Species

Species

…the fact that ecological communities constantly experience temporal turnover, and that consequently some species will not only fluctuate markedly but also become either locally or globally extinct, is something that, while well appreciated by ecologists generally, is often omitted from popular news stories. 

Mugurran et al 2010

By research paper standards this is an accessible quote. You may only need to read it a couple of times to get the gist. It means what it says.

Everything in nature changes and species disappear from both the backyard and from the planet.

Ask any ecologist who has more than a few minutes of fieldwork on their resume if they agree with this premise and they will say yes. There is change over time. They would concede that if you stare at a patch of nature long enough, it will start to move. Organisms will come and go, sometimes never to return, their place taken by an equivalent.

In my own garden that backs onto eucalyptus forest in the Blue Mountains of NSW I have seen this happen with the seasons as the grass stops growing in winter, during drought when even the trees droop, and also through the decade we have lived in the house.

When we moved in the garden was blessed with tree creepers, fairy wrens and wagtails. There were regular visits by resplendent satin bower birds and even occasionally a lyre bird or two. I have stared at a frogmouth in its daytime roost and had glossy black cockatoos drop casuarina cones on my head. Delightful.

Then, three years ago the noisy miners arrived. An especially aggressive social breeder that with brazen behaviour worthy of a panzer corps will chase all the other species away. Only the big beaked cockatoos and the butcher bird are unmoved.

None of the aforementioned chorus are extinct but they are not longer in my garden.

More recently some new neighbors moved in next door. They have a nervous pointer and a black labrador with a limp. The swamp wallaby no longer hops up from the creek to pick at our herb garden.

There are several important things in this simple everywhere reality of ecological change.

The first is change itself.

Nothing in nature has ever been or ever will be stable. It is not how nature works. At times the dynamic is subtle and hard to see with human perception of time and space. Typically though we can see, smell or hear it. All it takes is a little patience and some observation.

If a human who might live three score years and ten can perceive this change with just a little patient observation, then…

the second important thing is that change is fast.

Incredibly fast on an evolutionary or geological time scale. Happenings that take decades are the blink of an eye equivalent for a planet that is billions of years old.

Such rapidity means that the idyllic lilly pond with the weeping willow tickling the water will not be there in a thousand years or so. Sedimentation and succession will make dryland of it unless there are humans with the spare time to occasionally dig it out.

This is the third important reality, stability requires inputs.

The main reason that nature is so dynamic is due to entropy, more strictly, the constant struggle organisms must undertake to counteract it. It takes an enormous effort to keep things the same. Energy must be pumped in to prevent chaos.

Humans have, of course, become true masters of this use of energy to counter entropy. We have figured out where to find and use external fuel sources to change the world to suit ourselves. It’s our superpower. But it has also duped us into believing that we can keep things the same, despite all the evidence to the contrary. We even think we can save species from local or real extinction.

This is the fourth of the important things, the often crazy notion that we can save species from ourselves, the most severe new driver of ecological change in aeons.

Change as the norm is “omitted from popular news stories” because the acknowledgement not only questions our god-like ability to rule the planet, it would mean admitting our role in the acceleration of change.

After all, the noisy miner spread with the suburb.

Positive future

Scenarios with pragmatic outcomes

It is a short time into the future, nowhere near an aeon. Against all likelihoods, Homo sapiens did not join the hundreds of thousands of species that have crossed the extinction finish line because miraculously there was a meme that spread through the social fabric of every nation on the planet faster than pictures of Harry and Meghan.

The meme said, “ecological communities constantly experience temporal turnover”.

The miracle of course was twofold. People not only understood this gibberish but they extended it to the practicalities of the real world.

Everyone recognised change everywhere and embraced it. They let species move around, leaving some places and moving into others. They saw vegetation as fluid not as a vase on a shelf, still but fragile.They realised that there were some species that would go extinct and that if a particularly cute one was popular enough to save, then this was going to need effort specific to that species. It was a choice.

And they saw the whole landscape, all at once, despite its altered state, and they focused on what that landscape could do, not what was in it.

It was truly remarkable.

It even made the news.

Future self

Future self

“Most of us can remember who we were 10 years ago, but we find it hard to imagine who we’re going to be, and then we mistakenly think that because it’s hard to imagine, it’s not likely to happen” Dan Gilbert

I find it hard to remember what I was doing 10 years ago.

After a while I can recall what my job was back then, what my family was up to and maybe the colour of the ever changing feature wall in the living room. Most specific activities are a blur unless I really concentrate on place and where I was within it. Even then the memories are patchy.

As Dan Gilbert suggests, that’s the easy part. We are much better at remembering the past than we are predicting the future.

Memory has obvious evolutionary advantages for long-lived organisms who need to know where the food and shelter can be found when the weather turns bad.

Predicting is much harder. Perhaps because we remember actual things that, at least for us, really happened. Predictions are a guess. A possibility with a likelihood. In other words, events are just as likely not to happen as they are to come to pass. There is a psychological cost to making a prediction that is never paid with a memory. Any prediction we make comes with risk to our self esteem. The further forward in time we project our guesses the more likely they are to be wrong so our ego shuts them down as a form of protection.

Well, that is one rational explanation anyway.

No doubt if I spend a few days trawling Google Scholar I could find out if anyone has positied it formally and maybe even tried to test it.

But let’s consider the consequences of humans not generally being any good at predicting our future selves.

We are easily stuck in the past often viewing it with tinted spectacles.

Our frame of reference is what has gone before, what we know, rather than what could be. Our anxiety over autonomous vehicles is a case in point.

We get very good at incredulity. So much so that we even refuse to believe what is front of our noses because unless we have seen it before it cannot be real. We’ll let the perversity of that logic slide.

It takes a lot to convince us of anything we have not already seen, heard or felt, unless its been on our Facebook feed.

We lose the ability to be rational in the face of evidence.

And we could go on.

Altogether this inability to predict the future leaves us with one binding feeling…

We hate change.

We just want everything to stay the same. It’s what we know, what we remember and what makes life predictable, reliable, certain and, please god, comfortable.

Only as Dan Gilbert points out, there is a problem. It’s called time.

“The bottom line is, time is a powerful force. It transforms our preferences. It reshapes our values. It alters our personalities. We seem to appreciate this fact, but only in retrospect.”

Many a post on this blog has ranted on about the consequences of time, what’s coming over the horizon and how poorly we are prepared for it.

If this difficulty in imagining our future self is pervasive, it offers a proximate explanation for many of these rants. We simply just don’t know how to see the future so we stay stuck in the past overestimating the wonders of the present and scared to death of change.

Heaven help us.