Tomorrow’s Lmaras: The quest to save reticulated giraffes

April 17th, 2015

By David Brown

A reticulated giraffe browses on a bush for lunch. Photo by John Doherty.

When most people imagine giraffes they probably think of tall mammals with spots.

There are actually many kinds of giraffes in Africa. They are all tall and they all have spots, but there are differences between them.

One type of giraffe is called the reticulated giraffe.

The reticulated giraffe lives in northeastern Kenya, southern Ethiopia and, possibly, southwestern Somalia. John Doherty and Jacob Leaidura study the Kenyan population of these giraffes from their base in Samburu National Reserve. John is a scientist from Ireland. Jacob is a member of the Samburu community – a group of people in northern Kenya. He is a naturalist and educator. Together, they spend a lot of time observing the behavior and other characteristics of the reticulated giraffes in their study area.

John explains what makes the reticulated giraffes different from other giraffes and how they got their name: “The word ‘reticulated’ means ‘marked like a net’ and refers to the clean, white lines on the giraffes’ lovely red-brown coats. Some people call them Somali giraffes because they used to be common in the very north-east corner of Africa.”

“In my language,” says Jacob, “the word for giraffe is ‘lmeut’ (many Samburu words start with the letter “L”) but usually people call them ‘lmara’, which means ‘spotted, dappled or colorful.’”

John Doherty and Jacob Leaidura look for giraffes. Photo by John Doherty.

John explains what they are trying to learn about the reticulated giraffes. “At the moment, we’re trying to understand their social structure: the ways in which they relate to one another. In the past, people thought that giraffes were not very friendly because, even though they are often found in groups, they are constantly changing their companions. Our work – and that of our colleagues studying different kinds of giraffes in other parts of Africa – suggests that this may be a misunderstanding. It may be, instead, that giraffes live in complex communities that don’t depend on friends and acquaintances being constantly together – very much in the way that we humans do.”

Jacob has been living around giraffes his whole life. He describes what it was like growing up with giraffes around him. “Because I was familiar with giraffes and other large animals throughout my childhood, I can’t remember the very first one I saw. What I do recall, from the age of about 10, is that there used to be so many and they were so huge and I was so small that I was afraid to go near them. In those days, when I wasn’t at school, I was looking after my father’s cattle, goats and sheep, roaming with them far and wide and protecting them from wild animals, especially lions, and also from thieves. By coincidence, John saw his very first reticulated giraffes at about that time and just outside my home village.”

John and Jacob are worried that the number of reticulated giraffes is going down all of the time.

In the interview below, John answers questions about the work that he and Jacob do, why the reticulated giraffes are endangered, and what people can do to help them. Why are reticulated giraffes endangered?

John Doherty: We think that the overall population has suffered a decline of more than 80% in only the last 15 years. Factors such as predation and disease may have played a part in this, but it seems that the single most important cause is poaching. The people who live in the areas where reticulated giraffes are found suffer from intermittent drought and famine. Many of them have illegal guns that have found their way into the area from long-running wars in neighboring countries. This combination of poverty, hunger, and firearms spells trouble for wildlife in general and giraffes in particular. Lions and elephants get a lot of attention, but do the kids who live where the reticulated giraffes are know that they have a special kind of giraffe where they live?

John Doherty: We all take the things around us for granted. Children in Samburu have grown up with elephants, lions and giraffes and imagine that they will always be there. Some older people recognize that there are many places where they saw animals in their childhoods but don’t any more, or notice that, even where wildlife survives, the numbers are much lower than they used to be. We’re working especially with the youngsters to help them realize how lucky they are to live with such amazing creatures and to think of them as more than simply free-range food. Do Kenyans know that they live in the place with the most kinds of giraffes in the world? Is there much interest in conserving giraffes in the wild? If not, is there any effort to try and increase giraffe conservation awareness?

John Doherty: Together with the Kenya Wildlife Service, Thadeus Obari, who studies Masai giraffes, and Zoe Muller of the Rothschild’s Giraffe Project, we take every opportunity to raise public awareness of Kenya’s unique inheritance. It is remarkable that no other country in Africa has more than one kind of giraffe while Kenya has three. John says that this reflects the fact that today’s giraffes first appeared in this part of Africa more than a million years ago. Later, they spread to the west and the south, but because they’ve been here longer than anywhere else, they’ve had more time to change and evolve. What do people need to do to protect the reticulated giraffe and make sure that it survives into the future?

