CALGARY – Alberta’s decision to cull its wild horse population is at odds with the province’s western heritage, say critics who want the plan cancelled immediately.
One licence has already been issued by Alberta Environment to capture up to 200 feral horses in the central Alberta area around Sundre.
That angers opponents who worry that many of the horses are destined for slaughterhouses or will die during the roundup.
Said Anita Virginello, one of about 50 protesters in Calgary on Thursday:
[quote]Why are we killing our horses? We live in Alberta. We pride ourselves on horse culture, we’re home to the Calgary Stampede, numerous rodeos and ranches.[/quote]
She suggested it is hypocritical for Alberta to promote its cowboy culture when the province is “the horse slaughter capital of Canada.”
“There’s duplicity in that and it has to change.”
Government: Time to rein in wild horse population problem
The government says the feral horse population is continuing to balloon and numbers need to be balanced.
Said Carrie Sancartier, a spokeswoman for Alberta Environment and Sustainable Development:
[quote]It’s actually a capture…not a cull. What we’re trying to do is balance the users of the grassland in that area.[/quote]
“The feral horses eat the grass, but (so do) wildlife such as deer and elk, and this grass is quite sensitive to overgrazing, so we have put in place a capture season to remove a small portion of the feral horses.”
Sancartier said the number of horses in the Sundre area increased to 980 last year from 778 the year before. The department is confident about the count, which is done at the same time every year by helicopter, she said.
The horses are descendants of domestic animals used in logging and mining operations in the early 1900s.
More science needed before cull
Joe Anglin, environment critic for the Opposition Wildrose party, said there isn’t enough scientific evidence to support a cull.
“We don’t have answers to any questions and now they’re going to move forward and cull the herd,” said Anglin, who represents the Sundre area in the legislature.
“If there’s about 1,000 horses … what’s the appropriate size of the herd for the habitat and what we have? How do you make a decision if you don’t know if the habitat and the range can sustain the existing size?”
The Alberta government last issued a capture order in 2011 and 216 horses were removed. Sancartier understands that some people are upset.
“It is very emotional and we certainly understand that, but we’re also trying to manage the resource for all users, the feral horses as well as wildlife and livestock.”
Anglin said most Albertans are probably opposed to the plan.
“A lot of Albertans identify with the horse culture. It’s something that’s sort of germane to our past of independence and strength.
“It fits into the Alberta psyche, so there’s a lot of emotion attached to the issue.”
Not even a month has pass since the federally-appointed Joint Review Panel (JRP) released its official report recommending approval of the Northern Gateway Pipeline, pending the fulfillment of 209 conditions. Yet already two separate suits have been filed against the integrity of the report, with groups requesting Cabinet delay a final decision on the pipeline project until the federal court of appeals can assess the complaints.
One of the suits, filed Friday by the Environmental Law Centre on behalf of B.C. Nature (the Federation of British Columbia Naturalists), requested the JRP’s report be declared invalid and that Cabinet halt its decision on the pipeline project until the court challenge is heard. The second suit, filed by Ecojustice on behalf of several environmental groups claims the JRP report is based on insufficient evidence and therefore fails to constitute a full environmental assessment under the law.
Chris Tollefson, B.C. Nature’s lawyer and executive director of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria, says “we have asked that the federal court make an order that no further steps be taken by any federal regulator or by Cabinet until this request is adjudicated.”
[quote]We’re confident that the federal court will make that order because we’ve raised some serious issues with the legality of the report and if the report is flawed then it can’t go to Cabinet, and it shouldn’t go to Cabinet.[/quote]
Legal errors in Enbridge review prompt challenge
B.C. Nature has identified almost a dozen legal errors that bring the legitimacy of the JRP’s recommendation into question.
“The two [errors] that we think are the most serious among those are the finding with respect to justification of serious harm to caribou and grizzly and the ruling with respect to a potential major oil spill and its consequences. We say that in both of those areas there is a glaring error that’s occurred that has to be addressed by the federal court of appeal,” Tollefson said.
A federal recovery strategy for humpack whales on the B.C. coast released in October cited potential increased oil tanker traffic as a danger to dwindling populations. The recovery strategy, released after a five-year delay, also noted the danger toxic spills posed to critical habitat.
