Meet the Ecological Supertramp

Illustration for article titled Meet the Ecological Supertramp

Supertramp was a popular rock band in the 1970s. Thanks to superfan scientist Jared Diamond, their name also became an official biological term. Supertramp species get around, but you don't want them moving into your area.


Nature is a tough place to live. If you don't get eaten, or acquire a nasty parasite, or just starve, you might be wiped out, along with everything else around you, by a volcano. If it's not a volcano it might be an earthquake, or a tidal wave, or any other natural disaster that regularly blights entire regions. When these disasters happen, they leave an empty space, ready to be filled by whatever neighboring species managed to survive the cataclysm.

Illustration for article titled Meet the Ecological Supertramp

Diamond spent some time studying this phenomenon in 1974. Working in New Guinea, he observed which animals and plants came back after widespread disasters. New Guinea comprises many different environments, and they didn't all bounce back the same way. Coastal regions reached an equilibrium fairly quickly, as native species, especially birds, came back to fill their usual niches. Mountainous regions stayed blighted. Their usual bird species were slow to return. As birds are known for their ability to get around easily, Diamond looked for reasons why the mountain birds tarried in their return.

The fault was with what Diamond called the "supertramp" species. Named after both itinerant tramps and the band Supertramp, these species were animals that dispersed quickly and easily. Unlike many local birds, the supertramp birds that came back were generalists. They didn't require a certain type of home, or a specific type of food, or anything else. They made their homes where they could and ate whatever was on hand. Because the fauna needed to support specialist species was wiped out, or at least limited, specialists stayed clear of the region. The supertramps were not limited - they did the limiting. By grabbing up food and shelter, they prevented local, specialized species from returning.

"Supertramp species" is now a recognized term. Diamond studied birds, but supertramps can be insects, mammals, or reptiles. Anything that doesn't specialize and gets around. Experts find these species, and document their detrimental effects on newly-devastated zones. Now if only we could find a Superfreak species.

[Via Colonization of Exploded Volcanic Islands By Birds, The Origin of a Supertramp Clade.]



I lived in Eastern Washington during the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helen's. The summer immediately after, we started to notice that there had been a marked decline in mosquitoes and other insects. We alsl noticed that the spring and summer morning and nights were seemed like there was less noise from birds, insects, and frogs. Very weird...I don't know if there were any studies, or if it just seemed that way.