Nev. — Five mustangs pounded across the high desert recently, their dark manes
and tails giving shape to the wind. Pursued by a helicopter, they ran into a
corral — and into the center of the emotional debate over whether euthanasia
should be used to thin a captive herd that already numbers 30,000.
The champions of wild mustangs have long portrayed them as the victims of
ranchers who preferred cattle on the range, middlemen who wanted to make a buck
selling them for horsemeat and misfits who shot them for sport. But the wild
horse today is no longer automatically considered deserving of extensive
Some environmentalists and scientists have come to see the mustangs, which run
wild from Montana to California, as top-of-the-food-chain bullies, invaders
whose hooves and teeth disturb the habitats of endangered tortoises and desert
Even the language has shifted. In a 2006 article in Audubon magazine, wild
horses lost their poetry and were reduced to “feral equids.”
“There’s not just horses out there, there’s other critters, from the desert
turtle in the south to the bighorn sheep in the north,” said Paula Morin, the
author of the book “Honest Horses.”
“We’ve come a long way in our awareness of the web of life and maintaining the
whole ecology,” Ms. Morin said, adding, “We do the horses a disservice when we
set them apart.”
Environmentalists’ attitudes toward the horses have evolved so far that some are
willing to say what was heresy a few years ago: that euthanasia is acceptable if
the alternatives are boarding the mustangs for life at taxpayers’ expense or
leaving them to overpopulate, damage the range and die of hunger or thirst.
The federal Bureau of Land Management, the legal custodian of the wild horses
and burros, recently proposed euthanization. For years, the bureau has been
running the Adopt-A-Horse program, selling mustangs from the range to those who
would care for them. But 30,000 once-wild horses were never adopted and are
being boarded by the agency at facilities in Kansas and Oklahoma (another 33,000
run wild). As feed and gas grow more expensive, the rate of adoptions plummets.
Boarding costs ran to $21 million last year and are expected to reach $26
million this year, out of a $37 million budget for the bureau’s Wild Horse and
Burro Program, which is intended to protect the animals. And drought lingers
here in northern Nevada, where the mustangs were rounded up on a recent weekend
morning to prevent them from starving.
The bureau “can’t do a good job of taking care of horses on the range if they
have to take care of all the horses off the range,” said Nathaniel Messer, a
professor of veterinary science at the University of Missouri and a former
member of the federal Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Committee.
Steven L. Davis, an emeritus professor of animal science at Oregon State
University, said: “Many of the wild horse supporters claim that the horses have
a right to be there. I reject that argument.” He added: “They damage the water
holes. They damage the grasses, the shrubs, the bushes, causing negative
consequences for all the other plants and critters that live out there.”
For groups formed to protect the horses, the specter of euthanasia as a solution
remains anathema. “It’s not acceptable to the American public,” said Virginie L.
Parant, a lawyer who is the director of the American Wild Horse Preservation
The mustang, Ms. Parant said, “is part of the American myth. People want to know
that they can come to the American West and know that they can see herds of wild
horses roaming. It’s part of the imagery.”
As mustangs increasingly competed with cattle in the 1940s and 50s, many were
rounded up and slaughtered. They found a champion in Velma Johnston, better
known as Wild Horse Annie, who pushed Congress to act. In 1971, Congress gave
the federal bureau the job of caring for them.
Shelley Sawhook, the president of the American Horse Defense Fund, argues, along
with other horse defenders, that the federal government “mismanaged the program
from the very beginning.” She added that “their proposal to euthanize is a
stopgap measure” to cover what she believes is an overly aggressive policy of
removing horses from the range for the benefit of cattle interests.
Accusations of mismanagement have dogged the bureau across Democratic and
Republican administrations; a decade ago The Associated Press found that a few
agency employees were adopting mustangs themselves and selling them to
slaughterhouses. In the wake of lawsuits by the Fund for Animals and other
groups, the bureau required anyone adopting a mustang to sign a binding pledge
not to send it to a slaughterhouse. In 2001, the Earth Liberation Front took
credit for the firebombing of an agency hay barn on the Nevada-California
Today, the fundamental rift between the bureau and its critics involves two
judgment calls: how many horses can a range of 29 million acres support, and how
should that level be maintained?
Arlan Hiner, an assistant field manager for the bureau in Nevada, said, “We’re
supposed to be managing for ecological balance.” Over all, the bureau wants to
cut the wild herd by about 6,000 horses. Ted Williams, the author of the Audubon
article, argued that without euthanasia such a balance would be impossible.
Mr. Williams’s article infuriated the mustang advocates even more than the
agency’s proposal to resume euthanasia. Ms. Parant laughs at the idea of
attributing the range destruction to horses when cattle greatly outnumber them.
Jay F. Kirkpatrick, a scientist who is the director of the Science and
Conservation Center in Billings, Mont., wrote in a rebuttal to the Audubon
article that Mr. Williams had not given sufficient weight to birth control
options, which could make “serious inroads” on horse populations.
“The issue is not that the technology doesn’t exist, but that the B.L.M. is not
investing in it,” Professor Kirkpatrick wrote.
Herd sizes, the bureau says, double every four years. And the agency is working
with a contraceptive that is largely effective for two years in mares. Alan
Shepherd, the official who helps run the contraceptive program, said that it
showed promise but had limitations.