John Doherty: The issues facing reticulated giraffe conservation are complicated and difficult because they arise from much wider problems such as the world’s rapidly increasing human population and the effects of climate change and poverty. People who live with the giraffes first have to recognize that they’re endangered and then make a conscious decision that they don’t want to lose them. Giraffes bring benefits to local communities in terms of income from tourism and jobs in conservation but, beyond that, they help to make the world a wonderful and complex place for people to live in and enjoy. What specific things can people do to help protect reticulated giraffes, especially those who are interested in giraffes but live outside of Africa?

John Doherty: Those of us who don’t live in Africa but who love to know that we share our little planet with such beautiful and fascinating animals can act only indirectly by spreading the word among our friends and neighbors and by encouraging grown-ups in positions of power and influence to take effective action. If you feel strongly that you want giraffes to survive, don’t keep it to yourself: tell your parents, your teachers, your local zoo, your government and the governments of countries where giraffes are still found.

Imagine if they were already extinct and we knew of them only from fossils, we’d never have guessed that they had such unusual and beautiful markings.

Garden of the Vampires

April 8th, 2015

By David Brown

England, 1614: The crop was in ruins. The food plants were desiccated, brown, and brittle. There would be no harvest this year. Despair descended upon the farmers for winter was coming and their food stores would not be replenished. They cursed the monster that stalked their land…

Our species grew up in a world of monsters. Sailors feared being swallowed whole by savage sea serpents. Travelers shivered at howls echoing through the night, terrified of becoming a werewolf’s next meal. Villagers dreaded possibly having their life forces drained from them by blood-sucking, soul-stealing vampires.

As we better explored and understood the world, the monsters shrank away.

Vampires now only haunt us in our movies, books, and other forms of imagination – at least the undead, mythological kind of vampires that drain the life force from humans.

Deep in the sea lurks a squid with blood red skin and glassy demonic blue eyes. A web of skin connects each of its arms. When the squid fans its arms out it looks like the cape of a vampire. So startling was the appearance of this creature that scientists named it Vampyroteuthis infernalis, the Vampire Squid of Hell. For many years very little was known about the vampire squid or what it ate. Surely such a creature must live by grabbing unsuspecting fish with its tentacles and drawing it to its jaws to suck out their blood? Alas the human imagination exceeds the cold reality of the vampire squid, which turns out to be a scavenger, helping clear the deep seas of dead sea jellies and other organic matter. This animal is a vampire only in our minds.

Vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis) by Carl Chun, 1903. Image from the NOAA Photo Library.

Yet, vampires are real. They fly and creep and stalk across the Earth, as they have for millions of years before the vampires of human imagination existed.

Perhaps the most famous real life vampires flutter through the forests of Central and South America, sucking blood from birds and mammals (including humans sometimes). Europeans first saw vampire bats in the 1600s as they explored the New World. Tales of the blood-sucking bats were sewn into the mythology of vampires. Dracula, perhaps the most famous vampire of all, transformed himself into a bat in the novel by Bram Stoker, inspired by the existence of real vampire bats.

In the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles off the coast of South America, is the Galapagos Archipelago. These islands arose from the volcanic engines powering the movement of continental plates. Over time an ecosystem of animals arose found nowhere else on the planet featuring giant tortoises, tropical penguins, iguanas that swim in the ocean nibbling seaweed, and genuine vampires – vampire birds. On two of the Galapagos Islands, Wolf and Darwin, lives a species of finch that makes its living by drinking the blood of other birds. The vampire finch, also known as the sharp-beaked ground finch, pierces the skin of sea birds called boobies, drawing blood. Like the vampires of myth the vampire finch slurps up the blood, using the life force of others to its nourishment.

We have banished the monster vampires of legend to our art and literature. We know that some real vampires lurk in the animal kingdom. Our consideration of vampires usually ends there. Yet, there is another kingdom of the vampires beyond these boundaries.

These vampires do not stalk us directly, but they have clashed with humans throughout our history and they shape the world around us. These are the vampires of the plant kingdom.

