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Birds and Mammals Research 

May 11, 2013

The Story of O319: Part 3, Collecting and Cleaning the Skeleton

Continuing on from my last post, Moe made the decision to collect the entire skeleton of offshore Orca 0319, since it was such a rare specimen. This, however, was no easy feat! The beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore where the Orca washed up was a 45 minute hike from our truck, including a trek down a steep hill towards the beach and a climb over a rocky outcrop. So, bringing bones (with some muscle and fat still attached) back over the rocks, up the hill, and along the trail to the truck took a lot of work.


Over a period of 4 days, we were able to get all of the bones back to our lab here at CAS, using some creative methods such as strapping the head of the Orca onto a stretcher and pulling it up the hill.



Even though all of the pieces were brought back from the beach, there was still a lot of work to be done. On the Project Lab blog, I’ve talked about a process called maceration that we use to clean a lot of our skeletons (you can read that here). We have a special large tank for macerating oversized skeletons, which is the tank that we used for the Orca. First, we had to get as much of the remaining tissue off of the bones as possible.


The skeleton was then placed in the maceration tank, where bacteria naturally cleans the bones over time.


Once all tissue was completely macerated off, the bones were soaked in dish soap and dilute ammonia to remove grease. We got them as grease-free as possible before articulation, so that grease would not leak out to the surface of the bones over time.


Next post, I’ll start documenting the actual articulation process, where you can see Lee Post, our staff, and 40 dedicated volunteers put O319 back together!


Laura Wilkinson
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology and Mammalogy


All marine mammal stranding activities were conducted under authorization by the National Marine Fisheries Service through a Stranding Agreement issued to the California Academy of Sciences and MMPA/ESA Permit No. 932-1905/MA-009526.


Filed under: Orca Articulation — Laura Wilkinson @ 10:00 am

May 9, 2013

The Story of 0319: Part 2, Orca Ecotypes and Identifying Our Orca

In the previous blog post, I wrote about our initial observation and field necropsy of Orca 0319 back in November of 2011. Now, I’ll go over the different types of Orcas, called “ecotypes.”

There are currently 10 forms (“ecotypes”) of Orca recognized. They are all considered to be the same species (Orcinus orca) until proved otherwise by genetic research. In the Eastern North Pacific Ocean, three of these ecotypes occur: resident, transient, and offshore. The three ecotypes look slightly different (distinguishable by their saddle patch and dorsal fin), have different vocalizations, behave differently, and eat different foods.  

Check out this poster from Southwest Fisheries Science Center for a great illustration of the different ecotypes.


The best‐known form that lives off the coast of Washington and Oregon. The Southern Resident population is protected under the Endangered Species Act. Their saddle patch often has a large black intrusion (‘open’ saddle) not found in other Orcas. Females’ dorsal fins are rounded on top with a pointed trailing edge. They specialize in eating fish, typically salmon.


A large form that lives in coastal and offshore waters of the North Pacific. Their saddle patch is ‘closed’ compared to the Resident forms’ and extends forward past the midline of the dorsal fin. Females’ dorsal fins are generally pointed. They eat mammals such as harbor seals and minke whales.


A smaller form that is rarely observed because it occurs mainly over the outer continental shelf of the eastern North Pacific. Some travel between Alaska and Southern California. Their saddle patch is fainter than those of resident and transient forms. Females’ dorsal fins are rounded at the tip and often have nicks. In 2011, using genetic samples from prey remains, researchers determined that their primary diet consists of sharks (Pacific sleeper sharks in that case). The fact that sharks have rough skin explains why offshore Orca teeth are often worn to the gumline.


On Tuesday November 29th, we emailed photos of our Orca to various Orca researchers for possible photo identification. Later that day, Graeme Ellis, research technician at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, identified the Orca as O319, an offshore animal. O319 was originally sighted in 2002 as a juvenile and had most recently been recorded off the west coast of Vancouver Island in September 2011. Based on the photos, size, and lack of secondary sexual characteristics (curled flukes, large dorsal fin) Graeme Ellis estimated that O319 was approximately 15 years old at the time of death – still not a full adult.

Offshore orcas are a rare ecotype to find washed up on the beach, as they typically sink into the ocean after they die. This fact made Moe decide to collect the entire skeleton so that we could have as much research material as possible available for this animal.

Stay tuned to find out how we collected and cleaned the orca skeleton, leading up to the beginning of our articulation project. We’ve already begun articulating, so be sure to come by the Orca lab in the Piazza (Tuesday through Sunday) to see us in action!


Laura Wilkinson
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology and Mammalogy


All marine mammal stranding activities were conducted under authorization by the National Marine Fisheries Service through a Stranding Agreement issued to the California Academy of Sciences and MMPA/ESA Permit No. 932-1905/MA-009526.


Filed under: Orca Articulation — Laura Wilkinson @ 10:54 am

May 6, 2013

The story of Orca O319: Part 1, Initial Observation

We have a very exciting project starting this week (May 10th) in the Piazza: an articulation of an orca skeleton. Articulation, or connecting the bones together, is how we display skeletons so that we can see what an animal looks like without all of its other parts (muscle, skin, etc.). It is a process that’s usually done behind the scenes, but we decided it would be a great opportunity for the public to learn about an interesting specimen as well as a unique preparation process. First of all, how did we get this orca skeleton?


In November of 2011, the day after Thanksgiving, we received a call that there was an orca that washed up dead on a beach in Point Reyes National Seashore (Marin County). Moe Flannery, the Collections Manager of Ornithology & Mammalogy (birds and mammals), who coordinates our marine mammal stranding response between Bodega Bay and Año Nuevo State Park, got a team together to go take photographs, measurements, and skin, muscle, and blubber samples that are required for each dead marine mammal stranding.


A team returned the next day to perform a field necropsy, which is an autopsy performed on an animal. There was only time to complete the necropsy and remove the skull, which was then moved up the beach towards the base of the cliffs, to make sure it didn’t wash away with the tide overnight. We keep a part of all specimens (marine mammals, birds, and land mammals), called a “voucher,” for our research collection. In some cases that means the entire skin and skeleton, while in other cases it may only be a wing or skull. Moe knew that she at least wanted to keep the skull of the Orca, which is why it was secured in a safe place overnight.


Stay tuned to read about how we found out about the Orca’s identification number and how we came to the decision to keep the entire skeleton!

Laura Wilkinson
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology and Mammalogy

All marine mammal stranding activities were conducted under authorization by the National Marine Fisheries Service through a Stranding Agreement issued to the California Academy of Sciences and MMPA/ESA Permit No. 932-1905/MA-009526.


Filed under: Orca Articulation — Laura Wilkinson @ 11:25 am

April 5, 2012

On the Roof


“What’s our time?” Logan asks moving along the rock paths that crisscross the roof of the CAS.

“Two minutes.” Ore, a graduate student, checks his stopwatch. It’s raining and cold and my second bird survey experience has been unexpectedly lucrative.

Half an hour earlier, winding our way through the halls of the research department, I was expecting 30 wet minutes of cloud spotting. Up on the roof in our yellow vests, the team, shielding our binoculars from the downpour, noted the temperature, weather, and wind direction. Logan was already looking around. ‘Can we start yet?’ his impatient hands said as he waited for Ore to set the timer. As soon as Ore gave the go ahead, Logan, a fourteen-year-old volunteer and bird expert, was leading us around the roof spewing names of bird species too fast for me to document.

We moved in a line, with Logan in the front shouting numbers, species, and the species codes of the birds he saw and heard. “It’s actually prime season for bird watching,” Logan explained to me later as he typed in the day’s data. “Lots of spring arrivals and the gulls haven’t left yet. Twenty one species, could have been twenty three if we hadn’t run out of time; good diversity.” He nods. Just seconds after the clock had run out, Logan had pointed straight up, shouting, “Oh man, that was a Mew Gull.” He shook his head, disappointed, and headed off the roof. Once the survey is over no additional birds can be added to the day’s data.

Ore has Logan name all the gulls; he knows the group particularly well. “Gulls, I love them.” Logan laughs and explains that they are a very over-looked group with a lot of rarities.

After a little over a year of conducting the Tuesday morning roof surveys, the CAS team is very familiar with the local birds. I was shocked to see two pairs of Red-tailed Hawks circling the area. Ore pointed to some tall pines, “Oh, that pair of Red-tailed Hawks nest in those trees over there.” The birds were behaving differently in the rain, a lot more vocally active and many were using the roof for shelter. As we made our way around the Dr. Seuss-like domes we heard three Downy Woodpeckers call.


Moe Flannery, the collections manager of the Ornithology and Mammalogy department, started the roof survey to learn which bird species were   utilizing the green roof. The data collected by the CAS team is posted on eBird, an international bird sighting website, used by birders around the world.

