I noticed recently that someone used the search terms “value of piping plover” and stumbled upon my blog. I often wish I could ask people what they were really looking for, since four words don’t often convey the reason they are searching for something. Were they wondering the natural value? The monetary value? Something to justify one of their beliefs or to undermine a different value? Of course, there is no Kelly Blue Book for all the animals in the world [THANKFULLY!], but perhaps this analogy will help think about how to place a ‘value’ on individual animals.
Do you have a wristwatch on? Barring that it’s not a digital watch, if you’ve ever opened it up, or perhaps you have one of the see-through ones, you’ve probably seen all the cogs, gears, and wheels, not to mention the screws made of quartz, ruby, or sapphire. All these tiny little pieces work together in mechanical harmony to keep precise time and keep you punctual.
Now keeping in mind the watch with all the cogs, think of an ecosystem, any group of living and non-living components that function together, such as a beach, deciduous forest, or an alpine lake and all the living and non-living things there. Which ever ecosystem you choose, it functions a lot like the watch. The animals have certain niches, or jobs,–some are decomposers, some are consumers, and some are top predators–and the non-living components provide the terrain, habitat, air, etc. Every animal has developed to function as well as it can with all the other components of its ecosystem, so it is essentially the perfect fit. Conversely, the ecosystem functions on some level better with the animal species present. And just as a watch would have [back in the day] taken time to craft and construct, the ecosystems of this world have developed over long periods of time [much longer than humans have been here]. As complicated as a watch looks to those who aren’t familiar with its intricate movement, an ecosystem can seem overwhelmingly complex–or even deceptively simple, just like a watch if you don’t open it up!
Now say, for some odd reason, your watch brakes–or specifically, one cog in your watch fails. It won’t work without it, so you hunt for a replacement. To your frustration, they’ve stopped making that type of watch and have no exact replacement, so you hunt around for some suitable substitution. You find a cog that works, but it just a little too small, so every now and then, your watch misses a beat, leading to your watch losing its accuracy over time. This happens in an ecosystem as well. A species for one reason or another disappears from an area. Used to be, before fences, vast tracts of urban development, and multi-lane highways, animals could freely move from place to place, so eventually those animals that disappeared would be replaced by other populations. Seems like today is a bit more difficult, since virtually no land is left untouched, although in the case of invasives like the Woolly Adelgid, modern technology made it easier to move around the globe. We have tried to replace species we’ve lost, such as eastern elk populations in the Smokies, but it’s a cog that doesn’t fully fit, and so these replacements don’t fully function in their new ecosystem. We’ve also tried to introduce more cogs into the system and the results are still up in the air [See: How Risky is Biological Control?].
Now unlike a watch where it’s understandable how the cogs interact–in fact it’s all calculable, the interactions between ‘cogs’ in an ecosystem aren’t always as clear-cut. We understand the top predators and their impacts, but to understand the influence a piping plover has on invertebrate populations under the sand requires a few more academic degrees than most of us have. IF the natural world were as easy to understand as a watch, we’d be in luck, but unfortunately it’s not so simple. No one has all the answers and no one fully understands how our actions and habits impact the natural world. The best we can do for now is tread lightly, be smart, and speak softly!