Friday, October 28, 2011

Environment: Ecology in Miniature Dioramas

Dr Abe V Rotor
Faculty Curator, Former St Paul Museum, SPUQC

These mini-dioramas have been removed to give way to a new project in the former Museum. This lesson is dedicated to the students who made them, and to visitors who appreciated the value of these masterpieces.

Coral Reef
The idea of miniaturized dioramas depicting ecological scenes was pioneered by students taking up ecology subject at St. Paul University QC. Their works - two dozen mini-dioramas depicting major ecosystems - were displayed for 15 years at the school museum, then the centerpiece of natural history.

A diorama is a “view window” reproduced from an actual or imagined event or scene made by artists who have a background of painting, architecture and sculpture combined, and of course, history. In this particular case, the diorama artists must have a working knowledge of ecology and biology.

One who may have visited any of the following museums has a better understanding as to what a diorama is in terms of structure, content and medium: National Museum in Manila, Ayala Museum at Greenbelt in Makati, and National Food Authority Grain Industry Museum in Cabanatuan. But the dioramas in these museums are large and spacious. It gives him the feeling that he is right on spot where the event is taking place or where the scene is located. This is enhanced with the right ambiance of lighting, musical background, narration or dialogue and the like.

The mini-dioramas at SPUQ are much simpler and smaller. They are works of amateurs but nonetheless exude the quality an artist cum ecologist can best show with the help of faculty members and the museum staff. Here are seven mini-dioramas depicting the Tropical Rainforest, the Ocean, Pacific Lagoon, Coral Reef, Alpine Biome, Savannah and the Desert,

1. Tropical Rainforest
The earth once wore a broad green belt on her midriff – the rainforest – that covered much of her above and below the equator. Today this cover has been reduced - and is still shrinking at a fast rate. The nakedness of the earth can be felt everywhere. One place where we can witness this is right here in the Philippines where only 10 percent of our original forest remains. Even the great Amazon Basin is threatened. As man moves into new areas, puts up dwellings, plants crops, becomes affluent, increases in number, the more the tropical rainforest shrinks. Our thinking that the forest as a source of natural resources is finite is wrong. Like any ecosystem, a forest once destroyed cannot be replaced. It can not regenerate because by then the soil has eroded, and the climate around has changed. It is everyone’s duty to protect the tropical rainforest, the bastion of thousands of species of organisms. In fact it is the richest of all the biomes on earth.

Tropical Rainforest
2. The Ocean
Scientists today believe that eighty percent of the world’s species of organisms are found in the sea. One can imagine the vastness of the oceans – nearly 4 kilometers deep on the average and 12 km at its deepest - the Marianas Trench and the Philippine Deep - and covering 78 percent of the surface of the earth. Artists and scientists re-create scenarios of Jules Verne’s, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” such as this diorama, imagining man’s futuristic exploration in the deep led by Captain Nemo, the idealistic but ruthless scientist. Such scenarios are no longer fantasy today – they are scenes captured by the camera and other modern tools of research. And the subject is not one of exploration alone, but conservation, for the sea, limitless as it may seem, is facing the same threats of pollution and other abuses man on land, in water, and air. The sea is man’s last frontier. Let us give it a chance.

3. Pacific Lagoon
The vastness of the Pacific Ocean is disturbed now and then by the presence of islands – big and small, singly or in groups - that appear like emerald and pearl strewn on the dark blue water, presenting a most beautiful scenery that attracts people to experience true communion with nature. Originally these islands were the tips of volcanoes, at first fierce and unsettled, but later became tame to the elements that fashioned them through time into lagoons, and other land forms of varied geographic features. As seen in this diorama, this island typical of Boracay is rich in vegetation, coconut trees grow far into the water and on the white sand that cover the shores. The coral reef teems with many kinds of marine life, from rare shellfish to aquarium fishes. In fact the whole island is a sanctuary of wildlife. It is a natural gene bank, a natural museum of biological diversity.

Tropical Lagoon
4. Coral Reef
Second to the Tropical Rainforest in richness in species diversity is the coral reef, often dubbed as a forest under the sea. Corals are simple animals of the Phylum Coelenterata, now Ctenophora, that live in symbiosis with algae. Algae being photosynthetic produce food and oxygen that corals need, and in return receive free board and lodging, and carbon dioxide. Within this zone grow many kinds of seaweeds, some reaching lengths of several feet long as in the case of kelp (Laminaria), and Sargassum, the most common tropical seaweed. As a sanctuary it cradles the early life stages of marine life until they have grown to be able to survive the dangers and rigors of the open sea. Coral reefs are formed layer upon layer through long years of deposition of calcareous skeletons of Coelenterates which is then cemented with sand, silt, clay and gravel to form into rock. Limestone is a huge deposit resulting from this process Scientists believe that without coral reefs islands would disappear and continents shrink. Above all we would not have the fishes and other marine organisms we know today.

5. Alpine Biome
Isolated from the lower slopes and adjoining valley, this ecological area has earned a distinction of having plants and animals different from those in the surrounding area. Because of the unique climate characterized by an intense but short summer and extreme cold the rest of the year, the organisms in this biome have acquired through evolution certain characteristics that made them fit to live in such an environment. Alpine vegetation is dramatic owing to its ephemeral nature. Here annual plants bloom with a precise calendar, attracting hordes of butterflies and other organisms. The trees are gnarled as they stand against the howling wind, mosses and liverworts carpet the ground, streams are always alive, and migrating animals have their fill before the cold sets in. We do not have this biome in the Philippines, but atop Mt. Apo in Davao and Mt. Pulog in Benguet, the country’s highest mountains, lies a unique ecosystem – a combination of grassland and alpine. This could be yet another biome heretofore unrecorded in the textbook.

6. Savannah
Home of game animals in Africa, the Savannah has the highest number of herbivores of all biomes. It had always been the “grand prix” of hunters until three decades ago when strict laws were passed prohibiting poaching and destruction of natural habitats. The diorama depicts the shrub-grass landscape, a stream runs into a waterhole where, during summer, attracts animals from the lowly turtle to the ferocious lion which stakes on preys like zebra and gazelle. Beyond lies Mt. Kimanjaro, Hemingway’s favorite locale of his novel of the same title (Snows of Kilimanjaro). It is said that the beginning of the Nile River, the longest river in the world, starts with the melting of snow atop Kilimanjaro, right at the heart of the savannah.

7. The Desert
Scenes of the Sahara flash in our mind the moment the word “desert” is brought about to both young and old, in fantasy or reality. Here lies a wasteland, so vast that it dwarfs the imagination. Deserts are found at the very core of continents like Australia and North America, or extend to high altitude (Atacama Desert) or way up north (Siberian Desert) where temperature plunges below zero Celsius. In the desert rain seldom comes and when it does, the desert suddenly blooms into multi-faceted patterns and colors of short-growing plants. Sooner the desert is peacefully dry and eerie once again, except the persistent cacti and their boarders (birds, insects and reptiles), shrubs and bushes that break the monotony of sand and sand dunes. But somewhere the “desert is hiding a well,” so sang the lost pilot and the Little Prince in Antoine de St. Exupery’s novelette, “The Little Prince.” I am referring to the oasis, waterhole in the desert. It is here where travelers mark their route, animals congregate, nations put claims on political borders. Ecologically this is the nerve center of life, spiritually the bastion of hope, a new beginning, and source of eternal joy particularly to those who have seen and suffered in the desert. The desert is not a desert after all.


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