488 – The Lizard King: 15


Some people are dog people, some prefer cats. Both types generally like to nuzzle up to their pets and draw comfort from a warm, fuzzy, loving body held close. Other folks are… snake people, and they’re a little different. A friend of Lena’s who works in a pet shop describes snake people in two varieties. “There are snake people who really enjoy watching their snakes eating live animals…” he says, “and they’re kinda creepy. And then there are snake people who really, really enjoy watching their snakes eating live animals.”

CNN photo, used without permission… please don't sue me.
CNN photo, used without permission… please don't sue me.

Creepy though they might be, they are clearly not good planners.

One of the more popular pet snakes is the Burmese python, often purchased at around 3 feet. These snakes grow quickly when fed regularly, (which is apparently the point of having one) and can gain as much as 4 feet a year, to a total length of as much as 26 feet. Some snake people have dumped their snakes and left them in the wild, which most of the time results in a dead snake… unless you live near the Florida Everglades.

There the snakes have discovered a panoply of edible species… and pretty much no natural predators. Current estimates put the python population at around 30,000. Efforts are underway to curtail the snakes’ numbers, but since these are more or less the same efforts that have been ongoing throughout the recent population explosion my hopes are not high.

The snakes are now in very real danger of completely eliminating many unique species of wildlife in the Everglades. I believe the next plan is to introduce a pack of snake-eating Cape Hunting Dogs to eat the pythons, followed up by seeding the Everglades with a population of Bengal tigers to eat the dogs, then a gaggle of godzillas to eat the tigers, and finally burning down the swamp in the hopes that the monsters will simply go away.

We wish the Florida Nature Conservancy officials the very best of luck.

28 Responses to 488 – The Lizard King: 15

  1. Why are humans always trying to stagnate natural selection? And don’t -even- start in on me about how the snakes aren’t indigenous, so they’re an invading species; -everything- is an invading species. I challenge anyone to find me a single species – that’s right, even one – that is actually indigenous to everywhere it now thrives. Not all of that is mankind’s interference, you know. Critters move around. Some of them even swim. Plant invaders get carried around on the critter invaders, or in their digestive tracts, or on wind and wave… Smaller animal invaders get ferried around on or in those plants… The cycle goes on. Just because a creature exists does -not- mean its existence is necessary, beneficial, or in any other way deserving of being protected from newly arrived predators. Yes, we’d be in trouble if all animals went extinct; any given batch of them, though, we’d almost certainly not notice.

  2. I totally agree. Nature is all eat or be eaten. Why people have to be so agrogant and think they can decide who eats who?

  3. Misha I believe the one place you’re looking for is Australia. Seperated by thousands and thousands of years of continental drift, with many unique species that have evolved into what they currently are. Of course if you want to take a VERY extreme view, there isn’t a single indigenous animal on the earth (since of course life evolved in the water and didn’t come on land till later)

  4. A number of Greenpeace types and PETA types are sentimental types who just want to protect the cute/pretty fuzzy things. Try not to anger them too much; annoying people you don’t have to without a plan to profit from it is generally a bad idea.
    Other folks realize that lost species leave holes in the ecological web–all plants and animals depend on the existence of other plants and/or animals. (Except perhaps lichen, algae, plankton and maybe a few others.) Some plants and animals can only fill their need(s) with a single species of other plant or animal in the case of highly niche-adapted species.
    Some other, mostly non-religious folks, who understand what genetic engineering is realize something else: More species we have around means more genetic diversity to go searching through for cures to cancer, materials science breakthroughs and other cool stuff that can solve problems for us.*
    Overall? Efforts to protect endangered species may pay back in ways we don’t understand at first. The reintroduction of wolves into yellowstone park is a pretty textbook example of the need to have a complete life-web–a need which we didn’t understand three decades ago.

    *Some other varyingly smart people (from not at all to very smart), who tend to be more religious than the folks in that last group, are very scared of this genetic engineering stuff… but that’s another question.

  5. I was wondering how long it would take for Enkidu to see this silver lining, and if he would see it on his own or with outside help. Now I know. 😀

  6. Species come and go all the time (on a geological timescale). If a species goes extinct, it won’t be too long before another evolves to occupy it’s niche. Species which flourish at the expense of others (pythons, mice, rats, cane toads, pigeons, estate agents) do so because they are better equipped to survive in that environment.

    Humans and large mammals might be dependent on a diverse ecology, but life in some form will always prevail. Anyone not up for the fight should get out of the gene pool.

  7. Interesting arguments. But I think that the problem is not about whether or not life in some form will survive, because it will.

    The problem is that these invasive species enjoy an unfair advantage in the new environment because their competition and/or prey did not have the opportunity to evolve side-by-side.

    Animals in the Everglades do not have this benefit, and might not have the chance to evolve defenses fast enough if the python population is left unchecked.

    I don’t know how much of this is true, that’s just my take on the issue.

  8. In some respects I agree… the fact that a thing is alive doesn’t necessitate a huge tragedy when it dies. Everything dies, and it ain’t special. But Noodlebug’s point about the ecological niche of a species comes a little closer to the issue here. Biological diversity means different species having overlapping niches. (Among other things.) When one goes away, another fills in for it. Problems arise when too many species die off and there is nothing to fill the niche. Problems include predator species being killed and allowing prey species to thrive unchecked, which in turn completely eliminates a food source that other species might depend on, either themselves or their young, and then yet other species who depend on THAT species for food go out of business and end up on the welfare because the Everglades serves as one of the world’s most prolific fish hatcheries and the pythons screwed it up for everyone. (Because the pythons will eat EVERYTHING.)

    In other words, sure. Life will continue. But it would sure be a lot easier on us if it continued in the manner we have adapted ourselves to. (Although I just got a brilliant idea for a string of southern Florida BBQ python restaurants!)

  9. Erver notice how most of the time, when there’s an ecological disaster in hte making, such as a new organism running rampant with little to no compitition, it’s humans who are to blame?

    Personally, i think we need to start introducing some preditors to limit these trouble makers. Man-eating Tigers/Wolves/Snakes/Bunnies/Whatever. Cull from the gene pool the slow, weak, and stupid. Mostly the stupid.
    Taking the warning labels off things might work too.

  10. I’ve a better idea, let’s just give every animal a gun. See if humans are still at the top of the food chain when the playing field is a bit more level!

  11. Species that still are where they evolved (and not extinct yet)? Just of the top of my head: – African chimpanzees.
    – Lemurs in Madagaskar. Heck, all of Madagaskar’s unique endemic fauna and flora.
    – Endemic plants on Socotra island.
    – The pink iguana in the Galapagos islands, five million years old as a species, now only found on Isabela Island.
    – New Zealand’s flightless birds such as the kiwi.
    – The specialized cichlids living in Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria. (There are other species of cichlids throughout Africa, but water chemistry for these three African lakes differs greatly from all other biotopes and more closely resembles marine than tropical fresh water, so you cannot just drop in cichlids from somewhere else and expect them to thrive. What does thrive are two very invasive fish species introduced there by humans, the predatory Nile Perch and the Nile Tilapia that eats plankton. Additionally there is massive pollution from lake-side settlements that causes poisonous algae-blooms and lowering of oxygen levels in the lakes.)
    – The baiji, a blind freshwater river dolphin that lives in the Yangtze river in China (although it’s on the verge of extinction). http://news.mongabay.com/2007/0829-baiji.html
    – We could add the pygmy elephants of Flores island, unfortunately they’re extinct.

  12. @Noodlebug and Misha:

    First of all, forget that “some species are inherently better equipped than others to survive which means they’re more worthy to survive” nonsense. That’s 19th century bullshit. What is an adaptive benefit in one place may be a disadvantage somewhere else. And just because an invasive species enters the stage and, unfettered from natural predators, quickly gobbles up or outbreeds native species does not means it is “better”. If its population growth or behaviour is not sustainable in the long run it dies out very quickly afterwards.

