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Posts Tagged ‘ecology

“ALLIGATOR, n. The crocodile of America, superior in every detail to the crocodile of the effete monarchies of the Old World”*…

 

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Lunch at the California Alligator Farm, Los Angeles

 

Judging by the popularity of the Jurassic Park franchise—five feature films, with a sixth blockbuster scheduled for 2021, three “Lego” Jurassic Park shorts, various theme-park attractions, some forty-six theme-related video games, even a Jurassic Park Crunch Yogurt—dinosaurs (once the province of paleontologists and children) have had a stranglehold on our collective imagination for more than a quarter century. Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel sold more than nine million copies; three years later, the first mega-film, directed by Steven Spielberg, became the second highest-grossing film of all time, earning over $1 billion worldwide.

Though less enormous, less voracious, and lacking dramatic soundtracks to pave their entrances and exits, formidable flesh-and-blood, non-animatronic prehistorics do actually walk among us.

Alligators have been around for some 200 million years, which is 135 million years longer than their dino contemporaries. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that that extraordinary longevity was threatened. Pretty impressive, given all the environmental changes that have ensued in the interim, and the fact that their brains are about the size of a walnut…

Biologically, Crocodilia (alligators, crocodiles, caimans, gharials) are closer to birds, dinosaurs to snakes and lizards, but they share a common ancestry. Fossils reveal that back in the day, some alligators grew to nearly forty feet in length, weighing in at 8.5 tons. Simply put, Crocodilia are the closest living examples of the Jurassic’s ancient denizens.

“Dinosaurs and man, two species separated by 65 million years of evolution, have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together,” notes Jeff Goldblum’s character, Alan Grant, in the 1993 film. “How can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?”

In the case of their alligator cousins, it wasn’t just suddenly. Throughout the American south, they’ve always been pretty much unavoidable.

On the big screen, our relationship to Crichton’s creatures is set and predictable. We enjoy the terror they inspire from the dark safety of our upholstered seats. Alligators, in cinema, have always been as dependable in their villainy as Nazis. What better way to dispose of pesky early Christians or enemy Russian spies?

In the real world, the relationship of humans to ancient apex predators is far more complex

Hermes handbags, roadside attractions, carwash poachers, mail-order pets, “The Florida Smile”– B. Alexandra Szerlip on the contradictory dance between gators and men: “21st Century Prehistoric.”

* Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

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As we ruminate on the reptilian, we might spare a thought for Warder Clyde Allee; he died on this date in 1955.  A zoologist and ecologist who researched the social behavior, aggregations, and distribution of both land and sea animals, he discovered that cooperation is both beneficial and essential in nature. The “Allee effect,” as it came to be known, describes the positive correlation between population density and individual fitness of a population or species.  While his findings are in tension with those of another  another ecologist, George C. Williams who stressed the importance of individual selection, Allee’s emphasis on groups and cooperation remains influential.

90px-Warder_Clyde_Allee source

 

Written by LW

March 18, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Climate change isn’t an “issue” to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health care and taxes. It is a civilizational wake-up call.”*…

 

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“Whitening” the ocean (to reflect more solar radiation) by widely dispersing films, foams, floating chips, or other reflectors– or by towing icebergs from the Arctic down to lower latitudes, so the whiteness of the ice would reflect the sun.

 

The 1990s were a critical decade for action on climate change, as world governments prepared to finalize the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement by 37 countries to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. They were also a decade when oil companies poured millions of dollars into government lobbying and public relations, trying to persuade the world there was little to worry about. In 1997, with the Kyoto accord almost complete, Mobil, the major American oil company, published an advertisement in the New York Times and the Washington Post: “Let’s face it: The science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil,” it said. “Scientists cannot predict with certainty if temperatures will increase, by how much and where changes will occur.” Around the same time, Exxon CEO Lee Raymond argued in a speech to the World Petroleum Congress that “the case for so-called global warming is far from airtight.” (In 1998, Exxon and Mobil would join in a $73.7 billion deal, the largest corporate merger in the world at the time.)

