Algerian desert dust infected with French bomb radioactivity

This video is about a French nuclear weapons test in Algeria.

By David Lowry in Britain:

Is Saharan dust radioactive?

Friday 4th April 2014

As Britain is blanketed in a layer of desert sand, DAVID LOWRY asks whether it could be contaminated by fallout from French nuclear tests in Algeria more than 50 years ago

South-easterly winds have coated Britain in a toxic Saharan dust cloud.

Combined with domestic pollution, the sand has caused air quality to plummet and engulfed many parts of the country in smog-like conditions.

But one unreported aspect of the Saharan dust is that it could be radioactive.

French nuclear testing in Algeria, conducted during the height of the independence struggle, spread radioactive fallout across southern Europe in the early 1960s – and the radioactivity that settled on the desert could have been resuspended in this natural fallout event over Britain.

It’s recently been revealed that atmospheric spread of the radioactive fallout was much larger than the French army admitted at the time.

New reports by the France 24 TV station suggest that the fallout from the tests at Reggane in central Algeria stretched across all of west Africa, across the Mediterranean and up to southern Europe.

The information came to light following appeals from military veterans who say their current ill health is linked to exposure to dangerous levels of radiation.

France‘s first nuclear deviceGerboise Bleue” (Blue Jerboa) was more than three times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945.

Thirteen days after it was detonated, in February 1960, radioactive particles ranged from the Central African Republic to Sicily and southern Spain.

At the time the French military authorities said the fallout from the explosion was limited to the desert and that radiation levels were “generally low.”

But associations representing military veterans of France’s nuclear tests in the 1960s and 1970s are demanding that the government admits it knew that the fallout from Saharan tests was dangerous.

“In the 1960s the norms governing acceptable levels of radiation were much less strict than they are now,” said Bruno Barillot, an expert in nuclear tests who is representing veterans’ groups.

“And the medical evidence we have now shows clearly that exposure to this radiation can set off serious illnesses more than three decades later,” he told Le Parisien.

Barillot added that the declassified documents showed that the army at the time was aware that even the 1960s safety levels were largely surpassed and that significant quantities of airborne radioactive particles, particularly iodine 131 and caesium 137, could have been inhaled by large numbers of people in north Africa.

He also complained that the government had been extremely selective in terms of what documents to release.

The Parisien article points out that “if it can be demonstrated that the fallout of the bomb tests spread dangerous levels radiation over large parts of north Africa, many more demands for compensation from individuals and from national governments could be in the pipeline.”

I found this suggestion interesting, as I had been involved in research on this issue over 20 years, when I did research for the now retired Labour MP Llew Smith.

In October 1993 he asked in a written question to the secretary of state for defence whether he would ask his French counterpart for information on the French atmospheric nuclear tests in Reganne, citing article 34 of the Euratom treaty.

This treaty says that member states intending to conduct dangerous experiments in any part of their territories require permission from the European Commission and are required to seek its advice on health and safety.

In reply the junior defence minister Jonathan Aitken answered: “Article 34 of the Euratom treaty does not apply to military activities.”

Just over two years later Labour MEP Alex Smith, for whom I also did research, asked the European Commission what technical information the French government had provided about the environmental and safety implications of nuclear tests in Algeria and which “independent external individuals or institutions” the commission had consulted.

He was told by was told by environment commissioner V Bjerregaard in 1996 that France had notified the commission in July 1959 that it intended to carry out a nuclear explosion in the Sahara desert and “the additional safety measures envisaged.”

The commission replied the following month and “gave a favourable opinion while proposing some modifications.”

Bjerregaard said: “These concerned the timing of the explosion with regard to meteorological conditions, the volume of radioactive dust generated in relation to the characteristics of the soil and the need to comply with the dose limits in … basic safety standards that were laid down by the Council on February 2 1959.”

France carried out the first explosion in February 1960.

Bjerregaard said that “subsequent tests were carried out taking similar safety measures.”

From 1960 to 1996, France carried out 210 nuclear tests, 17 in the Algerian Sahara and 193 in Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia.

