A chaos of surfaces: part 1

We humans are blessed with huge brains. Those brains are plugged into a handful of sensor arrays–ears, noses, and eyes–which stream gigabytes of information. All of this exists in a platform about (in my case) five and half feet off the ground. It is impossible at times not to feel, as many academics do, that we sit in this lofty control tower, operating the levers and limbs that moves our body about, all in service of the care and feeding of these big brains of ours. This attitude, as Ken Robinson says, would certainly explain the sad spectacle of professors on the dance floor at the end of a conference.

To ecologists who hope to understand how their chosen organisms perceive (I was about to write “see”) the world, this Olympian arrangement of head on a platform is a real non-starter*. To a litter ecologist, our critters are tiny, and they are, literally**, underfoot. If the first step to understanding is to walk a mile in another critter’s shoes, when those shoes are size 0.0000000001W, you have a problem.

Now, when I say the mites and collembola—the most common litter critters—are tiny, this is not in any way to suggest they are unusual. In the evolution of animal life, it is we mega-size humans who are the freaks. The average animal is about 1 mm long (about the distance you can reliably hold your thumb and index finger apart after five cups of coffee). This is well within the size domain of mites and collembola (and the size of a gestating human after about two weeks). Put another way, if the standard height of one story of a building is 15 feet, a 1 mm mite would comfortably live in a one-story bungalow 3 mm tall. The standard 6-foot litter biologist, who just stepped on that bungalow, would tower about 600 stories above the now demolished mite dwelling. And not feel particularly good about it.

Our massive brain observation tower does not provide a good perspective of litter life for the  average isopod, collembolan, or spider.  The ecologist walking through a forest sees litter on the way down: leaves and twigs  swirl by on a blustery autumn day or a branch heavy with moss that crashes to the trail 2 feet before you in an adrenalin surging crash. On the rare occasion in a tropical forest you may experience litterfall writ large when a distant tree gives up the ghost in an eerie slow motion thunderclap, preceded by the popcorn snapping of its attached lianas, and ending in a crescendo roar. All of this mixes together and forms the stuff that we kick through, step over, trod upon.

*OK, the one obvious exception are the ornithologists, who study critters whose brains are, on average, even higher off the ground than ours, and share with humans a dependence on sight and sound as the chief way they perceive the world. No small wonder that birds are the entry-level taxon for so much of ecology. We all start out as bird watchers. The downside, we eventually discover, is that, sharing our bandwidth as they do, birds are also a wee bit persnickety about being watched. This does not bode well for data gathering. This is also why many of us, at some point in graduate school, come to our senses and swtich taxa when we discover that we can collect more data on insects/plants/microbes/protozoa in an hour than we can on birds in a month.

**Let’s just get that pun out of the way early.

 © 2015  Photography by Christian Ziegler

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