Big fruit-eating Tonga pigeon, now extinct

Tongoenas burleyi (right) likely featured the brightly coloured plumage of other canopy-dwelling pigeons on the Pacific islands. On the left is the Kanaka pigeon (Caloenas canacorum), another large extinct Tongan species. Image credit: Danielle Byerley

Tongoenas burleyi (right) likely featured the brightly coloured plumage of other canopy-dwelling pigeons on the Pacific islands. On the left is the Kanaka pigeon (Caloenas canacorum), another large extinct Tongan species. Image credit: Danielle Byerley.

From the Florida Museum of Natural History in the USA:

Giant, fruit-gulping pigeon eaten into extinction on Pacific islands

July 22, 2020

A large fruit-eating bird from Tonga joins the dodo in the lineup of giant island pigeons hunted to extinction.

Fossils show that Tongoenas burleyi, a newly described genus and species, inhabited the Pacific islands for at least 60,000 years, but vanished within a century or two of human arrival around 2,850 years ago.

Unlike the dodo and the extinct Viti Levu giant pigeon of Fiji, however, T. burleyi could fly. This canopy-dwelling species co-evolved with fruit-bearing trees in the mango, guava and chinaberry families, acting as an essential forest cultivator by spreading seeds to new locations. The size of a large duck, Tongoenas burleyi was likely capable of swallowing fruit as big as a tennis ball, said study lead author David Steadman, curator of ornithology at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“Some of these trees have big, fleshy fruit, clearly adapted for a big pigeon to gulp whole and pass the seeds,” Steadman said. “Of the fruit-eating pigeons, this bird is the largest and could have gulped bigger canopy fruit than any others. It takes co-evolution to the extreme.”

The absence of T. burleyi from the Tongan islands could threaten the long-term survival of local trees that depended on the pigeon as a seed transporter, said study co-author Oona Takano, a doctoral student at the University of New Mexico.

“T. burleyi provided an important service by moving seeds to other islands,” said Takano, who was previously a research assistant at the Florida Museum. “The pigeon species on Tonga today are too small to eat large fruits, which imperils certain fruit trees.”

When Steadman first found T. burleyi fossils in a cave on the Tongan island of ‘Eua, he was immediately impressed by their size: The bird was about 20 inches long, not including the tail, and weighed at least five times as much as the average city pigeon.

“I said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never seen a pigeon that big,'” Steadman said. “It was clearly something different.”

Once he and archaeologist David Burley of Simon Fraser University — who is also the species’ namesake — began excavating charred and broken remains of T. burleyi at archaeological sites, “we knew it was another human-caused extinction,” Steadman said. “Pigeons and doves just plain taste good.”

Columbids, the family that includes pigeons and doves, had few predators or competitors before people reached the Pacific islands, he said. The region was devoid of primates and carnivores such as cats, dogs and weasels, and hawks and owls were absent from many islands. The birds flourished in this nurturing environment, diversifying over the past 30-40 million years.

Today, the Pacific islands are the global epicenter of pigeon and dove diversity, with more than 90 species, ranging from fruit doves as light as a handful of raisins to the turkey-sized, ground-dwelling crowned pigeon of New Guinea. But the number and distribution of birds in the region is a shadow of what it once was, Steadman said. Tonga’s four remaining species of pigeons and doves represent less than half of the islands’ historic diversity.

“This is another example of how looking at the modern fauna doesn’t yield a complete picture of a region’s diversity,” he said.

Steadman and Takano analyzed the features of columbid hindlimbs, dividing them into three groups: tree-dwelling species, ground-dwellers and those that live both on the ground and in trees. Pigeons and doves that spend most of their time in the canopy tend to have shorter legs, more suitable for perching and gripping in high winds. Those that forage for seeds on the ground have longer legs adapted for walking and running. Birds that flit between the understory and the forest floor have legs that are a blend of the characteristics of the other two groups.

The researchers found surprising agreement between the groupings based on leg characteristics and molecular data: In other words, canopy-dwelling pigeons tend to be more closely related to one another than to birds in the other two groups.

“Given that there are 350 species of pigeons and doves, people might suspect these big changes in lifestyle evolved independently many times,” Steadman said. “But right now, we don’t have evidence that it happened more than once — at least in the tropical Pacific.”

