Where the Wild Things Were

To celebrate Biodiversity Day, I felt a great book to discuss would be Where the Wild Things Were by William Stolzenburg.

TLDR: Listen to the podcast here

If we want biodiversity and protected ecosystems, Stolzenburg shows us why we need to protect our large carnivores and apex predators. I love this book as an environmentalist, but I also prize the hidden lessons I garnered while reading about disappearing animals and the downward spiral losing these essential ingredients to a healthy environment causes.

So, let’s go on a hunt for our Big Ideas with Where the Wild Things Were.

I love this book. Yes, the author does focus a little bit more on the negative aspects of removing apex predators from the ecosystem, but again, that’s the main point of the book. Unfortunately, as I went through the book, there was example after example of a messed up ecosystem, from tidal pools in Washington state and kelp forests in Alaska to our own backyards and national parks, comparing flourishing areas with large carnivores and bleak barren environments where predators have been removed.

This whole book focuses on how predators play a key role in healthy ecosystems, meaning they keep the environment healthy, they keep other animal populations healthy, and they even keep their main prey source populations healthy. But what I enjoyed most were the valuable life lessons that this book shared, or what I call Life Lessons from the Animal Kingdom.

Big Idea #1- Everyone Has a Purpose (Lesson from a Sea Star)

A Galaxy of Sea Stars (GreaterSeattleontheCheap.com)

Robert T. Paine was a freshly minted ecology professor from the University of Washington in Seattle, with questions about things as fundamental as a predator’s impact on its prey, as grand as the principles underlying the diversity of life. On the rocky shores of Mukkaw Bay, he had come looking for answers in a colorful little community of invertebrates—barnacles, limpets, snails, mussels, chitons, and sea stars—conveniently gathered, readily manipulated, and ripe for experimentation. Paine set about sampling two adjacent intertidal stretches of rock on the wave-beaten edge of the sea. Each month he would make his way out to the turbulent ledge, and from one of his plots he would meticulously chuck back into the ocean every last individual of the ecosystem’s reigning predator, a husky orange sea star formally known as Pisaster ochraceous. The other rock he left untouched.
Paine did not need to stare long to decipher the outcome. While the untampered plot had continued merrily along—with its cast of characters fully intact—its predator-free counterpart next door had fallen under siege. Where the predator Pisaster went missing, its main prey, a big dark mussel named Mytilus californianus, flourished spectacularly. Within a year, Mytilus had crowded half the other species off the rock, with the survivors hanging on by their figurative fingertips. In time, only a stark monoculture of mussels would remain. As orchestrator of Pisaster’s local extinction, Paine had triggered the collapse of his miniature ecosystem.

Sea star and mussel- “As the Tide Turns” (wikipedia.org)

Does anyone else get vibes of the story about the little boy chucking sea stars into the sea, “making a difference’? If you are unfamiliar, here’s the gist- a man is walking on the beach and sees a boy throwing sea stars into the ocean. The man looks ahead and notices there are hundreds, maybe thousands of sea stars on the beach. He says to the boy, why are you doing this, what difference will you make. The boy picks up one more star and chucks it in the ocean. Made a difference to that one, he says. I hate to say it, but that boy was making a difference. In the balance of the tidal pool’s ecosystem, and it probably wasn’t what the boy intended!

Sea stars are the tidal pools top apex predator. First and foremost, that itself is AMAZING. When we think of sea stars, those pretty little echinoderms that stick to rocks, how many of us automatically think “ferocious deadly predator”? Although I have to argue that perhaps gulls are tidal pools top predator then, because I’ve seen gulls snacking on sea stars, but I digress.

(Photo Credit: Jerry Kirkhart- Flickr)

But yes, sea stars play an important role, as ecologist Robert Paine showed us with his little impromptu experiment. Without the predator keeping the mussels and barnacles at bay, the ENTIRE tidal pool ecosystem collapsed. First the barnacles took up all the space and didn’t allow other vitally important animals any real estate—chitons, limpets, and crabs were forced out. Then because there was no food available from having the barnacles and mussels take over everything and eat everything, they simply starved, and the whole tidal pool became a barren wasteland. All from removing one very important and special animal from the environment.

