What the world’s com­ing to

The Southern Gazette - - Editorial - Rus­sell Wanger­sky

I’m 56, and I’m not as flex­i­ble as I once was.

I try to make up for that with a near-ir­re­press­ible ir­ri­tabil­ity, es­pe­cially now that my su­per­hero skills are lim­ited to never sleep­ing through an en­tire night and the in­ex­haustible abil­ity to worry about any­thing.

I’m prob­a­bly not as adapt­able as I once was, ei­ther.

I say this lit­er­ally from a di­nosaur’s view­point, be­cause, in a rapidly chang­ing world, adapt­abil­ity is where it’s go­ing to be at.

Last week, there was plenty of dis­cus­sion about the pos­si­bil­ity of an im­pend­ing “rat ex­plo­sion” as tem­per­a­tures in­crease in North Amer­ica. Rats are pro­lific breed­ers with a fast birthrate turn­around; a rat has a ges­ta­tion pe­riod of 14 days, and can re­pro­duce when it’s only a month old. As tem­per­a­tures warm, rats are poised to take ad­van­tage with rapidly grow­ing pop­u­la­tions. Breed­ing fast and in large num­bers means rats might be poised to seize new en­vi­ron­men­tal op­por­tu­ni­ties in North Amer­i­can cities.

But the po­ten­tial ex­plo­sion in rat num­bers is only part of the fas­ci­nat­ing world of species adapt­abil­ity - and what the world might look like down the road.

And that’s where you get back to youth and adapt­abil­ity - and that story stretches back to the “live fast and die young” rock stars of the ocean, the cephalopod­s. Re­search in 2016 started point­ing out that those species, squid and oc­topi, are, like jel­ly­fish, par­tic­u­larly poised to take ad­van­tage of ocean changes - pre­cisely be­cause their life cy­cle is shorter.

Think of it like a ge­netic gun­shot: fire one bul­let care­fully from a ri­fle ev­ery three years or so, and you may hit a tar­get. Fire a shot­gun re­peat­edly, with each shell filled with 20 or more pel­lets, and you’ll al­most cer­tainly hit some part of the tar­get, and prob­a­bly more than just once.

The shorter and more flex­i­ble your re­pro­duc­tive cy­cle, the bet­ter equipped you are to take ad­van­tage not only of en­vi­ron­men­tal op­por­tu­ni­ties, but of minute ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tions that might make you a more suc­cess­ful species in changed con­di­tions as well. Cephalo­pod pop­u­la­tions are grow­ing in al­most all oceans be­cause of that pair of adapt­abil­i­ties.

Mean­while, we stag­ger along with life­spans that are re­mark­ably long for an­i­mal species even though we’ve now man­aged to turn start turn­ing that clock back­wards in a small way with the in­ter­ven­tion of profit-fo­cused drug com­pa­nies and opi­oid ad­dic­tion.

“But look at the Ja­panese squid prob­lem,” you might say. Re­cently, there was news that Ja­pan is suf­fer­ing from huge de­clines in fly­ing squid, a food species that’s named for the way it can use jets of wa­ter to shoot into the air. But the short­age is dou­ble-faceted: there’s both an over­fish­ing prob­lem, and an en­vi­ron­men­tal one, be­cause the sur­face of the Sea of Ja­pan has warmed by 1.7 de­grees in the last cen­tury.

But it’s also ac­tu­ally an ex­am­ple of the abil­ity to mod­ify to fit your en­vi­ron­ment. The squid have also moved north and mod­i­fied their be­hav­iour. Un­less they’re fished out, they will con­tinue to reap the ben­e­fit - as a species, at least - of hav­ing shorter in­di­vid­ual life­spans.

A fu­ture world filled with rats and cock­roaches, oceans full of squid, oc­topi and vast swathes of jel­ly­fish? Oh, and did I men­tion huge in­creases in op­por­tu­ni­ty­seiz­ing crop pests and deep-wa­ter pur­ple sea urchins called “the cock­roaches of the sea”?

Sounds like the ba­sis for a whizzbang of a dystopian video game.

At 56 years in, I’ve learned one thing: the world’s likely to win, even if hu­mans don’t.

I’m un­likely to be around long enough to have to adapt to that.

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