Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Tasmanian Tigers/Devils Aren't Bad Consolation Prizes

More pure theory and hypothesis.  Again, I do not support or advocate the introduction of any nonnative species.

Reply to: A Different Way To Protect The Ghost Orchid


gnathaniel, thanks for sharing those two examples.  That Galapagos story was pretty crazy.  What was the takeaway?

  • change is constant
  • Goats are bad
  • Pirates are mostly bad but they can be unintentionally good
  • Don't keep all your tortoises on one island (hedge your bets)
  • A certain intern has a very interesting resume
  • Hybrid swarms can be used to recreate the parent species
  • A Hybrid finch might be less suspectible to brain sucking maggots (hedge your bets)
  • Future biodiversity depends on how well we play God

Is that right?  Am I missing any?

That was kind of grizzly about the goats.  I really hope that all that meat didn't go to waste.

Speaking of conservation/eradication...

The Big Kill (hat tip MT)

I knew about the Moas but I didn't realize that there also use to be a giant eagle that preyed on them... Haast's eagle.  I always feel ripped off when I learn about a modern extinction...especially when it's something as cool as a giant eagle.

People in the not-so-distant past stole many valuable treasures from us. But it's hard to judge them too harshly because we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them.  As it stands, most of us are really glad that we don't have to live in "those" times.

Prior to humans visiting New Zealand, the islands didn't have any mammals other than a few bats.  As a result, birds had the opportunity to adaptively radiate into the major empty niches.  The Moas functioned as deer and the eagles functioned as wolves.

This is relevant because herclivation is based on the premise that there's an abundance of unfilled arboreal niches.  For reasons previously discussed, I've argued that we should seriously consider filling them as quickly as possible.  But, if we had somehow applied my logic to prehistoric New Zealand and filled the empty niches with deer and wolves...then Moas and Haast's eagles would never have evolved.

This does give me pause...but, then again, Tasmanian Devils and Tigers are/were pretty cool as well.

If us humans weren't around, and barring any natural disaster, in a few million years or so Florida's epiphytic diversity would probably rival the epiphytic diversity of present day Costa Rica.  And Canada would have as many epiphytic orchids as Florida currently does.

Maybe future Florida would have had a giant species of Ghost Orchid that was pollinated by a moth the size of a hawk. How crazy cool would that have been?

The not-so-minor detail is that us humans, well, we are around. Maybe in the long long run most of us will rocket away and help terraform a swath of lifeless planets.  We'll stop cramping mother nature's style here on earth and she could get back to churning out Moas and giant eagles.  But who knows when or if we'll ever make it off this planet (it depends on how long it takes people to understand that progress depends on difference).

Because wild habitats have been drastically reduced in size and's a given that the future is going to have far less biodiversity than it would have had.  So if we want the future to have more, rather than less biodiversity, then I think we need to seriously consider trying to help maximize the speciation potential of any and all habitats.  This means filling empty niches with life...which, over time, will change and adapt to the different selective pressures of the new environments.  As I've argued before, places like Florida are a good place to start because there's an abundance of unoccupied arboreal niches.

We can imagine mother nature as a scientist in a laboratory churning out new species.  Here we are on this forum because we're big fans of the orchids that she's produced.  What's important to understand is that every output, whether it's a Ghost Orchid or a Haarst eagle, depends on inputs.  The two main inputs that mother nature needs for her outputs are wild habitats and genetic material.  If either input is reduced then her output will also be reduced.  Given that we've drastically reduced the amount of wild habitat that she has to work with, mother nature's productivity will drastically suffer...unless we offset the reduction of habitat material by giving her more genetic material to work with.

So the basic function looks something like this...

xSpace * yGenes = zSpecies  

x and y are the inputs and z is the output. We've slashed x which means we need to boost y in order to avoid ripping off future generations.  They won't get Moas and Haast's eagles but they'll get Tasmanian Tigers/Devils...which are pretty cool consolation prizes.  

Saturday, December 13, 2014


Backstory:  The Ghost Orchid, Dendrophylax lindenii, is an endangered orchid that grows on trees in the Florida Everglades (plants that grow on trees are epiphytes).  I've been fleshing out a theoretical, process based approach... "herclivation"...that could potentially facilitate this orchid's adaptive radiation into different (micro)habitats.  This approach would involve introducing its hybrids (ie Gripp's Ghost) and/or closely related species into Southern Florida.  Again, this is simply a theory. Let me make it very clear...I do not advocate or support the illegal introduction of plants or animals outside of their native habitats.  My hope here is to facilitate constructive feedback, expert or otherwise, on why this plan might not be feasible.  Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow (Linus's Law).