Yet Bjerregaard admitted that “no further notifications to the commission in terms of Article 34 of the Euratom Treaty were received, neither at the start of nuclear testing at Mururoa in 1966 nor before underground testing [in the South Pacific] was resumed on September 5 1995.”

So clearly Euratom’s remit did apply to military nuclear activities, despite the MoD denial.

For more of David Lowry’s writing visit

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Save Tahiti monarch birds

This video says about itself:

The motu (islet in Polynesian) of Hemeni in French Polynesia is called Bird Island because of the large colony of sooty terns (Onychoprion fuscatus) that come to nest on its rocky shoulders.

Role of body size in shaping the trophic structure of tropical seabird communities: here.

From BirdLife:

Tahiti Monarch conservation wins first BirdLife People’s Choice Award as new threats emerge

By Nick Askew, Tue, 25/02/2014 – 07:27

Results revealed today show that Manu (Société d’Ornithologie de Polynésie: BirdLife in French Polynesia) has won a public vote to become the first BirdLife People’s Choice Award. However, celebrations were short-lived as new threats from invasive species and heavy rain threaten the last 10 breeding pairs in the world.

“Looking back at 2013, there are so many achievements to highlight from within the BirdLife Partnership”, said Dr Hazell Shokellu Thompson – Interim Chief Executive of BirdLife International. “Congratulations to Manu for their work controlling invasive species in the Tahiti Monarch’s home range which enabled last year to be the best breeding season since they started their work sixteen years ago!”

Manu have been monitoring monarchs, controlling introduced predators such as rats and improving habitat for the Critically Endangered species since 1998. Manu’s award-winning work marries conservation education with cutting-edge science. Children raise native trees in their school’s tree nursery, volunteers plant the trees, and ecologists worked with volunteers to combats introduced species.

As a result last year saw the most successful breeding season on record; some pairs raised two broods, and double the number of chicks compared to previous seasons. The project forms part of the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme which is saving the world’s most threatened birds from extinction.

However, 2014 is bringing new threats, heavy rains have been battering Tahiti for the last fortnight posing a risk to fledglings as they leave the nest. Fire ants, capable of eating adults, chicks and eggs, within minutes, have been found on the edge of the Tahiti Monarch’s valley, while funds for the conservation work have dried up.

‘’These conditions are bad for the breeding birds”, warned Caroline Blanvillain from Manu. “Monarchs need continuous predator control to keep them safe, and if we don’t quickly eradicate the fire ant colonies they will reach the birds and kill them.’’

“We need to act now, the 10 breeding pairs are struggling to keep their nests safe. On Friday, eight chicks had survived the rain, now every chick needs to be given a chance against the rats and the ants. If we can raise enough funds we can make the forest safe for the fledglings.’’

In order to help tackle the threats to the Tahiti Monarch, BirdLife and Manu have launched an urgent appeal for funding. Together they need to raise £33,000 to ensure a safe 2014 breeding season. Please support the Tahiti Monarch urgent appeal. Your support can provide:

£15 will run a rat baiting-station for the next three months as eggs hatch.
£30 will run a rat baiting-station for six months as chicks leave the nest for the first time.
£60 will run a rat baiting-station for a whole year so fledglings can mature in safety and return to the breeding sites next season to raise their own young.

Please help to create a forest full of fledglings by donating here. Every penny helps.

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New beaked whale species re-discovery

This video says about itself:

Blainville’s beaked whale / Mésoplodon de Blainville (Mesoplodon densirostris)

22 Aug 2010

Underwater footage of a unique encounter with a Blainville’s beaked whale in French Polynesia. Marine Mammal Study Group (

From Wildlife Extra:

Researchers discover rare new species of deep-diving whale

Based on the study of seven animals stranded on remote tropical islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans over the past 50 years, researchers have identified a new species of the mysterious family of beaked whales.

Beaked whales, a widespread but little-known type of toothed whale, distantly related to sperm whales, are found in deep ocean waters beyond the edge of the continental shelf throughout the world’s oceans.

