Watching, from the Edge of Extinction

by Beverly P. Stearns, S. C. Stearns,
ISBN: 0300076061

Into The Dinosaurs’ Graveyard: Canadian Digs And Discoveries

by David Spalding
305 pages,
ISBN: 0385257627

Fragile Dominion: Complexity And The Commons

by Simon Levin
250 pages,
ISBN: 0738201111

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Survival’S A Full-Time Job
by Tim Tokaryk

Illustrating, even understanding, the complexity of our environment is no easy matter. Previous attempts had considered life as a linear progression—from the simple to the complex—with each stage modestly independent of the other. The reality, and current conception, is that, rather than a chain or even a web, life is a Rubik’s cube, only a few faces of which are known. By accepting our collective ignorance, at least on philosophical grounds, we can then approach complex subjects more cautiously and with less prejudice. Two books that intend to explicate this complexity are Fragile Dominion and Watching, from the Edge of Extinction. Fragile Dominion, by Princeton University’s Simon Levin, recognizes that “we cannot count on the biosphere to maintain the biota and environment to our specifications”; changes, natural and manufactured, affect the complex system. Yet, this system is not composed only of independent species arbitrarily stamped by the hand of the taxonomist. The process that creates a species—the pressures of competition for resources, preference in sexual selection, and the continually changing landscape—“operate[s] at the level of what is good for the individual rather than what is good for the group”. Recognizing this, Levin ponders six questions that may help us to understand the relationship between complex systems and the individual. What are the patterns in nature and are they created locally or has history affected them? How do these accumulated systems (ecosystems) come to be? Are there strengths and weaknesses in an ecosystem? What are the effects of extinguishing a species? Can a system maintain itself if a redundant species (or a dissimilar species that occupies a similar role) is no longer present? And, does the genetic variability in individuals, the fuel by which a species survives over time, increase the survival of an ecosystem? Using well-defined systems and models, Levin provides sound insight into how the biosphere works. Reviewing the answers, Levin provides “The Eight Commandments of Environmental Management”. These include: maintaining genetic diversity; making certain that if environmental resources are utilized, the return benefit to the ecosystem is of equal or greater value; maintaining local habitats; and maintaining redundant species as they offer extra “rivets” that may help to hold the ecological structure together. Keeping in mind that there are always surprises in nature, the final three conditions may be harder to achieve. The building block of all ecosystems is an inventory list. It is difficult to make such a list, however, when the current space requirements of our species edge out those of the natural world. And in order for the management of these regions to be successful, divergent political boundaries must be crossed, for one country may not have ecosystem preservation as high up on its priority list as the adjacent one. However, if we do not have understanding and respect for our surroundings, the only option left for much of nature is extinction. The tone of Levin’s book almost echoes that of Beverly and Stephen Stearns’ Watching, from the Edge of Extinction. Admitting that “[c]onservation of species and resources has to make practical and financial sense to be understood and accepted by most people”, there are, nevertheless, many aspects of our environment that can’t be economically pigeon-holed. In that, ultimately, humanity has a responsibility. Much of Watching, from the Edge of Extinction is composed of personal tales by the biological specialists about their attempts to understand a variety of species: from the large, blue butterfly of Britain and the Barton Springs salamander of Texas, to the African wild dog. Though distantly related by profession (she is a freelance writer and journalist; he is a professor of Zoology at the University of Basel in Switzerland), they are both “watchers” of human-derived extinction and provide first-hand knowledge of what it is like to be the last person to see a species alive. The human component of extinction—the personal attempts to save species and spaces, the rivalry for funding, the governmental and organizational politics, and personal egos—makes this a rather ugly story at times. These factors do not, and should not, take away from the scientific validity of conservationism. It is, in fact, the reality of how science is done, and for some, this is very enlightening. The fact is that not all biologists are altruistic saviours of nature. Inept historical records, ignorance, personal conflict and sacrifice, and personal status all come into play in a tale about the demise of the wild dog population in Africa. That population was subject to