You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Ecology’ tag.

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Something I have wanted to write about for a long time is the uncanny way in which human societies are analogous to ecosystems.  Furthermore, the roles within these societies grow and change and wink out—just like species in different ecosystems do–and yet they hew to certain broad generalized templates over time. This seems so self-evident to me that almost doesn’t need to be talked about, and yet when I do talk about it, I realize that it is difficult to explain comprehensively.

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There are many ecosystems—like rainforest, arid scrubland, deep ocean bottom, steppe, or coral reef.  The creatures in these ecosystems are designed by long, long generations of competition and gradual mutation to use the resources of the ecosystem to survive.  Thus a sea anemone eats plankton that the current wafts into its tentacles…and then a clownfish evolves to live protected in the stinging tentacles and look after the anemone…and then a sea turtle evolves which eats anemones and so on.  The larger ecosystems are connected too.  For example, the pelagic ocean depths engender huge quantities of plankton which wafts onto the reef.

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There are many niches in ecosystems—like arboreal fruit gatherer, lurking swamp predator, or planktonic browser.  Convergent evolution causes the shapes of creatures adapted to these roles to take on many similar characteristics:  thus arboreal fruit eaters (whether they be iguanas, tarsiers, or cockatoos) have cunning grips, small agile bodies for precise balance, & acute depth perception; planktonic browsers have huge mouths, filter membranes/apparatuses, and a shape build to conserve energy; and reef building organisms are sessile with grabby arms and a calcium carbonate skeleton they can retreat into (even if they are not corals).

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Of course there are always generalists like raccoons or rats or pigeons which have a number of useful traits that allow them to flourish in a city, a field, or a forest, or wherever…but truly complicated ecosystems engender flamboyant specialists like frogs that live in bromeliads or saber hummingbirds with beaks longer than the rest of the bird’s body.

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A jungle might support a few tribes of generalized hunter gatherers (who literally live off the rainforest in the manner of jaguars and toucans), but humans build our own jungles which we call cities.  In the city there are niches for jaguar people who take what they want and for toucan people who are colorful and pick fruit from the tops of trees that others can’t even get to.  Let’s imagine them respectively as business magnates and art curators. Resources are plentiful in cities.  They arrive in raw forms from other places like farms, mines, or forests and then are processed and synthesized by the city which creates secondary and tertiary tiers of specialists who live off of individual refinement steps which might not even exist elsewhere.

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A farm town might have farmers, millers, bakers, bailiffs, carters, and a few thieves, as well as a single baron and a mayor. The city has grain merchants, food factory workers, pastry chefs, bicycle police, teamsters, catburglars, legions of dukes, and a whole vast city hall bureaucracy (and all the other roles in between).

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As the niche change through time so to the roles change, but there are underlying similarities. Farriers, lectors, and lamplighters have died away but we now need mechanics, voiceover actors, and electric engineers. Some jobs, like bricklayer or toymaker endure for thousands of years.  Some, like wartime airplane detector exist only for a particular moment in time (after airplanes but before radar).

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If you look at society from a distance you can see how technological and social changes mirror the changes of evolution. Cartwrights generally are replaced by automakers (although there were probably not may individuals who made that career change).  Indeed, our manufactured objects themselves illustrate this change (as you can see by looking at a history book of cars and watching fins and fenders grow and shrink, even as the overall cars become lighter, faster, and safer).

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Just as the natural world is more dynamic, beautiful, and robust when there are may sorts of environment with many different creatures, human society is more prosperous when it has lots of different sorts of settings including places of enormous diversity with all sorts of specialized roles.  The interchange is complicated in the human world.  How many theatrical make-up artists can Iowa support? Yet the collagen in the makeup came from Iowa farms…and perhaps the makeup artist herself (and maybe the actors she works on too) originally came to Broadway from little towns in the corn belt.

This metaphor is useful in looking at the arc of history (which is really hard to comprehend from a human-length temporal perspective).  Additionally, it ties the world of natural history/paleontology together into a seamless narrative with the world of history/sociology (we will get back to this in later posts).  It becomes easier to see how thoroughly we humans are part of the natural world—we are sophisticated colony primates not some aberration from outside biology (or clockwork children made by a crazy god). Beyond these vast perspectives of deep time, biology, and macro-economics, however, it is useful to look at society as interlocking ecosystems because it reminds us to be more careful of one another since we need one another.

