produced by the indigenous Guanches, one thousand years ago or more (the image at the start of this post).  The Guanches had positioned some of the rocks so that they produced different notes when struck.  It was clearly a site that had deep significance to these people prior to the European conquest of the islands.  However the site is completely unprotected and there’s been no effort to interpret what is a culturally important bit of archaeology – such carvings are not common in the Canary Islands.  In addition the surrounding vegetation is being slowly degraded by illegal tipping of rubbish.  These struck me as a depressingly fitting accompaniment to the subject of this post.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Tenerife, University of Northampton

Book review: Vegetation of the Canary Islands by Marcelino J. del Arco Aguilar and Octavio Rodríguez Delgado (Springer 2018)

Figure 1 - Tenerife 2008 - students on the Aeonium field - lo res

 

This is the text from a book review that’s published this week in The Niche, which is the British Ecological Society’s members’ bulletin.


 

The Canary Islands mean many things to different people.  To the millions of holiday makers each year they are places of relaxation, of sun, sand, sea and holiday shenanigans.  To Charles Darwin, writing during the early weeks of the Beagle voyage, they were the “long wished for object of my ambition”.  Having read accounts of Tenerife by earlier explorers such as Alexander von Humboldt, Darwin was excited to have the opportunity to visit “perhaps one of the most interesting places in the world”.  Sadly it was not to be: an outbreak of cholera back in Britain meant that the Beagle’s crew would have to be quarantined for 12 days before they could disembark.  Captain FitzRoy was not prepared to do this and so the Beagle moved on.

I recount this story to my University of Northampton students each April when we visit Tenerife for our annual field course.  Referring to it as “Darwin’s Unrequited Isle”, I point out how fortunate they are to live at a time when a short plane flight can take them from the UK to such a fascinating natural laboratory of in situ evolution and biogeographical processes (Figure 1).  We’ve been going to the island since 2003 and we’re certainly not the only European university to do so, I know of at least five others in the UK alone.

To ecologists and those interested in natural history the Canary Islands are a fascinating mixture of the exotic and the banal.  Endemic succulent spurges (Eurphorbia spp.) grow with non-native prickly pear cacti (Opuntia spp.), traditional cafes serving tapas and local wines butt up against sports bars providing a full English breakfast with a pint of Carlsberg for less than five Euros.  The rapid development of tourism on the islands means that there are enormous pressures on land for building apartment complexes, as well as on water resources, energy generation and wastes management.  The islands are a laboratory for sustainable development as much as they are for evolution.

The literature on Canary Island ecology, biogeography and conservation has grown quickly, much of it fuelled by the education opportunities afforded by the islands.  As the authors of Vegetation of the Canary Islands note, the book is both “a synthesis of numerous publications….[and data and experience].…from many years of teaching and research…at the University of La Laguna”.  This fieldwork-focused, dusty boots approach to understanding the Canary Islands flora is apparent throughout the volume which has clearly been a labour of love for the highly knowledgeable authors.

The book is divided into eight chapters, plus appendices. Chapter 1 entitled Geographic Framework gives a summary of the physical geographical and geological context of the islands in relation to the rest of Macaronesia, and explains something of the human history of indigenous peoples (collectively termed the Guanches) and the later European colonisers.  The population of the islands (estimated to be 2.1 million in 2016) swells by an order of magnitude with close to 15 million tourists visiting that same year.  One of the attractions for north Europeans is dealt with in Chapter 2 Canary Climate   Although categorised as subtropical, the weather can be hugely variable, especially on the more mountainous islands; we have experienced blistering heat, torrential rain and snow storms in April in the higher reaches of Tenerife (which at 3,718 m is the second highest island in the world).  Irregular and geographically sporadic rainfall is a particular feature. This leads neatly into Chapter 3 on Bioclimatology that relates this climatic variability to the plant communities of the islands.  A sense of how complex this is can be gauged from Table 3.4 that lists 57 different bioclimatic combinations and their associated vegetation types, many of which overlap.

