Swan Song

Recently, I’ve been confronting questions that I imagine many an idealistic, young biology fan crashes into shortly after college. Several came into focus in the hours I spent today watching trumpeter and tundra swans in one of my favorite places, a conservation center in northern Virginia complete with vernal ponds, apiaries, beautiful lakes with bird blinds, and more. This morning, I went mainly to spend a bit of time outdoors, generally one of my surefire ways to combat stress, and to maybe learn a thing or two about birds–which are rather far down my personal zoological knowledge scale. Instead, I left with questions about conservation (and, yes, reduced stress and an increased number of bird factoids).

Shortly after arriving, an inquisitive swan pigeon-toed his wobbly way in my direction, hoping for handouts. The director, a jovial, bearded man in a plaid shirt and with field boots that frankly make me quite jealous (My experience has meant that beards and plaid shirts mean that good times are afoot. It’s some sort of cultural shorthand for particular professions like wooden boat building and ecology.), pointed out the fact that this swan, as opposed to the others, was largely outside of the social groupings. He was the biological species concept’s failure incarnate, the hybrid child of a hybrid. At some point, a tundra and trumpeter swan had gotten their swan kicks, and thus was born a 50/50 swan. Like many swans before it, this swan too eventually got it on with a neighbor, resulting in a 75/25 (although I can’t recall if it is more tundra or trumpeter).

Theoretically, this shouldn’t be possible if hybrid swans (being of two species) can’t reproduce, but obviously they can. It’s not an uncommon occurrence that species hybrids are capable of reproduction, and it serves as a great reminder that species are largely arbitrary lines in the sand along massive continuums of, in this case, possible ways of swanning or existing in a swan state or just being some swan type object. It’s a nice tidy rule we project onto the not actually nearly as tidy entity known as nature and that nature shoves out the window almost as soon as we start examining it. In any case, the sad state of the fact is that my friend the swan was largely ostracized. None of the groups quite knew what to make of him, an interesting peek into swan psychology and a bit of a lonely story for Mr. Hybrid Swan.

The plot thickens. Tundra swans are “normal species” in that they haven’t been placed on the Endangered Species List. In fact, in Virginia, there’s a tundra swan hunt. I have never heard of a swan hunter, so maybe this comes as as much of a surprise to you as to me. Or maybe it’s a bit of an underground society. Who brags to their neighbors about taking down a swan? Trumpeters, on the other hand, are far less common. In the 1800s, apparently they used to migrate through the area by the thousands. Like many creatures beforehand, today, not so much. So shooting a tundra in Virginia is a-ok. Shooting a trumpeter is a legal nightmare. A further complication: the two species look extremely similar. There’s a size difference and sometimes a little spot of yellow pigmentation near the base of the beak (although this varies by individual), so shooting a swan, while legal in the state, is on the risky side. Is it a trumpeter or a tundra? It helps a bit that efforts are made to keep the endangered trumpeters well out of the way of hunters in protected zones. The birds are lovingly tackled (It really doesn’t damage them, but it does prevent scientists from being damaged in the process as they can pin wings and feet before anyone gets the hell beaten out of them by the graceful swan.), and their feathers trimmed to prevent flight.

This makes life simpler for hunters and, in a way, for conservationists, by allowing tundras and trumpeters into protected areas, but only the tundras out. What it doesn’t clear up in any way is what is actually being protected in conservation. Let me say straight off that I think conservation is an admirable goal. But what do we want to conserve? If increasing numbers of trumpeter swans means keeping them in small groups on lakes in Virginia, are they in any way like the idea of the wild trumpeter anymore? Zoo animals experience morphological and behavioral changes, so it seems logical that creatures without the ability to migrate, kept in specific, controlled groupings, and in a much more limited variety of ecological systems over their lifespan would also experience changes as a result of their semi-captivity. For that matter, was the actual wild trumpeter a century ago anything like our idea of the pure (pre-human-contact) trumpeter? Are we trying to save creatures from ourselves by more intimately involving ourselves in their affairs?

Are we protecting the wild trumpeter swan in its ancestral, historical glory? Probably not. Are we protecting their genetics? Yes, to some extent, although not permitting the movement and interchange which may broaden the gene pool. On some level, though, it feels like what we are protecting is our cultural memory of the trumpeter swan. It may not be what it was, but we can still, as humans, experience its existence and feel some connection to ideas of our own human past when the country was theoretically a wild utopia that proved the enterprising ability of the American to assert his or her will over nature. How much of our own image of ourselves as a scrappy, young nation demands the subjugation of nature and the ability to remember what has been–an emotionally complex combination of triumphantly conquered and mourned? After all, if you can’t remember the conquered, what gain is there in conquering?

If you step on an ant, it’s hardly impressive to anyone. If you can truthfully tell your friends that you tangled hand to hand with a grizzly and came out the sole survivor, you’ll turn a few heads. At the same time, the greatness of the bear will be acknowledged. To be the intrepid nation, our mental conception of the wilderness needs to be populated with the equivalent of the bear, not the ant. This, in turn, may provide insight into decisions concerning which species are and aren’t considered endangered. Any number of mollusks and even some salamanders exist in a paper limbo, waiting to even be considered as potentially endangered species, their applications in a bureaucratic purgatory with many other less than seemingly impressive species which don’t suit our mythologies of choice.

Perhaps more troubling in legal terms, what of the hybrid? He was genetically either 25% or 75% endangered, depending on his majority species. But was he of any species by legal definition? Was he for hunting or for protecting? What happens when wildlife straddles the lines we so carefully construct to discuss, control, connect, empathize with, and understand them?

–Toad Mode


2 thoughts on “Swan Song

  1. “On some level, though, it feels like what we are protecting is our cultural memory of the trumpeter swan.” That is exactly right. While I’m with you in thinking conservation is a great idea, I tend to think of it as a selfish movement — conservation is ultimately motivated by preventing ecological collapse (and therefore preventing our own extinction), rather than preserving nature as it is. For that matter, what is nature as it is? If constant change via evolution and adaptation is the way of things, then what is conservation, anyway?

    Also, on the species thing, we touched on this even in undergraduate classes. Nobody actually knows what a species is. The classic definition is a series of organisms that can interbreed and produce viable offspring, but this is muddled by the fact that some species are defined by behavior — wolves and dogs are the same species, for example, but our extensive modification of the grey wolf means that they’re divided into subspecies and will never really interact and interbreed in the wild. Just to further confuse the issue, molecular data is increasingly being used to define speciation, which means that old definitions of species based upon morphology are occasionally thrown out as molecular data reveal similarities we didn’t previously comprehend.

    Like you said, the species concept is rather arbitrary.

  2. Stuart, in agreement on all of the above. Taxonomy as it stands is currently driving me a bit crazy given that there is no decision concerning if genetics, behavior, morphology, geographical separation, etc. matter most. And I’m finding the ways that the molecular data is or isn’t applied in individual cases just as arbitrary. It would be nice if the entire system could be redone, but that would involve an inability to discuss organisms in any (relatively) precise or meaningful way in the transition phase, as well as disregarding the academy, even if the current academy is not a particularly old system.

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