Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring primatologist and conservation biologist Dr Mary Blair of Columbia University, who is also assistant director of the American Museum of Natural History's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation.
Dr Blair kicked off her lecture by posing the question: What is biodiversity? Her comprehensive definition of biodiversity is "The variety of life on all levels, from genes to ecosystems and the evolutionary and ecological processes that sustain it." Biodiversity is under threat- the International Union for Conservation of Nature maintains a red list of species that are critically endangered. Any attempt to address threats to an endangered species involves gathering data- new knowledge must be gained in order to allow conservation action to take place. One crucial endeavor is bridging the gap between producers of scientific knowledge and the users of said knowledge, between the scientists and the conservationists. A conservation plan involves identifying needs, setting targets, developing the knowledge base, applying the knowledge gained to conservation action, monitoring the effectiveness of the plan, refining the methods, and broadcasting the lessons learned.
Dr Blair's particular focus is on primate conservation. 40% of primate taxa are threatened with extinction. Primates tend to live in high risk habitats- the arboreal and tropical habitats that harbor the majority of primate species are affected by accelerating deforestation. Primates are also subject to hunting pressure and capture for the pet and biomedical trade. Conflict is also particularly dangerous for primates- the genocidal Rwandan conflict particularly hurt the mountain gorilla population. Primates, being closely related to humans, are often vulnerable to the same diseases that affect humans. Besides logging, mining, which necessitates road building, can disrupt primate populations. Climate change and subsequent problems such as the degradation of habitat and the distribution of disease vectors, is also a major threat to primate species.
Primates are particular susceptible to threats- they are long-lived, with slow reproduction rates, the are large bodied, and they are sensitive to disturbance. It is difficult for primate populations to bounce back. Primate conservation is particularly important because primates play an important role is seed dispersion via POOP. Primates are also "flagship species"- they are charismatic and they bring in the dough from donors.
The next topic in the lecture dealt with how evolutionary biology can inform conservation. What does conserving biodiversity entail? Is a menagerie an adequate "preservation" of biodiversity? Dr Blair illustrated this question with the Gary Larson's "Animal Preserves" cartoon. The goal of conservation efforts is to conserve species as dynamic entities capable of coping with environmental change. It involves preserving the processes, links and context necessary for evolution.
Dr Blair continued with a discussion of her work with Central American squirrel monkeys in Costa Rica. She quipped that studying squirrel monkeys is like attending a party where everyone is drunk already. Because of the difficulty of obtaining DNA samples from the hyperactive monkeys, she resorted to obtaining DNA samples from monkey poop. She described a veritable "rain of poop" from the canopy, and eventually collected 400 vials of poop from 300 individuals. The Costa Rican population of the Central American squirrel monkey is a critically endangered subspecies- it is thought that the population consists of 2,000 individuals, and genetic diversity is low. During the course of her study, there were only seven "immigrant" monkeys, so gene flow does occur, albeit slowly.
A good way to model genetic diversity is to compare it to electronic circuits (this subject cropped up in a previous lecture)- high gene flow is due to habitat connectivity, in this case, the connectivity of forest canopy. In the case of the Costa Rican squirrel monkeys migration between populations was rare due to low forest connectivity. Manuel Antonio National Park is a popular destination for ecotourists. Ironically, development due to the ecotourism trade lowers forest connectivity. There is now an effort underway to build biological "corridors" to connect animal populations in order to prevent the loss of genetic diversity.
Dr Blair then gave us an overview of her work studying slow lorises in Vietnam. Vietnam has a great diversity of biomes- ranging from subtropical to tropical, with a high degree of of altitude variation, numerous microhabitats, and great diversity of biogeochemistry. She described Vietnam as a hotspot for interesting evolutionary processes. Vietnam has a over 25 indigenous primate taxa, 90% of which are threatened with extinction. Dr Blair referred us to the IUCN's "Primates in Peril" list of the 25 most endangered primate taxa. She noted that the "most endangered" mantle typically vacillates between the primates of Madagascar and the primates of Vietnam.
Slow lorises are nocturnal primates- they are rare, have low population densities, and their populations are in decline. Since they are hard to find, they have not been adequately studied. The lorises secrete a chemical from a brachial (arm) gland which is similar to the allergens in cat dander. The lorises lick this gland and then lick themselves and their young in order to distribute this chemical over their fur. Loris bites can cause anaphylactic shock in individuals susceptible to cat dander allergans. Lorises which are captured often have their teeth removed.
Slow loris taxonomy is disputed- no comprehensive study of loris diversity has been undertaken and various authorities have posited anywhere from two to five species, with up to eleven subspecies (there is a great diversity in markings). Deforestation and habitat loss is a major threat to loris populations. The wildlife trade is also a huge threat to loris populations. Vietnam is a major thoroughfare for trade in exotic wildlife for traditional medicine and the pet trade (seriously, DON'T BUY PET LORISES!). Figuring out the provenance of confiscated lorises is crucial for returning them to their proper habitats and breeding populations.
In order to study the genetics and morphology of slow lorises to develop the knowledge base crucial to conservation action (especially the question of how many loris species are extant), loris seekers must set out at night. Dr Blair produced a headlamp with a red filter (red light interferes less with the animals' eyesight and is less injurious to their eyes) and cast a beam around the Bell House after telling the staff to cut the house lights. She then showed a slide of loris eye shine. Eyeshine is due to the tapetum lucidum, a reflective layer behind the retina which increases available light for vision in dim conditions. Among primates, lemurs and lorises possess a tapetum lucidum. The tarsiers, while nocturnal, lack the structure, but make up for it with large eyes. Monkeys and apes, including ourselves, lack a tapetum lucidum as well. Besides obtaining DNA from lorises in the field, DNA is also being obtained from museum specimens for genetic analysis. Morphological analysis, typically involving fur pattern schematics, is also being undertaken to improve a database to make species identification better, with the goal of improving conservation management strategies.
Conservation efforts embrace multiple disciplines- biology, anthropology, economics. In the case of loris conservation, the wildlife trade must be addressed, the factors which underlie the trade must be ascertained. Such trade is illegal, but it persists. The cultural drivers of the trade are complex, and need to be studied- are wealth and status factors? Are regional demand and international demand more important factors than local demand?
Dr Blair cited the slow loris as a good test case for conservation efforts. Biodiversity conservation stretches the knowledge base, with socioeconomic knowledge being as important as scientific knowledge in a rigorous multidisciplinary project. Additionally, local populations must be brought into these efforts in order that endangered species can persist. Dr Blair concluded with two questions crucial to conservation: HOW? WHO?
In the Q&A, some bastard in the audience asked Dr Blair about efforts to address the conservation of non-charismatic species. She answered that there was just as much passion among the biodiversity conservation experts for these critters as for the "charismatic" ones, to the extent that even the biodiversity of parasites has become a hot topic in conservation circles. Other questions involved the impact of the Vietnam War on biodiversity in Indochina.
This month's lecture was another Secret Science Club slam dunk- Dr Blair's talk was equal parts adventure narrative, hard science lecture, and conservation advocacy, all leavened with a good portion of humor. And, seriously, folks, I don't care how cute they are, DON'T BUY SLOW LORISES!!!
NOTE: I also have to note that a large, hairless primate was pressed into holding the "SSC tip jar" and a glass of the night's featured cocktail (a delicious blend of bourbon, pineapple juice, and Jamaican ginger beer with a hint of angostura bitters) during the lecture's introduction, Secret Science goddess Dorian Devins having had a singing gig. This large primate was a poor substitute for the divine Ms Devins, but managed not to drop anything on stage.