“Here, let me show you an example,” our Maasai guide, Konee, said, as he pulled off the dusty, red road in the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem. On our game drive, we were discussing a concept I had just finished reading about in book entitled, Regenerative Development and Design. This book suggests that mutual benefit plays a more important role in the evolutionary process than has often been recognized1Mang Pamela A. and Ben Haggard, Regenerative Development and Design: A Framework for Evolving Sustainability, (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2016), 11-13.
. Like most people, I had heard far more about the role of competition in evolution (i.e., the well-known “survival of the fittest”), so I was eager to hear Konee’s thoughts on mutually beneficial relationships because, as a Maasai, he had spent most of life in close proximity with nature.
Konee pointed toward a thorny acacia tree as he brought the Land Rover to a stop. We exited the vehicle and moved in to closely examine the tree. He told us that this particular variety was known as a “Whistling Thorn” acacia tree. The name was derived from the symbiotic relationship between the swollen, hollow thorns produced by the tree and the “cocktail” ants who puncture holes in the thorns in order to use them as a home. As the wind blows through the pierced, hollow thorns, a whistling sound is produced, and, hence, the name.2This summary was derived from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Vachellia drepanolobium,” (accessed February 18, 2019), https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vachellia_drepanolobium.
Konee gently shook one of the leaves, and immediately, a group of ants rushed out of the thorns and onto the leaf. He explained that when an herbivore, like a giraffe, begins to nibble on a leaf, the shaking sensation sounds the alarm for the resident ants. The “cocktail ants,” so-named because they emerge from the thorns with their tails cocked (or, more technically, “arched”), ready to protect their home by stinging the tongues of the offending giraffe. Not surprisingly, the giraffe finds this experience unpleasant and moves on, leaving the tree’s leaves and the ant’s home intact.
Later, I learned that the relationship enjoyed by the Whistling Thorn tree with the ants was known as “myrmecophytism.” The tree’s leaves are protected by the ants, and the ants, in turn, are provided with a home; thus, both derive mutual benefit from the relationship.
Konee’s demonstration of mutualism provides a poignant example of why it is important to protect imperiled species from extinction. At times, I have been asked why we protect animals and not people, or why we save animals and exclude environmental protection – as if these were mutually exclusive goals. But myrmecophytism – the mutually beneficial relationship between the Whispering Thorn trees and the cocktail ants – points to an underlying flaw in this kind of atomistic thinking by gesturing toward the larger truth of a mutualism that also exists between people, animals, and the planet3 From a scientific standpoint, the faculative (optional) mutualism that exists between the Whistling Thorn trees and the ants and the mutualism, which is more of an interdependence, that exists between people, planet, and animals. However, there is a “family resemblance” (to use 20th-century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s phrase) between these two concepts in the sense that there is mutual benefit derived from the relationship. To be sure, there are differences as well..
The last mass animal extinction occurred about 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs disappeared, but many scientists believe we have now entered a sixth mass animal extinction. Elizabeth Kolbert writes, “[I]t is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.”4 Kolbert, Elizabeth, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company), 17-18. These rates of decline far surpass what scientists refer to as the “normal background rate of extinction,” and the population declines are largely driven by human behavior5 The rates are about 100 times the normal background rate of extinction. See, Jordan, Rob. “Stanford Researcher Declares that the Sixth Mass Extinction is Here,” Stanford News, June 15, 2015, https://news.stanford.edu/2015/06/19/mass-extinction-ehrlich-061915/. .
Mutualism prods us to ask, “What will happen to the environment and indeed to us, if we continue to drive other species toward extinction?” And mutualism also hints at a possible answer. Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich put it this way, “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.”6 Quoted in Kolbert, 268. Nonhuman animals play a critical role in sustaining the healthy ecosystems that we need for our survival. Our lives are inextricably bound together. Ultimately, we cannot do harm to animals without also harming the environment and ourselves.
But if our mutualism points to the possibility of shared destruction, it also beckons us to the path of preservation, for when we preserve species, we are protecting ecosystems, and we are saving ourselves. With this knowledge in mind, we hope you will join us on June 22nd at 8:15 a.m. to race against African wildlife extinction. It’s a race we really are in together, and one, with your help, we can win.