A federal caribou recovery strategy is expected by the end of the month.
“Both those federal strategies have to be consider by the Cabinet when it ultimately rules on this [project]… For caribou this pipeline has some serious consequences and it will be interesting to see what happens when the federal strategy comes down.”
JRP hearing a “failure”
For Tollefson, the inadequacy of the official JRP report points to a failure of the Northern Gateway hearing process.
“It’s disappointing for everybody involved on the intervenor side, how this has unfolded,” he said.
[quote]The report is not only legally flawed in relation to the specific issues that we’ve raised but I think there’s a more general flaw, which is that it’s failed the test of transparency, it fails test of intelligibility. It basically doesn’t grapple with the evidence.[/quote]
The report reaches its conclusions “without setting out its analysis,” Tollefson says, “without discussing the evidence that forms the basis for those conclusions.”
“So we think there’s a basic rule of law issue here: does this report even conform with the basic requirements in terms of intelligibility and transparency that we expect from tribunals?”
“And we say that it doesn’t.”
Tollefson anticipates that the request will delay Cabinet’s 180 decision period, saying it would be “very difficult” for Cabinet to address and respond to B.C. Nature’s complaints within that timeframe.
For Tollefson a delay in Cabinet’s decision isn’t only foreseeable, it’s appropriate.
“Cabinet after all has to make its decision based upon the findings and the recommendations that arise out of this report.” Without a reliable report, what kind of decision can British Columbians expect?
The errors in the report could send the JRP back to the drawing board.
“If we’re upheld on any of our arguments, that report will have to be sent back to the JRP, redone, and we’ll basically be starting, potentially, back where we were in June. In those circumstances, it makes little sense for Cabinet to make a decision given that level of uncertainty around the future of the report.”
A new study on trophy hunting in BC’s Great Bear Rainforest found that bear-related ecotourism generates “12 times more in visitor spending than bear hunting and over 11 times in direct revenue for BC’s provincial government.” The study, from the Centre for Responsible Travel (CREST), also found that bear viewing companies create roughly 50 times as many jobs as do bear hunting guide outfitters in the same region (510 vs. 11 in 2012).
In other words, conservation pays. That should be common sense. A bear shot by a camera instead of a rifle lives another day, providing further economic opportunities. Naturally, bears have their own reasons for living – and there are many other strong reasons to ban trophy hunting in BC – but since politics seems to be all about money and jobs these days, it’s a point worth considering, and one which applies far beyond bear viewing.
Tourism worth far more than pipelines to BC
Though you’d hardly know it from listening to Christy Clark or Stephen Harper, tourism is the cornerstone of BC’s economy, at a value of $13.4 Billion a year. Critical to the larger toursim sector is the billion-dollar wilderness tourism industry and “Super, Natural BC” brand upon which it is rests. So when you hear about oil and gas pipelines, terminals and tankers and the short-term jobs they will provide British Columbians (Enbridge would offer just 78 direct, permanent jobs in BC), consider the potential trade-offs they carry in the damage a single spill would wreak upon that brand.
Kayaking more valuable than logging
Another example of the economic value of conservation lies in a proposal to log 60 hectares near Boat Bay on West Carcroft Island. The logging would destroy kayaking values in a world-famous orca haven in nearby Robson Bight. The kayaking company operating there did some math to determine which form of mutually exclusive economic development was of greater value to the local economy. As Ray Grigg described in a story last year:
[quote]It calculated that the economic value of the 60 hectares of timber to be logged was $3,600,000. Since the regeneration cycle meant the area could be cut only once every 60 years, the yearly economic value of the timber was $60,000. The economic value to the kayaking company, however, was $416,000 per year, or $24,960,000 for the same 60 year period.[/quote]
The kayaking operation would provide 20,160 person-days of employment versus just 300 person-days from logging. “And this simple economic analysis didn’t include the employment and earnings for the 40 other ecotourism businesses using the same area,” Grigg continued. “These calculations suggest that logging, when it is in conflict with high-use ecotourism areas, is economically and socially indefensible.”
