Antlions and Gerbils, Oh My!

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Tuesday, August 11, 2017 / 19 Av 5777

Last night, Dr. Uri Shanas presented at this month’s Israel360 event. He’s a renowned Israeli zoologist whose focus is on how humans impact and change the natural world (anthropogenics).  He spoke primarily of his work with Jordanians in the Arava valley. This cross-border study of a shared ecosystem was an interesting study not only in how scientific cooperation can overcome political difference but also in how human culture changes animal behavior. We are all linked in ways large and small, and we forget that common fate at our own peril. Let me explain.

The Arava is one of the dryer places on the planet, where temperatures are known to reach 120 degrees. And yet life goes on, even in harsh environments. The life that does go on looks very different, at least to those scientists who cared enough to slow down sufficiently. In that process, they discovered and then unraveled two mysteries that offer us important lessons.

Mystery One

On the Jordanian side of the Arava, the land is primarily undeveloped. Those who dwell there preserve ancient ways and hunting provides a meaningful part of their diet. That means the few large land animals who show up are quickly dispatched.

On the Israeli side, there are far more western style settlements and agriculture. Rather than being hunted, the gazelles on the Israeli side of the border are protected by law. That difference in human culture played itself out in small yet important and non obvious ways.

We’re talking here of antlions and gerbils. Antlions, for those of you unfamiliar with them, as I was before last night, are a class of insect that dig pits to trap ants and other smaller insects on which they prey. They live around the world. Dr. Shanas’ team found plenty of them on the Israeli side, but none on the Jordanian side a mere quarter mile away. What could account for the difference when the geography is virtually identical?

The gazelles. Protected from hunters, gazelles walk across the salt flats of the Arava. As they do so, their hooves break through the crust, releasing the moisture trapped below. As this evaporates, it creates a substantially cooler microclimate in the hoofprint, which, as it turns out, helps the antlions to thrive. On the Jordanian side where no animal was available to break the hot upper sand crust, there were also no antlions.

Mystery Two

Uri’s group also was interested in determining if human culture had an impact on the behavior of gerbils. It did. If Israel was graced with antlions, Jordan had the upper hand when it came to gerbils. Through several feeding experiments and live capture traps, the Jordanian team identified large numbers of gerbils; yet a stone’s throw away, the Israelis struggled to locate more than a few. What could explain the difference since geography could not?

Agriculture. Foxes like to hang out near farms. There’s readily available water. They also like to eat gerbils, and were smart enough to disarm the traps and gobble up the captured rodents. Needless to say, the Israeli gerbils were also more stressed and cautious that the predator-free Jordanian ones.

A Question with Two Answers

This raised a question that romantics and big business advocates equally are invested in. Which was better for the environment, the “westernized”  side, or the more undeveloped side? Well, that depends if you are an antlion or a fox, a gazelle or a gerbil. Regardless of your perspective, as an animal, your behavior and your community both change in response to the human condition.

What is clear is how science demonstrates that all of our fates are intertwined, and it doesn’t really matter if you are a small insect or a substantial gazelle. There is a continual web of interconnection, and if we have the patience, the training and the resources, we too can begin to unravel the linkages that once only the mystics could see.

Enough Small Gifts Can Keep a Mountain from Moving

I find it a compelling story how these small changes ripple across species. I’d like to think that it is his sensitivity to these relatively minute differences that attuned Dr. Shanas to the power of small. In this case, and as a zoologist, Uri is deeply concerned with this sixth great wave of species extinction in which we find ourselves. Most of this is caused by a loss of habitat. Half of the land on which endangered species live is privately held. If only we could buy and preserve those parcels, we’d go a long way to slowing down the extinction rate.

Seeking a solution to that looming dilemma, Dr. Shanas went small. Specifically, he turned to crowd-sourcing small amounts of money, as little as $1 a year, to provide the resources to purchase essential habitat. The name of this venture is T.I.M.E–This is My Earth, and you can find the link here. In addition to providing sanctuary for too many beleaguered animals, he designed this organization to foster democracy by allowing every donor the same one vote and making it possible for vast numbers of people to participate in this mitzvah.

In an age where we can often feel powerless to effect real change, I am highly impressed by this elegant and scalable solution. Early this morning, I sent in my donation (a bit more than a dollar!). If species extinction concerns you, but you haven’t known what you can do, please visit TIME, This is My Earth. It is one answer among the many we will need.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What small change in your life has had an outsized influence?
  2. We’ve all heard about six degrees of separation. Well, for antlions and gazelles, it’s a single degree. How has one unexpected person shifted your life for good or bad?

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