This was profound to me. The lesson the sea star tells me is simple, no matter how “unimportant” you feel you are, you have a special purpose, a reason for existence, and if you aren’t here, those in your life will definitely suffer. What is your purpose? Ah, that’s the million dollar question, and why we’re here, am I right? It’s for you to discover. What’s my purpose? I’m still trying to figure it out, but it’s something along the lines of inspiring others to make positive changes in their lives so they can be the best versions of themselves and show up as radiant exemplars for their family, their community, and the planet. I believe in that purpose and I believe in your purpose. This is the WHOLE POINT of biodiversity, too. We need ALL of us to make the world a better place, both figuratively and literally. Your place in this world and your purpose are special and without you, life will become barren and empty, much like the tidal pools without their amazing sea stars.

Big Idea #2- Everything is Connected: Lesson from the Wolves of Yellowstone

(Photo credit: Hans Veth- Unsplash)

Mile after mile of rubbled streamsides, willow thickets rendered to nubs, denuded banks calving like miniature glaciers, the birds and beavers of yore all but gone.
The hypothesis rapidly assembled itself, Aspen were dying not from any apparent lack of fire or rain but from a preponderance of elk, by way of too few wolves. In the wolves’ absence, elk had begun eating nearly every unprotected shoot in the park. The aspen’s demise was a food chain reaction, a trickle down demise tracing missing wolves to freeloading elk to missing aspen—in the ecological lexicon coined by Robert T. Paine, a trophic cascade.
Fear neatly answered the question of why 30 years of sporadic gunning by park rangers had not accomplished what a half decade and a hundred wolves apparently had. A few sporadic weeks of rifle fire left the riverside unguarded the rest of the year. But for elk in a neighborhood patrolled full time by wolves, every minute lounging in the river bottom involved a gamble of lethal stakes. It wasn’t so much a change in elk numbers as it was a change in elk attitude.
The streamside forests were reawakening, thanks to what appeared to be a healthy dose of fear. Beaver colonies set up shop, bringing along their busy waterborne commerce of wildlife. It was as if a seventy-year winter had finally broken, giving way to springtime in Yellowstone.

After a seventy year absence of wolves in Yellowstone, a small pack of wolves was released and became a real life example of just how vital predators are to an ecosystem. Researchers and the world had front seat tickets to a miraculous event—within a few years of the wolves’ return, the dying aspen came back, the coyotes began to behave more like coyotes and their prey returned ten-fold, the rivers began to flow better, and many animals which had vacated the premise after the wolves disappeared slowly came back. It was like a Lazarus effect, but on an entire ecosystem.

As one researcher put it: “When wolf numbers were high, the forest grew.”

(Photo Credit: Eva Blue on Unsplash)

Everything is connected, and this is the VERY premise of what I tried to show people with ZooFit. EVERYTHING is connected, including US and the planet. Our health and well-being is connected to the health and well-being of the planet. If we are not doing well, the planet will not thrive, if we aren’t helping the planet by doing what we can, we will not thrive. It’s this trophic cascade effect.

I often tell people we can’t take care of the planet, or our families, or the animals unless we take care of ourselves first. Because it’s all interconnected. If you aren’t at your best, how can you do your best to make a difference?  

Stolzenburg says it in Where the Wild Things Were: It’s more than a chain of food: it’s a web of interactions, ultimately transforming the face of the land.

We are a part of that web. Whatever we do to ourselves, we do to the planet, and to others, including animals we love, people we care about, and places sacred to us. When we eat crappy junk food filled with palm oil, high fructose corn syrup, and wrapped in plastic, that’s not taking care of ourselves, and it has a negative impact on the environment. When we don’t get enough sleep, we can’t focus and often make poorer choices, lacking willpower and motivation to do healthy activities that make us feel better and have a better impact on conservation efforts. All our actions matter, and self-care is literally the best way I can imagine to make a difference in the world around us.

