The Passenger Pigeon – book review

October 30th, 2014

By Gabriel Thoumi

In 1800, passenger pigeons may have counted for 2 out of every 5 living birds in North America. Their flocks were in the billions. By 1914, they became extinct when Martha – the last passenger pigeon – died in a cage in the Cincinnati Zoo.

On the 100th year anniversary of her death, a new book, simply called The Passenger Pigeon, is a stunningly illustrated and rich cultural memorial to Martha – the last passenger pigeon – and to passenger pigeon’s unique ecological and cultural niche in the North America. The Passenger Pigeon is filled with haunting images and references by some of the greatest North American authors – Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, and others. These stories and ghostly images of a species that once numbered in the billions open up a door to time for us experience the passenger pigeon through our imaginations.

The Passenger Pigeon includes actual birdcalls written done in treble clef on a music staff and is  adorned with advertisements from 150 years ago promoting pigeons hunts and inexpensive pigeon as food.

Yet, now, as we struggle to stop a global catastrophic biodiversity collapse, are their lessons we can learn from how the passenger pigeon – a species that numbered in the billions – went extinct in a single human lifespan? When we review historical records, we can interpret how deforestation in North America, needless killing of passenger pigeons as “pests,” and the consumption of their meat led to their extinction. Likewise, in reading The Passenger Pigeon we understand the heroic efforts early pioneers of conservation went through to educate the public and conserve passenger pigeons.

Our societal hubris sent passenger pigeons by train boxcar to manufacturing plants where their feathers were plucked for mattresses and their corpses sold for 30 cents a dozen for meat .But today, scientists are debating if and should we try to bring back the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) using modern scientific techniques. While at one point in our recent history, passenger pigeons were so numerous that the sound from an unimaginably massive flock was similar to rolling thunder and pounding horse hoofs, now we need consider what are the ramifications of potentially bringing back a species that has previously gone extinct?

While I have no opinion on this, what I might suggest is that we honor Martha and the passenger pigeon this year in the 100th anniversary of their extinction by remembering their impact on us, their place in nature, and never doing this again to any other species on Earth.

How to order:    The Passenger Pigeon
Publisher:            Princeton University Press
ISBN:                        9780691162959
Author:                   Errol Fuller

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to

Santa Lucia: a Gem amongst Ecuador’s Cloud Forest Reserves (Photos)

October 29th, 2014

Photo Essay and Commentary By: Etienne Littlefair

The time is 6:30 am, a faint glimmer of light is just breaking the horizon revealing gnarled epiphyte laden trees still dripping from the rains that had passed through earlier in the morning. In the distance the piercing call of a Wattled Guan cuts through the morning air. I think to myself how lucky I am, as the remnant cloud cover seems to evaporate away leaving a crisp, still morning. Perfect conditions for viewing the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek that I had torn myself away from the comfort of my cabana and hiked through the forest in the hope of witnessing. The first sign of Cock-of-the-Rock manifests as a rustling of wings, the shake of a branch and then a startlingly loud call from just above the foliage blind concealing me from the lek site. Tense with excitement, I patiently wait whilst the sun continues its ascent, all the while more birds flock to the scene and enter the fray, a song and dance where male Cock-of-the-Rock compete for the right to mate.

A male Cock-of-the-Rock astride his mossy perch.

This early experience during my stay at Santa Lucia was to set the scene for three weeks of immense joy and wonder inspired by the natural world. In my time at Santa Lucia I conducted herpetofauna surveys as part of a team of ecologists from various universities working with Operation Wallacea, a UK based conservation charity. This opportunity gave me many insights into Ecuadorean life, and hammered home the need to protect remaining primary forest habitats.

Santa Lucia is a cloud forest reserve situated in the Ecuadorean province of Pichincha, close to the small town, Nanegal. The reserve is owned and run by 20 families within the local community whose economy was historically based on agricultural produce, particularly sugar cane. Following a government act granting legal protection to the forest in 1988, the local people had to adapt their land use in order to maintain their livelihood and income. In the late 90’s the construction of an eco-lodge situated on a high panoramic ridge began. The mission statement of Santa Lucia is ‘to create jobs and other benefits by means of a well run ecotourism business which allows us to conserve the forest and which respects the values of cooperative members and those of the community.’

My first view of the lodge upon arrival, the lodge itself was constructed using materials from the forest, and much of the excellent food served at mealtimes is grown at the lodge.

The excellent vegetable patch, panoramic veranda and forested backdrop.

The lodge today is set up to cater for all manner of eco-tourists, those who wish to spend day and night prowling the forests in search of elusive species, and those who wish to relax and soak in the scenery. As well as catering for tourists, the lodge has a purpose built field laboratory and facilities for lecturing making it a fantastic base to conduct field courses and research forest ecology.

The stunning views from the lodge showcase the beauty and fragility of the Andean cloud forests within an increasingly human dominated landscape.

The reserve spans a wide altitudinal band from around 1500m to 2450m above sea level. The location and altitude of the reserve makes Santa Lucia a key area for Spectacled bears, a species classed as vulnerable by the IUCN. Santa Lucia is part of an initiative to form a ‘bear corridor’ facilitating seasonal movement of Spectacled bears from lower cloud forest areas into the higher páramo zone. A long term and on going study conducted by Dr Mika Peck of Sussex University aims to recognise individual bears within the reserve using facial markings discerned from camera trap images. This work allows population estimates to be made.

Spectacled bear. Image credit: Dr. Mika Peck

Threats to Spectacled bears include habitat degradation and direct persecution by landowners. Bears will occasionally venture into agricultural areas and feed on crops, which leads to conflict. Sadly in some areas bears are shot purely for sport. It is hoped that establishment of the bear movement corridor may help to alleviate human bear conflict. 18 additional species of medium to large mammal have been caught on camera within the reserve including such oddities as the Andean Wolf.

Puma. Image credit: Dr. Mika Peck

Jaguarundi. Image credit: Dr. Mika Peck

The staff of Santa Lucia are passionate naturalists, a fact made evident by the level of knowledge and skill displayed in the field. The reserve manager, Noe () is a particularly knowledgeable ornithologist. A highlight for any birder is the presence of Andean cock-of-the-rock, of all birds, amongst the most charismatic and sought after species inhabiting Andean cloud forests. There are also around 12 species of hummingbird present including the dramatic Booted racquet-tail and Violet-tailed Sylph. In total 405 bird species have been recorded in and around the reserve.

Whilst the birds and the large mammals are perhaps more evident and certainly better known within the reserve, the reptiles and amphibians are certainly their equal in beauty and mystery.  They also fulfill many important roles in the ecology of the cloud forest. At Santa Lucia I identified 13 species of amphibian including the Emerald Glassfrog (Espadarana prosoblepon), the bizarre Pinocchio rainfrog (Pristimantis appendiculatus) the endangered Goblin Rainfrog (Pristimantis sobetes) and perhaps most significantly Eugenia’s rainfrog (Pristimantis eugenia). Eugenia’s Rainfrog being a species closely associated with bromeliads and known from only a handful of cloud forest sites within an altitudinal range of around 300m.

Pinocchio rainfrog – (Pristimantis appendiculatus)

Goblin rainfrog – (Pristimantis sobetes)

Eugenia’s rainfrog – (Pristimantis eugenia)

Emerald glassfrog – (Espadarana prosoblepon)

I identified 13 species of reptile within the reserve. Some highlights included the Elegant Snail Sucker (Dipsas elegans) a species endemic to the Western Ecuadorean Andes, the Giant groundsnake (Atractus gigas) a very rare, and likely Ecuadorean endemic snake first described in 2006. Also present and fairly abundant are at least two species of Anole, the Gem anole (Anolis gemmosus) and the larger Equatorial anole (Anolis aequitorialis).

Elegant snail-sucker – (Dipsas elegans)

Giant groundsnake – (Atractus gigas)

Gem anole – (Anolis gemmosus) dewlap close up

Gem anole in situ – (Anolis gemmosus)

Equatorial anole displaying its impressive dewlap – (Anolis aequitorialis)

For me, this final image of a fast flowing stream, a prominent feature in the Santa Lucia landscape, reveals something of the character and mystery of the reserve.

With continued investment from both tourists and research groups such as Operation Wallacea and Sussex University, gladly, the local community, the forest and the wildlife of Santa Lucia are likely to prosper long into the future. The reserve is one of the most successful and promising examples of sustainable community based conservation that I have had the pleasure of visiting and contributing to. I thoroughly recommend a visit to Santa Lucia for anyone with a love of nature and the outdoors.

Visit the Santa Lucia website to find out more.



