FROM ZOO TO YOU The reason for change

By Kristi Newland

Years ago, canaries were often used in coal mines as a warning system. The bird was in the same environment as the workers. If the canary became ill or died, it was evidence that carbon monoxide or other poisonous gases were in the mine, and the miners should evacuate. Since the canary was more sensitive to the possible gases that might be present, the bird provided an early warning for the miners because although the gases would also negatively impact the miners, they would have to build up to a more concentrated level before the miners felt the negative effects.

While canaries have been replaced by carbon monoxide detectors, sentinel species are still at work. Sentinel species are animals and plants that provide a warning of danger to human health and the environment. Lichen are good indicators of air quality. They thrive where the air is clean and don’t do well where it isn’t. 

Monitoring the pollutants that build up in lake trout and in the honey made by honeybees is another way of monitoring the environment around us. Sea otters are a good indicator species for shellfish since they eat a number of species that are also harvested for human consumption. Sea otters also help keep kelp forests healthy by controlling the urchin population. Kelp forests are foundational to healthy ocean life, providing food and shelter for a large number of species of fish and invertebrates and other sea life. They also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

These are just some examples of the interconnectedness of life on planet Earth. What affects one species eventually affects all species. It doesn’t have to be a single, whopping event with vast influence like the asteroid impact that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Some impacts are subtle and take time to build. Scientists are currently monitoring what’s being called the sixth extinction. At the root of the sixth extinction – the effect of humans.

Humans have had a more extensive impact on the Earth than any creature before. We have reached every part of the planet, driven other species from their native range, changed the topography of the world we share, and created changes in the composition of the atmosphere. So, what’s the legacy of humankind going to be?

We have the ability to change our impact if we want to. We turned things around with the bison, with DDT and the bald eagle, and some other species we have negatively impacted in the past. If we listen to messages of the sentinel species, we’ll hear the call to continue that change. No one person can do it alone, but together, each taking the steps they can, we can have a positive impact. That impact can improve things for the species of the Earth, including humankind.

There are a number of things you can do to turn the tide. Plant native species that work with your local environment and benefit local wildlife. Use less energy by turning lights off when you leave the room. Take a shorter shower. Turn the water off when brushing your teeth. Dispose of trash and hazardous wastes appropriately. Recycle what you can in your region. 

Think creatively and repurpose items. There’s no need to buy a special plastic bag or container for trick-or-treating this Halloween. What about a pillowcase, one of the reusable bags you use at the grocery store, or even a football helmet? Have fun with it while helping the Earth and the species that live on it (and that includes us too).

Kristi Newland is the director at Lee Richardson Zoo.