In 1872 Yellowstone National Park was established as the first National Park not only in the USA, but in the world. President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, and so the National Parks were born. Today 59 National Parks exist throughout the United States, covering approximately 51.9 million acres with the goal of maintaining in perpetuity both wildlife and their habitat. Since 1916 the National Park Service (NPS) has been entrusted with the care of these National Parks, and this year they celebrate their centenary.
The National Parks have been referred to as “America’s best idea”, an ideology that has spread across the globe promoting the conservation of what little natural habitat and resources remain. What began as a single National Park in 1872 has spread to over 100 nations and been built up to approximately 1,200 National Parks.
In the wake of Trump’s shock election win, researchers, scientists, conservationists and a significant proportion of the public are lamenting for our natural world.It is no secret that Donald Trump does not openly believe in climate change, refusing to accept the overwhelming scientific evidence. Not only this but he has also promised to dismantle the Paris Agreement which sought to limit the temperature rise associated with global warming to below 2°C in order to reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.
Today the NPS actively teaches about, and warns of, the dangers of climate change to both the National Parks and the natural world at large. However, it is feared that the NPS will be silenced under a Trump Administration. Under the second Bush Administration talk of climate change by the NPS was prohibited under a decree from the Secretary of the Interior. Similar circumstances are expected under a Trump Administration, with Sarah Palin expected to be made Secretary of the Interior. If this comes to fruition then Palin would oversee the extraction of natural resources on approximately 500 million acres of public land, including the iconic National Parks, such as the Grand Canyon and Yosemite. Palin’s stance on natural resources leaves little hope as she has actively campaigned for the drilling of oil within the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, the nation’s largest Wildlife Refuge, at the expense of the wildlife within it: “If a caribou needs to be sacrificed for the sake of energy … I say, ‘Mr. Caribou, maybe you need to take one for the team.’” Continue reading “Trump and the future of “America’s best idea.””
In 1993 Free Willy leapt onto cinema screens around the world. The story about a young boy who saves a killer whale from a run-down theme park was an instant hit for Warner Bros. However for Keiko, the whale who played Willy, the story did not have a Hollywood ending. While Willy jumped to freedom as the credits rolled, Keiko remained in captivity. What followed was a global effort to return Keiko to the wild at all costs, even to Keiko himself.
Keiko, a male killer whale (Orcinus orca), was born in the North Atlantic off Iceland, sometime between 1977 and 1978. His life took a strange turn when in 1979 he was captured and sent to the Icelandic aquarium in Hafnarfjörður. He was then sold to Marineland of Canada Inc. in 1982 and moved to Ontario, joining a small group of other killer whales. Finally, Keiko was sold to the amusement park Reino Aventura in Mexico City in 1985, for $350,000. While in Mexico Keiko lived alone in an approximately 500,000-gallon chlorinated tank, except for the occasional company of Bottlenose Dolphins. Having little animal companionship, Keiko developed strong bonds with his human carers.
Keiko’s life took an even more unusual twist when he was cast in the lead role of the 1993 Warner Bros. film, Free Willy. This surprise hit reached a global audience and was a huge economic success for the studio. Keiko depicted Willy, a killer whale saved from a run-down theme park and returned to the wild. However when filming ended, Keiko remained in captivity, languishing in Mexico. The irony of the situation did not go unnoticed by the press, and activists waged a public campaign to make Keiko the first captive killer whale to be returned to the wild.
With growing public support, the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation was established in 1995 with $4 million from Warner Bros. and $2 million from the cellphone billionaire Craig McCaw. Reino Aventura agreed to donate Keiko to the foundation and in 1996 he was moved to an extensive 2-million-gallon seawater rehabilitation facility which had been constructed at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, at a cost of $7.3 million. Keiko’s health drastically improved once arriving in Oregon and he gained several thousand pounds. In Oregon, the complex task began of teaching Keiko how to be a whale again. Keiko had to be taught basic skills such as how to hold his breath for long periods, swim greater distances, and to ultimately catch and eat live fish. These skills would be critical if Keiko was to ever be returned to the wild. Progress was made and in August 1997 Keiko did indeed catch and eat his first live fish. While in Oregon Keiko became a public sensation and between 1996 and 1998 more than 2 million visitors made the pilgrimage to the see the Hollywood celebrity at the Aquarium. However Oregon was not the end point of the project.
