Birds, Ballasts, and the Fate of the Biosphere

by | 7.10.2013 at 12:56pm
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Shahid Naeem

Professor of Ecology, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology

Director, Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability

The Biosphere really needs its own newspaper.  Yes, there are lots of newspapers out there, but when it comes to the Biosphere, important stories just don’t get the top billing they deserve.  Take discoveries of new species, for example.  Just in the last month, a new spoon worm, white toothed shrew, corpse flower, and tailorbird were all discovered – this would be front-page material for the Biosphere Times, if such a paper existed, but good luck finding these stories in the mainstream papers.  One might think my frustration with this news bias stems from my work on why biodiversity is critical to a healthy environment.  In actuality, however, I learned about the importance of species when my little Austin America sports car mysteriously died one day in 1973.

An Austin America, in spite of its name, is a foreign car.  They were built in England between 1968 and ‘71, for the American market.  Someone there got the idea that though Americans primarily owned gas guzzling monstrosities back then, they all dreamt of owning a second, smaller car.  In fact it was advertised as “Austin America, the perfect second car.”  This advertising slogan was based on the famous Republican National Committee tagline developed for President Hoover’s run for president.  The tagline, however, was often misquoted, one variant being, “A chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage!” The original Republican tagline only promised one car and it was to be parked in one’s backyard, not a garage.  It’s also interesting to note that Hoover never used the phrase in any of his speeches.  Nevertheless, the Brits were convinced that Yanks wanted a second car and they were going to capitalize on that untapped market.

1970 Austin America, Image Copyright, Todd (reposted with permission).

1970 Austin America, Image Copyright, Todd (reposted with permission).

My friend and I, both poor students living in San Francisco in the 70’s, owned a 1970 Austin America.  It was really cheap, sold by someone who wanted to offload it quickly.  It ran fine and we loved it, but one day in 1973, it mysteriously died.  I turned the key and the engine fired up, but when I let the key go, the car sputtered and stopped.  I tried it over and over, but no luck.  I worked on the car for days but could not, for the life of me, figure out what was wrong; battery, starter, distributer, cabling, everything was in order.  Once I exhausted my limited knowledge of automobile mechanics and could find nothing in a couple of repair manuals, I gave up and went to an auto parts store that specialized in British cars.  I described the problem to the clerk and he immediately said I probably needed to replace the ballast resistor.  He went back into his vast acreage of shelving where all the parts were neatly labeled, and returned with a ballast resistor for our 1970 Austin America.

Ballast resistor for an Austin America, a small, featureless white ceramic box with connecting pins and mounting bracket.

Ballast resistor for an Austin America, a small, featureless white ceramic box with connecting pins and mounting bracket.

I confessed to the car-parts guy that I had never heard of ballast resistors.  He loved his job and was happy to take the resistor out of its carton and show it to me.  It was a featureless, little white box with contacts and a little bracket for attaching it to the engine.  He explained what it was, what it did, why it was important, and how to replace it.  I was in awe of his knowledge.

When I got home, I replaced the old ballast resistor with the new one and … bingo!  I resurrected the Austin America.

I had never before that moment, and have never since, had to deal with ballast resistors.  But I became acutely aware that parts mattered – even little dull-looking parts could be critical to system functioning.  The entire car, probably weighing over a ton and made up of thousands of parts, couldn’t run for want of a tiny ballast resistor.

Back to the spoon worm, white toothed shrew, corpse flower, and tailorbird.  Actually, to be honest, while I knew what a spoon worm, white-toothed shrew, and corpse flower were, I had never heard of tailorbirds.  Birds are immensely popular and 96% of their species have been described, so while sightings of a new species of worm, shrew, and flower weren’t deemed fit to print, a new species of bird is big news and the story appeared in the New York Times’ Asia Pacific section on June 26.  The discovery itself was published in Forktail, the journal of the Oriental Bird Club (2013, vol. 29, pp 1-14), so unless a major newspaper covered the story, we (or at least those of us who are not regular readers of Forktail) would not have learned about it.

