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Are the rules of the game changing?

Science – and so its children biology, natural history, and ecology – is based, fundamentally, on unchanging truths. That is, that basic principles are continuous and unvarying over time and in being thus they are predictable. We require this to make sense of our world; even if we don’t know or understand the rules, we need to have them to structure our worldview. Think of scientific principles as the rules of the game in our enterprise of understanding our world: its past, present, and future. But, what if they are not unvarying? What if they change? How will that affect our understanding and inferences?

Allow me to use three recent examples – physiological, behavioural, and evolutionary – to illustrate what I mean.

Example 1: June 14, 2023. CBC News carries a story of the first documented case of rabies in moose in North America. Though not unknown in European moose, the jump of rabies from a carnivore, in this case a fox, to an ungulate has not previously been known on this continent. This is really quite astounding. Rabies is a virus that can be highly virulent within a taxonomic group (e.g., dog, cat, skunk, bat) but does not move between these groups. So a fox cannot carry the bat strain or that of the skunk; only fox rabies. Yet here, well actually in Alaska, we see rabies jumping to an entirely different order of mammals. And it was virulent. The moose showed the classic rabies symptoms. So our rule that rabies strains are group specific has been spectacularly broken.

Example 2: Orcas are ramming yachts off the Spanish coast – is the whale world rising up? (from Guardian, May 25, 2023). For the past three years killer whales off of the coasts of Spain and Portugal have been reported ramming small boats and to have even sunk a small yacht. These interactions are, by all measures, unprovoked and have mystified those that follow and study whale behaviour. We do not understand why they have suddenly begun this new behaviour or how many orca are taking part in it, but it is unprecedented behaviour. Our understanding that whales, though large, powerful, and easily capable of inflicting damage, are benign is getting a bit of a shake-up. This is entirely outside of the rules of cetacean behaviour that we insist they follow. Accidental bumps and jostling of boats, or ramming in response to having a harpoon buried into them we can understand; random and vexatious interactions by these toothed marine mammals disturb the rules we impose.

Example 3: This one, admittedly, is anecdotal rather than documented, but informative nonetheless. One of my kids is currently working in Perth, Australia and tells me there is evidence that a small marsupial called the woylie (AKA brush-tailed bettong) has shown significant change in anatomy and behaviour in only two to three generations of captivity. Captive bred woylies have smaller feet than their wild confreres resulting in hopping at slower speeds, and likely less agility and stability. Further, mothers with joeys have abandoned their time honoured (and honed by natural selection) behaviour of throwing their young from their pouch when pursued by a predator: a strategy similar to the ruffed grouse of our country which attempts to draw a predator away by faking a broken wing. The mother draws attention to

herself so the hunter does not notice the more helpless offspring. That these modifications, really quite complex changes, occur within a very small number of generations is not the general rule we expect from evolution. Our paradigm is that organisms spend generations and long spans of time to become exquisitely adapted to their local environment, not three or four years.

The conclusion I draw from meditating on these examples is that, just perhaps, the rules that we teach and learn regarding natural history, ecology, and animal behaviour may be subject to drastic change with little notice to us. It is not that the rules we know are wrong; only subject to change. It is this very attribute that causes me hope for our world in a flood of dire predictions and frightening stories of our warming planet. These examples highlight that significant change can occur very quickly, whether anatomical, behavioural, or physiological: it is precisely this rapidity of change that will allow organisms to adapt to whatever the planet throws at them. Our predictions and forecasts of environmental response – from local development projects to global climate changer– are based on rules that we have created about how plants and animals will react. What if those rules are changing without our awareness?

So what is the lesson here for the working professional evaluating vegetation, fish, wildlife, or habitat? Well, we only see what we are looking for and we interpret what we see through the lens of our understanding of the rules controlling the game. Because of these human attributes we are likely to be blind to the rule-breakers, to those behaviours or changes that are occurring simply because we do not know to look for them. To open our eyes to some of these changing rules, and the vanguard of rule-breakers that are illustrating them, we can practice those skills I have written of before: slowing down and taking time, increasing concentration during observation, practicing diligence and attention to details, and combining multiple methods of sampling and observation to generate a clearer understanding. To this list, I will add keeping an open mind that is receptive to observations without forcing into preconceived notions.

It is the rule-breakers that cause us to pause in our lives and wonder, sometimes only for moments, at the remarkable sophistication of the natural world. Those that behave or are different highlight the stability of the average. Evolutionary theory says that under changed environmental conditions the average moves toward the most successful deviations from it. In doing so, new rules may be created. It is up to us to see and wonder at these new and wonderful processes.

Sean Mitchell