The staff of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation set the goal of releasing Keiko into a sea pen in the North Atlantic by 1998. Negotiations with multiple governments led to Iceland being selected as the release site. Ireland was also heavily considered and significant government support was put forward, but the lack of frequent killer whale sightings around our coasts made this option unrealistic for Keiko’s long-term release. In 1998 it was determined that Keiko was exhibiting normal killer whale behaviours and was healthy enough to be released. Up to half of Keiko’s daily intake of food now comprised of live fish and on September 9th, Keiko was lifted from his tank and transported to Klettsvik Bay in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland, 19 years after he had been captured.
No expense was spared in Iceland. The project had nearly 20 people, boats and even a helicopter to ensure Keiko’s reintroduction had every chance of success. Keiko’s team continued to feed him while in Iceland and once fitted with a tracking device, Keiko was finally taken out to sea on ‘sea-walks’. The success of the project relied on integrating Keiko into an existing pod of wild killer whales, preferably the pod from which he had been taken. However Keiko’s early interactions with wild killer whales were not as promising as had been hoped. When in the presence of wild killer whales, Keiko remained on the periphery, at distances of 100–300m, and he was not observed feeding when among the wild killer whales. Instead he remained motionless or swam slowly. Stomach samples taken after these interactions showed no evidence of any food remains, confirming that Keiko did not feed when with wild killer whales.
Over time progress was observed and on the 30th July 2002, a brief physical interaction was seen when Keiko dove among wild killer whales. However a tail splash from one of the wild Whales elicited a startle response from Keiko, who swam back to his tracking boat. This was the only time Keiko was seen diving among killer whales and the only physical interaction observed. The project took another hit in early 2002 when Craig McCaw lost millions in the Dotcom Crash and withdrew his support from the project. With annual operational costs of approximately $3.5 million the project was taken over by the animal protection organization, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), with a greatly reduced budget and a ‘tough love’ policy. This policy saw Keiko’s team downsized and interactions with Keiko by his care staff also significantly reduced when in the presence of wild whales. Yet hopes grew when it finally seemed as though the entire experiment had paid off.
In August 2002 Keiko left southern Iceland and began a 900-mile journey to Norway. It was hoped that Keiko had finally been accepted by wild killer whales and had chosen to leave humans. Unfortunately, when he showed up in the Halsa Community inside a Norwegian fjord he wasn’t following a pod of killer whales, he was seeking contact with humans and allowing children to ride on his back. He had been on his own for nearly 60 days, yet based on girth measurements he appeared in good health and it was presumed he had eaten during that period. Keiko became an instant hit and thousands of visitors came from across Europe to visit Keiko in Norway. His caretakers relocated to Norway and began feeding him once again. They continued to conduct ‘sea-walks’ with Keiko for the next 15 months. During his time in Norway Keiko did not interact with any wild killer whales and actively sought out and initiated human contact, frequently following boats. Keiko died on the 12th December 2003 in the Taknes fjord in Norway, alone at the estimated age of 27. The cause of death was presumed to be acute pneumonia, although no necropsy was carried out.
Keiko’s reintegration into the wild was a complete failure according to numerous scientists and professionals, such as Dr Naomi Rose of the HSUS. Although he had numerous experiences with wild killer whales and was physically free to leave, Keiko continually returned to his caretakers for both food and company, never integrating with other whales. In retrospect it has been agreed that Keiko was not a suitable candidate for release due to his long history in captivity, social isolation, young age at capture and strong bonds with humans. However, Keiko’s story hit an unusual chord with the public and the public’s drive to see Keiko returned to the wild was something of which animal rights groups unashamedly took advantage, according to Dr Rose.
Costing more than $20 million dollars, Keiko’s release has shown us that release of long-term captive killer whales is incredibly challenging, if not impossible. Although we might find it appealing as humans to release such animals, in reality this may severely impact the well-being of the animals concerned. The HSUS and other groups involved in Keiko’s release wanted Keiko released at any cost and Jeffrey Foster, a trainer who cared for Keiko in Oregon and Iceland, believes that “the cause got in the way of doing the right thing [for Keiko]”. Mark Simmons, the director of animal husbandry for the Keiko Project, has even gone on to speculate that Keiko’s release from captivity amounted to animal abuse. Mr. Simmons has noted that Keiko’s health was drastically impacted when he was reintroduced and had it not been for continued medical interventions, Keiko would have died shortly after release.
