May 1, 2010

Black swans, whooping cranes, and oil slicks

Today's newspaper and radio programs are filled with a big natural disaster in the making--the oil slick washing ashore in the Gulf of Mexico. There seems to be little doubt that the coastal wetlands are going to take a big hit.

It's hard to argue that certain areas of the earth are more important (ecologically) than others, but it is safe to say that the wetlands along the Louisiana and Texas coast would rank in the top portion of such a ranking. The wetlands are home to breeding birds, which have just arrived from southern latitudes. They are critical for the life history of shrimp, crabs, and fish that sustain regional economies and form the base for ecological food webs. And, the wetlands support a host of birds in the winter. I have not seen it mentioned in reports I've read, but those blue crabs in the coastal wetlands are the main food source for whooping cranes, an endangered bird (250+ individuals) that winters along the Texas coast.

Nebraskans (those fortunate enough to see the rare birds) have just enjoyed watching whooping cranes in April as they made their way north. Did we have any idea that an oil rig in the Gulf Coast might be connected to the bird that gives us pause each spring? It's a great example of how decisions made in one area of our world have more than just local effects.

A recent book, The Black Swan, touches on such events. No, the book is not about oil-drenched swans. It's about random events. The general idea of the metaphor in the book's title is that the hatch of a black-feathered swan in nature is such a rare, random event that no one can predict it. But, these rare events can really change history. The author suggests that we can actually make robust policies that account for the risk of Black Swan events.

This is another one of those books that I need to actually read (!), and this oil spill provides more impetus for me to grab a copy. But, there is no doubt that wildlife managers (as well as those with influence on the world's economic markets) need to find ways to make plans resilient to such random events, which can even affect systems that we understand almost perfectly.

I would imagine that my colleagues who have had years of input into the recovery plans for whooping cranes are starting to sweat as this oil slick continues to grow. The oil slick is their Black Swan. Will these wetlands be ready for whooping cranes when they return this fall, or will they find a drastically changed habitat? We'll see. Years of habitat work to restore coastal wetlands, as well as research on reproduction, movement, and survival are about to be challenged.

Thanks to for the whooping crane photo

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