Here, the challenge is that, once the world is divided into us-versus-them, people perceive the necessity of acting in narrow self-interest and self-defense, which today translates into our-national-interest versus everyone-else’s-interest. Within the sea of millennial conflicts, there are islands of love in the form of pets, such as dogs, cats (descendents of African wildcats), hamsters, guinea pigs or cavy (from the Andes of South America), and rabbits (from Europe). In addition to mammals, African grey parrots, Australian budgies (aka parakeets), common Asian myna birds, and Australian zebra finches are also kept as pets, as well as various species of fish. Some people have painted turtles, box turtles, leopard frogs, or tiger salamanders as pets, whereas others keep such snakes as emerald boas, reticulated pythons, scarlet king snakes, and even Indian cobras. Other reptilian pets include green anoles (a small, arboreal lizard), green iguanas, and alligators. Those interested in insects might have praying mantis or Madagascar hissing cockroaches. The list of pets is a long as your imagination.
In addition to our relationships with domesticated animals, however, our lives and connection with Nature are greatly enhanced by a myriad of wild creatures and plants that perform environmental services vital to our well-being. According to Kate Brauman and colleagues, “Ecosystem services, the benefits that people obtain from ecosystems, are a powerful lens through which to understand human relationships with the environment and to design ecosystem services. The explicit inclusion of beneficiaries [children of all generations] makes values intrinsic to ecosystem services, whether or not those values are monetized.”1
As landscapes are altered to accommodate ever more intensive agriculture and sprawling urban development, three changes occur in humans’ relationship with nature: (1) we increasingly attempt to purify and specialize crop plants—particularly through genetic engineering; (2) we accelerate our move toward monocultures, which decrease diversity and therefore stability; and (3) we increasingly view plants and animals that exert any perceived negative effect on the desired economic outcome as pests to be eliminated. This perception necessitates a growing outlay of capital, time, energy, and such materials as fertilizers and pesticides. Intensified management (meaning attempted control) ensures that many normal biological processes will be seen as competition, which conflicts with production goals and will call for continued artificial simplification of ecosystems. And, yet, the most ubiquitous and irreversible environmental problem society already faces is the loss of biological diversity.
The changing global environment affects the sustainable provision of a wide variety of inherent ecosystem services. Although the availability of these services is strongly influenced by the biophysical effects of land use, as well as the changing climate, it is also moderated by the functional diversity of biological communities.
On of the most important of Nature’s inherent services is pollination, usually thought of as an ecosystem function. Indeed, between 120,000 and 200,000 species of wild and semi-wild pollinators service 80 percent, or 1,330 varieties, of all cultivated crops, including fruits, vegetables, coffee, and tea.2 However, indigenous pollinators, many of which live alone, are declining due to the accelerating loss of habitat and the extensive use of pesticides.3
Recycling of nutrients is an important ecosystem service influenced directly by fish, species of which vary widely in the rates at which they excrete nitrogen and phosphorus. Thus, an alteration in fish communities could affect how nutrients are recycled. For example, overfishing, among other human influences, is reducing the diversity and abundance of fish worldwide, thereby jeopardizing how freshwater aquatic systems function. To better understand the ramifications of the extinction of fish in freshwater aquatic ecosystems, data were collected on the population sizes of fish species and the rates at which they recycled nutrients in a Neotropical river and in Lake Tanganyika, Africa.
In both these species-rich ecosystems, a relatively few species dominated recycling, but contributions of individual species differed with respect to nitrogen and phosphorus. Therefore, alternative patterns of extinctions were widely divergent. For example, the loss of species targeted by fishermen would lead to faster declines in nutrient recycling than if extinctions were to take place in the order of rarity, body size, or position in the food web (the trophic hierarchy).
However, if surviving species were allowed to increase after extinctions, these compensatory responses—ecological backups—had strong moderating effects, even with the disappearance of many species. These results underscore the abiding complexity of predicting the consequences of losing ecosystem services to extinctions of the service providers from species-rich animal communities. Nevertheless, the importance of the ecological services performed by exploited species in nutrient recycling indicates that overfishing could have particularly detrimental effects on how an ecosystem functions.4
Such declines in biodiversity have prompted concern over the unknown consequences of compromising ecosystem processes that account for Nature’s goods and services, on which we humans rely for the quality of our lives. However, relatively few studies have evaluated the functional ramifications of simplifying ecosystems within a realistic, biophysical context. Understanding the real-world outcomes of declining biodiversity will require addressing changes in species composition, as well as their respective contributions to and performances within Nature’s interactive web of life.5
In addition, we must understand and account for the continuance of life’s biological backup systems, those multi-species relationships that act simultaneously as environmental shock absorbers and insurance policies, whereby ecosystems are largely protected against functional collapse. Another major challenge with the loss of the individual services performed by different species is the gradual dismantling of Nature’s self-reinforcing feedback loops, which collectively are the functional engine of every ecosystem.