The vampires of imagination sustain themselves by plunging their fangs into their victims and sucking out their blood. Botanical vampires operate in similar fashion, only without fangs and they are not drinking blood. Plants need to move water, nutrients, and sugars throughout their bodies. Vascular plants are plants with a circulatory system of tissues called xylem and phloem. Xylem is a highway of canals moving water throughout a plant’s body. Phloem does the same thing for sugars. These tissues are analogous to the circulatory system moving blood throughout the human body. They make a very tempting target for the vampires of the plant world.

If a plant dreaded a vampire attack, it is not the bite of a fang that it would fear but the deadly grasp of the haustorium. A haustorium is a modified root that seeks not to draw water and nutrients from the soil, but to find a victim and penetrate deeply into its tissue. A vampire plant unleashes a swarm of haustoria into its victim to tap into its xylem and phloem. Once inside, the haustoria directly connect the circulatory system of victim and vampire. The victim plant literally has the life sucked away from it as the vampire hijacks its water and nutrients.

The haustoria are the fangs of a vampire plant, penetrating deep into the host’s tissues.

The vampires of myth dwell in the shadows, pouncing on their victims only in the depths of night. Vampire plants operate out in the open in the full light of day. Nobody knows for sure how many kinds of botanical vampires there are. There are between 300,000 and 400,000 species of vascular plants (plants with xylem and phloem) in the world. Some scientists have estimated that perhaps 1% of these species are vampires, known technically as parasitic plants to botanists. This means that there may be 4000 or more species of plants seeking to sink their haustoria into their fellow plant species.

One of the most famous botanical vampires has a starring role as a holiday decoration.

Mistletoe is a vampire, and there are over 1000 different kinds of it. The vampiric life cycle of mistletoe begins with a bird being attracted to a luscious berry on a mistletoe plant. The bird unknowingly swallows the vampire in the form of a seed within the berry and transports it to a new victim plant, a tree. The vampire seed emerges from the bird unharmed and deposited on a tree branch where it germinates. Haustoria writhe from the mistletoe seedling and infest the tissue of the tree hosting it. The xylem and phloem of vampire and host are connected and the mistletoe feeds on its host for years. The victim is weakened by the vampire feeding upon it for decades, but likely will not be killed by it. It is in the interest of the vampire not to destroy its victim by overfeeding on it. Eventually the mistletoe will flower and produce a seed embedded in a berry. Another bird will feed on it and the vampire attack will start anew.

Vampire plants do not attack humans directly, but in medieval Europe one species did cause real horror. Yellow rattle is a plant species that lives in meadows and grasslands. It has beautiful yellow flowers. When the seeds mature they rattle around within the fruit pod of the plant. This rattling would not be a welcome sound for European farmers. Yellow rattle is a hemi-parasite. This means that the plant sometimes lives freely on its own, absorbing water and nutrients from its roots like a normal plant does. Other times yellow rattle becomes a vampire, engulfing the roots of surrounding plants with haustoria and sucking dry their water and nutrients. Yellow rattle was known by the curse “stealer of bread” in medieval Europe. It would infest fields and vampirize entire crops of wheat so that nothing was left.

Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor). Photo by Ian Cunliffe, courtesy of Flicker.

As vampire hunters of legend arose to fight off the vampires of our imaginations, the farmers of Europe figured out how to defeat the real life vampirism of yellow rattle. They discovered that yellow rattle does not produce enough seeds to remain in the ground over time and start a seed bank, a repository of seeds that survives over years and replenishes a plant species’ numbers. If the yellow rattle was destroyed before seeds were produced then the vampire threat could be eradicated from the fields and the crops would be plagued no more. By the 1800s farmers no longer considered yellow rattle a threat to their crops. The stealer of bread had been defeated.

Yellow rattle was once seen as vampiric scourge that preyed upon other plants with evil intent. Today we know more about its role in its grassland ecosystems. In England scientists are restoring agricultural fields back into natural grasslands. Sometimes a few species of grasses will dominate a field and reduce the biological diversity, the number of species present, of the restored grassland. When yellow rattle is added in these ecosystems it helps preserve biological diversity by preventing any one species from taking over by vampirizing the most abundant species and controlling its numbers. Just as our increasing knowledge and exploration of the world transported us out of a world of imaginary monsters, our increased understanding of vampire plants now shows us that they are not really monsters. They are important parts of the ecosystems that they live in and help conserve biological diversity.

The sea serpents and werewolves have disappeared from the world, but we really do live in the garden of the vampires.

The author thanks Dr. Duncan B. Westbury for his help with this story.