Conserving what precious little nature we have left in BC – in the world, for that matter – is about far more than dollars and cents. But, for what it’s worth, let us not forget that the principles of sustainability and conservation often apply as much to the economy as they do to the environment.
Two distinct pieces of federal legislation govern activities in and on our rivers, lakes and coastal waters: 1) The Canada Shipping Act, concerning the waterway surface and the protection navigation rights; 2) The Fisheries Act, pertaining to protection of the marine habitat, below the surface of these same waters. But while they apply to the same waters, on and below the surface respectively, the two Acts do not connect. In other words, under the current legislative framework, one cannot impose restrictions on certain types of motorized boats based on their impacts on the marine habitat.
In effect, regardless of the variances in environmental and community challenges from one waterway to another, the legislative challenges are the same, leaving communities across Canada without the means to protect their respective local environments and community interests.
BC’s ecologically sensitive salmon rivers left unprotected
Over the past 3 decades, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of recreational boaters on BC’s waterways. Gone are the days when the only boat one would see was the occasional fisherman in his “tinny” with a small outboard motor.
Across the province, lakes and rivers, big and small, are now accessed by an increasing number of bigger, faster and much more powerful boats. Recreation in BC is big business. While the increased congestion on BC’s large lakes creates numerous safety concerns, it is on the smaller lakes and rivers that the harmful environmental effects are most evident.
Studies dating back to the 1950’s (Lagler et al) identified the harmful effects of boat-caused erosion and sedimentation on aquatic plants and animals. Lagler found that prolonged use of an outboard in 75 centimetre deep water, and a propeller 35 centimetres from the bottom, removed all plants and silt from a swath 1.5 metres wide. In the ensuing six decades, study after study in the US and Canada have indicated that operating a boat in water less than 2 metres deep damages the aquatic ecosystem.
The erosive effects of boat wakes are also well-documented. In studies too numerous to mention, boat wakes have been shown to cause shoreline erosion and disturbance to aquatic mammals and nesting waterfowl while boat noise chases waterfowl from their nests. These disturbances devour the birds’ scarce resources and can lead to a serious long-term decline in waterfowl.
BC is blessed with hundreds of salmon-bearing rivers and streams. Hundreds of thousands of salmon fry live suspended in these shallow waters before making their way to the Pacific Ocean. With the advent of jet boat technology, high-powered aluminium hulled boats can travel at high speeds in these extremely shallow and ecologically sensitive marine environments.
One BC boat manufacturer has a model called “Extreme Shallow” designed for “skinny water” fun and boasts it can operate in just 5 inches of water. The impellers of these jet boats can pump as much as 3000 to 4000 gallons of water a minute.
The result? Salmon fry, and the aquatic insects that are their food supply, are crushed or washed ashore by these powerful forces. Similar impacts are associated with other types of motorized watercraft that generate wakes in these highly environmentally fragile salmon-bearing rivers. Nevertheless, though all this evidence in studies dates back more than 60 years, communities remain powerless to do something about this in the absence of a modern legislative framework.
While Transport Canada’s safe boating guide states that a 10 kph speed should be observed if less than 30 metres from shore, these common-sense guidelines do not apply to our rivers, where the 30 metre rule would effectively restrict boats to a no-wake speed on most inland rivers and streams.
The Canada Shipping Act, administered by Transport Canada, ensures that there are no impediments to navigation and that marine transportation is conducted in a safe manner. Not only is the Act ill-suited and not intended for protection of the environment, but also Transport Canada requires that all non-regulatory options be explored before a municipality can proceed with a request for a regulatory solution. In this regard, Transport Canada strongly encourages communities to adopt a voluntary code of conduct with near 100% adherence. This latter requirement is a source of irresolvable conflicts across Canada because few communities can achieve the necessary level of voluntary support for the code of conduct to be effective.
Accordingly, municipal governments and community organizations across Canada have been unable or unwilling to tackle this issue, anticipating a complicated and potentially controversial process that can take years while, all too often, pitting neighbour against neighbour in what may seem like a never ending ordeal.
