Why is a butterfly like a steel rivet?
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"What we're doing with the environment is prying rivets out all over the place. You will never succeed, arguing for the environment rivet by rivet. You can never prove that destroying the snail darter or the furbish lousewort will cause the collapse of the ecological system any more than you could argue (and I'm a pilot) that a jetliner's wing would snap off because of the loss of one rivet.Skip to next paragraph
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"The problem is that the missing rivets are building up and eventually the wing will come off. Society is simply unwilling to face what it is up against, and hopes to push it off on the future. But I'm afraid that we, and not our grandchildren, will pay the price of prying out the rivets."
Paul Ehrlich has devoted 21 years of his life to studying one of nature's "rivets," the checkersport butterfly, entomologically known as E. editha.m This species of checkerspot, named for its checkered pattern of blacks, reds, and yellows, ranges from Canada to northern Baja, and as far east as the Rocky mountains. Though it can survive in habitats as diverse as desert and mountain, the checkerspot is a sedentary insect, never traveling more than a few hundred yards from its food plant. The Monarch butterfly, in contrast, migrates as much as 3,000 miles.
Of the 14 colonies of E. editham that lived in the mid-1960s along the penninsula region between San francisco and San Jose, 11 have been driven into extinction with the construction of freeways and subdivisions. This checkerspot is expected by biologists to go on the endangered species list within the next several years. The delicate little creature has become immensely important in the construction of new theories of genetics and evolution, as well as in the development of schemes for ensuring the survival of endangered species like the blue whale.
Largely as a result of Professor Ehrlich's research over the last two decades -- the longest study of its type ever conducted on an insect -- scientists know more about the population biology, the ecology and genetics of E. editham than of any other nonhuman organism. His butterfly study has become a model for long-term environmental research and has revolutionized scientific thinking about the interaction between insects and plants.Ehrlich, who coined the term "coevolution" for his approach, has broken new ground in the field of population structure, reproductive biology, and gene flow between different populations. From his study of the checkerspot's behavior, scientists can extrapolate new ways to boost agricultural production to help solve the food and population problems of which he has so frequently written.
Ehrlich's laboratory is Stanford's 1,300-acre Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. It is the largest and most biologically-diverse preserve on any American university campus. The ridge borders on the crowded, urbanized region between San Francisco and San Jose, one of the fastest-growing regions in the country.
Jasper Ridge is a veritable archive of natural history, with 120 native herbs , 20 kinds of trees, 46 shrubs, 49 grasses, 79 varieties of sunflower along with rattlesnakes, bobcats, and rare horned toads. The first doctoral thesis using Jasper Ridge was submitted in 1897. Since then about a student a year has earned his PhD on Jasper Ridge. At present, 18 undergraduate courses visit the preserve to inspect everything from chert and Franciscan greenstone to asbestos veins.