In reality Keiko was a confused animal who depended on people, and the fact that his return to the wild was not a Hollywood success has raised huge concerns over the ethics of trying to return other captive Whales and dolphins to the wild. There has been a recent surge in opinions asking for the release of all captive killer whales, however if Keiko has thought us anything, it is that this is potentially self-serving and could be dangerous to the individual animals concerned. Today approximately 56 killer whales live in human care, the majority of whom were born in captivity. If Keiko, an animal born in the wild and with every resource available to him, could not be returned to the wild successfully, then what can we expect of animals born in captivity? And who can we expect to pay for it, considering that the sheer cost of maintaining Keiko in a sea pen proved unsustainable.
Keiko lived for five years in Iceland and Norway, but he never came close to being a wild whale again. Removing Keiko from Mexico was undoubtedly the right thing to do, however the best thing for Keiko in the long-term may not have been his release. The fact that maintaining Keiko in Iceland was financially unsustainable, and that Keiko never reintegrated into the wild, suggests that the best thing for Keiko may have been to live out his life in Oregon. Residing at the Oregon Coast Aquarium would have provided long-term financial stability to the project, ensuring the best possible quality of life for Keiko and perhaps even extending his life. This would also have allowed Keiko to remain in the company of the humans he relied on so much, rather than being forced into a life that he maybe never truly understood.
In 1884, the English theologian and pedagogue Edwin A. Abbott wrote a romance called “Flatland”, in which he described a two dimensional world. The rigid and hierarchically organized society of Flatland develops in the large plane in which it lives, and flat authorities control that no flat citizen (the inhabitants are all flat geometric figures) escapes from the two-dimension reality. The book is a social satire as well as an exploration of the concept of multiple dimensions. Furthermore, it can also be viewed as a critic of narrow worldviews stubbornly based on old paradigms.
The novel’s example can be used to argue that despite the proliferation of metrics, our decision making process tends to be guided by the quasi-imposed limited set of information tools – mainly economic – that we use every day. In other words, concepts like Earth System, Planetary boundaries or biophysical limits, environmental sustainability, social welfare and other important elements of our life on this planet are not satisfactorily incorporated in our knowledge horizon.
The current economic worldview is based on the idea that a free market works for the 100% of the population. Thus, economic growth (as measured by growth in GDP) is the political mantra: “the rising tide that lifts all boats”. A recent study published on Global Environmental Change (available here) gives a different point of view by including the environment and the society in the economic picture.
National economies are investigated in a 3-axis diagram (a cube), where each dimension is a different compartment. In this way, the relationships between environment, society and economy are represented in a single framework without losing the specific information. This framework recognizes a physical (and also thermodynamic, and logical) order, highlighting the dependence of the economy on societal organization and, primarily, on the environment.
From this three-dimensional perspective emerges that the economic activity is always strictly correlated with the use of natural resources, and that social well-being is often neglected. Over a total number of 99 national economies investigated within the cube, none of them is at the same time environmentally sustainable, economically rich (high GDP), and equal in the distribution of income.
This means that growing GDP is beneficial for a limited fraction of the overall population, while the vast majority has to deal with increasing environmental problems and worsening ecological status. Moreover, decoupling economic growth and natural resources consumption, seeking the so-called dematerialization, is found very complicated. Continuous growth in GDP implies consequences especially for the poorest individuals and communities: “the rising tide is lifting the yachts and swamping the rowboats” (Dietz and O’Neill, 2013).
Politicians are looking at the world around as a mono-dimensional economic universe. This is due to the fact that economists play a relevant role within governments. We need ecologists and social scientists playing an equally relevant role, in order to finally show politics we live in a three-dimensional world.