Here’s the thing.  The new species of tailorbird, now officially known as the Cambodian Tailorbird or Orthotomus chaktomuk, is a featureless, little brown bird with an orange cap.  Very cute, as little brown birds go, but I was hoping for something more exotic, maybe with iridescent feathers or bright red eyes or fearsome talons, but it’s just a little brown bird.

A new species of featureless little bird, the Cambodian Tailorbird. Photo: James Eaton.

A new species of featureless little bird, the Cambodian Tailorbird. Photo: James Eaton.

What was truly amazing about the tailorbird discovery was that it was found living in plain sight at a construction site in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a city of two million.

Of course, because it seemed insignificant – just another little bird – it was overlooked until a team studying avian flu found it in a survey of birds in the region.

This is where the Austin America ballast resistor comes in.  Every time I encounter a species I’ve never seen before, whether at home in New York City or in the wild, I immediately wonder what it is, what it does, why it is important, and if it can be replaced if it goes extinct.   And even if I don’t encounter anything new outdoors, there is always something new at the American Museum of Natural History, with its millions of specimens and hundreds of thousands of species, the New York Botanical Garden with its fifty different gardens of plants from all over the world, or the Wildlife Conservation Society’s zoos that are home to some 1,400 species – one doesn’t have to go far in the City to see something new.  There are zoos, gardens, and natural history museums throughout the US and if not, there are TV shows, web sites, magazines and more which bring the world of species to people who are curious about their fellow denizens of the Biosphere.

The cause for my concern is that the Biosphere is acting up, sputtering a bit, and not running very well, but if we go to a museum, garden, zoo, university, or someplace where we could find biodiversity specialists and ask what parts (i.e., species) might be failing (i.e., going extinct) and what measures we should take to restore, conserve, and preserve function, nine times out of ten they won’t be able to help.  Unlike the knowledgeable clerk at the auto parts store who seemed to know everything about all the parts in his store, we have identified only about 10% of the world’s species and know very little about what they do, why they are important, and how to replace or find substitutes for them where they have vanished.

Fortunately, Earth is well built – it has ten million different kinds of parts (species), most of which have survived and prospered on their own for millions of years.  For every species, there are similar ones that are often scarce and seldom seen, but because they carry out similar functions, they can substitute for one another.  And every species also consists of hundreds to billions of individuals, so the loss of one, when the environment goes sour, is often compensated for by the birth of others.  We couldn’t ask for a better design for the Biosphere.  It can suffer a lot of damage – though, like all systems, it has its thresholds where too much damage means the system will shut down or behave in ways that could be rather unpleasant.

The Biosphere is changing rather rapidly now, so more than ever, learning about our species is extraordinarily important work.  Forty percent of the world has been converted to agriculture, much of the oceans are riddled with plastic, bleaching corals, and collapsing fisheries, and extinction rates are probably a hundred times higher than they used to be.  Things are a little scary – food, water, and energy are in short supply for developing countries, diseases are spreading, climate is warming, but by and large, humans are surviving and we’ll probably be able to add on another billion or two to our growing population.

This is why species discoveries are so important on our crowded planet – every new discovery means we are learning a little more about our Biosphere at a critical time in Earth’s history.  Things seem a little off kilter and we’d like to fix things before they go too far awry since the number of people who are poor and vulnerable and will be harmed by environmental instability numbers in the billions.  Everything we learn about species benefits humanity.

I don’t, for a moment, believe that the Cambodian tailorbird is exactly like the ballast resistor – seemingly innocuous, but should it go extinct, Cambodian ecosystems would collapse or the Biosphere itself would fail.  I do think, however, it would be good to know what tailorbirds do in nature rather than just guessing.  After all, it is hard to think of anything more newsworthy than the state of the Biosphere and new knowledge about species can help us get a better sense of its fate.

This is why the pioneer conservationist Aldo Leopold, perhaps our most revered environmental thinker, is often quoted when it comes to explaining why species matter:

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

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