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The folks at Story of Stuff just released a new inspirational video with the real solution to environmental sustainability and resilience: changing the goal from a different “more” to a “better” future. Check it out:
One of the perennial and probably most controversial topics in conservation ecology is when is something "too small'. By 'something' I mean many things, including population abundance and patch size. We've certainly written about the former on many occasions (see here, here, here and here for our work on minimum viable population size), with the associated controversy it elicited.
I am working on a section for a chapter of a book about California Ecosystems. This book will consist of different chapters for the different ecosystems in California, which include information on the biodiversity present in those ecosystems, but there will also be one chapter on overall California biodiversity. That is the chapter I am contributing to- each group of organisms: plants, mammals, birds, herps…get their own section of the chapter, each the same length. When I started to think about how I could fit an overview of all of the California invertebrates in 10 double-spaced pages, I immediately thought about how unfair it is that inverts get the same amount of space- because there are about a thousand times more invertebrates in California than all of those other categories combined! I tried to walk the line between very broad and very specific- because the coolest things about inverts are the specifics, like how exactly yucca moths interact with yucca plants, it’s truly amazing, check out the Bug Chicks video of the mutualism below.
I learned a ton researching for and writing this chapter section. For instance, I never realized just how diverse invertebrates are in California. I thought the state was somewhat depauperate, mostly because I grew up in a place where the summer nights were hot and humid and you couldn’t walk outside without getting hit in the head by a beetle! Ah, those were the days…. Anyways, I was somewhat correct in that any given area in California does not have a ton of invert diversity and the cold nights make for difficult nocturnal living, but California as a whole is an amazing mosaic of invertebrate diversity. The fact that I can drive 10 miles from my house, pretty much in any direction, and find a new set of insects is pretty remarkable. In fact, California is home to around 35,000 species of insects, which is about 30% of all the species in the US and Canada combined!
I did already know that California was a insect conservation and biodiversity hotspot not only because of all these unique ecosystems and microhabitats, but also because there are many people here and many more people who want to live here. California is home to more than half of the federally listed threatened and endangered invertebrate species in the US. As a scholar of threatened insects, I don’t get to learn about other invertebrates as often as I’d like; yet, for this section, I had to write about ALL invertebrates, not just insects. So, I stretched, learned, and wrote about one of the most critically endangered invertebrates in California, the White Abalone.
I am no eater of sea food, but apparently abalone is delicious and white abalone is the most succulent of all. Well, that caused the species to plummet to near extinction in the 1980s. White abalone fishing was banned in 1996, but the species just wouldn’t recover. Why? Well, it turns about that it didn’t matter if a few individuals were left, there weren’t enough in one area to successfully reproduce! Abalone reproduce by broadcast spawning- they spew out sperm and eggs in hopes they unite in the water column. Unfortunately, this only works when abalone are in high enough densities for the sperm and egg to meet. While white abalone adults were found in their habitats, juveniles were rare and it is now known that the adult densities were too low to make babies. Today, there is a White Abalone Restoration Consortium that collects sperm and eggs to breed white abalone in captivity. The reared individuals are then returned to the sea to increase adult densities for natural reproduction. It is a great story of science being used for conservation!
I’m not sure when this book will come out, but it ended up being a lot of fun and, of course, I got to include the Ohlone tiger beetle in the conservation section :).
There is an interesting article published in The Economist this month about declining visitation numbers in national parks, particularly among young Americans. The article, “Why go outside when you have an iPhone?,” concludes that today’s youth are more interested in roller coasters and techie entertainment than they are in our natural spaces.
“The National Park Service has all manner of explanations for its stagnating popularity.
I frequently discuss conservation in urban areas or areas where humans live and work- but that does not discount the value of more continuous swaths of nature with minimal human activities- the two forms of conservation are not and should not be mutually exclusive. It’s the difference between, such as in the US, National Parks that conserve evolutionary processes and large carnivores and diverse tree species to smaller, urban natural areas or reserves that provide some habitat but also areas of recreation. We still need those large swaths of relatively undisturbed nature to regulate planetary cycles, just as we need those small parks to feel restored after work or a place to hang out on the weekends. Not all of nature can survive in urban parks and we must recognize that if we want to share this planet and ultimately survive ourselves.
I am writing passionately about this topic because I feel very passionate about the conservation of one of those large swaths of undisturbed nature: Yasuni National Park and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Ecuador. Yasuni is the real deal, a true primary rainforest- it covers an area of 6,100 square miles, about the size of Delaware, and is one of- if not THE- most biodiverse place on this planet. It is also the site of my first rainforest experience. As a 20 year old undergraduate student of ecology, Yasuni is where I first stood in the center of a lush green canopy listening to a real cacophony of nature. It is the first place I learned rain can be literally deafening. The first place I heard the bizarre sound of a Howler monkey. The first place I saw the brilliance of a blue morpho butterfly. The first place I didn’t mind getting woken up before 6 am, as long as it was to the laughing of golden-mantled tamarins. The first place I felt nervous by the rush of thousands or millions of army ants on a mission. The first place I felt the freedom of a pair of macaws flying above the Napo River. The first place I was surrounded- literally surrounded- by butterflies of all colors and shapes, as if from a fairytale. The first place I learned that beetles can be the size of baseballs and sound like helicopters as they land on a fresh pile of dung before beautifully rolling it up into a neat ball for future beetles. It was a magical experience and it is a magical place. It made a lasting mark on me as emotionally, as a scholar of nature, and physically- as I now have a tattoo of that helicopter beetle.
Why I am telling you all about Yasuni now, 11 years after my experiences there? I am telling you about it because Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, just approved oil drilling in Yasuni. This did not come as a huge surprise and even his presidential opponent warned voters that he would approve it and blame the lack of international support. Who is to blame? Perhaps it is the international community, us, and perhaps not for the lack of conservation support but for the demand of cheap oil and the lack of energy conservation policies. Perhaps this idea of paying for the forest, while potentially a great one, came too soon and didn’t last long enough for it to be a viable solution in 2013. But the reasons don’t take away from the fact that drilling will happen, that Ecuador will have access to 20% of its oil reserves, that another country will have a few more years of cheap oil, that trees will come down, that more CO2 will enter the atmosphere, that individual animals and plants will die and that species will go extinct, probably many species.
There may even be nothing we can do about it, there probably isn’t anything we can do about it, but it is so important that we- as GLOBAL citizens- are aware of this beauty, able to understand the importance of this regulator of our planet in order to do something about it in the future- to prevent any more of Yasuni from oil exploration, to make conservation of areas like this a priority, a priority over short-term energy needs. A shift needs to happen and it needs to happen soon.
To get a more quantitative view of how incredibly diverse this place is (notice they don’t even mention invertebrates because the numbers are too insane!), check out this video. The video came before the approved oil drilling and so the hopeful ending is misleading:
But perhaps better than understanding the sheer number of species in this amazing place, I hope the idea of it and the visual will give you a sense of its value and that the thought of destroying even a small portion of Yasuni will make you feel the loss in your gut.
Is there anything we can do now? I’m not sure, but maybe we can push hard for regulations on how the drilling is carried out. In some coverage from PBS on Friday, Entomologist Terry Erwin reminds us that maybe regulated drilling could potentially reduce the negative effect on species- true? I don’t know, but I will post any petitions that you can sign as I find them in the comments of this post. In the meantime, follow Yasuni and Tiputini on facebook.