The waters surrounding Channel Islands National Park are abounding with wildlife. A recent whale watching expedition gave the Havasi Wilderness Foundation the opportunity to interact with some of the 27 species of whales from the family cetacean who call the Channel Islands their home.
Somewhere around 26 miles from the Santa Barbara coastline, calls of “thar she blows”, a popular expression among whalers that is used to sound out the appearance of a nearby whale, could be heard from a choir of young children abroad the Condor Express. Spinning around to secure a spot on the starboard side (a nautical term that signifies the right side of the boat), I could see the short geyser of water that jetted from a whale’s spout. As we readied our cameras, three humpback whales took turns surfacing for air. The sea around the whales was alive with movement. While dolphins and sea lions could be seen jumping enthusiastically out of the water nearby, the whales themselves were not as easy to see. Their large backsides surfaced long enough for a spout of water to shoot into the air before they bobbed beneath the sea again.
Cetaceans are a diverse grouping of carnivorous aquatic mammals that are widely distributed through the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. The family includes dolphins, porpoises, beluga, and whales, and is separated into two groups: toothed and baleen whales. As their name suggests, toothed whales (or odontocetes) have teeth which they use to trap their food. Examples of toothed whales include the great white whale (most famously depicted in Herman Melville’s 1981 biopic Moby Dick), the sperm whale, and dolphins. Dolphins can be found swimming deep in the channel as well as in areas around surfers close to the California shoreline. They are some of the friendlier toothed whales and are renowned for their intelligence, curiosity, and complex communication style. Their sophisticated communication capabilities have been described to sound a lot like a whistle which allows them to exchange information with other members of their pod.
The baleen whale (or mysticetes) derives its name from the thick stringy layers of baleen that attach to the whale’s gum line. Baleen is made of keratin (the same substance that human fingernails and hair are made of). Unlike toothed whales, who use sonar to track down food and capture prey with their teeth, the baleen whale vacuums gallons of water from the sea and relies on the straw-like baleen to filter fish and krill from the mouthfuls of water that they ingest. Austin MacRae, a naturalist from the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps and our guide for the day, explained to us that in one gulp, a large baleen whale can swallow enough water to fill a medium-sized swimming pool! As I absorbed this information, I wondered aloud, how do whales carry and then expel such great amounts of water? Austin provided the answer: ventral pleats. Similar to a pelican’s pouch, the ventral pleats that line the abdomen of baleen whales, expand and contract like giant accordions. In one movement, they help push hundreds of gallons of water over the tongue and out of the whale’s mouth. During the expulsion of water, hundreds of small fish and plankton become trapped inside of the baleen where a whale can swallow them whole.
The boat rocked violently in a moody sea as we continued watching the three humpback whales. Known for their particularly large pectoral fins, humpbacks often use the technique of pectoral fin slapping (commonly referred to as “pec slapping”) to attract the attention of the opposite sex during mating season. When slapped against the ocean’s surface, their fins produce a spectacle of booming sounds and massive waves. Though we did not witness any pectoral slapping on our trip, we were amazed to see one of the more high-spirited humpbacks lift its tail high out of the water and smack the surface of the sea. As its tail plunged back into the dark ocean, Austin explained to us that like the human fingerprint, the humpback’s tail fin (called a fluke) is unique to each whale. Currently, researchers use high definition photography to capture images of flukes and add them to a database managed by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). These images help identify individual humpbacks, monitor their health, and track their whereabouts. This tracking system is significant because, according to NOAA, Humpback whales live in all major oceans from the equator to sub-polar latitudes and occasionally shipping channels, fisheries, and aquaculture may demolish humpback whale congregation areas.