Big Idea #3—Keystone Species and Keystone Habits—Lessons from Sea otters and Kelp Forests

(Photo Credit: mana5280 on Unsplash)

On the otter-patrolled reefs of Amchika there were forests of brown kelp, with fish swimming among the rising fronds. And a colorful diversity of sponges and hydrocorals, mussels, and barnacles populating the seafloor. In the otterless reefs Shemya and Attu the seafloor had been reduced to a pavement of pink coralline algae, pocked with spiny green blobs of enormous sea urchins. It was every bit as obvious and dramatic as stepping from a towering ancient forest into clear cut. And the sea otter remained the only difference.
Where there were otters, there were forests of kelp, and where there was kelp, there were extraordinary gatherings of fish. There were fish feeding on kelp, hiding in kelp, chasing smaller fish in kelp. On the tails of the fish came harbor seals, in numbers conspicuously elevated beyond those in the urchin barrens of Shemya and Attu. Bald eagles, feeding largely on fish and seabirds as well as the occasional baby seal and sea otter pup, were abundant at Amchitka and nearby islands, absent on Shemya and Attu. The life energy flowing from the garden of kelp was forever tracing back to this one adorable little carnivore.

Researchers noticed among several islands around the Aleutian archipelago that some had a flourishing population of sea otters while other islands had decimated their otters from the earlier days during the fur trade. Sea otters have the thickest fur of any mammal on the planet, so it seemed likely humans would overdo it with hunting the soft-pelted sea creature. But it’s what happened to the kelp forests that truly woke me up and taught me the importance of keystone species, and in turn, keystone habits for ourselves.

Keystone species are named for doorway structures that had a KEY stone. That is, the main stone which held the archways together. Take that one stone out, and the entire structure crumbles. I have started volunteering at Northwest Trek as an education interpreter, and they have a wonderful interactive puzzle to demonstrate keystone species. Take the middle stone out, which represents an animal that greatly impacts the environment, such as wolves, or sea otters, or sea stars, and the whole puzzle falls apart.

Sea Star Keystone Species Puzzle

I noticed we have our own personal keystones in our own lives as well, on many levels, but for today I’m going to focus on the PHYSICAL keystones, our habits. Our keystone habit is the one action, the ONE thing that we NEED to do daily in order for our entire day, and yeah, I’ll just go right for the jugular (since we’re discussing predators today) and say our LIVES depend on us doing and doing well. Is it healthy eating? Getting enough sleep? Drinking 8 glasses of water? What is your keystone habit? This is an actual literal question I’m asking you. WHAT IS YOUR KEYSTONE HABIT? If you don’t know, think about it. What activity do you know if you started doing or improved dramatically would change your life for the better? What would make your day better, make other habits sink in place, and improve your health and well-being?

Still not sure what your habit is? Well, take a page from our family. For me and my husband, our keystone habit collectively is getting at least 8 hours of sleep. Without proper sleep, both of us just don’t have the energy to do much of anything to take care of ourselves, we make poorer decisions, I know for myself my willpower feels completely depleted, and I succumb to temptation, don’t workout, don’t meditate, and don’t practice my self-care. Both of us have complained about not being able to focus on our #1 creative endeavors when we haven’t slept well. Talk about a trophic cascade!

So, back to you. Got your keystone habit? Is it locked in place? Let’s work on making a solid foundation and taking care of our own ecosystem starting today.

Big Idea #4- We Never Know it All—Lessons from the scientists and researchers

(Photo Credit: NOAA- Unsplash)

In the book Conservation Biology, John Terborgh and Blair Winter contributed a chapter titled “Some Causes of Extinction.” They noted two essential kinds of extinction: primary and secondary. Primary extinction arose from such forces as fragmentation, the chopping of big populations into small and dangerously isolated populations. This primary extinction theory described the more obvious assault on the diversity of life, the fallout from the ubiquitous human saw as it cut through the last bastions of wilderness. But it was the more subtle and unheralded phenomenon of secondary extinction that most intrigued the authors….”We know next to nothing about what consequences follow the loss of top predators in terrestrial ecosystems,” they wrote.

