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Back to the Future in the Caves of Kauai

Back to the Future in the Caves of Kauai: A Scientist's Adventures in the Dark

David A. Burney
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Back to the Future in the Caves of Kauai
    Book Description:

    For two decades, paleoecologist David Burney and his wife, Lida Pigott Burney, have led an excavation of Makauwahi Cave on the island of Kaua'i, uncovering the fascinating variety of plants and animals that have inhabited Hawaii throughout its history. From the unique perspective of paleoecology-the study of ancient environments-Burney has focused his investigations on the dramatic ecological changes that began after the arrival of humans one thousand years ago, detailing not only the environmental degradation they introduced but also asking how and why this destruction occurred and, most significantly, what might happen in the future.

    Using Kaua'i as an ecological prototype and drawing on the author's adventures in Madagascar, Mauritius, and other exciting locales, Burney examines highly pertinent theories about current threats to endangered species, restoration of ecosystems, and how people can work together to repair environmental damage elsewhere on the planet. Intriguing illustrations, including a reconstruction of the ancient ecological landscape of Kaua'i by the artist Julian Hume, offer an engaging window into the ecological marvels of another time. A fascinating adventure story of one man's life in paleoecology,Back to the Future in the Caves of Kaua'ireveals the excitement-and occasional frustrations-of a career spent exploring what the past can tell us about the future.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16311-7
    Subjects: Geology, Botany & Plant Sciences, Biological Sciences, Paleontology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. ONE Time’s Most Important Moment
    (pp. 1-9)

    Visitors come to hawaii seeking paradise. But the truth is, these islands have become a kind of living hell for nature. The place is a microcosm of the world condition, where the role of humans in transforming nature stands out in high relief. This is a story that matters, because humans need to know that they are a threat to the rest of creation. Can we learn to tread more lightly on this speck of dust in the universe that we call home? Will anything we hold dear make it into the future? How did we get to this point?...

  6. TWO Proverbial Tracks
    (pp. 10-17)

    In 1987, I gave a lecture at a symposium titled “Early Man in Island Environments” held on the mystical Mediterranean island of Sardinia, off the west coast of Italy and just south of Corsica. Although I was there to talk about my findings in the mud of Madagascar, I met scientists working on similar topics on islands around the world. The potential insights that seemed to be harvestable from this kind of multi-island interest in human paleoecology pointed to the need for more of this type of information from islands everywhere. Two regions that interested me were the West Indies...

  7. THREE Constructing a “Poor Man’s Time Machine”
    (pp. 18-28)

    Storrs, lida, and I were able to juggle schedules enough to get back to Kaua‘i in February 1996. We had all been very busy on other projects literally half a world away. My intervening field seasons in Madagascar had been some of my best, yielding a lot of new bones of extinct giant lemurs and fossil pollen records reaching back 40,000 years or more in parts of the island not studied previously from a paleoecological perspective.

    By this time, more than three years after Hurricane ‘Iniki, the sinkhole on Kaua‘i’s south shore was a frightful tangle of vegetation, and the...

  8. FOUR Owl Omens
    (pp. 29-35)

    The initial results of our first large-scale excavation along the east wall were mostly disappointing. Storrs and I had picked the place after coring all over the sinkhole and caves, but a big factor in choosing the exact spot to start digging was his opinion that owls would have roosted on the ledge above and dropped lots of prey remnants, and occasionally died and perhaps fallen into the mud below.

    On the very first day of actual digging, Pila Kikuchi had mustered a huge force of KCC students and other interested folks in the community, and that meant that, once...

  9. FIVE Opening Ancient Doors
    (pp. 36-46)

    Over the next three years and more at this big sinkhole we dug three large pits, moving more than 260 cubic yards (200 cubic meters) of sediment. Mud from layers with fossils and artifacts was washed through a 1/16-inch (1.5 mm) mesh of window screen (figure 10). Thousands of bones, shells, and seeds and hundreds of human artifacts were bagged, labeled, stored, and studied. More than three hundred volunteers—students, local people, and tourists—put at least a day or two, some many weeks or even months, into combing through the labeled buckets of this wonderful mud I carried up...

  10. SIX Characters and a Stage, but No Script
    (pp. 47-56)

    Work ground on at the cave, month after month, through the rest of 1997 and into 1998. We dug some huge pits, and found a lot of fossils and artifacts. There’s no denying that. But it was not a perfect situation. The work was incredibly strenuous, particularly in the huge and ever more huge pit along the east wall. This East Pit, as it came to be called, has been the main place yielding the vast quantities of bones of extinct birds. By early 1998, I was facing the challenge of keeping this ever-widening and deepening chasm engineered in such...

