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Moving Masses

​​Last week my 15-year old son and I did a “fast raft” whale watch in Monterey Bay. It was wild! At one point our boat was surrounded by more than two dozen humpbacked whales. There was constant breaching, sometimes two whales leaping up in tandem as if they were doing a star turn in an Esther Williams production. Similarly they frequently “tailed” together — two double-heart shaped tales almost languidly arising up out of the water and then sliding back down into it. The whales are in the midst of a feeding frenzy, gorging on anchovies. Our skipper explained that when the anchovies are swimming in deep waters, the whale action is all diving and rising. Sometimes the fish are closer to the surface and then the sight is of gigantic whale mouths shoveling in shiny slivers of fish. We didn’t see any of that, though we got several distinct whiffs of stinky whale breath.

Nobody quite knows why the anchovies are massing in such numbers here; they are known to like cold water and ours is warmer than ever right now. Like all whales, humpbacks were hunted to near extinction and today, at 10 percent of their historic population level, their numbers are actually recovering. But the ocean news is overall not good. The World Wildlife Fund recently published dire findings that aqueous extinctions are at record levels. The loss of any and all of the affected species has major impacts, but big-bodied animals have a special place in the ecosystem.

That includes Homo sapiens. People are animals too, and we behave in similar patterns. Elizabeth Hadly and Anthony Barnosky, the Mr. and Mrs. Smith of global change science and coauthors of the forthcoming Tipping Point for Planet Earth: How Close Are We to the Edge? point out that the millions fleeing Syria today are fulfilling a population ecology paradigm.

In sum, when population numbers exceed the capacity of a landscape to provide basic resources for all, species light out for the territory. Writing recently on Consensus for Action, Hadly and Barnosky point out that too-rapid population growth intensifies competition for resources, which leads to war and eventually migration. Climate change makes matters worse. “Already, unusual climate events have contributed to the refugee-producing crises in Southeast Asia, northeast Africa, and to the Arab Spring uprising,” and the poorest, most densely populated regions of the world will be “hit hardest…as the world tips into a new climate regime.” Let me just add on a soupcon of grim. Historian Timothy Snyder makes the case in his book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning that most genocides, including that inflicted by Hitler on Jews, can be traced to conflict over basic resources within a context of shifting global order. He argues that the depredations of climate change are going to reverberate well into what we Westerners take for granted as some kind of wall protecting us from the worst conflicts. Because – it’s all one world now.

Protecting and increasing the number of big bodied mammals is a critical tool in dealing with all this. Whales sequester carbon in their big bodies and they move it around the ocean through their eating and their pooping. When they die naturally they fall to the bottom of the ocean and their carcasses become habitat hotels to myriad species. The big guys provide for the smaller guys. This is called sustaining biodiversity, and for one thing, it keeps the food supply for Homo sapiens healthy. On land, the solution is essentially habitat protection. Recent research by extinction guru Stuart Pimm and colleague Binbin Li shows that protecting giant pandas in China also protects a host of smaller animals that live within what Pimm and Li call a “protective umbrella.”Panda bears happen to live side by side with “70% of forest bird species, 70% of forest mammals, and 31% of forest amphibian species” that are endemic to mainland China. That means they are very special species indeed, and keeping the panda protected is a shorthand way to protect its co-travelers. Including, of course, us, because – in the global world, everything that goes around, comes around.

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