The relatively short hindlimbs of T. burleyi mark it as a canopy-dwelling species. Steadman hypothesized the species featured the bright, even gaudy, plumage of other pigeons that live in treetops, where intense colors provide better camouflage than the muted browns and grays of pigeons that live on the ground.

The researchers dedicated the study to the memory of W. Arthur “Art” Whistler, whose expertise in West Polynesian botany was unsurpassed, Steadman said. Whistler died from COVID-19 in April.

“There wasn’t a plant on Fiji or Tonga that Art didn’t know, including all of the pigeon-dispersed fruits,” Steadman said. “He was a true plant nerd and complete salt of the earth. He always made time for people.”

New volcanic island teems with birds, other wildlife

This 11 December 2017 NASA video says about itself:

In late December 2014 into early 2015, a submarine volcano in the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga erupted, sending a violent stream of steam, ash and rock into the air.

When the ash finally settled in January 2015, a newborn island with a 400-foot summit nestled between two older islands – visible to satellites in space. The newly formed Tongan island, unofficially known as Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai after its neighbors, was initially projected to last a few months. Now it has a 6- to 30-year lease on life, according to a new NASA study.

This 5 February 2019 video says about itself:

The miracle outcrop known as Hunga Tonga has only existed for four years, yet is populated by hundreds of seabirds and flowering plants whose seeds were dropped there in bird droppings.

This 21 November 2018 video is about a visit to Hunga Tonga.

Translated from Dutch NOS eadio today:

With huge explosions and an ash rain that lasted for days, the island of Hunga Tonga was born in the beginning of 2015. The desert island in the Pacific Ocean is as big (or small) as Monaco and is a paradise for scientists and ecologists. It is already teeming with life.

“We were all like giddy school children”, NASA researcher Dan Slayback writes about his visit to Hunga Tonga. The excitement among researchers was great when it became clear that the very young island was home to [sooty] terns, barn owls and pink flowers in bloom.

“It started with the birds”, says ecologist Wieger Wamelink in the NOS radio program With the Eye on Tomorrow. For migratory birds, Hunga Tonga is a safe resting place without natural enemies. “They have been sitting there wonderfully. In the shit they leave behind, there are seeds and these have germinated, that’s where the plants come from.”

The ash rain has created a gray landscape with many trenches. A large inland lake betrays the location of the volcano crater. There is also a type of beach that consists of a clay-like substance.

The origin of life on the island is extra interesting matter for Wamelink. He is also ‘space gardener’ and deals with the possible growth of plants on Mars and on the moon.

“On Mars, you can see structures that resemble this island, and on Mars it is pretty sure that there used to be water, the soil is the same as on Hunga Tonga and we use that to see if plants can grow there.”

On Mars, there is no known life, and that was also not the case at Hunga Tonga. “That’s interesting: how are things? Which plants and animals and which ones not? And how fast is that?” Because the island remained undisturbed and virgin, scientists can fairly accurately measure how fast animal and plant species move in.

Hunga Tonga is located near the Polynesian Tonga archipelago, several thousand kilometers off the coasts of Australia and New Zealand.

This testing ground for Mars on Earth will not survive for long. Scientists expect Hunga Tonga to be swallowed by the waves within thirty years.

New island in Pacific by volcanic eruption

This video says about itself:

Underwater Volcano Erupts Spewing ash 5000 m into air near Tonga

13 January 2015

An underwater volcano off Tonga was spewing ash high into the air on Tuesday, causing several carriers to suspend air travel to the South Pacific island nation and turning the surrounding ocean blood red, residents and officials said.

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcano, located about 65 km (40 miles) north of the capital Nuku‛alofa, was sending volcanic ash up to 4,500 meters (14,765 feet) into the air, the Wellington Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC) said.

The volcano, which first erupted in 2009, had been rumbling in recent weeks before exploding violently in the past few days, The New Zealand Herald newspaper reported.

From Radio New Zealand International:

Tonga’s Hunga Ha’apai eruption forming new island

Updated at 12:50 pm on 16 January 2015

Ongoing eruptions of Hunga Ha’apai in Tonga are creating a new island, 65 kilometres from the capital Nuku’alofa.

