Biologists now think that that tiny creatures--from worms to insects--are much more important to the health of our planet than they seem to be. In fact, the fate of all life (including us!) may depend on them.
In the November 10th edition of the Observer, John Vidal quotes entomologist E.O. Wilson (who studies ants) as saying, "When you thrust a shovel into the soil or tear off a piece of coral, you are, godlike, cutting through an entire world. You have crossed a hidden frontier known to very few. Immediately close at hand, around and beneath our feet, lies the least explored part of the planet's surface. It is also the most vital place on Earth for human existence.
"In any habitat, on the ground, in the forest canopy, or in the water, your eye is first caught by the big animals--birds, mammals, fish, butterflies. But gradually the smaller inhabitants, far more numerous, begin to eclipse them. There are the insect myriads creeping and buzzing among the weeds, the worms and unnamable creatures that squirm or scuttle for cover when you turn garden soil for planting."
For instance, when photographer David Liittschwager started taking pictures of them in the Duck river in Tennessee, he recorded 32 fish species, and nearly 100 others in a single day.
Vidal quotes author Alan Huffman as saying, "Dig a few handfuls of sediment from the bottom and the river's significance begins to reveal itself. Half of what you hold in your hands is sand and gravel, and the rest is live species--mussels, snails, juvenile crayfish, the larvae of stoneflies and dragonflies. It seems possible that the driving force of planetary life is actually very small and that its intricacies are lost on most of us."
A whole, unknown world can be found in Costa Rica's rainforest: 145 species of birds, mammals, mosses, bromeliads and epiphytes. Vidal quotes biologist Nalini Nadkarni as saying, "This is the last biotic frontier, the missing pieces of the phenomenal jigsaw puzzle that is the tropical rainforest. How forest canopy populations become established, grow and disperse to other sites remains wholly unknown." But he suspects that these critters had a lot to do with it.
When a coral reef near Tahiti in the Pacific was photographed, 600 individual animals and plants more than a millimeter in size--some living permanently in the space, others swimming or floating through--were recorded. All of these are pretty much ignored by mainstream biologists. Vidal quotes author Elizabeth Kolbert as saying, "And this is not counting the many thousands of smaller creatures that floated by each hour. Wrasses, sea slugs, a baby octopus, shrimp, worms and crabs as small as the letters on the page were all recorded."
He quotes Liittschwager as saying, "In time, we will come fully to appreciate the magnificent little ecosystems that have fallen under our stewardship."
Or as Vidal himself writes: "Long live the creepy crawlies, the bugs, the tiny wigglers and wrigglers, the minuscule parasites and nematodes, the mites and oribatids and all the myriad life forms that buzz, crawl and throb below our feet."
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