The Bee: A Natural History – book review

October 29th, 2014

By Gabriel Thoumi

Did you know…

  • There are 20,000 species of bees on Earth.
  • Bees pollinate 130 of the foods we depend on and are often the sole and only pollinator of the foods we eat every day.
  • Bees and other animals cross-pollinate over 90 percent of Earth’s plants.
  • Bees co-evolved, along with angiosperms – flowering plants – over 100 million years ago.
  • Ancient Egyptians were avid beekeepers possibly as far back as 5,000 BCE – or over 7,000 years ago.
  • Bees are divided into three groups depending on the length of their proboscis – or tongue.
  • Since the 1980s, bee populations in the US have collapsed – called colony collapse disorder – by some measures of at least 50 percent, resulting in farmers trying to pollinate crops by hand and tech companies designing robot bee pollinators. Some food prices in the US have risen dramatically because of colony collapse disorder.
  • Bees are responsible for roughly $200 billion dollars globally each year in economic activity.
  • Bees are herbivores. Their diet only consists of flowers.
  • Beekeepers do not eat bananas because bananas release a scent that alarms them.

The Bee: A Natural History is a great book for your bookshelf. If you are interested in understanding how bee pollination impacts global ecosystems and economics, and you want an easily readable compendium of information with great graphics, nicely illustrated photos, and accessible  information on the lives of bees then The Bee: A Natural History is the resource for you.

Written by Noah Wilson-Rich, PhD., Best Bees Company, CEO, the book lets you dive into the natural history of bees and learn about solitary bees, stingless bees, beehive health as impacted by bee grooming habits, and of course, what you can do to protect vulnerable creatures.

For more information on The Bee: A Natural History and the current condition of bees, listen to Wilson-Rich’s interview on Radio Boston (here) and his great TED Talk – Every city needs healthy honey bees.

Let’s support our bees and urban bee keeping!

How to order:

The Bee: A Natural History
Publisher:            Princeton University Press
ISBN:                        9780691161358
Authors:                Noah Wilson-Rich, PhD. with contributions from Kelly Allin, Norman Carreck, and Andrea Quigley, PhD.

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to

A Dangerous Life – Graphic Novel Review

October 27th, 2014

By Gabriel Thoumi

A Dangerous Life is a graphic novel for young teens written by Sheila Hamanaka. It describes the story of an American girl – Amelia – and her life changing experiences when she witnesses an elephant slaughter in Kenya. The graphic novel  is a wonderful gift for any young person who is interested in conservation. The language and tone are appropriate for young adults while heartstrings will be pulled as Amelia learns to take action to prevent our ongoing elephant extinction epidemic.

A Dangerous Life is available free for teachers, and is a useful teaching tool to explain to students why individuals are slaughtering elephants – for their ivory, their hides, and the body parts. A Dangerous Life also explains elephant community structure, describing how elephants form lifelong families and deep relationships with each other—much like humans. It talks about how elephants raise their young, how they grow together, and how elephants grieve the deaths of community members.

For adults, A Dangerous Life is vivid, graphic reminder about how elephants are quickly becoming extinct – from 26 million elephants in Africa in 1800 to less than 700,000 African elephants and less than 32,000 Asian elephants today.

A Dangerous Life also tells us what young people can do now today to stop elephant extinction, including

  • Write letters to politicians asking them to ban ivory trade and sales.
  • Send rangers who protect elephants thank you cards and letters (these can be sent to the Animal Welfare Institute who will pass them on).
  • Send a letter to the local newspaper – both online and print – asking your community to ban ivory sales.
  • Tell classmates how great elephants are and how important it is to save them.
  • Ask financial institutions to not fund companies that support directly or indirectly ivory trade and sales.
  • If traveling to an area with elephants, be an “eco-tourist” to appreciate elephants, and thank rangers in person.
  • Never, ever buy, sell, or wear ivory.

A Dangerous Life is a splendid graphic novel that can be enjoyed by young adults everywhere as well as a great teaching tool.

How to order:

A Dangerous Life
Publisher:            Animal Welfare Institute and Kenya Wildlife Service
ISBN:                        9780938414810
Author:                   Sheila Hamanaka with Lisa Barile, Rosalie Knox, and Julie Lien

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to

In Search of Lost Frogs: The Quest to Find the World’s Rarest Amphibians – book review

October 24th, 2014

By Gabriel Thoumi

In Search of Lost Frogs: The Quest to Find the World’s Rarest Amphibians describes the great quest to rediscover long-lost and presumed extinct frogs, toads, and salamanders not seen between 15 and 140 years ago. Since the turn of the millennium, over 250 amphibians have not been seen or recorded by science – many now presumed extinct – and it is estimated that over half of the Earth’s 7,000 amphibians are currently threatened with extinction.

