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Furbish Louseworts, Turtleheads, and Canaries in Coal Mines

Bill Meredith

"To be a naturalist is not just an activity but an honorable state of mind."
…E. O. Wilson, Creation.

A friend recently brought me a book she had got from the library, saying "You will like this." People say that to me fairly often, and it usually makes me shudder, but this time it was correct. The book is called Creation, and the author, E. O. Wilson, is one of my favorites. He is an ecologist, and has devoted much of his time since retiring from Harvard University to educating the public about the need to preserve biodiversity in the world.

As the human population spread across America in the nineteenth century, populations of previously abundant species like bison, passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets declined precipitously, many of them becoming nearly or completely extinct. Popular writers like John Muir, John Burroughs and Ernest Seton captured the attention of Theodore Roosevelt, who used his "bully pulpit" to make the nation aware of the problem. But the Great Depression, sandwiched between two World Wars, pushed it out of the public mind, and by the 1960s a crisis was developing as pollution from detergents, pesticides and industrial wastes began to cause numerous animal populations to decline. Rachel Carson (whose 100th birthday will be celebrated in May) recaptured the imagination of the public with her book, Silent Spring, in 1963; that book, more than any other single influence, developed the public awareness that led to the enactment of environmental legislation in the early ‘70s.

Unnoticed by the public, about the same time as Silent Spring, an ecologist named Ramon Margalev published a paper that established what biologists came to call Complexity Theory. It certainly was complex; its mathematical arguments were difficult to apply in those days before computers were widely available. But the gist of it was that ecosystems are most stable when they are complex, i.e., when they contain large numbers of plant and animal species. Reducing the number of species by habitat destruction or by introducing diseases and alien species causes ecosystems to become less stable, and eventually to collapse. The complexity model provided the evidence ecologists had been seeking to show that extinction is not just an emotional issue; having the widest possible variety of species, which we now call biodiversity, is essential to the health of the natural world.

I quickly included the complexity model in my courses. The science majors who took my Ecology course had already taken some math and chemistry, so they easily grasped the evidence that biodiversity is important. But I also taught a required course in biology for non-science students, who had been conditioned to believe science was boring and too hard for them to understand, so special effort and motivation were needed to capture their interest. I had a bulletin board by my office where I posted various notices, and right beside the list of exam grades, which always got their attention, I kept a running series of cartoons and trivia, the more offbeat the better. Among the latter was the "Creature of the Month." Usually this was an animal of some kind… a photograph of a striking bird, or a new fossil discovery… but sometimes it was something fanciful like the invisible catfish (illustrated by a blank sheet of paper) or a weird subatomic particle like the gluon. The "creature" that solved the problem of teaching about biodiversity was the Furbish Lousewort, which appeared in the headlines in 1977.

Strange as it may seem, there actually is a plant called the Furbish Lousewort. It exists only along the St. John’s River in Maine, where it was discovered in 1882 by a naturalist named Kate Furbish. "Wort" is an Old English word for "plant;" the "louse" part was attached because it was once believed that potions made from such plants would repel lice. The lousewort had lived along its riverbank in quiet obscurity since the Ice Age, but in the mid 1970’s it was placed on the Endangered Species list when money was appropriated by Congress to build a dam there. It later came to light that the dam was a porkbarrel project and would not have been economically feasable; but by that time its un-euphonious name had made the unhappy lousewort a poster child for anti-environmental groups. Nevertheless, it induced my students to think about biodiversity.

When I was walking to the library to return Wilson’s Creation book, a young lady stopped me (that rarely happens except in dreams) and asked if I was the "Retired Ecologist." She had heard that a flower called a turtlehead, which is the only food of an endangered species of butterfly, had been found near Rainbow Lake; and she wanted to know if there are other endangered species around here. I mentioned a few obvious ones, but the question brought out one of the main points of Wilson’s book. We do not know enough about what species live here.

Wilson uses the mnemonic, HIPPO, to recall the causes of extinction. These causes are: H, habitat loss; I, invasive species; P, pollution; P, population growth of humans; and O, overharvesting. All of these are local problems. Housing developments are pushing steadily into areas that were formerly fields, mountain forests and even floodplains. Invasive species have destroyed the American Chestnut, once our most common tree, and the Elms that lined Main Street when I moved here. Local streams are contaminated by sewage spills and agricultural wastes. The Dispatch pointed out in its last issue that the population of Emmitsburg may double in the next 30 years. Tree species suitable for lumber are being harvested far faster than they can grow back. The list could go on, but the point is made. Biodiversity is being lost.

In spite of the impact of all these problems, our local ecosystem is still amazingly complex. Biologists and naturalists have been cataloging the large and economically important species of plants and animals for centuries now, yet we still know remarkably little about the smaller, less conspicuous species that provide the complexity, and thereby the stability, of our natural environment. Besides becoming more aware of biodiversity ourselves, we need to educate our children about the natural world; it is endlessly fascinating and often beautiful, but more important, it is the canary in the coalmine we live in. Knowing it is there and protecting it may be our best hope for surviving the coming century.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith