Tag Archives: Stephan Harding

Big Players

There’s a lot of talk about growing inequality, and often we’re confronted with the idea that this is all just natural. Shakespeare said it best, as usual. In Pericles:

Third Fisherman: Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.

First Fisherman: Why, as men do a-land; the great ones eat up the little ones; I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as to a whale; a’ plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at last devours them all at a mouthful.

Killer Whale, Matthew Allen (CC)
Killer Whale, Matthew Allen (CC)

Recently I read Bill McKibben’s review of Dark Money, the new book about the Koch brothers. It offers a sober view into the lives and deeds of men of incredible greed and selfishness; men with a totalising determination to treat the whole world – social, environmental, cultural – as a standing reserve which they and their billionaire cronies can devour or discard at will. They are completely unlike whales. Their impacts are disastrous. The Koch brothers are living proof that evil is indeed alive and well, and that it plays nauseating games with U.S. and world politics.

Here in Australia, too, we are enmeshed in systems in which big fish, the wealthy bullies, rise to the top. We are witnessing the abject failure of many key politicians to take action on the urgent environmental and social justice issues that matter for the future of life on Earth. And so I am all the more grateful for the strong moral leaders we do have. Phillip Adams hosted a great panel recently with three articulate, passionate men: Bob Brown, Julian Burnside and Kerry O’Brien. Bob Brown was for many years the leader of the Greens Party in Australia; while guiding one of the west’s first and most successful Greens parties, he became, and is today, an inspiration to the nation and the world. He is breath-takingly honest, and in this recent panel discussion he excoriated the system of powerful lobbyists, describing many current politicians as ‘venal, strong, aggressive people who do what the big money wants them to do’.

Marionettes, Priit Tammets (CC)
Marionettes, Priit Tammets (CC)

Big money, big players, big politics: it all seems to fit, and from a tooth-and-claw vision of the world around us, it could all seem perfectly natural. Recent studies in ecology tell quite a different story, though. Outside the toxic domain of human avarice, living beings are inter-entangled in fascinatingly functional ecological circuits.

Take wolves, for example. There is a perception that wolves and other top predators will have a detrimental impact on other species by the very fact of their food consumption. Recent research, however, is showing a far more interesting story of direct and indirect impacts that work their way through an ecosystem in flows (trophic cascades) that are extremely beneficial.

Wolf in Yellowstone, Oregon State University (CC)
Wolf in Yellowstone, Oregon State University (CC)

Top order predators like wolves are key ecological regulators. The effects of their predation are felt all through the system among other animals, plants, and even land forms. The most accessible study concerns wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Here the re-introduction of wolves impacted first to regulate numerous animal populations, including elk. As the elk were forced to move into marginal areas where they were less exposed to wolves, the river vegetation was able to regenerate. As erosion lessened, the rivers stabilised, and species like beavers and birds were able to return. Beavers are notable for altering river flow to produce a diversity of habitats that are beneficial to many species of mammals, fish, and birds. And so it went. The wolves were few in number; they regulate themselves as well as others, and the whole system was changed in the direction of greater functionality.

These top predators brought about trophic cascades of diversity and stability.

Yellowstone by HikrChick (CC)
Yellowstone by HikrChick (CC)

Top predators are keystone species: the term concerns relationality and connectivity. A keystone species is one with a greater impact on its ecological community than would be expected given its abundance. Across the deep time of ecological relations these impacts have become mostly beneficial. All top predators are keystone species, but not all keystone species are top predators. This is to say that there are many keystone species whose impacts are large, but who are not big charismatic carnivores like wolves or killer whales.

The wonderfully insightful scientist Stephan Harding explains: ‘You never know who the big players are in the wild world.’

Dung Beetle, by Camilo Hdo (CC)
Dung Beetle, by Camilo Hdo (CC)

Harding gives the example of dung beetles in the Amazon forest. These seemingly insignificant creatures are critically significant for the whole forest. Before, when there was greater functionality, they killed off parasites, buried seeds, and facilitated quick and efficient recycling of nutrients. In forest fragments, where the connectivities are coming apart, there is less dung because there are fewer animals. Less dung means fewer dung beetles (fewer in number and fewer in species). There have been extinctions, and the reasons include lack of good quality mates, lack of good quality habitat, and changing micro-climates. The result is that remaining forest fragments are losing their ecological health: more diseases, fewer nutrients, seeds unable to germinate. Harding concludes: ‘Seemingly insignificant, the dung beetles of the Amazon are major players in their ecological community.’ One loss leads to another, leading to more: this is the downward spiral, the loss of vitality, the extinction cascade. It  is happening all over the world.

