The Biology Thing

It’s no secret that the collective imagination has a deep-rooted fear of wolves. Our legends and fairy tales are populated with powerful wolves getting up to all manner of naughtiness, from pretending to be something they aren’t (whether dressed as Grandmother or sheep), to reflecting our animal sides in the form of werewolves, to simply eating things we’d rather they didn’t.

Gray wolf Image: Womaneko/Deviantart

Gray wolf
Image: Womaneko/Deviantart

The gray wolf was hunted to near extinction in the United States, and was then listed as protected under the Endangered Species Act. It’s been making a steady comeback over the years, although by comparison to the real success stories of the ESA, the wolf is nowhere near truly recovered as a species. It’s out of the ICU, but still stuck on life support.

Nonetheless, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) moved to delist the gray wolf on a federal level in 2013 and turn wolf management over to the state level. It has already been allowed to be delisted in several individual states, and the effect on the wolf population through hunting and trapping has been devastating. Years of conservation work has been undone.

The room to make comments on the USFWS proposal, which had been closed, has now been reopened due to an outcry among conservationists that the USFWS had not used the best available science to reach their delisting recommendation. Comments can now be made here until March 27.

Group of gray wolves (Canus lupus)

Group of gray wolves (Canus lupus)

According to Lance Richardson of Slate, the premature delisting of the gray wolf is due to a confluence of a certain complacency about the protected status of the wolf together with “the residual anger towards wolves in the rural West, where influential ranchers have long fought wolves for depredating livestock. Merge that in with the whole Tea Party fervor against [the federal] government, and what you end up with in the state legislatures is this race to the bottom to see who can be more anti-wolf. The biology of the thing gets thrown right out the window.”

Well, the biology. Apex predators play such an important role in ecosystems, above and beyond controlling the population of prey animals. I’m including a concise summary (four minutes long) of just how important wolves have been to the recovery of the Yellowstone Park ecosystem here:

But the ‘biology of the thing’ is also what allows us to keep fearing wolves even if, since we’ve the means to outrun, outgun and outmaneuver them, they’ve had more to fear from us than we’ve had to fear from them. Big predators have been scaring us for millennia, and it appears that all the scientific understanding in the world can’t do away with that in just a couple of generations.

Unfortunately, if the wolf is delisted by the USFWS, the object of our fear may end up truly being only a creature of fairy tales.

Please take a moment to visit Eripe Lupus, a site that is promoting Twitter storm today in support of comments for the USFWS proposal, to learn more.

From: Old French Fairy Tales by  Comtesse de Ségur /

From: Old French Fairy Tales by Comtesse de Ségur /

Dickens, Luck & the Woolly Mammoth

A Mammoth tusk extracted from ice complex deposits along the Logata River in Taimyr, Russia.   Photo: Per Moller / Johanna Anjar  via Reuters

A Mammoth tusk extracted from ice complex deposits along the Logata River in Taimyr, Russia.
Photo: Per Moller / Johanna Anjar via Reuters

“Life is made of ever so many partings welded together.” Charles Dickens (born 7 February 1812), Great Expectations

So many of Charles Dickens writings are concerned with those who succeed and those who fall by the wayside. Usually in his novels, success (or at least, survival) can be due to a number of factors in life, chief among them being that fickle friend, Luck. Failure (or death) comes often enough in the form of hunger or at the hands of those stronger and more brutal.

And so to the survival or demise of prehistoric megafauna, the woolly mammoth, the cave bear, the giant sloth, the woolly rhinoceros, the great creatures that once wandered the planet and still populate our imagination.

A new study out in Nature set out to find a strategy to predict which creatures might survive the current climate change based on past extinctions. What they found, finally, was that Luck played as much of a role as human hunting and encroachment, habitat destruction, and changing temperatures.

A visit to my favorite tree-of-life site,, shows that only a fraction of the megafauna around 40,000 years ago are still with us today, with the numbers dropping regularly. The fact is that some species were just more fortunate than others.

Tall forb park, Swift Creek Research Natural Area, Montana. Photo: Susan Marsh / Bridger-Teton National Forest.

Tall forb park, Swift Creek Research Natural Area, Montana.
Photo: Susan Marsh / Bridger-Teton National Forest

The woolly mammoth, for example, had long been thought to have gone extinct due mainly to hunting. However, the study points to the woolly mammoth’s reliance on foraging for the protein-rich forbs, flowering plants, that once carpeted its northern territories. As the climate changed, the prairies and fields of forbs gave way to less nutritious grasslands. The woolly mammoth, like many of Dickens’ most virtuous characters, simply starved to death.

Dickens’ world was nothing if not unfair in whom it chose to favor.

From Sketches by Boz (1835), essays by Dickens on Seven Dials, a poor section of London. Source: Smithsonian Magazine

From Sketches by Boz (1835), essays by Dickens on Seven Dials, a poor section of London.
Source: Smithsonian Magazine

For the extinct heat-sensitive Eurasian musk ox, rising temperatures proved too much for it to survive.

