Posted by: terrapraeta | October 2, 2009

The Cycle of Life


Walking through forests of palm tree apartments —
scoff at the monkeys who live in their dark tents
down by the waterhole — drunk every Friday —
eating their nuts — saving their raisins for Sunday.
Lions and tigers who wait in the shadows —
they’re fast but they’re lazy, and sleep in green meadows.

Let’s bungle in the jungle — well, that’s all right by me.
I’m a tiger when I want love,
but I’m a snake if we disagree.

Jethro Tull, Bungle in the Jungle

My friend Tony dropped me a note yesterday, pointing at a NY Times blog article about predators and asked how a felt about it. (Over time, I have become known as the person to talk to in my community when it comes to points on evolutionary theory.) The title of the blog is “Where Tasty Morsels Fear to Tread” by evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson. And the point of contention for him – and for me – can be summed up by the following quote from the article, referring to predator species:

It’s not just that they kill. They also change what their potential victims get up to. In short, they create a landscape of fear.

A landscape of fear? Really?

Technically, everything she writes in the article is accurate. However, the level of framing invoked in her text is monstrous. In a healthy ecosystem, all the nodes in life cycle chain have impact on the behaviors, birth and death rates, successes and failures of all of the others. (Directly or indirectly.) Thus, when the wolves returned to Yellowstone, they impacted the behavior patterns of the Elk (the elk were less inclined to feed in new growth areas because of the lack of cover), which then allowed immature willows the opportunity to become mature willow trees. If you followed the chain of life further, I would expect to find numerous smaller species that also gained an advantage from this and on through the entire life community. But to characterize this change as a landscape of fear? Absurd.

To break it down a bit further, saying that the elk stopped grazing in the open as a fear response (by definition, instinctive, somewhat irrational and unpleasant) is similar to saying that human children do not play in the middle of an interstate highway because of fear. Of course, that is a dangerous place to be and no rational mother would allow her children to play tag with cars speeding in excess of 70 mph, but reasonable caution and safety in behavior patterns is neither traumatic nor irrational.

Dr Judson goes on to discuss herd behavior. W.D Hamilton described herd behavior as originating in each animal trying to be in the center of the group to diminish its own chances of being eaten. Perhaps. But herd behavior has many more causes and effects than that first basic one (which is more like to account for selection than for motivation; ie individual animals that have adopted herd behavior have been more successful than those that have not). For instance, a predator stalking a herd of antelop is far more like to succeed in bringing down an animal that is sick or elderly than one that is in the prime of life, as these animals are more likely to be at the margins of the group or fall behind. I have also heard it related that the motion of a herd of animals can cause confusion in the predator, overwhelming his instincts and causing him to chase first one animal and then another, unable to focus on a single individual.

There is another, entirely different perspective on this as well. In A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen suggest that there is a subtle communication between predator and prey wherein prefy animals that are “ready” to die somehow communicate this to their predator. The examples he gave from his own experience were compelling, but as of yet, I am unwilling to accept this premise on only his experience. It does, however, echo many of the stories and life perspectives of many native peoples, so perhaps it is a theory that deserves far more attention.

In any case, the thing I find most concerning about the article is my personal sense that Dr Judson invoked this premise of the “landscape of fear” less because she believes this to be the case and more as a writing device to make her article interesting. Perhaps I am mistaken in this and she actually does view the living world as a place of horror, fear and death, but if I am correct, then shame on you, Doctor, for allowing yourself to fall into the realm of media sensationalism.

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