Oh, That Was You!?

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The Eternal Fishnu introduced Mrs. Hanamoku and I to these friends of his. We didn’t understand their place in the history of science at the time of this meeting.

Many of us in the Pacific Northwest are familiar with the term “apex predator” from the relatively recent re-introduction of wolves into our forests. Apex predators are relatively small in number in comparison to the population of its prey, but its presence or lack of presence results in a disproportionate effect on the environment. That is, not just obviously on the population of its prey, but cascading effects that are often surprising.

The intent of the re-introduction is beyond just merely the romantic notion of wolves once again roaming through the birch trees and howling in the distance. More so, the hope is to reinstate the natural regulation of the forest ecosystem that has gone somewhat out of whack due to cascading effects of the populations of the wolves’ prey going unchecked in a natural manner.

Anyway, the insight of the disproportionate and often surprising effect of apex predators is credited to the pioneering work of Robert Paine. He was a zoologist with the University of Washington who had this flash of inspiration for an experiment on biodiversity. The removal of a particular species can result in dramatic effects, whereas the removal of another particular one has little or no effect. He coined the term, keystone species, to describe the former.

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Pisaster. The keystone species of the U.S. Pacific Northwest tide pools.

That insight came to him during a little experiment he conducted off the Olympic Peninsula back in the 1960s. The tidal pools he visited were diverse in species. For some reason he wondered what would happen if he removed one of the species. I’m not sure if he started with starfish, but that’s the species he wrote about. It was probably the only species he could easily remove due to the relatively large size, easily seen bright colors, and relatively few number of them.

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A tide pool rock of impressive biological diversity – including the Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet.

Believe it or not, that starfish (pisaster) posing with the Eternal Fishnu is an apex predator. Well, at least an apex predator of the tide pools around the Oregon Coast where these photos were taken – the prey being mussels. These starfish played a starring role (pun intended) in Robert Paine’s insights of the disproportionate effect the apex predator. He coined such a species, keystone speciesAnd the sometimes surprising cascading effects resulting from the removal is referred to as trophic cascades.

A great example of trophic cascades are related to subsequent work he did with James Estes. A suprising trophic cascade starts with sea otters and ends with increased erosion of the U.S. West Coast:

Sea otters eat urchins which dine on the kelp of the kelp forests which act as a break of storm waves which mitigates erosion of the beach. So the eradication of sea otters due to hunting means the urchins run wild, decimating the kelp forests, which leave the shore unprotected.

In the case of Robert Paine’s seminal experiment, he hunted down and fling all the starfish around his experimental tide pool into the sea. Unchecked by the apex predator, the experimental tide pool was bullied into a monoculture of mussels.

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Filter-feeding mollusks somewhere in the middle of the food chain.

This wonderful short video, Some Animals are More Equal than Others: Keystone Species and Trophic Cascades, covers the groundbreaking work of Robert Paine and James Estes during the 1960s and 1970s.

Another video from The Royal Institution offers a very nice case study of tropic cascades, The Rules that Govern Life on Earth – with Sean B. Carroll.

Why did I stumble across this fascinating work of Robert Paine and James Estes? As with many things YouTube, one thing lead to another then another. But mostly, I was looking for inspiration, ideas, and paths towards how to author business models. As I’ve mentioned many times, I am a Business Intelligence Architect/Developer by day.

The set of correlations and transformations that make up trophic cascades are indeed the genes of a business model. Such mapped processes are what I’ve been working on with Map Rock for over a decade. An obvious business example is something like better quality leads to higher customer satisfaction, leading to return customers, leading to lower customer acquisition requirements, leading to higher profit. But for some reason, after all I’d studied, I didn’t know the term, trophic cascades.

A Buddhist thought before we leave. We must remember that Nature is resilient and that there isn’t only one “correct” way for things to be. For over three billion years Life on Earth has been periodically severely wounded. But she regenerates and comes back to full life.