The survey has shown that the CAS building has, in many ways, been successfully integrated into the park environment and the green roof is a      huge part of that effort. The roof has provided important winter habitat for migrating birds resting and feeding. Last winter a flock of seventy plus  Kildeer made use of the green roof for at least three weeks. Kildeer need big open areas of vegetation and seemed quite content in Golden Gate   Park. Recently, the team spotted an Oregon Junco flying with nesting material, exciting evidence that the Juncos are back to nest on the roof for a third year. Oregon Juncos are ground nesters and the roof provides a safe haven from predators and people that also occupy the park.

In line with the mission of the CAS to explore, explain and protect, the survey team continues to monitor action on the roof, not just to share information about our local bird species, but also because of their commitment to improve the world we live in.

- Page McCargo

Filed under: Uncategorized — sstebick @ 1:09 pm

February 5, 2012

Casual Sunday birding in Golden Gate Park… With the camera

Well, it’s a sunny Sunday in Golden Gate Park.  The weather was warm and pleasant, and the winter birds were active.  My wife Tiffany and I took a stroll up the hill and into the park near Lloyd Lake, where there are often plenty of ducks, gulls, coots, and even a grebe or two.  I had my camera with me since I needed a little practice using my long lens on birds. Although none of these are great photos, they show some of the common species that you can see here in the park:


A couple Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) were skulking in the underbrush near Stow Lake.  They are difficult to see, but have a very distinctive pattern of banding on the chest which come to a spot in the center.


Here you can see the Song Sparrow’s streaking pattern very nicely.


And of course, the Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) are common around many footpaths.  This junco was in a group of 4-5 others and feeding on bread and bird feed scraps left on the ground by some earlier hikers.  The Song Sparrows were also with them, but the sparrows were more skiddish and more quickly jumped into the thicket behind them while I got these photos.


Several Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) have been hanging out in Lloyd Lake, near the 25th Avenue north entrance to the park.  Although the Mallards are still slightly more abundant, the Ring-neck Ducks have been common here this year with over 20 in the lake today.


The Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) were my favorite sighting today.  They are always very spectacular (the male is above), and are great divers.  We often see a pair here on Lloyd Lake, and today there was one male and two females.  The male was pretty cheeky, and allowed us to get a pretty close look and some decent photos.  He aggressively chased two male Mallards away from a patch of weeds where he was diving, despite the fact that he was only a fraction of the Mallards’ size.


Here is a male Hooded Merganser swimming alongside a female.  They stayed closely together most of the time.


I was surprised by how few gulls I saw this morning.  Lloyd Lake is a great place to see Mew Gulls (Larus canus) this time of year, and we got great looks at several.  They are smaller than the Ring-billed or Western Gulls, and have almost no visible marking on the bill.


The much larger Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) was also present (although I took this photo on the Stow Lake boat dock).  These tend to be a little more aggressive than the Mew Gulls, and they respond quickly to the many people who bring bread to feed the ducks.


My wife Tiffany told me that there were Widgeon here too, and this is one of the reasons that we walked up to the lake.  Here is a male American Widgeon (Anas americana) in non-breeding plumage, with the obvious white forehead.  There were only about 3-4 pairs, but they too were relatively easy to see and came pretty close.


We looked for the Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa)  that we often see on the western side of the lake, but we failed to spot them today.  I still haven’t photographed them, and I was hoping to get a nice photo of their head pattern in the sun.  Instead, we saw a lone male Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca) sleeping with its bill tucked into its back feathers.


American Coots (Fulica americana) were common on all of the bodies of water in the park (as usual),

And we got great looks at Pied-billed Grebes (Podilymbus podiceps) on both Lloyd Lake and Stow Lake.


Last but not least (unless you are talking about size) were Anna’s Hummingbirds (Calypte anna).  We saw several out servicing the flowers.  I understand that the Academy is working on upcoming pollination exhibits which will most certainly feature hummingbirds.  Anna’s Hummingbird is a year-round resident that survives well on the parks many flowers, which provide a great source of nectar and pollen.

Another unphotographed highlight would have to be the California Quail (Callipepla californica) that we heard just north of Lloyd Lake.  As we approached the lake, we could hear some scraping in the underbrush, but I was unable to see what was in there.  I figured a junco, towhee, or even a squirrel, and walked on without working too hard to see it.  But later, when we were across the lake, we heard multiple clear “Chi-ca-go” calls of California Quail.  We walked back hoping to photograph one, but alas we were unable to see or even hear them again.  The quail are noteworthy, as I learned at a recent Golden Gate Audubon Conservation Committee Meeting, because California Quail were all but extirpated from the city limits.  There are believed to be only a single family group or “covey” that still lives around the Botanical Garden and Arboretum.  At first I suspected that this could be the same group that had just moved deeper into the park.  But as we walked toward the Academy, we heard another group of quail at the northeast end of Stow Lake – just across Martin Luther King Drive from the Arboretum.  I would still like to get a good look at the covey at Lloyd’s Lake, but it is tentatively great news to me that there may be another group settling there.