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There can be no city without the countryside! And who would farmers sell their barley to without cities? (and where would rural hospitals get doctors or malls get new fashions)?  Likewise the farmland needs the forest. The fishing village needs the ocean. In this red-blue era where people from the country and the city apparently despise each other (!) we need to recall it is a false distinction. Everyone needs each other.  The world is a web.  If you touch one thread the whole thing vibrates. And it is changing so fast that we little spiders and flies must also change so swiftly that it is barely possible to figure out who is preying upon whom anymore.  We will come back to this concept, but right now take a look around you and squint.  If the clerks, and stockbrokers and stockboys don’t start to seem more like termites and tigers and tapirs…if the dairymaids and cows don’t seem like ants and caryatids, well let me know. I’ll write it all down a different way.  But I will be surprised if you don’t see it.

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Every night, in my dreams, I watch the world die.  After a long absence, I have returned to find that the life-giving systems which recycle waste back into useable nutrients have failed. My friends are dead, reduced to grotesque rotting skeletons and mouldering lumps, except for a few last survivors who are barely hanging on to an attenuated half-life of hunger and shallow comatose breaths.  I desperately rush to help: I turn on machines to clean away the toxic miasma.  I ply the dying victims with food and oxygen… but the microbial ecosystems upon which everything depend are mortally degraded.  My last friends are too far gone, and they expire painfully while I watch powerless.  What is left is dead world of complete desolation.  The precious seed of life has failed and I know that I am the author of this annihilation.

This is all true. I have such dreams all the time and they torment me more than you can know.  My art and writing—my entire life quest flows from these nightly horrors.  Worst of all, these dreams are based on true experiences from my childhood which color every news article I read.  Every opinion I hear about humankind, the world, and the fate of all living things is overshadowed by these prophetic nightmares. However, before you call the men with big white nets, there is a critical twist which I must share with you. In these dreams, everyone is a fish and the world is an aquarium.

Here is what happened. When I was a child, I wanted to be an ichthyologist.  I took all of my allowance money and holiday presents and saved to build miniature worlds of wonder like the ones I saw in hobbyist magazines.  I read up on each fish species—what they ate and how they lived and what their natural habitat was like.  I learned about nematodes and frozen brine shrimp and undergravel filters to help nitrifying bacteria flourish.

Back then I had a tropical South America tank of beautiful fish from the Amazon—little tetras like colored gems, adorable armored catfish with big kindly cartoon eyes, angelfish with fins like a bride’s veil, a knife fish named Ripley who was like a black electrical ghost.  I had a tank of Tanganyika cichlids from East Africa (near humankind’s first home).  They lurked in volcanic rocks and I could see their huge mouths (for safely rearing their young) frowning from the crevices.  At the apex of my involvement with the hobby, I even had a marine tank filled with fluorescent damselfish, shrimp like rainbows, and a clever triggerfish which was busy excavating a private lair into a hunk of red tube coral.  It was magical! The miniature worlds I built were incredible.  I even had a classical tank of google-eyed goldfish with multicolored pebbles and a porcelain mermaid in the center.

But each of these little glass paradises failed and died.  Sometimes they were destroyed slowly by unknown bacterial mishaps which caused the ammonia or nitrogen cycle to shift off-kilter.  Sometimes a heater would go out or get flipped to maximum setting and thermal shock would kill my poor pets. The Tanganyika cichlids got stressed out over territory and ate each other whole with their big mouths (just like NY real-estate developers!).  Other times the apocalypse was swift: algal blooms or invasive fungi or diseases which I unknowingly brought from the pet store would ravage the tank.  Once, the glass of my Amazon-basin aquarium shattered while we were out shopping.  My family returned to find the ceilings dripping water.  The dying angelfish were lying gasping on the wet pebbles at the bottom of the empty tank. It was horrible. Even the goldfish ultimately died.  A weird dropsy caused their gleaming orange bodies to bulge out and pop apart.  I love animals and some of the fish had real personality and emotions (in addition to being beautiful) but, despite tremendous heartfelt effort, my stewardship killed them all.