Perhaps an additional disaster or a certain disaster a few years before or after, or more or less severe, more North or South, would have resulted in no humans at this time or even no multi-celled creatures. But from afar, seen as an entity in itself, She’ll still look more or less the same. Only from “within the weeds”, where our human minds are trained to exist, would things appear to be different.

Well, Mr. Pisaster, it was an honor to have met you!

 

Survival of the Versatile

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“Versatile cousins of the sunflower family made a long journey to Hawaii millions of years ago. It’s adaptivity gave it a destiny.” – The Eternal Fishnu

I always thought that the majestic silverswords endemic to Haleakala were related to yuccas or some sort of agave. The photo below is a blooming silversword I took on a trip to Maui back on 2003. Doesn’t it look like a yucca or agave? Especially with that towering stalk of flowers reminiscent of “century plants”. What else could it be?

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So a couple of years ago while hiking in Utah, I photographed this blooming yucca below.

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A yucca I photographed along a great hike in Southern Utah.

I planned to make a farcical Facebook post featuring the above photo going something like this:

Voice: Brah! You from Hawaii!

Me: (Look to my left and see this yucca talking to me.) Yeah, Brah! Wahiawa, my maddah’s side, Kaneohe, on my faddah’s side. What island you from?

Yucca: I not from deah, baht I get cuzins dat leeve on Haleakala! Nevah seen dem fo mee-lee-enz years!

But before I hit Post, I wondered if my assumption about silverswords being a yucca was correct. I’m not sure why I wondered about it. To me it was so obviously related to yuccas that I didn’t think to question it.

Silversword Alliance

It took a bit of trial and error to stumble across the key words: silversword alliance. Most of what I learned about the history of the silver swords are from a few Web pages:

To summarize, the majestic silversword appears to be a descendant of a very humble little plant off the West coast of the U.S. colloquially called a “tar weed”.  These tar weeds are in the asteraceae family, along with sunflowers and daises. I’ve read estimates of the first asteraceae immigrant landing in Hawaii as between ten and one million years ago.

But there’s more to the interesting notion of a humble desert plant making a very long journey over an ocean to end up a grand tourist attraction. The silver sword is only one of about thirty descendants of this tar weed immigrant to Hawaii. That is, about thirty very different-looking plants from Kauai all the way to the Big Island.

It’s something that the articles above call adaptive radiation. A single species can relatively quickly evolve to a diverse set of species occupying unique niches. I’m not sure what Hawaii was like a few million years ago, but today climates in the Islands range from tropical beaches, to rain forests, to deserts, to snow-capped mountains, to the high desert climate of Haleakala. That’s a lot of niches to fill.

Coincidentally, on our Oregon Coast trip a few weeks back, we stopped at the John Day Fossil Beds in central Oregon. If you visit the Visitor Center, you’ll see an exhibit on adaptive radiation related to horses. Unless you’re a paleontologist or something, how many times in one day will you think of adaptive radiation?

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A panel from the John Day Fossil Beds on the Adaptive Radiation of horses.

The fact that many very similar flowers are so profuse in the Southwest Deserts of the U.S. lends to the versatility of this plant. If any plant can be the founder of the species of the Silversword Alliance, it would be the tar weed. All the way from John Day Fossil Beds to the Pacific Shore at Lincoln City, we found many sorts of asteraceae, happy as can be.

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The Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet one of the many members of the sunflower family (Asteraceae) near the John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon.

I’m not positive if the yellow flower from Southern Utah I photographed below is a “tar weed”. It has the sticky stuff on the green parts, the sunflower-like blossoms, petals that split at the end. Throughout my vacationing around the U.S. Southwest, I’ve noticed dozens of varieties of these plants. I’m at least fairly sure it’s at least related to what I see as “tar weeds” by Googling: tar weed california

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Whichever tar weed is the founding ancestor of the Silversword Alliance, it was hardy enough to somehow make a 2000 mile journey and adapt in multiple ways to a place of  highly varied in climates.

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Upon a closer look at the flowers of the silversword, they really do look like miniature sunflowers.