I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that you won't see a "Save the lampreys" bumper sticker any time soon.
Not only are they so unattractive as to make scorpions look like hamsters by comparison, but the behavior of these eel-like creatures is, by human standards, profoundly uncivil. Using their suction-cup mouths and sharp teeth, lampreys attach themselves to unsuspecting fish, pierce their flesh with their pointy tongues, and hang there for about 18 months, living off the fish's blood. When they finally detach, they leave a distinctive, circular wound on the fish.
Note to environmental groups: don't use lampreys in your fundraising literature.
This past weekend, the Boston Globe ran a fascinating piece by David Filipov on a sea lamprey population in Lake Champlain. Fishermen have observed that a growing number of the lake's salmon and trout are undernourished, pocked with sores, or, in some cases, still have the parasites dangling from them.
But these actions have drawn criticism from conservationists, particularly on the Vermont side of the lake, who are concerned that the lampricide could be upsetting the lake's ecological balance. It's unclear whether Champlain's lampreys are an invasive species or whether they are native to the lake. Filipov writes:
Vermont's sensitivity about the lake's habitat reflects a broader reconsideration of the role humans have played in shaping it. If the sea lamprey is invasive, it probably made its way into the lake through man-made canals, the way it arrived in the Great Lakes. But recent research suggests that the Lake Champlain sea lamprey is genetically distinct from the ocean species, and may have entered the lake as the glaciers receded 10,000 years ago.
If this is true, the eradication by humans of native strains of fish, which may have been better adapted to survive alongside sea lampreys, helped cause the current imbalance. Deforestation and cultivation of the land filled the lake's tributaries with sediment that made them better suited for lamprey larvae to survive. Since fisheries began restocking the lake with nonnative strains of trout and salmon in the 1970s, the sea lamprey population, judging from the number of wounds on fish, has skyrocketed.
"We're feeding the lampreys by restocking their favorite food," said Ellen Marsden, a biology professor at the University of Vermont who has researched sea lampreys. "And we're competing for the same fish."
So by altering the lake bed, eradicating native fish, and replacing them with food fish, we have already drastically transformed the lake's ecosystem. So now what? Do we try to restore Champlain to the way it was before humans started interfering with it? Or do we push ahead and keep trying to make the lake more attractive to fishermen, thereby injecting money into the local economy?
Both options are perilous. First off, determining the lake's preindustrial condition requires a lot of guesswork, and because many of the native strains have vanished, the best we could hope for is a rough approximation of the original ecosystem. As for attempting to create healthy salmon and trout stocks, we simply don't know enough about ecology to be confident that we won't end up knocking things further out of whack, as it seems we have already done.
But either way, the lake's future is no longer determined solely by natural forces. As with every other ecosystem on the planet, we have switched the lake from autopilot to manual and grasped the controls with our own – fallible – hands.
Which raises a deeper question: What is wildlife for? Should we focus only on protecting animals that benefit humans in some way, or do all animals – even nasty parasites like the lamprey – possess an inherent worth?
If it's the former, then why bother protecting inedible, un-domesticable animals like polar bears and snow leopards? Is it simply because we derive satisfaction from knowing that we share the planet with them? Do the uncharismatic animals – the wasps, worms, and slugs of the world – get the shaft simply for being insufficiently beguiling to human eyes? That strikes me as weak.
But if animals have an inherent worth, then how do we justify killing them in such large numbers? Why is it that our society goes to great lengths to save whales, but then casually slaughters millions of pigs – animals whose cognitive capabilities are thought to exceed those of dogs. Is there a moral distinction between wildlife and domestic animals? If so, what's the basis of this distinction? And where do pets fit in?
Ultimately, inquires into the telos of natural phenomena tend to lead to bizzare conclusions. A century before Darwin's observations exploded the notion that nature has a directed purpose, the French philosopher Voltaire brutally satirized this worldview in Candide. In the opening paragrahs, the eternally optimistic Dr. Pangloss, explains to the callow title character why everything in the world is just so:
"It is demonstrable," said he, "that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles, therefore My Lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best."
In other words, statements about nature's "purpose" tend to be self-serving. The horse wasn't made to fit a harness for a cart.
Perhaps instead of asking what nature is for, we should be asking ourselves what we are for. Like it or not, the future of the natural environment is entirely up to us. It is a reflection of who we are. As the now-world weary Candide says at the end of Voltaire's work, "Let us cultivate our garden."