14 September 2008

Sometimes we have to let nature run its course

Over at Bug Safari, Cindy writes that she found a giant swallowtail with a damaged wing that couldn't fly and that she repaired it with a "spare" butterfly wing she had. Apparently, the operation went well and the butterfly regained the ability to fly. Amazing!

Despite Cindy's good intentions, I have mixed feelings about interfering with natural processes. I don't object to rescuing birds and other animals from oil spills or treating animals injured by other types of human activities, but we have to draw the line somewhere. Injury and death caused by natural events are natural processes.

Should we be treating every animal that escaped with injuries from the jaws of a predator or a wind storm or a flood? We neither have a responsibility nor a right to do so. Natural selection doesn't need us to interfere with its affairs.

Sometimes we need to step aside, move away and just be impartial observers.

Sentimentality does not exist in nature.
Karl von Frisch, The dancing bees, 1953
Incidentally, I am surprised that Cindy's butterfly couldn't fly when she first found it, because, as far as I can tell from the picture, its damaged wing didn't look too bad. I have seen butterflies with more damaged wings that could still fly. Here is an example of a butterfly with severely damaged wings and here is an example of a butterfly with a minor damage to one wing.


vanessa cardui said...

This spring a crop of monarch caterpillars in my yard were predated so heavily by wasps that only one survived to the chrysalis stage. I cut the branch it was on, placed it under the (perceived) protection of our patio cover, and waited. Finally the butterfly emerged, but it was terribly weak, had broken wing veins from which fluid was leaking. It died after a day of feable effort. I am no sentimentalist but I admit to actually burying the thing with a small stone marker. Sentimentality is for our own sake, for our human frailty, for the sake of remembrance of the struggle to live, I think.

Probably I should never have moved the chrysalis. But many people raise monarchs in captivity and I though I could too. I learned a lesson here, but I continue to plant milkweed which attracts the monarch egg-layers. Is this planting also an intervention in natural processes?

Cindy said...

First of all, the butterfly could not fly. Really. I agree the wing damage didn't look like much, but it was apparently enough to throw off its balance.

Second, I will admit it pains me to watch nature shows where the photographers document the harsh realities of life, including animals suffering from illness, injury, etc. I find myself wishing someone would put down the camera and help them. But I also understand why they don't.

I don't anticipate doing many more (if any) of these butterfly wing repairs. I was just curious to try it, and here was my chance. I don't feel this was that big of a deal. As my husband put it, "Now the butterfly will live long enough to die in someone else's back yard."

BG said...

Considering all the negative damage we do to wildlife through habitat loss, intentional killing, accidental killing, poisoning remaining habitat and climate change, I think helping out the few we can within reason (i.e., not taming them) is not going to upset mother nature.


vc: I plant milkweeds too (but they didn't grow much this year). I consider that restoring what would be growing in an undisturbed habitat.

cindy: I suppose I would try it once too to see if it would work. I agree with your husband. :)

bg: I agree up to a point.

Anonymous said...

> Injury and death caused by natural events are natural processes.

Of course they are, but you can't infer "should" from "is".

Will patching the wing of one butterfly interfere with natural selection enough weaken that species? I don't think so!

Even assuming that that each repaired butterfly survived at the expense of one with stronger wings (which is probably not so, damage like that is often a matter of luck), you would have to "fix" lots before it would make any difference.

As long as you don't think you are doing the butterflies any favors, and just want to know if it would work, I don't see any problem with this sort of experiment.

Irradiatus said...

So it sounds like you would consider it a bad thing that I feed the orbweaver spiders on my porch with moths, katydids, and beetles that I catch?

Sorry :)

They're more like pets, though...really. My wife and I even name them since they build in the same place for many weeks at a time.

Currently we have two big Neoscona spiders named Bruce (Campbell) and Sam (Raimi)...even though they're female.


I may write another post to better explain the point I am trying to make.

Julie said...

What is the worst possible thing that can come of repairing a butterfly wing??? PLEASE!!!!! It's a butterfly! Only good can come of that!

BG said...

I also want to point out she might have been repairing damage that was human caused in the first place, like pet damage. In which case she would be helping get human effects out of the natural selection process.

irradiatus: I keep our house spiders as "pets" the same way, but they only get flies and mosquitoes. We also have a spider that has an ugly, dirty, broken down web right above a tall floor lamp, I leave the lamp on low when going to bed and in the morning all the moths and mosquitoes have been taken care of.