One-Note Wonder

Machaeropterus eckelberryi. Image: Andy Kratter/Florida Museum of Natural History

It was the manakin’s simple song that gave it away. Rather than the two-note chirp of its close relatives, the striped manakins from other areas of South America, the tiny bird with the red cap trilled out only single syllables.

A research team from Louisiana State University and the Florida Museum of Natural History first found the manakin in the remote Cordillera Azul region of Peru in 1996. But it is only now, twenty years later, that the newly named Machaeropterus eckelberryi was classified as a species separate from other Machaeropterus relations. Why?

The new species song could only be compared to other species once vocalization samples from other manakin groups had been recorded. It was only then that researchers were able to hear that M. eckelberryi song was so different from other manakin species. When they dug deeper, they found other defining characteristics as well.

Comparison of plumage of some taxa in the Machaeropterus regulus complex.
Source: Zootaxa

Attention to detail, patience, and research funding led to this new identification.

But more than that, even before the manakin was revealed to be a new species, the researchers’ revelation of the spectacular biodiversity of this habitat led to the creation of one of Peru’s largest national parks. The Cordillera Azul National Park covers 13531 km² (522 m²) and is home to a remarkably untouched variety of flora and fauna.

What other discoveries, what unique songs, lay in wait in collections around the world?

Should we call them discoveries, or should we call them revelations?

Click here to listen to the song of the painted manakin.

Almond Dilemma

Almond plant. Source: Franz Eugen Köhler / Wikipedia

Almond plant.
Source: Franz Eugen Köhler / Wikipedia

I was in our local French supermarket the other day when I spied some packages of California almonds. Now, the usual almonds we get around here are from Turkey or Israel, and they taste just fine, but I grew up around California almonds in California, so in a moment of expat nostalgia, I bought a package of almonds from the other side of the world.

Of course I know California is the throes of its worst drought in 500 years. Of course I think about the sustainability footprint of sending snack foods aroundthe planet on planes. But our supermarket’s buyer has notoriously fickle tastes – this is the first time I’ve seen California almonds there, it may be the last.

California supplies 80% of the world’s almonds. exporting 70% of its crop to 90 countries (according to the Almond Board of California). Almonds are the state’s top crop export, with the trend increasing due to growing demand in India and China. Just last year, one year into the historical drought, articles were touting the almond boom, with vineyards being sold and ripped out to plant more almond trees. The revenue from almonds in 2012 reached $5 billion.

Meanwhile, almonds are relatively thirsty trees. In the 1960s, I remember driving by almond orchards that used flood irrigation, a profligate method that is exactly what it sounds like. According to almond growers, irrigation these days is more efficient and appropriate for what is essentially a very dry climate, even without the drought.

When I buy a bag of California almonds, or for that matter a pack of Peruvian asparagus, or Spanish strawberries, I’m not just buying the delicious and healthy crop that was produced elsewhere. I’m buying the water  that was used to grow those products in very dry regions. Water that has, effectively, been packaged and shipped to me in the form of an almond or strawberry.

Pulling out almond trees, 2013. Tree crops, like almonds, are a long-term investment and must be watered every year, regardless of drought, to maintain the productivity of the tree - which can produce for up to 25 years.  Photo: AP/Scott Smith

Pulling out almond trees, 2013. Tree crops, like almonds, are a long-term investment and must be watered every year, regardless of drought, to maintain the productivity of the tree – which can produce for up to 25 years.
Photo: AP/Scott Smith

Less than a year after the articles on the expansion of the almond industry, images of drought-impacted farmers ripping out their almond trees abound. Entire economies have been successfully built around these crops, and removing them would be devastating locally. Between the complexities of water politics, the weight of old water habits and the urgency for solutions brought on by the drought, the boom of California almonds may turn out to be short-lived.

Do I give up ever buying California almonds again, as I have with several other foods that I no longer buy due to their sustainability footprint? I find myself in a quandary precipitated by an impulse buy, and I’m not sure how to resolve it.

Almond blossom Photo: Golona

Almond blossom
Photo: Golona

Ancient Laboratory

Moray agricultural site Image:

Moray agricultural site

I’m adding this destination to the places I’d like to visit around the world: The Incan ruins of what are considered to be an experimental laboratory for agriculture at the Moray site in the Cusco region of Peru. The terraced depressions and complex irrigation systems are thought to have been used to simulate different environmental conditions on a variety of plants. One article I read on the site notes that the early Incans worked with a much wider variety of productive plants than are used in modern Peru, but I imagine this is more due to monoculture techniques and commercial considerations rather than a straightforward decline in available varieties.

The formations are approximately 150 m (490 ft.) at their deepest, the size of a 50-story building, and the temperature difference between the lowest and highest steps can be up to 15ºC (59ºF).

It’s been suggested that the site was used to simulate a range of environments across the ancient Incan empire.


Rediscover Machu Picchu article

Happiness Plunge post