Do you feel that by exploring nature we are also killing it?

For example when I am searching for insects and isopods I look under bark . For the next few days the insects are no were to be found. Another example is when I flip over logs and the insects scurry away.

Just want to know your opinions.

7 Likes

In the big picture I don’t think an action such as peeling off bark or flipping over logs is detrimental to the inhabitants of that ecosystem. But certainly its worthwhile to try to minimise the disturbance as much as possible. Natural events such as hurricanes can cause greater amounts of damage than what a single person can do, and large scale human activities eg. logging, waste management etc. have also been associated with great environmental damage.

At the same time I do think flipping logs, or flipping leaves and rocks etc is part of the curiosity people have when exploring nature. Without such actions we would have no idea of the existence of dare I say hundreds or even thousands of species.

It essentially a catch 22 problem. Without disturbing the ecosystem, we wouldn’t be able to learn about the wildlife that make it up.

18 Likes

“Let go and gain wisdom, or let be and gain ignorance”.

It’s a moral dilemma. Disturb an organism to gain the ability to collect data and study it, or leave it alone at risk of it being lost to time and our knowledge of it forever being fragmented? The best way I feel to look at it is to gauge the circumstances.

First, I look at abundance. How much other habitat is there? Are there other trees that bark-dwelling insects could move to? Are there other logs, or leaf litter, or other sheltering spots nearby? If you are collecting specimens, the same approach applies.

Second, I look at recovery. How many are there? Is there other habitat that organisms can move to or shelter in without becoming homeless? Are there ways to go about turning a log over that minimizes the impact you may be causing?

Third, learn the circumstances. For instance, certain arthropod groups are usually quite widespread but some species are rarely seen, so even if you only find one specimen, that doesn’t mean it is rare in the area. So in those cases, you may be able to waive the moral guilt of disturbance if you can tell it’s not going to cause much proportional harm.

Let’s take your example of logs. A log in optimal position forms a protected and sheltered community of organisms, that can take several weeks, or maybe months to establish. So, turning that log over breaks that shelter, and disturbs that living under it. There are two sides to this which still support the action. First, a lot of organisms in that community are ephemeral, meaning they have very short life spans as it is, so the chance of really impacting them is far lower. Second, a lot of organisms that can be found under logs are not exclusive to it, but also do just as well in leaf litter or soil, provided it is sheltered. When I’m weighing up that decision, I mostly consider the habitat around it. If so, I proceed, but when I turn the log back to as perfect a position as I can, I always make sure to kick some leaves against it to seal the gap as well. The longer you leave that wet sheltered habitat exposed, the more it’ll dry out as well, so don’t take too long. That offers further ways to preserve that niche below it.

Honestly there’s no straight answer for this, but here’s some semblance of discussion and an opinion, anyway. And take care where you step in the forest, it’s easy to squash things like mosses and fungi needlessly.

24 Likes

I was under the impression that peeling bark off of trees is considered habitat destruction and should never be done. On occasion I will look under bark if it is already loose and I can look under without removing it, but I never purposely take bark off of a tree, dead or alive.

I agree that all of us engage in a certain amount of habitat disruption. But there is a difference between disturbing a habitat and actually destroying it. If we peel the bark off a dead tree, whatever lives under bark simply can’t live there anymore.

7 Likes

Yes it is totally habitat destruction, what I meant was such an action in the long run isn’t going to be very impactful to that ecosystem as a whole, compared to natural disasters and the long term damage of large scale human activities. Plus I did mention in my original post that its “worthwhile to try to minimise the disturbance as much as possible”.

It would also be worthwhile to explicitly define the scale difference between disturbing vs. destroying. For example one might consider peeling a bit of bark disturbing, because what was underneath can always find another piece of bark to hide under. And peeling a large amount of bark (that’s just a ridiculous thing to put in effort in general) would be destroying. But of course as @silversea_starsong said, its a moral dilemma.

1 Like

I suppose it is analogous to learning about a human body (where the person = an ecosystem). You can learn a lot merely by observing. You can learn even more through minor “disturbances” such as taking small samples of blood or hair etc, though this is already less useful to someone who doesn’t have some background in biology or medicine. But only doctors, ie experts, should recommend or perform an exploratory surgery, which is a huge disturbance that will have some degree of permanent consequence. And they are knowledgeable enough to minimize long term damage, as well as knowledgeable enough to actually be able to interpret what they find – or intervene for the health of the person.
A layperson who wants to learn about a human’s internal organs should not start cutting open humans. There are books for that. Specialised questions should be directed to specialists.

Hope that makes any sense.

7 Likes

As a child of hiking/camping parents whose summer holidays were spent for a few years at something called “Forest School Camps”, I was taught not to move or disturb rotting logs or stones, and would not have dreamed of tearing off bark. I follow this same approach in my current forest restoration activities, and have always made sure volunteers and visitors do too. But I have noticed many people do otherwise, and also trample vegetation even where it is most necessary and fragile, often in the name of conservation, restoration, science or education.

Seems a bit pointless to me to try and conserve something you dont respect. Occasionally I will gently uplift peeling bark on a fallen log, have a peek, maybe take a photo, then replace it in the same position. I often wonder about the damage and habitat loss caused, ideally temporarily, by weed removal, and do my best to minimise this by staging weed control so critters can restablish nearby, though of course I am only aware of the tip of the iceberg of critters, so its guesswork.

7 Likes

I would like to be more explicit to all readers of my first post in that I never meant to say it is ok to disturb the ecosystem that way. I was just making a comparison by saying actions like this is minuscule compared to large-scale human activities that greatly destroy natural habitats in the long run. When I peel bits of bark, I try to put them back. When I flip over rocks, I flip them back. Or at least do the best I can if I remember which rock goes where.

Yeah I do notice that sometimes too, but at the same it is not easy to be mindful of all the various micro-ecosystems and not disturb any of them to a certain extent. If only we can float…

4 Likes

Well, you don’t peel all bark present there, do you? We had logs waiting to be burned, no matter how much you disturb them everything were still there, there’s always places to hide, unless your forest is under bad influence of government cleaning it from logs that happened in some parts of the word. Checking those is an opportunity to find rarer species or larvae you can’t find anywhere else, you always can get things back in place (rotten wood is easy to fall apart, it’s not the same as if you’d like to destroy an alive tree). Our forests are suffering from beetles, so there’re tons of dead trees, it would be a big lost to ignore them.
With every step you take you kill someone, so the aim to minimise it, but it’s not something you can change.

6 Likes

And that is a counterpoint: merely by being, we are disturbing. If I sit down on a bare rock, vertebrates who use that rock will notice my presence and steer clear, which can disrupt their normal feeding routes and other aspects of their lives.

2 Likes

Thanks for the clarification robotpie:) and it seems the OP is also mindful of the issues. Excuse me if I jumped a bit, it is just such a distressing issue happening all around me, eg pest predator control people walking up hill on wet clay to follow a bait line as required, leaving a bank of native ferns I have been watching for 20 years nothing but a muddy bare slope with deep boot prints; a group course on stream ecology testing wandering freely to the stream’s edge trampling native sedges partially hidden by weed and likely unrecognised anyway; and my own 30 year accumulation of regret and self-recrimination over accidentally disturbed birds, nests, or invert habitat; exposure of seedling habitat to dessication, or to trampling because the weed removal makes it accessible, or of shade-dependent plants to sunlight through misjudging the amount of remaining shade at certain times of day or year…
Sorry, I have gone a bit off-topic, from the possible neg. effects of exploration, to the even more severe possible sided-effects of restoration…since I have never been able to separate the two activities:)

6 Likes

Interesting, I have wondered lately if any of the beetle damage and tree deaths I see in local forest are “unnatural”. Usually I attribute excessive damage of plants to disturbed ecology of vegetation, soil, water, or unbalanced invert polulations. due to predator insects wiped out, etc. I am in New Zealand.

2 Likes

I don’t see any harm done. For discussion like this it is worthwhile to see all possible viewpoints, but I just felt the main point of that paragraph wasn’t getting across so I thought it best to come clean with what I meant. But it is a difficult thing, since I think it is almost impossible to observe nature without disturbing it in some shape or form. What we can do is to try to minimise that disturbance as best we can. And certainly seeing such changes in a long term scale can be disturbing. At the same time, a few centuries back I assume naturalists would be trampling all over the place anyway to write down some observations they made for whatever type of animal, plant or fungus etc, giving us modern folk that knowledge. So in a sense, those pioneers did the disturbing so that us future generations wouldn’t have to do as much of it.

4 Likes

I’d say it varies, here it happens because those forests were planted, trees are of the similar age and they become affected by bark and jewel beetles at the same time, so their numbers go up the way they wouldn’t in another place. Plus as many plant eater insects their numbers can explode in certain years. But there’re problems in Siberia too with them, forests are quarantined, should read about what’s the exact cause there.