  11. SEVEN Fishponds
    (pp. 57-63)

    On the south coast of kaua‘i, about 5 miles (9 km) west of the cave, is Lāwa‘i-kai, a place of legendary beauty and the former home of National Tropical Botanical Garden founders Robert and John Allerton. Geologically and hydrologically, it is typical of small estuaries in the Hawaiian Islands. The stream’s headwaters drain a steep cleft in the basalt highlands, arriving at the coast with waters that under normal circumstances are clear and fast-flowing. Several times per year, and particularly during hurricanes and winter’skonadownpours, the little stream “flashes” and delivers great volumes of muddy brown water to the...

  12. EIGHT A Snails’ Tale
    (pp. 64-67)

    The hawaiian islands have, among their many claims to fame, some beautiful terrestrial snails found nowhere else on earth. A few areas in the mountains of O‘ahu have retained a fair number of them, but many are extinct most other places in the islands. The O‘ahu snails are increasingly rare—poster children for conservationists. Kaua‘i had some remarkable land snails, including endemic specialties found only on this island. Big showy shells are still found along Kaua‘i’s beaches, where they have presumably washed down from eroding creek banks. In a few places, notably Ha’ena and Anini Beach on the north shore,...

  13. NINE Mauka Marshes
    (pp. 68-74)

    By this time we were beginning to write the script for some parts of the local “ecological theater and evolutionary play,” as ecologists since the day of G. Evelyn Hutchinson have been saying.¹ We were piecing the coastal story together, including some key points regarding the human role. But what was the climatic background? Was the late Pleistocene very different, and how has it all changed since then, over the ensuing eleven thousand years or so of the Holocene up to the present? Are the effects of humans on islands like Kaua‘i much amplified by climate change, or is that...

  14. TEN So What Happened, Anyway?
    (pp. 75-85)

    Whenever they arrived, whether a millennium ago or a few centuries more than that, and whoever they were, the first people to see the island of Kaua‘i saw a world that has almost completely disappeared. Leeward lowlands that are now entirely without native forest hosted a diverse assemblage of trees comparable to the most pristine interior highlands. Except for bats, the only terrestrial vertebrates were birds, some quite large and many now extinct, like the turtle-jawed moa-nalo (Chelychelynechen quassus), a flightless duck. After all this research in more than a dozen sites around the island, we can still only guess...

  15. ELEVEN Greetings from Old Kaua‘i
    (pp. 86-103)

    After a whole career of thinking about the distant past, it might seem strange that I found myself, in the early twenty-first century, thinking mostly about more recent times, even the present and the future. Global events certainly had something to do with this, but local developments on Kaua‘i played a very big role. As my colleagues and I uncovered and integrated all this new information about Kaua‘i’s more remote past, I had become acutely aware that one of our greatest temporal blind spots down at the cave was, in fact, the more recent past. There were a lot of...

  16. TWELVE Irrigating the Future
    (pp. 104-117)

    It had been slowly dawning on me for several years that my interest in the past was not separable from my interest in the future. Seeing so much extinction more or less firsthand can turn you into a kind of missionary for conservation, I suppose. In truth, I have been a shameless advocate for the environment at least since age fifteen, when I taught Nature and Bird Study merit badges at Boy Scout Camp Uwharrie in Guilford County, North Carolina.

    It sounds a little corny, but a few years ago I got interested in the possibility that the Poor Man’s...

  17. THIRTEEN The Tour
    (pp. 118-129)

    Okay, here you are at makauwahi Cave Reserve (figure 27). You probably emailed or called Lida and made an appointment, or you came for the regular Sunday morning “Open Cave” tours. Anyway, here we are in our little parking lot behind CJM stables, on the western edge of our lease property. This is the worst-looking, most disturbed part of the place, Management Unit 6. When the quarry was opened in the 1950s, the surface spoil on this side was shoved over onto this area, creating little man-made dunes. People come here to camp, fish, and watch the offshore excitement, because...

  18. FOURTEEN Right Here, Right Now
    (pp. 130-152)

    After three decades of research concerning how species become endangered and eventually go extinct, we had finally come to the point of daring to try something new. If we can understand how species go extinct from human carelessness, can we also develop programs to stop this senseless waste of biodiversity? All conservation is based on the premise that the answer to this question is a general “yes.” In this specific case, can we find clues in the past to make a better future for some Hawaiian plant species, and can we do it fast enough and on a sufficiently large...

  19. FIFTEEN Finding a Future in the Past
    (pp. 153-172)

    Just how far can we go with this idea of using the past to guide the future? I would maintain that we already do so a lot more than is generally acknowledged, and more of this type of reasoning in landscape management is likely to be on the way. It’s just good, plain old common sense. This is what humans do all the time in real life, isn’t it? Other species have this capacity to various degrees as well. The basic process we use every moment in time, to shape or just ride out the present, is to refer to...

  20. Glossary
    (pp. 173-174)
  21. Notes
    (pp. 175-180)
  22. Bibliography
    (pp. 181-188)
  23. Index
    (pp. 189-198)