Porg Ecology


We're a little over a week away from the opening of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise.  While I've been diligently avoiding any major spoilers for the film, its been hard to miss the mania around Porgs--one of the new creatures that will make their debut in this movie.

As a portion of the movie was shot on the Irish island of Skellig Michael, providing the location of the planet  -- where Luke Skywalker spent many years in exile before he was found at the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, one of the challenges the filmmakers had to deal with was the abundant seabird colonies. Species using the island for breeding habitat include the Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica), Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis), Arctic Terns (Sterna paradisaea), and Northern Gannets (Morus bassanus).  Apparently, birds were frequently seen in the background of shots.  Rather than trying to digitally remove them, they decided to go all in and use them as (minor???) characters in the film, now known as Porgs.

Based on the relatively scarce information released on them, Porgs appear to be based on the puffin, however, at least to my eyes, they cross taxonomic classes and have the face of an otter. Rian Johnson, the movie's director put out some additional details in a tweet a while back:

The young are also apparently called porglets. I'm a little skeptical that they can fly well based on the size of their wings, but aerodynamics are one thing that don't always make sense in Star Wars. This short animation Disney put out over the summer shows that they are also a gregarious species and they appear to be as clumsy on the ground as their inspiration, the puffin. From this clip, as well as a brief appearance in a trailer, it seems Porgs can vocalize, while their real-life counterparts are silent except for a chainsaw-like growl when they are in their burrows.

One of the interesting things about this are the ecological impacts of filming at this location, as it is an important breeding site for puffins and the other seabirds that call the site home as well as a UNESCO  World Heritage site.  Apparently there was some controversy from the filming during the relatively short amount of time the island was in the The Force Awakens, as some of the bird species were still breeding at the site and disturbed by the activity. Additional precautions and measures were put in place for the sequel, but the long term effects  of the use of the site are unknown at this time. An additional complicating influence will be increased tourism to the site, something the Irish government hopes island’s film appearance will help bring.

Threats to Public Land in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.

Outside of ecology and conservation, one of the things that I am really into is Star Wars. A few months ago, Rogue One, the first anthology film in the Star Wars universe was released. This was preceded by a tie-in novel, Catalyst, that is a prequel to the the movie. The events in the book take place from the somewhere before the events portrayed in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith to immediately prior to the events of the 2016 Star Wars Anthology film Rogue One.

Note: spoilers for both the book and the movie follow, so proceed at your own risk.

As even the most casual fan of Star Wars knows, the Death Star is the size of a "small moon". A space station of this size would have to take an amazing amount of raw materials to build. I often wondered about the resources it would take to build such a station, not to mention the all the other ships of the Empire and the Rebel Alliance.

The Catalyst novel covers some of the exploitation of these resources during the two decades before the Battle of Yavin. As the Death Star is the the signature of the Empire, they are in a ruthless in its pursuit of the incredible amount of natural resources. While many planets were open to resource extraction, they also introduced the concept of a "Legacy World"--a term for planets that were environmentally-protected and legally exempted from exploitation. Limited industrial presences on this world were regulated so to be low-impact. The Empire finds ways to override environmental protections on these Legacy Worlds. When the Empire cannot simply claim these protected resources for themselves, they trump up falsehoods as justification for annexing resource-rich planets and taking what they need. In the end many planets are devastated by the Death Star project.

While reading this book, I could help to see the parallels between story and current efforts by some facets of Federal and state governments, corporations, and other parties to reduce or eliminate environmental protections on publicly owned land in the US, largely in the name of economic development. While it was a little stressful to read a book for entertainment that so strongly reminded me of work, it was good to see this issue covered in (semi-)popular media. So much for escapism though...

The Long Range Traverse - Day 1

I've been really lax in writing about this amazing trip.  About two years ago, I was looking for an interesting backpacking trip to do and I discovered a brief mention of a hike Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, Canada called the Long Range Traverse. The description was pretty brief, but I dug into the trip and I became really obsessed with trying it out. A chance run-in with a friend where I asked her if she wanted to go on a "ridiculous backpacking trip to Canada" resulted in a few months of preparation and planning.

After a mandatory park orientation including a backcountry navigation test and a humorously dated video, we spent the remainder of the day getting last minute supplies.  Early the next morning, we dropped or rental car off at the end of the trail, where we had a taxi scheduled to drive us the 20 kilometers to the trailhead at Western Brook Pond. From here we had about a 45 minute walk to the end of a freshwater fjord, where we boarded a boat with two other groups of hikers as well as a number of tourists just there for the ride. The boat dropped us off at a small boat dock, where we got our gear ready and began the Long Range Traverse. 

The top of the climb out of Western Brook Pond

The top of the climb out of Western Brook Pond

Although they recommend solid map-and-compass skills for the trip, the first section up the glacial carved valley of Western Brook Pond is fairly straight-forward due to a well-worn trail and the presence of a few trail markers on trees--the latter betraying the statement that there are no trail markers along the 32-kilometer route. At the top of the 600-meter (~2000-feet) climb, including a near vertical climb next to a waterfall out of the valley, one is greeted by this amazing view! Additionally, the top of the gorge offers the first look at what you’re in for: a endless landscape of mountain meadows, rolling peaks, and shimmering lakes. Although striking, it is a slightly sobering expanse of wilderness --and one can’t help but note that everything sort of looks alike.

From here, navigation was a lot more difficult. Now we were above the treeline, where the harsh, icy winds have scoured the glacier-carved landscape. The trail of previous hikers more or less disappear and its easy to get lost via a navigation puzzle as you try to get around pockets of peatland and open water. Additionally, the meandering footpaths of caribou can entice you away from the proper course--which happened more than once to us. Of course, throughout the trip, there were numerous ecological side trips as I ditched the plan route to look an interesting bog or rock or followed a butterfly for perhaps far too long.

Fog rolling in

Fog rolling in

Although, we had great weather to see the view from the top of Western Brook Pond, fog was quickly rolling in that afternoon so we made some haste in heading toward camp, especially as we were getting our navigation skills up to speed.

While the whole Long Range Traverse is backcountry hiking and camping, five recommended camping areas with tent platforms and pit toilets are spaced throughout the area. The first night we camped at Little Island Pond. The pond did indeed have an island in the middle of it, which did look like an enticing place to explore via a swim, but the 10C water quickly killed that plan. Overall, this first leg of the trip felt relatively easy, at least easier than I imagined. The next few days would test that...

But we did wake up to this amazing view the next morning.

Nelle Ammons

A quick little post for International Women's Day. My coworker Scott Schuette and I were recently working on a checklist of the mosses of Erie County, PA and a number of the specimens we included were from a women named Nelle Ammons who worked in the region in the first half of the 1900s. I've become fairly fascinated with her and have spent some of my spare time researching her story. There's terribly little biographical information written about her and most of what I found was in the History of Botany in West Virginia book, coincidentally written by spouse's great-uncle.

Nelle was born on 1889 in Greene County, PA and did undergraduate and master's work at WVU and then got her PhD from Pitt. She then ended up as an instructor at WVU and spent nearly 40 years there retiring as a botany professor in 1959. She did a pretty amazing amount of botany work in the region and authored a number of papers and books.  I hope to dig more into her background in the near future.