During a forest walk amidst centuries-old Douglas fir trees, I cannot ignore the exotic plants — which humans have thoughtlessly brought from other continents in recent centuries — that have invaded the understory and displaced native species. While scuba diving among rocky reefs, I am haunted by the absence of large predatory fishes: an ecological vacuum created by industrial fishers. During a mountain hike, an open view of the sky triggers thoughts about how our fossil fuel emissions have altered the chemical composition of the atmosphere for centuries to come, with dismal repercussions for all living things.
But that is only one side of my story. By profession, I also carry the gift of seeing the living world in its wondrous and interconnecting details. To show you what I mean, let me take you back to a recent September morning, near my home on the temperate coast of British Columbia, Canada. I was out on the ocean in my kayak. It was a day off, and I was allowing my curiosity to chart its own course. I drifted towards an immature turkey vulture. The big black bird stood, immobile and stately, at the edge of the rocky shore. It stared past me, out towards the sea where the tide was beginning to run against a slight southerly wind, stacking water into steeper waves.
The vulture’s black head and face were smooth and iridescent. Its head — featherless to allow for plunging head-first into dead mammals’ body cavities to feed on entrails — reflected the morning light. My eyes and nose searched the rocks for signs of a dead seal or sea lion that might have attracted the bird. I found none. Yet the sheer act of looking made me wonder how scavengers, like this turkey vulture, might transport energy and nutrients between ecosystems.
My mind began to connect images that other ecologists had captured, through careful experiments, in their own drive to understand natural mysteries. Herring schools leaving hydrodynamic trails — the liquid equivalent of scent, expressed as subtle-yet-lingering turbulence in the water. Seals and sea lions immersed in the pitch-dark of night using their whiskers as sensors to follow those trails and feed on those herring.
Then I remembered that, a few years back and close to this spot, I had seen a massive California bull sea lion dead on the rocks, half a dozen vultures sticking their heads into its body. All of this made me wonder whether vultures feeding on dead seals and sea lions, and nesting on forested hills like the one behind my house, might fertilize through their feces upland trees and shrubs with nutrients that originated in herring. This idea, I realized, could be tested using stable isotopes — the same chemical technique that helped ecologists understand that bears fertilize the forest with the carcasses of salmon captured in streams and dragged into the bush.
The thought was exciting, and I really needed that. You see, the sea surface temperature that day was 21°C: unusually high for the season and an obvious symptom of climate change. By focusing on the natural history around me, I could focus on the pulsing, living planet that we still have, rather than on the pessimistic scenarios that hover in the shadows of many of my workdays.
Days in which reconnecting with the Earth boosts our motivation to keep going are not unusual in my own life and that of my colleagues. Such days keep us from going crazy as we grapple with climate change and the disruption of ecosystems caused by, yes, humans. Our lived experience confirms that bad news may be a part of modern ecology, but so are wonder and the possibility of good news. British entomologist Miriam Rothschild said it best: “For someone studying natural history, life can never be long enough.” That is as true today as it was millennia ago, when humans first learned that tracks on the ground told the stories of animals, that insects and birds pollinate the flowers that yield delicious fruits.