Why are the quail disappearing in the city?  It is believed that off-leash dogs are probably the major threat to ground-nesting birds in the city.  As the population rises and as people in the city want dogs for companionship, the impact on ground nesting birds is increasing.  Dogs are also a huge threat to shorebirds – especially the endangered Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus).  So please do your part and keep your dog on a leash unless you are in a designated off-leash area!

It was nice to get the camera out and shoot a few of the common local species.  In just a couple weeks, Gary Sharlow and I will be taking a group of photographers to Crissy Field to teach and practice some tricks for photographing birds in the field.  This will be a part of the adult programming that Gary has been developing, and a potential source of data and images for citizen science projects.

Filed under: Uncategorized — jdumbacher @ 4:44 pm

December 15, 2011

Surveying birds in Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea


We recently spent a very successful 2-month field trip in the island province of Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea surveying birds and collecting samples to screen for various avian diseases.  We had an amazing crew – collaborator David Mindell, Post-doctoral researcher Jerome Fuchs, Berkeley PhD student Zachary Hanna, San Francisco State University Masters Student Molly Dodge, PNG National Museum researcher Bulisa Iova, and the amazing artist Isabella Kirkland.  We spent two months sailing on the SV Dalai, a French-build sloop owned and operated by Bruno and Carmen Montel.

This ship was an excellent way to get around, and the crew and field team were amazing.  We departed from Alotau, Milne Bay Province in September, and returned in November after sailing to Normanby Island, the Amphlet Group, Dawson Island, BudiBudi Atoll, Woodlark Island, Ginetu Island, Gawa Island, and the Trobriand Islands, just to name a few of the key islands.


We captured and sampled over 500 birds, including this Emerald Ground Dove (Chalcophaps indica), and the Collared Kingfisher (Halcyon chloris) below.

Collared Kingfisher, Halcyon chloris.

Although it may look like I’ve not blogged for a while, this is not so.  We were invited by the New York Times to blog in their very excellent series, Scientist At Work, and this link should direct you to most of our posts from the recent field trip:


Feel free to post comments or questions here, and enjoy!

Filed under: Uncategorized — jdumbacher @ 11:01 pm

February 17, 2011

A sick gopher from Golden Gate Park…

A couple weeks ago, I got a call because there was a gopher outside staggering around, obviously disoriented, even falling over onto its side. When I found it, it was lethargic and easy to approach and I picked it up and carried it inside without any struggle or fight. It was loaded with fleas. The folks that called suggested that it may have been poisoned. Since catching this one, friends and colleagues have mentioned seeing other sick or dead gophers around this part of Golden Gate Park, suggesting that this may not be an isolated case.  A couple people even suggested that the city may be putting out poison baits to reduce the huge numbers of gophers in the park.

So we did a little asking around to find out whether anyone is using poison in Golden Gate Park, and the answer appears to be an emphatic, “no.” No one in the Academy is using poisons, not even around our precious collections spaces. In fact, the entire park is off limits to toxic herbicides, fungicides, and rodenticides. So we

spoke with our veterinary doctor in the Steinhart Aquarium, Freeland Dunker.

Freeland is very knowledgeable about animal diseases of all sorts, and almost immediately suspected raccoon roundworm, or Baylisascaris procyonis. This is a common roundworm found in a large percentage of raccoons (between 70-100% of west coast urban raccoons are infected with these worms!), and is very likely endemic to the huge population of raccoons in Golden Gate Park and nearby Sunset and Richmond neighborhoods. The worms normally live in raccoon intestinal tracts, and raccoons can shed thousands of eggs in their feces. The eggs are robust in the environment, and can live for a long time in the soil or in a raccoon latrine.

When other species ingest the eggs, the eggs hatch in their intestines and try to find a good place to settle. But since the larvae are not in a raccoon, they don’t find an acceptable place to settle, and they burrow through the intestinal walls and wander around inside the body looking for a place to settle. These wandering larvae cause a disease called larval migrans, or literally, migrating larvae. As these worms burrow through the body of the host, they leave a trail of destruction. Worms often migrate to the eye, brain, and meninges, causing encephalitis, neuroretinitis, central nervous system damage, and death. Our recent sick gopher was likely an advanced case, and probably had the worms in its brain and spinal column.