“The ultimate thing is you can’t catch them all,” Mr. Shepherd said.
The horses that came rushing into the corral ahead of the helicopter were taken
to a holding facility and will eventually find their way into the Adopt-A-Horse
The bureau said it would be premature to discuss the criteria for culling horses
or the means of euthanasia. Longtime observers believe that older, unadoptable
horses would be the focus of such a program. And in past mustang-thinning
operations at holding facilities, marksmen shot the horses, said Dr. Messer of
After Representative Nick J. Rahall II, Democrat of West Virginia and chairman
of the House Natural Resources Committee, raised questions this month about the
euthanasia proposal, the bureau agreed to make no decision until after
completion of a Congressional audit of the program, which is due in September.
— A colony that contains nearly half of the black-footed ferrets in the country
and which biologists say is critical to the long-term health of the species has
been struck by plague, which may have killed a third of the 300 animals.
A much-publicized endangered species in the 1970s that had dwindled to 18
animals, the black-footed ferret had struggled to make a comeback and had been
doing relatively well for decades. But plague, always a threat to the ferrets
and their main prey, prairie dogs, has struck with a vengeance this year, partly
because of the wet spring.
The ferrets are an easy target for the bacteria. “They are exquisitely sensitive
to the plague,” said Travis Livieri, a wildlife biologist here who is trying to
save the colony. “They don’t just get sick, they die. No ifs, ands or buts.”
Humans can catch plague, but it is easily treated with antibiotics.
Mr. Livieri is working with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service’s black-footed
ferret recovery team, the Forest Service and some volunteers to try to save the
colony at Conata Basin by dusting prairie dog burrows with flea powder that
kills the plague-carrying insects. Mr. Livieri is also working on a vaccination
program, prowling the prairie all night to capture ferrets for injections.
But the fight is not only against the plague. While the federal Forest Service
is part of the effort to protect ferrets, it has also, at the request of area
ranchers, poisoned several thousands of acres of prairie dogs on the edge of the
Conata Basin, a buffer strip of federal land adjacent to private grazing land.
The buffer strip does not have ferrets, but it is good ferret habitat, experts
say, and if they were to spread there it could help support the recovery.
But prairie dogs eat grass, and a large village can denude grazing land. The
rodent, in fact, has long been detested in the West as a pest.
Of even more concern to biologists and environmentalists, though, is a Forest
Service study of an expanded effort to kill prairie dogs in ferret habitat,
which biologists say could be devastating to the restoration of the ferrets.
J. Michael Lockhart, the former director of the recovery effort for the Fish and
Wildlife Service, retired in January in part to protest the poisoning of prairie
dogs, believing that could jeopardize the fragile gains of the ferret. “I think
it’s insane,” said Mr. Lockhart, now a wildlife consultant. “Those sites are so
important. They need to preserve as much of that habitat as they can.”
A decision by the Forest Service on whether to poison prairie dogs on land that
has no ferrets, but is suitable habitat for them, is due out soon. A decision on
whether to poison prairie dogs in ferret habitat is being delayed, said the
under secretary of agriculture, Mark Rey, to see how the spread of the plague
plays out. “We’ll see how big it is, how far it is likely to spread and how many
prairie dogs we have left as it runs its course,” Mr. Rey said. “Prudence
dictates we collect this information.”
But Mr. Rey said that to not deal with prairie dogs could hurt the program.
“Prairie dogs are spreading off federal land to private land,” he said. “And our
goal is to keep the black-footed ferret program with broad public support, and
one way to do that is to make sure prairie dogs don’t spread onto private land.”
Black-tailed prairie dogs, food for numerous prairie predators, may be
threatened themselves. A few years ago the Fish and Wildlife Service, in
response to a petition, decided they were warranted for listing as a protected
species, but precluded because of higher priorities. That designation was later
changed and is now being reconsidered.
For now, though, efforts are focused on stopping the disease.
Losing this population to the plague would be a blow for the entire ferret
recovery program and personally heartbreaking, said Mr. Livieri, who has worked
for 13 years to restore this population south of Badlands National Park. He
started with the National Park Service, then worked for the Forest Service and
now cobbles together financing for his own nonprofit organization, Prairie
Until now this was the most robust population of ferrets, so healthy it provided
wild kits for other recovery efforts in Colorado, Montana, Utah, Mexico and
elsewhere. “Last year 52 ferrets came out of here to supplement or start new
populations,” Mr. Livieri said.
Most of those populations have struggled with plague and other problems. One
population, near Shirley Basin, Wyo. — where the 18 surviving ferrets were found
— has struggled with plague but now may have close to the number of ferrets
here. There are thought to be about 1,300 ferrets extant, 1,000 or so in the
wild and 300 in captivity.
Plague thrives in wet years, and this has been one of the wettest in the region
in years. A combination of insecticide and vaccines can be very effective, said
Dr. Dean Biggins, a research biologist with the United States Geological Survey,
who has studied plague and ferrets. He said he had seen a plague outbreak hit a
line of dusted burrows and stop cold. “There’s no question they can be
protected,” he said. “It’s not whether we can do it, but are we willing because
of cost and labor? It might have to be done every year or two.”
For now, the race is on to protect the heart of the ferret population. Mr.
Livieri, often working by himself, drives from his home in Wellington, Colo.,
six hours away, and spends a week or two at a time scouring the prairie all
night in hopes of injecting all of the ferrets.
Treating ferrets, though, is only half of the equation. Enough prairie dogs need
to survive the plague to keep the ferrets from starving to death. One ferret
eats 125 to 150 prairie dogs a year.
The landscape is pockmarked with burrows. Some have been marked with a streak of
white dust to kill fleas, and then pinned with a small orange flag. Ferrets
dwell in the prairie dog burrows among their prey, kill the prairie dogs at
night and devour them underground.
On a recent night, glowing eyes were common, but not the right kind. At around 2
a.m., Mr. Livieri and others see their first shining ferret eyes. Mr. Livieri
turns his truck and rumbles quickly to the burrow, and a tiny masked ferret
peers up at him. He places a long slender trap in the hole and drives away. The
ferret, which turns out to be a young female, crawls into it.
Mr. Livieri returns, and the trap is removed. Briskly, to minimize handling,
plague vaccine is injected into the animal’s rump, hair dye is swabbed on her
neck to indicate she has received her first injection, she is sprayed with flea
spray and released into her hole. She turns and looks back up at her captor.
This is the 30th ferret of the estimated 150 that remain here that need to be
captured and treated. Each animal must be caught a second time for a booster.
“You feel helpless when a disease like this comes in and threatens everything
you worked for,” Mr. Livieri said. “That’s why I am going to be out here
spotlighting, doing what I can.”
years since Darwin made one of the the most significant breakthroughs in
scientific history - the theory of natural selection. But if it hadn't been for
a young ornithologist on the other side of the world, his seminal work might
never have appeared. Robin McKie tells the extraordinary story behind The Origin
This article appeared in the Observer
on Sunday June 22 2008
on p6 of the
Features and reviews section.
It was last updated at 01:59 on June 22 2008.
1858, on Ternate in Malaysia, a young specimen collector was tracking the
island's elusive birds of paradise when he was struck by malaria. 'Every day,
during the cold and succeeding hot fits, I had to lie down during which time I
had nothing to do but to think over any subjects then particularly interesting
me,' he later recalled.
Thoughts of money or women might have filled lesser heads. Alfred Russel Wallace
was made of different stuff, however. He began thinking about disease and
famine; about how they kept human populations in check; and about recent
discoveries indicating that the earth's age was vast. How might these waves of
death, repeated over aeons, influence the make-up of different species, he
Then the fever subsided - and inspiration struck. Fittest variations will
survive longest and will eventually evolve into new species, he realised. Thus
the theory of natural selection appeared, fever-like, in the mind of one of our
greatest naturalists. Wallace wrote up his ideas and sent them to Charles
Darwin, already a naturalist of some reputation. His paper arrived on 18 June,
1858 - 150 years ago last week - at Darwin's estate in Downe, in Kent.
Darwin, in his own words, was 'smashed'. For two decades he had been working on
the same idea and now someone else might get the credit for what was later to be
described, by palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, as 'the greatest ideological
revolution in the history of science' or in the words of Richard Dawkins, 'the
most important idea to occur to a human mind.' In anguish Darwin wrote to his
friends, the botanist Joseph Hooker and the geologist Charles Lyell. What
followed has become the stuff of scientific legend.
In order to preserve Darwin's claim on natural selection Hooker and Lyell
arranged for a joint reading of both men's works at the Linnean Society in
Burlington House, Piccadilly. On 1 July in a room that is now part of the Royal
Academy, society members were summoned to hear the news of a theory that has
gone on to cause more offence and trouble to our species than any other in our
history. Exactly 150 years ago next week, a notion, more radical even than
Marx's, was set loose on the world - though it certainly did not seem that way
at the time.
For a start, Darwin and Wallace did not give eloquent lectures to a cheering
mass of Linnean Society members who realised God was dead, as is often
suggested. Neither scientist was present: Wallace was still in Malaysia while
Darwin was at home grieving with his wife, Emma, over the death, on 28 June from
scarlet fever, of their 19-month-old son, Charles.
Then there was the audience. It was made up of gentleman amateurs. For several
hours they were bombarded with items of society business followed by readings of
Darwin and Wallace's notebooks, papers and letters. At the end, members walked
out 'not so much stunned by new ideas as overwhelmed by the amount of
information loaded upon on them,' said historian JWT Moody in a 1986 study of
the meeting. Bored silence greeted the news that humanity had been deposed from
the centre of creation.
Months later, the intellectual penny had still not dropped. The Linnean
society's president Thomas Bell, writing in his review of 1858, concluded the
year had not been marked by 'any of those striking discoveries which at once
revolutionise the department of science' - presumably, the dethroning of God
being insufficiently revolutionary for his liking.
Nevertheless the fuse had been lit. 'Wallace's letter gave Darwin a good kick up
the backside,' says the geneticist Steve Jones. 'He had prevaricated for 20
years and would have done so for another 20 if he hadn't realised someone else
was on the trail.' The summer of 1858 changed everything for Darwin. Although by
no means an arrogant man, he knew his worth. He was already a Royal Society Gold
Medal winner and was not going to be robbed by a whippersnapper specimen
collector in Malaysia. So he sat down, with a board across his knee, on the only
chair in his house that could accommodate his long legs, and wrote up the
research he had been carrying out for the past 20 years.