By 2013, roughly 933 of the Earth’s 7,000 known species of amphibians were threatened with extinction. Many causes led to this extinction crisis, including habitat loss, deforestation and degradation, chemical dispersion, invasive plants and animals, degradation of the hydrologic cycle degradation, and global warming.  But few have proven as devastating to date as the chytrid fungus. Chytrid fungus, which leads to the highly-deadly skin disease chytridiomycosis in amphibians, may be partially responsible for over 100 amphibian extinctions since the 1970s.

After witnessing these trends first-hand, world renowned conservationist and nature photographer Dr. Robin Moore, with Conservation International and The Amphibian Survival Alliance, organized 33 teams globally in 19 countries on 5 continents in 2010 to search for evidence of 100 elusive frogs not seen in over a decade. Many of these amphibians were presumed extinct. By organizing communities and local conservationists to look for these “lost frogs,”—which also included salamanders and other amphibians—scientists could get a better sense of the current amphibian extinction tsunami, and maybe even save a few species before they vanished.. The new book, In Search of Lost Frogs: The Quest to Find the World’s Rarest Amphibians, tells this story.

This global effort led to the rediscovery of 40 frogs, toads, and amphibians not seen in over ten years. Notable rediscoveries include the Anamalai Dot-Frog – last seen in 1937 – and the Chalazodes Bubble-nest Frog – last seen in 1874. In the Chocó forest of Colombia, new species were also discovered, making Time Magazine’s top ten new species list in 2010.

In Search of Lost Frogs: The Quest to Find the World’s Rarest Amphibians you will learn about valiant efforts to save Earth’s most threatened amphibians in some the most dangerous places on Earth. Startling success stories will keep you in suspense while dramatic failures will inspire you to protect all of Earth’s species. Peppered with gorgeous photos by Moore, the book is a gritty, determined, realistic, and, at times, even hopeful story that is a must read for all of us who want to protect species on Earth.

How to order:

In Search of Lost Frogs: The Quest to Find the World’s Rarest Amphibians
Publisher:            A Firefly Book
ISBN:                        1770854649
Author:                   Robin Moore

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to

Penguins: The Ultimate Guide – book review

October 22nd, 2014

By Gabriel Thoumi

Penguins: The Ultimate Guide IS the ultimate guide to penguins. With more than 400 pictures detailing all 18 penguin species on Earth, this book will educate and delight you. While it is a bona fide bird book, Penguins: The Ultimate Guide is also a beautiful coffee table book that would make a great gift for any wildlife lover.

Penguins: The Ultimate Guide will provide you with interesting facts about penguins, details about their natural history and evolution, approaches to their conservation as well as information on the impacts of climate change on their populations. While we often think we know a lot about penguins because of how often they are anthropomorphized and employed in the media, we really understand very little about most penguin species. This is because most of their lives are lived in remote locations and often underwater.

For example, did you know that….

  • The Gentoo Penguin can swim up to 22.3 miles per hour?
  • All penguins have barbs inside their mouths that allow them to hold onto slippery pray easily?
  • Penguins actually have long legs that are hidden underneath their feathers?
  • Penguins experience a catastrophic molt every year so they can replace all their feathers at once?
  • Penguins have nictitating membranes that serve as underwater googles allowing them unprecedented sight underwater?
  • Penguins preen gland secretes an oil that acts as a waterproofing agent?
  • Because they cannot fly, even the smallest amounts of petroleum will kill penguins by destroying the waterproofing on their feathers?
  • Avian cholera and avian pox and other pathogens can decimate penguin populations?

In many ways, as polar bears are the canaries of the Arctic demonstrating climate change’s awful impacts, penguins are canaries of the southern latitudes also demonstrating the catastrophic changes caused by climate change on Earth.

Penguins: The Ultimate Guide  is simply inspiring.

How to order:

Penguins: The Ultimate Guide

Publisher:            Princeton University Press
ISBN:                        9780691162997
Author:                   Tui De Roy, Mark Jones & Julie Cornthwaite

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to

Reporter’s Journal: A story sans words

October 10th, 2014

Special Reporting Initiatives photographer Dominic Bracco II tries to capture the aquaculture scene at Liangzi Lake.  A local fishfarmer attempts to capture his own view.  Dominic’s photos will appear with Erik Vance’s reporting on the demand for sustainable fisheries products in China.