Baylisascaris LarvaeBaylisascaris larvae, which move through the body of its host leaving a trail of destruction and causing the disease condition known as “larval migrans.”

Although it is extremely rare, cases of Baylisascaris are known in humans. The CDC has a website that discusses Baylisascaris as a potential emerging human disease. Note that 4 of 11 known human cases were from California. All of the human cases were severe or fatal, and often most aggressive in young children. The damage done by migrating worms can be permanent, and neurological damage to the brain and eyes is usually the first sign of infection, and by then, it is usually too late to do anything but prevent additional damage.

Next time we find one of these gophers, we will try to confirm the diagnosis, and report back. Unless you’re a gopher, there’s really not much to worry about.  You can’t catch this directly from gophers, as they are not typical hosts and probably do not shed eggs (but you could catch it from eating gophers…) But it is worthwhile to keep an eye on your small kids and definitely don’t let them play near raccoon feces.

Filed under: Uncategorized — jdumbacher @ 7:41 pm

February 1, 2011

Avian Pox moves through Galapagos, 100 years ago…

Diseases can have significant effects on bird populations, especially populations that have never been exposed to them. Avian pox is a disease that was presumably moved around by humans, and has been introduced to Galapagos – as well as Hawaii – where the disease has had a significant effect on birds.

Recent work by Patty Parker (from University of Missouri) and her team of researchers has learned where the pox came from, where and when it was introduced, and some details about how it spread across the archipelago. In CSI style, they visited collections (especially ours here at California Academy of Sciences), and examined literally thousands of birds that have been collected over the last century and that are now held in public research collections.

Every bird in the collection has a label that includes information on where and when the bird was collected, and by whom. By looking for external pox lesions, they could get a rough estimate of which birds had pox, where and when.

Photos of pox lesions from Galapagos birds(This photo shows pox lesions preserved in 100-year old specimens collected on the Galapagos during the 1899 Snodgrass and Heller Expedition and the 1905-06 California Academy of Sciences Expedition).

But they didn’t stop there – on birds with large lesions or multiple lesions, they used tiny scalpel blades and cut minute pieces off the lesions. These tissue samples were then used to confirm that the disease was actually pox. Two techniques were employed – first, they did histopathology studies (basically looking at the lesions under a microscope to confirm their external appearance as pox-like), and second, they extracted DNA and amplified and sequenced poxvirus DNA. Together, these two tests not only confirmed pox as the culprit, they actually identified the pox strain as being nearly identical to known strains of Canary Pox.

With this information on the pox strain as well as the information on where and when the pox lesions first showed up, they could unravel how and when the virus first came to the Galapagos. No specimens from 1891 and 1897 contained any pox-like lesions. found that samples collected prior to 1900 never showed pox lesions.

Canarypox virus (CNVP) is a form of avipoxvirus that attacks wild and captive passerine birds, and can cause significant mortality. It is double-stranded DNA virus in the family Poxviridae. Externally, it causes lesions on feet, head, bill, and around the eyes, and can impede sight, feeding, and movement. It can also affect respiratory and digestive tracts inhibiting breathing and digestion. Because the virus contains a double-stranded DNA molecule as genetic material, it is hardy enough to persist in the environment longer than many other viruses.

Check out their full research article at PLoS One

Filed under: Uncategorized — jdumbacher @ 2:14 pm

December 14, 2009

The Sailors

Traditional sailing proas still sail around remote Milne Bay, much as they have for centuries. I’ve heard about this from colleagues and have seen some small sailing canoes off Normanby Island on previous trips, but I was dying to see some of these boats up close and learn more about the traditional sailors. This blog is devoted to a bit of anthropology, and specifically the skills of sailing and boatbuilding that are so well developed – and preserved – in the region.


We saw our first sailing canoe tacking off Byron Island on our way to TubeTube Island. The boat was beautiful, and the sailors seemed at home on the water, but it was still far away and difficult to see how they were sailing.

Papua New Guinea Fall 2009 Trip; Milne Bay Province aboard Dalai

On TubeTube Island, we saw our first sailing proa up close. The boat had several men who had been to Alotau, and were on their way back to their village with supplies purchased from town. While they were on shore resting, they peddled some beetle nut.


