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As my husband and I watched Episode 2 “Great Transformations” of the EVOLUTION series on PBS, we were challenged to do more than simply watch. The program featured adaptations animals are making to a world that’s rapidly changing beneath them. What do you do when your food source is gone? Many species die out, but others are more resilient and intelligent.
One astounding example featured sea lions whose diet of sardines has disappeared. Sea lions are the supple, otter-like animals we’re used to seeing posed on rock formations. They’re smart and they’re independent. Like us, each animal preferred to go its own way. But for them independence became a luxury when the abundant sardines on their menu had been fished and driven by climate out of their realm. Evolution is change, often involving seemingly deliberate alterations. Doomed as independent actors, the sea lions began working as a team. Why? Because the food source they were able to access was too big and too fast for any one sea lion to catch. They now go after huge tuna, herding them into bays where they can be trapped and devoured.
What was so striking about this practical evolution? First, the sea lions had to teach themselves to communicate so they could function as a group—teach themselves to cooperate. They’re a reminder that we have grossly underestimated the capabilities of the animal kingdom. What else could they teach themselves if we keep cornering them and forcing them out of their natural world? They’re targeting one of our food sources now. Second, evolution doesn’t have to take centuries. Another example in the program featured male crickets that learned to change their sound twice in less than five years in order to survive.
Is it a coincidence that more people are being attacked by animals both marine and land-based that are operating alone—bears and crocodiles and orcas? We who have the potential to behave as partners can be enemies. Remember the old WAR OF THE WORLDS story in which humankind is saved by what then were known as the tiniest beings on earth—bacteria? We smiled, amused that the common cold could become a hero. And then COVID-19 reminded us that tiny beings might also destroy us as its mutations continue to evolve.
We’re forced to recall that humans are biological beasts. We’ve changed our own world so drastically to amass material wealth that we’re facing a desperate need for us to reinvent who we are and how we behave in order to ensure our ultimate survival. We who have lived for physical beauty and professional sports and energy resources are now asked to prioritize cooperation with each other and the planet. Will we be wise enough and adaptable enough to accomplish the feat? Stay tuned.