“They are rarely seen at sea due to their elusive habits, long dive capacity and the apparent low abundance of some species,” said Dr Merel Dalebout, the international team leader. “Understandably, most people have never heard of them.”

The first specimen of the new species was a female found on a Sri Lankan beach more than 50 years ago. On 26 January 1963, a 4.5m long, blue-grey beaked whale washed up at Ratmalana near Colombo. The then director of the National Museums of Ceylon, P.E.P (Paulus) Deraniyagala, described it as a new species, and named it Mesoplodon hotaula, after the local Singhala words for ‘pointed beak’.

However, two years later, other researchers reclassified this specimen as an existing species, Mesoplodon ginkgodens, named for the tusk-like teeth of the adult males that are shaped like the leaves of a ginkgo tree.

“Now it turns out that Deraniyagala was right regarding the uniqueness of the whale he identified. While it is closely related to the ginkgo-toothed beaked whale, it is definitely not the same species,” said Dr Dalebout. “The ginkgo-toothed beaked whale is only known from about 30 strandings and has never been seen alive at sea with any certainty. It’s always incredible to me to realise how little we really do know about life in the oceans. There’s so much out there to discover. “

The researchers used a combination of DNA analysis and physical characteristics to identify the new species from seven specimens found stranded in Sri Lanka, the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati), Palmyra Atoll in the Northern Line Islands near Hawaii, the Maldives, and the Seychelles.

With the re-discovery of Mesoplodon hotaula, there are now 22 recognised species of beaked whales.

The scientific description of the re-discovered species is here.

A total of 93 whales have become stranded on Florida beaches in the past two months, almost three times the average, reports the local news agency, the Sun Sentinel. These large numbers have baffling marine biologists, making them wonder if a deadly common denominator is at play, such as a series of cold fronts affecting Florida in the past month: here.

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Saving Polynesian snails in London

This video is called The Tale of the Partula Snail.

From Wildlife Extra:

Near extinct snails bred at ZSL London Zoo to be released back into the wild

Tiny endangered tree-snails to be reintroduced onto Tahiti

September 2013. Hundreds of tiny endangered tree-snails will be reintroduced to their former Polynesian home following the incredible success of an international breeding programme led by ZSL London Zoo.

30 year absence

Three species of Partula snail, Partula affinis, Partula nodosa, and Partula hyalina, which were bred at ZSL London Zoo and other partner zoos around the world, will be released on to the island of Tahiti in October after a nearly 30 year absence.

ZSL London Zoo invertebrate keeper and coordinator of the international Partula studbook, Don McFarlane, along with staff from Bristol and Edinburgh Zoos, will be escorting the precious cargo of snails to Tahiti, where they will be released into a protected reserve in their native forest habitat.

McFarlane said: “We’re incredibly proud of the role ZSL London Zoo has played in bringing these snails back from the brink of extinction and reintroducing them to their native Tahiti. There used to be more than 70 species of Partula tree snails across the Pacific French Polynesian islands, but due to man’s influence, most of these species are now endangered or extinct in the wild.

“This project is the result of almost 30 years of collaborative work between zoos around the world, and the French Polynesian Government. We’re really hopeful that the hard work will pay off and we’ll see Partula snails thriving in the wild once again.”

Driven to extinction by Wolf snail

Originating from the steep volcanic forested islands of French Polynesia, Partula snails provide valuable insights into the mechanisms of evolution. Populations of the snails were decimated after the predatory rosy wolf snail (Euglandina rosea) was introduced from Florida in the 1970s to rid the islands of a previously-introduced alien species – the African giant land snail – but the rapacious predator devoured the tiny native snails instead.

The Partula Global Species Management Programme is coordinated by ZSL London Zoo with St Louis Zoo, and combines the breeding programme for 16 species in 16 different zoos around the world with field conservation work in the Polynesian islands.

This video from the USA says about itself:

Extinct Snail and Its Baby!

4 feb 2011

The Partula snail is extinct in the wild. But a small population hangs on as part of a breeding program at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. This short clip shows how the snail moves. A baby snail can be seen next to the adult.

