Everyone should take time to learn, appreciate surroundings

Robert Heath - Professor of Biology

Robert Heath – Professor of Biology

Robert Heth

Thirty-two years ago I was a junior college transfer to a large state university. I vaguely remember my introductory zoology course, 500 students in a lecture hall, looking at slides of different creatures. 22 years later, sifting sediments from a tiny stream in northeastern Oklahoma, I recognized a ribbon worm, Prostoma rubrum, gliding across my tray from one of those zoology slides. What I didn’t learn were the names of any of the 500 students who took the course with me. Since then, I require my students to learn the names of their fellow students. Names are important. We both notice and value those we know by name.

As a senior at Illinois State, my ecology professor, Dale Birkenholtz, pointed out the native prairie grasses, big bluestem, switchgrass, Indian grass, prairie cordgrass, surviving in tiny remnants of prairies alongside abandoned railways and abandoned cemeteries in central Illinois.

Once I learned to recognize them, I now notice them, even here on the MSSU campus. They are not just grass and weeds, but remnants of the vast prairies that once covered central North America.

Karl Linne, the Swedish taxonomist who published his major edition on taxonomy in 1758, Charles Darwin, the British naturalist who published his work on natural selection in 1859, and Gregor Mendel, the Austrian monk who presented his research in basic genetics in 1866, are highlighted in the opening chapter of our zoology text.

The work of all three laid the foundations for understanding relationships among living creatures and their environment. We not only share a common world, but a common descent and a common genetic pattern.

Sometimes, we prefer people or creatures to remain nameless. We feel no responsibility for creatures we cannot name. Most of my work as an aquatic ecologist is on private property.

I saw my first plains topminnow in a tiny, hidden away, spring pool, halfway up the bluff in Cherokee Co., Oklahoma. The owner, a dentist, was delighted to have such a rare creature entrusted to his care. Not all feel the same.

An automobile dealership north of Fayetteville was not happy to have an University of Arkansas graduate student find the last Arkansas population of Etheostoma cragini, the Arkansas darter, a federally protected species, in a tiny stream he intended to fill in to expand his sales lot.

The concept of private permanent title to anything is an obvious illusion. One of my ancestors was paid 7,777 acres of land for service in the Revolutionary War in what is now today Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. We own none of that today. It is in the care of someone else. We are really only temporary caretakers of land. How we view land influences decisions. If land is ours to do as we please, and if there is no accountability for those decisions, we tend to take very short-sighted actions. Pristine land along Shoal Creek is marketed as industrial development, generating a vast potential profit for current owners, but leaving our grandchildren with just another abandoned concrete tract surrounded by a rusting chain-link fence.

Long before Linnaeus, Darwin, and Mendel, our ancestors recognized relationships between themselves and the biological communities and ecosystems in which they lived. We depend on not only basic ecosystem services (oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur cycling, pollination, predator-prey population regulation) but also food, shelter, medicines from the plant and animal communities that surround us. Even deeper are human aesthetic needs for the mystery and complexity of the biological communities in which we live. We sometimes today, in an isolated and increasingly urbanized world, forget the strength of those relationships.

Although the concept of stewardship is as old as Genesis, the need for biologists to focus on the conservation of populations, habitats, and ecosystems is fairly recent, driven today by the exponential rise of human populations and the concurrent rise in extinction rates. Even in the midst of an urban environment, our campus abounds with interesting creatures and habitats. The marsh is a local hotspot for area birders. Marsh wrens and Lincoln sparrows hide in the winter rushes, and snipe forage for crustaceans in the shallows. Soon American bitterns and lesser yellowlegs will be feeding in the marsh, followed by a progression of herons, great and little blues, little greens, and great egrets. Wilson’s warblers, common yellowthroats, and northern waterthrush will stop by on their way north. In the summer wood ducks, parula warblers, thrushes, warbling vireos, and chats nest in the marsh woods. Muskrat forage for crayfish and cat-tail in the pond watching out for their predators, the mink. Woodchucks and skunks burrow in our dry hillsides. White-tailed deer bed down in the timber along the creek. Graybelly salamanders and blind isopods (Caecidotea Cherokee) survive in the gravels near the springhead at the east end of the biology pond, reminding us of the fauna that inhabits the groundwaters beneath our feet. Dragonflies and damselflies abound around the edge of the biology pond, emerging on the spikerushes and American burr-reed along the margins. One brilliant blue damselfly, Argia nahuana, has been recorded nowhere else in Missouri. These are all but a part of species and habitats entrusted to our care, adding complexity and beauty to this campus community.

Although Turkey Creek suffers from all of the effects of urbanization, it and the other urban streams of Joplin have great potential for recreational and educational purposes. Large bass, three species of sunfishes, and, surprisingly, three species of the relatively intolerant suckers inhabit pools. Louisiana waterthrush and kingfishers nest along the banks. A few species of stoneflies and mayflies, as well as many dragon and damselflies still inhabit the gravels.

Physical alteration of streams and springs cause the most serious problems. Low water dams block migration, channelization increases downstream flooding and reduces habitat complexity to near zero, removal of streamside vegetation and gravel mining result in bank collapse, leading to shallower, wider, warmer streams. Wider streams have fewer pools for large fish, and more sunlight increases algal growth. Bankside construction increases sedimentation and clogs gravel interstices where most invertebrates live. Lawn pesticides poison insect fauna. Trash is unsightly and encourages others to use a location as a dump. Sometimes trash is toxic. One trash bag of cigarette remains probably caused the dramatic decline of the dragonfly, mayfly and stonefly fauna below the theater this winter. Although little can now be done to mitigate zinc and lead from past mining, allowing streamside vegetation to re-grow, limiting insecticide use near streams, controlling litter, and enforcing of existing laws regulating streamside construction would go a long way to restoring our local Joplin waterways including our campus’s share of Turkey Creek and its tributaries.

We notice things we can name. Those we can name we often value. Awareness also leads to insights into relationships as well as reminding us of our responsibilities for the care of those we know by name.