The new island is more than 1 kilometre wide, 2 kilometres long and about 100 metres high, and is now joined to Hunga Ha’apai.

Tongan government officials say the volcano is erupting about every five minutes, spurting dense ash and rocks about 400 metres into the sky and a steam plume to about 1000 metres.

The ash is very wet and being deposited close to the vent, building up the new island.

Scientists and Tongan authorities plan to travel to the island by boat today.

“If there’s no danger during our assessment and we think we can land, we might land to sample some rocks,” said Taniela Kula, deputy secretary of the Ministry for Natural Resources.

“Also, we’re doing testing of the water, acidity of the water and also pH round the area, just to see the effects of the activity.”

He said ash fall and acidic rain has been observed within 10 kilometres of the eruption and leaves on trees in the area are dying.

Two New Zealand GNS scientists in Tonga have been reviewing images and videos and hope to get close to the new island.

Hundreds of travellers were delayed by flight cancellations due to the volcano this week as flights from New Zealand and domestic services were disrupted.

Tonga, cyclone, foreign meddling, monarchy

This video says about itself:

Severe tropical cyclone hits Tonga – no comment

14 Jan 2014

A category-four cyclone has struck the South Pacific island nation of Tonga.

By John Braddock:

Tongan cyclone leaves thousands homeless

15 January 2013

Emergency officials in Tonga have reported that 70 percent of homes and buildings in the country’s northern Ha’apai group of islands were either damaged or wiped out by Cyclone Ian, which hit last weekend. Cyclone Ian is the worst storm to hit the tiny impoverished Pacific country in more than 50 years.

One woman died, and thousands were left homeless as the cyclone hovered above the Ha’apai island group for more than six hours last Saturday. Officials say they have “serious concerns” for residents on more than 20 low-lying islands. Pangai, the regional administrative centre with a population of 2,000, was devastated by the compact tropical storm that reached category 5 with gusts up to 287 kilometres per hour. Essential services, including public buildings, the main hospital with all its medical supplies, and the airport’s traffic control tower were ruined.

Some reports have put property losses as high as 90 percent. Damage across the country would have been much greater had it not been for the cyclone bypassing the main islands of Vava’u in the north and Tongatapu, with the capital Nuku’alofa, in the south.

Tonga’s Director of Emergencies Leveni Aho said it was “almost unbelievable” there weren’t more fatalities. Aho said the cyclone’s destructive path was unusually narrow and did not create major flooding.

The worst-affected Ha’apai archipelago has more than 50 islands and is home to 8,000 people. There was extensive damage to housing and infrastructure including water, telecommunications and power. Many residents who eke out a subsistence existence now face food shortages after their crops were destroyed. Fresh water supplies are dwindling, in part because people rely on roof rainwater catchment systems that were damaged or destroyed in the storm.

Lucy Oakshott from the Oxfam charity organisation said the lack of communications was making it extremely difficult to assess the situation: “We can’t get hold of anyone. We’re well established there and we have lots of contacts but we can’t get hold of anyone.”

The UN is working with Tongan disaster officials to help coordinate relief. However, the response by the two main regional powers, New Zealand and Australia, has been derisory. New Zealand’s Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully made a paltry commitment of $NZ50,000 ($US42,000) for “specific requests” for assistance. A NZ Air Force Orion reconnaissance aircraft has also been sent to complete an aerial damage assessment. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced that Canberra will provide $A50,000 ($US45,000) in emergency supplies.

The Tongan government, apparently wary about the strings attached to offers of “aid” by the neo-colonial powers, has so far refused to formally ask for international help.

Writing in the Dominion Post on Tuesday, Fairfax Pacific affairs correspondent Michael Field reported that Tonga was being “vague” about aid offers, and wanted to be seen relying on its own resources. According to Field, Tonga’s deputy prime minister Samiu Vaipulu bluntly asserted the country “didn’t need foreign help.”

Pacific states have become pawns in an increasingly fierce rivalry between the major powers active in the region. Last August, in response to deepening tensions over China’s growing influence, McCully suspended $NZ10 million in tourism aid to Tonga. The move was in retaliation for Tonga’s acceptance of a gifted Chinese Xian MA60 aircraft, which it intended to use to expand local air services. New Zealand company Chathams Pacific, which provided existing domestic inter-islands flights, promptly closed its operations, claiming it would be driven out of business.

