Island conservation palmyra dena spatz science

Notes From the Field: The Isolated Atoll of Palmyra

Island Conservation’s Conservation Biologist Dena Spatz shares her observations from the field on Palmyra Atoll, U.S. Pacific Territory.

I am 1,000 miles southwest of Hawaii and over 3,000 miles to the closest continent. I fall asleep to the squeaks of Brown Noddy and White Tern chicks and I wake up to the blow of the trade winds from the northeast. Before our 7:30 am breakfast, my team and I prepare our lagoon boats with a can of gas, the gear for the day, and our deep freezer-treated clothing that help to prevent insects and soils from spreading among all the islands we visit each day. By 8:30, we motor towards one of the many islets within Palmyra Atoll, a U.S. territory occupied by a handful of researchers and staff from the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

island conservation science palmyra on the map

island conservation science palmyra google earth

Palmyra Atoll. Credit: Google Earth

We are on Palmyra Atoll to measure the recovery of the island ecosystem in response to the removal of invasive rats, which was completed five years ago. We spend the day surveying the habitat for land crabs, rare native tree seedlings, seabird nests, and indications of forest growth. On off days, we walk the shorelines to map fiddler crab habitat or to count migratory shorebirds, like the Bristle-thighed Curlew or the Wandering Tattler, which recently arrived from their arctic breeding grounds. As I move between islands, either by boat or by wading across shallow waters with black-tipped reef sharks and eels at my ankles, I notice slight differences in each island’s biological community. Many islands are dense with coconut palms and sprouting coco seedlings, some reaching 3 meters tall (and very difficult to walk through), while others have mixed forest habitats including Pisonia grandis and Heliotropium foertheria, two native coastal trees whose branches commonly support nests of the Red-footed Booby, Great Frigatebird, White Tern, and both Brown and Black Noddy. Some islands have chest-high ferns that we wade through on our surveys while others have dense vines that hang like curtains. Exposed coral rubble and little to no soil is common on some islands, while others present deep muddy pits that are easy to overlook until you find yourself stuck in muck up to your waist.

island conservation science red footed booby and atolls

A Red-footed Booby nesting in a heliotrope tree, a native tree common to tropical islands in the Pacific. Credit: Dena Spatz

Crab species are unevenly distributed across the atoll as well. Coconut crabs, the biggest land crabs in the world, live in underground burrows the size of a beach-ball or in crevices in the base of large native trees. Meanwhile, Strawberry hermit crabs (which look just like their name describes) are common across all islands and we find them mostly along the coral rubble coastlines or inside the open-air trunks of Pandanus trees.

island conservation strawberry hermit crab

Strawberry Hermit Crab. Credit: Coral Wolf

Millions of years of evolution, geological processes, and tropical weather shaped and created islands like Palmyra, and those critters that live on the Atoll today must have had the ability to fly or raft for many miles to be able to arrive on this isolated Atoll. Indeed, island biogeography theory provides a nice explanation of why and how islands are special places that support simple, yet unique, biological communities. However, as we surveyed the Atoll, I was surprised to observe any differences in the forests or the species that we observed between each of the islands. Why? First, most of the islands here are connected along the same shallow reef or sandy shoreline that is often exposed at low tides, providing a nice bridge for plants or animals to transit between islands.

island conservation dena spatz crossing between atolls

One of the many shallow crossings between islands. Credit: Coral Wolf

Second, the U.S. military was stationed on Palmyra during WWII, and in that time, they dredged the lagoon to make a shipping channel, built a mile-long air-strip for planes to land and created a “causeway” that provided driving access to all the islands in the atoll. Most importantly, Palmyra used to be a broken up landmass with hundreds of tiny islets. In the 1940’s many of these islands were connected or created with the dredge spoil from the lagoon, the vegetation was cleared, and the land was bomb-tested or converted for human use. Today, the Atoll is made up of just 25 islands, some natural and some not, and many have remnants of bunkers, airplane parts, unexploded bombs, and garbage from the war era.

island conservation science bunker island

“Bunker Island”. One of the many sites on Palmyra Atoll where you can see historic remnants of WWII. Credit: Dena Spatz

So, despite millions of years of evolution, geological processes, and tropical weather that shaped and created Palmyra, the Atoll was essentially re-built just under 70 years ago; the ecosystem we observe today descended from that time period. I expected any obvious biological differences among islands to be eliminated. Yet, Palmyra may just be an example of what nature looks like when large densities of people (and rats) leave town – plants grow, seabirds breed, crabs disperse, cryptic species emerge. These changes are happening across the Atoll, but each island appears to experience this in slightly different ways. This is likely driven by each island’s size, location in the atoll, or the dominant species that survived the disturbances (like coconut palms). Perhaps the underlying soil types on each island control what forest communities can be sustained above. Or, maybe nesting seabirds, which drop their nutrient-rich guano on the ground below, could be fertilizing plants on some islands and not others. There are many hypotheses, and lots of evidence, for what drives the changes we can observe between islands, especially as they recover from a massive disturbance. With continued protection and research, we can learn more about this and the historical connections between Palmyra’s islands, the flora and fauna living upon them, and the food webs that unite the ecosystem. For now, as I finish up my field work, I will let my observations run wild and will enjoy each coconut crab sighting while doing my best to avoid the mud pits.

