Blog 11: Environmental Series – The Balance of Nature

If everyone would look behind the beauty of nature they would also begin to understand the balance of nature and how it is striving to maintain this balance. This can be done beneficially or destructively. This can be seen with our increasingly stronger hurricanes. If man would quit upsetting this balance by heating the air and water the hurricanes might be gentler, but we must have machines that use large amounts of fossil fuels.

The story described below is a description of what nature can do if we let it. As a boy I went fox hunting with my father in the winter. I have always disliked shooting most animals with the most being an exception for possums and armadillos. My most memorable experience hunting was watching the fox making its moves in the snow to fool the dogs (which they did).

The following story came from a Ted Talk by George Mombiot, “The new political story that could change everything.” The story is self-explanatory.

And it was only when I stumbled across an unfamiliar word that I began to understand what I was looking for. And as soon as I found that word, I realized that I wanted to devote much of the rest of my life to it.

The word is “rewilding,” and even though rewilding is a young word, it already has several definitions. But there are two in particular that fascinate me. The first one is the mass restoration of ecosystems.

One of the most exciting scientific findings of the past half century has been the discovery of widespread trophic cascades. A trophic cascade is an ecological process which starts at the top of the food chain and tumbles all the way down to the bottom, and the classic example is what happened in the Yellowstone National Park in the United States when wolves were reintroduced in 1995. Now, we all know that wolves kill various species of animals, but perhaps we’re slightly less aware that they give life to many others. It sounds strange, but just follow me for a while. Before the wolves turned up, they’d been absent for 70 years. The numbers of deer, because there was nothing to hunt them, had built up and built up in the Yellowstone Park, and despite efforts by humans to control them, they’d managed to reduce much of the vegetation there to almost nothing, they’d just grazed it away. But as soon as the wolves arrived, even though they were few in number, they started to have the most remarkable effects. First, of course, they killed some of the deer, but that wasn’t the major thing. Much more significantly, they radically changed the behavior of the deer. The deer started avoiding certain parts of the park, the places where they could be trapped most easily, particularly the valleys and the gorges, and immediately those places started to regenerate. In some areas, the height of the trees quintupled in just six years. Bare valley sides quickly became forests of aspen and willow and cottonwood. And as soon as that happened, the birds started moving in. The number of songbirds, of migratory birds, started to increase greatly. The number of beavers started to increase, because beavers like to eat the trees. And beavers, like wolves, are ecosystem engineers. They create niches for other species. And the dams they built in the rivers provided habitats for otters and muskrats and ducks and fish and reptiles and amphibians. The wolves killed coyotes, and as a result of that, the number of rabbits and mice began to rise, which meant more hawks, more weasels, more foxes, more badgers. Ravens and bald eagles came down to feed on the carrion that the wolves had left. Bears fed on it too, and their population began to rise as well, partly also because there were more berries growing on the regenerating shrubs, and the bears reinforced the impact of the wolves by killing some of the calves of the deer.

But here’s where it gets really interesting. The wolves changed the behavior of the rivers. They began to meander less. There was less erosion. The channels narrowed. More pools formed, more riffle sections, all of which were great for wildlife habitats. The rivers changed in response to the wolves, and the reason was that the regenerating forests stabilized the banks so that they collapsed less often, so that the rivers became more fixed in their course. Similarly, by driving the deer out of some places and the vegetation recovering on the valley sides, there was less soil erosion, because the vegetation stabilized that as well. So the wolves, small in number, transformed not just the ecosystem of the Yellowstone National Park, this huge area of land, but also its physical geography.

Natural Systems: To fully understand how natural systems around us function, we should read The Hidden Life of Trees. The following passage is from the book:

Four decades ago scientists noted something on the African savannah. The giraffes there were feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, and the trees didn’t like this one bit. It took the acacias mere minutes to start pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of large herbivores. The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees in the vicinity. But did they move on to trees close by? No, for the time being, they walked right by a few trees and resumed their meal only when they had moved a 100 yards away. The reason for this behavior is astonishing. The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specifically, ethylene) that signaled to neighboring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on. (Forward)

The book also shows how plants use underground fungi for food and communications.
When plants have aphids, they send out pheromones to attract beneficial insects to eat the aphids. Restoring the wolf population in Yellowstone National Park allowed the park to balance itself by reducing the elk population, because the elk were eating trees on waterways, causing erosion and other problems. Trees can identify which species of insects are attacking them and put up defenses accordingly. The mother tree can help its offspring by feeding them and helping them with sickness during periods of stress. This is why we do not need chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, because they do not let natural processes work as they should. Chemicals cause our problems, yet we are told by the chemical companies that if more harmful insects show up and weeds become resistant to one kind of chemical, then the only answer is using stronger and more toxic chemicals to solve the problems. Somebody forgot to tell them that nature has been around a little longer than the chemical companies. Monocropping destroys nature’s balance by preventing diversity, which encourages natural systems. We are now able to produce food locally to provide most of our food needs at a lower price. The poisoning of our soils and erosion still continues and must be eliminated. An example would be health problems caused by Monsanto and corrupted government activities.

Assessment of Life on Earth: The Guardian on May 21, 2018, published an article written by Daimian Carrington, its environmental editor, titled “Humans just 0.01% of all life but have destroyed 83% of wild animals—study” (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/21/human-race-just-001-of-all-life-but-has-destroyed-over-80-of-wild-mammals-study). The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

The new work is the first comprehensive estimate of the weight of every class of living creature and overturns some long-held assumptions. Bacteria is a major life form—13% of everything—but plants overshadow everything, representing 82% of all living matter. All other creatures, from insects to fungi, to fish and animals make up just 5% of the world’s biomass. The transformation of the planet by human activity has led scientists to the brink of declaring a new geological era—the Anthropocene. The new work reveals that farmed poultry today makes up 70% of all birds on the planet, with just 30% being wild. 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% are human and just 4% are wild animals. 

This shows the impact that humankind has had on the world. Our eating habits and consumption patterns will have to change if we want to reduce our water shortages and pollution activities of agribusinesses.

-George Hunt

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