Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

24 Jul 2013

South Africa's Force of Nature: From Ant to Elephant

The previous two posts in this series address my own magnetic draw to the African bush, and the tireless work of the National Park Ranger service against poaching. This final post will discuss the work which I undertook in South Africa as a scientist, and the results revealed.

African savannahs are shaped by the forces of nature which surround them, the burning sun, the periodic rains, the raging bushfires and the relentless chomping of the largest grazing herds on the planet. Ecologists, who study these systems, are interested in understanding how these mechanisms work to create and maintain these ecosystems, in a context of scientific discovery, but also in an attempt to manage our own impact on these environments.

Whilst we know how grazing and fire influence vegetative regrowth, it is less clear how these pressures influence other organisms who form a vital part of these environments. When faced with the bulldozing impact of an elephant, it is often easy to forget the role of infinitely smaller insects. Seemingly inconspicuous ants have a huge role in these systems, by modifying soils through nest construction, exerting a huge pressure as predators on other insect populations, and on plant populations as seed harvesters and herbivores. Unlocking the secrets of a savannah’s functioning cannot be done without an understanding of the key role of these insects.

Given their inescapable link with the landscape, it is of interest to see how these habitats change under different management regimes. A sad truth is that certain areas of Africa have lost large swathes of herbivores as a result of our over poaching, leaving the grasslands to regress and the encroachment of the surrounding trees. How does this shift in herbivore populations impact on equally important ants?
To examine this change, my research team have been collecting ants in the Kruger National Park for over ten years, in 3 areas reflecting different grazing pressures: a zone of open access, a zone fenced with a high electric wire preventing elephant and giraffe, and a zone of complete exclusion. As the vegetation changed following the exclusion, so too did the ant species collected. Generalist heat tolerant species such as Monomorium junodi, were replaced by species more closely associated with the closing canopy, such as Cataulacus sp.

Such a change is to be expected given the close link of ants with their surrounding vegetation. But other scientists have shown that a removal of certain elements of a natural system such as herbivore grazing can have further reaching consequences. Palmer and his team revealed that ants which protected trees from other insect predators modified their behaviour when elephant damage to these trees was removed, which in turn made these trees more vulnerable to disease.  Removing herbivores will thus lead to changes in the ant community, which can in turn have an irreversible impact on the future of the savannah systems.

Future research must not aim to expose the deeper functioning of other ant species.  Almost one hundred different species of ant were captured during our sampling campaign, and the inner workings of their ecology are largely unknown. It is impossible to predict our impact on an environment without a broader understanding of the role of the numerous elements of ecosystems on their functioning.

Escaping Cynicism

“There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist, except an old optimist.” Mark Twain

Today’s wit is a cynicism against the possibilities of tomorrow. Irony and sarcasm permeate British humour, but more and more so stretch to infect our outlook on individual and collective possibility. I too am guilty of succumbing to an indifference to the movements of society, given our constant failure to address our environmental shortcomings or social responsibilities.

But recently, fleeting conversation with a passing stranger reignited my lost optimism. An American teenager full of wonder at new encounters, openness to the future and a belief in endless possibility reminded me of myself at her age. I too at seventeen had an open belief for a brave new world, driving me to explore new cultures, aiming for the betterment of human kind. Books fed this craving, and a battered copy of Alex Garland’s The Beach remains testament to this desire.
This morning, curiosity at the flaking pages and the broken spine got the better of me. I reached to take the book down from its shelf, opening it to release grains of sands from another time trapped in its creases. Before even reading the first words, the sand had taken me back to the time and place of its last reading. To my very own beach, where at seventeen I too felt that I had reached Utopia, where the surf of South China Sea lapped at my heart.

Like in the novel, paradise is quick lost, and a return to that same beach a few years later revealed a growth in number, an entrenchment of globalised culture. Plastic parasols and concrete construction confirmed my maturing pessimism. A return to the familiar then, to be surrounded by ambitionless apathy.

It is hard to find solace in the movements of a society, especially now that our globalised gathering of 7 billion seems so connected, whilst alienated at same time. Rather than reaching out across social media networks, my flame of optimism is fanned by face to face contact, even if through the lens of a webcam. It is the warmth of human contact which reignites my optimism, whether from a tube worker walking me to a destination, or a homeless man sharing his cigarettes with our wine. If a selfless stranger is open to others, then what is to stop an original idea taking root? Cynicism suppresses creativity, optimism generates opportunities.

6 Jul 2013

Le Grand Atelier du Midi

Antibes - Claude Monet 
Le Mont Sainte Victoire - Paul Cezanne
Les Rochers de l'Estaque - Pierre-Auguste Renoir