Amazon forest by Dams999 (CC)
Amazon forest , Dams999 (CC)

Among the many lessons to be gained from thinking with dung beetles, consider this: to see any living being is to know that there is a story involving others, and that behind them are still more stories. To see the luminous beauty of a forest is to see the work of many others, including insects. Indeed, every vibrant living being and biotic community is enmeshed in looping, entangled benefits, in cascades of flowing life. From a keystone point of view, many big players may barely be visible in themselves, and are best seen through the lens of the wider community whose health tells of their activity.

Australians will soon be heading into a federal election, and the U.S. will have one next year. I would love to walk into the polling booth and cast my vote for dung beetles. I am, of course, attracted to the metaphorical dimension of this fantasy. There is an awful lot of shit in political life, more than enough for an army of insect removalists.

Dung beetle 'debate', Jochen Smolka (CC)
Dung beetle ‘debate’, Jochen Smolka (CC)

More seriously, though, I would vote for beetles because I would love to vote for forests. Indeed, each biotic community has its species and relationships: I would love to vote for the giant triton snails that eat the crown-of-thorns starfish that damage the Great Barrier Reef; I would love to vote for those great Australian regulators, the dingoes; really, I would love to vote in any and every way for the future of life on Earth. Good votes, like good ecological actions, are complex, as Aldo Leopold told us long ago: ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’

There are a lot of bullies who think they’re big players, and they are very good at what they do, which is to wreck things. They have packed huge amounts of destruction into a very short time frame. They are spatially expansive: the cascades of destruction go everywhere. And yet the truth of deep ecological time remains: the wild world is greater than politics, and the big keystone players are doing their best to keep Earth vibrant and dynamic. Long may they live!

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)


The quote from Pericles is found online (here).

Bill McKibben’s review of Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Meyer can be read online (here).

Philip Adams on Radio National, Late Night Live, ‘Advance Australia Where?’ (listen here).

The quote from Stephen Harding is in his article: ‘Gaia and Biodiversity’ in Gaia in Turmoil: Climate Change, Biodepletion, and Earth Ethics in an Age of Crisis. E. Crist and H. B. Rinker.

For more on top order predators, see the excellent article by Ripple and colleagues (view here). I discussed some of these issue in earlier essays relating to Australian dingoes, for example, ‘Partnership ‘Rewilding with Dingoes’ (visit here). The Yellowstone video, ‘How Wolves Change Rivers’, is terrific (view here). For more on dingoes as top predators, see the essay ‘Apologising to Dingoes’ (view here).

To watch a giant triton snail eating a crown-of-thorns starfish, view here.

Under The Mistletoe

Keystone species ‘punch above their weight’, to use a popular metaphor. They contribute more to their ecosystems than their numbers would indicate. Charismatic top predators such as wolves and dingoes are great examples of keystone species. They generate the trophic cascades that enhance whole systems of life including the geophysical foundations (discussed here). But as the fascinating ecologist Stephan Harding tells us:

‘You never know who the big players are in the wild world.’

Native mistletoe at Edeowie Station, by Michelle Bartsch (CC)
Native mistletoe at Edeowie Station, by Michelle Bartsch (CC)

To my mind one of the least likely ‘big players’ is mistletoe. Can a parasite actually be a keystone? Surprisingly, the answer is ‘yes’. Not only is mistletoe good for kissing, this great cohort is a ‘keystone resource’.

Let us enter the entrancing world of mistletoe through symbiotic mutualism. A relatively non-technical definition is ‘two or more species that live together to their mutual benefit’. Although the idea of symbiosis was not the dominant paradigm for much of the 20th century, a growing body of research is showing that it complements competition and is utterly fundamental to life on earth and is part of how every creature lives. The great biologist Lynn Margulis declares:

‘We are symbionts on a symbiotic planet.’

Mistletoe, it turns out, is a highly eclectic and inclusive symbiotic mutualist. One of the main families all around the world, and a prominent player in Australia, is Loranthaceae – a family of mistletoe with about 1,000 member species. Most of them are ‘obligate, stem hemiparasites’. This means that they can only live by being attached to another plant (obligate), that they attach to stems (not roots), and that while they get water and some nutrients from their host, they are also able to photosynthesise.

The story of mistletoe mutualisms is all about entanglements of interdependencies, nutrient cycles, and seductions. Loranthaceae are themselves deeply dependent. First there is dependence on the tree or shrub on which they grow. No host, no parasite. Next, there is dependence on birds and bees to pollinate. No pollination, no seeds, no future generations. Then there is dependence on birds, in particular, to eat the fruits and disperse the seeds. No dispersal, very little chance of germination and growth. And there is dependence on the leaf-eaters: no browsing means too much mistletoe growth leading to multiple deaths and disasters.

Brushtail possums, by David Cook (CC)
Brushtail possums, by David Cook (CC)

If mistletoes are to survive they have to entice and nourish their mutualists. The brightly coloured flowers are powerful attractors of pollinators, and the nectar is not only high in sugars, but also fats. Some of the Australian Loranthaceae produce nectar containing droplets of pure fat. The berries are highly visible, abundant and full of nutrition. Worldwide, many ‘folivores’ eat the nutritious leaves: deer, camels, rhinoceroses, gorillas and possums, amongst many others.

Their adaptive edge goes beyond mere provisioning and involves dazzling abundance.

The most awesome interdependence is between mistletoes and their mutualist mistletoe birds. ABC Science journalist Abbie Thomas wrote a delightful account:

Many mistletoes continue to flower in drought or during winter, when few other blossoms are available. Indeed, they are often the only local source of nectar and pollen during hard times. Packed with sugar and carbs, mistletoe fruits are good tucker, not just for the ubiquitous mistletoe bird, but also for cuckoo-shrikes, ravens, cockatoos, shrike-thrushes, woodswallows, bowerbirds, and even emus and cassowaries.

The mistletoe bird plays an important role in the mistletoe plant’s life cycle. The life of most mistletoes begins when a viscous, gluey seed drops onto a branch from the rear end of the brilliantly coloured black, red and white Mistletoe bird. Found throughout Australia, these birds are highly mobile and go wherever mistletoe is in fruit. Once eaten, the seed of the fruit quickly passes through the bird, emerging just 10-15 minutes later. The sticky seed fastens onto the branch, although many seeds fail to adhere, and are lost.

Within days, a tiny tendril emerges from the seed, growing quickly and secreting a cocktail of enzymes directly onto the corky outer protection of the branch. Unable to resist the onslaught, the bark yields a small ulcer-like hole into which the tendril probes, seeking its way down into the sappy tree tissue until it hits paydirt: the water and mineral-rich plumbing of the tree.’

Male mistletoe bird, by Leo (CC)
Male mistletoe bird, by Leo (CC)

Mutualisms are entanglements of interdependencies. The host tree supports its mistletoes physically and nutritionally, and it also buffers them against the vicissitudes of climate uncertainty. So, too, mistletoes support other species and provide a buffer against fluctuations and uncertainties. A study from Australia shows that mistletoes have extended nectar and seed producing periods, and that within a given region nectar and fruit are available from one or another mistletoe species all year round. In addition, as mistletoes are host to so many insect species, the insect-eating birds also get the benefit. Mammals join the feast, eating leaves, seeds and flowers. Possums are amongst the main leaf eaters, and are seasonally dependent on mistletoe.

Along with all the creatures who consume mistletoes, there is yet another entourage that benefits. Some animals build their nests in the mistletoe where they get some protection from the elements and predators. The action of the mistletoe itself increases hollows in trees, and so all the creatures that nest in hollows get the benefit. A further benefit is that their presence in trees alters the forest canopy and reduces the severity of bushfires.

In life systems, what goes around comes around. The host tree or shrub gets a steady rain of litter, droppings, and other organic matter that become part of the nutrient cycle, benefiting both the host and other plants in the area. In short, the benefits of mistletoes pass through the lives and bodies of many species before turning into nutrients to be drawn up by hosts and tapped into by mistletoes.

The relationships work because of the extravagant generosity of interdependence: highly nutritious nectar produced by bright showy flowers; shiny seeds loaded with carbs and sugars; mistletoe birds with their gorgeous red feathers, lovely song, and fertile poop; gliders and possums; butterflies who visit, eat, and reproduce.

Mistletoe (Amyema) flowers, by Bill and Mark Bell (CC)
Mistletoe (Amyema) flowers, by Bill and Mark Bell (CC)

There is an association between songbirds and mistletoe, and as new evidence is showing that both groups have their origins in ancient Gondwanaland, perhaps there is more to this old and beautiful alliance than is yet properly understood. I found myself totally captivated by a story shared by Andrew Skeoch, a sound recordist specialising in the sounds of nature. He recorded a mistletoe bird in full song, and inadvertently also recorded the fact that this talented little creature was singing and pooping at the same time. Something about this bright little bird creating and performing musically, while depositing mistletoe seeds securely wrapped in glue and fertiliser seems almost magical in its joyfulness (listen to the birdsong here).

It is good to recall that there is an old European history of respect. Mistletoe is sacred to Druids (contemporary and ancient), and it is still a customary Christmas decoration. Hung over the threshold, it invites people to kiss. In earlier days it was said to be able to find buried treasure, keep witches away and prevent trolls from souring milk! It would be good also to recall that Aboriginal Australians respect mistletoe as a food for humans and for many other creatures. In North Australia, where so much of my learning has taken place, people give berries to children, but adults avoid them. Perhaps they are aware that growing children have a particular need for the high nutritional value of mistletoe.

At this time, many people think mistletoe is a pest. The term ‘parasite’ conjures negative imagery, but the larger issue, at least in Australia, is that in some areas mistletoes are over-abundant. Trees are dying, and something has gone askew because mistletoe cannot thrive if the host dies. The renowned science writer Tim Low tells us that the loss of possums, those folivores who love their mistletoe, is a key. “Foxes, by preying on mistletoe-munching possums,” set up conditions where mistletoes can grow out of control. Possums are only prey to foxes when they come down out of the trees. Along roadsides and on farms, they are at risk. Within forests where they can remain up in the trees possums thrive and mistletoe is contained.

Ringtail possum, by Visible Procrastination (CC)
Ringtail possum, by Visible Procrastination (CC)

So, what would partnership rewilding be like if the focus were on mistletoes and their ‘ground up’ trophic dynamics?

First, it would involve fewer foxes and more possums. Here the answer is readily to hand in the form of the dingo. As I have been reporting in other essays, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that dingoes reduce the numbers of invasive species such as foxes and cats, and promote the viability of smaller native marsupials such as possums.

Second, it would involve on-going health and reproductive capacity of more extensive stands of trees. Here the answer is readily to hand in the form of flying-foxes. Their pollination is utterly crucial to the future of forests and woodlands in Australia, and their lives and livelihoods are central to partnership rewilding.

Third, it would involve changes in human thought and action. Not everyone thinks mistletoes are innate pests, but, as the great mistletoe scientist David Watson indicates, “pretty much all of the public’s perceptions about Mistletoe are fundamentally incorrect.” I want to be clear that Aboriginal people are not likely to hold these misperceptions. Here, as with other matters, the limitations of the mainstream public cannot readily be attributed to everyone. Having said that ~~

I want to set up camp, metaphorically at least, under the mistletoe. Here the kiss of life is sensuous, continuous, and diverse.

I hope others will join me, and I rather hope we won’t get pooped on! Let us open our lives to the great, complex, on-going, joyful, benefit-rich, exuberant and dazzling generosity that holds entangled interdependencies together. A camp in the midst of all these mutualisms is place of coming-forth for those whose flows of life and death are achieved together. These entangled partnerships have co-evolved over millions of years, and if the human newcomer can partner in with them, we may yet become part of ecosystems that will hold together in this time of flux and uncertainty.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

This is the third in a series of essays on partnership rewilding. The others include: Partnership Rewilding with Flying-Foxes, and Partnership Rewilding with Predators. 


Most of the scientific information in this essay is drawn from David Watson’s outstanding work. One of his main articles is free online: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2012/07/03/rspb.2012.0856.full

Another is not open access except for the abstract: http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.32.081501.114024

Abbie Thomas’s article is available online: http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2004/03/05/2044992.htm

Lynn Margulis’s book is Symbionic Planet (a New Look at Evolution).

The book by Tim Low mentioned in this essay is New Nature.

Information on dingoes as top predators is available in previous essays, and is the subject of a recent article by Arian Wallach, published in The Conversation. (read here)

My essay on flying-foxes and the kiss of life is not freely available online but I am happy to share copies if asked.