New coral species discovery

This video is called Coral Reef Of French Polynesia.

From Science World Report:

Newly Discovered Coral Reef Species from Gambier Islands

Kathleen Lees

First Posted: Jul 26, 2013 03:59 PM EDT

A new coral reef species has been detected from the Gambier Islands, according to researchers.

Known as the Echinonphyllia tarae, it’s only been described from a remote and poorly studied area. Though the new species is relatively common in the lagoon of the Gambier Islands, its occurrence is relatively unknown elsewhere.

A press release notes that it lives in protective reef habitats and is observed between 5 and 20 mile

more probable: meter

depth. It is a zooxanthellate species that most commonly grow on dead coral gragments

sic; fragments

that can also be covered by crustose coralline algae and fleshy macroalgae.

This incredible species can grow on well illuminated surfaces, according to researchers, but also encrusts shaded underhangs and contributes to the formation of coral reefs in the Gambier. It’s characterized by large polpys

sic; polyps

and may be illuminated by bright mottled colourations.

Stony corals are unfortunately currently under threat due to the severe consequences of global warming, as the ocean acidification and anthropogenic changes of reef structures harm the creatures within its waters.

Researchers of the study note that although corals represent a widely studied group of marine life, this new discovery in French Polynesia shows that there is much to learn about coral diversity and the subject is still very much incomplete.

The press release notes that the species is named after the Tara vessel that allowed the exploration of coral reefs in Gambier. The name “tara” in Polynesian also refers to a spiny, pointed object.

Sort of fitting for this species, don’t you think? (wink)

More information regarding this study can be found in journal Zoo Keys.

Coral-destroying starfish research

This video from Oman says about itself:

The crown of thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci ) [is] one of the oceans’ most efficient coral predators. They can grow to more than 1 m in diameter; have 16 to 18 arms, the entire upper surface of its body covered in long venomous spines. This species was recorded in our … survey at Musandam peninsula.

From Wildlife Extra:

Reef devastation caused [by] Crown-of-thorns outbreaks still a mystery to researchers

Researchers tackle the coral-killing starfish

February 2013. Crown-of-thorns Acanthaster planci is the principle natural enemy of reef-building corals. Outbreaks of this coral-feeding starfish occur periodically, due to reasons that remain unclear. It decimates entire reefs in the space of just a few years, as has been the case in French Polynesia since 2004. A new study conducted by IRD researchers and their partners describes this population explosion around Moorea, the “sister island of Tahiti“. The rate of living coral cover in ocean depths and lagoons alike dropped from 50% (healthy reef) to under 5% in 2009. The ecosystem will need at least a decade to be restored to its original state.

The starfish has spread from island to island

The archipelago has been suffering from a new population explosion of the predatory starfish since 2004. It is one of the most intense and devastating outbreaks ever recorded. The outbreak of Acanthaster began in a very specific location in the Austral and Leeward Islands, then in 2006, the starfish colony spread to Tahiti and Moorea. Thanks to a dozen stations around the island of Moorea, scientists were able to make spatio-temporal observations of the dynamics of the infestation of coral populations. Thus, in a new study published in PLoS One, they described the spread of the coral reef invasion.

Ocean depths and lagoons alike

The starfish first settled in the deeper areas along the outer slopes of the reef, around 20 to 30 metres below the ocean surface. It then rose to a depth of approximately 6 metres, and even colonised certain parts of the lagoon. The damage was gradually observed: from 47% of living coral cover at one of the stations in 2006, for example, this rate dropped to 21% in 2007, 6% in 2008 and 2% in 2009: a disastrous state of affairs that disrupts the structure and functioning of all reef communities (including other coral-feeding species, such as butterflyfish, etc.).

The causes remain unclear – High rainfall is an indicator

What are the reasons behind outbreaks of Acanthaster planci? In Australia, where the pest is also rife, invasions occur after years with high rainfall. Rainfall leads to the excess release of nutrients from human activities and the proliferation of algae on which echinoderm larvae feed. In Polynesia, however, anthropic pressure seems too low and localised to explain such an outbreak of the starfish. The current lack of data on the subject means the phenomenon remains a mystery.

