Here are some of the wildlife we saw in the Florida Aquarium in Tampa Bay. For a small fee, we were able to visit their impressive collection displayed in specific habitat type. Aside from the place being educational (e.g. ideal for kids), the aquarium is also involved in marine conservation and research around the Tampa Bay estuary and in the Caribbean.
This blog article can also be accessed at my other blog site, Anthropology Corner.
The southern end of Puerto Rico is a place one could easily associate with old Western films because of its crusty and brown rolling hills. The mighty central cordilleras, a rugged spine of verdant forest across the island, trap the moisture that should have been reserved for these parts, rendering the terrain dry and desert-like.
The 2-hour drive from San Juan to Guanica is a good trip for understanding the impact of the central cordilleras on the Puerto Rican natural environment. Starting from Salinas, the surrounding topography turns yellow and brown, different from the usual tropical green valleys we associate with islands around the equator. Instead of trees dominating the landscape, what you see are grasses, shrubs, short scraggly trees, and cacti while a flock of migratory turkey vultures hovers above.
The situation of being at the wrong end of the central cordilleras (with seasonal rainfall averaging only 860 mm annually) does not stop life from blossoming at this southwestern part of Puerto Rico. The unique topology and microclimatic conditions created a biome that has been described as the “best preserved and best example of a tropical dry forest in the Caribbean.” This United Nations Biosphere Reserve is home to nine of the fourteen endemic bird species of the island and a host of other flora and fauna.
This 4000 ha. forest reserve however is sandwiched in tourist, agricultural, and urban development zones. The main road leading to the Guanica State Forest shows a landscape bearing its story of human occupation. A cursory look by the roadside would show that certain portions of the land are devoted to cattle and horse grazing. The plains are turned into fields of banana, papaya, and vegetables–the primary cash crops of Puerto Rico. Back in the day, historians recorded that the southern area also had a thriving sugar industry like the rest of the island but was abandoned when the world prices of sugar dropped to record lows (Guanica ending it in 1981). Vestiges of that sugar culture can still be gleaned from the artisanal production of guarapo, a sugarcane juice drink, and ron cana, a toxic sugarcane rum that burns your insides.
The seaward edge of the Guanica dry forest is a winding road that threads the series of hotels and beach spots along the coasts. Sightseers and tourists go to this area primarily because of the beach and Gilligan’s Island, an islet just across the forest. From the road, footpaths go deep into the forest reserve where hikers climb the rocky hills and explore the remarkable flora and fauna. Occasionally, a Santeria shrine of a saint could be found bearing offerings of fruits and flowers.
I don’t know how much of an impact human activities contributed to the Guanica Dry Forest. I tried searching through the literature and found that studies along this line have been wanting. What I saw instead was a comprehensive study of the influence of hurricane winds on the dry forest cycles. Apparently, dry forests are resilient enough to confront winds as strong as 152 knots. But droves of people? Who knows.
El Yunque towers at the northeastern edge of Puerto Rico. The summit rises at 3,494 feet and gradually reclines to the sandy coasts that embrace the whole island. From afar, the Luquillo mountain range, of which El Yunque is a part of, is a hazy blue, a crest of a Caribbean terrestrial wave shaped by time. Patches of green fill the ridges that scar the sides of the mountain. When the rain comes, white rivulets form on these small valleys, nourishing an oasis of endemic plants that include Crescentia cujete or the calabash plant.
Sands from the Sahara sometimes blanket the cordilleras. These windblown desert dusts from Africa roll toward the Atlantic covering most of the island in a fog of whiteness. When this happens, everything is opaque: even the sun loses its luster, a gigantic egg hanging in the skies, beautiful like opal, resting above the silhouette of El Yunque.
Kathryn Robinson, author of where dwarfs reign: a tropical rainforest in Puerto Rico, explains that the Luquillo range is a remnant of an ancient supervolcano, Hato Puerco. This volcano was “one of the region’s largest and most active volcanic centers during the Cretaceous period.” Paraphrasing a pioneering geologist, Robinson explains:
The early volcanic activity, followed by a period of colossal bending, produced the mountains. Their stubborn resistance to erosion, “giving silent testimony to the ancient majesty of the ranges from which they had been carved,” enabled them to endure. To Myerhoff, Luquillo is a true monadnock, an isolated mountain remaining from ancient topography that rises above the more level, eroded land around it.
What once was smoldering lava has been transformed into a verdant spot in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. Eons of weathering and the corresponding dispersal of soil macronutrients have left El Yunque very fertile. This area is home to 150 native fern species, 240 tree species, an assortment of endemic animals, including the critically-endangered Puerto Rican parrot. The rich biodiversity of the area prompted locals to call this range as “el pulmon de Puerto Rico” or the lung of Puerto Rico. The Tainos, pre-Columban inhabitants of the island, also believed that El Yunque is the home of the god, Yakiyuyu.