The second piece of legislation, the Fisheries Act, administered by Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) was created in 1867 and remains one of Canada’s oldest existing pieces of legislation. While its mandate is to conserve and protect fisheries resources in all Canadian waterways by protecting the marine habitat, the current government has rendered the Act an empty shell, at the request of the pipeline industry.
Moreover, recent DFO enforcement changes include the reduction of DFO staffing to levels last seen in the 1980’s and the removal of the term “Habitat Management Program” from their organization and offices. DFO offices are being closed across the country and habitat protection staff are being laid off. The confluence of massive new industrial development and severe cuts to staff, can and will surely, harm habitat and fisheries of the future. There is no will presently within DFO to take the action required to protect our waterways from harm caused by recreational boats.
Suffice to say that: 1) neither of the two Acts were designed to address the current pressures that recreational boating poses for communities across the country; 2) the Fisheries Act is now so weakened that it has to be re-written, practically starting from the equivalent of a blank page; and 3) the two Acts must be linked in order to protect the marine habitat via restrictions on certain types of boating activity.
Will Dubitsky is a Quebec-based contributor to The Common Sense Canadian. Jean Clark is the Director of the Lower Shuswap Stewardship Society. Both are co-founders of the newly-formed Coalition for Responsible and Sustainable Navigation, which will work with communities across Canada to drive legislative protections for waterways from motorized boating.
Valhalla Wilderness Society is reporting that a pair of proposed natural gas pipelines connected to liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals planned for Prince Rupert will no longer pass through two important grizzly bear sanctuaries. The changes come following public pressure from Valhalla and other conservation groups.
The two pipelines – one to be built by Spectra, the other by TransCanada Corp on behalf of Malaysian energy giant Petronas – were due to pass through the the Kwinimass and Khutzeymateen conservancies, created in 2006 to protect important bear habitat. Illegal survey work in the area by a TransCanada subcontractor drew repeated warnings from BC Parks this summer and provoked criticism in the media.
According to a Thursday newsletter from Valhalla:
[quote]The withdrawal of the proposed pipeline routes was apparently due to prompt action undertaken by VWS coastal campaigner, Wayne McCrory along with the protests of many others. Although we do not have 100% confirmation from the companies, themselves, our information comes from very reliable sources in government, and from our legal representative.[/quote]
The Petronas-owned Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Project would be the largest pipeline in Canadian history at 4 feet in diameter, carrying 2-3.6 billion cubic feet per day of gas to a large LNG terminal north of Prince Rupert. The project would require the logging of pristine rainforest for a right-of-way of up to 200 metres wide – plus access roads and compressor stations.
McCrory referred to the plan in the media in September as “a shocking and unconscionable betrayal of the bears, the Park Act, and the Great Bear Rainforest decision of 2006.”
TransCanada had also applied for permits to do geotechnical studies that would involve drilling. According to Valhalla, “The park use permit application has now been withdrawn, as well.”
The other pipeline proposed for the area, belonging to Spectra, would be the same diameter and carry even more gas – up to 4.2 billion cubic feet per day. “Spectra has told people that it will not be going through the protected areas,” says Valahalla. “However, the company’s PR person has stated that the Khutzeymateen routing is not yet fully off the table.”
These two mammoth pipelines represent only a portion of those currently proposed to criss-cross the wilderness of northern BC, as this new map illustrates. There are five serious gas pipeline proposals, six more that have been floated, plus the Enbridge Northern Gateway twin bitumen and condensate lines – all part of the “gold rush mentality surrounding the BC government’s LNG promotion efforts in Asia,” says Valhalla.
What weighs less than a paperclip, tastes terrible and can travel thousands of kilometres without a map? Hint: this delicate critter is tawny-orange with black veins and white spots and has been mysteriously absent from Canada this summer.
It’s the monarch butterfly. Each year, eastern populations of these amazing frequent flyers flit between forests in central Mexico and southern Ontario.
It’s the only North American butterfly known to migrate and, most surprisingly, no single butterfly makes the return trip. In spring the butterflies depart from Mexico for states like Texas, where they breed and die. The offspring continue northward, repeating the reproductive cycle three or four times before arriving in Ontario.