The end result was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, whose
150th anniversary will be celebrated next year along with the 200th anniversary
of Darwin's birth. Remarkably, it is the only major scientific treatise to have
been written, deliberately, as a piece of popular writing, a book whose
interlacing story lines have been compared with those of George Eliot or Charles
Dickens and which is peppered with richly inventive metaphor. 'Darwin was
creating a lasting work of art,' as Darwin's biographer Janet Browne puts it.
This praise is echoed by Dawkins whose Channel 4 series Dawkins on Darwin will
be screened this August. 'When you read The Origin of Species, you get a real
feeling that Darwin was very keen to be understood. He did not want merely to
persuade fellow scientists, he wanted to show to the public the truth of his
ideas. He took great pains with it, which is why it is such a convincing book.
Its sentences are perhaps a bit long-winded by modern standards, but for its
time it must have been an easily understood work.'
This accessibility ensured natural selection came to the public's attention in a
much more vivid form than might otherwise have been expected and hastened those
anguished and outraged responses that Darwin had anticipated. 'Utterly false and
grievously mischievous,' said Darwin's old teacher, Adam Sedgwick, in a letter
to his former pupil. Darwin's supporters - Hooker, Lyell and Thomas Huxley -
rallied to his defence, beginning a battle that culminated in the famous debate
between Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce at the British Association for the
Advancement of Science in Oxford, in June 1860. Huxley is popularly credited
with defeating Wilberforce - at an institution where two-thirds of graduates
took holy orders. Not a bad show, though the decisive nature of Huxley's
'victory' is now questioned by many historians. It was more a score draw, they
reckon. On the other hand, it is clear that change was in the air and the
publication of The Origin of Species accelerated this transformation. The
Church, until then the nation's authority about the natural world, was losing
ground and science was taking over.
'Over the following decades, Darwin's defenders came to occupy influential
niches in British and American intellectual life,' notes Browne. 'Toward the end
they were everywhere, in the Houses of Parliament, the Anglican Church, the
universities, government offices, colonial service, the aristocracy, the navy,
the law and medical practice; in Britain and overseas.' These men ensured
natural selection endured and saw to it that Darwin received a Westminster Abbey
burial in 1882 - not bad for an avowed agnostic.
Darwin remains venerated to this day, his features appearing on the current £10
note. By contrast Wallace has been forgotten. He was happy to let Darwin and his
friends promote natural selection. 'This assures me the acquaintance and
assistance of eminent men on my return home,' he told his mother. A general
suspicion remains that he got a raw deal, however. Self-educated and from a
humble background, Wallace had none of the privileges accorded to
university-educated Darwin, whose father was a prosperous doctor. He had had to
make his way as an apprentice carpenter and then a trainee surveyor, before
turning himself into a distinguished naturalist. He was also an early socialist,
a supporter of women's rights, a backer of the land reform movement and a
consummately skilful writer. Joseph Conrad kept a copy of The Malay Archipelago
- Wallace's account of his eight years in the region - on his bedside table and
drew on it for his own books, most notably Lord Jim
But Wallace was also blighted both in luck and in character. His first great
specimen-gathering expedition - to the Amazon - ended in disaster when the ship
returning him to Britain caught fire and sank, taking with it thousands of
specimens and his hopes of an assured income. The collector survived with only a
couple of notebooks and an indignant parrot.
And Wallace was impetuous. While Darwin fully understood the implications of his
theory, holding back publication because he knew he would upset believers,
including his wife, Wallace plunged in, happy to upset society. He didn't give a
damn, said Jonathan Rosen, in an essay on Wallace in the New Yorker last year.
'This utter independence from public opinion is one of several reasons that he
has all but vanished from popular consciousness.'
In addition, Wallace believed in spiritualism (which Darwin and his friends
detested) and later campaigned against vaccination. 'Wallace was an admirable
man and was almost saintly in his treatment of others,' says David Attenborough.
'However, as a scientist, he was no match for Darwin. Wallace came up with the
idea of natural selection in a couple of weeks in a malarial fever. Darwin not
only worked out the theory, he amassed swathes of information to support it.'
This point is backed by historian Jim Endersby. 'Natural selection was a
brilliant idea but it was the weight of evidence, provided by Darwin, that made
it credible. That is why we remember Darwin as its principal author.' On his
round-the-world voyage on the Beagle, between 1831 and 1836, he had filled
countless notebooks with observations, particularly those of the closely related
animals he saw on the different islands of the Galapagos. And then, in his vast
garden at Downe, Darwin had crossbred orchids, grown passionflowers and on one
occasion played a bassoon to earthworms to test their response to vibrations. He
collected masses of data about plant and animal breeding to support his
arguments in The Origin of Species. Wallace could provide nothing like this.
This has not stopped accusations that Darwin and his supporters used some very
dirty tricks indeed to scupper Wallace. According to these ideas, Darwin
received Wallace's paper from Ternate several weeks earlier than he later
claimed, filched its contents and then used them as his own in The Origin of
Species. This argument is outlined in two American books - by Arnold Brackman
and by John Langdon Brooks - that were published 20 years ago and depict Darwin
as an unscrupulous opportunist and intellectual thief. Neither book provides
anything like a convincing case, however, and the vast majority of academics
have since concluded their claims are neither fair nor credible.
