A Zoo for Love -- Eric R. Pianka

A Zoo for Love

© Eric R. Pianka

Suppose you took a pair of scissors to a collection of the greatest love stories ever written including "Love Story", "Dr. Zhivago", Sleepless in Seattle", and "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and cut out every word "love" and put them into little glass vials. In the resulting collection, you do not even know which book "love" came from, let alone whether it is a noun or a verb, or who loves whom. "Love" has been taken completely out of context. Similarly, an animal in a cage lacks meaning because it is devoid of the surroundings in which it evolved. As far as its ecology is concerned, it might as well be dead.

Wild organisms in pristine natural habitats hold special value to ecologists because all creatures evolved in such areas, which contain the environments to which they have become adapted and in which they make sense (Pianka, 1995). As a professional ecologist and plain citizen of planet Earth, for many years I have been increasingly concerned as I watch the continuing human encroachment on wilderness. Many of my own desert study sites have succumbed to urban sprawl. Humans are rapidly taking over this planet and leaving very little for all its other denizens, our fellow Earthlings. We can and must do better.

We have to save the vanishing book of life, but we must also read it. Anyone, even little kids, can help save it. There are tree-huggers galore out there and plenty of people who just want to save the planet. Anyone can do that. But it takes somebody who's dedicated and earnest and a little bit crazy to try to go out and read the vanishing book and try to make sense of it. That's what we should do if we have the skills and motivation to do it. We should try to read it before it's gone. I don't see the point in saving anything unless biologists are allowed access to it. I think that is a critical point here.

Today we have many powerful tools to help us decipher the vanishing book, many of which were unavailable a few decades ago. These include air travel, email, fax machines, the global positioning system (GPS), satellite imagery, geographic information systems (GIS), the polymerase chain reaction (PCR, which allows amplification of DNA), DNA sequencing, powerful personal desktop computers and imaginative powerful software. Unfortunately, just as ecologists have gained access to this vast array of new technological tools, the very stuff we need to study is disappearing.

Some of these things might not seem very new, but I remember when faxes first came out -- I was doing field work in outback Australia and I wanted to send something to my university in Austin, Texas, and I had access a new fax machine in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia. As I was feeding it in down under, I could see it in my mind's eye in now time coming out in Austin -- to me that was mind-boggling technology. I'm still hoping they'll figure out how to fax me back and forth so that I can avoid the long and tiring plane trip.

We've got technology now that is just out of this world. I started using the Net before it was the Internet, before we had email, it was called the Arpanet back then -- what I'm finding now with email is that I can have colleagues anywhere in the world and we can work really fast because if they're in Australia, when I'm asleep they're working, and when I'm working they're asleep. We can work 24 hours around the clock, faxing and emailing stuff back and forth, so our scientific papers just come rolling out.

I wish GPS had been around earlier because when I was out collecting before lizards were gone from large parts of their geographic ranges. I had to record localities as "15 miles north-northwest of Mojave, California," and then I had to go to a map to try to estimate Latitude and Longitude. It would have been so much easier and nicer to have a little GPS unit and been able to record these things accurately; but it's too late now because we've erased big chunks of information.

I've gone back to several of my North American study sites -- they were just crawling, literally teeming, with lizards only 50 years ago, but now they are parts of little cities and trailer parks and not a lizard can be found. Collections I made back then now in storage in museums are really fossils. They represent what was there before humans took over the habitat. To me that is shocking. It makes those collections pretty valuable, too.

Last updated 3 September 2014 by Eric R. Pianka