Photo credit: Shouqi Xie

Reporter’s Journal: It isn’t a beluga

September 30th, 2014

Special Reporting Initiatives Fellow Erik Vance gets up close and personal with a finless porpoise housed at Institute of Hydrobiology in Wuhan, China.  Vance and his colleague, photographer Dominic Bracco II, are reporting on the market for sustainable fisheries in China.

Photo credit: Shouqi Xie

An armadillo the size of a golf ball

September 26th, 2014

Rica just after birth. She was born the mere size of a golf ball. Photo courtesy of the Edinburgh Zoo.

Meet Rica, the baby three-banded armadillo.  Rica is a tiny new arrival at the Edinburgh Zoo born on August 24th and weighing in at just 81g or roughly the size of a golf ball.  She was born to proud parents Rio and Rodar who only arrived at the zoo in March of 2014.

“This is the first birth of any armadillo species at Edinburgh Zoo and it is amazing how quickly little Rica is growing up! She is just amazing to watch; always full of energy and scurrying about her surroundings like a perfectly formed miniature of a fully grown three banded armadillo,”  Gareth Bennett, Senior Presentations Keeper at Edinburgh Zoo, said in a statement. “For her first few weeks she could not quite roll up into a perfect ball because of her huge claws and softer, smaller shell, but she has now grown into her shell and can quickly pack herself into the tightly sealed ball which adult three banded armadillos are known for.”

Little Rica, along with her parents, is certainly an ambassador for some very noble conservation work supported by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland in the Brazilian Pantanal. The Giant Armadillo Project, lead by conservation biologist Dr Arnaud Desbiez, aims to establish the first long-term ecological study of giant armadillos in the Brazilian Pantanal wetland.  Mongabay has covered the work of Dr. Desbiez and The Giant Armadillo Project in the past, including a touching piece on the caring maternal nature of the species and the first photos of a baby giant armadillo.

Both the three-banded and giant armadillo are listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, with ongoing exploitation and habitat loss and degradation as reasons for their decline.

Showing her true size. Photo courtesy of the Edinburgh Zoo.

Getting closer on her roll. Photo courtesy of the Edinburgh Zoo.

Rica and her mom. Photo courtesy of the Edinburgh Zoo.


A Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Tanzania – book review

August 5th, 2014

By Gabriel Thoumi

Cover art courtesy of Princeton University Press.

A Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Tanzania provides the most up-to-date guidebook for trekking in Tanzania. It includes detailed species accounts and delightful photos of 135 of the larger mammals of Tanzania. It is the first book to include both marine mammals and recently discovered species of Tanzania. While Tanzania has over 340 recorded mammal species, over 200 of these are rodents, bats, and shrews. For the most part, these smaller mammals are not included in this guidebook.

In 1961, when Tanzania became independent, it had one national park. Now over 20 percent of Tanzania has some form of conservation management. Yet, recently, the larger mammals of Tanzania are declining due to poaching, habitat destruction, illegal logging, charcoal production, mangrove degradation, and other activities.

For example, Tanzanian elephant populations have decreased 50 percent from 2009 to 2013, while Tanzanian black rhinoceros require 24-hour armed guard.

Yet Tanzania is challenging these trends by growing hectares under conservation, increasing national parks, expanding maritime reserves, and working with hand-in-hand with local communities and stakeholders to improve the state of their nation’s natural heritage.

A Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Tanzania organizes species descriptions with detailed analysis and many color photos. The book provides a detailed guide on how to observe these species with the least impact on their environment and in the most successful manner. Species checklists are provided for Tanzania’s national parks. Species are also organized by Tanzania’s 18 major vegetation zones.

A Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Tanzania is a great book that is part of the recent series of mammal and bird guides to Kenya and Tanzania by WildGuides.

All author royalties from the sale of A Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Tanzania will be donated to the Wildlife Conservation Society to support conservation projects in Tanzania.

How to order:
A Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Tanzania
Publisher:            Princeton University Press
ISBN:                    9781400852802
Authors:                Charles Foley, Lara Foley, Alex Lobora, Daniela De Luca, Maurus Msuha, Tim R. B. Davenport, and Sarah Durant

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to