The story of a painting

Nancy Bunbury, Director of Science and Conservation for the Seychelles Islands Foundation

The Seychelles Islands Foundation and the Royal Society recently held a scientific symposium to celebrate 50 years of the Aldabra Atoll research station, which was built and launched by the Royal Society, in 1971. One of the focal points of the day was this wonderful painting, ‘Aldabra AD 2070’, by palaeontologist and paleo-artist Julian Pender Hume. The image attracted a lot of attention so here’s the inside story of how this amazing artwork was conceived…

Aldabra AD 2070 by Julian Pender Hume

By far the most urgent conservation action needed for Aldabra, an atoll widely renowned as being in relatively outstanding condition (for an oceanic island), is eradication of invasive mammals. Aldabra is often described as ‘pristine’ or ‘undisturbed’, but with rats having been there for over 1000 years, and cats for over 100 years, these terms are inaccurate. We know enough about how rats and cats devastate island biodiversity to realise that Aldabra is, in fact, an extreme case of shifted baselines. We don’t know what was there before these mammals were introduced. How many birds, invertebrates, reptiles and plants were wiped out before they could be recorded? We’ll probably never know the complete answer but the fossil record is helping to fill in some of the gaps.

Some words to raise eyebrows if applied to an atoll almost entirely invaded by rats

Given the importance of an eradication, we wanted to include a symposium session on the impacts of invasive mammals, to showcase some of the huge body of research showing staggeringly positive impacts of invasive mammal removal on island native biodiversity, and conclude with what these impacts might mean for Aldabra. The documented impacts so far are mostly terrestrial, and mammal eradications have long been conducted and viewed primarily as a way to kickstart terrestrial island restoration. What’s been lacking until very recently is convincing evidence about their impacts on marine and coastal health. But in 2018, a strong link between rats on islands and surrounding marine ecosystem health was confirmed; thanks to this extraordinary research led by Nick Graham, we now know that coral reefs around islands without rats (hence more seabirds, more guano...) are more resilient.

The importance of this, and other similar research, cannot be overstated – the upshot is that invasive mammal eradications are not ‘only’ hugely effective as a starting point for restoring island seabird, vegetation, landbird and reptile populations, but they are a formidable tool to support coral reef recovery and resilience. At a point in history when it looks likely that most coral reefs will have disappeared by the end of the century, this astonishing and hopeful finding makes it abundantly clear that funding must be prioritised for mammal eradications on islands with coral reefs.

Another depiction of the potential changes and especially the connections between land and sea is shown in this beautiful split-scene pre- and post-eradication artwork by Maria Bielsa

It isn’t stretching credibility either, to assert that eradication impacts will go further. It seems certain that rat presence on islands also compromises adjacent mangrove and seagrass habitats and I’m fully expecting to see research confirming this in the next few years. Even without evidence (yet) for mangrove and seagrass links, mammal eradication is likely to be effective in substantially improving the carbon capture potential of marine ecosystems and therefore a potent tool to buffer the impacts of climate change. If mangroves and seagrass show similar deterioration with rat presence, the case for eradicating mammals will be overwhelming.

So, with mammal eradication from islands being critical for:

1) Restoring island biodiversity

2) Boosting coral reef resilience (and likely other marine habitats)

3) Improving carbon capture

…the only remaining question is ‘what are we waiting for?’ And how is this connected to the painting?

What indeed? Well, funding for a start. But before this, we needed support and agreement from a large group of people that eradication is needed, and to set the foundations for ensuring that Aldabra’s eradication is successful. We needed a powerful way to show the audience, and even colleagues, that Aldabra, amazing as it is, is still a very very long way from being pristine. The second session of the symposium was a series of talks by researchers at the cutting edge of the impacts of mammal removal from islands. But we still needed a way for the audience, and potential funders and supporters to be able to see what these lessons and research might mean for Aldabra, not via numbers and graphs but using art, to visualise the story, to make the scientific results more engaging, and to invite the audience to really IMAGINE Aldabra without these invasive mammals.

And this is where Julian came in. I’d been a fan of Julian’s artwork since meeting him on Mauritius more than 20 years ago and, aware of his wonderful depictions of extinct Mascarene fauna, I knew he’d be perfect for what was needed. So I asked him if he could paint a future Aldabra, after rats and cats had been eradicated, and work with us to imagine and depict a rat/cat-free atoll. He was thrilled by the idea and, although he usually paints scenes and species from the past, he fully embraced the opportunity to paint the ‘future’.

I then asked a group of SIF staff, collaborating scientists, and other experts what they thought the potential impacts of an eradication might be and what could be shown in the picture. Their many superb ideas were discussed, then collated and Julian tried to fit as many as he could into the final image, reconciling our requests with the landscape and split-scene perspective we’d decided on to showcase the land-sea connectivity, and his artistic inner voice insisting it shouldn’t appear too ‘cluttered’. Up until a few days before the symposium, Julian was still adding details to flesh out the vision, and the painting was only unveiled to the public and to most of SIF at the symposium.

Julian Pender Hume, the artist and palaeontologist, with his painting at the Royal Society

The resulting image is mind-blowing and even better than we expected. It’s a spectacular and evocative painting, rich in detail, and a perfect fusion of science and art. It’s thoroughly convinced me that, as scientists (and practitioners), we should be making more use of art and imagination.

Inviting the audience to imagine a future Aldabra without rats and cats…

And the details of the painting itself… well, in short, drawing on research from eradication impacts, the fossil record, and biogeographical speculation, the envisaged changes for Aldabra post-eradication include: far greater seabird, landbird, reptile and invertebrate populations with broader distributions; newly colonising and recolonizing landbird and seabird species, including the return of the currently missing guild of smaller and ground-nesting seabirds; more guano in and around seabird colonies; higher nutrient input into the water; more plankton; faster coral growth and more resilient coral; more fish; more seagrass; more marine megafauna such as manta rays, dugongs and sharks; more turtle hatchlings; far more invertebrates; more fruit, lower seed predation and many more seedlings; higher biomass on land and in the water; more crabs; much more life in the mangrove habitats (where rats currently thrive and decimate everything); more connectivity; and a wider range of interactions than we see today….

So this is the vision, and it will now act as an inspiration and driver in our efforts to remove invasive mammals from Aldabra.
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