Tag Archives: Ecology

October 31, 2011 (a Monday)

Train station in Mumbai.

Train station in Mumbai.

As calculated by the United Nations, the seven-billionth human being arrived on Earth on this date. The specter of too many people and not enough food has haunted scientists and philosophers since at least the time of Aristotle. The most famous is Thomas Robert Malthus, who in 1798 grimly predicted that population growth would outpace food production, resulting in human death and misery.

September 7, 1936 (a Monday)

Benjamin, the last known Thylacine (1933)

On this date, the last known Thylacine, commonly known as the Tasmanian Tiger or Tasmanian Wolf, died in captivity at Hobart Zoo, Tasmania, as a result of neglect. The animal, named Benjamin, was locked out of its sheltered sleeping quarters and exposed to freezing temperatures at night.

The Thylacine was the largest known carnivorous marsupial mammal of modern times. Like the tigers and wolves of the Northern Hemisphere, the Thylacine was an apex predator. As a marsupial, it was not closely related to these placental mammals, but because of convergent evolution it displayed the same general form and adaptations. Its closest living relative is thought to have been either the Tasmanian Devil or Numbat. Interestingly, the Thylacine was one of only two marsupials to have a pouch in both sexes (the other being the Water Opossum). The male Thylacine had a pouch that acted as a protective sheath, protecting the male’s external reproductive organs while running through thick brush.

Thylacinus in Washington D.C. National Zoo, c. 1906.

Virtually wiped out in the wild due to constant hunting (they were thought to be a threat to sheep and other small farm animals) and the encroachment of humans on their already limited habitat, the Thylacine was finally recognized as being in danger of becoming extinct in 1936, but much too late. There have been no confirmed sightings in over 70 years.  It was the last extant member of its genus, Thylacinus, although several related species have been found in the fossil record dating back to the early Miocene.

September 3, 1907 (a Tuesday)

Loren Corey Eiseley

On this date, the highly respected anthropologist, ecologist, science writer, and poet Loren Corey Eiseley was born. He published books of essays, biography, and general science in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.

Eiseley is best known for the poetic essay style called the “hidden essay”. He used this to explain complex scientific ideas, such as human evolution, to the general public. He is also known for his writings about humanity’s relationship with the natural world. These helped inspire the environmental movement.

Eiseley’s first book, The Immense Journey: An Imaginative Naturalist Explores the Mysteries of Man and Nature (1946), a collection of writings about the history of humanity, established him as a writer with the unique ability to combine science and humanism. In the essay from it entitled “The Snout”, he wrote:

The door to the past is a strange door. It swings open and things pass through it, but they pass in one direction only. No man can return across that threshold, though he can look down still and see the green light waver in the water weeds.

Eiseley’s book, Darwin’s Century (1958), focuses on the development of the theory of evolution and was awarded the Phi Beta Kappa Science prize in 1959. His other books include The Unexpected Universe (1969), The Night Country (1971), the memoir All The Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life (1975), and Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X: New Light on the Evolutionists (1979).

When Loren Eiseley was 3 his father held him up to watch Halley’s Comet blaze across the sky and told his son to look for its return in 75 years. But Loren Eiseley did not live that long. He died July 9, 1977, having used his brief seventy years to leave behind a heritage that continues to enrich the lives of all who come to know his work.

The Anthropocene Begins: April 28, 1784

Figure from Watt's 1784 patent for a steam locomotive.

Figures from Watt’s 1784 patent for a steam locomotive.

On this date, James Watt’s patent for a steam locomotive was granted. What is especially noteworthy is that this date therefore can be considered as the beginning of the Anthropocene, a new geologic epoch defined by the massive impact of humankind on the planet, according to Dutch chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, who coined the term. That impact will endure in the geologic record long after our cities have crumbled.

In 2000, in IGBP Newsletter 41, Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology, proposed using the term “anthropocene” for the current geological epoch. In regard to its start, they said:

To assign a more specific date to the onset of the “anthropocene” seems somewhat arbitrary, but we propose the latter part of the 18th century, although we are aware that alternative proposals can be made (some may even want to include the entire holocene). However, we choose this date because, during the past two centuries, the global effects of human activities have become clearly noticeable. This is the period when data retrieved from glacial ice cores show the beginning of a growth in the atmospheric concentrations of several “greenhouse gases”, in particular CO2 and CH4. Such a starting date also coincides with James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1784.

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Welcome to the Anthropocene
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April 28, 1975 (a Monday)

On this date, Peter Gwynne, at the time the science editor of Newsweek, pulled together some interviews from scientists and wrote a nine-paragraph story, entitled “The Cooling World“, about how the planet was getting cooler. Ever since, Gwynne’s “global cooling” story – and a similar Time Magazine piece – have been brandished gleefully by those who say it shows global warming is not happening, or at least that scientists – and often journalists – don’t know what they are talking about.

Fox News loves to cite it. So does Rush Limbaugh. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., has quoted the story on the Senate floor. That one article in 1975 was so brilliant, that it has managed to disprove over 33,000 scientifically researched papers written since.

His piece has been used by Forbes as evidence of what the magazine called “The Fiction of Climate Science.” It has been set to music on a YouTube video. It has popped up in a slew of finger-wagging blogs and websites dedicated to climate denial.

But, revisionist lore aside, it was hardly a cover story. It was a one-page article on page 64. It was, Gwynne concedes, written with a bit of hyperbole that sometimes marked the magazine’s prose: “There are ominous signs the earth’s weather patterns have begun to change dramatically…” the piece begins, and warns of a possible “dramatic decline in food production.”

Although the story observed – accurately – that there had been a gradual decrease in global average temperatures from about 1940, by about 1980 it was clear that Earth’s average temperature was headed upward.

Even today, “there is some degree of uncertainty about natural variability,” acknowledged Mark McCaffrey, programs and policy director of the National Center for Science Education based in Oakland, California. “If it weren’t for the fact that humans had become a force of nature, we would be slipping back into an ice age, according to orbital cycles.”

But earth’s glacial rhythms are “being overridden by human activities, especially burning fossil fuels,” McCaffrey noted. The stories about global cooling “are convenient for people to trot out and wave around,” he said, but they miss the point:

What’s clear is we are a force of nature. Human activity – the burning of fossil fuels and land change – is having a massive influence. We are in the midst of this giant geoengineering experiment.

February 14-17, 1766 (Friday-Monday)

Title page of An Essay on the Principle of Population

Sometime on these dates, the English demographer and political economist Thomas Robert Malthus was born at Dorking, a place just south of London.

Malthus entered Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1784 and was ordained a minister of the Church of England in 1788. He earned his M.A. in 1791. He is best known for his An Essay on the Principle of Population, which was first published in 1798 and was read by Charles Darwin forty years later. This important essay first identified the geometric role of natural population increase in outrunning subsistence food supplies, prompting Darwin to explore the actual patterns of evolution.