Weighing in at a whopping 150 tons, the blue whale holds the record of the largest mammal on the planet. To sustain such a massive creature, 9000 pounds (4.5 tons) of fish and krill must be consumed each day. Though we did not encounter any blue whales on our expedition, they can be found feeding in the waters off of the Channel Islands during the summertime before heading to the warmer waters of Mexico to have their babies. Austin shared his thoughts about blue whales with me, explaining:
“I always like to talk about blue whales because they are the biggest and heaviest of animal ever to live on the planet! Bigger than any dinosaur even! The heart of a blue whale is the size of a Volkswagen and so, hypothetically, a child could crawl through its arteries. The tongue of a blue whale is as heavy as a bull elephant and their lungs are as big as a school bus. Essentially, they are gargantuan! They weigh 200+ tons and can reach sizes of up to 110 feet long in the Antarctic Ocean.”
Waters off of the coast of California vary drastically from those in the Arctic Circle. A cold northern current and a warm southern current collide in the waters off of the Southern California coast and create large nutrient pockets. These pockets of dense nourishment act as ideal feeding grounds for whales, dolphins, sea lions, and other marine mammals who use the summer months to build up fat stores (blubber) that they will live off of during the winter. Like human mammals, whales must maintain a body temperature of 99 ° Fahrenheit (37 ° Celsius). In order to preserve this temperature, they migrate from cooler waters in the summertime to warmer waters in the wintertime.
As humans, we rely on our autonomic nervous system to regulate our breath. This allows us to breathe involuntarily, without ever having to think about it. Unlike human beings, humpback whales are conscious breathers, which means they have to remember to breathe at all times- even when they are asleep. To ensure that they remember to surface for air, cetaceans conserve half of their brain function while sleeping. Researchers studying dolphin and whale populations in captivity have noted that dolphins seem to shut down half of their brain and sleep with one eye open (the eye on the opposite side of the resting brain) for a period of around two hours. After two hours, the opposite side of the brain shuts down and the corresponding eye will close. It is mind-boggling to think of the evolutionary trait that encourages continual consciousness among cetaceans.
Like dolphins, humans have been historically curious about the world that surrounds them. With less than ten percent of the world’s oceans having been explored, there are still entire ecosystems that remain a mystery to us. Rather than succumb to a life of uncertainty, it is important to feed your curiosity, get outside, and explore your world!
Until next week,
Interested in whale watching? The Condor Express (Click link to view) is an excellent option for a whale expedition. The leave from the Santa Barbara Harbor and guarantee that you will see whales. If for some reason the captain cannot find any whales during your day trip, then you can return without a fee to go on an expedition until you do see one. Remember that when you’re exploring, you should take plenty of sun screen, a hat that shades, long-sleeved clothing, and (if you tend to get as queasy as I do) find some Dramamine and bring along a carbonated beverage as this helps sensitive stomachs. Take it from me, you should never go out on a boat without having something in your stomach.
Anchors up and full steam ahead!
From Europe and Asia to the American and African continents, consumers are united by their love of bananas. On a global scale, bananas are the world’s most consumed fruit and the fifth-most traded agricultural product. What’s not to love? Bananas are portable, versatile, and in developing nations they provide much of the nutrition needed to sustain life. In my home, bananas are a staple. My partner’s mother practices a morning ritual that includes splitting a banana in half, consuming her portion and sharing half with our banana-loving dog, Margot. The mere mention of Margot’s favorite word, “banana”, causes her ears to stand at full attention as she waits for someone to throw a slice or two in her direction.
Recently, I had the pleasure of touring the La Loma cacao farm on Panama’s Isla Bastiemientos. Going in, I expected to learn primarily about the chocolate-making process but was surprised to walk away with a deeper understanding of contemporary bananas and their significance in the formation of the Panamanian cacao trade.