Maintenance of feedback loops is based on ten postulates of genetic diversity: (1) genetic variation within a species is related to the size of its population; (2) genetic variation within a species is related to the size of its habitat; (3) genetic variation is related to population size within taxonomic groups; (4) widespread species have more genetic variation than restricted ones; (5) genetic variation in animals is negatively correlated with body size; (6) genetic variation is negatively correlated with the rate of chromosome evolution; (7) genetic variation across species is related to population size; (8) vertebrates have less genetic variation than invertebrates or plants; (9) island populations have less genetic variation than mainland populations; and (10) endangered species have less genetic variation than non-endangered ones. Empirical observations support these hypotheses, which means genetic variation is related to the size of a population—large size increases evolutionary potential, whereas small size reduces evolutionary potential in wildlife species. The ability of a species to resist some pathogens is also related to the potential genetic variability of its population size.6 These postulates bring to the fore another kind of feedback loop, one that occurs among the synergisms of many simultaneous environmental changes that are posing unprecedented threats to such areas as today’s tropical rainforests.
When, therefore, we humans tinker willy-nilly with an ecosystem’s composition and structure to suit our short-term economic desires, we risk losing species, either locally or totally, and so reduce, first, the ecosystem’s biodiversity, then its genetic diversity, and finally its functional diversity in ways we might not even imagine. With decreased diversity, we lose existing choices for manipulating our environment. This loss may directly affect our long-term economic viability because the lost biodiversity can so alter an ecosystem that it is rendered incapable of producing what we once valued it for or what we, or the next generation, could potentially value it for again. With the progressive uncoupling of the global ecosystem and the demise of its free services, each generation in its turn will pay a higher price for the same amount of produce. These costs are yet another aspect of the self-reinforcing feedback loop that began with the inception of agriculture.
JUST BEING THERE
Plants and animals also help to ground us symbolically in that we identify with certain species, such as the bald eagle, which is the national symbol of the United States, and the stylized eagles that represent both Austria and Germany. In turn, a leaf of the sugar maple is the emblem on the Canadian flag, and the chrysanthemum is the national flower of Japan. As well, countries and regions are closely identified with specific animals: American Great Plains (American bison and pronghorn antelope), Antarctica (penguins), Arctic (walrus, barren ground caribou and polar bear), Australia (koala and kangaroos), Borneo and Sumatra (orangutan), China (giant panda), India (Bengal tiger and Asian elephant), Kenya (African lion), Komodo Island (Komodo dragon), open ocean (albatross, blue whale), and Siberia (Siberian tiger) to list a few.
In addition to individual species, there are some places in the world, where animals of various types have been assembled through evolution. One such place is the Galápagos Islands, which are formed by a group of 13 major islands located 600 miles (966 kilometers) of the coast of Ecuador. Made famous by Charles Darwin, who first saw them in 1835, the islands—home to the Galápagos tortoise, flightless cormorant, and marine iguana—were the first to be named a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site.
Long before any European saw the islands, they were home to the roughly 300,000 Galápagos tortoise, which can weigh up to 500 pounds (227 kilograms) and live for 150 years. However, sailors killed them for food during the 1800s. Thereafter, tourism began its devastating effects, beginning with 10,000 visitors 30 years ago and 161,000 visitors in 2007. The later netted approximately $350 million, and supported such a large tourist trade, that the local population has grown from a modest 5,000 people to 30,000. Yet, unbeknownst to many tourists, the island lacks a sewage system, which leaves the human-generated sewage to seep into the ground and the sea. As a result of all this, today’s tortoise population is a merely 3,000. And as of 2008, the Galápagos Islands have been the first United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site was added to the listed of Heritage Sites in Danger. Today, the challenge is to keep the islands as close to the way they were when Darwin traversed their shores nearly 200 years ago.7
A vastly different icon of our human interaction with a particular species of is the annual journey of the monarch butterflies. “It’s not just the sheer number of butterflies that is astonishing,” says Jeffrey Kofman of ABC News; “it is the density of them in the landscape. It is as if the trees are covered in a bark of butterflies. Butterflies fall from the trees, landing on our arms and feet. The butterflies’ beauty is a masterpiece of nature, a real-life work of art that is under threat.”8
Monarchs begin life as eggs and hatch as caterpillars, which eat the shells of their eggs and, subsequently, the milkweed plants on which they were placed. Milkweed, which their sole diet as larvae, contains a poison that makes birds retch should they eat one. When fully grown, caterpillars create a hard, protective cocoon around themselves as they enter the chrysalis or pupa stage, wherein they change from a wingless, earthbound caterpillar into a magnificent, black-orange-and-white, winged adult butterfly ready to ride the zephyrs. And just like the bright colors of poison-arrow frogs, the monarch’s glowing orange and black markings warn predators that they will have “post-eating-remorse-syndrome” if they are foolish enough to consume a monarch.