    It’s a dangerous delusion, similar to the fantasy of the “invisible hand of the market place” that will conveniently fix everything while we sit back and watch. It’s probably a remnant of a “struggle of the fittest” worldview which was used by colonial powers to explain why white Europeans and their descendants were self-evidently destined to supplant native cultures they found, because goddamit if those natives cannot take the heat then it’s their own fault if they die out.

    As for the view that, hey, if a species dies out nature will conveniently plug another one into the niche, as if they’re Lego bricks, it’s a view I’ve heard expressed occasionally, usually from engineers. Fact is the removal of even a single key species may have a snowball effect on the whole ecosystem, including things such as soil erosion, ph-value of the soil or salinity of ground water.

    It may surprise you, but whole ecological webs *can* crash and collapse if stressed beyond the tipping point. Or else change so radically that they can no longer support the diversity that used to be part of it before, for an example see the Easter Islands. In extreme cases nothing is left but eroded naked rock where once stood forest, and it takes a long time to establish a new food chain beyond some basic lichen and mites.

    But if you’re happy with living in a dangerously impoverished ecological web that becomes prone to oscillating wildly before it collapses, be my guest.

  13. What is true is that even amongst ecologists there are differing opinions about how neophyts (non-native plants) and neozoons (non-native animals) should be treated. Some got there by their own power and not all of them become harmful to the biotope. But many do, especially if they’re introduced from other continents. So what to do? Remember the lessons from past disasters and eradicate them on the spot while that is still possible? Or merely keep an eye on them and hope the biotope can cope with the invader?

    One of the problems is that introduced or newly arrived species which are entirely “tame” in their own environment and did not seem invasive at first *can* suddenly become pests after they’re firmly established, sometimes *decades* later. Some showed off their potential for crowding out (“outbreeding”), outcompeting, displacing or wholly eliminating other indigenous species right from the start. Others seemed harmless at first, but then… something happened and their behaviour or breeding pattern changed. (And we don’t always know why.)

    A place where only one species is left standing, be it strangling ivy or colony of importet fire ants, is *not* a viable ecosystem.

    With global transportation species are transplanted, often between different continents, at a rate and speed far exceeding normal migration events. That has nothing to do with “natural selection” or normal interspecies competition.

    Island ecologies (including Australia) are especially vulnerable to invader species or any environmental disturbance, far more vulnerable than continental ecologies. The longer the isolation, the more species diversification you get, but these endemic species are often extremely adapted to their environment or have entered into a symbiosis with another species, have small populations and only exist in a small geographical area.

  14. To quote from the Small Island Developing States Network (SIDSNet)’s article “Invasive alien species: biggest threat to Pacific biodiversity”:
    Invasive species are highly adaptable and usually widespread. They can live in a wide range of environments. They breed fast and spread easily. *When they arrive in a new country, they have usually left the diseases and predators that would have kept their numbers under control back in their home country.*

    The brown tree snake was introduced to Guam accidentally in the late 1940s. Its introduction has resulted in ecological devastation, including the permanent loss of nine of the eleven original native bird species in Guam, along with five species of lizard. There are an estimated 80 million brown tree snakes on Guam today, and they cause damage to electrical infrastructure, causing power outages every 4 –5 days, damage to household electrical appliances, and research and control costs totalling over $US 5 million a year in Guam alone. This does not include the costs to Guam’s major trading partners to ensure that snakes that hitchhike in goods or on aircraft or ships from Guam are detected before they can establish new populations. They also impact on health – their bites pose a risk especially to children.

    Sometimes the native species do learn to cope with an invasive species fast enough:
    “Lizards Evolve To Escape Fire Ant Attacks”
    But usually these are continental species.

