Thursday, April 26, 2012

Poop and Destiny

I thought it fitting to spend my last post on this sciencey blog discussing a topic that I first discovered through one of my favorite science communicators, Stephen Jay Gould.  The topic, fitting or not depending on your opinion of my posts, happens to be… guano.  Bird poo.  So come along! 

The species I’d like to discuss is one you may have heard of.  If you have, it’s a name you’re not likely to forget: the Blue-Footed Booby.   

It just fully occurred to me where this post is going, and I’m not sure that I like it.  My apprehension comes not from the mention of “poo” or “Booby,” as you might expect, but rather from the dismal conclusion that could easily be drawn.  Alas, as Dana would attest, writing is about taking leaps, and so I take one now.  I hope to leave you with the notion that nature is both wondrous in its balance and economy, and utterly without human passions, despite what we might hope. 

If you travel to the Galapagos Islands, Blue-Footed Boobies will be among the most obvious of the animals you see.  Not only do they possess, as their name implies, a fairly striking natural pedicure, but many of them seem to be sitting on the bulls-eyes of big, white targets.  Further inspection will reveal that the volcanic landscape has not been modified by a rogue line-painter into some bizarre sporting arena.  Rather, the birds have made the rings themselves – by spraying guano in all directions! 

"This is embarrassing."

The “guano rings,” as it turns out, are part of the homes of these ground-nesting birds.  Each mother sits inside her ring, placidly warming her chicks, apparently oblivious to the gawking tourists who snap photographs mere feet from her face.  When Gould was in the Galapagos, he was surprised enough by the Booby behavior that he decided to do a bit of “research.”  He approached a nest with caution, inching toward the circle while the mother stared into space.  Eventually, he toed the line.  Still no response.  Finally, as his toe moved imperceptibly forward, it reached an invisible line within the circle.  The reaction was immediate: frantic squawking, flapping and pecking.  Every time he repeated the toe experiment the same thing would happen. 

The Boobies operate on a very simple strategy of nest protection: if something lies inside the nest, nurture it.  If it is outside, ignore it.   If it crosses the line, attack.  Unfortunately, this applies even to a bird’s own chicks, which have been observed cheeping helplessly mere inches from a guano ring as their mother sits proudly atop the rest of her clutch.  People who have seen such things are incredulous.  How could she be so cruel?  So Stupid?  They want to put the chick back in the nest, but it is forbidden – things in nature tend to happen for a reason. 

A mother Booby lays between one and three eggs per clutch, one-at-a-time.  They hatch in the order that they are laid, so that the oldest is always biggest.  Often, the mother raises all of her chicks to adulthood without a hitch.  Occasionally though, and this is where the post takes a turn for the appalling, the first-born chick will push his or her younger siblings out of the nest, across the short expanse of rock, and over the invisible line, condemning them to death.  The mother will continue to raise the first-born.  She will pay the others no mind at all. 

When I hear things like this, I feel a physical pain in my gut.  The suffering of little, fuzzy creatures is the worst thing I can imagine.  But the world beyond humanity does not share my concepts of justice, good and evil, right and wrong.  The oldest Booby is not a psychopath; his mother is not deranged.  They are two hungry birds in an environment that does not contain enough food to support two or three nestlings, so one of them does what must be done to prevent the death of the entire clutch.   

I admit I hadn’t intended to leave you with such a sobering meditation on the apathy of nature.  Truth be told, I was hoping to make some poop jokes and leave you with a laugh or two.  Alas, what’s done is done.  Besides, it’s sometimes valuable to remember that life isn’t fair.  It helps us to cope when things go wrong in our personal lives.  It also makes watching that chase scene from Planet Earth a little more bearable.  In any case, I hope you’ve enjoyed this Bio 490 project or ours, and I’m sure many of us hope to keep blogging in the future.  Thanks for reading.


  1. Mike, your photo captions are always so funny.

  2. If there's an award for best blog title of the semester, this is the winner.