My wife and I got treated to quite a show yesterday. For several hours, a male prairie falcon was cruising around our yard hunting doves. These latter birds are Eurasian collared doves, one of several introduced pest birds (think large white/gray/tan pigeons) found locally – thesea are probably descended from birds released by some non-thinking idiot who decided it would be cool to release doves symbolizing something or other at a ceremony somewhere near here. Anyway, said skyrats appeared about four years ago, and have been doing well here.
Periodically, though, a truly native sky shark comes by to thin the herd a bit, and that is what happened yesterday. It was great entertainment to watch the falcon, though I doubt the doves thought so. I saw him miss his target by inches on one pass; the dove was surprisingly agile in the air when the situation warranted! The falcon was around for a while, and then vanished. I hope he finally got dinner and settled down near by to enjoy his repast.
Almost exactly a year ago, we had a similar opportunity to watch a goshawk for a few days, and the second picture, below, shows the final outcome. The first picture was taken a few days before the second one, and it appeared to be the same animal. In the second image, the hawk is standing over his plucked prey that he has been eating.
It was an amazing show.
Of such events, are the sciences of behavioral biology, or ethology, and ecology, made. And people who study these things in terrestrial environments truly lose out. I used to tell my students that one of the very neat things about being an ecologist who worked subtidally using SCUBA was that one got to see a lot more interactions than one’s terresterially-bound counterparts.
If you think about it, how many times have you seen a predatory animal in nature around you (excluding those events caused by humanity or human pets ) actually kill and eat a prey organism? I would wager that the total sum of those events witnessed by anybody is pretty small; I know it is with me, and I look for them. It is possible to calculate some sort estimat of the odds of seeing such an interaction at any given moment. For example, if a person is 35 years old, that person has been alive about 1 billion seconds. If each second is a discrete a moment of observation, the rough, back-of-the-envelope odds of having seen such an event through that person’s lifetime are easy to work out. First, assume that about of the third of the time has been spent sleeping, so subtract a third of the billion away, phffftt!, and now there 667,000,000 million potential moments of observations. Then assume that for the first third of the persons’s life she or he was effectively unaware of the world (childhood, teen-aged years, and so forth), so subtract a third of the previous remains and now there about 444,700,000 million potential observational moments. Now, drop out a another third for meals, and other daily mindless activities, and now there about 296,400,000 million observational times. Being generous, let’s say our victim subject was outside observing nature 1/10 of each day (and I think that will be a vast over estimate for most folks, but, what the hey, let’s go with it), so now there are 29,640,000 potential moments of observation. And if that person witnessed 10 natural events wherein one animal killed and ate another (and I suspect that would an overestimate), that means our subject’s odds of seeing such an event were 10 in 29,640,000, or 1/2,964,000, or (very roughly) 0.0000003.
Pretty slim odds (!) of seeing some interesting natural event such as predation.
Back to my point about working underwater in the marine world, I could see animals kill and eat other animals many times during a hour’s dive, and often did so. Below are a couple of images recording some of those times (and be sure to click on the sculpin image to see the shrimp’s antenna). Obviously, the moral of the story, of course, is that one must dive to really observe and understand nature.
But the point that visible large animal to animal interactions are more evident in the marine environment is, I think, a valid one.
Behavior and Marine Aquariums
Thinking about the point made above, and making a not-so-tortuous connection to marine aquaria, those boxes of water full of critters may be (depending, of course, on how the boxes are set up, and what’s in them) quite reasonable analogues to a natural environment. And that means, any aquarist with such a tank should expect to see predatory (and other “natural” ecological or behavioral) events occurring with some reasonable frequency in their systems.
And, of course, all of us aquarists (or at least of us who observe our systems) do see these events. Everytime we feed some live animal to our livestock, we see predation, albeit those are staged events, but with suspension-feeding animals, corals for example, within the staged event, the actual feeding behavior on the part of the coral, is likely essentially the same as when the “real thing” occurs in nature. But even if those “wo/man-made” events are factored out, all aquarists have seen unintened predation occur in our systems, and sometimes rather frequently, as when when a newly-observed acoel flatworm on the aquarium wall is seen to capture and eat a copepod. In fact, by observing some of these types of events any aquarist worth their artificial (sea)-salt can – for some animals, at least – see interactions that have never been seen in nature, and depending on the interaction – such as with the flatworm and copepod example – such events may be exactly what occurs in the real world, or a mimic so close that the difference is immaterial.
So, folks, on this cold winter, while the snow outside blankets the northern hemisphere, those of you with coral reef aquaria kick back and relax and enjoy the tropical world in your living room.
It’s a world of your making and if you have done your job, properly, it is a VERY real world.
For the rest of you, it is time to shovel snow!