This blog entry is a reply to a couple replies in this forum thread... A Different Way To Protect The Ghost Orchid


lotis146, good lord is right!  You're on the 7th page?  This is only the second page for me.  Either you like clicking page numbers and waiting for pages to load...or nobody told you that you that you can change your settings in order to view more posts per page.

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Controversial Approach To Protecting Florida's Ghost Orchid

Reply to Hybrid Wish List

If you'd like Dendrophylax lindenii x funalis to be more readily available then please vote here... Dendrophylax lindenii x Dendrophylax funalis (more tolerant Ghost Orchid)


Catt Mandu, you added me to your ignore list and in return I'm going to...not add you to my ignore list.  For some reason I don't think that I'd be doing myself any favors by ignoring people who I disagree with.  Perhaps it's because I've studied fallibilism enough to accept the fact that it's entirely possible that I'm wrong about most things.

Even though you're not going to see my reply (unless you log out and view this thread)...I'm going to reply to you anyways.  You brought up some points and I'm going to attempt to adequately address the relevant ones.  This being a public forum and all.

Is it far-fetched that introduced pythons would unintentionally crush Florida's Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii) into extinction?  Perhaps a bit.  But I don't think it's far fetched that the introduction of a new predator could somehow indirectly harm (or benefit) the Ghost Orchid.  If you bothered to read and were able to understand the passage* by Darwin that I shared earlier, then you wouldn't think it's far fetched either.

Of course you could argue that pythons should never have been introduced in the first place.  Just like you could argue that humans should never have caused global warming.  But extinctions occurred long before us humans appeared on the scene and they will continue to occur long after we're gone.  Change is a benefits some and harms others.

Generally speaking, the narrower an organism's environmental parameters...the more likely it is to be adversely impacted by change.  And as I, and many others, can personally attest to... the Ghost Orchid is, relatively speaking, very easy to kill.  Dendrophylax funalis, by comparison, is much more tolerant of a wider range of conditions.  It will happily grow outdoors year around in warmer parts of Southern California.

Let me break this argument down...

Premise 1: Species with narrower parameters are more likely to be harmed by change.
Premise 2: The Ghost Orchid has very narrow parameters.
Conclusion: The Ghost Orchid is more likely to be harmed by change (ie climate).

In order to help protect the Ghost Orchid...assuming that this is something that we want to do...there are two possible approaches...

  1. Change the conditions to match the Ghost Orchid's preferences.
  2. Change the Ghost Orchid's preferences to match the conditions.

Either the mountain goes to Mohammed, or Mohammed goes to the mountain.

The current approach to conservation is to try and undo some of the damage that we've done to the planet.  The problem is that we're all responsible for the damage but only a very small group of people are genuinely and actively concerned with undoing the damage.  In order for significant progress to be made there would have to be a massive mobilization of significant resources.  And these resources, like all resources, could be put to other uses.  Maybe even more valuable uses.  This is the fundamentally important economic concept known as "opportunity cost".

From my perspective, it would behoove us to seriously consider the merits of the internal approach.  With the internal approach we would acknowledge that it's dangerous for overly specialized epiphytic orchids to be adapted to conditions which no longer exist.  The Florida that the Ghost Orchid is adapted to no longer exists and will never exist again.  If we want this orchid to continue to survive, then we should seriously consider helping it to adapt to the conditions that do exist.

Early in this thread I acknowledged that this approach isn't "conservation" as we know it.  The best term that I've been able to come up with for this internal approach is "herclivation".  Of course anybody is welcome to come up with a better term.  "Herclivation" is loosely derived from "Heraclitus"...the Greek philosopher who argued that change is the one constant... "no man ever steps in the same river twice".

Herclivation of the Ghost Orchid would involve introducing a cross between D. lindenii and funalis into the wild.  Out of curiosity I looked this cross up on the RHS website and found it... Polyphylax Gripp's Ghost.  It took a couple tries to find it because the RHS has "Polyradicion" listed as the genus for lindenii rather than "Dendrophylax".