 

Background Resources:
Island Conservation. Palmyra Atoll Restoration Project.
The Nature Conservancy. Palmyra Atoll, A Center for Scientific Study
The Nature Conservancy. Palmyra Atoll, The War Years
US Fish and Wildlife Service. Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, US Minor Outlying Islands.
US Geological Survey: An Island Paradise in Recovery

Handler, A. T., Gruner, D. S., Haines, W. P., Lange, M. W., & Kaneshiro, K. Y. (2007). Arthropod Surveys on Palmyra Atoll, Line Islands, and Insights into the Decline of the Native Tree Pisonia grandis (Nyctaginaceae) 1.Pacific Science, 61(4), 485-502.
MacArthur, R. & Wilson, E. (1967). The Theory of Island Biogeography. Princeton University Press.
Young, H. S., McCauley, D. J., & Dirzo, R. (2011). Differential responses to guano fertilization among tropical tree species with varying functional traits. American journal of botany, 98(2), 207-214.

Originally Published in Nature’s Confluence

About Dena Spatz

Dena holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and anthropology and earned her MA and PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz.

View All Posts

Follow Island Conservation on Social Media

[ism-social-followers list='fb,tw,li,youtube,instagram' template='ism_template_sf_1' list_align='horizontal' display_counts='false' display_full_name='true' box_align='center' ]

[ism-social-followers list='fb,tw,li,youtube,instagram' template='ism_template_sf_1' list_align='horizontal' display_counts='false' display_full_name='true' box_align='center' ]

Midway Atoll conservation

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this:

weight loss pills doctors recommend pills that help you lose weight without diet dinintel pills and weight loss ingredients in keto drive weight loss pills over the counter effective weight loss pills 1 diet for weight loss medical views on fast keto diet pills most diet pills that weight loss centers give you do keto ultra diet pills work 7 color slim weight loss pills good diet meals to lose weight authentic keto diet pills shark tank lose weight 3 weeks diet what contraceptive pills are best for weight loss how to stop drinking diet soda and lose weight diet juice to lose weight does taking fish oil pills help you lose weight quick weight loss does fish oil pills make you lose weight quict and healthy weight loss diet what did keith holt lose weight diet plan weight loss pills doctors best weight loss diet doctor diet recipes cooking for easy weight loss taking cayenne tablets for weight loss weight loss pills for men over 30 the most popular weight loss pills could cortisol prevent weight loss with keto diet weight loss pills after c section dr oz weight loss pills garcinia cambogia caffeine pills for weight loss reddit detox diet menu weight loss diy tea weight loss pills weight loss pill plenity are womens weight loss pills bad for men a free diet plan to lose weight whats the best weight loss pills for men protein based diet weight loss does water pills help with weight loss what is typical weight loss on a pelio diet best weight loss pills to get benefits of all natural weight loss pills great natural weight loss pills best fast weight loss diet plan 2020 weight loss with water diet beautiful slim body weight loss pills do blood pressure pills help you lose weight spagetti diet for weight loss

cbd arthritis cream cbd gum for sale cbd oil for people cbd smoking oil dallas cbd can i fly with cbd we heart cbd cbd and chemo living lotus cbd green gorilla cbd balm cbd thera 42 cbd stocks to invest in 2020 how to use cbd honey sticks evo hemp cbd oil review cbd oil age limit hotel specials sydney cbd cbd cream for knee pain latest news on hemp oil cbd cbd in san diego chronic pain and cbd oil parkinson cbd difference between cbd tincture and oil cloudnine cbd how to get cbd oil out of pen cbd weed drug test how is cbd made cbd codes cbd flower for pain lyme disease and cbd cbd oil for dilated cardiomyopathy does cbd test positive on drug test byo restaurants in sydney cbd cbd infused rolling papers cbd oil prostate cancer cbd for kidney disease j meds cbd oos ankylosing spondylitis cbd oil cbd for insomnia cbd stores in st cloud mn cbd milwaukee smoking cbd isolate cbd hemp oil canada bas rutten cbd oil charlottes web cbd for pain cbd oil endocannabinoid system cbd oil and chemo from my bowl cbd oil lds stance on cbd oil

best male enhancement good gas station sex pills king size male enhancement pills gel cap pills for ed male enhancement wholesale roman male enhancement pills does any male enhancement pills work estrogen pills at walmart forta male enhancement side effects bio tech pro male enhancement male enhancement effectiveness male enhancement pills with tadalafil male enhancement goat weed best way to enlarge your penis find male enhancement writer upwork erectile dysfunction herbal drugs herberex natural male enhancement pills hgc penis enlargement penis enlargement spell experiences male enhancements pills sea angel penis enlargement enlargement techniques red pill m 30 red supplements discount code pills to get a bigger penis ny penis enlargement cost pmma what to do if ed pills dont work forced gay penis enlargement story legitimate male ed supplements leon wife penis enlargement best over counter erection pills natural male enhancement pills near me male climax enhancer can a doctor getyou penis enlargement pills male enhancement pills of the shelf male enhancement tongue strips the sailor male package enhancer dr phils sex pills revival penis enlargement cream what penis enlargement works sex pills for stamina male enhancement underwear reviews straight up sex pills white tea penis enlargement male enhancement pills that really wlrk bust enhancement pills cbd oil for penis enlargement results 1 viagra tablette kaufen