After years of discussion about our disintegrating planet, and our seemingly hell-bent intent on speeding up that process when we know the outcome will be our own demise as a species, is nothing short of myopic, foolish and dumb. However, such a lack of vision seems to be the hallmark of the human race, even when that hallmark affects its own survival.
A recent article in The Economist reminded me of this myopia about our planet, and our place on Earth as the human species. The article concerned Sumatran Rhinos; how plants propagate; and the symbiotic relationships that allow them to do so. However, I believe it has wider implications for the planet.
Most of us know that bees are a pollinating agent, and that birds carry the seeds of trees to new locations when they eat the fruit/nuts of those trees. However, the article I read took that concept to a level I didn’t know. It reported that some seeds will not germinate unless they have passed through an animal’s digestive system. Amazing! Yet, with all the other miracles that occur in nature on this planet, it shouldn’t be all that surprising.
The article was reporting on the almost extinct Sumatran Rhinoceros – there are less than 80 individuals left in the world. However, it also cited the fact that, if the rhino becomes extinct, several varieties of plant will perish with it. As I said, our disintegrating planet.
The evolutionary bargain between frugivores and plants is that the plants coat their indigestible seeds with tasty, nutritious pulp as payment for the frugivores dispersal of those seeds, by defecation, far from the plant that produced them. That bargain works well as long as there are sufficient frugivores available and, in the cases of plants with large seeds, that availability has to be of large animals. The problem with the imminent demise of the Sumatran rhino is that that necessary availability is diminishing to the point of non-existence.
Enter the scientists with a new idea. Sumatra has a significant population of elephants, which are certainly big enough to eat large seeds. If the elephants could take over the role of the rhinos in seed distribution, it would at least secure the future of the plants that need animal stomachs to propagate.
The scientists collected 48 piles of rhino feces (29 kilos) and analyzed them. They then conducted a major literature search to identify the diet of the indigenous elephants. They wanted to see if there was a match in diet with the rhinos. The results were not encouraging. The elephants turned out to be much more picky eaters than the rhinos. In fact, of the 79 plants known to have their seeds dispersed by rhinos, only 57 are dispersed by elephants. The other 22 plants are doomed, or so it seems, if the rhinos disappear. Current calculations indicate that, short of a major campaign of planting, almost two dozen South-East Asian plants will be joining the list of extinct species, along with the Sumatran rhino. As I said, our disintegrating planet.
This story is tragic enough in of itself, but the lesson has far broader implications. It is a lesson that the current top predator on planet Earth seems unable to grasp. We, and that includes all living things, are interrelated in some way, and no species is immune from what happens to other species.
Yes, it will be tragic if certain species disappear through inconsiderate, careless and self-centered human actions, but it’s totally imbecilic to assume that those actions will not result in the demise of humans as well, sometime in the future.
Time to wake up and smell the roses, and treat them like family, along with all other species that share Planet Earth. We might then stand a chance of effectively addressing our disintegrating planet.