Here's a very brief breakdown of their habitat preferences...

Species of Dendrophylax occur from sea level to about 1600m (D. macrocarpus (Dod) Carlsward & Whitten).  Many are found in shaded sites with high humidity on tree trunks (D. lindenii) but may also be found in xeric habitats of shrubs or small trees (D. porrectus) or on limestone rocks (D. funalis). - Alec M. Pridgeon, ‎Phillip J. Cribb, ‎Mark W. Chase, Genera Orchidacearum Volume 6: Epidendroideae

D. lindenii prefers more humidity/shade while D. funalis prefers less humidity/shade.  The differences in their preferences could result in hybrids with a continuum of humidity/shade preferences.  This general situation was briefly considered in the book, "The Botany of Orchids"...

Cutting of forests and the planting of tree crops in the tropics may provide intermediate habitats which permit the survival of hybrids between orchid species which grow in distinct niches.  An example would be that of populations of plants which grow in sun and others which grow in shade and are thereby ecologically isolated.  Filtered sun in agricultural plantings might support intermediate hybrids.  The hybrids may backcross with the parental types and may cross among themselves.  The result would be a highly variable hybrid swarm.  Recombination types might be more successful than either of the previous species. - Calaway H. Dodson, Robert J. Gillespie, The Botany of Orchids

Given that both lindenii and funalis occur in Jamaica, this exact situation might happen on its own.  Or maybe their populations are too small and far apart for it to happen naturally.  (Not sure what led me to believe that lindenii also occurs in Jamaica).  Or maybe they have different pollinators.

The Ghost Orchid is pollinated by the Giant Sphinx moth (Cocytius antaeus) but I wasn't able to learn whether or not it also pollinates funalis.  Funalis has a shorter spur than lindenii.  It stands to reason though that a moth with a long proboscis (straw) would have no problem drinking nectar from an orchid with a short spur (cup).

It's a given that there's some variation in spur and straw length.  Both the moth and the Ghost Orchid probably didn't simultaneously and independently develop their long appendages over night.  Most likely moths with longer straws had greater fitness because they could drink from a greater range of cup sizes.  

Does Gripp's Ghost have an intermediately sized spur?  It's not that easy to discern, but in this picture of Gripp's Ghost it does appear that the spur is somewhat intermediate in length.  I'm sure that some of the seedlings from that cross had longer or shorter spurs... depending on which parent they inherited the relevant traits from.

If we introduced a "highly variable hybrid swarm" of Gripp's Ghost to Florida then this would increase the chances of finding variations that match some of the available environmental conditions.

Hopefully there would be a variation for the half a million acres of Florida orange groves.  This variation would have to combine lindenii's preference for shade and funalis' tolerance of dryness.  Maybe a slightly different variation would be suitable for Florida Christmas tree farms.  How awesome would that be to purchase a Christmas tree with live orchids growing on it?  It would be really hard top the Ghost Orchid as an ornament.  Talk about value added.  Errrr... well... Jack Skellington would certainly approve.  And maybe Charles Dickens as well.  

Florida's Ghost Orchid, as it is, already has some degree of variation.  But do we really want to gamble its existence on the slim chance that it has enough variation to succeed in modern Florida?  Why not hedge our bets by greatly increasing the amount of variation that it has?

Rather than just having one Ghost Orchid...Florida could have a wide variety of them.  We could give them labels based on their niche type.  The original/current ghost orchid would be the Shady Cypress Ghost Orchid...then there would be the Sunny Cypress Ghost Orchid...and the Orange Ghost Orchid...and the Christmas Ghost Orchid...and the Limestone Ghost Orchid...and so on.

Would it matter to some kid in Florida two hundred years from now that the Ghost Orchid he discovered flowering on the mango tree in his backyard was different than the Ghost Orchid that was adapted to prehistoric Florida?  I really don't think so.  And neither would whichever moth benefited from the orchid's nectar.   Both the moth and the kid would linger longer in the garden as a direct result of the Ghost Orchid blooming on the mango tree.  Perhaps with newfangled video technology the kid could easily and professionally document the moth pollinating the orchid.   Not sure though if his video would be as high quality as my video of a hummingbird hawk-moth pollinating phlox in Afghanistan...

Like I stated in the beginning, it's entirely possible that I'm wrong.  Maybe herclivation isn't the best approach.  But it's based on the fundamentally sound principle that we should avoid putting too many eggs in one basket...

