Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Biosphere. Chapter 1: Squirrels

(Note:This is a submitted Crossroads Chronicle article, a Cashiers, NC paper. The column is entitled Living Green. We'll see if they publish it. Its just slightly ridiculous, by design.)

All around us, there are all kinds of critters. God only knows what some of them are, but most of us can at least identify the common ones by at least their common names.

In this first installment of this probably much unanticipated and also unsolicited series, The Complete Idiot's Guild to the Biosphere, we examine the critter known as squirrels (also called tree rats), their role on the planet, and their propensity to venture out of their habitat and onto the gasoline tax supported roads of this nation. Finally, we will conclude with a theory as to why squirrels is sooo dumb.

By way of disclosure, it should be noted that the author is not an ecologist, or even an evolutionary biologist. However, it seems that a lack of knowledge or appropriate background is not currently preventing anyone from opining on any subject with 100% absolute confidence. So it is in this absolutely-anything-goes environment that the scope of this column can be both justifiably and reasonably expanded into subject areas about which the author knows absolutely nothing.

Now, and with the foregoing, the author did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night.

According to Wikipedia, a squirrel is one of the many small or medium-sized rodents in the family Sciuridae, whereas rats are various medium sized, long-tailed rodents of the superfamily Muroidea. "True rats" are members of the genus Rattus. However, when a squirrel tail is Photo Shopped onto a rat picture, the resemblance is completely uncanny. Is it a squirrel, or a rat with a puffy tail? Impossible to tell.

The relationship among the members of an ecological web is complex and interdependent. While squirrels eat insects and other critters which are considered pests, there is one service which these jittery-friends provide which is of paramount importance. Squirrels, in all their endearing busyness,
in and of the eating and burying of nuts, often forget the location of some of these buried treasures. These nuts, so carefully and lovingly planted, go on to become fully grown trees, minimizing erosion and restarting forests on slopes clear-cut by man.

Partially offsetting this benefit to humanity is squirrels annoying propensity to venture outside of their designated habitat and fritter about in the road system. The boundary between our road system and wilderness is clearly identified with a solid white line. Only the dumbest of animals would not recognize this visual barrier and maintain the balance in the Force.

This petroleum based game of “chicken” is no doubt a very familiar occurrence with the reader. The squirrel goes left, we go right. The squirrel goes right, we go left. The squirrel screams. The animals in the forest look on in a kind of paralyzed trance. Spllattcrunchbumpbump. We reassure ourselves with that common refrain,'there's a million of them.' We feel better. They don't make X Box games like this. Besides, we pay road taxes when we fill up, darn it all. Squirrels don't. So.

The loss of any one individual in an interconnected ecosystem is not the end of the ecosystem. One animals loss may be another's gain, in a circle of life kind of way. Natural systems work best, and there is no waste in nature; as crows, 'possums, and the Lord knows what else flies, crawls or squiggles over to partake of the recently departed.

In defense of squirrels, there is no natural situation comparable to this modern game of chicken. No animal in the ecosystem weighing 7000 pounds bears down at 50 miles per hour on a squirrel. There is no natural situation to serve as preparation in the form of either instinct or adolescent training.

If bears weighed this much and ran that fast, they would not be eligible for the tax credit as SUVs are anyways, so what would be the point in expending so much energy on a little squirrel? Perhaps if bears started a lobbying group, they could receive credits or even a bailout.

In addition, petroleum powered vehicles have only been around for a hundred years or so. And critters like our protagonist have been around for millions, so the modern marvels are relatively new. Already, squirrels seem to be getting better at it.

If squirrels can hold out for just a few more decades, their greatest road borne threat will be reduced to bicycles, light electric cars, horse drawn buggies or the shoes of the bipeds. If squirrels can adapt to climate change, they may very well outlast the bipeds entirely in just a century or two. However, one or two hundred years is far outside the scope of a 30 second attention span. What were we talking about?

Some groups are very fond of pointing out that everything works in cycles. In the case of modes of transportation, they are probably absolutely right. You know, even a blind squirrel can find a nut once in a while.

It all makes you wonder... who is it that is really so dumb?