Death of the Puerto Rican Coquis is not just possible, it is becoming very likely to be a part of the current generation's future... perhaps sooner than we may realize.
Can you imagine a silent El Yunque? We tend to think of Global warming mostly in terms of our polar ice caps melting, because the imagery is widely available in the mainstream media and certainly very dramatic. Some Puerto Ricans might even think it's funny to see their northern neighbors of the United States or Canada crying foul over a little jump in temperature. They don't know what real heat is, do they?
Frog species all over the world are dying in mass, and the threat to the tropics may result in catastrophic impact to the Coqui of Puerto Rico. That realization is certainly enough to sadden most Borinquens, but the future may hold more than just the loss of a national icon and a silent El Yunque rain forest.
Let us explore one imaginary yet possible outcome from the interconnected series of events following rising temperatures that wipe out the Coqui population:
Animals, especially sensitive species like frogs, are highly sensitive to changes in temperature. You have seen what happens if you take a fish home from the pet store & immediately drop him into the fish tank, right? Shock and typically death. You need to submerge the bag that contains him within the aquarium to acclimate him before release. Acclimation means you must allow the temperature of his water to gradually approach that of the tank itself. And so it is with the environment as well. A rapid rise in temperature may not allow species like frogs to acclimate or adapt in time to ensure their survival:
Regarding high temperatures, animals usually show an upper critical temperature, which, if surpassed, can affect metabolic pathways, membrane structures and tissues (Hoar, 1966)
Can they adapt to survive? Many lizards and frogs have adapted systems to allow a change in their skin color to allow great levels of heat reflection or absorption, which is useful for regulating their temperatures within the limits of safe body temperature for their species. You might think of this as reptilian/amphibian skin reflection/heat absorption similar to the urban albedo I discussed before within the Puerto Rico's Island Effect article. However, even with these advanced biological capabilities for temperature control, a rapid rise in temperature may occur before the species is able to catch up it its adaptation of bodily temperature control. A failure of these systems will result in their deaths... and death of the coquis.
However, there is more than just one way for heat to kill the coquis. In fact, rising temperatures allow for the "perfect environment" for chytoid fungus, a skin fungus that results in deadly infections in frogs and other amphibious species. The 2004 Global Amphibian Assessment reported that as much as 1/3 of the world's frog/toad/salamander species were facing extinction. 2,000 of 6,000 different species, or more, may soon be eliminated from the planet!
So fast forward in time to our imaginary outcome: Global warming causes a considerable rise in average daily temperatures in the tropics, a region in which Puerto Rico is found. Populations of coquis die of as they fail to adapt sufficient temperature regulating systems and massive outbreaks of chytoid fungus create a situation of mass extinction, island wide including El Yunque. Puerto Rico responds by launching massive breeding projects, which are largely unsuccessful. Those released into the wild fail to thrive. All are endangered and approach extinction. The sound of coquis on the island is muted. It is an early silence for those living next to the more heavily forested regions.
Scientific groups within Puerto Rico become celebrities in the local media. They blame US and Chinese carbon emissions for global warming, decry the failure of the species re population projects as mismanaged & "too little too late". They actually start actively talking about the environment, and pointing fingers at government and citizens alike for issues such as failure to manage trash, recycle, and effectively manage the drinking water supply to "modern" standards desperately seeking to deflect blame from their departments & finally mobilized.
Since they find little they can do to re-establish the coquis population, they switch focus to anti-global warming research and advocacy instead, recognizing that this must stop, before the environment becomes inhabitable for others species including humans within the next 100 years. Darwin did not help the coquis. They were not the fittest in the hot new environment... they did not adapt quickly enough... they did not survive.
And then it hits: a mosquito plague. As warned by the more enlightened, elimination of the coquis, causes an explosion in the mosquito population.
The Common Coquí is a general nocturnal predator which can consume 114,000 invertebrates per ha each night
Most outdoor regions of Puerto Rico become uninhabitable 15 minutes before sundown and throughout much of the night as the mosquito population, completely out of control after one of its main predators was eliminated.
It brings with it more than just inconvenience. Poor man's Ebola outbreaks happen: Dengue fever surges throughout the island. The hospitals are over capacity. The hallways are filled with zombie like infected, draped over floors or anywhere they can find space, as they cry, moan in pain, vomit, and scratch at their erupted red skin rashes.
Many die on the floor. The Coliseo De Puerto Rico and stadiums through Puerto Rico become temporary mass treatment facilities. It looks similar to scene from a nuclear battlefield. Mesh tents, bug lights and chemical emitters to thwart off more mosquitoes are placed everywhere. Victims are routinely sprayed with deet which irritates there already ravaged skin. Red Cross, missionaries, and other humanitarian groups join in mass in Puerto Rico to help treat the sick and dying; desperately trying to get the situation under control.
But it does NOT end there. The outbreak cannot be handled quickly enough because of the huge numbers of mosquitoes. While they focus on treatment of the ill, another side effect is underway: The bat population, with few natural predators is growing fast with the increase in its food supply. Their roosts litter the thick trees wherever they can find suitable refuge during the day, and they start infiltrating any opening in houses, particularly those in the lower class communities still having wood roofs and exposed cavities for them to gain entry. Bat guano deposits in homes cause a rise in the lung disorder histoplasmosis which has similarities with symptoms of tuberculosis among the poor... yet another strain on the struggling health care facilities. The poor avoid seeking treatment for the most part to avoid expense, causing the conditions to worsen, ultimately shortening their lives and making their remaining years more miserable.
The situation is in interesting contrast to real life Delhi. They had an existing mosquito problem and tried to solve it by introducing frogs to help reduce the population and prevent outbreaks of dengue, malaria, encephalitis, and other mosquito born illnesses. In Puerto Rico, in our fictitious imagining, it could happen in reverse: The frog population died and then the mosquito population grew out of grow creating the dengue outbreak.
Foreign aid money starts coming in for solutions to control the mosquitoes. Technologies that would never see the light of day before are now given consideration. Desperation creates more opened minds.
The first attack is on eliminating stagnant water buildup. Money starts getting pumped into all municipalities. They are instructed to use the funds to clear and create new drainage systems to prevent any water buildup. Other strategies include re-paving or re-surfacing roads with deep potholes that maintain large puddles in less trafficked areas, bylaws imposed in municipalities requiring citizens to work to fill in water collecting areas on their property and implement duct-tape drainage solutions. Pumping trucks are imported for each municipality that go to problematic areas and suck up all stagnant water after the rains to be dumped into the ocean. Funding for a test project in Boca de La Zanja near Aguada is approved. The project involves installing large wave agitators near strategic shoreline points to reduce mosquito breeding territory. Funding for an assessment study is granted to a US company proposing to cover entire Lagos (lakes) with structures similar to the new Chinese National Aquatics Center made famous during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
These projects ignore the fact that more mosquitoes can breed in a 3 inch deep, 3 foot wide puddle than with a 1 acre area of pond/lake. The a major happening that seems like a more targeted solution: a team specializing in gene modification of insects is given the go ahead to start a program designed to alter mosquito DNA with the goal of shortening their life spans, preventing them from passing disease to humans.
A combination of bat infestation and related illnesses, mosquito terror, and higher rates of infection and illness in rural areas; individuals in those areas start moving towards the city/town centers taking up residence with city relatives and even trying to find sleeping areas within the temporary treatment centers. With the rapid rate of growth of Puerto Rico's foliage, their homes in less than a year become overgrown, and resemble the state of New York after the crisis in the movie "I Am Legend". The growth of plant life is still thriving with pollination by bats and hummingbirds.
The next phase of strategies goes into effect concurrently. The world has chosen Puerto Rico, due to its status as a US commonwealth, as the Guinea Pig for testing all proposed strategies for the conditions being experienced in the tropic regions all around the world.
A new project is undertaken to empty all water storage lakes/reservoirs and building a massive vertically structured water and storage facility that becomes the highest building in Puerto Rico. A Dubai based contractor specializing in super structures works with a US contractor specializing in water treatment. This will become the water supply of the entire island of Puerto Rico. Since new water lines cannot be repositioned quickly enough, they build two above ground pipelines, 1 running from East to West along the North and one in the South, passing through Ponce. The inspired developers propose to turn this into a dual use structure. The pipeline will also be designed to function as a high speed shuttle system running from East to West and back with stops in all major checkpoints with its design based on the Disney Monorail.
