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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The Klamath Bioregion

When I actually get around to updating this blog I have going here, I typically spend my time talking about specific biological phenomena, or species, that go relatively underappreciated by the non-biologist public. After all, the name of this project is Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology, is it not? However, as someone with a background in evolutionary biology, as well as ecology, I can attest to the significance of communities of organisms and large scale patterning over landscapes. Our planet can be broken up into distinct ‘bioregions’ or ‘ecoregions’, which contain geographically distinct groups of communities of species, and these regions tend to be unique to other defined regions. Think of them as neighborhoods of sorts, each one defined by a specific combination of factors from local geology, geography, climate, and recent biogeography (or, the local distribution of organisms in that region; for example, you aren’t going to find tigers in the grasslands of Brazil, or sloths in the jungles of Central Africa, since a combination of evolutionary history, lineage migration, and plate tectonics has influenced the biogeography of these critters). The one I’ve chosen to talk about sits in an isolated and generally unfamiliar corner of the United States. This bioregion is very dear to me, because I spent more than three years of my life living there in high school, and although I was not there long, I was continually impressed by how special of a location it is. It is known as the Klamath Mountains ecoregion, as those mountains are a dominant feature in the region; the region, more generally, is also referred to as the Klamath Uplift, the Klamath Knot, and the Klamath-Siskiyou area. From a historical and political perspective, the region is effectively the coastal two-thirds of the proposed U.S. state of ‘Jefferson’, which straddles the current border between Oregon and California.

The map above shows some formal boundaries of designated ecoregions in the Pacific Northwest, and 78 is generally accepted as the Klamath Mountains zone. I’ve circled a slightly differently oriented area in red as to show the areas with which I’m most familiar, and additionally, because the presence of the Klamath Uplift itself influences the climate and resulting biodiversity of coastal zones (zone 1 on the map), so that the coasts of far southern Oregon and far northern California are very different from rest of the coastlines from their respective states. In blue, where the Klamath ecoregion, and its associated uplands, come closest to the Pacific, is where I went to high school; Brookings, OR. The 150 sq miles surrounding this small town, down the coast and inland, are unique even within this special ecoregion due to this close juxtaposition of these ecological entities. I feel as though this region needs some devoted attention not only because of its one-of-a-kind attributes, but because it is an almost undiscovered place. This is true of both outsiders to the Northwest (or as I like to call them, the Those That are Seriously Missing Out), as well as people that have lived in the Northwest, even within Oregon, their entire lives. Part of the reason for this is because this area is sparsely populated; the nearest large cities, like Portland and San Francisco, are hundreds of miles north and south, along narrow, ill-maintained, rain-beaten coastal roads. Simply getting there is an arduous endeavor that involves transversing harsh, forested terrain, cutting through largely uninhabited river canyons, and putt-putting down Hwy 101 on the coast, trying not to drive off a cliff in the face of Biblical-style rainstorms with violent winds. It is largely because of this lack of habitation that this area has remained so pristine and the unique biodiversity has kept intact. The coastline does attract a modest seasonal tourist population every year, because the area has a more amiable climate than areas north and south of there, and the natural beauty of the place is unparalleled and untainted by the suffocation of human influence. It is this natural beauty and ever-present access to undistilled wilderness that many that I knew that grew up there to say ‘yeah, I guess it’s pretty special.’ But this doesn’t go far enough. The Klamath ecoregion is more than special for being pretty to live, work, and recreate in. This region of the world has among one of the highest levels of species endemism on the Pacific Coast; species endemism refers to species that are found in only one, distinct geographic area and that area only, often evolved to conditions in that special little micro-range. By this definition, it is exceptionally unique, ecologically, and this distinction, I believe, is more impactful than aesthetics.

Due to its warmer climate, which has more in common with California than Oregon and the rest of the Pacific Northwest, it has been described as a ‘chunk’ of California brought up north and transplanted across the border. But this isn’t an accurate description either. The climate and geology-fueled Klamath ecoregion is wholly unlike anything found in Oregon, in California, or technically anywhere else in the world.

This region is a rugged paradise wilderness existing within the larger relative wilds of the Pacific Northwest, if that can be imagined. A land of lush forests, pristine waters, bright, hot sunshine, and the overwhelming silence of isolation from humans and their business, the Klamath bioregion is an unrecognized gem in the U.S.’s crown. The region is possibly the most enigmatic and enchantingly beautiful natural space I have ever known. And to it, the following entry will serve as my love song…

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