Toward the end of summer, a generation of super-monarchs is born that survives for seven or eight months and makes the incredible journey south. Even though they’ve never been to Mexico’s volcanic mountains, the butterflies use an internal compass and landscape to guide them to the forests where their ancestors hibernated the previous winter.
Unfortunately, the past year has been bad for monarchs. Historically, about 350 million overwinter in Mexico, so densely covering the coniferous branches that they bow under the weight. This past winter scientists estimated only 60 million made it – a decline of more than 80 per cent.
Why are monarch populations at a 20-year low? Although the Mexican government has halted industrial logging in their winter home, serious threats remain, including illegal logging. Scientists say the main threats, though, are record-setting heat waves (which reduce reproductive success) and pervasive use of genetically modified crops.
One of the most important reproductive areas for the monarch is the U.S. Midwest, which has historically been blanketed with milkweed. This plant contains small amounts of cardenolide, a foul-tasting substance that can be toxic in large quantities. The monarch caterpillar eats only milkweed for this reason. Predators dislike the cardenolide stored in the monarch’s body, so they learn to steer clear of flittering things with orange and black wings.
Despite the conversion of much of the arable land in the Midwest to agriculture during the past couple of centuries, milkweed continued to grow along edges and between rows of crops – feeding millions of monarch caterpillars.
Over the past decade, about 150 million hectares of farmland in the region – an area about the size of Saskatchewan – have been planted with soybean and corn genetically modified to tolerate herbicides, known as “Roundup Ready” crops. Instead of tilling fields, farmers spray herbicides that kill all plants but the crop. This has wiped out much of the milkweed.
With a decline of monarchs in Mexico and pervasive threats during migration, it wasn’t entirely surprising that they arrived in Canada six weeks later than normal this summer in unprecedented low numbers. Point Pelee National Park in Leamington, Ontario, even cancelled its annual monarch count because of lack of butterflies.
While the future of the monarch looks bleak, we can all help ensure its survival.
At home you can create a butterfly garden to provide habitat and food for monarchs and other pollinators. Plant milkweed and nectar-producing native flowers, like wild bergamot, New England aster and black-eyed Susans – especially ones with yellow, pink, orange and purple flowers. Adding these plants to gardens, balconies, parks and green spaces – and encouraging local schools, businesses and institutions to do the same – will help bees and butterflies stay healthy and well-fed.
Want to go bigger than making your yard or park a butterfly haven? Check out the David Suzuki Foundation’s Homegrown National Park project in Toronto. It aims to create a butterfly corridor through the heart of the city by encouraging residents, businesses and institutions to add more green to yards, balconies, rooftops, streets, alleys and parks.
In the project’s first year, pollinator gardens were planted in more than a dozen locations along the Homegrown National Park corridor, including a network of “canoe gardens” in local parks and bee-and-butterfly gardens in schoolyards, health facilities and front- and backyards. Momentum is building for even grander green interventions next year.
So, while the monarchs have already begun their journey south, I encourage you to start preparing for next year’s butterflies. Head to your local nursery and get your milkweed on. And do what you can to bring nature to your neighbourhood.
With contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Specialist Jode Roberts.
Within weeks, the tentacled orange sea stars had all but disappeared in Howe Sound and Vancouver Harbour, disintegrating where they sat on the ocean floor.
And aquarium staff don’t know just how far-reaching the “alarming” epidemic has been, and whether this and other sea star species will recover.
“They’re gone. It’s amazing,” said Donna Gibbs, a research diver and taxonomist on the aquarium’s Howe Sound Research and Conservation group.
“Whatever hit them, it was like wildfire and just wiped them out.”
Population explosion preceded sea star die-off
The sunflower sea star population had inexplicably exploded in recent years. In some areas they were stacked several stars deep, and those conditions may have been ripe for disease, she said.
“We are seeing some babies, so we’re wondering if they will survive,” Gibbs said. “We’re hoping we get the natural abundance back without this overabundance.”
Other species of sea star — commonly called starfish — are also affected.
Jeff Marliave, the aquarium’s vice-president of marine science, said the collapse has been confirmed around the Defence Islands, north of Vancouver, and off the south shore of Bowen Island, where there is no longer any evidence of what was a huge overpopulation of the voracious cousins of the sea urchin.
“Where the population density had been highest in summer of 2012, on the western shore of Hutt Island, all the sunflower sea stars are gone from that area, with rivers of ossicles (a hard body part) filling ledges and crevices,” Marliave wrote in his blog.
Sea Star Wasting Syndrome
The aquarium has dubbed the epidemic Sea Star Wasting Syndrome.
Aquarium staff don’t know the cause because they have had trouble gathering specimens for testing, as starfish that looked healthy in the ocean turned up as goo at the lab.
The sea star die-off has killed thousands of the marine invertebrates, which can weigh up to five kilograms and live from three to five years.
The Howe Sound research team has heard from veterinarians and other marine experts that similar die-offs have taken place in Florida and California.
“We’re just not sure yet if it’s all the same thing,” Gibbs said. “They’re dying so fast.”
In July, researchers at the University of Rhode Island reported that sea stars were dying in a similar way from New Jersey to Maine, and the university was working with colleagues at Brown and Roger Williams universities to figure out the cause.
The collaboration came about after a graduate student collected starfish for a research project and then watched as they “appeared to melt” in her tank.
Like Howe Sound, the Narragansett Bay area where those starfish were collected had seen an explosion in the population in the previous few years.
“Often when you have a population explosion of any species you end up with a disease outbreak,” Rhode Island Prof. Marta Gomez-Chiarri said in a statement at the time.
“When there’s not enough food for them all it causes stress, and the density of the animals leads to increase disease transmission.
Unfortunately, once that disease is in the environment, it can be difficult to get the population back, she said.”
[quote]Diseases don’t just completely disappear after a massive die-off.[/quote]
Vancouver Aquarium staff are asking divers and other members of the public to help monitor the spread of the disease, and report any similar sun star deaths to email@example.com.
A BC-based conservation group is taking the popular concept of nature cameras to a whole new level. This week, Pacific Wild launched a pair of 24-hour, live video feeds from the heart of BC’s Great Bear Rainforest – with one camera trained on a busy salmon river, the other a sea lion rookery.
The High-definition cameras beam their images to the organization’s lab on Denny Island, through a mountaintop relay site. The shots of of sea mammals, wolves and salmon in action are then instantly streamed to your computer via satellite link. Anyone can check out the live feeds anytime on Pacific Wild’s website.
The cameras can be remote-controlled from the lab, enabling operators to pan, tilt, and zoom in on their wild subjects.
Already today, visitors to the site have been treated to live images of wolves feeding on salmon and a colony of sea lions tending to their young.
Says Sarah Stoner of Pacific Wild:
[quote]Along with our Heiltsuk First Nation partners, we are using this camera technology in conjunction with our hydrophone network to enhance our marine mammal monitoring efforts. As well, we bring the high quality feeds into the Bella Bella Community School where students can operate the cameras as a part of the SEAS Community Initiative.[/quote]
The organization has been at the forefront of conservation efforts in the Great Bear Rainforest – on BC’s central coast – for a number of years, leveraging leading-edge photography and video to show the world what is at stake from logging and oil tanker proposals.
Users can sign up for alerts via text message, email, facebook and twitter, to catch the action when it’s happening.
OTTAWA – The federal Health Department is proposing tighter rules for the use of a pesticide that is suspected of killing honey bees.
It is asking for public comment on the issue over the next 90 days.
The department wants to hear from stakeholders and other interested parties people about its plans for stricter controls on the use of neonicotinoid treated corn and soybean seed.
It wants the new rules in place by the time planting starts next year.
The department is calling for safer planting practices, efforts to reduce dust from seeders, new pesticide label warnings and updated information on the need to treat soy and corn seed with insecticide.
The department say studies in 2012 and 2013 found bee deaths were higher in heavy corn-production areas where neonicotinoids are used.
It suspects the deaths are linked to contaminated dust kicked up during planting. In its consultation document, the department said:
[quote]We have concluded that current agricultural practices related to the use of neonicotinoid treated corn and soybean seed are not sustainable. For the 2014 planting season, we intend to implement additional protective measures for corn and soybean production.[/quote]
Beekeepers have been pushing for a complete ban on these pesticides.