Chapter 4 on Biogeography considers how the islands have been colonised over a time scale that goes back more than 65 million years, including islands that no longer exist, having eroded and become submerged, but which in the past acted as stepping stones for colonisation of species from the continent and between archipelagos.  This includes some fascinating speculation regarding the role of much earlier island groups to the south west of the Canary Islands that may have allowed exchange of plants between Africa and the Americas, and that could explain some intriguing disjunctions in current distributions.  There is also a very useful summary of endemic genera.

Chapter 5 Other Floristic Considerations initially looks at the non-vascular flora of algae, fungi, lichens and bryophytes, which is rich (5508 species compared to 2091 vascular plants) though the rate of endemism is not so high.  There is then more comparison of diversity and endemism between plant families and islands, followed by a summary of molecular taxonomic findings.  Given how short it is I think that this chapter could easily have been incorporated into the previous one, though that’s a minor criticism.

The bulk of the book (from pages 83 to 308) is taken up by Chapter 6 Vegetation of the Canary Islands which provides a very detailed arrangement of the flora in the classical Braun-Blanquet form using names adapted from the species that are characteristic of that community (“Nerio-Tamaricetea”, “Morello fayae-Pinetum canariensis”, etc.).  To ecologists not trained in this tradition, and more used to the National Vegetation Classification (NVC) scheme familiar to us in Britain, this terminology can seem a little daunting.  Fortunately the introductory section provides a broader classification of the vegetation into categories such as “Euphorbia scrub and shrublands”, “Laurel forest”, etc.  This is a good stepping off point for anyone interested in understanding the vegetation further, before plunging into the subsequent sections that examine these communities in great detail.  The later coloured maps of the potential natural vegetation of the islands, without anthropogenic interference, are especially useful for teaching.

This leads us into Chapter 7 which deals with Changes in the Natural Landscape Through Human Influence.  As the authors point out, people have influenced the vegetation since the earliest period of human settlement on the islands, about 1000 BCE, as these arrivals brought with them livestock such as goats, sheep and pigs, as well as useful plants.  However this process was hugely accelerated from the 15th century onwards as Europeans rapidly conquered the islands and cleared large areas of forest, as well as introducing many more invasive species.  The chapter ends with a very thought provoking section on climate change and its likely effects.

Chapter 8 considers the Conservation Status of the Canarian Flora and Vegetation, providing a history of how protected areas were set up, including the designation of seven UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and two Natural World Heritage Sites. Lists of protected plant species and their various designations are also provided and there’s a short summary of invasive species.

The four appendices give: (1) an over view of the phytosociological scheme for understanding the communities; (2) a short history of botanical exploration of the islands,  which emphasises just how many botanists and ecologists the archipelago has attracted over the years; (3) notes on the ethnobotany of the islands; (4) and a long list of relevant literature, extending over 18 pages.  A weakness of the book is that the literature is not cited within the text, presumably for reasons of readability.  This does make it much more difficult to track specific sources of information back to its origin, however. The text concludes with two indices, one phytosociological and one taxonomic.

The book is well illustrated with both colour and black and white photographs and figures, though the quality of some of these in the e-book version that I was provided with for this review were not as sharp as they could have been.  I hope that the print version is better quality.

Vegetation of the Canary Islands will appeal to anyone interested in the ecology of this most fascinating of archipelagos, though at £119.99 for the hardback it is expensive.  It should certainly be bought by any library of a university that carries out teaching and research on the islands.  The earlier and later chapters will be of most use for students and their teachers; the central sections on phytosociology really require more specialist knowledge, though there’s a lot of fascinating ecology in there for the patient reader.  One thing that did surprise me about the book is that the role of fire in determining the type of vegetation in an area is hardly considered, except as it relates to the negative consequences of large wild fires.  Yet many of these habitats must have burned naturally before people arrived on the islands, as evidenced by the amazing ability of Pinus canariensis to re-sprout after it has burned (Figure 2).

During our field course in Tenerife the students and staff spend a week exploring the different plant communities of the island, as well as bird and bee behaviour, and half a day of sea mammal observation.  I’ve used it as an opportunity to conduct long term data collection that otherwise would never get funded (see Figure 1), and some of this research has already been published.  Two other books that I’ve found useful and which should be on the bookshelves of anyone wishing to learn more about Darwin’s Unrequited Isle are: Natural History of Tenerife by Philip and Myrtle Ashmole (2016) and Tenerife Nature Walks by Sally Lamdin-Whymark (2013).  Both are available on Amazon.

Figure titles:

Figure 1:  University of Northampton students surveying a population of Aeonium urbicum, Santiago del Teide, Tenerife, 2008.  This monocarpic species is the subject of long-term data collection to assess what triggers flowering.

Figure 2:  Post-fire regeneration of Canary Island Pine (Pinus canariensis) on Tenerife 2008-2017.  Most species of pines are killed by fire; P. canariensis is one of the few that can re-sprout following a burn.

Figure 2 - Pine forest burn sequence.jpg

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Why conservation is like paella: thoughts and photos from our Tenerife field trip

 

A couple of days ago I posted a photograph on Facebook with a comment that “after a hot day of collecting data there’s nothing better than a nice big Tenerife paella!”:

Karin and the paella.jpg

My wife Karin and I had ended up in the small town of Candelaria, tired and hungry after sweating our way through the Malpais de Guimar  counting and measuring plants.  Big plates of hot food were just what we needed!

After I posted the image a Spanish colleague commented that the dish was “closer to being an arroz con cosas than a paella”.  The term translates as “rice with things” and is used to convey the fact that the original Valencian dish of paella has been bastardised and changed across the Spanish-speaking world, and no longer reflects its culinary tradition.  Knowing nothing of that culinary tradition I took a look at the Wikipedia entry for paella.  It makes for interesting reading, not least the fact that in the original dish one of the main ingredients was the meat of water voles and that the dish was cooked on an open fire fuelled by wood from orange and pine trees to give a distinctive smoky flavour.  There was also a lot of geographic variation in the dish, so what constitutes an authentic paella is debatable.

Although there was no sign of rodent flesh or naked flames in the dish that we ate, it was certainly delicious!  But the comment about arroz con cosas got me thinking about shifting baselines in cooking and conservation.

The idea of a shifting baseline is that expectations of what is “correct” or “normal” or “natural” change over time depending upon what each generation has experienced.  It’s been mainly applied in conservation; for example, the Lake District of England is seen by many as a “natural” landscape of rolling hills and low mountains, but originally it would have been covered in deciduous forest.  Likewise large parts of Tenerife contain a high proportion of alien plants (such as agave and prickly pear) but local people and visitors see this as natural.  The baseline of “naturalness” has shifted for people.  Returning these landscapes to their original condition would mean a drastic shift in the composition of the vegetation.  And what point do we return that condition to?  One hundred years ago?  One thousand?  Ten thousand?  It’s an issue that is widely debated in the conservation literature, especially in relation to rewilding.

Likewise, over time paella has evolved and been adapted by different chefs, and what is currently cooked in restaurants only partially reflects how the dish was originally cooked.  Other than for epicurean purists, our culinary expectations have changed.  There’s been a shift in the paella baseline.

Anyway, enough metaphorising, here are some photographs from our trip.  To set the context, University of Northampton students and staff, including Pablo Gorostiague who is visiting from Argentina, and colleagues from the University of Sussex (Maria Clara Castellanos and Chris Mackin), were out with us last week.  Then we bade them farewell on Sunday before moving on to do some field work.