El Yunque’s biodiversity however is under threat. Using endemic frogs as biodiversity indicators, researchers have noticed a steady decline of Puerto Rican frogs in the area. In 1993, S. Blair Hedges (1993) said that two of the native Eleutherodactylus have not been seen in recent years. S. Blair remarked:
In the case of E. karlschmidti, known localities where the species occurred abundantly in the 1960s and 1970s have been searched repeatedly during the last decade by myself and other herpetologists and no evidence of this species has been found. The disappearance of E. karlschmidti has no obvious explanation. Some of the localities are in protected and unaltered forest (Caribbean National Forest) on El Yunque. However, rats and mongooses, which were introduced, are abundant in Puerto Rico and occur in undisturbed forest. Black Rats (Rattus rattus) especially are a problem in Caribbean National Forest where they are very common, even in the dwarf forest on El Yunque Peak. It is possible that these arboreal nocturnal omnivores prey on Eleutherodactylus eggs or the frogs themselves. The mongoose (Herpestes auropunctatus), although primarily diurnal, is known to prey on frogs (Walker, 1975; Nellis and Everard, 1983) and this particular species of frog would be especially vulnerable because it characteristically sits on exposed rocks in and around streams.
A follow-up study by Burrows et al (2003) supported the earlier research. They recorded that three Eleutherodactylus frog species are already presumed extinct and eight populations of six different species of these endemic frogs are significantly declining at elevations above 400 m. While Burrows et al are not discounting the impact of invasive species on frog populations, they maintain that climate change and the spread of a chytrid fungi may have been responsible for the steady decline. They said that “possible synergistic interaction between drought and the pathological effect of the chytrid fungus on amphibian populations” could explain the population decreases.
Visits to nature parks always elicit a certain ambivalence in me: that the urge to discover might also be intrusive. The short treks on muddy paths to reach a peak or visit a waterfall are voyages of discovery and understanding. This is our way of seeking connections to the primal and the natural in these times when modernity drives a wedge between our lifestyle and the natural world. But do we in the process change the very environment that we wish to visit, know, and conserve? Is mere human presence enough to have a ramifying impact on other species’ habitats?
There is indeed a need to critically reflect our relationship with the natural world. After all, inscribed in the oral traditions of many cultures indicate that mountains are ancient sources of wisdom. In the Philippines for example, healers (tambalan) go for long treks and settle in caves in search of spirit guides. They would stay long and converse with the spirits and sometimes come out with greying beards and hair. Now endowed with the wisdom of the forest, they would embark in a journey of healing and divination, moving from one barrio to the next to impart the knowledges they learned. For these healers, the forests are not just a collection of plants and animals but are sites of wisdom and contemplation.
Perhaps this renewed sense of awe (coupled with an intimate ecological understanding) at mountains and its environs will be helpful in preserving and conserving El Yunque’s biodiversity.
EL Yunque pictures
La Perla is a community right by the historic structures of Viejo San Juan. The houses sit in a slope sandwiched between the raging Atlantic Ocean and the centuries-old cobblestone road leading to El Morro, a Spanish-era fortress. Together with a friend, we coursed through the narrow streets and took pictures of the graffiti and mural painted on the walls. I took the liberty to take pictures for posterity’s sake, before these street scenes get painted over.
What remains of Casa de los Peluches, a building across La Perla
Surfboards Somewhere in Old San Juan
Siempre Maria Bike in Old San Juan
Street artists painted murals and graffiti on the walls and houses. Here below are some of their obras:
At the end of the road is the Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery. In this cemetery, Reba Stewart’s tomb has become a pilgrimage site of sorts for tourists, artists, and pagans because of its unusual design. Some Puerto Ricans call her tomb, La Tumba de la Bruja or the Tomb of the Witch. Reba Stewart was an American-born artist who had spent time studying Taino art and symbols. The fortress at the back is El Morro, one of the oldest Spanish fortresses in the world. For more info about Reba Stewart and the popular belief surrounding her, please click here and here.
Reba Stewart’s Tomb
Local kids posing with the tomb
Last year, I started time travelling as a chronicle of sorts for my stay here in Puerto Rico. I randomly named this blogspace time travelling as an allusion to my interest in archaeology and travel. This has been one of the venues where I share stories to my friends and family back in the Philippines. Consider this first post I had a year ago:
I haven’t been blogging for a while though I enjoyed it a while back. I started writing online as a contributor to cyberjournalism sites. Those days, my writing output (albeit few) was mostly politically-oriented: dealing with global and local issues that I felt were important.
