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Categorized | Outdoors

19th Century Observations


By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

In the late 1800’s, Henry Fabre made detailed observations in nature niches that required months and sometimes years. Detailed observation records allowed more accurate conclusions than those made with too little data or observation. Hasty conclusions are what we want but it is not how science works.

We expect instant gratification. On TV, crimes are solved in an hour; but in real time, they may take years for evidence collection, testing and prosecution.

Fabre made observations on dung beetles. Watching the beetle bury animal dung clarified one of nature’s methods for recycling nutrients in pastures. He identified the importance for having dung beetles in our pastures. In their absence, dried dung remained on the surface landscape. It prevented nutrient use by plants in pastures. Nutrients eventually were lost when washed into streams and water bodies, where they became a pollutant. We in turn added fertilizers to fields to replenish lost nutrients.

Those were not his intentions or even his conclusions. Others learned from his studies. He was simply trying to understand the life of dung beetles, which to many seemed like a non-productive activity. He unintentionally built a case 150 years ago for protecting biodiversity in yards, farms, and countryside. Aside from describing how the beetles were important for nutrient recycling, he learned the beetles were better weather forecasters than people.

He summarized months of tedious observation of dung beetles as follows:

First he noted the beetles were actively fussing about in cages with impatience for nocturnal tasks of burying dung to provide buried food for a new generation. Following a good weather day came another good weather day. The beetle activity did not prove that good weather was coming the following day.

Second conclusion. Days with fine weather that appeared to Fabre would be followed by good weather, were perceived differently by the beetles. The beetles did not come out and it rained during the night and part of the next morning.

The third observation was when the sky was overcast and appeared to foretell coming rain. The beetles were instead flying about with high activity in the cages. The apparent building storm passed without precipitation. Days following such behavior patterns demonstrated good weather.

After three months of observation, Fabre had repeatedly verified that the beetle activity could be used to accurately predict the next day’s weather better than he or weather forecasters.

The twilight activity of the beetles demonstrated they were living barometers that were more accurate than scientists of the time for weather prediction. He concluded, “The exquisite sensitiveness of life is mightier than the brute weight of a column of mercury.”

Most of us make quick observations on a wide variety of things and think we have made accurate conclusions. Unfortunately, science is not able to make rapid accurate conclusions without repeated experiments that often required months, years, or decades. Evidence for things like human-caused climate change has been predicted for over a 100 years. Scientists have been warning of the long term dangers human-caused climate change poses for coming generations.

Last year one senator brought a snowball to show Congress proof that the planet is not warming. Many chose to believe him. He does not understand the difference in climate and weather research. What we want to believe often takes precedence over long term evidence for what is really occurring in nature.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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