Revelations from Palmyra Atoll: the Age of Catalyzing Biodiversity Growth

Andrew Wright shares his conservation insights from a trip to Palmyra Atoll with Island Conservation and The Nature Conservancy.

Read the full account of Andrew’s experience and insights from his trip to Palmyra Atoll, originally published by the National Observer.

In 2014, Andrew Wright, photographer and member of Island Conservation’s Advisory Council, jumped at the opportunity to visit the remote and awe-inspiring Palmyra Atoll. He joined a field team from Island Conservation and The Nature Conservancy on a monitoring trip to see first-hand the ecosystem recovery that had taken place in only three years following the removal of invasive rats.

What Wright experienced on Palmyra has stayed with him over the years, giving him a new perspective on the impact of rewilding ecosystems and the essential nature of conservation efforts that prevent extinctions. He has come to realize that extinction is not just a singular event; it is the loss of an entire evolutionary trajectory. If an animal goes extinct, given time, other species will evolve in that space, but that genetic lineage is gone forever. The evolutionary loss is apparent while looking at the Hillis Plot, which depicts the tree of life with branches represented radially. The core of the plot represents common ancestral DNA, and as speciation occurs, branches split off to form the outer layer. If extinction occurs, it is the loss of that outer layer, which took millions of years to occur. Wright goes on to expand the idea from evolution to biodiversity and ecosystem health, writing:

Systems that are productive will exhibit a full spectrum of species as a full outer ring. Compromised ecosystems may have missing outer leaves, branches and sections.”

Hillis Plot developed by David Hillis and published in the Journal Science in 2003.

Our world today is facing such a loss, as we face the sixth mass extinction crisis driven by the actions and impacts of humans. This geological age, known as the Anthropocene, is marked by a rapid decline in biodiversity caused by pollution, climate change, the spread of invasive species, and more, but this does not need to be the end. Instead, Wright suggests that the recovery of Palmyra Atoll indicates there is an opportunity to change the tide and to enter a new geological age called the Accretocene, where humans drive the growth of biodiversity growth rather than hinder it.

Red-footed Boobies perched in the branching canopy of a native Pisonia tree. Credit: Andrew Wright

This new age would require a greater investment in conservation initiatives around the world. Even on Palmyra, there is still more work to be done as Island Conservation, along with The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continue to restore the native ecosystem by removing invasive coconut palms that out-compete native vegetation. Despite the environmental and conservation challenges ahead, Wright is optimistic:

The atoll’s bird population is exploding, seedlings are thriving — and the once diminished forest is rebounding. The islands are feeding the surrounding reefs. My hope for the next decade is that the work of Island Conservation and its partners is globally recognized, supported and embraced.”

Read the original article in the National Observer.

Featured photo: Pisonia grandis canopy with invasive coconut palms. Credit: Andrew Wright

About Emily Heber

Emily is a recent graduate from UC Santa Barbara with a BS in Zoology. As a student, she discovered that she had a passion for the conservation of endangered species and their ecosystems. Her background in informal education has allowed her the opportunity to share her passion for animals with others, something she seeks to continue doing while working with the communication team. In her spare time, Emily enjoys exploring the amazing hiking trails found in Santa Cruz and tries to SCUBA dive whenever possible. Emily is excited to join the Island Conservation team and to help share the amazing work that is being done here.

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