Bruno talked to the sailors, and they gave him a quick tour of the boat. They introduced us to the parts of the boat and showed us how they sailed it.

Carvings on the hull

Carvings on the stern

The boat had incredible detail in the bow and stern plates and nice carvings on the hull. The rigging used modern ropes and plastic for sails, but otherwise the structure followed the traditional local sailing rig.

Loading trade store goods on the proa
Later, they loaded trade store goods on the boat, opened the sail and headed off.

Setting Sail in the Local Proa

Once they set sail, it was obvious that it takes tremendous knowledge and skill to rig these boats. Although it may look like these are cheap plastic tarps tacked together, the stitching and shaping of the sail are highly engineered for strength and performance. The sail is carefully shaped, and sewn to maintain proper sail shape. Ropes are sewn into the sail margins so that they can be lashed to spars and raised and lowered.

foot of the sail, lashed to a spar with ropes

Here you can see some of the sewing and lashing on the foot of the sail. We had little time with these folks before they were on their way, but we were headed to the islands of Panapompom and Panaete, where boatbuilding was their main craft. These islands built and supplied most of the finest sailing boats used in this part of Milne Bay Province, and we were excited to see more of these boats in Panapompom.

A small proa built just for a young boy

On our way east toward Panapompom Island, we worked on the islands of Hummock and Haszard, and we anchored in their lagoon. Here we also encountered many sailors, including young boys who sailed smaller, single-boy versions of the larger sailing canoes.

Aladin sailing with the local boys of Hummock Island

Aladin went for a spin on some of these small canoes. Aladin has been building boats since he was a toddler, and so he exchanged notes with the local young sailors on design and technique.


The men and boys of Hummock Island also build and test scale models of their sailing canoes, as does Aladin. They worked together with models as well as larger sailing canoes. At times like these I wished that I wasn’t so busy with the biological research, and I wished that I had more time to learn and write about the local sailing knowledge.

Medium proa, reaching downwind

Larger proa with many passengers and much cargo

As we pressed eastward, we saw more and more sailing canoes, some larger, some with many passengers, and some with slightly different designs.

Very large canoe off Hummock Island

Boat on the shore on Watts (Kwaraiwa) Island

Two sailing canoes "parked" on the beach at Hummock Island

We sailed to Panapompom in early November. Our main goal was, of course, to study the birds of the Deboyne Island Group, but we were all excited to be in the archipelago of the great sailing canoe architects and builders. The lagoon between Panapompom and Panaete is very shallow near Panaete – too shallow for Dalai, which has a 2.5 meter draft – so we anchored off the northeast side of Panapompom Island. This was an excellent decision for the birds, as Panapompom Island was higher and had more variation in habitats and geology, so there were many diverse birds. And we were close to Panaete – just a short sailing canoe ride away. While we studied birds, Bruno and Aladin studied canoe-building with some of the knowledgeable men, and they sailed to Panaete to meet some of the other builders. The photos that follow were taken by Bruno and Aladin during their sail to Panaete on a sailing canoe.

Sailing on the sailing canoe, "Coins" with Jimmy

They sailed with Jimmy, one of our hired helpers, but also a master sail-stitcher and sailor. They raised and lowered the sail, and showed Bruno and Aladin how to use the steering board rudder at the stern to steer the canoe.

Sailing canoe outrigger cutting through the water

The water in the lagoon was crystal clear, so it was easy to see the coral and rocks under the surface. The sailing canoes had a shallow draft, so it was easy to avoid hazards, and they were able to move very quickly through the water.

A sailing canoe being built, and stored under thatched roof

Once on Panaete, they visited several boat builders and saw boats in the process of construction, such as this one that is nearly completed.

nearly finished boat under thatch roof cover

It is quite easy to see that these are not merely dugout canoes. The bottom of the hull is constructed of a dug-out tree trunk, and a particularly strong wood is chosen for this. Then side planking is added for extra buoyancy and to protect the boat in heavy seas, and internal reinforcements are needed to secure these parts to the bottom of the hull. In earlier times, all of the pieces would be carved to fit exactly and then lashed together with fiber ropes.

Decking on "coins"

The outrigger is made of a heavy solid wood that can counterbalance the force of the wind on the sail. The canoe always tacks with the outrigger on the windward side of the boat. The decking is made of wooden saplings or bamboo, and can be made thick enough to support a lot of cargo or people, as needed. The mast rests at the bottom of the main hull and is supported off a large armature that spreads the force over the decking platform.

carving from the bow or stern of the sailing canoe

Although every part of the sailing canoe was functional in some way, some parts were elaborated decorated and embellished with carvings like this bow or stern plate. Bruno also worked with Jimmy and the boat builders to photograph and record the names of many of the ship’s parts. Like sailors anywhere in the world, the New Guineans had specialized names for every part of the boat.