And these experiences haunt me at night. My dreams used to involve a few aquariums which I would try to save…but as I have grown up, the dreams have grown up too.  Now sometimes the setting will be a sere coastline which seems uninhabited at first, until I realize the landscape itself is made of giant earth colored fish which are slowly dying.  Lately the dreams have moved into the forest where the trees are made of deadwood and the boulders are the hulks of once-living things.  As adulthood corrodes away my figurative dreams of success, strength, love, and meaning, my literal nighttime dreams grow bigger and worse.  In dreams, I have walked through cities of contagion, plague, and starvation.  At night I have sailed a junk across an ink black ocean with nothing in it but slips of charred paper and plastic bags floating like ghosts.

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This is why zoos and aquariums (the big public ones) fascinate me. Surely teams of professionals with hundred million dollar endowments can surely keep our animal friends alive!  Except…they can’t always.  Even with all of the best veterinarians, ecologists, and biologists, working night and day, things still go wrong in weird unexpected ways (by the way, this somewhat pitiless assessment doesn’t mean I stand against zoos: I see them as a combination of ambassador, laboratory, and Noah’s ark).  My first job was as an intern at a synthetic ecosystem designed by the world’s foremost designer of synthetic ecosystems…and it was a beautiful study in gradual failure and unexpected interactions.  Ecology is complicated and we don’t understand it very well

We are living through one of the great meltdowns which periodically occur throughout Life’s 4.5 billion year history [eds. note: if religious people can capitalize genitive pronouns for God, then Ferrebeekeeper can capitalize a word which we are using to betoken all of the living things from Earth throughout all of time].  It doesn’t take a geologist’s comprehension of the End-Permian mass extinction to imagine ourselves as a toxic black smear in a rock column of the future.  I know from reading eschatology that I am not the only person who is tormented by dreams of Armageddon.

At the same time humankind is ballooning in number and appetite, we are also learning at an exponential rate.  My experiences with little terrariums and fishtanks does not need to foreshadow the fate of orcas, vinegar scorpions, honeybees, banana trees…and humans. We can use our hard-won knowledge to keep the world’s precious living things alive!  We can even carry the sacred seed of life into the heavens.  Space would be a better place for us anyway—a place where we can truly spread our wings and grow exponentially towards godhood.  It is what we have always wanted…and it is tantalizingly close.

One of my favorite poems has what might be my favorite quotation in English “Learn from your dreams what you lack.” I HAVE learned that…and now I am telling you too. We lack a comprehensive understanding of ecology and the life sciences.  We lack the political cohesion and organizational skills to make effective use of what we already know.  Those things are not outside of our grasp.   Most of the smartest and hardest-working people here spend their lives ripping people off with complicated financial products and elaborate tech products (which are really only online rolodexes or digital catalogs or what-have-you).  What a waste! The bankers could throw away their nasty spreadsheets, the doctors could stop filling out pointless insurance forms, the engineers could stop making wireless blenders and cryptocurrency. We could all start building space cities NOW..this very day (although the first generation of those cities are going to have some troubles with the synthetic oceans).  The possibilities are endless!  Our knowledge and imagination can take us to where we have always dreamed of being.  Our failure to be smart, brave, and creative will take us all to one of my dead festering nightmares.

Those fish should not have died in vain. We should not die in vain either. Let’s build a future worth having.

Flounder Show

Hey everyone, my amazing new roommate works at an art gallery in the city’s hottest art district, the Lower East Side. The famous gallerist who runs the place has embarked on an artistic quest…to Tanzania, but she has generously allowed me to use the space for an evening. I hope you will accept my invitation (above) to a show of my flounder artworks which explore the big-fish-eats-little-fish dialectic of history against a backdrop of larger biological themes.

Because of time constraints, the opening IS the show–we are like a beautiful exotic mushroom which pops-up for a single glorious night–but during that one night there will be glowing multi-media delights to satisfy all aesthetic longings! Since you read this blog, I know you have the most refined and intelligent tastes: I hope you can join me then and there.

