Monday, October 31, 2016

Oswald Schmitz's "The New Ecology"

Oswald Schmitz is Professor of Population and Community Ecology at Yale University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocene, and reported the following:
There is this new, rather difficult-to-pronounce-term—Athropocence—being bandied around these days. Scientists coined it to describe a new epoch in the Earth’s history. Literally meaning the “Age of Humans”, it describes our new future, in which humans are the dominant force of nature that stands to determine our ecology and therefore the fate of all species on planet Earth. To many, Anthropocence foreshadows a gloomy apocalyptic destiny. This view is borne of a conventional wisdom that all living beings on Earth today are a heritage of slow evolutionary processes that occurred over millennia, and so many species are sadly doomed because they will be incapable of coping with the fast paced-changes that humans will surely cause.

But, Page 99 begins to tell an altogether different story.
Anolis lizards are a group of species that inhabit countless tiny islands in the Caribbean. As a clear example of evolution leading to [a diversity of ecological roles] …….. these species occupy many different locations within their habitat: some are ground-dwelling; others live on trunks of bushes; and others yet live on branches. One can readily discern which habitat locations each species uses based on body and limb morphology. But, experimentation has shown that these traits can be quite malleable as the environment changes.

The experiment involved …… [introducing onto some small islands] an exclusively ground dwelling species of lizard that was an effective predator of the Anolis. The predatory lizard did two things. It quickly dispatched those individual Anoles that were poorly capable of escaping by climbing on trunks and in branches. Over the season, it also caused developmental changes in limb morphology of the survivors, which allowed them to more nimbly walk on thin branches and catch prey in the higher vegetation. Such developmental change during the course of an individual’s lifetime is termed phenotypic plasticity. The propensity to undergo plastic changes is however, genetically determined. So, some individuals are better able to undergo plastic changes than others. The ones with poorer abilities to change have poorer survival on thin branches in the canopy. They must either try to eke out a living in the vegetation or move down toward the ground where they are better able to catch prey. But moving lower down risks being caught by the predatory lizard. Either way, those individuals will have lower survival than the more plastic individuals. Moreover, the plastic individuals, being the ones mostly remaining in the population, will tend to interbreed with one another. They will thus produce generations of offspring that are more and more likely to develop the morphology that allows them to live on branches in the vegetation. Thus, phenotypic plasticity has enabled individuals to improve their immediate survival in response to a rapid environmental change. This plasticity has further set in motion longer-term adaptive evolutionary change in which individuals that develop the morphology to thrive in the upper vegetation dominate the genetic make-up of the population. Such changes were not at all observed on the unmanipulated control islands. This experiment thus provides strong evidence that in very short order, evolutionary processes are causing a once exclusively ground-dwelling species to become locally adapted to the new and unique island conditions.
This narrative shows how species have remarkable capacities to rapidly adapt—and even evolve within a mere span of a couple of human generations—to cope with some pretty significant, rapid environmental changes. These, and other remarkable scientific discoveries, are causing ecologists to rethink their conventional theories about how nature works, and humankind’s role within it.

Given its power to usurp resources from other species and change nature to suit its own needs, humankind has, now more than ever, an important ethical responsibility to care for all of life on Earth and preserve evolutionary processes. The book shows why it is in our own self-interest. Species do not merely exist for humankind’s passing enjoyment: they—animals, plants and microbes alike—are critical to sustaining the many ecological functions and services that support life on Earth. This book reveals the amazing ways that nature functions and the changes that human agency can instigate. But those changes can also come back to influence humankind’s fate and wellbeing. This dispels another conventional wisdom: that humans and nature exist apart as a human/nature divide. Humans and nature are entwined as a grand socio-ecological system. This book offers new ecological knowhow, and ethical and practical insights about human and nature entwinement in the interest of sustaining all of life on Earth.
Learn more about The New Ecology at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue