Monday, November 24, 2008

Entering the Prickly Zone Part 2

A recently published internet video exposed a team of biologists passing through a mangrove to gain access to a thin band of shore lovingly called the prickly zone. This zone is not easy to get to and, as you may expect, it's not a pleasant stay. It's full of, well, pokey things --pokey cacti, thorny plants, and even sharp coral rock. The crack team infiltrated the prickly zone to monitor a population of critically endangered, but not yet listed, species. I can't tell you the island because it's better if you don't know, but the species is Opuntia corallicola. I find enjoyment in that genus name, Opuntia because it really is pointed. It's the semaphore pricklypear cactus, not to be confused with the other major cactus found in the prickly zone, the dildo cactus (Cephalocereus millspaughii). Yes, that is what it is called (Go ahead. Google it. Just don't blame me for what you find.), but some people call it pipe organ cactus (pictured to the left). Wild populations of Florida Semaphore Cactus occur on only a couple of islands in the world (Keys of Florida) and there aren't many semaphore cacti left on these islands. In fact, the status of this little cactus is depressing; the genetic diversity in the populations is tiny and there are only a handful of adult individuals left. What's worse yet is that this cactus seems to have a hard time reproducing sexually, perhaps due to meiotic problems associated with polyploidy (i.e., it has a lot of copies of chromosomes and it isn't very successful at going through meiosis to producing gametes). Thus, it reproduces asexually by dropping pads. Some individuals do end up budding despite this. Historically, the cactus was much more widespread on the Florida Keys, but development and poaching extirpated the cactus from most of its range. Despite being incredibly endangered it is not yet Federally recognized as endangered. Being pokey instead of fuzzy probably makes it harder to get much attention, except when you're trying to wrap a tag around one of the endangered pokey plants, as Max Tritt is attempting here. Opuntia has a knack for getting your attention when working with it closely. When in the prickly zone, you don't want to sit, kneel, stand too tall, or touch anything without looking carefully at it. If you get careless, you'll probably have a dildo cactus poking you in the back and pieces of Opuntia stuck in your knees. I reached to the back of my head at one point and found a cactus pad embedded in my scalp. Let me tell you finding out that it was there didn't help because all I realized in that discovery was that it was now firmly embedded in my hand.

This sabbatical has been full of different experiences (we were trying to catch a dove today -- brings back memories-- and we caught an invasive green iguana yesterday---recipe coming soon).

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