Field work on the lava fields at Santiago del Teide:

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The landscape of Malpais de Guimar, which actually probably hasn’t changed much in the last 10,000 years:

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How many people can you fit around Pino Gordo, the largest Pinus canariensis on the island:

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The endemic Tenerife Blue Chaffinch:

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The cold, damp laurel forest:

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Team Nicotiana!  Helping Chris with locating Tree Tobacco populations for his PhD work:

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Pablito takes a break:

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Local and regional specialization in plant–pollinator networks: a new study just published

Euphorbia canariensis pollinators 2016-04-29 17 58 00

A fundamental feature of the natural world is that no species exists in isolation: all organisms interact with other organisms during their lives. These interactions take many forms and the outcome varies with the type of interactions. For example predator-prey interactions are clearly negative for the prey species, but positive for the predator. Other interactions result in positive outcomes for both species, including relationships between pollinators such as bees, birds and flies, and the flowers that they pollinate. An important feature of such interactions is how specialized or generalized it is; that is, how many different pollinators are actually involved in pollinating a particular type of flower, or how many types of flower does a specific pollinator visits.

In a newly published study, I have collaborated with colleagues from Denmark and Brazil to assess how local specialization (within a community) relates to regional specialization (across communities) using two separate data sets from the Brazilian rupestrian grasslands and Canary Island/North African succulent scrub vegetation.

Here’s the citation with a link to the paper (drop me a line if you can’t access it and need a PDF):

Carstensen, D.W., Trøjelsgaard, K., Ollerton, J. and Morellato, L.P.C. (2017) Local and regional specialization in plant–pollinator networks. Oikos (in press) doi:10.1111/oik.04436

The abstract is as follows:

“Specialization of species is often studied in ecology but its quantification and meaning is disputed. More recently, ecological network analysis has been widely used as a tool to quantify specialization, but here its true meaning is also debated. However, irrespective of the tool used, the geographic scale at which specialization is measured remains central. Consequently, we use data sets of plant–pollinator networks from Brazil and the Canary Islands to explore specialization at local and regional scales. We ask how local specialization of a species is related to its regional specialization, and whether or not species tend to interact with a non-random set of partners in local communities. Local and regional specialization were strongly correlated around the 1:1 line, indicating that species conserve their specialization levels across spatial scales. Furthermore, most plants and pollinators also showed link conservatism repeatedly across local communities, and thus seem to be constrained in their fundamental niche. However, some species are more constrained than others, indicating true specialists. We argue that several geographically separated populations should be evaluated in order to provide a robust evaluation of species specialization.”

This is what those two different habitats look like:

If you would like more information on plant-pollinator networks, including details of an edible game for Christmas (!), follow this link to the standingoutinmyfield blog.

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Spiral Sunday #33 – an Aeonium from Tenerife (for Karin’s birthday)

Aeonium.png

Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been extremely busy doing field work and not had great internet connections, hence no postings on the blog.  But this weekend we are staying in a lovely little hotel in a restored 18th century Canarian house in Icod de los Vinos.  So things have slowed down, though the internet is not much better.

I have managed to capture a few images of spirals along the way that I will use for upcoming Spiral Sunday posts.  As it’s Karin’s birthday today, here’s one of an Aeonium species, the group of plants that’s been the main focus of our recent field work.

Happy Birthday Karin!

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Spiral Sunday #32 – from the Guimar Badlands of Darwin’s Unrequited Isle

Guimar spiral.png

Our annual undergraduate Tenerife Field Course ends today and later I will say goodbye to the students and my University of Northampton colleagues Janet Jackson and Paul Cox: I’m staying on for another 10 days with Karin to do some additional field work.  The apartment complex where we were located had very poor wifi so I’ve not been able to post much, but we’ve moved now and I’ll try to do more in the coming week.

For Spiral Sunday this week here’s a shot of the logo for one of the protected areas that we always visit, and one of my favourite places on Tenerife: the stunning Malpais de Guimar (Guimar Badlands).

As you can see from the image below, the Guimar Badlands is a fascinating area of xerophytic scrub containing plants that are adapted to very low water levels.  It’s always the first site that we visit with the students, providing a great contrast to any habitats that they might have encountered in Britain.  A perfect introduction to Darwin’s Unrequited Isle.

Guimar 2014.png

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Spiral Sunday #31 – hola Tenerife!

Tenerife graffiti spiral P1010967.png

In a few hours I’m heading of to Tenerife with students and colleagues for our annual undergraduate field course, following which I’m staying on to be joined by Karin for a further 10 days of field work.  I’ll try to post as and when I can, though it’ll be a packed few weeks.