Now that I am transplanted from the Pacific to the Caribbean, I would like to share my insights and experiences to my family, friends, and maybe a tiny slice of the online world. This is my way of finding a cozy online getaway where I can be zen-like reflexive or just plainly be chewing the cud.
Well, I decided to blog because somehow the situation that I am in gives me a certain angle, a prism if you will, of what Caribbean life is like. So, carpe diem it is.
In hindsight, I realize that what I am writing here in time travelling–even the supposedly ‘science’ posts–were essentially an exercise in nostalgia. The ‘new’ things I encounter here in Puerto Rico somehow animate memories of home and place. For example, the sight of a monkey sleeping draws a memory of myself reclining on a hammock, the breeze gently lulling me to a sleep. The river crashing through the rocks in San Lorenzo made me relive those moments I had with the many rivers I fished in back home. This blog therefore has become a lottery sweepstakes of sort: a mishmash of the here-and-now, the past, and the what-could-bes. Every blog I wrote is randomly picked from a jumble of memories and thoughts. More often though, I always come up with Italo Calvino‘s mammoth:
The first time a girl comes to see me, let’s say it’s Mariamirella, I hardly do anything all afternoon: I go on with a book I’m reading, then realize that for the last twenty pages I’ve been looking at the letters as though they were pictures; I write, but really I’m doodling all over the white paper and all the doodles together become the sketch of an elephant, I shade it in and in the end it turns into a mammoth. Then I lose my temper with the mammoth and tear it up: why a mammoth every time, you baby! (Italo Calvino, Love Far From Home)
In spite of these limitations however, the posts here have spiraled beyond personal stories. This blog has allowed me to explore areas in anthropology, or generally in science, I have not paid close attention to in the past. This disinterestedness is quite common in the Philippines where religious fanatics still decide the outcome of certain public policies. For example, the resistance of many Filipinos to the reproductive health bill is partly due to the lack of interest in the sciences–both natural and social. In this regard, as my small contribution, I made it a point to sometimes summarize journal articles I deem important. This is also my way of helping aspiring social science students in the Philippines, especially because I know what it means to be a graduate student in a university where anthro-related journal articles are hard to come by.
During my graduate years, I utilized the meager resources of our library but I was more dependent on friends studying in US-based universities. I would send them titles and topics, then they would furnish me with journal articles for my academic papers. Also, before google scholar, google books, scribd, etc., fellow university students would download academic articles and books through torrent sites and pass it around like contraband.
It is just sad that while the Philippines has continued to churn out amazing data for scholars in developed countries, institutional help for Philippine-based departments is very few. This has led to departments being shut down due to austerity measures. In fact as of the moment, I do not know yet if I have a department to return to once my stay here in Puerto Rico is over. Our university administration has planned to close down our sociology and anthropology program and merge this with the history department. Now that I am dabbling in primatology, I will indeed be the proverbial square peg in a round hole as far as academic location is concerned.
Nonetheless, I am quite hopeful that something could still be done. Perhaps, I will go back to the backwaters of Leyte: engage in farming, do research, and write for this blog. At least, for now, time travelling and the monkeys of Cayo Santiago are keeping me busy.
We went on an hour and a half drive to the Caguana Indian Ceremonial Park in Utuado, located in the central cordilleras of Puerto Rico. The place is considered as the most important Taino Culture archaeological site in the Caribbean.
The Tainos, pre-Columban settlers of the Greater Antilles, were seafarers and farmers who had an elaborate culture centered on the worship of gods, spirits, and ancestors called cemis. The primary god, Yucahu, is the god of agriculture, cassava (staple food of the Tainos), and the seas. This deity is believed to reside in the mountains of El Yunque, a dense rainforest region in Puerto Rico. Yucahu’s evil brother, Huracan, is responsible for worldly calamities, such as earthquakes, storms, and, yes, hurricanes (etymology comes from Huracan).
Where are the Tainos?
The strategic importance of Puerto Rico to colonial Spain however led to the decimation of the native Taino population in the 18th century. Spanish-introduced diseases, colonial subjugation, slavery, and forced assimilation into the colonial plantation economy were the major historical forces that led to the extinction of this indigenous group. Here’s a retelling of the Taino demise:
They committed group suicide as an escape, but it was mainly disease that decimated the Taínos so quickly. In 1516, only eight years later, there were so few Taínos left in the Caribbean that Father Bartolomé de las Casas won a “crown order” to free the Indians. In 1527, a small pox epidemic in Puerto Rico killed one third of the remaining Taíno population. In 1542, a Bishop was sent to Puerto Rico to inform the Indians of their “new” complete freedom.