Monarchs that emerge during the longer days of summer are different than those greeting the chill of late summer and early autumn. Born to fly, these monarchs are the only butterflies known to undertake the 4,000 mile-long (6,437 kilometers) autumn journey to the mountaintops in the Mexican state of Michoacán, more than 11,000 feet (3,353 meters) above sea level. But they dare not tarry too long before they commence, lest they succumb to the onset of cold weather.
They are one of the few creatures on earth that can orient themselves both in latitude and longitude. Seafaring humans did not manage that until the 1700’s, when the mechanical clock was invented, set to Greenwich time, and then added to the sextant and compass.9
Only those hatched in late summer or early autumn make the migration, and then only one round trip. A butterfly that goes from Canada to Mexico and partway back lives six to nine months, but when it mates and lays eggs, its life expectancy is about another six weeks. By the time next year’s winter migration begins, five generations will have lived and died. Thus, the current-year’s migrants will be grandchildren several times removed of those that made the trip the previous year. Yet somehow these new generations know the way, following the same routes as their ancestors, and sometimes even returning to the same tree on the same mountaintop—how they where they are going is one of the great mysteries of Nature.
The local people have known about the butterflies for generations, but not until 1975 were scientists able to confirm that these are the same butterflies found during spring and summer in the Great Lake states and Canada. Though hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies fill the skies, once in Mexico, these wonders of Nature are facing a dire threat. Drawn to Michoacán by the cool mountain air and the fir trees called “oyamels,” which are unique to this region, the butterflies perch on their branches and wrap their tiny feet around the trees’ needles.
As the sun rises, touching the myriad butterflies with its warmth, they awaken, bask in the warmth, and take off with a rustling of wings. When the sun begins to set and the temperature drops, the monarchs head back to the forest, where together they hang from the trees and sleep until the sunlight of another day touches their wings and they begin to arouse and to fly.
Their winter home is disappearing, however, because the trees being chopped down by organized syndicates of illegal loggers who routinely cut in forbidden zones. Since 2004, satellite images show that the forests have disappeared due to such logging, leaving the slopes littered with fallen trees and stumps. As well, farmland has crept up to the mountainsides, further shrinking the forests. These circumstances have cause the monarch’s winter home to be listed as a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site in an effort of protect one more of Nature’s common for the wonder of all generations.
Yet, illegal logging and the expansion of farming are not the only threat to the monarch’s survival, global warming is another because it is shifting the seasons of blooming for the wildflowers upon which the adults feed. In addition, genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant strains of corn and soybeans are letting farmers in the United State passively kill more of the milkweed patches upon which the monarchs depend during the onset of their lifecycle.10
Speaking of logging and its effects on national icon, a lowland forest in Indonesian, which is home to about 100 recently reintroduced Sumatran orangutans, could be destroyed within months if a massive logging plan proceeds. “It took scientists decades to discover how to successfully reintroduce critically endangered orangutans from captivity into the wild,” according to Peter Pratje of the Frankfurt Zoological Society. Since Sumatra has already lost nearly half of its natural forest in the 20 years prior to 2007, a critical part of apes’ habitat would be eliminated if logging proceeds. The plan, a joint venture of Asia Pacific Pulp and Paper and Sinar Mas Group has received a license to clear-cut the largest remaining area of original forest outside of the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park in Sumatra’s Jambi province. A road built by Asia Pacific Pulp and Paper into the Bukit Tigapuluh forest has already opened access for rampant illegal logging and thus set the stage for the widespread habitat destruction of both the great apes and about 100 of the last 400 critically endangered Sumatran tigers that remain in the wild. “APP’s [Asia Pacific Pulp and Paper] plan is devastating and it will almost certainly lead to more fatalities since tigers and people will be forced into closer contact with each other as the tigers’ forest disappears,” said Dally Priatna of the Zoological Society of London.11
On a smaller scale, plants and animals are often chosen as symbols to represent the identity for particular states in the United States. The sunflower, for instance, is the state flower of Kansas, and the western meadowlark is the state bird. In Oregon, on the other hand, the Oregon grape is the state flower, the western meadowlark the state bird, and the beaver is the state mammal, as well as the mascot of Oregon State University, whereas a duck represents the University of Oregon. And on a smaller scale still, there is the American football team called the “Philadelphia Eagles” (in the state Pennsylvania) and the Canadian baseball team known as the “Toronto Blue Jays” (in the Province of Ontario). And on a still smaller scale, there are books written about animals, such as the sperm whale in the 1851 novel “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville.