F.M. Pulselli, L. Coscieme, L. Neri, A. Regoli, P.C. Sutton, A. Lemmi, S. Bastianoni, “The world economy in a cube: A more rational structural representation of sustainability”; Global Environmental Change 35, 41-51, 2015 (doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2015.08.002)
Dietz and D. O’Neill, “Enough is Enough”; London: Earthscan, 2013.
For those of us with an interest in the natural world, Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) are a staple of urban wildlife in Dublin, present in many parks and along both canals. However, it has been 25 years since there has been any real assessment of the state of the Mute Swan population in the Dublin region (1). This has been a period of immense change in the urban landscape.
This summer, the Irish Midlands Ringing Group (IMRG) started a monitoring project to assess the state of the Mute Swan population in the Dublin region and to better understand their population dynamics, coordinated by Graham Prole of the IMRG https://irishmidlandsringing.wordpress.com/2015/10/05/mute-swan-colour-ringing/. The first stage of the project was a comprehensive survey of breeding by swans in the Dublin region. This revealed high nest occupancy rates, with 42 pairs successfully producing cygnets, an increase on the last survey 25 years ago. The monitoring of these breeding attempts is ongoing, with 20 pairs still with cygnets. The new habitat provided by the artificial lakes constructed in parks in the Dublin suburbs (such as Tymon Park in Tallaght), seems to have been a significant boon to the swan population. Breeding success was particularly high in these parks, likely helped by members of the public regularly feeding the swans in these areas.
The results of the swan breeding survey have raised more questions. While breeding success seems to be high, bachelor herds (groups of juveniles who have been forced out by their parents and adult birds who have yet to win a territory) are much reduced in traditional locations. To gain a better understanding of the population dynamics and movements of the Dublin region swan population, the IMRG has commenced a colour ringing scheme. The colour rings are yellow darvic rings with a unique inscription in black letters fitted to the swan’s leg.
Catching the swans for ringing is greatly aided by the fact that many of them are used to being fed bread by the public, but it can still be a daunting task to the uninitiated. Mute Swans are powerful birds, with a reputation for being aggressive (a reputation which some individuals certainly live up to!). They are caught by hand when they come to feed on bread, taking care to prevent them from flapping and straining their wings. The ring is quickly attached and they are released back onto their patch. The swans quickly recover and don’t seem to hold any grudge, as ringed individuals often return to take bread from the team which ringed them!
To date, over 60 swans have been colour ringed. Re-sightings of these rings allow the lives of individual swans to be followed without any further disturbance. Of particular interest is the dispersal of juvenile swans and the recruitment of bachelor birds into the breeding population. This project is already beginning to generate data as the first juveniles begin to disperse to join bachelor herds, with ringed juveniles moving from Tallaght to the Grand Canal, Swords estuary and Bray Harbour. The furthest dispersal distance so far has been 18km. The colour rings are large enough to be easily read by members of the public, promoting community engagement with the project. Any re-sightings would be greatly appreciated and can be sent to email@example.com.
A special thanks to Graham Prole for coordinating this project, to all IMRG members who helped at the catches and to South Dublin and Kildare County Councils who provided permission and financial support. This work was carried out under licence from the National Parks and Wildlife Service and British Trust for Ornithology.
Collins, R. and Whelan J. (1994) Movements in an Irish Mute Swan Cygnus olor Ringing and Migration. 15: 40-19. doi: 10.1080/03078698.1994.9674070
Dr Dannielle Green from the Biogeochemistry Research Group in Geography is about to return from an adventure in the South Atlantic where she was hunting for microplastics in some of the world’s most remote islands.
Plastic debris can be found in every country around the world and larger items like plastic bags and bottles can have obvious impacts, such as entanglement, ingestion and suffocation of seabirds, turtles and mammals. But even when plastic breaks down, it persists as small pieces called “microplastics” and in this form can still cause harm to a wide range of marine organisms who unwittingly eat it. Microplastics have been found in marine waters all over the globe but sampling has mostly focused on areas adjacent to large human populations, very little is known about concentrations in remote islands like Ascension Island and the Falkland islands. In collaboration with Dr David Blockley from the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI), Dr Dannielle Green from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland flew out to the South Atlantic to assess the situation.
Water samples were taken from a range of sites around Ascension Island and the Falklands and every site was found to contain microplastics. In fact, the concentrations found were surprisingly high.