Europe already has ban
Last spring, the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association welcomed a European Union ban on three suspect insecticides.
“The EU vote clearly shows there is scientific and public support around the globe for policies which protect honey bees and other pollinators and recognize their essential role in food production and healthy ecosystems,” association president Dan Davidson said at the time.
The beekeepers say neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides that are absorbed into plant tissues and can leach into ground water.
The association says these chemicals are toxic to bees, as well as earthworms, birds and fish.
It says the health of the food production system is at stake.
“Ontario’s fruit and vegetable farmers depend on adequate pollination by honey bees, bumble bees and wild bees,” Davidson said.
Read David Suzuki’s recent story on the mystery of dying bees.
Scientists believe life appeared on Earth almost four-billion years ago, about half a billion years after our relatively young planet formed. It would be fascinating to see how life arose and managed to hang on.
If scientists were to invent time travel to take us back through Earth’s history, we’d see little life for most of the four-billion years. Plenty was happening but at a microscopic level as organisms worked out all the intricacies of survival: finding food and energy, evading predators, fighting off disease (even bacteria get virus infections), reproducing and eliminating waste.
Once those fundamental details were worked out, more complex cells arose by incorporating other cells within themselves to perform specialized functions like capturing energy from the sun (photosynthesis) or generating energy from stored molecules. The stage was set for the final blossoming of life into forms visible to creatures like us: multicellularity. Once an organism was made up of many cells, a division of labour was possible. Various cells specialized in movement, eating, digestion, excretion and reproduction. All of this occurred in the last fifth of life’s existence as seas and land filled with wondrous animals and plants.
It’s a magnificent story and we only know the barest outlines. We tend to focus on big life forms like trees, elephants and whales. That’s understandable. They’re often spectacular. But our bias toward the big and impressive overlooks the importance, and beauty, of what are often dismissed as “creepy crawlies”, such as worms, insects, fungi and bacteria.
I was an avid bug collector as a boy. To me, insects were endlessly riveting. Many of them display spectacular colours and patterns and occur in shapes and forms that are far more bizarre and surprising than any Hollywood sci-fi creation. My childhood fascination evolved in college to a focus on heredity in an insect, a common fruit fly, which has revealed so much about genetic principles in humans.
In our concern with protecting grizzlies and polar bears, whooping cranes and redwood trees, wolves and caribou, we give short shrift to the small creatures that keep the planet livable. Tiny organisms and plant roots filter water as it percolates through soil; insects, bacteria and fungi help plants, animals and dung decompose to create soil; bacteria in legumes capture atmospheric nitrogen and fix it in soil; all green things exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen as they capture sunlight that animals like us can consume and store for our own use. In fact, bacteria directly produce up to half the oxygen we breathe. Microbes in the human body outnumber cells by 10 to one, and many of them keep us alive by helping us digest food and combat infection, among other services.
Years ago, scientists in Norway showed that a single teaspoon of soil from a beach contained more than 4,000 different species of bacteria. Another teaspoon taken from a nearby deciduous forest yielded a similar number of species, most of them different from the beach group. Soil is not dirt or inert material; it is a complex community of living organisms, yet modern farming techniques often wipe them out.
Scientists estimate that for every human, there are 200-million insects on Earth. They are important parts of ecosystems, providing services such as pollination, food and pest control. Of all insect species, very few are harmful to humans, yet we spray powerful chemicals that kill all insects just to get at the tiny fraction that causes problems for us.
Because all life forms have evolved ways to find food, avoid being eaten, heal from infection, reproduce and eliminate waste, we have much to learn if we show some respect and patience to see how they create solutions. Scientists discovered penicillin as a fungus’s way of warding off bacteria. They found cancer-fighting vincristine in the rosy periwinkle and taxol in yew trees. Restriction enzymes, vital tools of genetic engineers, are used by bacteria to fight viral infection.
We focus on charismatic species like whales, pandas, cedar trees and seals as poster children for conservation. But the small things that keep the biosphere going for creatures like us are probably more threatened because we ignore them. If we spend time studying them, they have much to teach us.