Monday, September 20, 2010

Biological Storm

Naturalists have long been fascinated by massive herds, flocks and swarms--the Serengeti wildebeest, the long-gone bison on the plains, incomprehensible bird flocks overhead.

However, much of the information we know about such phenomena appear to not bear much scientific scrutiny. A lot of recent thinking fits within in a "balance of nature," when in reality, perhaps, we should be speaking of the "chaos of nature."

I've recently read several pieces that capture the real complexity of super-abudant wildlife, what could be called "biological storms."

The first, by my friend and writer Stephen Bodio in Cornell's Living Bird journal, concerns the fate of the passenger pigeon. We all know that humans caused the extinction of the passenger pigeon, but did we also create its abundance?

This an excellent essay, one that raises many questions about our notions of the natural world, about change and inter-connectedness.

Bodio raises the possibility that burning by pre-European tribes may have helped create the super-abundance of the passenger pigeon--undoubtedly one of the greatest biological storms the Earth has ever seen, one that makes hurricanes and tsunamis seem mild by comparison.

Bodio writes of one flock that occupied the entire southern two-thirds of Wisconsin, a flock that consumed an estimated 210 million liters of food per day.

The composition of trees in forests and the fate of other birds like ivory-billed woodpeckers were both likely shaped by passenger pigeon flocks. Indeed, it's no exaggeration that these pigeons significantly shaped the ecological history of our continent.

This Living Bird piece led me to entomologist's Jeffrey Lockwood's celebration of cicadas from The New York Times.

Here is a species that still thrives alongside us in the eastern United States, in inconceivable numbers: Their waste alone would fill 300 Olympic-sized swimming pools a day. This cicada species remains dormant for 17 years, to noisily reemerge in a frenzy of feeding and breeding. When they die, they leave behind some 500 trillion eggs--and begin the cycle anew.

(By the way, Lockwood has also written one of my favorite books, Locust, which concerns another once super-abundant animal now gone from the plains).

Finally, salmon may not exist in such staggering numbers as passenger pigeons did and cicadas do.

But wild salmon from fisheries like Bristol Bay still provide an incredible amount of healthful food. Despite a thriving commercial fishery, we can still eat Bristol Bay's salmon without guilt--and indeed, we can eat them knowing we are helping to ensure their continued survival.

My counterpart in Alaska, Dustin Solberg, recently took a month off work to spend as a commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay. His essays on Cool Green Science offer a look into that life, and into the incredible abundance still swimming in Alaska--feeding not only humans but bears, eagles, belugas and an entire ecosystem.

That this incredible resource is under threat by a gigantic mine should concern us all. Let's not repeat the mistakes of the past. Read Solberg's posts and learn more about what you can do to help.--Matt Miller

Photo: Commercial salmon fishing by Dustin Solberg.

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