Others however belie the extinction story, saying that the Tainos thrived in secrecy especially in the mountainous regions of Puerto Rico. Dr. Lynne Guitar added that it may also be due to historical inaccuracies that led to the perpetuation of the “myth of Taino extinction”:
If a Spaniard and a Taína had a child who was raised in the city or a European-style town, spoke Castillian, was baptized Catholic, wore European clothes, received a European education, and “acted” Spanish—then he or she was listed as Spanish on the censuses. If that same child lived in a yucayeque (Taíno village), spoke Taíno, practiced Taíno religious rituals, dressed as a Taíno, and acted Taíno, then he or she was listed on the censuses as Indian. That’s confusing for modern scholars, but it was also confusing for the colonial-era census takers, who had to try to figure out how to categorize people when there were, as yet, no fixed standards.
The ball courts and the batey
Whether the Tainos survived colonization or not, the Caguana ceremonial place is an important archaeological site that allows us a glimpse into the world of the Tainos. The site is built around 1270 A.D., featuring 10 plazas of various sizes and 21 petroglyphs. Archaeologists said that this had been continuously occupied for more than 300 years up until around the start of the Spanish colonization. The central plazas were outlined with river stones and rocks–each rock carved with petroglyphs of cemis (i.e., Taino deities). The plazas were used for areitos (ceremonial dances) and a ball game called batey. It was in this similar plaza that a Taino cacique, Agueybana II, plotted to overthrow the Spanish conquistadores in 1511.
Spanish friars chronicled that the batey was played by two opposing teams using a rubber ball. Neck and elbow collars made from stone were also used by the players as a yoke (i.e. inferred from a similar ball court practice in Mesoamerica).
Game revivalists believe that each opposing team is composed of 12 players, each with a goalie that attempts to stop the ball from going to her/his team’s side. Like football, the ball or the batu cannot be touched by the hand but can be struck by the foot, hip, thigh, or any part of the body. The ball can also be bounced around the stone walls of the ball court. Although the game has recreational value, experts believe that the batey has an underlying religious and judicial significance as evidenced by the petroglyphs circling the ballcourt and its associated artifacts.
As we were about to leave the park, we surveyed the ceremonial site for the last time. With a 3-year old child in tow, we scanned the landscape trying to remember every bit of the place. The reconstructed Taino abode, the bohio, stands on the ceremonial place’s landscape. The expanse of the valley is encircled by karst hills of lush rainforest and giant ferns. In this small valley rests the rectangular ball courts of the Tainos. Here, on this very earth, the Tainos tread the ground, breathed the same air, mystified by the unseen forces of nature, and probably hoped too for a better future for their children.
Fig. 1. Mujer de Caguana. This petroglyph is believed to be a fertility figure or an ancestor-figure from a powerful family.
Fig. 2. A Cemi. Representation of a Taino Deity.
Fig.3. Stone Rings. Once thought to be associated with the ball game, they are now considered as of unknown use. Some scholars speculate that they were distinctive symbols of clans.
Fig. 4. Elbow Stone. Its scarcity in archaeological sites indicate that this might have been used in ritual contexts.
Other photos of the visit: us, ball courts, monoliths, petroglyphs, etc.
The mantou crabs of Puerto Rico find home under the shade of mangroves and manchineel trees. They bore holes into the white sand, building tunnels that follow the contours of the tree roots. The younger crabs are of deep brown color with bright red pincers. As they grow older and molt, their carapace turns yellow, dull blue, or gray–a perfect camouflage in this sandy environment.
When approached, the crabs scurry back into the hole, half hidden inside but pinchers ready if attacked. The slower crabs however fall prey to the yaboa heron. The heron, with its lanky legs as hunting platform and a pitcher’s neck coiled almost like a spring, use its pointed beak to stab through the thick carapace, leaving a trail of crab body parts in its path.
Of course, the top predators of the mantou crabs are humans as the crustaceans often appear in the menu of many restaurants and hotels. Along the roads of Puerto Rico, for example, one finds live mantou crabs placed in a chicken wire cage or strung together and hung on a pole.
In Punta Santiago, I was told that crab hunting occurs right by the road side at night. Shovel and flashlight in hand, crab hunters stalk these crabs and pull them out of their holes. The population of this species in the Caribbean are in decline primarily due to habitat destruction and pesticide use. In Martinique and other areas of the Caribbean, short and long-term banning of crab hunting and trapping have been strictly enforced to save the species.
The chance of the species’ survival however seems bright. One time, while walking along Punta Santiago, I chanced on a mating mantou crab. Right by the sandy beach, littered with dead sea grass and driftwood, the crabs stood transfixed, one on top of the other as if in a tight embrace. The middle part of their ventral shell opened like a medieval drawbridge, literally opening one’s shell for the other. For anything, the mantou crabs can bring forth thousands of eggs to the sea. Afterall, their reproductive organs are just right under their hearts.
Pictures of crab species in Puerto Rico