Andreas Späth

The Big Lebowski and the tiny crayfish from Oz

2016-06-13 11:23

Andreas Wilson-Späth

When it comes to our relationship with nature, it strikes me that humans are much like one of the characters in what is perhaps the greatest comic motion picture ever made – the Coen brothers masterpiece The Big Lebowski. In it, Donny, portrayed by Steve Buscemi at his googly-eyed best, is a mostly harmless, mostly clueless individual who eventually expires in a mostly pointless death on a bowling alley parking lot.

Donny is forever trying to participate in conversations, but his bowling buddy Walter (the incomparable John Goodman – how on earth did he not win a best supporting actor Oscar for this?) tells him to shut up over and over again: “Forget it, Donny, you're out of your element!” and “you have no frame of reference here, Donny. You're like a child who wanders into the middle of a movie and wants to know...”

And that’s kind of how we’re engaging with our natural environment – like kids who have little comprehension of what is going on around them. Even though we’re constantly impacting on nature, we know so little about the effects of our actions.

Like Donny, we don’t have an adequate frame of reference. We’re busy damaging and destroying it by our mostly clueless bumbling and even experts frequently don’t know what we’re losing in the process.

I came across a story about an Australian freshwater crayfish species and a type of worm the other day that illustrates what I mean just a little bit.

A group of researchers recently figured out that the miniscule spiny mountain crayfish that inhabit freshwater streams in eastern Australia have been living and evolving together with even smaller flatworms called temnocephalans since the time of the dinosaurs.

They coexist in a symbiotic relationship that has been around for perhaps as long as 100 million years. The crayfish provides a home for the worm. The worm feeds on parasites in the crayfish’s gill chamber. They each depend on each other for their survival. Over time, the crayfish has diversified into many distinct species, most of them confined to relatively small geographical areas and each attended by its own variety of worm.

According to one of the scientists, Tim Littlewood of the Natural History Museum in London, “this study exemplifies how understanding and untangling such an intimate relationship across space and time can yield deep insights into past climates and environments”. Enter us, the mostly clueless humans whose activities in next to no time (comparatively speaking) have led to a loss of habitat and a changing climate that has resulted in 75% of these crayfish species now being considered endangered or critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Today, the crayfish and the worms that coevolved over an incredible span of time appear destined to disappear together in a process of ‘coextinction’ before we’ve really had a chance to understand what happened. The researchers estimate that if all of the currently endangered spiny mountain crayfish species in eastern Australia go extinct, so will 60% of their partner worm species.

And this is just one of the countless relationships that make up nature’s entangled web of interrelated connections that we still know so little about. The damage we do isn’t confined to animals, of course.

A recent report from the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in the UK suggests that over a fifth of all plant species are now under threat of extinction.

How we, in our mostly clueless, Donny-like ways, can exist in the world without constantly endangering all of the other living things around us – plants and animals on which we ourselves depend for survival and with which we have coevolved – is perhaps the most crucial question we’re faced with at the beginning of the 21st century. For all of our sakes we’d better start finding some answers.

 - Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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