A team of scientists believes a great place to search for the best sites for future Walmarts is in the guts of a grasshopper. The research involves capturing some of your bugs — though, sorry, not enough to keep them away from your barbecues, soccer games and beaches.
Intuitively we know that a proposed Walmart or any other development of pine rockland habitat in Miami-Dade County comes at the expense of natural resources flattened by acres of pavement. But the University of Florida isn’t in the business of telling corporations whether to build or environmentalists which projects to make a stand on. In fact, we planned our study of bug guts well before we knew of the shopping center plan.
Our research will tell just how interconnected animals and plants are within a small island of nature in the sea of a city.
The bugs’ diet may reveal interactions we didn’t know about, such as which species are essential links in the pine rockland food chain.
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It’s our hope that the data and recommendations we provide will inform policy makers, environmentalists and business leaders attempting to balance commerce and conservation.
There is likely to be future building in the pine rockland habitat classified as among the world’s most endangered. Indeed, the Herald’s recent reporting on talks to build a theme park that would encroach on pine rockland indicates that the projects will keep coming.
What our three-member team of researchers from the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and Biology Department aims to figure out is what happens when you carve up nature into pieces, big or small. We want to get at the complicated question of how small the pieces really have to get before you start seeing significant ecological damage.
We don’t know how much it matters when land is fragmented into 20-acre pieces, for example, or if undisturbed terrain can be chopped up into even smaller pieces without much more of a loss.
So why the grasshopper guts?
UF’s approach involves a close examination of what ecologists call the food web — what you and I would call, “Who eats whom?” Figuring out what bugs are eating is part of mapping that web. By establishing the who-eats-whom connections, we can predict the ripple effects from damage to several or even a single species.
We tug at the web of life all the time. I drive plenty of miles, I don’t recycle everything I discard and I shop in stores built at the sacrifice of habitat. So I know we can’t cordon off nature.
The key is to bring science to bear on how hard we can tug on that web and still have it snap back intact instead of tearing. These questions can be expensive to answer, but we’re not waiting for huge grants to cover the costs. The Eppley Foundation, which supports scientific research in chemistry, physics and biology, has awarded UF/IFAS $25,000 so that ecologist Ben Baiser, entomologist Jiri Hulcr and plant biologist Emily Sessa can get started.
The money basically covers the cost of traveling from Gainesville to Miami to do the field research. The real value of this support is the recognition that development in pine rockland is an issue and an area where more scientific knowledge is needed.
We hope policy makers, corporate leaders, conservationists and other research funders will agree with us and the foundation. Our political debates too often resemble a zero-sum game between opponents. Well-meaning advocates and corporate developers are, of course, entitled to their own opinions. They’re not entitled to their own facts.
To move public policy from an emotion-laden debate to a reason-based discussion, someone has to supply data. A better understanding of the effects of development on pine rockland can offer a scientific guide to where we build and what environmental cost we incur in doing so.
The Walmart and theme-park discussions are important ones about the future of South Florida. Gathering up bugs and analyzing their diets have the potential to supply new facts that serve as the basis for a common ground for the many stakeholders involved.
Measuring and mapping help everyone see the same dimensions of a challenge. That’s something we’re much less likely to find in a search of just our own guts.
Jack Payne is senior vice president of agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in Gainesville.