As Wallace's own biographer Peter Raby concludes: 'Never has an intriguing
theory been built on slenderer evidence. As for the human factor, there is
nothing in Darwin's life to suggest that he was capable of such massive
intellectual dishonesty, even if he was not especially generous in acknowledging
his sources and debts.'
Indeed, historians argue that had it not been for Darwin, the idea of natural
selection would have suffered grievously. If he had not been the first to
develop natural selection, and Wallace had been the one to get the kudos and
attention, the theory would have made a very different impact. 'In the end,
Wallace came to believe evolution was sometimes guided by a higher power,' adds
Endersby, who has edited the forthcoming Cambridge University Press edition of
The Origin of Species. 'He thought natural selection could not account for the
nature of the human mind and claimed humanity was affected by forces that took
it outside the animal kingdom.'
This is perilously close to the idea of Intelligent Design, the notion - put
forward by modern creationists - that a deity had a hand in directing the course
of evolution. By contrast, Darwin's vision was austere and indicated humanity as
a mere 'twig on the enormously arborescent bush of life which, if replanted from
seed, would almost surely not grow this twig again', as Stephen Jay Gould
describes it. According to Darwin, there are no get-out clauses for humans. We
are as bound to the laws of natural selection as a bacterium or a tortoise.
The roots of this unforgiving doctrine have a very human face, however. Darwin
meshed his life and career tightly together. He was a family man to his core and
while he was grief-stricken by the death of baby Charles in 1858, he had been
left utterly shattered by the death from tuberculosis of his 10-year-old
daughter, Annie, in 1851, as his great-great grandson, Randal Keynes points out
in his book Annie's Box: Charles Darwin, his daughter and human evolution.
Mustard poultices, brandy, chloride of lime and ammonia were all that medicine
could then offer Annie when she started to sicken. None had any effect on her
worsening bouts of vomiting and delirium until Annie 'expired without a sigh' on
23 April 1851, Darwin recalled. 'We have lost the joy of the household and the
solace of our old age.'
Keynes argues persuasively that Annie's death had a considerable impact on
Darwin's thinking. 'In her last days, he had watched as her face was changed
beyond recognition by the emaciation of her fatal illness. You could only
understand the true conditions of life if you held on to a sense of the true
ruthlessness of natural forces.'
Thus Darwin's eyes had been opened to the unforgiving processes that drive
evolution. 'We behold the face of nature bright with gladness,' he wrote years
later. 'We do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing
around us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying
life, or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their
nestlings, are destroyed by birds or beasts of prey.' Or as he wrote elsewhere:
'All Nature is war.'
This pitiless vision - which stressed blind chance as the main determiner in the
struggle for survival and the course of evolution - was upsetting for Victorians
who put such faith in self-help and hard work. Nevertheless, this is the version
of natural selection which has since been supported by a century and a half of
observation and which is now accepted by virtually every scientist on earth.
It has not been a happy process, of course. Even today, natural selection holds
a special status among scientific theories as being the one that it is still
routinely rejected and attacked by a significant - albeit small - segment of
society, mainly fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. Such individuals tend to
have few views on relativity, the Big Bang, or quantum mechanics, but adamantly
reject the idea that humanity is linked to the rest of the animal world and
descended from ape-like ancestors.
'Twenty years ago, this was not a problem,' says Steve Jones, a professor of
genetics at University College London. 'Today, I get dozens of students who ask
to be excused lectures on evolution because of their religious beliefs. They
even accuse me of telling lies when I say natural selection is backed by the
facts. So I ask if they believe in Mendel's laws of genetics? They say yes, of
course. And the existence of DNA? Again, yes. And genetic mutations? Yes. The
spread of insecticide resistance? Yes. The divergence of isolated populations on
islands? Yes. And do you accept that 98 per cent of DNA is shared by humans and
chimps? Again yes. So what is wrong with natural selection? It's all lies, they
say. It beats me, frankly.'
This dismay is shared by Dawkins. 'These people claim the world is less than
10,000 years old which is wrong by a great many orders of magnitude. Earth is
several billion years old. These individuals are not just silly, they are
colossally, staggeringly ignorant. I am sure sense will prevail, however.'
And Jones agrees. 'It's a passing phase. In 20 years, this nonsense will have
gone.' Natural selection is simply too important for society to live without it,
he argues. It is the grammar of the living world and provides biologists with
the means to make sense of our planet's myriad plants and animals, a view shared
by Attenborough whose entire Life on Earth programmes rests on the bed-rock of
'Opponents say natural selection is not a theory supported by observation or
experiment; that it is not based on fact; and that it cannot be proved,'
Attenborough says. 'Well, no, you cannot prove the theory to people who won't
believe in it any more than you can prove that the Battle of Hastings took place
in 1066. However, we know the battle happened then, just as we know the course
of evolution on earth unambiguously shows that Darwin was right.'
Darwin and Wallace's theory: The four key parts
· Creatures of the same species differ from each other in ways that are
inherited. This is known as variation. An example is provided by the giant
tortoises of the Galapagos archipelago, which Darwin studied in detail. Among
those born to the same parents, some will have longer necks than others.
· More creatures in a population are born than can survive. This is the struggle
· Some creatures of the same species possess characteristics that give them a
better chance of surviving and reproducing than others in that species. In the
case of Galapagos tortoises, those with longer necks will be able to reach up
higher to feed off plants, a useful characteristic during droughts when grass is
not available to provide food. This is natural selection.
