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Tag Archive | "Dr. Hugh Iltis"

Rare, Endangered, Secure?


Photograph of a female Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in captivity from the year 1898.

Photograph of a female Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in captivity from the year 1898.

Dr. Hugh Iltis from the University of Wisconsin Madison became aware of a rare species with potentially great human significance in the mid 1970’s. It was a perennial corn that he, with others, named Zea diploprennis. He flew to Mexico to see, study, and collect it. It was found on a few habitat acres that were about to be destroyed by development. The development would have eliminated the species from existence. Big deal?

Potentially this corn, closely related to Zea maize (corn) that humans depend on, could contain genes with disease resistance that were bred out of domestic corn. If gene splicing could be used to make domestic corn perennial, it might grow annually without farmers needing to replant. That would be a huge economic savings.

A great many plants are being pushed toward extinction as habitat is destroyed without concern for fellow species needing space and unique growing conditions. Ecologically, humans are not the only important species in existence but our actions for sharing living space often ignores other species’ value.

The movie Medicine Man, starring Sean Connery, illustrates this point as the scientist is on the cusp of finding a cure for cancer, while the habitat and species containing the valuable resources are being eliminated from existence. Consider watching the movie about the hidden mysteries found in wild organisms.

Many rare species are secure and survive well in limited habitats of small size with unique growing conditions. Those conditions might have unusual minerals, water quality, or insect interactions that contribute to survival. We have not discovered many of the unique characteristics needed by the plants, insects, fungi, or other organisms. Most species’ significance for humans or ecological communities remains unknown.

Just because a species is rare does not mean it is endangered, threatened, or of special concern. Many species are rare, few in number, but are secure from a survival perspective. Rare and Endangered are two different conditions.

Some species can be abundant and endangered. Endangered means it is likely to disappear from existence in the relatively near future. Rare simply means not abundant but does not mean in eminent danger of extinction. Rare species might hold the most important secrets with value for human use and ecological sustainability.

When a species is recognized as declining, it can be politically classified as a species of Special Concern, Threatened, or Endangered depending on how serious the danger is for becoming extinct in the near future. The passenger pigeon was likely the most abundant bird species in existence that rapidly declined and became extinct. The causes were likely a result of human altered environmental conditions. The migratory population of Monarch butterflies was abundant and is now rapidly declining like happened with the passenger pigeon. The decline is likely related to how humans are altering environmental conditions.

One thing we have discovered from Monarchs is that cardio-glycosides have been useful for treating people with heart conditions. Recognize the significance of secrets held by other species.

The passenger pigeons and monarchs were not secure just because they were abundant. Do not confuse abundance with security. Many rare species are not threatened because their numbers are few. Rarity does not mean eminent danger for extinction. Rare species will become endangered if we do not maintain the unique ecological habitat nature niche conditions they require.

I have long suggested it is important to maintain at least 10 percent of every habitat and ecosystem as wilderness to provide secure living conditions for species that inhabit Earth’s environmental biodiversity. The idea can be viewed as sound scientific planning, religious tithing of Earth’s ecological creation care, socially responsible behavior to preserve valuable resources, and for maintaining economic security.

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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World heroes


Ancestral perennial corn.

Ancestral perennial corn.

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Honey Bees and native insect pollinators keep food on our tables. Our society would crumble without insect pollinators that keep flowering plants thriving. Pollinators are real heroes that we should honor, respect, and care for by how we treat yards, farms, forest, and fields. If you ask people who they owe their health, wealth, and security to, I expect most would not reply “insects.”

Perhaps this is because the importance of ecological sustainability is not integrated into child upbringing by parents and is marginalized in school education by political forces and narrow subject focus. Ecological literacy is integral for maintaining sustainable economic, industrial, and societal community success. That was my focus as director at the Howard Christensen Nature Center and Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Education Center’s cross curriculum instruction. Our survival is dependent on keeping essential workers like insects on the job.

As nice as it is to recognize the work of people we depend on, other life forms are equal or more essential. To help develop appreciation for life in our neighborhoods, Nature Niche articles highlight creatures with whom we share Earth. However, this week I would like to recognize a human world hero with whom I have had limited personal experience.

I met with Dr. Hugh Iltis at the University of Wisconsin when I was deciding a career path for graduate school. I was considering botanical studies with him as my advisor. Hugh had recently become aware of a perennial corn in Mexico, and he and his colleagues named the ancestral perennial corn Zea diploperennis.

What makes Dr. Iltis a world hero is his recognition for the importance of an unknown plant that is restricted to a few square miles on planet Earth and his efforts to preserve it. It is a true grass related to Zea mays, our domestic edible corn. Mexican and Nicaraguan governments have taken action to preserve these plants. Why?

It has potential for use in breeding insect resistance, perennialism, and flood tolerance into domestic corn. Can you imagine if farmers no longer needed to plant corn annually because it sprouted annually on it own? If we can breed domestic corn or genetically modify it to become perennial, it would have significant impacts for agricultural economics.

What if we could breed it or genetically splice insect resistance from ancestral corn back into corn that was lost during domestication 10,000 years ago? We could perhaps reduce human dependence on insecticides that pose dangerous health concerns for our families and other life forms.

The tolerance of Zea diploperennis to floods could possibly increase domestic corn survival if its genes were incorporated to help it survive when corn fields flood and soils become water logged.

Wild corn was thought extinct at the time this ancestral corn was discovered. Many people and perhaps most on Earth do not recognize the importance and need to preserve species in our neighborhoods. Their importance and value will be lost to us and future generations if we do not honor, respect, and care for the health, wealth, and security that other species provide in ecosystems that support us.

I did not take the road to study plants under Dr. Iltis’s direction. Instead, I chose graduate study in entomology and ecology, with a subsequent career in environmental education. I focused energies toward environmental stewardship essential for sustaining society and life on Earth, by following Dr. Iltis’ lead and that of other heroes that help sustain society. Hail Hero to Dr. Iltis, who is now 90.

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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