Dr Green presented her work to the Falkland islanders by giving a public lecture at the Chamber of Commerce which was well attended with a mixed audience including government officials, fishermen, the general public and the local television crew. She explained the potential issues of microplastic pollution and a thoughtful discussion about solutions later ensued with input from the audience.
Microplastics can absorb toxic substances from the water column. In this way, they can become like “pills” of concentrated toxic chemicals that could be consumed by creatures like worms, shellfish, fish and mammals and can be transferred through the food web.
Pollution of natural habitats by microplastics is a global problem that we are only just beginning to understand, but it is one that is expected to get worse as plastic production continues to rise. Dr Green’s research explores the wider effects of microplastics on marine ecosystems. Through this work, she hopes to provide scientifically sound recommendations that will feed into policy and help protect our ecosystems.
https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/save-our-seas-from-the-microplastic-threat#/story and Dannielle Green
Most of us have some inbuilt sense of right and wrong; don’t steal and don’t murder are as basic to us as our ability to breathe. But where does this moral sense come from? In general, people of a scientific bent don’t attribute it to God nor as some sort of free floating truth that can be grasped by the human intellect. If you hold a materialistic view, that is to say the idea that at its base the universe is composed of energy and matter, then it’s next to impossible to understand morality in those terms. Instead the scientific view proposes our morality is an evolved feature, something which gave group-living animals a selective advantage over their amoral competitors. A social group that tries to cooperate when it’s made up primarily of murderers, thieves and cheats won’t get very far. By contrast a crowd of goodies can gain the many benefits of cooperation.
There is a problem with this theory though. Irrespective of its truth, an evolved morality renders us with a situation where there is nothing objectively right or wrong about anything. Even an act of murder isn’t intrinsically immoral. One way to think of this is to compare it with our other adaptations. We don’t consider any other evolved traits ‘moral’, it’s not as if four legs good, two legs bad is something people really espouse. What we’re left with is a moral nihilism.
‘So what?’ you might ask. We’re a smart species, we can decide for ourselves the best way to act such that our society can flourish. Why don’t we adopt some sort of utilitarianism, the moral system that promotes the greatest happiest for the most, and judge the rightness or wrongness of our acts that way? Indeed this is the way most secular societies establish what is permissible today. This idea can even allow for the expansion of our moral circle to include other beings who are capable of suffering.
Yet the modern understanding of our selves means even a created morality still can’t fairly punish or praise for a simple reason: humans have lost their soul. Modern neuroscience tells us there is no actor in our minds making decisions moral or otherwise. We are our brains, nothing more. There is no ‘I’, no ‘ghost in the machine’. The idea of a freely willed agent who can separate his or her self from their genetics and environment is anathema to anyone who takes materialism seriously.
Much follows from this. Most notably our justice system should be radically re-evaluated in light of this idea to become more biologically informed. Currently persons with certain mental disabilities are afforded more leniency when it comes to their sentencing because they are said not to be in full possession of rational thought processes. Something has affected their ability to have done otherwise. But as automata this is true for every person who has ever existed. This is not to say that we should open up the prisons and free every criminal the world over rather that we should focus much more on promoting environments that cause people to act in a way conducive to a functioning society.
We are all of us robots acting on inputs. Some people take these inputs and act like ‘goodies’ whereas others can take the same information and behave like ‘baddies’. Take your pick of a hero or tyrant from history. They don’t deserve your respect or your contempt. That is the price of a biological morality.
I sometime come across papers that I missed during their publication time and that shed a new light on my current research (or strengthen the already present light). Today it was Cartmill’s 2012 Evolutionary Anthropology – not open access, apologies…
Cartmill raises an interesting question from an evolutionary point of view: “How long ago did the first [insert your favorite taxa here] live?”. This question is crucial for any macroevolutionary study (or/and for the sake of getting a chance to be published in Nature). If one is studying the “rise of the age of mammals” (just for example of course) the question of the exact timing is crucial to see whether placental mammals evolved after or before the extinction of avian dinosaurs.