· These favoured characteristics are passed on to future generations and
accumulate. Over a long period, new forms of life evolve. This is the origin of
species. For the Galapagos' more arid islands, it meant the appearance of
tortoises capable of stretching up to higher branches.
Chance discovery: Darwin's lucky break
Charles Darwin's name is linked irrevocably with natural selection. Yet his
involvement with the theory was not preordained. He initially turned down the
chance to travel on the Beagle, and only later changed his mind. In addition,
there was the origin of the post he filled onboard. The position of naturalist
was privately funded by its captain, Robert Fitzroy. The latter, although a
gifted seaman, was a melancholy man obsessed by the suicide of his uncle,
Viscount Castlereagh, a Tory politician who committed suicide by cutting his
throat on 12 August 1822.
Fitzroy was convinced he had inherited the same suicidal tendencies, which might
claim him at any time on the voyage. So he paid for a companion - Darwin - to
help keep him from despondency on the five-year trip. Darwin recalled Fitzroy's
'low spirits, on one occasion bordering on insanity'. Thus Darwin's odyssey came
about only because of one man's dread of inherited insanity. Had a senior member
of the Conservative government not killed himself, his nephew would not have
worried about family madness and he would not have sought a learned companion to
The history of science would have been very different. The term Darwinism would
be unknown, and we would most likely speak of Wallacism today when talking about
natural selection. On the other hand, Darwin's presence seems to have been
beneficial. Fitzroy returned intact and was later made head of the body that was
to become the Meteorological Office. (The shipping forecast area Fitzroy is
named after him.) His morbid fear of suicide was not misplaced, however. In a
fit of melancholy, Fitzroy killed himself - by cutting his throat - on 30 April
history of evolution
What they said - about where we come from - when
The idea that species could change and evolve into other species existed before
Darwin and Wallace came up with their theory of natural selection. The ancient
Greek philosopher Anaximander put forward early evolutionary ideas, for example.
However it was not until the end of the 18th century, with the development of
the sciences of botany and geology, that the idea of evolution was debated
seriously. The problem for naturalists was simple, however. If God did not
create every type of living creature, how did one type of animal or plant change
into another? What process drove evolution?
One of the first proposed mechanisms was put forward by the French naturalist
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. He argued that characteristics acquired by an animal
during its life were passed on to future generations. An animal which developed
muscles or a long neck would pass these on to its offspring. The idea was the
first decent shot at deriving a theory of evolution. Unfortunately for Lamarck,
it has not survived the scrutiny of science. Generations of cats which have had
their tails docked have not evolved into tail-less cats. Acquired
characteristics are not inherited, though the idea persisted as a serious
scientific concept into the 20th century.
Another key event in the development of a mechanism that could explain the
evolution of species was the publication of the three volumes of Charles Lyell's
Principles of Geology between 1830 and 1833. Lyell argued that the history of
the Earth was not one of short-term violent transformations or catastrophes but
one of gradual changes that took place over extremely long periods. This vision
of a planet shaped by tiny alterations - caused by erosion, sediment formation,
the impact of wind and other factors - operating over aeons had a profound
impact on naturalists.
The ideas of Wallace and Darwin were read at the Linnean Society in London. Both
men had been deeply influenced by their observations of wildlife across the
globe. On his round-the-world journey on the Beagle, Darwin had also carried a
copy of Lyell's Principles of Geology, which provided a background to his
studies of animals and plants in the Galapagos and other parts of the world.
Wallace, for his part, had made his observations in the Amazon and Malayasia.
The Origin of Species, published in 1859, lacked one key feature: an
understanding of genetics. That knowledge was provided by Gregor Mendel in 1865
when his studies of plants led him to develop the laws of genetics. The basic
unit of this process is the gene,which is the focus of the forces of natural
selection. Mendel's laws were overlooked by mainstream science until the start
of the 20th century, however. Only then was it possible to understand the
genetic mechanisms that underpin natural selection.
Francis Crick and James Watson unravel the structure - a double helix - of
deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the material from which the genes of all living
creatures, from ants to whales, is constructed. The discovery allows scientists
to begin detailed studies of the impact of natural selection at a molecular
are astounded to learn that there is a teeming wildlife preserve in New York
City. Ridgewood Reservoir on the Brooklyn-Queens border is an oasis where an
amazing range of plant and animal species thrive in a verdant landscape of steep
hills and narrow valleys amid the city’s paved sidewalks.
But what’s more astounding, the city’s Parks Department could wind up destroying
Ridgewood is an accidental wilderness, tucked alongside the Jackie Robinson
Parkway. Built in 1858 to provide drinking water to Brooklyn, the reservoir was
abandoned in 1989.
As the 50 acres reverted to wetlands, meadows and forests, tens of thousands of
plants and trees took root and flourished. Turtles, fish, frogs and millions of
insects moved in. Songbirds nested in the glades, transforming the area into a
migratory rest stop. According to the National Audubon Society, 137 species of
birds use the reservoir, including eight rare species. It is a place as close to
unspoiled nature as you’re likely to find anywhere within city limits.
Yet, the New York City Parks Department is considering a $50 million
“renovation” project that would cover more than 20 acres of the reservoir with
athletic fields and facilities.