    Then there’s a certain human blindness: In places where humans have settled for a time, we often consider the ecosystem we see now as entirely normal and diverse, when in reality it may have lost dozens of species already, centuries ago. All these plants and animals and fungi we will now never see again, because they’re gone forever. Some live on in local legend, such as the giant flightless Moa, the Haast’s Giant Eagle and dozens of other bird species once native and indigenous to New Zealand until the Maori directly or indirectly caused their extinction.

  15. Another fallacy is claiming that because sometimes introduced species can fill an empty niche with no trouble, it must work every time. For example in Europe many species that appear indigenous because they’re been there for hundreds or even thousands of years were introduced there by humans, most often brought in from Asia or northern Africa in Roman times, such as the pheasant, or from North America during colonial times, such as the potato. The reason behind this is that tiny Europe is in some respects a geographically and ecologically unique case. After the last ice age, when glaciers retreated, species that had been pushed towards the equators started migrating back towards the poles. In northern Asia and in North America there were no large mountain ranges to stop them. The “spine” of the Americas, for example, runs in a south-north direction.

    In Europe, many of the major mountain ranges such as the Alps and the Pyrenees extend more or less in west-east direction, cutting off for example the Italian peninsula and the Spanish peninsula from the rest of Europe. Further east there’s the Caucasus Mountains, north or Armenia, which stretch across the isthmus between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Species had trouble migrating northwards. Which is why if you compare, say, biodiversity in Europe and the British Isles with the East coast of North America, you find that although having more or less the same climate thanks to the Gulf Stream and animals and plants are very similar, North America’s ecologies are far more diverse, for example. Together with the fact that Europeans killed off or displaced many animals centuries ago, there are still “empty” ecological niches. Which is why the remaining European martens have to compete with racoons which breed rapidly in Germany cities, and the American muskrat is replacing the European otter… which complicates conservation effords to re-establish the otter population.

    What do we do with cultivated landscapes that are “secondary biotopes”, but have been in this state sometimes for up to two thousand years? Die Lüneburger Heide in northern Germay is an open landscape of heather and arid grasslands interspersed with small copses. If we left the biotope to itself it would once again become overgrown with trees, just as it was after the last ice age. In medieval times the trees were felled fore firewood and to clear areas for keeping animals, especially the German Gray Heath, a sheep race descended from the mouflon of Corsica, which feeds on heather. By now, the Heide is an established protected ecosystem in its own right which supports many rare insect, reptile and bird species as well as the European ground squirrel which can only survive in open grassy landscapes.

    So yes, landscapes change all the time, and if change is gradual, life can adapt. So what?

  16. Um… yeah! All that is exactly what I said! Thanks for explaining how smart I am in easy-to-grasp terms, Christina!

    (Whew! I barely even understood what I said, I’m so smart!)

  17. “Many centuries ago” is but the blink of an eye in geological timescales, and pretty much meaningless! I cannot see how long-term (and I mean proper long term!), any large mammals can co-exist with humans – humans have trouble even co-existing with each other! The world may seem large and full of open spaces and resources, but if humans continue to occupy and consume them and breed at even a fraction of their current rate, in a few tens of thousand years there will be nothing left but those species who can adapt to live alongside us. A few tens of thousand years is the very minimum it would take for new species to evolve to fill vacant niches, but when the niches themselves are disappearing, and the only niche left is fitting into the world as we remodel it, there is not much hope for large predators or migratory grazers.

    If you want biodiversity on Earth, in more than the short term future, you really have to find a way to control the human population, and bring it back down to the sustainable level it was at ten, twelve thousand years ago. Civilisation or biodiversity, I just cannot see how you can have both.

    And the argument about some species being better equipped to survive is fundamental to evolution by natural selection, which is of course how biodiversity occurs in the first place. Whether a species is worthy or not isn’t for scientists to decide. The way you find out whether a species is worthy is wait around, and see if it’s still there. But always bear in mind that even the worthiest-seeming species won’t be around for ever. Sooner or later something always comes along that a species cannot cope with. For a large number of species alive today, I fear that something could be us.