Because Cartmill published in Evolutionary Anthropology let’s replace [insert your favorite taxa here] with humans. He proposes to answer to the question “How long ago did the first humans live?” by looking at the different ways people have addressed it through time. It all starts back with Simpson’s quantum evolution stating that clades share “adaptive shifts” or “adaptive trends”. For example, for humans, that will be bipedalism and an increase in brain size: “Everybody can sort humans out instantly from other sorts of things: […] they share a unique reliance on technology, a capacity for culture, and a gift for gab.”
This is an unfortunate classical view of evolution based on morphological data leading to a series of morphological discontinuities – the adaptive shifts (“human origins, primate origins, mammal origins, amniote origins, and so on” – I already discussed this gradualistic view about tetrapod origins). Cartmill uses a pertinent quote from Simpson to comment this trend: “Is this not, in fact, simply a recrudescence of the old naïve conception of a scala naturae[?]”. However, this raises a cladistic problem. Assuming we have the data on the oldest human. What defines his or her humanness? “Humanness [whatever that means] is not a coherent package. We have known since the 1960s that our terrestrial bipedality evolved more than two million years before the onset of what was long held to be the fundamental human characteristic, that is the great development of the brain.’’
Cartmill’s point is that, morphologically, there is no adaptive shift or trend that can define any group. Morphological evolution acts more like a succession of slow and discrete incremental changes rather than the Simpsonian quantum model: “there is only a long, geologically slow cascade of accumulating small apomorphies” and adaptive trends or shifts within clades “are fantasies, born ultimately of our wish to see ourselves as more decisively set off from other animals than we actually are.”
Will I have to rethink my current project looking at mammals morphological evolution? Well by using molecular data as well as morphological data we can accurately trace back the small incremental changes (the DNA mutations) as well as the actual changes in morphology through time. My PhD is not just a series of failures after all!
Many aspects of human nature seem to frustrate our ideal of a modern society. This is especially true of our morality. We seem to have evolved a brain with two systems relevant to moral behaviour. The first, more ancient component is automatic, judging things as disgusting or inherently wrong very quickly; the second is our slower acting higher-level thinking which has a controlled reasoned process. However the two are not independent, with our more modern system taking its cues from the more primitive part. An evolved morality does suggest that there is no absolute right or wrong, rather it promoted behaviours conducive to fitness.
World peace is unlikely when our moral intuition works on the acts/omission doctrine. This is the doctrine that differentiates between circumstances when we actively perform an action and when we neglect to do it. A person is deemed a murderer if they push a person off a bridge but isn’t if they, by omission, fail to prevent the death. The parallels to people outside of our moral circle, in the developing world, for example, are obvious.
Another serious moral shortcoming is our failure to cooperate, which is most frequently explained through the tragedy of the commons i.e. our inability to invest in the long term interest of the group owing to our rational self-interest. Global warming is one notable problem that is proving difficult to combat because of this inherent tendency.
The free-rider problem is also ubiquitous, whether it is a rich tax dodger or illegal welfare claimant. The majority of us pay a cost for some benefit while a minority piggybacks on the benefits without having to pay a thing. Hardly fair. We have evolved mechanisms to deal with such cheats, for example through indirect reciprocity, but it would be far better if there was no need.
All of this is a précis to the main topic of this post. As we gain more insights into the neurology and psychology of our morality we’ll be able to manipulate it for our own (hopefully) positive ends. This is quite clearly a controversial idea but we already treat people to make them more moral albeit in a crude way, notably chemical castration of sex offenders. Is it really wrong to stop our parochial and short sighted biases?
Julian Savulescu is one proponent of human moral bioenhancement. He argues that humanity’s future is not safe in our own hands because of our inherent moral failings. His suggestions are novel to say the least. We could look to enhance our sense of altruism and trust by manipulating oxytocin levels which would make our prospects rosier. It could also be the case that those in power create a population of exceedingly trusting sheep over which they could rule. His moral philosophy is from the utilitarian school of thought – the greater good. And this school seems most in line with an evolved morality where there are no absolutes but that’s not to say there aren’t enormous problems with it. How do we convince people to take a supplement that will change their very nature when they are opposed to it?
In Brave New World, it is the people who eschew the psychological benefits of the drug soma who are made out to lead a more authentic existence. But can we afford to live the life of savages when it could lead to our annihilation?
Apologies in advance for this perhaps unconstructive rant! But I’ve found the process cathartic after spending my whole holiday worrying that someone nearby was going to get kicked, crushed or eaten through their own stupidity!
For my summer holiday this year I spent a week in Yellowstone National Park in the USA. It was awesome apart from one thing: the people.
Everywhere you go in Yellowstone and the surrounding areas (including a brilliant sign showing you how to bear-proof your bird feeder in the bathrooms of a BBQ joint in Jacksons Hole) you find warnings about bears. These warnings exist because bears can be extremely dangerous. Male grizzly bears, which are common in Yellowstone, can weigh up to 360 kg and their bite could crush a bowling ball. Not something you want to mess with at close hand! Both male and female grizzlies can also be extremely aggressive when defending their young or a food supply, or if they are surprised and feel threatened. [If you’re still not convinced that you should be wary of bears I suggest watching the excellent and disturbing documentary “Grizzly Man”]. The warnings remind visitors to keep all their food and scented items (including toiletries) contained at all times, to make a noise on hiking trails to make bears aware of your presence, and to always stay at least 100 feet from a bear. These warnings are not only so the park can avoid lots of bear-related injuries, they are also there to protect the bears. If a bear becomes reliant on human food it will become a nuisance and start raiding campsites etc. This eventually leads to the bear needing to be killed or relocated. So the warnings are good for the bears AND good for the visitors, which means everyone follows them right? No, because people are idiots.
Yellowstone also has some other amazing large mammals, notably bison and red deer. The red deer (Cervus elaphus) in the USA are known as elk and they’re bloody huge compared to the red deer we get in Europe (see pictures). Unfortunately the elk have realised that the nicest grass in the park is around Mammoth where the many visitor services (including the park office, staff village, hotel, shops and restaurant) are surrounded by beautifully manicured lawns. This means that one of the most densely populated tourist areas is also covered in female elk grazing while keeping a watchful eye on their offspring asleep in the shade. This presents a real problem to the park rangers who seem to spend most days trying to prevent traffic jams and accidents caused by elk in the road and overexcited tourists. They put up loads of signs warning people to keep their distance from the elk to prevent injury. Of course everyone obeys these warnings right? No, because people are idiots.
Finally, there are huge herds of bison roaming Yellowstone. They’re gorgeous and definitely my favourite feature of the park, even if they do have the habit of looking like bears from a distance! They are probably the most problematic animals for the park rangers because they often graze along the sides of the roads. This causes traffic jams when they block the road, but also allows tourists to pull up on the verge and get really close to take pictures. Generally the bison are fairly docile, but during rutting season every year at least a couple of tourists get gored or thrown by male bison. Again the park rangers warn everyone to stay at least 25 feet away from bison at all times. But do people pay attention? No, because people are idiots.
There is always a temptation to blame this on national stereotypes and suggest that people here would never do anything as stupid. Luckily Dusty the dolphin appeared this summer to give us an Irish flavor of idiocy! Dusty is a dolphin that lives in County Clare in a harbour. This summer, because of the unusually nice weather (thanks global warming!), poor Dusty was being harassed by swimmers trying to touch her and ride around on her back like she was Flipper. Of course Dusty is a wild animal so she reacted like a wild animal by attacking a number of people, leaving one woman in hospital with internal injuries. The local authorities repeatedly warned people to stay out of the harbour and to leave Dusty alone, but all summer there were more reports of people getting back into the water with her. Why? Because people are idiots.
But perhaps I’m being a little harsh here? Nothing quite compares to the thrill of spotting your first “something awesome” in the wild, so I can completely understand why people get overexcited (the first time I saw a hummingbird I jumped up and down repeatedly squealing “hummingbird!” which would be fine if I hadn’t also been 27, on my own, and on a guided tour of Alcatraz at the time). However, after that initial rush, the response to a wild animal must be guided by the fact it is wild. Perhaps the problem is that bears, bison, elk and dolphins are charismatic, and we’ve all grown up watching cartoons and documentaries about them so we don’t have a healthy level of fear? Perhaps this is something we need to make clearer in documentaries? In particular I think we need to show how far away the camera is when the beautiful close up shots are taken. Many people visiting national parks are disappointed by seeing an animal at a distance, but this is because we’ve all been conditioned to expect to be as close as David Attenborough appears to be. We also need to be more honest about animal behavior in the wild. Documentaries have a tendency to anthropomorphize animals making them appear unthreatening and cutting out anything too graphic. But in the wild it’s a constant struggle for survival that leaves very little room for altruism. Male lions kill the cubs of other males when they take over a pride; dominant meerkats will viciously attack subdominants that become pregnant, often killing them and their offspring in the process; and chimps will rip the limbs off colobus monkeys (and chimps from nearby groups) and eat them. Nature is “red in tooth and claw” and perhaps we need to make more effort to teach people this before they go to national parks and put themselves, their families and the animals at risk?