One thing that kept jumping out at me as I read quips from interviews with researchers and ecologists is that scientists are CONSTANTLY learning new things about the world, other animals, and how everything interacts. And I mean CONSTANTLY. We are still discovering NEW SPECIES on this planet every day! And not just a brand new tiny insect found in some remote desolate place no one had never ventured before. I remember a few years ago, scientists discovered a brand new salamander species in FLORIDA. A few years before that? An ANTELOPE species was discovered in Asia.

Reticulated siren, a giant salamander species(Photo Credit: National Geographic)

This is actually both exciting and somewhat comforting to me. This means we ALWAYS have work as scientists and conservationists. There will always be new discoveries, new methods, new ideas to experiment, to test out, and to observe. How wonderful is that?

This goes the same for us, as well. Stolzenburg mentions in his epilogue that one of the downfalls for these successful reintroductions such as what we experienced with the return of wolves to Yellowstone is the sense of “mission accomplished”. And he explains, that simply isn’t true. Quote: “Even a park full of wolves, huddled in the protected confines of Yellowstone, leaves the other 9/10 of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem untended from the top down. It leaves a bleaker semblance of the wildness it is falsely lauded to be.”

I see this happen in many areas of my life. Not just in conservation aspects, but in fitness and productivity and other areas that require hard work and dedication. Dieting is a prime example. How many of us have gone on “crash diets” for a special event, and then immediately went back to our old ways as soon as we met our goal weight? I did for years and years, until I discovered how to develop LIFESTYLE changes and make my habits stick by using animal training methods and making the changes in my life sustainable. Because, I’m never going to be exonerated, I’m never going to “make it” or “finish” taking care of myself. This is a lifelong endeavor. And again, that’s both exciting and comforting. I’m ALWAYS learning more about myself, and ways I can make a difference in my own health and make a better impact on the planet, and on other peoples’ lives.

Big Idea #5: Biodiversity helps our communities thrive

(Photo Credit: Zach Key- Unsplash)

It became apparent there was something more going on in the less (human) populated North Creek canyon (as opposed to the popular Zion Canyon ) than an inordinate growth of cottonwoods. The researchers could not help noticing the contrasts in life between the sister canyons. Streams of butterflies sailed by. They had to look to keep from stepping on the cardinal flowers and red-spotted toads. The stream banks were a scurry of canyon treefrogs and spiny lizards. The waters shimmered with native fish of the desert stream. North Creek flowed with a lifeblood that had been drained from the canyon of Zion.

Once again, today is International Day of Biological Diversity. What exactly does that mean? Well, in conservation terms, it means a literal DIVERSITY of life—predators, prey, scavengers, foragers, pollinators, plants, animals, fungi, insects, microorganisms, and all the creatures and living things we can’t even think of. Biodiversity is the important role these living things play in maintaining a healthy sustainable community for all life on earth…including us humans. We are a part of the ecosystem, so we need to play our part too. We are stewards of the earth, put on this rock for a purpose, which is unique to each of us.

But another point I’d like to make about biodiversity has to do with HUMAN diversity. I often talk about how the planet needs ALL of us to protect and conserve our resources, the beautiful creatures, and the environment. And when I say all of us, I mean ALL THE UNIQUE ways and diverse ideas we have as humans. But it goes deeper than we need to work together to save the planet. It goes toward treating ourselves and OTHERS with dignity and respect. How can we treat the planet well if we don’t treat ourselves right? And what does it say about how we respect the planet when we don’t respect each other. Remember our big idea #2? Everything is connected? WE are all connected. Our actions towards each other can bring about a flourishing ecosystem filled with butterflies, flowers, and rainbows, or it can drain our resources, our positivity, and our motivation. The choice is up to you. Choose wisely.

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