It may have surprised the U.S. and Israeli researchers who discovered the phenomenon, but it didn’t surprise those of us who subscribe to, or at least acknowledge, James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory to heart.
These scientists – author Dr. Dror Hawlena of the Hebrew University (Jerusalem) and co-author Professor Oswald Schmitz of Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies – produced work (published in the journal Science) which demonstrates that frightened grasshoppers, facing predation by spiders, for example, leave their mark on the earth.
Gaia Theory suggests that the earth is a living being, a biological organism if you will, with every part in communication with every other part, much as the human body is integral in both its functions and its repair processes.
The same is true of grasshoppers, and perhaps of every living entity on the planet. When not threatened, grasshoppers normally choose grasses high in nitrogen. However, the fear of being eaten by spiders caused them to eat grasses and foliage high in carbohydrates. And this dietary change in response to stressors resulted in grasshopper carcasses which decomposed grass up to 200 times more slowly, meaning the natural replenishment which leads to fertile soils is drastically reduced.
As Hawlena notes, the discovery shows not only how predator-prey relationships alter soil makeup, but the ways in which these stresses may affect crops and growth cycles – perhaps permanently, if climate change is allowed to get out of hand, as Lovelock predicted it would in 2010.
Lovelock, who will be 93 this July, is beginning to exhibit what many see as some remarkably un-Gaia-like behaviors; favoring fracking and dissing wind turbines as both “ugly and useless.” Lovelock’s position on the first is that natural gas is eminently cleaner than coal when burnt, and will take the globe over the energy hump of the next 30 years, or until renewable energy is ubiquitous. His opposition to wind (notes Grist writer Ted Glick) is reminiscent of the Kennedy clan’s objection to the Cape Wind project. Both seem, on the surface, the sort of knee-jerk NIMBY reactions that we wouldn’t have expected of such otherwise ethical men. On the other hand, maybe Lovelock is onto something.
Ethics and morality aside, I – a gardener – love the idea that some of earth’s smallest creatures can have some of the biggest affects, including reducing the amount of respiration undertaken by soil microbes.
Since this also reduces carbon sequestration, it’s only logical to conclude that nervous grasshoppers alter the balance of global carbon emissions on a scale perhaps larger than we are able to measure. Silly as it sounds, it’s clearly on a par with the news that cow flatulence is adding methane – another very potent greenhouse gas – to earth’s atmosphere in previously unsuspected amounts. Unfortunately, both grasshopper fear pheromones and cow farts are difficult, if not impossible, to calibrate with any accuracy.
In addition, since Gaia Theory suggests that the earth will let us know when we’ve outstayed our welcome, it’s probably time that we humans cleaned up our act. I think some of us have already gotten the message.