Ray Troll painting large amoonites for "Night of the Ammonites" exhibit at Seattle's Burke Museum

Ray Troll painting large amoonites for “Night of the Ammonites” exhibit at Seattle’s Burke Museum

One of my favorite living artists is not interested in the fatuous self-absorption and navel gazing which characterizes most contemporary artwork.  Instead of falling in love with himself, Ray Troll fell in love with aquatic animals—and his art is a pun-filled paean to the astonishing diversity and complexity of life in Earth’s rivers, lakes, and oceans both in this epoch and in past geological ages.   Although Troll’s vibrant biology themed art is humorous and fantastic, it also resonates at a deeper level.  Themes of ecological devastation and the broad exploitation of the oceans are unflinchingly explored, as is the true nature of humankind.  Troll (correctly) regards people as a sort of terrestrial fish descendant who still have the same aggressive territoriality, unending hunger, and crude drives that propelled our distant piscine forbears.  This sounds deterministic and grim until one comprehends the high esteem which Troll holds for fish of all sorts.  After looking at the beauty, grace, and power of his fish art, one feels honored to be included in the larger family (along with all the mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians which trace their roots back to fish-like tetrapod ancestors).

'Crusin' the Fossil Freeway' by Ray Troll (the artist is visible on the driver's side)

‘Crusin’ the Fossil Freeway’ by Ray Troll (the artist is visible on the driver’s side)

Troll is a favorite artist because he endeavors to understand paleontology, ecology, and biology and synthesize these extraordinary disciplines with broader human experience.  The result is a whimsical and surreal mixture of creatures and concepts from different times and places rubbing elbows as though Hieronymous Bosch were having a happy daydream.   Troll is a “popular” artist in that he makes a living by selling books, tee-shirts, and posters rather than swindling billionaire bankers into multi-million dollar single purchases, so you should check out his website.  In keeping with the themes of Ferrebeekeeper,  I have added a small gallery of his mollusk and catfish themed artwork (although such creatures are only featured in some of his paintings and drawings).  Unfortunately the online sample images are rather small.  If you want to see full resolution images you will have to buy his books and artwork (which is a worthwhile thing to do).

“The Encante”, (Ray Troll, 2004, colored pencil on paper, 11” x 30”)

“The Encante”, (Ray Troll, 2004, colored pencil on paper, 11” x 30”)

The Encante is a paradisiacal underwater realm where shapeshifting river dolphins lure humans.  The aquatic creatures are able to be themselves in this realm of magic and dance.  Not only does Troll’s work feature the beauty of the Amazon and the otherworldly magical river dolphins, there are also a host of amazing catfish, including several armored catfish, and a giant bottomfeeder which has apparently developed an unfortunate taste for human flesh.

Got Ink? (Ray Troll)

Got Ink? (Ray Troll)

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Octopi Wall Street (Ray Troll)

Octopi Wall Street (Ray Troll)

Here are a handful of Troll’s pun-themed tee-shirt drawings involving amazing cephalopods.  I like to imagine the populist octopus in battle with the fearsome vampire squid which is so emblematic of Goldman Sachs.

Night of the Ammonites (Ray Troll)

Night of the Ammonites (Ray Troll)

Finally, here is a naturalistic portrayal of how the ancient ammonites most likely came together to spawn on moonlit nights of the Paleozoic (such behavior is characteristic of the squids and cuttlefish alive today).  The long-extinct cephalopods are portrayed with life and personality as though their quest to exist has immediate relevance to us today.  Indeed–that might is Troll’s overarching artistic and philosophical point: life is a vividly complex web of relationships which knit together in the past, present, and the future.

According to the New York Daily News, nobody has seen a wild rabbit in Central Park since 2006 (way to horde a story for Easter, Daily News).  The indigenous eastern cottontail, Sylvilagus floridanus, which once flourished in Central Park, seems to have been completely eradicated from Manhattan.  One ecologist fairly convincingly blamed the ubiquitous raccoon for spreading parasites (I am inclined to agree after seeing the havoc those masked bandits can wreak upon a garden or anything else) but nobody truly knows the cause for the bunnies’ vanishing act: other potential culprits include feral cats, eagles (!), coyotes, and disease.

The big story of our time—and, indeed the big story since the Hadean era, when life apparently emerged from the slime—is the peculiar and complicated relationships within ecosystems.  I would like to make this a major theme of subsequent posts (after all it is the underlying tale of all living things), but right now I’m just sad about the rabbits.  Hopefully Prospect Park and Greenwood cemetery still have bunnies.  I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them there more recently then 2006, but I’m going to have to keep my eyes peeled and ask my Brooklyn neighbors to do the same.


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