Author and Photos: Natalie Cooper, ncooper[at]tcd.ie, @nhcooper123
What images come to mind when you think of a field ecologist? Do you see what I see? I see someone, probably in khaki shorts and a broad-brimmed hat, walking through thick rainforest, listening to the calls of birds, waving off insects determined to find a patch of skin to bite, and smelling the exotic aromas of plants and animals living, dying and decaying.
You may well be thinking that this is an idealised image of a field ecologist and while it may have been true 50 years ago, it’s harder to imagine now. After all, every day we hear about habitat destruction and how mankind is damaging the natural environment. But I’d like to propose that even 50 years, or 100 years, or even 1000 years ago mankind was having an impact on the environment and this idea of the ‘natural’ world really needs rethinking.
Take, as an Irish example, the Burren. I visited this area for the first time a few weeks ago and was stunned by the rugged beauty of the place. It was sparsely populated, only a few sheep and cows (and the occasional donkey) provided evidence of any human presence in places; how much more ‘natural’ could one get? Plenty more, it turns out, as the entire landscape is the result of human impacts.
The entire area is littered with signs of prehistoric people, the most striking of which was the 5,000 year old Poulnabrone portal tomb. This tomb dominates a limestone pavement with a view that stretches for miles across to the sea. Yet reading the information boards it quickly became apparent that this was not the landscape in which the tomb was constructed. At that time the area was heavily forested with small clearings made by people to farm and build their homes. The tomb would most probably have been largely hidden from all but those who knew its location. Yet over the next few thousand years people cut down more and more trees to make use of the timber and to clear the way for more farmland. However, the trees were the only thing holding the thin soil in place and with the loss of the trees, the soil soon followed, until all that was left were patches of vegetation and entire hillsides of exposed limestone bedrock. That stunning ‘natural’ landscape is the result of ancient habitat destruction!
A similar story can be told across much of the world. New Zealand, adopted home of the hobbits, with its fields and rolling hills, was once almost entirely forest. Yet when the Maori reached the islands around a thousand years ago they proceeded to reduce the forest cover by almost half, and the European settlers reduced it by half again. In addition, the loss of so many endemic species also led to changes in the structure of the remaining forests, though precisely how is still being debated.
It’s the same the word over. Take, as a final example, Australia. The sixth largest country, the world’s largest island, yet it has only 0.33% of the world’s population. Surely humans can’t have had much of an impact there? Well, yes they can, particularly if you think that they are at least partly responsible for the loss of the megafauna. For more details on that I highly recommend Tim Flannery’s 1994 book ‘The Future Eaters’, with the teaser that I never knew that dung was so important to a properly functioning ecosystem! But even ignoring that, Aborigines had a long and close association with the land, heavily modifying environments through activities including the use of controlled burning.
I could go on (and on, and on) for every habitat on almost every continent, but it would get rather monotonous. My point is that when we look at the ‘natural’ word we rarely see something that’s never been touched by man however far into the ‘wilds’ we go. The ‘natural’ world has been modified, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, for thousands of years as countless generations have struggled to survive and prosper. Ecology, however much we like to think otherwise, always involves a human component. Sometimes the humans who made the impacts have long gone and the landscapes have become so normal and ‘natural’ its hard to think there was a time they were ever different. But if we are to understand the world we need to understand the historic impacts we have had, not just on climate, not just in towns and cities, but also on the ‘natural’ world.
Sarah Hearne: hearnes[at]tcd.ie
Ewers et al. (2006) Biological Conservation113:312-325