Recent reporting by the Los Angeles Times and others revealed, however, that Exxon’s rhetoric ran counter to its own internal conclusions about the risks of climate change, as the company reengineered oil platforms and pipelines to account for the rising sea levels that both top executives and the publicity department claimed didn’t exist. Today, even as Exxon endorses the scientific consensus on climate change, supports emissions limits, and even backs some form of carbon taxation, the company exudes a vague optimism, regarding the climate problem as something they can build their way out of…

Perhaps our best guess at the kind of solutions Exxon may have in mind can be found in an obscure 1997 study on the topic of geoengineering. During the peak of Exxon’s obfuscation, the company’s top climate scientists, Brian Flannery and Haroon Kheshgi, along with two other scientists who didn’t work for Exxon, coauthored a chapter in a book called Engineering Response to Global Climate Change. Using dense, technical language, they outlined more than a dozen planetary-scale fixes to global warming. Not every idea was their own—some were borrowed, at least partially, from prior scientific literature—and the scientists also cautioned that the proposed solutions were not necessarily ready to be implemented. “Geoengineering may well have unintended and unforeseen consequences,” they wrote.

Indeed, geoengineering was considered fringe science in the 1990s, not least because there was still widespread hope that carbon emissions could be reduced through global agreements like Kyoto. (President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the accord in 2001.) It would take a decade before Scientific American declared that climate intervention had “gained respectability,” and almost 15 years until the United Nations’ climate-research body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, would begin publishing assessments on geoengineering options. That’s because while some of the ideas featured in the Exxon study were straightforward (planting trees, for example), a lot of them were quite insane…

Destroying the earth to save it?  Review several of the oil giant’s visionary “solutions”: “Giant Mirrors. Ocean Whitening. Here’s How Exxon Wanted to Save the Planet.”

* Naomi Klein

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As we head for the hills, we might spare a thought for Robert McCorkle Netting; he died on this date in 1995.  A geographer and anthropologist, he pioneered the field of cultural ecology.  Among the many findings from his extensive field work, he argued that worldwide, small farms succeeded where large-scale agricultural enterprises tended to fail, the household being the most effective management unit.  His methodology has been widely adopted, and his textbook, Cultural Ecology, is widely used.

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Written by LW

February 4, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Without the potato, the balance of European power might never have tilted north”*…

 

In his economic masterwork The Wealth of Nations, the great Scottish economist Adam Smith reveals himself to be a deep admirer of Irish poor folk. Or, more specifically, their preferred food, potatoes.

“The chairmen, porters, and coal-heavers in London, and those unfortunate women who live by prostitution, the strongest men and the most beautiful women perhaps in the British dominions, are said to be, the greater part of them, from the lowest rank of people in Ireland, who are generally fed with this root,” Smith wrote. “No food can afford a more decisive proof of its nourishing quality, or of its being peculiarly suitable to the health of the human constitution.”

Smith had struck on a connection little recognized even today: that improved labor productivity, surging population, and outmigration were thanks to the potato.

This phenomenon wasn’t confined to Ireland. As The Wealth of Nations went to press, across Europe, the potato was upending the continent’s deep demographic and societal decline. Over the next couple centuries, that reversal turned into a revival. As the late historian William H. McNeill argues, the surge in European population made possible by the potato “permitted a handful of European nations to assert domination over most of the world between 1750 and 1950.”…

More on “the secret to Europe’s success” at “The Global Dominance of White People is Thanks to the Potato.”

* Michael Pollan

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As we speculate on spuds, we might send fertile birthday greetings to Henry Allan Gleason; he was born on this date in 1882.  An ecologist, botanist, and taxonomist who spent most of his career at (and in the field, doing research for) the New York Botanical Garden, he is best remembered for his endorsement of the individualistic or open community concept of ecological succession, and his opposition to Frederic Clements‘ concept of the climax state of an ecosystem.  While his ideas were largely dismissed during his working life (which led him to move into plant taxonomy), his concepts have found favor since late in the twentieth century.

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Written by LW

January 2, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Things require a seed to start from”*…

 

Deep inside a mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, lies the Global Seed Vault, a fail-safe seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time — and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters.  The Seed Vault holds the world’s largest collection of crop diversity….

The most important freezer in the world:  more here and here.

* William Shakespeare

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As we ponder preservation, we might send well-contained birthday greetings to Earl Silas Tupper; he was born on this date in 1907.  A businessman and inventor, he is best known as the inventor of Tupperware, a collection of airtight plastic containers for storing food.

The story of Tupper and his wares here.

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Written by LW

July 28, 2016 at 1:01 am

A Little Traveling Music, Please…

 

On the heels of yesterday’s nod to the music of Miami Vice, a reprise

 click here for a larger, interactive version

Follow the journeys that various music genres took as one style developed into another: “How Music Travels – The Evolution of Western Dance Music.”

