As our numbers increase, so space for other animals and plants decreases. Our skills and technological ingenuity seem to know no bounds. Having ventured to every corner of our planet, we are now beginning to look beyond it. We are conducting experiments to find out how to grow food to sustain ourselves should we manage to extend the territory of our species to Mars.
Men impressed their footprints on the moon a mere three and a half million years after the first of them to walk upright left theirs across a field of volcanic ash in Africa. This is a mere blink in the eye of evolution. In that short time we, alone among all animals, have discovered how to exploit our environment to produce more and more food to sustain our unparalleled numbers. In so doing we have denied the earth to other species to such an extent that many have been driven into extinction and many more are now trembling on the brink.
Perhaps the time has come, when we should put our aspirations into reverse. Perhaps now, instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of our population, we should find ways of controlling our population to ensure the survival of our gravely threatened environment.
Spend a little time in the company of animals, even the ones stretched out on the bottom of your bed, and you’ll start to see the world differently. Look into their eyes and try to think what they’re thinking. It’s impossible, of course, which is what makes it so compelling. Whatever else we discover, however close we come to understanding the inner workings of the universe, we’ll never, ever know what it feels like to live life as a cat, still less an ant, or a starfish.
Animals have fired our imaginations like nothing else, not God, not the weather, not other humans. From the first moment we discovered we could daub shapes on cave walls, we’ve been painting, writing and thinking about them. The magical rituals of hunter-gatherer peoples, their creation myths and healing practices are all one long dialogue with the animal kingdom. To take on the power of an animal - the sight of an eagle, the speed of an antelope, the strength of a lion - these were the original superpowers. Most animals are still tirelessly exercising the same skills they’ve done for millennia. As a species, we’re very new kids on a very old block.
Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) by zoo-logic
Amazing new research has shown that we can detect what species of fish are found in different parts of our seas simply by collecting samples of the local seawater. The key to identifying which species are present is in traces of DNA - known as environmental DNA (eDNA) - which are left in the surrounding water by fish that pass through. Just half a litre of seawater from a temperate marine ecosystem in Denmark provided DNA fragments from 15 different fish species, including some that were rarely recorded by more invasive conventional methods, as well as 4 bird species. Experiments show that even small fragments of eDNA degrade to the point that they are no longer detectable within days, suggesting that the method gives an up-to-date and accurate recording of the species that inhabit the area at that point in time. A further study looking into the possibility of marine mammal detection using the eDNA method suggests that greater volumes of seawater are needed to be analysed in order to detect them, but that eDNA has the potential to support current visual and acoustic methods of species detection for marine mammals as well as fish.
Ref: Thomsen P. F. et al., 2012. Detection of a diverse marine fish fauna using environmental DNA from seawater samples. PLOS One [link]
Foote A. D. et al., 2012. Investigating the potential use of environmental DNA (eDNA) for genetic monitoring of marine mammals. PLOS One [link]