  18. @Christina: Thank you. Valid points, all, and well researched and thought out… And spoken with passion, by the feel of reading it. That was more or less the response I was hoping for. (Some of those were things I was unaware of, and a few others, I simply hadn’t considered, and I thank you for pointing them out to me.) Did I mention that my primary life occupation is Devil’s Advocate? 🙂

    @Noodlebug: In the long term, they can’t, really. Humans really are the apex predator. We hunt not just other animals, but entire systems.

    @Kevin: If you open those restaurants, let me know! Them’s good eatin’! (-:

    @all: My objection to people going on about how bad it is when a given species goes extinct isn’t that I think there are no bad effects; often times, it -will- come back and bite us. It’s the people that are bemoaning the extinctions for sentimental reasons rather than “real” ones. Sure it’s bad for wolves to be wiped out; they keep prey animal populations stable, which keeps food plant populations stable, which… and so on. But the people who wimper on about how “It’s just so sad, there won’t be any more wolves left” (or insert any other given critter here) “and don’t you want your children to be able to see a real, living wolf one day?” (and again, insert any given critter in place of wolf, same story) really tick me off, because they miss the point, and even more so because rather than try to get their ideas across logically, they resort to trying to inflict guilt. I have seen people try to make a 10 year old child feel guilty for eating meat, because “a cow had to die, isn’t that horrible, it had to die to make that steak”. I STILL get angry thinking about that. Damnit, killing things for food isn’t wrong, it’s mandatory. Even plants die. There are studies that strongly suggest that plants even feel pain when bits of them get picked. Wah. Life is sadistic, deal with it, right?

  19. Millions, more likely billions of species have gone extinct, most without leaving any fossil or genetic trace that they were ever here at all. Who shed a tear for them? How badly does the world miss them?

    *This post is dedicated to the memory of the Trilobite 540m BP – 250m BP*

  20. Misha:
    The line you cite “and don’t you want your children to be able to see a real, living wolf one day?” always amuses me. Mlost of the people who use have never seen a wolf – not even stuffed. I’ve seen a wolf in the wild once; we had no reason to deal with each other and both kept our distance.

  21. Technically, dogs and wolves are just one species. All dogs are actually wolves, the separate label is a matter of cladistics more than genetics.

    As it happens, cladistically speaking, dogs, wolves and humans are all types of fish. The word “Fish” as it is commonly used describes all members of a certain vertebrate group with a common ancester, except for those who have subsequently evolved into something else (land-dwelling vertebrates). Cladistic purists believe that a label should describe the whole of a linked group, rather than missing out any bits that logically belong there but have been excluded on superficial grounds, such as appearance. We are fish, with lungs and legs. By the same token, chickens, budgies and ostriches are all dinosaurs, as well as being fish.

    NB shellfish are not fish at all, but arthropods.

  22. My understanding was that dogs are either descended from wolves or coyotes. (Leaving aside the issue of the relationship between wolves and coyotes. I kind of feel like you lose a lot of useful in-between information if you just say everything is fish.) Further, that dingos seem to be the only type of dog that was never particularly related to either. (At least until they interbred with domestic dogs.)

    I could be talking out my ass here, I’m trying to recall information I learned several decades ago. But I don’t think that they all drew from wolf stock. At least not without a few non-wolf and non-dog middle steps. (Like the coyote.)

  23. The orthodox scientific classification has wolves (specifically the gray wolf) as Canis Lupus and dogs as the subspecies Canis Lupus Familiaris.

    But I suppose anything that looks vaguely canine is going to get called a dog, even if it’s not directly related to the dogs scientists think are dogs.

  24. In addition to being an extremely reasonable explanation, your response also benefits from no one (like me) having to be wrong. While not scientific, I find this sort of response makes me the happiest.

  25. Heh, Enkidu’s expression totally makes this. Can almost imagine a shaft of light shining down. 😛

    Also ROFL at the “I’m so useless now I’m a girl” comment. 😀