Everything appears to be hopeful. They are actively trying to find solutions. For the first time in many years drainage systems and roads are being upgraded. It took a disaster to get this important infrastructure to get some much needed attention. Although many have used their US citizenship to their advantage in moving to the mainland, those who have stayed have enjoyed some level of economic prosperity as the funding comes in and people are mobilized to take on the new jobs. As with any natural disaster the economy is typically impacted positively in the rebuilding process.
Then more hope. Before the major projects are completed, the media begins to report that the mosquito population is dropping. Rates of new infections of dengue are high, but dropping. Week to week updates are made about the dropping population. It seems that the genetic modifications worked, or did they?
Messing with mother nature at the genetic level is a very risky proposition. It seems that the genetically modified species of mosquito introduced into the population is passing along a gene mutation rendering female mosquitoes incapable of producing eggs at all. The rate is so rapid, that little can be done. Mosquitoes are now going the way of the coquis. The less wise in the population cheer the announcement. But they will soon realize, more potentially adverse side effects will come.
Every solution creates a new set of misfits.
The bat population that did so well with the mosquito food source is now at the capacity of their roosts, and is struggling to find food. A strange smell of rotting flesh can be found in most woodland areas only weeks after the mosquito populations have all but disappeared to about 5% of their original levels, pre-crisis. These important pollinators are dying too. The isolation of the island makes migration next to impossible. Insect eating bird populations also decline. Many of them turn to scavenging other bird eggs, which also impacts the population severely. Plant or sugar consuming species like the Hummingbird's remain.
Within months the rotting carcasses of dead bats and birds rot away completely. Mosquito population stays at the 5% level with only insects lacking the genetic mutation surviving. Dengue infections have fallen to 85% less than they were prior to the crisis occurring. Infrastructure and the economy has improved. Unemployment is low, and many non-Puerto Ricans located on the island to work with the contracting teams have taken up residence. The %-age of Gringos in the population rises significantly. The Puerto Rican Independence Party closes its offices due to lack of funding. The support of the US during the crisis, in conjunction with the focus demanded by the crisis itself, has distracted those few in the population who desired separation and many have been endeared by the support provided, now suddenly realizing the benefits of stronger association.
Based on recommendations from agricultural groups, Puerto Rico farmers start installing Hummingbird sugar solution feeders in all crop locations to help facilitate greater pollination, helping to offset the loss from the bat population. In time they become as much an identifying characteristic of Puerto Rico as the coquis had once been. Tourists visit in the millions just to see the new technologies including: (a) The emptied lake craters, (b) The wave agitator project, (b) The Aquatic shield building covering one lake, (c) The towering water treatment facility, and the (d) "humming" rain forest of El Yunque. They whiz along the monorail/water supply pipe line, watching the clouds of hummingbirds occasionally hum by, from San Juan to the West Coast of Cabo Rojo... which had been (in the past) largely neglected by tourists due to lack of marketing promotion and effective transportation from the hub airport in San Juan. Although there are still issues with rising temperatures and global warming in general, the island achieves a new period of stability.
The Ohlone natives of California spoke of the myth of how hummingbirds brought fire to the world. In Puerto Rico, after the global warming crisis of the tropics, the hummingbirds did not bring the fire, but they rose to prominence when the heat came... and filling in symbolically for the loss of the coquis.
The above is largely just a creative exploration of some of things that could happen in a changing environment, and dramatizing some of the things that can/must/will be done in times of disaster and desperation.
But the reality is that the world is heating up, the tropics are being impacted too, frog species are dying, and the day will come when Puerto Rico's coquis are at great risk... leading to an unpredictable series of perhaps unfortunate events, and perhaps simply accelerating us towards a new phase of temporary stability before the next disaster brought on by our neglect and abuse of the world.
For my Puerto Rican readers: It does not take a disaster to make the island a model of careful environmental management. We can do that. But first you have to stop throwing your trash out the window, and start putting pressure on your government to do better jobs tackling issues of trash/recycling and energy.
- Death in the Tropics: Impact of Global Warming on Animal Species
- Frog species are dying
- Photo source for dead coquis & article on how to kill them with heat
- Save the Puerto Rican Coqui
- Pollination by Bats & Hummingbirds
- Change mosquito DNA structure to prevent disease
- Chytrid fungus in Amphibians (frogs)
- Delhi, India uses frogs to stop mosquitos / dengue / malaria
- Chinese National Aquatics Center in Beijing
- Mosquito Control Strategies
- Lung problems from bat feces
- What Coquis Eat
- Dengue Info
- Ohlone mythology