This plan flies in the face of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s widely hailed
environmental blueprint, which bemoans the loss of the city’s natural areas. The
Parks Department’s own scientific consultants have warned against disturbing the
reservoir, an area they call “highly significant for the biodiversity of New
York City and the region.”
The parks commissioner has said the city needs the athletic fields to combat
childhood obesity. This is an important objective, but the money that would be
used to destroy this extraordinary natural habitat could be better spent
improving Highland Park, next to Ridgewood Reservoir. Highland Park has plenty
of ball fields to serve its neighborhood, but they are in such deplorable
condition that few people use them.
Ridgewood’s natural preserve is a great place for people of all ages to walk and
hike. Its trails should be upgraded with benches and rest areas as well as
markers pointing out unique flora and fauna. The Parks Department should also
open areas of the reservoir for guided nature walks, a great educational tool.
Ridgewood Reservoir offers visitors a rare chance to lose themselves in a
forest, to hear bird song, to touch wilderness and to sense the divine. The city
shouldn’t let that slip away.
William C. Thompson Jr.
is the comptroller of the City of New York.
Kennedy Jr. is a lawyer for Riverkeeper, an environmental group.
NEW YORK (AP) -- Sweet William, a young black Labrador retriever in Illinois,
has two days to live.
Sandy, a golden female Jindo in New York, also has just two days left. Kate
Hepburn, a tan female boxer in California, has 18 days to live.
On Saturday, these were some of the dogs in shelters across the country slated
for death -- their fate posted on a Web site that aims to save their lives by
offering them for adoption.
Each is tagged with a death date set by a shelter -- and a countdown clock
showing the days, or hours, until the animal is destroyed.
Dogsindanger.com works with more than 120 shelters nationwide that destroy dogs.
How much time the dogs get before death varies from state to state. In New York
City, a stray dog must be kept a minimum of three days, while a shelter has the
legal right to immediately destroy an animal that is abandoned there by its
About 4 million dogs are put to death each year in the United States, by
injection or gas.
In the three weeks since the site has been up, dozens of dogs have found new
homes. Their photos are posted on a section of the site marked ''Success
Stories.'' The images of dogs that didn't make it adorn the site's ''In
''It's not the fault of the shelters,'' said Alex Aliksanyan, a pet adoption
advocate who made money in the Internet travel business. ''They don't like doing
this, but they have to abide by the law, which requires a shelter to control its
Aliksanyan spent a half-million of his own dollars to start The Buddy Fund Inc.,
a nonprofit organization that operates the site and is named after his miniature
American Eskimo dog.
''I've done well, and it was time to give something back,'' said the 50-year-old
Turkish-born entrepreneur of Armenian heritage. ''So I thought, let's bring the
story of these animals dying quietly in these shelters to the public and say,
'Can you do something?'''
He hired a half-dozen staffers to manage and market the site. Shelters post
information about each dog directly, with daily updates and information on how
each shelter can be contacted. Aliksanyan ships out free digital cameras and
software for the task.
A shelter can sometimes delay a dog's death date -- if it has room in its kennel
and few new strays coming in. A death date can get moved up, too, if the shelter
The adoption service is free both for shelters and people looking for pets,
allowing users to search by location, breed or time until death.
The in-your-face site, Aliksanyan said, ''is not a place to sit with your
6-year-old and say, 'This one's going to die, that one is going to die.'''
He said he is driven by the philosophy of the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi,
whose words are posted over the ''In Memoriam'' page: ''The greatness of a
nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are
April 24, 2007
Filed at 12:03 a.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- On slow summer days, counting box turtles is one
way to enjoy the outdoors. The Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission is asking
Arkansans to help with a survey of the animals to determine just how common, or
rare, they are. There has never been a statewide survey of box turtles.
Maryland scientists in 2004 determined that the eastern box turtle populations
were declining, and they blamed habitat destruction, road deaths and mowers and
other land-clearing machinery among the causes. The animals also once were
exported extensively as pets, a trade that was banned in 1994.
Other states, including Florida, North Carolina, and Texas, also are monitoring
box turtle populations.
Starting in May, the Arkansas commission is asking anyone spotting the reptiles
in their yards or elsewhere to report their findings online or by calling the
commission. The commission has done previous studies on tarantulas and
bumblebees in the state.
Jane Jones-Schultz, the commission's education and information coordinator, says
the public's help will give scientists better estimates on how many box turtles
live in Arkansas.
Two types of box turtle are native to the state -- the three-toed box turtle and
the ornate box turtle.
The three-toed variety is found in forests, marshes and grasslands across the
state. They are typically olive brown with yellow or orange markings.
The ornate variety is found in dry, open habitats in the Arkansas River Valley,
Grand Prairie and Ozark Mountains. They have more striking markings,
particularly on the bottom of its shell or plastron, which can be very dark with
bright yellow lines. The top of their shell or carapace is dark brown to nearly
The surveys ask for information on the turtle's size and where it was found. The
commission also asks for pictures, if possible. Duplicate sightings will give
researchers an idea of how big a turtle's range is.
Jones-Schultz says the animals shouldn't be captured as pets because they are
finicky eaters and need sunlight.
