Friday, May 18, 2018

Views on Life

The origin of the word botany comes from the Greek word botane which means “grass” or “pasture.” Before plant scientists existed, the focus of botany was probably the need for herdsman to know which plants were safe for their animals to eat. Obviously, more important than that: what was safe for the herdsman and his family to eat.

A study was published recently in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and it was suggested that there could be 1 trillion species living on our planet, but that 99.999 percent remain undiscovered. To arrive at that estimate scientists combined datasets about animal, plant and microbial life from academic, government and citizen science sources. Many early estimates didn't take into account micro-organisms, and “microbial biodiversity, it appears, is greater than ever imagined,” according to study author Jay Lennon at Indiana University, Bloomington.

The Plant List, a collaboration between the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew and the Missouri Botanic Garden, contains 642 plant families and 17,020 plant genera and 350, 699 accepted species. There are over a million considered species – but not by the cognoscenti because many are fallible, such as with synonyms and other misunderstandings...but anyway, at least a third of a million accepted species – wow!

Part of the following paragraph is based on Gardening Know How by Bonnie L. Grant (August 6, 2014).

A study by France's National Drug Safety Agency found that 32% of French people were taking antidepressants, mood stabilizers or other psychotropic drugs. Then add on top of that a large number who use cannabis or alcohol or tobacco for more or less the same purpose, and you can conclude that the French are not a naturally happy people. Probably Americans aren't far behind either. Maybe we should all garden more, because scientists have found a positive link between soil microbes and human health. Did you know that there's a natural antidepressant in soil? Mycobacterium vaccae* is the substance under study and it has been found to mirror the effect on neurons that drugs like Prozac provide. The soil bacterium can stimulate serotonin production which makes you more relaxed and happier, and even cancer patients reported a better quality of life and less stress, all with no adverse health effects. The bacterium was tested both by injection and ingestion on rats and resulted in increased cognitive ability, lower stress and better concentration to tasks than a control group. So it's good for you to put your hands in the dirt, and all the better if you are planting a Buchholz tree, as that's what makes me happy.

*The specific name vaccae is from the Latin word for “cow” since it was first cultured from cow dung in Austria.

If you live to 70 you'll have lived 25,565 days – do the math but remember there's some leap days in there. “Have a nice day,” I'm often told, but you know, 25 thousand doesn't seem like so many, especially since I have mostly spent mine, so I had better have a nice day. You'll only get 3,640 weekends so spend some more time with the family. If you feel like you have an abundance of time, your 70 years consists of 2,208,816,000 (2.2 billion) seconds, so when somebody says , “Wait a second,” you can go ahead and oblige them because you have over 2 billion left...unless you're old like me. But remember, every second is a moment that will never happen again.

A new book by Richard Powers – The Overstory – was recently reviewed by Barbara Kingsolver in the New York Times Book Review, April 15, 2018. Her review begins:

Trees do most of the things you do, just more slowly. They compete for their livelihoods and take care of their families, sometimes making huge sacrifices for their children. They breathe, eat and have sex. They give gifts, communicate, learn, remember and record the important events of their lives. With relatives and non-kin alike they cooperate – to name one example – with rapid response networks to alert others to a threatening intruder. They manage their resources in bank accounts, using past market trends to predict future needs. They mine and farm the land, and sometimes move their families across great distances for better opportunities. Some of this might take centuries, but for a creature with a life span of hundreds or thousands of years, time must surely have a different feel about it.

I wonder what is the tree-thought or communication when I wander into a greenhouse. Are the trees equal souls or is one the head honcho? Is there a bully in the crowd or are they all meek? Do they all pull their weight or is there a welfare portion of the population, the slackers, that the industrious trees must support? Do they appreciate my efforts to help them thrive, or do they breathe a sigh of relief when I leave? – “Good, the son of a bitch is gone!”

Theophrastus (371-287 BC) was a student of Aristotle, but in many respects he was his equal. Theo was a philosopher, physicist, biologist and botanist, and as the latter he systematized the botanical world with his Enquiry into Plants and On the Causes of Plants. For these accomplishments he is considered the Father of Botany. Yes, way before Linnaeus...but I do like the adage, “God created, Linnaeus organized.

Theo was motivated to study how plants could be put to various uses, and especially to identify and understand the unknown plants of the wilderness. The encyclopedic Enquiry Into Plants was originally ten books, nine which survive. The first book is concerned with plant parts; the second with plant reproduction; the third, fourth and fifth are devoted to trees and their practical applications; the sixth with shrubs and spiny plants; the seventh with herbs; the eighth with plants that produce edible seeds; and the ninth with plants that produce useful juices, resins etc. Reprints of these books are readily available but they are very, very dry.

Theo travelled throughout Greece to study plants* and he kept his own botanical garden. He was born on the island of Lesbos and later spent a few brilliant years there with Aristotle. His original name was Tyrtamus, but Aristotle nicknamed him Theophrastus which described the “grace of his divine conversation.” Aristotle in his will made him guardian of his children, left him all of his library and named him successor at the Lyceum in Athens.

Paeonia obovatum

*You will recognize some of the plants he named, such as krokos, iris, skilla, elleboros, narkissos, paeonia, aspharagos and anemone.