New Zealand’s response was widely regarded in the Pacific as blatantly punitive. In an interview with the Fiji-based Islands Business website, Vaipulu angrily demanded that Wellington not “put its nose into local affairs” and said Tonga would explore “other options” if New Zealand continued to suspend tourism aid. “We may go to China or we have some reserve funds but we must find a way to do it,” Vaipulu said, adding that New Zealand had been interfering in Tonga’s internal affairs “for years.”

The devastation caused by Cyclone Ian is set to intensify the political and social crisis within the island kingdom.

Tonga has verged on sovereign debt default for the past year with around 60 percent of its debt owed to China. According to journalist Michael Field, Prime Minister Siale’ataongo Tu’ivakano recently fired his finance minister, Lisiate ’Akolo, while he was in Auckland, for moving to raise civil servants’ wages, calling him “disobedient, arrogant and uncooperative.” When ’Akolo returned to Tonga, security guards were placed at the Legislative Assembly to stop him from entering. ’Akolo claims to still control the treasury but according to the government, King Tupou VI has now approved a rival—’Aisake Valu Eke—as his replacement.

The in-fighting comes amid immense resentment within the population over poverty, inequality, and the rule of the autocratic monarchy, buttressed by a layer of hereditary tribal “nobles.”

In 2006 Nuku’alofa’s town centre was looted and razed by demonstrators protesting the royal family’s stranglehold over the government and society. The unrest came amid deepening hostility towards the monarchy from both ordinary Tongans and dissatisfied sections of the business and political elite. A so-called “pro-democracy” movement, backed by New Zealand and Australia, represented business and middle-class elements who resented the monarchy for monopolising the country’s wealth and political power, but had no fundamental differences with the regime’s right-wing economic and social agenda.

Despite cosmetic measures undertaken in 2008 to “democratise” the regime, Tonga remains an oppressive monarchy in which a handful of nobles control a third of the seats in parliament, while the remainder are elected in a popular vote. Prime Minister Tu’ivakano, a member of the nobility, is not directly elected.

The grinding poverty and lack of services that are endemic across the South Pacific are only exacerbated by the impact of the frequent natural disasters that affect the region, along with the economic exploitation of the major powers. Further crises in Tonga and neighbouring island states are likely as the summer cyclone season advances.

See also here.

Humpback whales, video

This video says about itself:

This video was captured in Tonga with the help of Whale Watch Vava’u and Endangered Encounters, two excellent whale watch operations in Vava’u Tonga. The images were captured with a RED Epic and a Tokina 10-17mm lens in 5K resolution.

Michael Graham Richard writes about this video:

January 2, 2014

Watch it in full screen mode!

Here’s another great video by Howard Hall, a natural history filmmaker specializing in marine wildlife and marine environmental films, who also made Ocean Requiem, a reader-favorite on this site. Hall really got up close and personal with a pod of playful whales, some of them apparently curious about the strange creature swimming around them. The title of this short film is Leviathan

I find it very touching to see mama whale cuddling her calf.

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Guam undersea active volcano wildlife

This is a video of an undersea eruption near Tonga.

From World Science:

Expedition to bursting, undersea volcano yields marvels

May 5, 2009

Courtesy National Science Foundation and World Science staff

Sci­en­tists who have just re­turned from an ex­pe­di­tion to an erupt­ing un­der­sea vol­ca­no near the Is­land of Guam re­port that the vol­ca­no seems to be con­tin­u­ously ac­tive, has grown con­sid­erably in the past three years, and its ac­ti­vity sup­ports a un­ique bi­o­log­i­cal com­mun­ity thriv­ing de­spite the erup­tions.

An in­terna­t­ional sci­ence team on the ex­pe­di­tion, funded by the Na­tional Sci­ence Founda­t­ion, cap­tured dra­mat­ic new in­forma­t­ion about the erup­tive ac­ti­vity of NW Rota-1.

This video is called Submarine Ring of Fire 2006: NW Rota1 Brimstone Pit Erupting.

“This re­search al­lows us, for the first time, to study un­der­sea vol­ca­noes in de­tail and close up,” said Barba­ra Ran­som, pro­gram di­rec­tor in the Na­tional Sci­ence Founda­t­ion’s Di­vi­sion of Ocean Sci­ences, which funded the re­search. “NW Rota-1 re­mains the only place on Earth where a deep sub­ma­rine volca­no has ev­er been di­rectly ob­served while erupt­ing.” …

An­i­mals in this un­usu­al ec­o­sys­tem in­clude shrimp, crab, limpets and bar­na­cles, some of which are new spe­cies. “They’re spe­cially adapted to their en­vi­ron­ment,” said Chad­wick, “and are thriv­ing in harsh chem­i­cal con­di­tions that would be tox­ic to nor­mal ma­rine life. Life here is ac­tu­ally nour­ished by the erupt­ing vol­ca­no.”

Ve­re­na Tun­ni­cliffe, a bi­olo­g­ist from the Uni­ver­s­ity of Vic­to­ria, Can­ada, said that most of the an­i­mals are de­pend­ent on dif­fuse hot-wa­ter ven­t­ing that pro­vides bas­ic food in the form of bac­te­ri­al fil­a­ments coat­ing the rocks. “It ap­pears that since 2006 the dif­fuse ven­t­ing has spread and, with it, the ven­t an­i­mals,” Tun­ni­cliffe said. There are pro­fuse popula­t­ions of shrimp on the vol­ca­no, with two spe­cies able to cope with the vol­can­ic con­di­tions, she added.

“The ‘Loi­hi’ shrimp has adapted to graz­ing the bac­te­ri­al fil­a­ments with ti­ny claws like gar­den shears,” said Tun­ni­cliffe. “The sec­ond shrimp is a new spe­cies—they al­so graze as ju­ve­niles, but as they grow to adult stage, their front claws en­large and they be­come preda­tors.” The Loihi shrimp was pre­vi­ously known only from a small ac­tive vol­ca­no near Ha­waii, far away. It sur­vives on the fast-growing bac­te­ria and tries to avoid the haz­ards of the vol­can­ic erup­tions. Clouds of these shrimp were seen flee­ing vol­can­ic bursts, re­search­ers said.

The oth­er spe­cies at­tacks the Loihi shrimp and preys on ma­rine life that wan­ders too close to the vol­can­ic plumes and dies. “We saw dy­ing fish, squid, etc., rain­ing down on­to the sea­mount, where they were jumped on by the vol­ca­no shrim­p,” Tun­ni­cliffe said.

NW Rota-1 pro­vides a one-of-a-kind nat­u­ral lab­o­r­a­to­ry for the in­ves­ti­ga­t­ion of un­der­sea vol­can­ic ac­ti­vity and its rela­t­ion to chem­i­cal-based ec­o­sys­tems at un­der­wa­ter ven­ts, where some bi­ologists think life on Earth orig­i­nat­ed.

“It is un­usu­al for a vol­ca­no to be con­tin­u­ously ac­tive, even on land,” Chad­wick point­ed out.

“This pre­s­ents us with a fan­tas­tic op­por­tun­ity to learn about pro­cesses we’ve nev­er been able to di­rectly ob­serve be­fore,” he said. “When vol­ca­noes erupt in shal­low wa­ter they can be ex­tremely haz­ard­ous, cre­at­ing huge ex­plo­sions and even tsunamis. But he­re, we can safely ob­serve an eruption in the deep ocean and learn valua­ble lessons about how lot la­va and seawa­ter in­ter­ac­t.” …

Ocean acidifica­t­ion is a se­ri­ous con­cern be­cause of human-induced car­bon di­ox­ide ac­cu­mu­lat­ing in the atmo­sphere. “Subma­rine vol­ca­noes are places where we can study how an­i­mals have adapted to very acid­ic con­di­tions,” Chad­wick said.

Blog of this expedition: here.

Unique and new species thriving around erupting undersea volcano: here.

An observation ward for the long-term observation of a mud volcano in the Norwegian deep sea has been set up by, among others, three research institutes from the German federal state Bremen: here.

Supervolcano may be brewing beneath Mount St Helens: here.

The Remarkable Life of William Beebe: Explorer and Naturalist: here.