A few years ago, a couple of ecologists were on holiday in Ecuador and visited the Yasuní National Park. While they were absorbing the beauty of one of the most biologically-intense places on Earth, they saw an amazing sight – a thickset solitary bee delicately drinking tears from a river turtle’s eyes.
Confused? As it happens, most of the salt on Earth is concentrated in the ocean, so many terrestrial herbivores struggle to find enough nutrients to satisfy their cravings. This is why some herbivores frequent ‘salt-licks’ and why you often see butterflies or moths hovering on faeces or carcasses.
Tear-feeding behaviour is a way for some specialised insects to include sodium in their diet. It sounds like a pretty perilous way to get your daily minerals, but tear-feeders usually do so on sleeping or placid animals that will be slow to react. Although this behaviour has been known from other insect-animal interactions, this story is the first documented occurrence of a bee drinking tears from a turtle’s eye. How sensational is that?!
The authors, Dangles & Casas, published their story to highlight the importance of ‘observing’ in Ecology (and indeed, for many other fields of Discovery). They write: “The rapidly vanishing role of natural history observations in modern ecological research has been a constant subject of concern among scientists…While ecologists make ever-greater advances in modeling [sic], in-the-field observation of species continues to be neglected.”
This fact is a true calamity, especially since the science of Ecology has its foundation firmly embedded in the observational field of Natural History. Over time, the corporatisation of Science has pushed ‘predictive’ modelling and convoluted statistics to the forefront of Ecology, while true observational or mensurative studies are often considered not ‘robust’ enough for a global audience. Many ‘top’ journals will reject observational studies upon submission, without even considering them for review. Imagine all the exciting discoveries they’re missing out on sharing!
Predictions and assumptions are extremely useful, and even absolutely necessary, for some research, yet they must always be based on (and linked to) a reality – and this reality can only be gained by observation and comprehension of the real natural world. As Dangles & Casas write: “Quantification, if not modeling [sic], is a tool we often like to use, but generally at a later stage in our scientific method, not as a starting point.” I wonder, as predictions progress further from observations, do they have a greater risk of becoming misleading, obfuscating or even false?
Since humans became humans we have realised the importance of awareness of the greater surrounds in some form or another. Despite all the spiritual and secular interpretations, re-interpretations and correlations of this concept over time, the basic gist of ‘awareness’ is a focus on the Surroundings, rather than the Self – looking, observing, taking notice, being aware, understanding what is going on around us and how we fit into that goings-on (which, incidentally, is the crux of Ecology). Real progression of understanding of any system cannot occur in isolation from the system and its surroundings – Comprehension pivots on Observation and Awareness.
Thankfully, there are so many talented ecologists (and other scientists) who understand this. At the ‘grass roots’ level, the value of observing is firmly entrenched in many people’s code of research, and this belief has driven some of the most amazing discoveries of modern science.
May Ecology keep its eyes wide open and be always guided by its Naturalist DNA.
© Manu Saunders 2012