It is important to note that wild bananas look nothing like the bananas found in grocery stores today. With thick skins, gooey flesh, and bodies filled with seeds, a wild banana seems anything but appetizing when compared to its breeded counterpart. Though seeded bananas make for easy reproduction in nature, banana farmers discovered that consumers prefer bananas without seeds, and began using the genetic material in plantains to breed a seedless banana variety. On contemporary plantations, bananas propagate (grow) vegetatively and are sterile clones of the previous generation. Like succulents and other vegetative plants, next generation banana growth extends from existing plants through shoots called suckers. As soon as the fruit is harvested from the primary growth, the plant must be pruned back so that the new growth can collect the nutrients and water stored inside of the base of the plant. People often use the word “tree” to describe the structure that bananas grow on, but the plant is actually an herb that produces berry-like fruit– the banana!
Prior to the 1950’s, much of the agricultural land in Panama was reserved for growing America’s favorite tropical fruit. Humidity, high temperatures, and a cooling off-shore breeze provide an ideal growing environment for bananas, which thrive in such settings. By 1940, bananas were one of Latin America’s main exports and large-scale banana operations supported the Panamanian islands collectively known as Bocas Del Toro, where I toured the cacao farm. Though the majority of land today is under cacao production, a history rooted in banana growth can be seen peaking out from beneath a canopy of cacao leaves.
In the first half of the 20th century, the Gros Michel variety was the primary banana available on the market. Smaller and sweeter than today’s Cavedish bananas, Gros Michel bananas were the victims of a deadly strain of fungal pathogen known as Fusarium Wilt, or more commonly as the Panama disease. The disease, which produces a fungus that affects the vascular system of host plants, wiped out nearly all banana plantations in Central and South America. Other vulnerable crops include tomatoes, legumes, tobacco, cucumbers, and sweet potatoes. When fusarium wilt infects crops that reproduce by seed, the disease is easier to manage. However, when it attacks a crop that is a clone of its parent plant, an entire generation can be destroyed and suffer extinction. As such, Panama’s Gros Michel plantations were barren by the 1960’s. For an economy dependent on the export of its bananas, the Panama disease was a devastating blow. New generations of resistant fruit were developed to replace the diseased Gros Michel crops. However, the still seedless Cavedish banana suffer from the same problem– lack of genetic diversity. Presently, a new strain of fusarium wilt is plaguing banana plantations across the globe and threatening the banana industry once again. As humans use selective breeding to produce more favorable qualities such as large size and ease of growth, offspring have less genetic diversity and thus an increased susceptibility to natural selection.
Banana fruit. Photo Credit: Lola West
Following the first wave of fusarium wilt, the Panamanian government offered banana growers the opportunity to keep their land in production by cultivating a new crop. Hundreds of free cacao plants were offered to any grower willing to farm them. In the 60’s, Hershey’s Chocolate was king and global tastes favored milk chocolate over the dark, bitter treat that pure cacao helps produce. As artisanal chocolates increase in popularity, international cacao production is in high demand and the Islands of Bocas Del Toro are back on the map!
Roasted Cacao Seeds. Photo Credit: Lola West
Tune in next week to find out more about the intricacies of cacao production and how pirates used Breadfruit trees to locate buried treasure!
Explore the wonders of your world!
It had only taken seven minutes for my shirt to begin show clear signs of saturation after stepping off of the plane. Thrust into clouds of night and a thick layer of concentrated humidity, it felt as though every pore on my body was precipitously aware of itself in a new place. We landed in the middle of Panama City, an urban atmosphere where skyscrapers tower over neighboring one-story homes and stand in stark contrast to the surrounding wooded forests. Though it was nearly midnight, the air outside of Tocumen International Airport was alive with the buzzing and chirping symphonies of winged insects, frogs, and cicadas that harmonized somewhere in the distance.
While Panama City offers an impressive index of tropical wildlife, my travel companion and I knew we wanted to position ourselves deep in the rainforests and explore some of the country’s more rural wilderness. A 10-hour ride on the night bus landed us in the middle of Bocas Del Toro, a series of tropical islands solidly shrouded in towering trees and green vegetation. Once settled into our lodgings (aptly named ‘Jungle House’), we strapped on our boots and set out to uncover the secrets of the forest around us. Our first hike was led by three clever dogs who spent most of their days trudging through murky waters and up slippery slopes like truly wild beings. Polo, a large, yellow Labrador Retriever presented himself as the leader of the pack, guiding us through tangled branches and rough terrain. Hoping to catch a glimpse of a rare bird, our gazes were locked on the skies when suddenly, Polo called our attention to the floor beneath us. Refusing to immediately believe what I had seen, I rubbed my eyes ferociously, finally allowing them to focus on what appeared to be a moving surface. I watched open-mouthed as hundreds of tiny leaves traveled around the forest floor, carried on the backs of astonishingly strong little ants.
The leafcutter ant (Atta cephalotes) is one of the many species found in the rainforests of Panama. As their name suggests, these invertebrates have the instinctive ability to cut through dense greenery with their powerful jaws and to transport the heavy trimmings back to their nests. This is no easy feat as larger leaves can weigh up to 50 times their body weight! Once they have returned to their nest, these farmers of the insect world turn gathered leaves into a paste by chewing them, and then use them as a food source for their cultivated fungus gardens. As soon as the fungus has had its fill of the proteins and sugars produced by the broken down leaves, it is harvested it is used to feed a colony of millions.
Each colony of leafcutter ants encourages a complex social system that separates the aunts by class, or castes. Within the caste system, individuals are distinguished as workers, soldiers, or reproducers. Aside from the reproducers, all other ants in the colony are female and none of them are fertile. Mediae workers, who are responsible for cutting and transporting the leaves, are stronger and more larger-bodied than the minims, workers who use their small bodies to labor inside of the fungus garden. Soldier ants, or majors, are also grand in size and use the bulk of their bodies to protect the nest and all of its residents. The ant that requires the highest level of security is the queen, who is responsible for birthing an entire colony. Entomologists have estimated that a single colony can contain anywhere from one million to eight million ants! Interestingly enough, male ants are only born when the colony needs to reproduce. Like the young queen, male ants have wings to allow for easy travel and more widespread mating opportunities. Prior to leaving her parental nest, a virgin queen will carry bits of the fungus in her mouth so that she is able to start a fungus garden of her own. The queen relies heavily on this mouth-packed fungus to help build her budding colony’s food supply. For young queens, the stakes are high. Should her packed fungus fail to produce more fungi, her entire colony of young ants will starve.
Researchers have determined that next to humans, leafcutter ants form the largest and most complex animal cultures on Earth. They suggest that leafcutter ants consume nearly ten percent of all tropic greenery, making them the single most destructive pest in the world tropics. However, many tropical plants have evolved with defense mechanisms that prevent total defoliation and instead encourage a pruning by the ants which helps to stimulate plant growth. These incredible ant colonies have populations that parallel or extend beyond human populations, and their role in the Panamanian ecosystem should not be overlooked.
As we walked away from a conga line of leafcutter ants working diligently to dissect the forest, I thought about what it would look like to pick up something 50 times my own weight. picturing myself pinned beneath the wrinkled hind quarters of an enormous elephant, I realized what unbelievable achievements these ants make every day.
Follow us closely to hear more about our incredible wildlife adventures in Panama, and stay turned for next week’s blog about the Panama Virus that swept through massive banana plantations and led to the emergence of the cacao movement.
As always, don’t forget to get outside and explore the world around you!
As I walk through the gates of the the Santa Clarita Gibbon Conservation Center (GCC), I catch a blur of rapid movement in the distance. Heading towards the action, I can just barely make out the long arms and fast moving body of a captive gibbon, swinging speedily from branch to branch within its enclosure. I had done a bit of research on gibbons before our scheduled tour and learned that gibbons, like the chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan, are apes, not monkeys. If ever faced with the question: ape or monkey, you can resolve the query by taking a peak at a primate’s hind quarters. If there is no tail present, then the primate is likely an ape. With 20 species divided into for genera, gibbons are the most diverse group of any apes. Although all apes are threatened, some of the gibbon species are presently on the brink of extinction. Facilities like the GCC provide safe and caring environments for some of the rarest group of apes in the Western Hemisphere.