Boat with coconuts on rack

Once back on Panapompom, on our last evening we tried to visit one of the boat builders living there who was famous for building small replicas of the large sailing canoes.

Aladin holding a scale replica of a Panapompom sailing canoe

These little boats were only a few inches long, but they had every functional working part of the larger boats. We weren’t lucky enough to find the model-maker (he was out working in his fields) but we did get to see one of his small models.

22 people riding in an outboard "banana boat"

Increasingly, these sailing canoes are being replaced by fiberglass boats with 40-50 horsepower engines, like this standard commuter boat. One can only wonder how many more years the traditional sailing canoes will be used. Throughout the Pacific, very few islands or island groups still use the traditional sailing canoes. The next time I come to these islands I would love to try to make a documentary film about these amazing seafaring people and try to record some of this knowledge before it is lost.

Filed under: Uncategorized — jdumbacher @ 10:32 am

October 20, 2009

A Sailing Survey

Map of Papua New Guinea and Australia

EVER SINCE I was an student working in PNG, I’ve dreamed of surveying and studying birds in the outer most remote islands of Papua New Guinea and the western Pacific. These places seem elusive – they are difficult to get to, poorly known, and only a few of the largest and most significant islands have been visited. Even those that have been studied were visited mostly long ago, by Albert Meek in the late 1800s and early 1900s, by the Whitney South Seas Expedition in the 1920′s and 1930′s, and by a few others, including Jared Diamond more recently. But there is much work yet to do, and much to be learned by working in these pristine places.

Map showing study area

This fall, we are sailing with Bruno and Carmen Montel, on their beautiful yacht, Dalai, to begin working in the islands of Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. We are surveying bird populations on a few islands in the major groups of the Louisiade Archipelago, and we are experimenting with traveling by sailboat. Sailing is a “green” way to get around – we are mostly powered by wind, using solar to recharge batteries, and using the boat as a “base camp” so that we have less impact on the islands we visit. It is also very practical, as fuel is expensive or impossible to get in these remote areas, and the boat provides a comfortable and safe base. By reducing our need for fossil fuels, we make it possible to be out in the remote areas for longer periods of time. One must remember that especially the low islands are threatened by global warming and sea level rise. Thus it is important to sample these islands while they are still here, but not to do so in a way that only hastens their demise.

Jack, Peter, and Tiffany

Three of us from the California Academy of Sciences (Jack Dumbacher, Tiffany Bozic, and Peter Gibert), left for New Guinea in late September. We met with Bulisa Iova, Chief Technical Officer at the Papua New Guinea National Museum in Port Moresby in early October. We quickly obtained our research permits from the good folks at the Department of Environment and Conservation and at the National Research Institute in Port Moresby, and we were on our way to Alotau, the capital of Milne Bay Province. Once in Alotau, we provisioned, and we met with Bruno and Carmen and had our first tour of their ship, Dalai. It is a beautiful 54′ sailing boat that Bruno and Carmen built themselves by hand (and you can learn more about it here). Dalai is a luxury cruising sailboat, and they have been sailing it around the world for the last few years.

Dalai off Skelton Island

We boarded Dalai on 5 October, and sailed the next afternoon after we obtained the necessary permits from the provincial officials, and after we received excellent advice from Gretta at Napatana Lodge and David Mitchell from the local Conservation International office in Alotau.

First legs of the trip - Alotau to WagaWaga to TubeTube (Slade Island)

We sailed first to WagaWaga, where we anchored for the night. We were up
the next morning early and under way for the Engineer Group, just east of
Basilaki Island. Our first port of call was the island of TubeTube
(pronounced Too-bay-too-bay), also known as Slade Island on the nautical charts.

When we first arrive at a new island, we are often greeted by locals who
help us find the best anchorage, and who offer fresh produce and other goods
for trade. Here is Bulisa talking with two guys in a local canoe who are
offering bananas and fresh greens. We rarely pass up the opportunity to get
fresh produce.

Next, we speak with the local officials ­- usually the councilmen or
landowners – to get permission to do our work on the islands. In many
places, including TubeTube Island, the whole village turned up for the
discussion, and everyone weighed in, asked questions, and taught us the
local names for the birds. This was really helpful and fun, and we made
lots of friends who not only helped with the survey work, but who traded
other items or services.