Since the causes of outbreaks remain unclear, there is limited ability to fight against Acanthaster planci in order to protect economic activities around the coral barrier, such as tourism and diving. Researchers are currently studying processes to “recruit” new corals, in other words to repopulate the reef and make it more resilient. Without a new widespread disturbance, a coral ecosystem would need 10 to 30 years to be restored to its original state.

One of the greatest mysteries of modern coral reefs is how they evolved from ancient corals. A critical knowledge gap has long existed in the record of coral evolution. This evolutionary gap occurs during a period of dramatic fluctuations in sea level and changes in the Earth’s climate between 1 and 2 million years ago. During this period many “old” corals went extinct, and the modern reef corals emerged. To fill this key temporal gap and understand the evolutionary and ecological transition to modern Caribbean reefs, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded a University of Miami (UM) project to study corals along the southern coast of the Dominican Republic. It is one of the few areas that contain a record of coral reefs from this period of climatic change: here.

Study finds starfish shed arms to protect against overheating: here.

A mystery illness is turning starfish to goo: here.

Massive outbreak killing California’s starfish, melting them into goo: here.

Beaked whales of Samoa

This video says about itself:

Underwater footage of a unique encounter with a Blainville’s beaked whale in French Polynesia. Marine Mammal Study Group (

From the New York Times in the USA:

Where the Beaked Whales Are


Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, writes from Samoa, where he studies the formation of local communities among dolphins and their genetic isolation from one another.

Wednesday, Aug. 15

I often think that finding a needle in a haystack would be relatively comfortable work compared with finding dolphins in offshore waters. If the dolphins do not approach the boat to ride the bow, the only sighting cue is the dorsal fin or the occasional leap. Add wind, waves and sun glare to create discomfort as well as tedium. Even when you find the dolphins, it is easy to lose them in the waves and whitecaps. It can be frustrating work, but interrupted with moments of excitement and the occasional discovery.

Today, we surveyed the offshore waters along the northwestern tip of Savai’i hoping to find rough-toothed dolphins. Previous studies in Hawaii and the Society Islands (French Polynesia) have found that this species prefers waters of 3,000 to 6,000 feet in depth. To improve our chances, we planned a series of surveys crossing this depth a few miles offshore of Asau, where we had anchored for the night. Although the morning began with calm seas, the wind and swell increased by late morning and the conditions for sighting the dolphins deteriorated. By early afternoon we had abandoned our survey track and were headed back to shore, feeling a little discouraged.

Then our luck changed. Just as I started down the ladder from the flying bridge to the deck, I thought I saw a blow.

As I called out to the others, the animal surfaced again and I could see it was too large for a dolphin. Before we had time to grab our cameras, the whale leapt fully into the air and dived. It was a beaked whale, one of the most elusive and poorly understood mammal groups. More than 20 species are currently described in the Ziphiidae family, some of which have never been seen alive. Beaked whales are primarily deep-diving species, spending much of their lives at great depths in pursuit of squid, their main prey. I have worked for many years on the molecular identification of beaked whales using DNA extracted from bones in museums, but this was my first encounter with a living beaked whale. It was over in an instant.

I knew that it was unlikely we would see the whale again, given the nearly hourlong dives that are common with these species. I quickly sketched what I saw on the back of our sighting form and showed it to Renee, Nevé and Titi. We all agreed that whale was about 20 feet long and robust in girth. The back of the whale was dark, and appeared brown in color. As it leapt, I thought I saw the characteristic “tusks” of a mature male – actually two teeth that erupt from the lower jaw. Beaked whale species are difficult to identify at sea, but it is likely that this was a Cuvier’s beaked whale, one of the most widely distributed members of this family. A biopsy sample would have allowed us to confirm the species identification, but collecting a sample was not possible in these conditions.

Encouraged by this sighting, we continued our offshore track despite the conditions. Remarkably, over the next hour we found a small but uncooperative pod of rough-toothed dolphins and sighted another beaked whale. This time, we had our cameras ready but got only a glimpse of the whale’s back before it dived. Based on the location and time, we think it unlikely that this was the same individual that we had seen an hour earlier.

Back at anchor in Asau, the winds abated and we enjoyed a few of the pleasures of work in Samoa. First, a swim in the warm lagoon with the glow of sunset for a backdrop. Then the melodies of the local musicians playing in the small resort where we anchored. Finally, the intense black night and bright starlight of the South Pacific.

Pacific islands wildlife research

This video is called Polynesian Ground Dove, Rangiroa, French Polynesia.

From BirdLife:

Biodiversity survey of paradise in the South Pacific

Mon, Aug 6, 2012

Last June, a team of scientists and technicians joined the Ornithological Society of Polynesia-Manu (SOP-Manu – BirdLife in French Polynesia) to survey the flora and fauna of remote atolls in the south-east Tuamotu Archipelago.

Due to the remote location of the sites, the team travelled by sailboat from Rikitea, braving treacherous landings on the reefs surrounding the closed atolls to access the hidden gems of Morane, Vahanga and Tenarunga.

Fred Jacq is the first botanist to set foot on Morane. For him it was an extraordinary experience: “Morane is an exceptional atoll, because it only has a few groves of coconut palms; being spared the large plantations (as seen on most of the other atolls in the Tuamotu Archipelago) has preserved the native flora.” Mr Jacq also took the opportunity to collect insect specimens which will be identified by a specialized entomologist.

Elodie Lagouy, a marine biologist, explored the lagoon environment: “Of the 53 closed atolls in French Polynesia, 14 remained unexplored by science, including Morane. This initial survey revealed 88 species of fish, 24 hard corals, 8 echinoderms, and a variety of molluscs including Giant Clam and wild pearl oysters.”

One of only 2 atolls free of mammalian predators in the Tuamotu Archipelago (the other being Tenararo), Morane is a haven for birds. Marie-Hélène Burle, a PhD candidate from Canada’s Simon Fraser University, is on her third field season studying the Endangered endemic Tuamotu Sandpiper (“titi”) in key areas of its range. With the help of her assistant François Sanz, she has determined that Morane houses the largest known population of Tuamotu Sandpiper, estimating 500 individuals live on the atoll.

Thomas Ghestemme from the SOP-Manu surveyed landbirds, and carefully combed the atoll for the Critically Endangered Polynesian Ground-dove, or “tutururu”: only 2 individuals were observed. Thomas states: “The tutururu’s situation is very worrying, as Morane was thought to hold 50 individuals, or nearly half of the known population. Due to our current findings we have serious concerns for the future of this species.”

“The diversity and abundance of seabirds observed for Morane underlines the importance of predator-free islands as safe nesting and roosting sites” says Steve Cranwell from BirdLife International. Eleven species of seabird were recorded including the largest breeding population of Near-Threatened Murphy’s Petrel (over 1000 pairs) in French Polynesia. In contrast, less than 10 Murphys petrel and a single breeding pair were found on ‘nearby’ Vahanga Atoll a consequence of the introduced Pacific rat.

After three full days of scouring Morane, the team set sail for the Northern Actéon islands of Vahanga, Tenarunga and Tenararo. The abandoned coconut plantation of Vahanga (more accurately known by its Paumotu name of Vaega) was surveyed in preparation for an operation to eradicate rats from the Atoll in 2013. A predator assessment of Tenarunga confirmed feral cats and Black rat, two voracious predators of native wildlife on islands.

Few birds were observed on either atoll, which is consistent for islands with invasive mammalian predators, and the team was understandably surprised to cross paths with a single Polynesian Ground-dove near the village on Tenarunga. A likely migrant from the nearby predator free atoll of Tenararo.

Unfortunately rough weather caught up with the expedition at this point, and due to safety concerns plans to survey the third atoll of Tenararo had to be abandoned. Predator-free Tenararo is one of the last strongholds of both Polynesian Ground-dove and Tuamotu Sandpiper, and is less than 10km from Vahanga. It is hoped that the eradication operation on Vahanga in 2013 will provide a buffer zone of protection for Tenararo, and a dispersal site for its many at-risk avian species.