For the dwindling number of elephants and rhinos still alive today, it may be a human hunger for their tusks and horns. For the polar bear, receding ice.  Some of them may just surprise us by proving more adaptable than expected.

But in the meanwhile, it might be a good idea to take a lesson from Dickens on the 202nd anniversary of his birth, and do all we can, for as many as we can.

Luck doesn’t have to be the name of the game.

Unraveled Threads

Gustav Klimt Tree of Life tapestry Source: The Tapestry House

Gustav Klimt Tree of Life tapestry
Source: The Tapestry House

Ecosystems that have evolved over millennia are bound to be as complex as the most intricate tapestry, with interrelationships and connections that might not be readily apparent amidst all the color and noise of the larger pattern. As with a tapestry, pulling on one thread, or even two or twenty, might harm a small part of the picture but the tapestry itself would remain intact.

As it turns out, some ecosystems might be more akin to a fragile piece of lace.

A channel billed toucan perched on a forest palm.  Photo: Lindolfo Souto via Smithsonian Magazine

A channel billed toucan perched on a forest palm.
Photo: Lindolfo Souto via Smithsonian Magazine

In a study published in Science, researchers examined 9000 seed samples taken from 22 palm plant populations in Brazil’s Atlantic forest. Palm plants seeds are large and tough – the bigger the seed, the more likely the resulting palm plant will be robust. The only creatures able to carry and distribute these large seeds are the large indigenous birds like the toucan.

And with the decline of these birds due to habitat disappearance and hunting, the palm plant populations are changing. Trees that are growing now produce smaller seeds, smaller trees, which in turn produce smaller seeds.

The smaller palm plants that result from smaller seeds might, in the long term, be unable to help sustain the tapestry of life which depend upon their presence in the forest.

This relationship between large seed distributors, large seeds and the forests that depend on them has been studied in other regions, notably with elephants in Congo rainforest.

There will undoubtedly be some kind of forest remaining even without large birds and palm plants, much as there is still a tapestry even if several threads have been unraveled. My question is, which thread is the Brazilian Atlantic forest in the overall Earth tapestry, and what unravels if we lose it?


Science studyFunctional Extinction of Birds Drives Rapid Evolutionary Changes in Seed Size by M. Galetti, R. Guevara, M.C. Côrtes, R. Fadini, S. Von Matter, A.B. Leite, F. Labecca, T. Ribeiro, C.S. Carvalho, R.G. Collevatti, M.M. Pires, P.R. Guimarães Jr., P.H. Brancalion, M.C. Ribeiro, P. Jordano

Smithsonian Magazine articleWhen Large Birds Disappear, Rainforests Suffer by Rachel Nuwer

Proximity to Magnificence

bear-skin-rugs-polar-bear-F1When I was a little girl in the 1960s, a friend of my parents brought over a few unexpected gifts for me. One of the gifts was a genuine Indian tiger skin, complete with claws, head, teeth, and glass eyes. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES, also known as the Washington Treaty) wouldn’t come into force until 1975, almost a decade away, so there was nothing illegal about the gift.

I loved my tiger skin, and thought of it almost like a real animal or pet. It was a massive skin that covered almost the entire floor of my room, and I as a little girl, I liked to imagine that it protected me.

When I think back on how I felt, having the tatters of that splendid creature in my room, I feel guilt. And the guilt is mixed with an understanding for the appeal of these products.  It’s a proximity to and ownership, however imaginary, of the fierce magnificence of a top predator.

I’m sure that people made money all along the line that led from where the tiger was taken to where my parent’s generous friend finally bought the tiger skin. And the economics for each individual undoubtedly seemed viable – after all, the tiger was just walking around, not doing anybody any good while standing on its own four paws. But dead and skinned, it could bring in money for the trackers, the hunters, the shippers, and the middlemen. The tiger population was already under pressure back then, but that didn’t matter. And, unlike today, each of these transactions was legal.

When I read this week about the legal trade in polar bear products and the legal hunting quota for polar bear in Canada, I think back to that tiger skin. Sure, the trade is still legal, and for whatever reason, the government considers the annual hunting and sale of 600 polar bears economically viable and environmentally sustainable ‘enough’. The polar bear is not yet protected as an endangered species under CITES, it is only considered ‘threatened’ if its habitat continues to erode, if hunting continues at unsustainable levels.

Zambia recently banned the hunting of big cats within its boundaries – the amount of revenue brought in by hunting tourism is dwarfed by that of non-lethal tourism focused on observing live animals.

If the nations which allow polar bear hunting and the trade in polar bear parts were to find it economically more interesting to preserve their dwindling populations, would that make a difference to sustainable biodiversity and the survival of top predators?

The Economics of Polar Bear Hunting in Canada

Update: 7 March 2013 – The CITES conference fails to pass a ban on the export of polar bear products, handing  victory to Canada, which argued against the US and Russia-supported ban.