Many of the islanders kept caged birds like the Eastern Black-capped Lory and Pied Imperial Pigeon, and they encouraged us to sample DNA and RNA from their local captive birds as well.

Even after only a couple weeks, we are starting to see some interesting
patterns. Many bird species are rare or missing from the islands with
people, but are common on islands without people. These include the Varied
Honeyeater, Rufous Fantail, the Mangrove Golden Whistler, and the Louisiade
White-eye. Conversely, there are many bird species that are common on
islands without people, and are less common or missing on islands without
people ­ these include the Metallic Starling and Singing Starling. There
are many potential reasons for these differences, including that humans and
our livestock may be spreading introduced pests, including introduced
diseases. This is why we are sampling RNA and DNA: to look for viruses and
other diseases that may correlate with bird abundance and distribution.

There is another human impact that we see ubiquitously on all of the
islands. This is plastic waste. It is amazing how many shoe soles, plastic
bags, discarded lighters and other trash accumulate on even these remote
islands. Even if we spent a day gathering up and burning all of this waste
(and there would be A LOT!) within a couple days, the beach would be full
again. Nearly every village we visit has hammocks made of washed up fishing
nets, tokens made of large floating GPS locators for nets, even one had a
huge aluminum pontoon buoy. It is good that these are removed from the sea,
as they do untold damage to fish and marine mammal populations, and the
larger items could damage or sink a boat like ours if we rammed it while

We’ve also seen some really special things on some of these islands. These
include a cave with nesting Glossy Swiftlets, with the adults flying all
around us.

One of these caves also had some human bones and skulls in it. We felt a
little uncomfortable going to these caves, but the local people said that
this was not their burial place or the burial place of their ancestors, but
that these people were from “before” they lived there. Still, we only shot
a couple photos and left the place undisturbed.

Probably the largest bird nests in the world occur in PNG ­ these are the
nests of the megapodes. In this region, we find the Orange-footed Scrubfowl (Megapodius reinwardt), which is actually one of the smaller megapode species, but it still has a very large nest. Rather than incubate the eggs themselves, the males scrape up large masses of vegetation. As the vegetation rots, it heats up and
provides the necessary moisture and warmth for the incubating eggs. One nest can hold many eggs at any given time. Here is a photo of a scrubfowl nest from Skelton Island, with two men standing on top of the mound.

Here is a photo of a young scrubfowl that emerged from the nest
within the week. Check out those giant feet – ­when that bird is an adult,
they will be used for building these giant nests.

The local people in these islands still sail the traditional sailing canoes.
Young boys have small ones, and like bicycles in USA, the boys use them to
zoom around the vicinity of their island. The men have large ones that can
carry 20 or more people and their cargo, and they go very long distances.
We see them commonly, and as we travel west to east and further and further
from towns, the sailing canoes are more and more common. Here are a couple
beautiful sailing canoes that we passed while sailing from Watts Island to
Hammock Island.

We hope to see more of these, and we will be visiting Panapompom Island in the Deboyne Island Group, where the craft of making sailing canoes is very well developed and refined. The Deboyne Group produces many of the traditional sailing canoes for the region.

Navigation Chart for the Engineer Group of Islands

Sailing between islands can be challenging. Although we have some charts
for navigation, we cannot rely on them. There are some hazards that are not
clearly charted, and there is always potential that even those that are
shown are not accurately placed on the map.

So far, we have found the maps to be fairly reliable, but we use backups and are always on the lookout. In this photo, Aladin is sitting atop the spreaders looking for submerged reefs or other hazards.

Finding good anchorages is also tricky. With steady winds (usually between
15-30 knots out of the SE, we typically have to find good sheltered
anchorages to the NW in the lee of each island. Bruno and Carmen are expert
at getting us in and out of tricky anchorages, and they work seamlessly
together as a team.

In the end, the sailing is half the fun, and we see lots of wildlife along
the way, including seabirds and dolphins.

Today, 20 October 2009, we are back in Alotau, resupplying. We will also be picking up David Mindell, the last member of our team, who arrives in PNG later today and flies to Alotau tomorrow. We are hoping that he makes it safely and is not too jetlagged, as we have a long sail to do as soon as we pick him up, to head to Hammock and Hazard Island to continue our survey work.

Filed under: Fall 2009 Expedition — jdumbacher @ 11:14 am
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