Amoeba’s Lorica: In the Jungle, the Concrete Jungle …

Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba first published this post on 3 December 2007, on a since-discontinued site. It’s an attempt to equate critter behavior with human behavior, especially with respect to the distribution of resources. With the U.S. Government still shut down over an argument over resources, none of which We the People will allow to be cut, or else, the post is perhaps even more pertinent now than six years ago. Except that the lion is roaring …


Awhile ago (I’d, ah, rather not put a number on that), I was talking with a scientific colleague about conservation. Specifically, about the conservation of living species. About the scientific rationale for the money that goes into publicly and privately sponsored programs to keep things like the furbish’s lousewort from going extinct. Or the New Zealand black robin, which, thanks to a significant outpouring of funds and human energy, and the reproductive prowess of two of the five(!) surviving birds, had just been saved …

“For what?” my colleague snapped.

“Whaddaya mean, ‘what?'”, I gasped, thinking that my colleague’s soul had suddenly been snatched away, and I was talking with the shade of a man who would have shot the last six passenger pigeons for his taxidermy shop.

“What are we going to do with it?” he shot back. “It’s a tiny, basically flightless bird that nests on the ground and couldn’t recognize a cat or a rat if its life depended on it. And there are cats and rats everyplace now. Its habitat is gone. When a species loses its place to live, and can’t adapt to a new one, it goes extinct. Species without places to live have been going extinct for billions of years. Except we saved this one. So what are we going to do with it?”

He had a point. A good point. And when I mentioned it, he, being a gentleman, refrained from asking me whether it was really that conspicuous.

He reminded me of tropical rainforests, which have more species per square metre than anywhere else on earth. (No jokes about round meters, please, and kindly keep your stinky square feet to yourself. Must be hell, trying to stand and walk on those things.) Lots of people talk about trying to save tropical rainforest species. All those parrots, and orchids, and gaudy frogs, and fish that look like they’re trying to be neon lights.

But once you’ve got one saved, what are you going to do with it?

Making a living as a species in a tropical rainforest isn’t exactly sunset on the lanai of your beachfront cottage, sipping mai tais and watching the surf. It’s more like the 17th floor of a Waikiki hotel at the height of tourist season. It’s crowded in there, man. Not to mention noisy. And with all that competition for space and food, you have to be pretty savvy, not to mention creative, to keep your room and still have a few bucks in your pocket for dinner.

For example. There’s a group of orchids in tropical rainforests (and some other places) that has figured out a way to keep unwanted bugs off its flowers. Now, keeping unwanted bugs off your flowers is not a trivial matter. Unwanted bugs might eat the flower outright, or steal the pollen or the nectar. This is not the way to go about ensuring that you will have descendants to argue over the provisions of your will.

So these orchid flowers look just like wasps. Female wasps, no less. They even smell like female wasps. Naturally, the only things that will have anything at all to do with the flowers are male wasps. Which, um, try to do them. But instead of sticking anything, they themselves get stuck.

You think I’m kidding?!?

This gets crazier. Say you have one orchid species, which is [ahem] visited by one wasp species. But over time, this species develops two populations, one living on mountainsides and the other by the shores of the lowland lakes. The flowers of these two populations start to differ from each other. So much so that populations of wasps start preferring to visit one or the other. Sooner or later, the wasps from the mountainsides will stop visiting the flowers by the lakesides, and vice versa. The result is two species of orchids. And two species of wasp.

This kind of thing goes on all the time in a tropical rainforest. Species using the subtlest of clues to differentiate themselves from one another, and dragging other species that are dependent on them along for the ride. It makes the rainforest a grand biodiversity engine, creating species far faster than it destroys them.

Until someone comes along with bug spray. Maybe bug spray is not such a big deal in a nice North American field of daisies. Any old bug can fertilize a daisy. Hell, most daisies will fertilize themselves. Now you know, temperate North American / European homeowner, why the battle for the front yard always seems to wind up Dandelions 1, Lawn 0. But in a tropical rainforest, where everything’s a specialist that’s dependent on everything else, and has evolved that way over millions of years of the kind of species splitting I described for the wasp orchids, a generalized insecticide could wipe out a hundred species of pollinating insects. Which will wipe out a hundred species of plants wholly dependent on those insects for pollination. Which will wipe out other species dependent on the existence of those plants for food or shelter.

Which can turn a lush tropical rainforest into a desert virtually overnight. Sure, you might save some species out of that rainforest. But what will you do with them? You wish to spend the rest of your life pretending to be a male wasp?

Now, if you thought I got started on this subject because I just returned from a field trip to a coral reef and I’ve got species on the brain, you’d certainly have reason to think so. And you’d be wrong. What happened was, I was reading an article in the newspaper about how the U. S. Government needed to spend money on somethingorother. And I was thinking “Fine. And the cash for this is coming from where? Wouldn’t it be nice if Our Elected Representatives could train themselves to ask on our behalf, We can’t have this $X budget item unless we can subtract $X from the budget someplace else?

And then I realized. Our Elected Representatives can’t do this. They try it, they’ll get their bums tossed out onto the Mall. Each and every pot of government money, and private profit, is an island of resources, each with its own community that has come to depend upon that island. And none of those islands can be touched, lest worse befall.

Y’see, gone are the days when the same man could clear the back 40; hunt, kill, dress, cook, and serve the venison lurking around his farm; bathe and change the baby; read Shakespeare at the grange hall on Wednesday night (Saturday night being reserved for the tavern). Now we’re all specialists, each with our role. Like standing in an upscale shopping mall, day after day, hawking wind spinners to the promenaders in Waikiki. Each new niche increasingly dependent on its neighbors, its supporters, its competitors.

Which is all fine. Until there’s a plague of beasts. Lions, perhaps. Or geckos. Or transformers, Donald. Who knock out the bottom of the deck of cards and send the whole house crashing in upon itself. Leaving only rubble, and then lone and level sands. My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings …

Perhaps you can save a windspinner out of the rubble. But what would you do with it?

Let us hope that, despite the thunder on the horizon, tonight, the lion remains asleep.

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