Jeff Corwin spoke at the Dillon Lecture Series at Hutchinson Community College on Monday, January 31, 2011. Born in Massachusetts, the 43 year old Corwin, is most famous for his television work with Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, Travel Channel, MSNBC and CNN. He has also addressed the United Nations and worked in the tropical rain forests of Belize. He has been on expeditions to six of the seven continents. Only Antarctica remains. He lectures on wildlife, ecology and conservation to audiences throughout the United States.
At this lecture he provided some startling statistics. At the current trend, within 20 years, one out of five species will be lost. Every 20 minutes, something disappears.
He said, “The biggest problem we face is that we are not connected to nature.” With 392 National Parks, twice that many National Refuges, and four times that many State Parks each of us co-owns about four acres of land, and “we never see it.”
He spoke about the moment he became a naturalist. He grew up in the city but said, “nature was my sanctuary. I hungered for the time we’d go to my grandparent’s home.” It was there, at age six, when he first saw a snake on the log pile. He said, “I thought I had discovered something new.” He caught the snake, and it bit him. He ran into the house where the adults said, “Get rid of it.” He replied, “No, I love it.” He said, “That was the moment I became a naturalist.”
He said, “In my heart I’m a naturalist – someone excited by nature, who wants to share the natural world. That moment was the lightning bolt.” He wondered aloud what would have been different if it had been something other than a snake. But, because it was he says, “I love snakes. I have always loved snakes.”
For the next two years he observed the snake, taking photos and sketching it. He witnessed shedding, defense, predation and reproduction. “The day I became a conservationist was the last day I saw that snake,” he said.
He was watching the snake, sketching it and in a moment everything changed. The snake was biting at something that wasn’t there with the front third of its body. He widened his view and saw that a neighbor had killed the snake with a shovel. He said he realized, “Good people make bad decisions because they lack information. That was the moment I became a conservationist.”
But he said it’s elephants, not snakes, that have been the most present during his career. He told three different elephant stories that illustrated how elephants “live in long-term, multi-generational units.”
He spoke about spending the night sleeping with a three month old orphan elephant in Africa – a technique they discovered raised the survival rate to 95%. He said he viewed it as the “ultimate slumber party experience.” At one point in the night he realized the elephant was having a nightmare. Although he wasn’t yet a father, he found a soothing touch calmed the elephant and as the elephant was going back to sleep, its trunk was twisting his hair into a lock.
Elephant’s trunks are articulated by 40,000 muscles. They are so strong they can knock down a tree, but also able to pick up something five times smaller than a grain of rice.
Ten years later, when his first daughter was an infant, and he was left alone with her, he was comforting her as he had the elephant a decade earlier. He started to rock her and as she started to go back to sleep she began to twist his hair into a lock.
He said, “Something fundamental changed in me as a conservationist in that moment. I had been a conservationist for the animals. I became a conservationist for the children.” Every twenty minutes something disappears from the Earth. He said he wants it to be possible for “every generation to have access to a biologically rich planet.”
He spoke about frogs as being in particular danger. He said frogs are a keystone species that has survived five extinctions and been on the planet for 350,000,000 years. He said we will lose half of them in the next 7-12 years. There are 12,000 species of frogs. He says, “Frogs are the ultimate canaries in the coal mine. They are nature’s barometer to tell us something is wrong.”
A fungus is the main reason frogs are dying. The concern is not only for the species, but humans use frogs for medications for many things including Parkinson’s, cancer and AIDS.
He showed video of a particular frog that turned out to be the last known male of that species. The females need a male to help them push the eggs out. The pregnant females were dying without giving birth. But from that one male frog there are now 5000 tadpoles that may well save the species.
Bats are also being affected by another fungus. The common brown bat, which we have in Kansas, was once the most abundant mammal species on the planet. It will be extinct in a short time on the current track we’re on.
One bat eats 1,400 mosquitoes a night. One colony consumes 450 tons of mosquitoes a year.
He spoke about a particular cave in Vermont he visited in 2008 that had 365,000 bats. Two years later they found only two dozen bats there and a carpet of bat bones.
But, he said, “it’s not too late.” He used the example of the bald eagle. In 1970 there was one pair of bald eagles in the entire state of New York. There were 450 pair in the entire lower 48, and it was rare to see one. Now there are 10,000 pair. Ironically, just yesterday, Greg and I had gone outside of town to see one that is here.
“Who are we to decide what the next generation gets for resources. We have a duty to protect them so our children will have a beautiful world to inherit.”
He said the prairie is one of the habitats most in peril, and that prairie dogs are another keystone species. He elaborated at the luncheon, saying that the prairie looks very simple but is surprisingly complex, much of that underground. He said, “Iconic species used to roam these lands. Prairie habitat is very endangered. There’s something magical about a prairie.”
At the luncheon he spoke about the Deep Water Horizon oil spill and pointed out our technology to harvest oil is at a Star Trek level, but our ability to manage a spill is at a Wright Brothers level. He said, “We made so many small errors that it added up to the worst hornets nest you ever ran over with a lawn mower.”
He said he rarely gets to talk about the spill the way he would like, and that we don’t fully comprehend how damaging it was to the marshes because there’s no way to clean the oil from them. He said we are losing the equivalent of one football field of wetland every 45 minutes in that area.
In the lecture he said the spill, “Reminded us all how fragile our planet is.” He covered it for four months and said it, “dramatically and radically changed my view of the world.”
He said of all the species, that conservatively we’ve identified about 10% of them, and only 1% have been scientifically explored. He said a significant amount of things we discover are small, but not all. A new species of buffalo has been found in Vietnam. Madagascar has found 11 new species of lemurs in the last three years.
He said, “99.99% of anything that has lived on our planet is gone. A formula of life comes about and stays until something happens.” He said that doesn’t compare to what we’re doing because we’re not allowing them to follow their own natural path. “We pay a price when we lose this life,” he said.
Ice worms may hold the secret to long life for humans. Although we’re very different, their genome is similar to ours and the telemeters adjustments scientists have made to them have extended their lives from two weeks to two months.
On a lighter note, I was watching to see if Corwin ate the chicken salad sandwich prepared for us. In passing he commented that people were often surprised he was a deer hunter, but he viewed using a renewable resource for food as okay. He said he doesn’t eat protein from a super market. He wants to know the quality of the animal’s life experience, what it ate and how it lived. He said, “I do believe nature is beautiful, but we are also part of it.”.