On Hawks, Maggots, and Forest Health in the Dominican Republic

Los Haitises National Park, Dominican Republic
Ridgway’s Hawk, Buteo Ridgwayi, top predator of its jungle world. Photo © Thomas Hayes of The Peregrine Fund
Ridgway's hawk
So begins a day of fieldwork in Los Haitises National Park, Dominican Republic. Photo © David L. Anderson

Conventional wisdom holds that predators sit at the top of the food chain.  In a series of who-eats-who, plants feed herbivores feed predators feed other predators.  If you are a jaguar in the Venezuelan jungle, you are pretty safe in nature because there isn’t a thing that can eat you.  Insects on the other hand are just about rock bottom in the food chain.  Everybody eats insects, from other insects, to frogs, birds, spiders, monkeys, you name it.  Insects are the fuel that runs the machine we call nature.

It turns out that all is not milk and honey for top predators.  Because of their position at the top of the ecosystem, predators can actually be quite vulnerable to environmental change.  If anything goes wrong at one level in that food chain, the pyramid crumbles.  Predators therefore have an important role as biological indicators.  They are the symptom of sickness happening somewhere in the system.

Nowhere is this more true than the tropical island of Hispaniola.  On tropical gems like this one there are no mega-predators like big cats so hawks are it, king of the jungle.  Ridgway’s Hawks are critically endangered, with only around 300-400 left, and until recently nobody knew why their population was crashing.  As often happens when humans get in the way, nature on Hispaniola has been turned upside down.  The thing that is killing Ridgway’s Hawks is maggots.  You heard me right.  Squiggly, gross, glossy white maggots. Ridgway’s Hawks are being consumed by Philornis pici, a type of botfly the maggots of which live under the skin, eating tissue and drinking fluids from the host.  The problem has gotten so severe that hawk nestlings are dying from myiasis (parasitism by flies) before they live long enough to leave the nest.  Biologists from The Peregrine Fund are racing the clock to save the Ridgway’s Hawk from extinction and find out what is wrong with this forest system.

Dominican Republic, Los Haitises National Park
Carolina Romero revising a Ridgway’s Hawk nestling for parasites. Photo © David L. Anderson
Dominican technician climbing to a hawk nest high in a royal palm, Los Haitises National Park, Dominican Republic. Photo © David L. Anderson
Dominican technician climbing to a hawk nest high in a royal palm, Los Haitises National Park, Dominican Republic. Photo © David L. Anderson

Canopy Watch will be in the Dominican Republic next week working with Ridgway’s Hawks along with U.S. and Dominican biologists.  Hawks nest in trees, and we climb trees.

I’m not sure if that is the opening act or the main stage.  There will be treeboating, wildlife photography, and all around tropical magic.  Come back for more from the Dominican Republic.

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