Bobbi and I are on holiday down on St. George Island Florida (we love the redneck Riviera) and my brain is definitely on ‘island time,” so I’ve decided to keep this blog post short and just for the heck of it to share a couple of interesting vignettes illustrating how seemingly small or insignificant events can have enormous impact.
I’ll begin today’s post by citing the old proverb “For Want of a Nail” which is an aphorism of sorts having numerous variations that remind us how seemingly unimportant acts or omissions can have unexpected consequences.
Depending upon the version, the old saw goes something like this, “For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe, the horse was lost, for want of a horse, the rider was lost, for want of a rider, the battle was lost, for want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”
One of the reasons For Want of a Nail is truly classic is because throughout history small deviations in the actions of individuals have sparked unstoppable chains of events that have had effects (both good and bad) that go far beyond what even the most fecund writers, scientists or historians could have imagined.
The first event I’ll write about ended in tragedy and occurred when Titanic was preparing to sail on its fateful voyage. We all know about the disaster of the Titanic, but I’ll bet you didn’t know one of the more interesting details of that fateful voyage.
Prior to setting sail on its ill-fated voyage, a man named David Blair was scheduled to be the ship’s second officer. But at the last minute the official in charge of billeting at the White Star Line decided the ship needed a more experienced second officer so he discharged Blair from his duties and replaced him with a man named Charles Lightroller.
Lightroller was the more experienced of the two but unfortunately, Blair, the officer originally slated for that billet, was a bit hasty in turning the job over to his replacement and neglected to give Lightoller the key to the crow’s nest locker that contained the ‘watch binoculars’ the crew should have been using to search for icebergs the night of the disaster.
What transpired that night we’ll never know for obvious reasons, and yes, this is a true story that you’ll likely never read about in the history books. Obviously, we can only speculate if a missing key was the real cause of one of the most infamous sea disasters in history, but who could deny there may have been a very different outcome if a crewman armed with a powerful set of binoculars was on watch that night. As an aside, years later, that crow’s-nest locker key brought L90,000 (pounds) at auction.
~ The Miracle of Trophic Cascade ~
But not all such relatively insignificant events result in disaster, and what follows is an account of a truly serendipitous event that occurred nearly 30 years ago, and its impact on Yellowstone National Park has been nothing short of miraculous. I wrote about this in a Vail Daily commentary back in 2014, but a friend’s recent trip to the park where he got some great photographs of wolves compelled me to blog on this topic today. So, instead of defining trophic cascade I’m going to illustrate its power with the following.
Men began hunting wolves in Yellowstone National Park in the early 1900s and by 1926 the grey wolf had ceased to exist there (as well as in many other areas throughout the U.S.) Then, in 1995, wolves were reintroduced into the park and amazing things began to occur.
At the time wolves were reintroduced, deer and elk were overrunning Yellowstone and the abundance of these ungulates was causing much of the park to be over-grazed and vegetation was beginning to disappear.
But soon after their reintroduction these predators the deer and elk herds began to thin. And as a matter of survival, these Cervidae began avoiding certain parts of the park, especially the valleys and gorges where they could be trapped by the wolves most easily. Before long the areas where the deer and elk abandoned began to rejuvenate and in some areas the number of trees quintupled. By the early 2000s spaces that had been barren for decades began to grow willow and aspen forests.
As the forests spread, migratory birds and songbirds began to increase. The beaver population also grew larger, as these semi-aquatic rodents not only ate these new trees but also cut many of those trees down. Beavers are the engineers of the animal world and the dams the beavers built created habitat for muskrat, otters, ducks, fish, reptiles, and other amphibians.
The wolves also killed coyotes, which meant the number of rabbits and mice began to increase, which created food for hawks, weasels, foxes, and badgers. Additionally, bears, eagles and ravens began eating the carrion from the wolf pack kills. The bear population further benefitted due to the nutrient-rich berries on the park’s regenerated shrubs.
The regenerating forests also meant less erosion, which stabilized the banks of the rivers, which then became more fixed in their course, which further resulted in permanent pools of water that in turn created even more habitat for wildlife. In essence, the reintroduction of wolves changed not just the eco system but also the physical geography of Yellowstone.
We can all learn valuable lessons from Yellowstone. A hundred years ago some rancher said, “Wolves kill livestock and must eliminated” and a series of deleterious unintended consequences was set into motion. Fortunately, sometimes we get a chance to redress our miscalculations.
To be continued…
Quote of the day: “Only the wisest and stupidest of men never change”—Confucius