28 June 2008

What the whales become

Richard Black reports a peaceful outcome to the meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Santiago de Chile, at least compared to earlier acrimony over moves to expand quotas.

Elsewhere (The 'value' of protecting whales), he looks at what some see as paradoxes or inconsistencies in the positions taken by countries such as the U.S. and Australia towards different whale species [1], and articulates a widely shared question about the wisdom of relying solely on economic valuation to protect whales and other life forms.

Regarding value, a version of the question goes back in industrialised countries at least as far as Henry David Thoreau, who wrote "can he who has discovered only some of the values of whalebone and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale?"[2]

Thoreau's question is highlighted up by Susan Tomes in her mixed review of David Rothenberg's Thousand Mile Song [3]. Tomes is surely right to say that contemporary western attitudes towards whales were heavily influenced by the discovery in the 1970s that the world's largest creatures were singing complex songs deep in the ocean; it had "great emotional power" at a time when the whole planet had become a theatre for MAD [4]. There was more to this than whales being'cute'.

That sensibility informs work such as that of Gregory Colbert, whose Ashes and Snow project has included images of the artist swimming with sperm whales [5].

Is more sympathy for whales likely in the 21st century? Is it inevitable?
How will emotion, calculation, exploitation and triage interact? What if the times get darker and more destructive -- in which case, are there things still to learn from Thoreau's contemporary Herman Melville? [6]


1. A key example is the North Atlantic Right Whale and shipping. According to yet another piece by Black (Leading Edge, 26 June), six deaths a year is enough to extirpate the remaining population of around 300, so slow is their rate of reproduction; and six were killed last year. In July 2007 NOAA and the USCG implemented a scheme which they say will result in a substantial reduction in ship strikes. [The world's most endangered cetacean, the vaquita, lives in waters for which the U.S. and Mexico are jointly responsible. It's estimated that between about 40 to 80 of the remaining population of about 300 (sic) are killed every year in gillnets intended for the (also critically endangered) Totoaba.]

2. If Thoreau were writing today he might add or substitute tourism revenues and, er, 'willingness-to-pay-as-a-practical-metric-of-existence-value' to/for the exchange value of bone and oil.

[In History of the Order Cetacea, published in 1834, the whaling master Capt. William Scoresby describes a fight between whalers and a whale over her calf. The mother whale comes to the surface, Scoresby writes, darting back and forth, stopping short or suddenly changing directions. She tosses up water, churning up the seas, refusing to leave her child even though three ships and harpoons approach. "She loses all regard for her own personal safety, in the anxiety for the preservation of her young; dashing through the midst of her enemies. There is something extremely painful in the destruction of a whale, when thus evincing a degree of affectionate regard for its young, that would do honour to the superior intelligence of human beings. Yet the objects of the adventure, the value of the prize, and the joy of the seamen with the capture, cannot be sacrificed in reflecting to the refined feelings of compassion."]

3. See Humpback Orpheus.

4. Like many people of my generation and background, I grew up with admiration of whales as a given. But I only really started to try to pay attention after actually seeing some whales, and doing a report for BBC radio in the mid 90s on the possible impact of something called ATOC on whale communication (see Noises off - The cacophony of human noise in the ocean grows louder by the year). The investigation had some unexpected turns. At one point I visited a researcher into animal hearing whose studies included desert tortoises being exposed to sonic booms. She would put them on a running machine geared down ten times and send them chasing after lettuce while playing loud noises to them. This was funny to see but actually a lot more sensible than some sunbeam-from-cucumber satire might have it. Since then, the oceans have got even noiser. See, for example, a lot has happened since then.

5. Of course, sperm whales don't sing in the way humpbacks and some other species do, but they have acquired charisma since the 70s too. By chance I was in Fayal in the Azores years ago when Colbert and his team were photographing this section of the project, and shared a meal with them. They were thoughtful and hospitable. Ashes and Snow is striking but it doesn't quite 'do it' for me; there is too much New Age/Fashionista/Leni Riefenstahl-Last of the Nuba body beautiful about it.

6. Consider, for example, the famous chapter The Whiteness of The Whale which shows some of what is so great about this extraordinary book, and also some of what is bad and dated about it ('bad' and 'dated' are not the same thing). By the way, Thoreau was about 34 when Moby Dick was published in 1851. Did he read it, and if so what did he think?

27 June 2008

A bestiary of 25,000 years

In First Impressions [1], an article about the paintings in the caves at Chauvet, Judith Thurman asks what the world's oldest rock art says about 'us'.

Part of the answer, of course, is that it can be hard to get beyond our own preconceptions. But some facts seem reasonably sure, including that over a period of about 25,000 years the same animals - primarily bison, stages, aurochs, ibex, horses and mammoths - recur in similar poses [2]. We know, says Thurman, from ubiquitous hand prints that were stamped or airbrushed on the walls that people of both sexes and all ages, even babies, participated in [at least part of] whatever activities took place. And we know that nothing of landscape -- clouds, earth, sun, moon, rivers, or plant life, and only rarely, a horizon -- figures in cave art.

Thurman does a good job of exploring the state of archaeological knowledge as well a range of views and feelings. And there are more insights in comments from 'witnesses' on the official Chauvet site.

I have little to add except:
a) to note the long term physical context: these caves were carved by water through uplifted reefs, laid down over 100 million years before. (Compare some speculation with regard to caves in the GBR here);

b) to express of my unceasing awe and wonder at a culture that could have delighted in so many animals for so many thousands of years...before, presumably, driving them extinct [3]. (Compare Barry Lopez's observation in Arctic Dreams of indigenous people's delight in an abundance of animals [4]); and

c) to wonder how these people did imagine the non-human/non-animal world(s) [5].

1. [update] The full article is now available online here.

2. The official Chauvet site notes "dangerous animals, who did not figure on Paleolithic menus, are largely dominant (more than 60% of identified species if we count mammoth)".

3. They also delighted in, or at least paid the very closest attention to, the details. According to Ian Tattersall (Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness), "We know for certain that the Cro-Magnons carefully monitored their prey over the seasons of the year: animal depictions sometimes show bison in summer molting pelage, stags baying in the autumn rut, woolly rhinoceroses displaying the skin fold that was visible only in summer, or salmon with the curious spur on the lower jaw that males develop in the spawning season. Indeed, we know things about the anatomy of now-extinct animals that we could only know through the Cro-Magnons' art".

4. Lopez allows himself to be optimistic, or at least he did in 1986:
What will we do as the wisdom of the past bears down on our future? It is a story of ageless conversation, not only conversation among ourselves about what we mean and wish to do, but a conversation held with the land -- our contemplation and wonder at a prairie thunderstorm, or before the jagged line of a young mountain, or at the sudden rise of ducks from an isolated lake. We have been telling ourselves the story of what we represent in the land for 40,000 years. At the heart of this story, I think, is a simple, abiding belief: it is possible to live wisely on the land, and to live well.
5. What, if anything, was their version of Blake's
Mountain hill, Earth & Sea,
Cloud Meteor & Star
Are Men Seen from Afar

26 June 2008

A bearer of foreign bodies

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings was having trouble with beings beginning with X until Tom Goreau suggested the xenophyophores, giant single celled organisms that build structures from their own excrement.

Most of these rarely discussed and poorly understood organisms, including Syringammina fragilissima live on the seabed; but at least one species, Occultammina profunda, is infaunal, burying itself in the sediment.

Earlier this month Zoltan Sylvester, a skeptical geologist, blogged on trace fossils called graphoglyptids that may encode the tracks left by Paleodictyon, an ancient infaunal xenophyophore. These are almost perfect honeycomb-like hexagonal patterns:

The patterns are so striking, he says, that it wouldn't be surprising if the uninformed were to seize on them as 'crop circles of the deep sea'. But the most widely accepted idea in the scientific community is that they are 'farming traces':
In other words, these guys (whatever they might be, nobody really knows) create well aerated open burrow systems a few millimeters below the sea floor, with multiple openings to the sediment surface, so that chemosynthetic bacteria move in to get the necessary oxygen to oxidize methane and hydrogen sulphide, their favorite food.
Through idle free-association a long way from science, xenophyphores put me in mind of the Dowager Empress, driven (in W G Sebald's account) to absorb all, so obsessed by death that she swallowed powdered pearl every morning as an elixir of invulnerability, and stifled her empire by trying to hold all still. But the association is vague and the differences are huge. Not least, Xenophyophores thrive abundantly while the Empress died of dysentery after eating a double helping of her favourite crab apple with clotted cream pudding.

25 June 2008

The itch monster

Scientists believe that the itch, and the accompanying scratch reflex, evolved in order to protect us from insects and clinging plant toxins—from such dangers as malaria, yellow fever, and dengue, transmitted by mosquitoes; from tularemia, river blindness, and sleeping sickness, transmitted by flies; from typhus-bearing lice, plague-bearing fleas, and poisonous spiders. The theory goes a long way toward explaining why itch is so exquisitely tuned. You can spend all day without noticing the feel of your shirt collar on your neck, and yet a single stray thread poking out, or a louse's fine legs brushing by, can set you scratching furiously.
-- from The Itch by Atul Gawande.

24 June 2008

Vestige of a beginning, prospect of an end

chinadialogue.net has published my review of J.E.N. Veron's A Reef in Time in Chinese and English.

I don't speak or read the language, but am interested to note that the title of the book in Chinese -- 大堡礁的岁月:从产生到终结 -- reverts (via Google) to something like
Great Barrier Reef the years: from generation to the end.
Another version of the review is here on Coral Bones.

image: Antelao - an ancient reef

No country for old animals

The abstract point is familiar: oil, gas and mineral development impact wildlife directly through habitat destruction as well as indirectly through climate disruption [1]. The examples multiply: Chinese infrastructure to support extraction in Congo or arms supplies to the Zimbabwe junta in return for mining rights, for instance.

But examples are not limited to poor developing countries. Where energy policy is unwise -- for example in the U.S. (Friedman) -- large animals (which, as James Hansen reminds us [slides, pdf, 23 June], don't vote and don't talk) are among the first to be affected [2]. Two examples. First (from New Scientist, 23 June),
The US Fish and Wildlife Service stands accused of giving oil companies a "blank cheque to harass polar bears". The row revolves around the seven oil companies that paid $2.6 billion in February for the rights to look for oil in the Chukchi Sea, off the coast of Alaska. Some 2,000 polar bears live in the region - a significant chunk of the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 bears worldwide.
Second, between a fifth and quarter of land in Wyoming is now leased to oil companies, says Alexandra Fuller, author of The Legend of Colton H Bryant. Fuller compares the high plains to the Serengenti and suggests that the animal migrations under threat [or already destroyed] are [or were] comparable.


1. Ethanol production can also impact animal wildlife of course, whether it be in Amazonia, S E Asia, Africa (see this case from Kenya), or elsewhere.

2. Related comments on oil extraction and energy policy here and here.

23 June 2008

Humpback Orpheus

A whale/clarinet 'duet' according to David Rothenberg in a BBC interview.

New Scientist article here and video here.

A report in The Telegraph highlights a finding that whale song is getting deeper, and features over 4 minutes of jamming.

In the image of man

At the time of writing, Sporepedia lists more than 907,000 new species. Will this creativity and playfulness broaden imaginations to the pre-existing natural world or channel them away from it?

above: a contender for title of the world's ugliest dog.

22 June 2008

Nature and the neurotypicals

There's a great big, beautiful world out there that a lot of normal folk are just barely taking in. It's like dogs hearing a whole register of sound we can't. Autistic people and animals are seeing a whole register of the visual world normal people can't, or don't.
-- Temple Grandin, Animals in Translation.

8 June 2008

'Less in. Less out. Protect the edge.'

As daunting as it appears, the ocean crisis can be boiled down to three problems: we’ve put too much in, we’ve taken too much out, and we are wrecking the edge.
-- from Wallace Nichols.

