When we know something, intimately, we want to see if that changes. By looking deeply into nature's multifaceted, dynamic reality, we discover how different elements are connected in surprising ways.
A few years ago, along with many others, I helped spread a small nature film on social media. Filming it How Wolves Changes Rivers and was about the wolves' return to Yellowstone National Park. Many probably thought that the story of the wolves' positive, pervasive effects on park life was too good to be true. Of course, such skepticism should always be with us, but here was the solid science behind the idea of reintroducing one species into an ecosystem.
Understanding of life
The documentary The Serengeti Rules gives us a fascinating introduction to the background of it all. We meet five people who, in the 1960s, developed glow and dedication to see and understand life – in both woods and fields, rivers and oceans. They did not know each other, and they were apparently occupied by totally different fields.
The film's supporting voice is given to Robert Paine, who tells from his deathbed how he came to gather these various researchers in a joint project. His professional gaze sought longer than most, for his ambition was to uncover nature's self-regulating mechanisms. For a long time, science had devised a model where the sun's energy creates food for the plant eaters, which are then eaten by the predators, in a process from below and up. But what if the connections in nature were more complex than that? What if life trickled down as much as growing up?
The key role of the key species
Robert Paine initiated a simple experiment to investigate such issues. In a zone on the seafront, where 15 different species lived in symbiosis with each other, he removed the starfish. The process of change that followed was overwhelmingly clear. After a short time, the ecosystem was completely taken over by clams.
The vitality of nature, the production of biological diversity, depended on the interaction of a number of species
The disappearance of the predator (that is, the starfish) gave one species the opportunity to dominate so strongly that it suppressed everything else and thus formed a monoculture. If Paine removed one of the other species, nothing happened. In other words, the starfish stood out. It was a key species in the ecosystem, crucial to biodiversity.
This groundbreaking discovery became a point of reference, which the film's other researchers brought into the study of interactions between ants and trees, between otters and crows, between fish and plants in the ponds of the inland rivers, and between wildebeest and other life in the Serengeti National Park. In all cases, the same mechanism was identified. The vitality of nature, the production of biological diversity, depended on the interaction of a number of species – some species being more important than others.
Out of this insight also increased the knowledge of how we humans create imbalances in nature. When the otter disappeared in waters off northeastern America, it triggered a powerful boom of crows. As these are plant eaters, the effect was that a buzzing life was soon transformed into a desert below sea level. What then caused the otter's disappearance? The answer was that they were taken by killer whales, an effect that human influence had forced killer whales to change their eating habits. This shows how industrial capture of selected species can create imbalances that spread through large ecosystems. The long-term effect here was that human activity entailed the weathering of a natural diversity that was crucial to the ocean's production of life.
Industrial capture of selected species can create imbalances that spread through large ecosystems.
Unfortunately, there are many such stories. Increases in the number of people, the destruction of nature and landscape changes as well as various forms of pollution are part of processes that disrupt important ecosystems, which may have evolved over thousands of years. Often, it is about individual interventions that release domino effects that spread unpredictably through various stages. One challenge here is that we humans tend to turn the changes into a new norm and thus do not understand that the nature we see is harmed by human activity.
The downgrading of ecosystems as well as mass deaths and loss of natural diversity is a reality we must deal with more actively. A critical question is whether it is possible to upgrade nature again? This is where the Yellowstone wolves become important, as they so clearly show that reintroducing a lost species can revitalize the vitality of nature. In different contexts, we therefore need to clarify which species are the key to mutual interaction in an ecosystem. One place was the wolf, elsewhere the starfish or otter – and in the Serengeti National Park it turned out to be the wildebeest.
The relationship between nature and the natural sciences forms a central point here. In the circle outside this we touch on a sociological dimension. What is needed for our societies to properly safeguard ecological knowledge? Do the solutions lie in drawing absolute boundaries between what we can touch and what we should stay away from, or must we realize that in the anthropocene age the question is more about how we touch, safeguard and manage a world we have forever changed?
Also read: An increasingly nihilistic world