Butterflies and snakes have long been symbols of transformation because the former metamorphoses from an earth-bound caterpillar to an airborne butterfly and the latter sheds its old skin, only to become arrayed in a bright new one. In another vein, deciduous trees are used to represent the branching and growth of a human family (the family tree or genealogy) and the evolution of species (the phylogenetic or evolutionary tree).
Animals and plants so dominate our human cultures that people interested in specific groups of plants or animals for societies, such as the Mycological Society (fungi), European Society for Agronomy (grasses), Maui Orchid Society; Tropical Orchid Society (flower), Rose Society (flower), Penstamen Society (flower), Society of Protozoologists (one-celled organisms) North American Butterfly Association (insects), Niagara Frontier Entomological Society and the Entomological Society of London (insects), Parasitological Society of Southern Africa; Czech Society for Parasitology (parasites), American Elasmobranch Society (sharks), American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (fish, amphibians, reptiles), Audubon Society; American Ornithologists’ Union; British Ornithologists’ Union (birds), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Säugetierkunde; Societas Europaea Mammalogica (mammals), Malaysian Nature Society (all plants and animals), to list a very few.
Animals have even influenced our language: How could you weasel (wiggle) out of your assignment? If you want a new job, you will have to ferret (search) it out. You’re driving me bats (crazy)! Stop tomcatting around (womanizing). Jim has the memory of an elephant (never forgets). This engine has 300 horsepower (the pulling strength of 300 horses hitched together). Carl has the strength of an ox (one hitch of pull something heavy). Are you fishing (looking) for a complement? You can’t buffalo (fool) me! He’s a loan shark (someone after your money). The children are playing leapfrog (hopping over each other in the manner of frogs).
As animals fit into our language, they also fit into our mythology, such as the Christian fable of Jonah and the Whale or the Indigenous American stories of Coyote, Magpie, Eagle, and so on. There is also Ganesha the elephant-headed deity (the Hindu god of success)12 and Hanuman, the mighty monkey deity (the simian embodiment of devotion, dedication and strength), who is among the most popular gods in the Hinduism.13 In ancient Egypt, the sacred scarab (a dung beetle) represented “transformation” to “come into being.”14
With respect to plants, on the other hand, there is something that may surprise you—some communicate with another. Plant internal-defense mechanisms can be activated on an ecosystem-scale in response to temperature stress, and are modulated by the availability water on large scales. Shifts in plant hormones, such as methylsalicylate, can be a significant component in the changes of volatile organic compounds. As such, the methylsalicylate in the canopy air serves as an early chemical warning signal indicating ecosystem-scale stresses to the plants from severe alterations in temperature before visible damage becomes apparent.15
Finally, there is the simple joy of sharing life with plants and animals in a backyard flower and vegetable gardens or gardens designed especially to attract butterflies or birds. Many people also feed local squirrels and put up bird feeders and birdhouses. Some go to wildlife viewing areas, such as wildlife refuges, national parks, and selected seasonal places to watch the annual migration of whales. Others go on guided safaris in Africa to experience the plethora of wildlife or visit the Galápagos Islands (13 major islands located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador) to feel a connection with animals that exhibit little or nor fear of humans. On the other hand, though their numbers of declining, some people still respond to the prehistoric call of the hunt. By whatever mechanism, life is inexorably bound to life as a shared experience.
NO WASTE IN NATURE
Although some people may think it a bit romantic, British philosopher James Allan expressed nicely aesthetic terms how Nature deals with the economic notion of waste, “Nature that she knows no vacuum. She also knows no waste. In Nature, everything is conserved and turned to good account. Even excreta are chemically transmitted, and utilized in the building up of new forms. Nature destroys every foulness, not by annihilation, but by transmutation, by sweetening and purifying it, and making it serve the ends of things beautiful, useful and good.”16
THE COMMONS–OUR HUMAN BIRTHRIGHT
Text © by Chris Maser 2011. All rights reserved.