Monday, October 10, 2016

Some Plants & Animals are labeled dull, mundane, decadant & ugly ? Is that even Scientific ?

The general Public tends to look up to and value what are suppose to be the well education experts of leading Academic & Scientific Authorities on a number of things. Unfortunately a major flaw in human nature is to judge things by mere outward appearances. We not only do it with plants and animals, we first do it to each other. Been that way from the very beginning. But this is especially seriously when biased negative opinions about our natural world come from people like Academics, Scientists and politicians. If their take on something found in the natural world is a negative one, this only serves to  reinforce the ignorance in the minds of millions citizens towards specific things found in Nature.

Image from Scientific American
The journal Scientific American had a good piece on this a while back with the title, "Ugly Critters get no Love."  The title is an interesting one, but are the descriptive terms they referenced inside the article really valuable in a scientific sense ? Or only when political, ideological or business interests are at stake ? Frankly, nature is incapable of thinking in such terms. It's a mistake to attribute to nature such terms as evil, disgusting, oral or immoral etc to things in the wild. Nature just does what it does. Sometimes nature becomes out of balance and causes us discomfort in one way or another, but that almost always has had a human cause behind it. Here is the post from Scientific American:

"The koala is a cutie, but does it steal too much of the limelight? A new study adds quantitative detail to an ongoing debate over whether such “conservation mascots” receive publicity and funding to the detriment of animals typically deemed less attractive. Researchers at Murdoch University and Curtain University, both in Western Australia, combed through 14,248 journal papers, books and conference proceedings about 331 Down Under mammals and found an overwhelming bias against investigations of “ugly” species. In fact, 73 percent of the publications covered marsupials, such as koalas and kangaroos. In contrast, rodents and bats received 11 percent of the attention, even though they made up 45 percent of the mammals included."   
"Even worse, most research into these aesthetically challenged animals is at the surface level, including taxonomic descriptions that merely name the species and provide measurements, says lead author Patricia Fleming. And without knowledge of their habitats, food sources and behaviors, these creatures are harder to protect against threats that could lead to extinction. Such information gaps afflict animals well beyond Australia, too. “There are many taxa worldwide, such as amphibians, that we know are doing even worse and have even less research into them,” says Simon Watt, founder of the Ugly Animal Preservation Society. These organisms could be more ecologically important than the ones typically held up as worth saving. Bats, for example, help to control pest insects that can carry diseases or devastate crops."
Scientific American: Ugly Critters Get No Love - Scientists would rather study good-looking species, according to a survey of their work
Wow, just how important are words/terms and/or euphemisms & expressions like, "aesthetically challenged animals" or for that matter, plants, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, etc ? Clearly humans seem to know more about what they dislike, than they like. For example it's easy for humans to dislike any type of living organism if it disturbs them visually(admit it, we all love eye candy), financially(prevents us from potential profit and personal wealth, either collectively as a group or as individuals), etc. On the other side of the coin where we have folks who do appreciate nature, they will actually champion a critter or plant because it has visual appeal. Back in 2014, this actually came to light in another research paper done in the country of Kenya where wildlife conservation has the best chance of saving something if they can get people to find something positive about the critter. 
"Environmental organizations in industrialized countries have long harnessed the visual and symbolic power of charismatic, “cute” and otherwise visually attractive animals in campaigns garnering public support for conservation causes"
Interestingly in the study, people who perceived giraffes, gazelles and elands as beautiful to be the strongest variable explaining justification for the support for rescuing them. On the other hand, the buffalos, wildebeests, hyenas, and elephants were considered ugly and distasteful by the locals (but not lion). Here is how the ugly connotation comes into play:
"Ugliness is the strongest variable influencing support for the removal of buffalo, hyena, and elephant (but not lion). Both our qualitative and quantitative results suggest that perceptions of ugly species could become more positive through direct exposure to those species."
Influence of Aesthetic Appreciation of Wildlife Species on Attitudes towards Their Conservation in Kenyan Agropastoralist Communities
I can certainly understand the aesthetically pleasing appeal of Giraffes among tall Acacia trees on a picturesque African Savanna at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. But why in the world native Masai poeple dislike elephants enough not to want to conserve them ? Number of biased reasons were referenced here. Ivory trade which brings good economy if you can get away with it. Also as humans encroach on wildlife lands, many herds will raid farmlands and gardens for food. Clearly there can be more than one reason for rejecting conservation because of one's personal economy.

Image - Hofland Expeditions

I can also maybe understand Hyhenas & Warthogs, but why Buffulo and Wildebeests ? Unfortunately again, these are perceived as competitors to domestic livestock in grazing rights disputes. This goes against one's personal economy. While Lions got a pass in the study, it also is dependent on Lions not molesting livestock herds. None of this is at all surprising to me, because where I come from there are numerous animals, plants, even insects which are either considered invasive in their home range if their impede personal economic endeavours or just generally have less eye candy appeal. For example, take a close look at this critter below and the chaparral plant below that. 

City of Fontana file photo via AP News

The Delhi Sands flower-loving fly
(Rhaphiomidas terminatus abdominalis)

Image - B. "Moose" Peterson
In my former country of residence the United States down in southern California, there is a little unique and interesting large fly which has movements much like a hummingbird as it flits from flower to flower, the Delhi Sands Flower-loving fly. It's traditional habitat is the massive floodplains along much of the Santa Ana River. It is an exceptional good important pollinatir to this type of ecosystem. Unfortunately for this fairly large rare Fly, this habitat is sandwiched in between the cities of Fontana, Colton, Riverside & San Bernardino. This has brought problems because for decades developers have been fighting to develop what little raw land there is along these wildlife corridors. Most of this former riparian ecosystem on this region has been concrete channeled of the stream tributaries feeding into the Santa Ana River and parts of that river itself. Also many non-native invasive plant species have moved in further limiting what's left of this Fly's small island sanctuary. It's biggest problem like the little Stephen's Kangaroo Rat which is also native to the same region of Riverside & San Bernardino Counties are it's names. Rat & Fly. Both critters have stopped development because they are on the Endangered Species list. The derogatory comments come from readers of negative news reports in local TV & online journals which carry stories of either a "Rat" or "Fly" holding up *cough-cough* progress. Like many of those animals listed in Africa with the PR problem, it was said many folks are simply disinterested because they know nothing of these critters or have never personally visited their habitat to get educated about them. This is the same with many species of organisms in the USA.

Image - Mine (Sept 2015)

Chamise often acts as a nurse plant to major tree species. The tree here is Cuyamaca Cypress with this location south of Julian California.  But where I lived further north in Riverside Co.,
it was Coulter Pine, Parry Pinyon and a variety of Oaks which Chamise nursed along to maturity

Image - WrightwoodFSC
The plant in question here is Adenostoma fasticulatum, otherwise known by it's common name, Chamise. In it's native California it is one of the most demonized plants by both Officials (who should know better) and the public in general. This plant first of all has an aesthetic appeal problem issue because at the end of summertime it has an admittedly rangy look. But that is often the nature of many plants in the chaparral plant community. Chamise is often blamed for troubles experienced with wildfires. It's also been even given the derogatory name 'Greasewood' because of it's volatile organic compounds. Yes, most plants in this community do have a higher essential oil content, that's what helps them survive where others fail. It is constantly bulldozed, prescribed or control burned as you see in the photo above right. But what is almost never discussed(with the exception of a few responsible researchers) is the high value it has as a major foundation and erosion control plant in Southern California Mountains. This remarkable plant often will be the only plant to grow where other natives will not. During wetter rainfall periods it will also form rare ectomycorrhizal associations with it's root system which allows pines and oaks to pioneer into virgin unforested territory and eventually extending the forest. Nobody ever discusses this incredible epigenetic program which is triggered by change in climate becoming wetter. 

Image - Chaparral Institue
To the left here you can see Biologist Richard Halsey of the California Chaparral Institute giving California's Gold host, Huell Howser, who also did a PBS series called California's Green, where Rick Halsey takes Huell on a tour of California's Chaparral plant community ecosystm and teaches him some of the main facts and myths about the Chaparral plant community. In this photo, you can see both men standing in front of Chamise (Adenostoma fasticulatum) and behind that it's related cousin, Redshank or Ribbonwood (Adenostoma sparsifolium). Both shrubs are excellent nurse plants for the same tree species I mentioned above. You can click on this link Chaparral-California’s Green (episode #121) which is a good 28 minutes of interesting documentary which is made fun with Huell's humor and questions. This series is from Chapman University's Huell Howser archives. Rick has also been involved in fighting the negative perception of people to chaparral with his own educational programs. Not only just the average person, but especially high officials in positions of responsibility and oversight with regards to National Forests as land stewards. In the link below, Rick takes on the use of derogatory terminology by so-called field experts who describe chaparral as dull green and mundane, decadant and ugly. You should understand that like many of the illiterate often uneducated people of Kenya referenced in the study above, these higher educated land stewards in the USA have a biased prejudiced opinion on what to base a plant's value and worth strictly on the plant's aesthetic eye appeal, recreational value and Timber for profit.
California Chaparral Institute: Chaparral is NOT dull, an impediment to public enjoyment
Conclusion: It starts with the way Humans treat each other
Back in 2016, I wrote something similar to this. The way people treat our planet and the creatures which live within it's various ecosystems is identical to the way they treat each other. Generally it starts with the vulgar name calling and derogatory labeling of others based on race, skin colour, ethnicity, language, culture, etc. If you think long and hard here on this, is it not uncanny the similarities with the studies about most living things in Nature ?
Finally reflection on why Academics use the negative labeling
photo by Cody Sheehy
 Burrows Ranch near Redding Northern California
The young man who took this beautiful photo is involved in a number of interesting land management videos for the University of Arizona. His comment under this particular photograph however is more reflective of the old school ways of thinking about California's Chaparral plant community that he was trained with at the university. A major part of learning about this environment and any other around the globe is getting out and actually living in it for quite some a time. A handful of token field trips while following a college textbook guide & hanging on every word uttered from a college professors mouth just won't cut it anymore. Here are his word descriptions of the above northern California landscape:
"This valley has a high fuel load of decadent brush. It is an ideal place to remove this brush to create fire breaks. If done correctly, this valley could return to a more natural fire regime that supports greater biodiversity and protects property"
Now, my take on the photograph is entirely different and probably opposite. This is a unique blend of forest woodland pockets and chaparral Elfin Forest. Most folks opinion of what a forest is might be Redwoods or Deciduous hardwoods in fall colour back east somewhere. Colours like Silver or Blue-Green don't cut it as a forest theme in their worldview. The main shrub in this photograph is the one I referenced above, Chamise (Adenostoma fasticulatum). It's in late summer or early fall colour with it's rusty red dried blooms. Remember what I said about research on this plant's ability of facilitating pioneer trees ? Up in northern California where far more annual rain totals are likely, the epigenetic signaling to ecto-mycorrhizal fungi like Pisolithus tinctorius no doubt is more of a common occurence than in the southlands. Look at how easily they pioneer the way for other trees. If left long enough and if we could see 100+ years into the future, no doubt large portions of this chaparral plant community will be totally replaced with this type of older growth forest system. While the trees on the far right side do look like Pinyon, all the others look to be Foothill/Digger Pines (Pinus sabiniana). Yes, they are not deep or bright forest green, but they are uniquely patterned and have a pleasing silhouette that no other pines have. The closest pines with similar form I always thought would be their coastal counsins the Torrey Pines. The Cones, Needles. colour, silhouette etc all look closely identical. I always considered these Foothill pines to be the interior Torrey Pine. There is only one thing wrong with the above photograph and that would be the non-native European Oats in the foreground. Frankly, I don't blame Cody, just his old school mentors.

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