Theophrastus's plant assumptions weren't always correct, but I would have loved to spend a day with him, to have walked down the Lyceum path with him in our togas and sandals. It would have been fascinating to see the world through his eyes, whether or not science bears him out today. Nearly at the end of his life (85 years) he said, “We die just when we are beginning to live.”

Giaus villosus

A couple of hundred years ago a British scientist estimated that the weight of all spiders in Britain was greater than that of all British humans. More recently, in a report originally published in the Washington Post, experts said the weight of all food eaten by the world's entire spider population in a year is more than the combined weight of every human on the planet. Read that again slowly, because spiders theoretically could eat every human on Earth in one year. Recently, the world's oldest known spider died at age 43, a female “trapdoor arachnid” (Giaus villosus) from Australia. Sadly the creature didn't die of natural causes (say, old age), but rather succumbed to a parasitic wasp attack.

Coffea arabica

Cultivated coffee exists because it is meant to exist, Mesfin had said in Kombo, south of Bonga [in Ethiopia]. “Plantation trees are bred, planted and trained to produce. They are expected to do so.”

“Not so these gangly wild ancestors [referring to nature's original coffee plants]. A coffee tree is here because it won the space. More than one seed fell in the same place, and many other plants want the nutrients of the humus beneath it, the water, and those flickers of precious sunlight that pierce the overhead canopy. It exists not just to exist but to survive, Mesfin said. Or because it has survived. This is one reason why wild trees produce so little. Heavy bearing weakens a tree, and resources go into fending off diseases, pests, and beating competition – into simply surviving.”

A trio of theories explain why caffeine evolved in coffee (and other plants), and all three may be correct. The first is that the caffeine, which accumulates in the leaves, acts as a natural pesticide that repels insects and deters herbivores. Second, when the leaves fall to the ground, the caffeine leaches into the soil and contaminates it, limiting, stunting, or even killing off competing species. And third, the caffeine-laden nectar might encourage pollinators to return and spread the pollen, diversifying the species even further. Perhaps remembering the buzz, they keep coming back for more – just like people.

From Where the Wild Coffee Grows by Jeff Koehler (2017).

For a long time, the knock on birds was that they're stupid. Beady eyed and nut brained. Reptiles with wings. Pigeon heads. Turkeys. They fly into windows, peck at their reflections, buzz into power lines, blunder into extinction.

Our language reflects our disrespect. Something worthless or unappealing is “for the birds.” An ineffectual politician is a “lame duck.” To “lay an egg” is to flub a performance.. To be “henpecked” is to be harassed with persistent nagging. “Eating crow” is eating humble pie. The expression “bird brain,” for a stupid or foolish or scatterbrained person, entered the English language in the early 1920's because people thought of birds as mere flying, pecking automatons, with brains so small they had no capacity for thought at all.

That view is gone goose. In the past two decades or so, from fields and laboratories around the world have flowed examples of bird species capable of mental feats comparable to those found in primates. There's a kind of bird that creates colorful designs out of berries, bits of glass, and blossoms to attract females, and another that hides up to 33 thousand seeds scattered over dozens of square miles and remembers where it put them months later. There's a species that solves a classic puzzle at nearly the same pace as a five-year-old child, and one that's an expert at picking locks. There are birds that can count and do simple math, make their own tools, move to the beat of music*, comprehend basic principles of physics, remember the past, and plan for the future.

From The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman (2016).

*Indeed, at my daughter's ballet studio a sparrow sits at the open window and bops to the piano music. The girls have even taken a video of it.

The hippopotamus is the closest living relative to whales, but they are not the ancestors of whales. While hippos are large and aquatic, as are whales, both groups evolved from smaller non-aquatic animals, and both ancestors were terrestrial. In other words, whale ancestors originated in the ocean and then occupied land before returning to the ocean. The meaning of hippopotamus is Greek for “river horse.” The word whale is derived from Old High German hwal, and that (perhaps) from Latin squalus for a “large sea fish.”

The sperm whale has the largest brain of all living animals, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it is the most intelligent. Both whales and dolphins are cetaceans and they are known as being highly intelligent, but to rank them versus us would require complete agreement on how to define smarts.

Researchers at Michigan State University compared cetacean communication with that of primates, and found that the former is more advanced. The c's primary “sense” is the same as their primary means of communication. With primates, the primary “sense” is visual and the primary means of communication is auditory. In other words, a dolphin can convey the image of a fish to another dolphin. If a human says “fish” to another human, both picture a fish in their minds. The cetacean skips this step and simply projects the fish image to other cetaceans. Besides, the whales-dolphins are capable of conveying and receiving 20 times the amount of information as we can with our hearing.

The limbic system in mammals is a combination of structures in the brain that deals with emotions and the formation of memories. That of the whales is so large that it is also found protruding into the cortex, and that might create a mixture of both emotional and cognitive thinking. Cetaceans with their spindle-neuron cells might be more advanced than us with the ability to recognize, remember, reason, communicate, perceive, adapt to change, problem solve and understand. The above is a summation from

I – for one – am pleased if humans are not the sharpest crayons in the box. Actually it's comforting, especially when you consider the incredible stupidity often displayed by mankind. The more we learn about cetaceans the better chance we have to elevate our own existence.

Maybe in the future I won't write blogs. Perhaps I can find a whale with time on his, flippers, and he/she can “project” the blog to you.

No comments:

Post a Comment