Currently, the GCC is home to 41 gibbons spanning five different species. Located in the Santa Clarita Valley, temperatures at the GCC can reach into the hundreds. During our visit, the morning is cool and foggy, and the gibbons who have finished breakfast are eager to interact with us. Our small group of four is greeted by a cheerful woman who warmly welcomes us. She introduces herself as Gabi Skollar, director of the Gibbon Conservation Center. A native Hungarian, Gabi tells me that she has dedicated the last twelve years of her life to caring for captive gibbons at the GCC. She lives in a tiny transportable home within the encampment; and while her house is smaller than some people’s washrooms, it has been well cared for and is surrounded by a multitude of rocks and succulents that she has collected over the years. Staying onsite allows Gabi to give the gibbons around the clock attention whenever they need it while offering her the unique experience of living among the gibbons.
Our tour continues through the facilities, where Gabi informs us that gibbons are well known for being the “song birds”of the apes. According to her, gibbons sing up to three times a day. Before the information could really sink in, I catch the soprano melody of the first singing gibbon calling out to 40 others. Varied in pitch and tone, gibbon’s songs are unlike anything my ears have ever heard. Within minutes of entering the GCC, the air is flooded with a choir of low hums and high-pitched chants that build into a symphonic masterpiece, striking the chords of my heart. Holding back tears, I stand still and allow their music to envelope me. A gibbon’s song is loud and impressive, and, as Gabi articulates, a single song can be heard at a distance of up to two miles away. Gibbons use these songs to mark territories, ward off predators, and to call out to the start of a new day. Each species of Gibbon has its own unique vocalization, and while partnered males and females of the same species often sing duets, their harmonies are quite different from one another.
For mates, Marlow, a Siamang gibbon, and U Mynt Swe, an Eastern Hoolock gibbon, their species division changes the pitch, tone, and style of their singing. Gabi explains that as two distinct species, Marlow and U Mynt Swe cannot copy one another’s song, and are incapable of vocalizing in the same language, so one can only postulate about whether they understand what the other is saying. this news drums up a pang of sadness within me. I turn to Marlow, who is munching enthusiastically on a large kale leaf, not yet ready to join the other singers. As she finishes her meal, I notice a large, round pocket inflating in her throat. She locks eyes with U Mynt Swe, who has been singing for the last two minutes, and compliments his high-pitched crooning with her own deep, throaty song. It is a spine-tingling experience to observe a gibbon’s throat expanding and filling with air before producing a deep humming resonance that sounds a bit like the hum that comes from blowing air into a large empty bottle. Siamang gibbons like Marlow, are the loudest land mammals on earth. Both male and the female Siamong gibbons have gular sacks, a throat pocket which allows them the greatest range in their song of any gibbon. Other gular sacked gibbons include the Northern White-Cheeked gibbons, whose throat pockets are reserved for the male population only. As we move on to visit the other gibbon species, we discover that when Marlow is tired, she inflates her gular sack and uses it like a pillow. What a wonderfully convenient addition to her anatomical form!
Though they are bipedal mammals (bipedal means that one has the ability to walk on two feet), gibbons spend the majority of their lives high up in the trees. The anatomical structure of their shoulders and their highly extendable arms help make them some of the world’s best acrobats, and it is not uncommon to see them spinning wildly among the branches. In their natural habitats, wild gibbons propel themselves through the dense forests of Southern Asia through a process known as brachiating. Brachiating, or the swinging movement from branch to branch, requires elongated arms, curved fingers, and strong, rotating wrists. At GCC, gibbons also brachiate energetically throughout the many branches spread across their spacious enclosures. Elevated in the trees of the Asia’s many jungles, wild gibbons can move at speeds of up to 35 mph and can be found as high as 200 feet above ground.