First, diversity often enhances the robustness of complex systems.  By robustness, I mean the ability to maintain functionality (Jen 2005) rather than analytic stability.  Systems that lack diversity can lose functionality.  History has many examples of failure through lack of diversity, the potato famine being among the most notable.  The potato must be counted among the most precious of gifts introduced into Europe during the age of exploration.  Of the thousands of varieties of potato grown in Central and South America at their disposal, the Europeans imported primarily two.  This lack of genetic variation presented a huge target for parasites.  When the potato blight hit, it found field up field of genetically similar potatoes.  Though nearly a million Irish perished, even more relocated to America.  Diversity at the community level - America had a different mix of crops from Ireland - minimized the global impact of the blight.  Had every country been subsisting on potatoes as Ireland had, the famine would have been an even worse calamity.
Second, diversity drives innovation and productivity.  In biology, the forces of mutation and recombination are well known to be primary sources of innovation.  In economies, variation and experimentation also lead to innovation, and, as Arthur (2009) convincingly shows, so does recombination.  In fact, recombination may be the biggest driver of economic and scientific innovation.  As for productivity, I've covered some of this terrain in an earlier book (Page 2007a), but it's worth repeating.  Whether one looks at ecosystems, empires, or cities, greater diversity for the most part correlates with greater productivity.  Cities that are more diverse are more productive and more innovative. - Scott E. Page, Diversity and Complexity   

Luckily, tens of thousands of pioneers wouldn't have to be housed all in one starship. Spreading people out among multiple ships also spreads out the risk. Modular ships could dock together for trade and social gatherings, but travel separately so that disaster for one wouldn't spell disaster for all, says Smith. 
When 10,000 people are housed in one starship, there's a potential for a giant catastrophe to wipe out almost everyone onboard. But when 10,000 people are spread out over five ships of 2000 apiece, the damage is limited. - Sarah Fecht, How Many People Does It Take to Colonize Another Star System?   

When a great company, or even a great merchant, has twenty or thirty ships at sea, they may, as it were, insure one another. The premium saved upon them all, may more than compensate such losses as they are likely to meet with in the common course of chances. - Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations   

Farming is inherently risky. Weather, insects and disease, over which you have limited control or none at all, can wipe you out. One of the ways farmers manage risk is to plant variety. Okay, powdery mildew got your strawberries, but the broccoli’s going gangbusters.  For farmers, crops that are given guaranteed protection from both losses and price drops are lower-risk propositions. - Brian Stauffer, Farm bill: Why don’t taxpayers subsidize the foods that are better for us?   

Right now the Ghost Orchid is in two baskets (Florida and Jamaica) three baskets (Florida, Cuba and the Bahamas) which means that it's safer than if it was just in one basket.  By this same basic would be safer if it grew in a wider range of habitat types.  This could be accomplished by crossing it with D. funalis and other closely related species.  Introducing a "highly variable hybrid swarm" into suitable habitats in Florida would help us hedge our bets against unforeseen changes.

Again, I'm not saying that herclivation is the right answer...I'm just saying that it deserves serious consideration.


*plants and animals, most remote in the scale of nature, are bound together by a web of complex relations. [...] I have [...] reason to believe that humble-bees are indispensable to the fertilisation of the heartsease (Viola tricolor), for other bees do not visit this flower. From experiments which I have tried, I have found that the visits of bees, if not indispensable, are at least highly beneficial to the fertilisation of our clovers; but humble-bees alone visit the common red clover (Trifolium pratense), as other bees cannot reach the nectar. Hence I have very little doubt, that if the whole genus of humble-bees became extinct or very rare in England, the heartsease and red clover would become very rare, or wholly disappear. The number of humble-bees in any district depends in a great degree on the number of field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests; and Mr. H. Newman, who has long attended to the habits of humble-bees, believes that 'more than two thirds of them are thus destroyed all over England.' Now the number of mice is largely dependent, as every one knows, on the number of cats; and Mr. Newman says, 'Near villages and small towns I have found the nests of humble-bees more numerous than elsewhere, which I attribute to the number of cats that destroy the mice.' Hence it is quite credible that the presence of a feline animal in large numbers in a district might determine, through the intervention first of mice and then of bees, the frequency of certain flowers in that district! - Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species