disease, even after attempts were made to monitor individual members through radio collars and vaccination. In the end, it was suggested that “stress from procedures that involved handling” the animals reactivated a rabies virus. This hypothesis, however, was untested: the principal investigator was “run out” of the protected study area because his views threatened the work of those who handled the studied species. This is not to say that the species of wild dog is extinct—the Stearnses are a little too liberal with that word—but the population has disappeared. While it is difficult to accept extinction, it does provide new opportunities for the surviving species to diversify. This is no better illustrated than in the fossil record. Could we have evolved if the past extinctions had not happened? I doubt it. Unfortunately, humanity is not driven only by self-preservation, but by greed as well as it elbows its way through the forest of personal opportunity. What both books illustrate, though differing in the avenues taken, is that if we jostle much more, there may be no one else left to elbow but ourselves. Both books are worthwhile reading. While Fragile Dominion enhances the general reader’s understanding of how biological systems work and interrelate, Watching, from the Edge of Extinction unveils the mechanism of the biologists in their last attempts to save a species. One of these extinct biological groups is the dinosaur. For approximately 140 million years, they walked this planet and, through no fault of their own (no, they were not stupid), they met their natural end sixty-five million years ago. Canadians are fortunate to be able to see part of their history in sites and museums across our country. Unfortunately, the tales of many of the earliest explorers, the trials and tribulations of being the first to discover a new beast of the past, are often lost to history—and even to the Americanization of North American history. David Spalding’s latest book, Into the Dinosaurs’ Graveyard, is a strong history lesson on one of the most distinct and exciting, non-renewable resources our country has to offer—and one which is ignored by nearly all. The book is informally divided into three sections, the first being an expansion of his earlier study, The Dinosaur Hunters, which looked at the history of dinosaur hunting in a broader geographical sense. Into the Dinosaurs’ Graveyard focuses on the Canadian content, the first reported, but erroneously identified, remains from eastern Canada, through to the early nineteenth-century explorations in western Canada by the Geological Survey of Canada. Much of the groundwork for the twentieth-century American and Canadian expeditions was done by people like George Dawson, the geologist for the Boundary Commission survey along the 49th parallel in the 1870s. Though “[s]urvival on the road was almost a full-time job”—finding food and shelter—“a scientist had to fit in his field work during the long hours of daylight, and write up his notes during a siesta break or at night.” Dawson, who suffered from Pott’s disease as a child and as a result was of short stature and disfigured, would soon discover the first dinosaur bones in western Canada—those in Saskatchewan. Useful digressions are inserted into the text. They provide the reader with additional information on the collectors and investigators who worked only partly in Canada, or on topics like the virtues of sound technical support for the actual excavation of fossils in the field or the final removal and solidification of bones in the laboratory. Spalding also switches perspective and introduces the reader to the most recent developments by providing some autobiographical notes on his own role in the development of one of the largest paleontological museums in the world, the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. The middle section of this work deals with recent advances in dinosaur research and acts as an explanatory venue for the different types of dinosaurs. Most useful are the last chapters, which offer some inkling about the cultural aspect of “dinosaurology”, its economic impact, and its importance in history. “American achievements are enormous, and they have no need to belittle those of other countries,” says Spalding, referring to the fact that several popular American versions of dinosaur history state that Americans were the “first” to explore this area or to discover that fossil, where in fact Canadians were. Into the Dinosaurs’ Graveyard is a wonderful exploitation of Canada’s own resources. I hope some day that a broader view of the history of paleontology in Canada is undertaken, utilizing the wonderful non-dinosaur resources of the Maritimes, the earliest creatures from central Canada, and the diverse fauna and flora from other western Canadian provinces. Even though his recent sketch is a little “Alberta-centric”, Spalding builds a strong foundation that will encourage a grander undertaking. Tim Tokaryk is an historical scientist in Eastend, Saskatchewan.

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