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As we celebrate the interconnection of influence, we might send tightly-woven birthday greetings to Johannes Eugenius Bülow “Eugen” Warming; he was born on this date in 1841.  A globe-trotting botanist, he wrote the first textbook (1895) on plant ecology, taught the first university course in ecology, and gave the concept its meaning and content.  So, though the term “ecology” was coined by Ernst Haeckel in 1866, (the retrospectively-poignantly named) Warming can be considered the father of Ecology as a discipline.

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Written by LW

November 3, 2013 at 1:01 am

While you were sleeping…

 

The Rip van Winkle of the insect world, the “periodical cicada,” is awakening across the East Coast of North America after a 17 year hiatus.  Since 1996, these “Brood Two” cicadas have lived as nymphs two feet underground, sustaining themselves on liquid they suck from tree roots.  While biologists don’t know exactly how the cicadas set and keep their rigid schedule, they do know that these occasional visitors will crawl up to the surface, molt, swarm (sounding rather like a chorus of jackhammers), mate, lay eggs, and die– all within a month… at which point the cycle begins again.

One month isn’t a lot of time, and the cicadas will be busy…  still, they’re bound to discover that, while they were sleeping these past 17 years, entomologists have made some pretty impressive advances. From figuring out how insects fly to discovering an entire new order of insect, check out “Leaproaches, Mutant Butterflies and Other Insect News That the 17-Year Cicadas Missed.”

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As we remind ourselves that it could be worse, it could be locusts, we might send sustainable birthday greetings to Rachel Louise Carson; she was born on this date in 1907.  Trained as a marine biologist, she began her career at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries.  She turned to nature writing in 1950– and won the National Book Award for her first full-length effort, The Sea Around Us.  Her next two books, also on the ocean and the life within it, were also best-sellers.

In the late 1950, she became concerned with threats to the environment, especially the advent of synthetic pesticides.  The result was Silent Spring (1962)– a book that brought environmental awareness to an unprecedented number of Americans (even as it elicited vicious counter-attacks from the chemical industry) and spurred a grass-roots movement that led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

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Written by LW

May 27, 2013 at 1:01 am

Hallelujah!…

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Back in 1972, your correspondent spent a summer working working as a utility infielder at WBTV, the Charlotte CBS affiliate.  In those distant days, local stations did original public affairs programming of all sorts, including local documentaries (that weren’t simply “service” programs promoting tourism, shopping, or dining out); for instance, your correspondent recorded the audio for the first documentary made on the now-legendary Blue Grass conclave, The Union Grove Fiddlers Convention.

But the most memorable shoot of that summer was a documentary on Charles Keyes, The Parson of the Hills.  Keyes, an itinerant preacher for 71 of the 76 years that he lived (he passed away in 1996), ministered to the poor of the North Carolina Appalachians.  His flock was scattered in such out-of-the-way places that he was, for many, the only “outsider” they knew and trusted… and so, as we accompanied him, filming his “rounds,” we saw corners of America that were then effectively as remote and untouched as as the most hidden corners of the Brazilian rain forest.

Among the extraordinary things we saw, probably the most striking was the snake handling service to which Keyes led us– one he attended as an unofficial social worker, not an officiant. Since the early 20th Century,  snake handling has been a feature of Pentecostal worship in a small number of Appalachian congregations which take the Bible literally…

And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. (Mark 16:17-18)

Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10:19)

Snake handling survives, but it’s dwindling.  So it’s a gift that Oregon-based photographer Hunter Barnes, who had spent time documenting “Rednecks,” turned his lens to create “A Testimony of Serpent Handling.”

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Barnes posted his project on Kickstarter, where he successfully raised the funds he needed to finish– and where readers will find a fascinating video explaining and illustrating the project.

As we contemplate the manifold manifestations of faith, we might send the simplest of birthday greetings to writer, philosopher, and naturalist Henry David Thoreau; he was born on this date in 1817.  From 1845 to 1847, Thoreau lived in a small cabin on the banks of Walden Pond, a small lake near Concord, Massachusetts.  Striving to “simplify, simplify,” he strictly limited his expenditures, his possessions, and his contact with others, intending “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.”

Thoreau became a pillar of New England Transcendentalism, embracing and exemplifying the movement’s belief in the universality of creation and the primacy of personal insight and experience.  Perhaps best remembered for his advocacy of simple, principled living, his writings on the relationship between humans and the environment also helped define the nature essay.

source: Library of Congress

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