New insights into the systematics of the enigmatic Polynesian sandpipers Aechmorhynchus parvirostris and Prosobonia leucoptera: here.

Tuamotu sandpiper research and conservation

Tuamotu Sandpiper, Tenararo Atoll 23/09/2010, © Dave Williamson

From BirdLife:

Titi Forever: Research supports conservation of Tuamotu Sandpiper

Tue, July 31, 2012

Most of the world’s sandpiper species migrate thousands of kilometers between arctic breeding grounds and subtropical wintering grounds, but in the not-too distant evolutionary past, one group gave up this habit and went native in French Polynesia.

The Endangered Tuamotu Sandpiper, Prosobonia cancellata, known locally as the Titi, is the only surviving representative of a group of at least six species which became full time residents in this region. The other species were extirpated with the arrival of first Polynesians, and later Europeans, and their small mammal associates. Approximately 1,000 Titi remain, limited to four rat-free or partially rat-free atolls.

In 2008, Marie-Helene Burle, from Simon Fraser University, aided by the Ornithological Society of French Polynesia (SOP-MANU – BirdLife in French Polynesia), began an intensive graduate research project on this previously unstudied species, working largely in isolation on uninhabited atolls.

Her first five month field season as followed by a second in 2010, and she currently halfway through a lengthy third, which began as she joined a SOP-Manu organized expedition to visit two of the additional three atolls where Titi remain.

Marie and her collaborators have discovered remarkable adaptations of this bird to its tropical lifestyle.

In sharp contrast to similar-sized migrant shorebirds such as Wandering Tattler, which share the same atolls when not breeding, the TIti is not a bird of the beach or rocky intertidal areas, favoring instead semi-open vegetated areas.

“One reason for this is their reliance on feeding on nectar from flowers, a unique food source for a member of this group”, said Marie-Helene Burle. “Functional morphologists have shown that the bird’s tongue is forked, which may allow it to obtain nectar more efficiently”.

Marie captured and marked nearly all of the birds on two atolls, and documented their social system. Breeding birds live in pairs on quite small territories (e.g. 20x30m).

Marie’s work has sparked others to make observations of the species, and Francis Gazeau discovered that TIti sometimes nest in trees as well as on the ground, in contrast to their arctic-breeding relatives. Females lay 2 eggs per clutch, rather than the 4 laid by arctic-breeding sandpipers. Many eggs disappear, at least some taken by coconut crabs, as caught on video.

Marie took the first photographs ever taken of newly hatched chicks, which had never previously been described. Sadly, the chicks have extremely low survival – most starve to death.

“We speculate that overcrowding in the very few areas where the birds can breed has lead to food shortages and low fledging success”, said Marie.

Towards the end of Marie’s second field season, during a very dry season, a wind-driven swell event caused salt water to overwash parts of her atolls. About a month later, she realized that many of her birds were dying, as were other landbirds such as Spotted Crake. She believes that saltwater intrusion and a lack of rain stressed vegetation, resulting in starvation. About half the birds at her main study site died, and a year later, there has not been a rebound of the population.

The high mortality associated with a local swell event highlights the vulnerability of local populations, which would also be threatened should black rats establish themselves on their four remaining refuges.

Marie Helene also helped to eradicate rodents from a small islet within an atoll which holds rats. “We are waiting to learn whether Titi are now breeding on this rat free site”, said Marie. “For the longer term, however, the species’ future relies on reintroducing it to more distant sites where independent populations can thrive”.

Marie and colleagues are preparing a survey of potential reintroduction sites. Their experience working with the birds, and the knowledge they have obtained about their feeding and breeding ecology and predators provide a sound basis for translocation planning. Building on the success of groups that have removed rats from several islands or atolls, we believe that for this one species at least, meaningful conservation measures can be taken at modest additional cost, to substantially decrease the likelihood of its extinction.

“We are hopeful that we will help ensure the presence of Titi forever”, concluded Marie.