Living in America: Part 1, Vertebrate Fauna from Sea to Shining Sea

At this very moment, much of the United States (my home country) is winding down from celebrating the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Out here where I live (Hawai’i), it’s still technically the Fourth of July. Americans seem to celebrate the intellectual founding of the country by falling somewhere on a spectrum that runs from quiet, appreciative reverence of the historical significance of today’s date on one end, to a booze-fired, red, white, and blue, testosterone-seeped fuckstorm of vociferous anthems, carbon emissions, and an arsenal of fireworks large enough to torch every forest in the tri-state area on the other. Personally, I decided to follow up on mowing down on charred, ketchup-lubed hotdogs (on this holiday, I call them “freedom weiners”) and update this blog with a series of posts through the coming couple of weeks as a means of celebration; a celebration of the lifeforms that make their home within the borders of the U.S. Below, I kick off addressing the first set of a total of twenty broad groupings of animals, plants, fungi, and other organisms, selecting a representative member of each group that 1) can be found in the United States, and 2) preferentially, is ONLY found in the wild in the U.S. (is entirely endemic). An example of a critter that satisfies both criteria is featured at the top of this blog post; that adorable heap of blubber and sunshine-powered bliss is the Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinlandsi), which is found only in the insanely remote Hawaiian Archipelago (especially the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands).

Why do this? America has a fantastic assemblage of biodiversity worth celebrating and protecting for future generations…and much of this biodiversity includes species that are NOT American symbols of wilderness like bald eagles, buffalo, and black bears. These organisms are typically secretive, rare, bizarre, and generally poorly understood by both science and the public. Acknowledging what we share our wild spaces with is fundamental for conservation, and too often, we neglect to appreciate the majority of organisms that aren’t charismatic, or marketable.

The twenty groupings (broken into three separate blog posts) are, admittedly, heavily biased towards vertebrates, more so towards animals in general, and even more so towards non-microscopic organisms. The groupings also are only partially rooted in taxonomic accuracy, and some are lumped in a seemingly arbitrary fashion for ease (for example, saltwater and freshwater fish separately, “reptiles” as a group). Some representatives are truly endemic to the United States. Others have geographic ranges that bleed over into other North American nations. Some groups of organisms, like fungi, almost never have restricted distributions in North America, so compromises were made when listing these kinds of representative lifeforms. Bacteria and other unicellular organisms were skipped entirely, due to their general tendency toward a global presence. So, yeah, I don’t have time for that cosmopolitan distribution shit.

With that out of the way, let’s get to meeting some of these illustrious Americans, starting with a modest sampling of vertebrates:

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Easter Island: Ecoregion at the Edge of the World

The popular religious holiday that occurs near the northern spring equinox goes by a number of names. Easter. Resurrection Sunday. Pasch. Whatever it is called, the majority of the world’s 2 billion or so Christians observe this holiday with regional variations of religious activities, customary foods, and symbols. Common traditional proceedings include parades and religious services, but much of the fun is directed at the youngest attendees. For small children, the holiday is the most egg-focused spectacle they’ll see until they reach adolescence and discover the decorative inspiration of Halloween. Kids spend the day giving eggs food coloring swirlies, embarking on crazed, egg-based scavenger hunts, and, for some reason, palling around with a vaguely leporid husk filled with fear-sweat and the voiceless madness that reaches out from the Void. For godless heathens such as myself, Easter mostly functions as an annual excuse to wear a classy-as-shit collared shirt, get together with fine folks, inhale brunch and booze, enthusiastically and inefficiently stagger around the grounds in a quest for plastic eggs, and to catapult my pancreas into sputtering death-fits after shamelessly replacing much of the liquid in my body with a Marshmallow Peep-derived sugar slurry.


Re-enactment: Easter Sunday 2016

The only other association I have with Easter….outside of that day of the year when I thoroughly test every major organ system in my body through the gross irresponsibility of facilitating a gastrointestinal nuclear holocaust….is a place, not an event. And because I’m a HUGE nerd, I’m obviously talking about a small island in the southeast Pacific known as Easter Island. To the Chileans, who currently have political jurisdiction over the island and categorize it as a special territory, it is “Isla de Pascua.” The original Polynesian inhabitants of the island were the first to name it, and while there is considerable debate about what exactly the island was called long before Europeans ever set foot on it, for the last century and a half, the Polynesian name for the island has been “Rapa Nui,” a term that has also come to denominate the native inhabitants of the island, and the language originally spoken there.

The South Pacific is sprinkled with a multitude of small volcanic islands and coral atolls that spread eastward from Indonesia and Australia; Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tokelau, the Society Islands, the Gambier Archipelago, the list goes on. The expanses of open ocean between many of these islands and island chains are not insignificant, but nowhere is the level of isolation as extreme as in Rapa Nui. Rapa Nui sits in the subtropical zone, some 27 degrees south of the Equator. It is located at the most southeasterly point of the vast, triangular Polynesian cultural region, representing the furthest eastward extent (that we know of) of Polynesian diaspora and colonization, much like how Hawai`i and New Zealand sit at the northern and southern extremes of the region, respectively.

The nearest large landmass (South America; northern Chile, specifically) is 2,300 miles (3,700 km) directly east from there, and the nearest inhabited island of any kind is Pitcairn Island…more than 1,200 miles (about 2,000 km) to the west….an island that is only about two miles across, and was perhaps only sporadically inhabited up until a few hundred years ago, when it became wholly deserted. The closest bit of land of any kind is Isla Salas y Gómez (Manu Motu Motiro Hiva), about 250 miles (400 km) to the northeast, but this tiny fleck of exposed, volcanic rock only covers about 37 acres…which means it’s only one third as expansive as the Mall of America. Thus, Rapa Nui’s closest neighbors are even more diminutive than it is, which doesn’t exactly assist with the whole extreme isolation thing. The situation reminds me of when I lived in rural, central Idaho as a child. The tiny, high-desert town I lived in (Challis) only contained about 900 rugged souls, all of which grunted out a living 150 miles away from the nearest hospital, movie theater, or fast-food franchise. However, there were towns that existed out in the Great Brown Nothing between my town and the nearest semblance of civilization. But they were puny, the barely-discernible petechiae blemishing the pale, wrinkly, boundless expanse of septuagenarian back skin that is the State of Idaho. Our closest neighbor, a hour’s track away on lonely Highway 93, was the community of Mackay…..half the size of our own town. Good ol’ Challis, Idaho wasn’t much, but it was the biggest hub by far for many, many, many miles….much like Rapa Nui.

So yes, Rapa Nui sits way out in the ass end of nowhere, atop a seamount that has formed via the Easter hotspot, an upwelling of magma below the oceanic crust that has generated a range of undersea mountains (the Nazca Ridge) as the Nazca Plate drifted above it….nothing around it for many blue, featureless miles. However, this extreme isolation wasn’t enough to keep humans away, at least not for forever.

Rapa Nui was first colonized by Polynesian settlers (probably from Mangareva (in the Gambier Archipelago) to the west, or the Marquesas in the northwest) sometime around 1200 AD or so, making it nearly the last place in the Pacific to be discovered and settled by Polynesian peoples (New Zealand was more recently settled, around 1300 AD). It was the Rapa Nui society that persisted on the island completely solo until the 1720s, when Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen stumbled across the place (as one does) on Easter Sunday…giving it the name “Paasch-Eyland”, Dutch for “Easter Island.” The Rapa Nui people are of course quite famous for their proclivity for carving impressively massive, stern-faced statues out of the compressed volcanic ash found on one of the island’s main volcanoes.


You know, these fellas.

Nearly 900 of these figures (called “moai”) are known to exist in modern times either on the island (or in museum collections), and can consist of nothing but the regularly referenced “Easter Island heads” or heads and bodies that are complete down to the waist or thighs. Moai are so enigmatic and stark against their often open, rolling backdrops that they’ve managed to lend inspiration (with varying levels of cultural sensitivity) to various elements of modern popular culture, from Pokemon to major settings in early Mario videogames to Spongebob’s buzzkill of a neighbor’s house.

If you’re looking at the empty, treeless plains that cover the island and thinking “how in the everloving fuck did the Rapa Nui craft and move these things around? There’s not a trace of raw materials necessary for pushing, pulling, or carving jack shit!” you and decades of archaeological pondering have something in common. The thing is, when the first Polynesian settlers arrived on Rapa Nui, the island was covered in thick, subtropical forests. Within a few hundred years, around the time Europeans first saw the island, nearly every single tree was gone. Various explanations have been thrown around as to how and why Rapa Nui’s forests vanished; the most popular of which has been that this is a story of environmental degradation on a micro-scale precipitated by human overpopulation, limited resources, and eventual societal collapse (although more recently, it’s been suggested that European-introduced disease and slavery may have been the driving factor for societal and population decline, while the rats that were stowaways with the Polynesian settlers’ canoes did short work of the island’s vegetation). Whatever the cause, the native forests of Rapa Nui are kaput, which is a damned shame considering that Rapa Nui’s extreme geographic isolation means that much of the island’s native flora and fauna were (and are, for those that haven’t yet become extinct) unique, in an ecological and evolutionary sense.

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