6 June 2008

Chain of beings

Dying is something phytoplankton do a great deal of. Phytoplankton -- bacteria and eukaryotes that photosynthesize, such as coccolithophores and diatoms -- fix as much carbon every year as all the plants on all the continents. Yet at any one time they account for just 1% of Earth's biomass. This means their rate of turnover is huge; on average, the world's phytoplankton population is replaced once a week. [1]
Image: Trichodesmium (sea 'sawdust'), a subtropical bloom-forming cyanobacteria on which many phytoplankton feed. It makes several key enzymes that are also found in the cell-death cascade of animals. And it is one of the most important nitrogen fixing organisms in the oceans. [2]
1. From The Origins of Death - Apoptosis in cyanobacteria by Nick Lane, Nature, 28 May 2008

2. Spatial coupling of nitrogen inputs and losses in the ocean. Deutsch, C. et al. Nature, 11 January 2007. A bigger nitrogen fix. Gruber, N. (2005). Nature, 11 August 2005.

Beetles and bears

"Dung Beetles are the New Polar Bear" is the brave, cheeky headline of an e mail from the Center for Biological Diversity (recommending an article which says that "lowly bugs, spiders and mollusks are more critical to ecology than larger, glamorous mammals.")

Whatever else proves to the case, it's true that some small creatures -- most obviously bees (e.g. 1996, 2008) -- already mobilize imagination and conservation effort.

5 June 2008

Into a few forms or into one

Two diagrams from a recent paper outline flows and cycles underlying life on Earth. They may look a little fearsome at first if, like me, your knowledge and understanding are pretty limited; but there is elegance, even beauty in these images:

Fig. 1. A generalized biosphere model showing the basic inputs and outputs of energy and materials.
Fig. 2. A schematic depiction a global, interconnected network of the biologically mediated cycles for hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and iron.
The central importance of CO2 jumps out of Fig 2. Something to think about in the context of the present rapid change in its atmospheric concentration. J. E. N. Veron includes a graph (Fig 16.1) showing the concentration over for last 25 million years. The line is a little wiggly by more or less horizontal across the page (indicating values between roughly 200 and 300ppm) until the last millimetre when it shoots up (towards 1000ppm by 2100). What's really striking, though, is Veron's observation, 'if this diagram were redrawn with a horizontal axis 250 metres long, the spike [at the end] would still be a vertical line'.

4 June 2008

Fruits de mer

This blog joins some great company at the latest Carnival of the Blue.

Turtles - who needs them?

Some turtles sightings in English language media include a BBC report about an increase in UK strandings, and a dotearth post on the second Pacific Ocean Great Turtle Race.

The GTR's cartoon caricatures are not to everyone's taste ('fun', not dignity), but the site has a good intro to Leatherbacks (go to the 'sea turtle school' tab).

A good source of information for the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia is ioseaturtles.org - including the introductory film.

Some of the sharpest commentary from Wallace Nichols, which includes a link to a paper with a vision for restoration.

[see also 100 million years and death, At loggerheads and So excellent a fishe]


Greg Laden links to Top 10 Giant Movie Monsters.

3 June 2008

'Grief in time'

A small zap of electricity through Coral Bones produces a review of A Reef in Time by J. E. N. Veron

One small step

Richard Lenski's research has shown that in many ways, evolution is repeatable.
-- from A new step in evolution by Carl Zimmer. See also Ed Yong.

2 June 2008


...it is curiosity, scientific curiosity, that has delivered us genuine, testable knowledge of the world and contributed to our understanding of our place within it and of our nature and condition. This knowledge has a beauty of its own, and it can be terrifying. We are barely beginning to grasp the implications of what we have relatively recently learned.
-- from The day of judgement by Ian McEwan.

McEwan also writes:
Natural selection is a powerful, elegant, and economic explicator of life on earth in all its diversity, and perhaps it contains the seeds of a rival creation myth that would have the added power of being true - but it awaits its inspired synthesiser, its poet, its Milton.
But I don't think summoning Milton is helpful. It's not just that we have already had Darwin (who, if you have to stretch for a comparison, is more like natural selection's Homer) but that Darwin, his predecessors and successors, are part of an encounter, a conversation, a long argument for which the entrance requirement need be no more than, for example, stopping to listen, really listen, to birdsong -- plus a readiness to be open to where evidence leads.