In the meantime this week’s Spiral Sunday is a piece of Canarian independence graffiti that I photographed a few years ago on the road above Guimar.  As I’ve mentioned before, the spiral is an ancient and important symbol in the Canary Islands.  Adios!

Tenerife graffiti spiral - full P1010968.png

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Some upcoming public lectures

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Giving public lectures to special interest groups in and around Northamptonshire is always a pleasure as the audiences are usually very receptive.  Just been through my diary and realised that I’m giving five such lectures over the next few months, on pollinators, conservation,  ecosystem services, and so on:

8th March – “Bees for dinner?  The importance of pollinators in a changing world” – Long Buckby Women’s Institute – open to all and not just women!

22nd March – “A city without trees is like a bird without feathers” – Litchborough Gardening Club [title is slightly wrong on that link…]

5th April 2 – “Darwin’s Unrequited Isle: a personal natural history of Tenerife” – Friends of Linford Lakes (Milton Keynes)

27th June – “Pollinator diversity” – Chalfonts Beekeepers (Buckinghamshire)

12th July – “Plants & pollinators – more than just honey bees” – Cancer Research UK ladies lunch club fundraiser at Wellingborough Golf Club

Some of these will certainly be open to guests if you’re not a member and want to come along and hear what I have to say.

Happy to discuss giving a talk to other groups, please do get in touch, though I’m probably not available until after the summer as I’m also giving a keynote lecture at the PopBio conference in Germany in May and a couple of short talks at the International Botanical Congress in China in July.

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Spiral Sunday #19 – a fragment of shell

Shell fragment 20170125_171616.png

Whenever I take a walk on a beach or in the countryside I’m liable to pick up interesting bits of shell, stone, sea glass or wood to take home as a memento of the visit.  Doesn’t always work, though, as I forget where I found this fragment of shell!  I have a feeling that it was on Tenerife.  I love the way the sea has rounded the sharp edges and a piece of stone has forced its way into the opening, a perfect sculpture in miniature as today’s Spiral Sunday contribution.

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Spiral Sunday #10 – a shrine in Tenerife

tenerife-2008-081

To celebrate number ten in my series I thought I would fulfil a promise that I made in Spiral Sunday #1 to tell the story behind the main image of a blue spiral that adorns this blog.

In 2008 I was leading a group of students on a walk in the Anaga region of Tenerife during our annual undergraduate field course to the island.  We were hiking through laurel forest along the trails from the restaurant at Cruz del Carmen,  looking at the forest and cliff vegetation community structure.  During our lunch break I set off alone down a side trail and came across a shallow recess, a sort of low natural grotto, in the vertical bank that defined one side of the track.

The walls of the grotto were green with lichen which made a vivid backdrop to what appeared to be a small shrine consisting of branches, including one set upright that looked like a human figure with arms raised, or could it represent a crucifix?  Around this were scattered coloured pencils (to the right on the main image) and pieces of paper with writing on them, possibly prayers (on the left).

Most striking of all was a drawing of a blue spiral, its colours smudged and faded with the humidity, but still a conspicuous contrast to the lichen.  I took a few photographs, being careful not to disturb the display, then headed back to catch up with the students.

There is a strong local sense of traditional, pre-Spanish identity in this part of Tenerife and it is well known for its local stories such as the “Witches of Anaga“, and it’s possible that this shrine relates to local ritualistic practices.  The spiral is a traditional design used by the original Guanche inhabitants of the Canary Islands and still regularly found on logos, pottery, etc.  Alternatively what I discovered could have been just kids playing in the forest, though that seems unlikely as it’s off the beaten track and not close to any villages.

I’ve occasionally found other ritualistic items on the island (e.g. a child’s doll wrapped in cloth, with folded paper in the bindings) but the Anaga spiral shrine was a particualrly striking discovery.  When we returned with the field course the following year the spiral had disintegrated but the rest of the shrine had been tidied up and more neatly arranged (see lower photograph).  I wonder if it’s still there?

 

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