WALKING MY DOG ONE NIGHT last fall, I glanced up into a sprawling maple tree to see the bright eyes of several raccoons reflected in my headlamp. As I pulled into a parking lot a few days later, I watched a half-dozen deer graze a suburban lawn. On the outskirts of town, I’ve seen coyotes stalk a blue heron in a pasture. I hear rumors of bobcats and cougars in the hills.
Despite the fact that we’ve carved up the landscape with roads, house lots and plowed fields, these and other animals remind us that we’re part of a diverse community. If you take the long view, we’re all related. Science writer Elizabeth Kolbert, who spoke at Oregon State in February, reminds us in her book, The Sixth Extinction, that our distant ancestors squeezed through cataclysms that wiped out many of the most successful species on the planet. Notwithstanding raccoons, coyotes and deer, we appear to be in the midst of another one.
If you doubt it, look to the oceans. In the animal kingdom, corals might be only remotely related to humans, but through geologic time, animals in the order Scleractinia have survived drastic alterations in ocean habitats. Scientists have traced their direct ancestors back about 237 million years to a time known as the Triassic.
Our understanding of corals’ future revolves around several issues. How do corals interact with the microorganisms in the reefs? Are hard skeletons and reefs even necessary for corals to live? In a warming world, ocean acidification may make it difficult or impossible for corals to build these structures.
Oregon State marine biologist Rebecca Vega-Thurber and her colleagues (“Reefs Under Siege”) are studying these and other questions. They are working to understand what these remarkable creatures need to survive the changes that are coming as surely as the next wave.
The prospects for animals on land look similarly dire. Bill Ripple and his colleagues at Oregon State and around the world have conducted reviews of the global status of large animals — charismatic carnivores and their prey. They conclude that habitat loss and hunting are threatening many species, particularly in developing countries. Effective solutions are needed to allow humans and animals to coexist.
The wildlife in our yards and neighborhoods may please or sometimes annoy us, but they connect us to a web of life that appears to be unraveling before our eyes. For many in the scientific community, learning about them and their cousins on land and at sea is driven by the desire to save them — and us.
Nick Houtman, Editor