5 Likes

I have recently thought about this as I am currently running an experiment, on pollination and pollinators, which requires me to take floral samples of a highly localised and endangered legume. The aspects that make my actions feel justified (or at least that my actions will not have permanent affects on the populations persistence in the area) is that these plants produce copious amounts of flowers, are not obligate reseeders/resprout efficiently after disturbance and are one of the more dominant species in the immediate area. This helps me understand that the tiny reduction in seed set that my actions may be causing will probably not lead to the reduction of this species numbers in the area.

In any case, the rate of development in the area are by far the greatest threats to this species persistence.

4 Likes

It all depends what you’re studying and the quality of the data gathered in my opinion. I worry that a lot of disturbance is being done by people on iNaturalist in the name of ‘gathering data’ while being unaware of the consequences of destructive activities like peeling bark or moving logs from their original position.

On one hand, I’ve seen arguments that iNaturalist is primarily a place for people to learn more about nature and gain some knowledge/respect for the natural world. On the other hand, I’ve seen people advocate for and cite the scientific value of citizen science in documenting species and behavior in a way that may not be feasible otherwise due to limitations in funding/researcher-time. I won’t argue side or the other, just to point out that there may be some cake-having/eating happening.

I doubt this debate will go away or be resolved anytime soon, but I will say that it is disheartening to see some try to ‘wave away’ habitat disturbance/destruction by saying that:

  1. it’s in the name of science
  2. it’s really not that much damage
  3. OK it might be some damage, but see #1
  4. and anyway there’s lots of learning to be done through these activities

As there aren’t clear accepted standards on behavior while naturalizing, ‘[leave no trace principles like ‘leave what you find’ and ‘respect wildlife’](https://www.nps.gov/articles/leave-no-trace-seven-principles.htm)’ aside, I worry that people are left to judge the merits/impacts of their actions alone, and with literally hundreds of thousands of active users (and growing), the impact starts to add up in places that are especially sensitive/visited.

I think the original question is compelling and good to ask another way, Are we loving nature to death?

I’ll leave some articles here which have explored the topic, one of which (1) is a scientific study which proposes that human recreational activities may pose the greatest risk to endangered plants overall.

(2) Popular science digest on the above article (https://insidescience.org/news/nature-lovers-may-risk-loving-nature-death)

(3) Social media like Instagram (and iNaturalist) may be facilitating destruction of natural areas through overuse, (4) trampling superblooms and (5) facilitating poaching of succulents in South Africa and California

I can’t say that we should all stop exploring, since that isn’t practical, but I argue that we need to be more conscious of our collective impact on species and the habitat degradation that comes along with seemingly innocuous acts with good or neutral intentions of learning about and enjoying nature and documenting species.

Perhaps iNaturalist needs an ethical code of conduct similar to ‘leave no trace’ if it doesn’t already have one? Or at least to educate people on the possible impacts of their actions and issues to consider when out in nature. You’ll never be able to reduce impact to zero (just being outside sets animals on edge or could introduce pathogens/weed seeds, etc.), but you can try to minimize your personal impact and educate others to do the same.

All these arguments aside, many activities done in the name of exploring/documenting nature, including handling reptiles in CA are illegal and can be penalized by fines when done on public lands.

Simply by asking the question on whether your activities are endangering the natural world you want to explore, you’re clearly on the right track in my opinion. In case it’s not clear, I enjoy exploring nature, but try to minimize my impact as much as possible while encouraging others to do the same, since without this consciousness, we do indeed run the risk of killing nature as we explore it.

9 Likes

This is really interesting, thanks for sharing! I would not have guessed that recreation would be the largest category of threatening activity for endangered plants in the US. Although I would question if people roaring around on off-road vehicles (the largest subcategory of this threat) should be referred to as “nature-lovers”. It’s a good reminder to be careful and mindful when out enjoying nature.

7 Likes

I like @yerbasanta’s idea of a well-communicated ethical code-of-conduct for iNaturalist participants. It may be something casual observers just don’t think about, so making it front-and-center here could make a real difference in how a percentage of us go about exploring.

This is a good reminder that people who appreciate the natural world should try to be advocates for the restoration and conservation of habitat. Those efforts, some big and some small, I think should outweigh any minor disturbances we make. I’d like to think so anyway.

5 Likes

Heavy rains, strong winds, trees falling over, rock slides, soil collapses on banks or cliffs, etc…do more damage than you as a person can do in reasonable exploration in nature.

2 Likes

Welcome to the Forum, @john_hall :)

1 Like