Monday, July 31, 2017

The Irreversibility of Domestication

Dr Abe V Rotor
Part 1: The Irreversibility of Domesticating Wildlife
A pair of exotic parrots in captivity
Once domesticated, plants and animals remain under the custody of man, modifying them, pampering them in the process, that without man they are utterly, some completely, helpless. Domestication is indeed an irreversible process.

There are very few wild horses now, there are no original wild buffaloes anymore on the prairies of North America, yaks and reindeer in the cold north; chickens cannot go back to their being self-supporting, so with pigs, rabbits, cattle, goats, sheep.
More so with fancy pets. They haven't been only severed from their former kin, they have been modified in ways humans wanted them to be - not what Nature make of them to insure their adaptation and survival as individuals, more so as species. Birds are bred for fancy, like those with twisted wings and false breast feather and tails, dogs bred for shows and fashion. Cats have forgotten how to hunt, they have become naive and their tail has virtually of no function anymore. Plants with mosaic patterns in their leaves are either genetic or caused by virus; we are not even aware. Flowers with layered multicolored petals are no longer useful for pollination. These and many more, have very little chance of integration into their natural populations.

In most instances, man has "purified' the genes useful to create the traits he wanted, in the process unwittingly eliminating the "undesirable" genes. Who are we to decide which genes are desirable or not? How sure are we that when we preserve or enhance desirable genes we are not on the other hand also creating undesirable effects - which may even have worse consequences?

Then there are animals in the wild, which in the guise of conservation, now live under the roof of our dwellings, in zoos and parks - tiger, panda, boa, lemur, macaque, tarantula, iguana, and the like that make us think they are unique pets. We don't only know that our good intention has virtually doomed these animals, because - without man - they can no longer return to live in the wild which is their true habitat. We have caused them to be orphans of the ecosystem.
Box turtle laying eggs in a garden pond.
Part 2 - The Irreversibility of Domestication: The Aquarium
Pako fish in home aquarium
Pets, pets, pets. Only humans make pets. It is an expression of rationality, demonstrating custodianship of God's creation, extension of familial instinct, and a means of silencing frayed nerves, and exit of pent up emotion and outburst of energy. Above all pets share the burden of living, provide companionship, and reciprocated love in many ways. But what is the implication of domestication of living things to ecology, and to the living world as a whole?
The aquarium is a minuscule of a pond; the pond, the minuscule of the lake or ocean.
The home aquarium is a representation of God's vast creation - 78 percent of the surface of the earth covered with water, water interconnecting all oceans and seas from pole to pole, across the equator and meeting the great rivers at the bays and estuaries.

Here is an experiment I conducted at home with a home aquarium. I reared two oscars and two pako fish, a relative of the notorious Piranha, in our long idle aquarium that has volume of some 100 gallons. It is huge for four small fishes. But that's freedom, I thought, thinking of their natural habitat. The freer the fishes are, the more they find food and mate, and easier to adjust to changing conditions.

Aquariums are like a stage where drama is shown - the colors, movements, behaviors of the characters; their interaction within and imagined scenery at the other side of the glass. To us viewers we see but the fish; to the fish they see us and all around us. In fact the whole landscape is part of the fish's dwelling, giving them a false sense of freedom.

Luckier are the fish though than convicts behind bars, or within thick walls with just a peep window. And while the convict is closed in, we wish our fish in the aquarium to "open up" by coming close to the glass wall so that we can communicate with them and they communicate with us.

The oscars died and left the pako to occupy the whole aquarium. Soon they grew big, so big that they had to be transferred to a garden pond. They did not last long. They did not get adapted to open condition. Acid rain, low dissolved oxygen level, among other factors were too much for them to bear.

In another aquarium I placed six paco fingerlings occupied by a lone oscar three times the size of the pako. They grew fast and overtook the lone Oscar. It too, died. And the pako, even if they had apparently adjusted, succumb to the long hot summer. Like birds, fish live in groups. They have their niche, they travel, even migrate, seeking the best conditions favorable to them. Thus the saying, "Birds of the same feather flock together." So with fish, fish of the same kind make a school.

There are of course interactions between and among flocks or schools in the natural environment - but not in an artificial one. In fact, one test of an ecosystem's balance and integrity is when the food web that comprises it has attained self-regulation and control, and what scientists call homeostasis which means dynamic stability for a period of time.

Take the coral reef, for instance. It is a model of symbiotic relationship of different organisms. Coelenterates (corals) and algae live together, so with seaweeds and a host of feeders and symbionts; sea grass and echinoderms (starfish and sea urchin) with benthic (bottom) dwellers, and pelagic (free swimming) fish, among many other organisms, including those unseen by the naked eye - they comprise the coral reef, the most beautiful underwater scenery we attempt to recreate in the laboratory or in our sala with an aquarium.
Red corals, acrylic AVR
I know of one built by a former student of mine at UST. It simulates the coral reef. There are even sea anemones that react to light and to touch to the delight of viewers. There are mollusks, both with shells and naked like the octopus. Yes, the octopus, known for being canny we interpret as intelligence, by changing colors and patterns with their environment, their eyes closest in appearance to the eyes of humans in shape and expression(?).

But octopuses are no easy aquarium pets. I can attest to that.

In San Fernando, La Union, where I was assigned in government service for two years, I caught a small octopus which I intended to make as pet. It was a pet all right while you are watching it. Once you turn your back, it creeps out of the aquarium in an attempt to escape. It has indeed a keen sense of smell of the sea - it crept always to the west - the South China Sea where I was living nearby. My octopus deserved freedom. I gave in with a sigh, gaining a lesson in biology, and put it back to sea.

I wonder how many organisms presently under the care of man will not get acclimatized once they are transferred to the wild, which is their native home. This is the irony of domestication.

Part 3: Domestication and spread of pest and disease
Scientists all over the world were puzzled at the source of SARS, until a Chinese scientist found out that the pathogen is carried by animals that have come to live with us, the civet cat principally. As a rule, get rid of the biological agent first before treating the victim, so a general campaign was launched. Similarly the pandemic Swine Flu caused by the coded virus H1N1 had to be contained firstly by isolating humans positive of the pathogen and drastically eliminating the infected animals.

Domestication brought dangers to humans as well as damage to his properties. It is not only the plant or animal per se, that is involved but the accompanying agent as in these examples.
  • Rabies in dogs
  • Ebola from primates and monkeys
  • Golden kuhol or snail attacking rice
  • Black bug of rice
  • Tungro disease of rice
  • Bubonic plague carried by flea that lives in rats
  • Leaf gall in santol caused by mites
  • Gall of dapdap or Erythrina caused by a wasp
No organism is free of certain pests and diseases. And no organism is completely immune to those that exist in the place where it is introduced. Some time, somehow it becomes susceptible by giving way to the causal organisms that is capable of biological specialization which is part of adaptation and key to evolution.
To be continued. 

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