Box turtles can live for decades. An ornate box turtle can live into its forties
while a three-toed turtle can survive into its seventies. They become mature
around 13 and mate from April to October. Although a female can produce 200 eggs
over her lifetime, only two or three offspring typically will survive to
The survey will last at least a year, perhaps longer. The surveys should be
available on line by the first week of May, Jones-Schultz says. They also are
available by calling 501-324-9619.
KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. (AP) -- Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was euthanized
Monday after complications from his breakdown at the Preakness last May.
"We just reached a point where it was going to be difficult for him to go on
without pain," co-owner Roy Jackson said. "It was the right decision, it was the
right thing to do. We said all along if there was a situation where it would
become more difficult for him then it would be time."
Roy and Gretchen Jackson were with Barbaro on Monday morning, with the owners
making the decision in consultation with chief surgeon Dean Richardson.
It was a series of complications, including laminitis in the left rear hoof and
a recent abscess in the right rear hoof, that proved to be too much for the
gallant colt, whose breakdown brought an outpouring of support across the
"I would say thank you for everything, and all your thoughts and prayers over
the last eight months or so," Jackson said to Barbaro's fans.
On May 20, Barbaro was rushed to the New Bolton Center, about 30 miles southwest
of Philadelphia in Kennett Square, hours after shattering his right hind leg
just a few strides into the Preakness Stakes. The bay colt underwent a five-hour
operation that fused two joints, recovering from an injury most horses never
survive. Barbaro lived for eight more months, though he never again walked with
a normal gait.
The Kentucky Derby winner suffered a significant setback over the weekend, and
surgery was required to insert two steel pins in a bone -- one of three
shattered eight months ago in the Preakness but now healthy -- to eliminate all
weight bearing on the ailing right rear foot.
The procedure on Saturday was a risky one, because it transfered more weight to
the leg while the foot rests on the ground bearing no weight.
The leg was on the mend until the abscess began causing discomfort last week.
Until then, the major concern was Barbaro's left rear leg, which developed
laminitis in July, and 80 percent of the hoof was removed.
Richardson said Monday morning that Barbaro did not have a good night.
Published: 28 October 2006
By Cahal Milmo
For decades, the arrival of the first V-shaped
flights of Bewick's swans in Britain's wetlands after a 2,000-mile journey from
Siberia heralded the arrival of winter.
This year, a dramatic decline in numbers of the distinctive yellow-billed swans
skidding into their winter feeding grounds could be the harbinger of a more
dramatic shift in weather patterns: global warming. Ornithologists at the main
reserves that host the birds, the smallest of Britain's swans, said only a
handful had appeared on lakes and water courses. Normally, there would be
The latest arrival in a decade of Britain's seasonal influx of 8,000 Bewick's
swans throws into sharp relief the debate on the effects of climate change as it
enters a crucial week. As the Government's forthcoming Climate Bill is
finalised, Sir Nicholas Stern, a former World Bank economist, is expected to
warn in a report on Monday that failure to tackle global warming will provoke a
recession deeper than the Great Depression.
But far from Westminster, the potential ecological impact of the same phenomenon
was being noted in the absence of the high-pitched honking call of Bewick's
swans on reservoirs and wetlands from the Ouse to the Severn estuary. The
Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) said its first three birds had arrived at its
Slimbridge reserve in Glouc-estershire, only on Thursday, the latest arrival
In Welney, Cambridgeshire, where there are normally 100 Bewick's by the end of
October as the vanguard for a winter population of 1,000; a solitary male was
this week the sole representative. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
said that two of its reserves in East Anglia which host the bulk of the British
population - the Ouse Washes and Nene Washes - were also devoid of Bewick's.
Experts said that the slow arrival was due to warmer than usual conditions on
the continent, in particular the birds' other main wintering grounds in the
Netherlands, and an absence of the north-east winds that aid their migration
from the Arctic tundra of northern Russia.
The disruption to the swans' migration pattern fits into an emerging pattern of
fluctuating numbers of bird species and population movements blamed on climate
change. Redwings, another winter visitor to the British Isles, started arriving
from Scandinavia only this week. Normally, they come in early September.
Other species which normally leave Europe for the winter, such as the blackcap,
are now staying through the year. The WWT and other bird conservation groups
said that it would take weeks to assess whether the late arrival of the
Bewick's, named after the 18th-century English engraver and ornithologist Thomas
Bewick, would affect the overall numbers wintering in Britain.
Since reaching a peak of about 9,000 in 1992, numbers of the swans have fallen
by about 5 per cent. In 2004, numbers of wintering ducks, geese, swans and
wading birds fell to the lowest level for a decade.
GREY SQUIRRELS are mating. Several males may
chase a female through the bare branches, making harsh buzzing notes, and try to
mate with her. Males will also chase away their rivals. The female crouches on
the ground when she is ready to mate, and generally it is the first male to get
to her who succeeds.
Once the female is pregnant, she appropriates
a warm winter drey well lined with moss and feathers, or builds a new one, and
keeps all other squirrels out of it. She gives birth in the drey about six weeks
after she has mated. Usually she has three young. They are naked and blind at
first, but their fur soon grows, and they are first seen out of the drey when
they are about seven weeks old. This will generally be about the end of April or
the beginning of May.
Grey squirrels bury nuts and acorns in the
ground in autumn, and now they are looking for them again. But they do not
remember where they put them and can only find them by smell. Many get
overlooked, and sprout up as young trees in the spring.