All in the Family: Javan Gibbons
While exploring GCC, I cannot help but notice that gibbons act a lot like humans. From their movements and posture to their facial expressions and behavior, the resemblance at times is uncanny. This shouldn’t really surprise me, as the Chimpanzee, another ape, has recently been revealed as the closest mammal (genetically speaking) to humans. As we approach the Javan gibbon enclosure, Gabi tells me a story that further affirms my position. After raising five children together, the staff at GCC noticed that mates, Shelby (male) and Chole (female), were spending time on opposite sides of their enclosure, with little to no interaction between them. Having grown apart, GCC staff believed it best to separate Shelby and Chloe and offer them the opportunity to find new mates. Though gibbons are monogamous, meaning they live with one partner at a time, they are not limited to one partner in a lifetime. Hoping to find Shelby a new and exciting partner, staff members introduced him to Khusus, a Javan gibbon just a few paces away from the place that Shelby and Chole once called home. Khusus, who had a son from a previous paring, is actually Chloe’s cousin, so when Shelby revealed his interests in Chloe’s cousin, he kept things pretty close to home. Ever the gentleman, Shelby adopted Khusus’ son, and together, the couple had two children of their own. Following the birth of their second offspring, GCC staff detected that the energy levels of Khusus and an ageing Shelby were quite dissimilar. Shelby was removed from their shared enclosure and given time to allow his progressive arthritis and diabetes to be regulated. He is now being cared for near the Center’s main office, where his conditions are monitored, while Khusus is raising their children. To me, their story seems like the kind of thing you would find on a television soap opera.
Gibbons are amongst the scarcest primates in the wild and many of their species are on the verge of extinction. With only 25 individuals left, the Hainan gibbon is one of the rarest mammals in the entire world. Currently, the biggest threats to gibbons in the wild include deforestation, escalating change in the climate worldwide, and poaching for pet trade, food, and medicinal purposes in Vietnam and China.
How the Gibbon Conservation Center Makes a Difference
According to Gabi, the GCC uses their knowledge and experience to improve the lives of captive gibbons by assisting and advising zoos and rescue centers in better captive management. They offer consultation, caregiver training, and enclosure design and construction services free of charge, to zoos, and gibbon rescue centers throughout the world.
Each year, they provide educational tours for veterinarians, anthropology students, graduate students, K-12 school children, scout troops, and animal lovers of all ages. Additionally, the GCC encourages noninvasive behavioral studies to increase public knowledge and understanding of gibbons, both captive and wild. The GCC also works with its international partners to maintain healthy stable bloodlines for five endangered gibbon species. The northern white-cheeked gibbons are down to less than 1,000 in the wild. Thankfully, they are a part of the GCC’s successful captive breeding program, so the work is being done to help rehabilitate dwindling populations.
What You Can Do
Understanding these magical creatures whose habitat is threatened by deforestation and human activity is imperative. Learn more about gibbons by visiting www.gibboncenter.org and if you are ever in the Southern California region, set up a tour.
Tours & Events
PUBLIC TOURS: The Gibbon Conservation Center is open to the public every Saturday and Sunday morning from 9:30 a.m. to noon (except for rainy days and holidays). No reservations are required. A tour is given at 10:00 in the morning. Admission: $15 (adults); $12 (Teens and Students); $10 (seniors); $5 (children 6-12); $0 (Children under 5). Checks, cash, and credit cards are accepted. No need to Book for the Public Tours! Just come and enjoy! See you at 10 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
PRIVATE TOURS: Private tours can be arranged for any day of the week, in advance, for a minimum charge of $120 (covering 8 people). For information and scheduling, contact us directly. See contact information below.
Contact Information for the Santa Clarita Gibbon Conservation Center
Physical address: 19100 Esguerra Road, Santa Clarita, CA 91390
Mailing address: PO Box 800249, Santa Clarita, CA 91380
Direct line: 661-296-2737
E-mail address: Info@gibboncenter.org