Scientific Songlines in the Scientific Dreamtime

Scientific Songlines in the Scientific Dreamtime


Listening to Wade Davis, in his Massey Lectures (footnote 1), describing the world view of the aboriginal peoples of Australia, and how they "accepted life as it was, a cosmological whole, the unchanging creation of the first dawn when the primordial ancestors through their thoughts, dreams and journeys sang the world into being..." and how "the paths taken by the Ancestors have never been forgotten. They are the Songlines, precise itineraries followed even today as the people travel across the template of the physical world..." I thought "Hey, that's Science." There's always a sympathy between scientists and aboriginal thinkers, a certain common "does not compute" with regard to the antics and denials of commercial society. A common looking-through of particular events to see bigger patterns which are nonetheless rooted in the real particular events.

Science is a paradoxical faith in doubt, a faith so strong that no scientific story is ever "proven" - it's just surviving until someone shows that it's wrong or incomplete. Only hypotheses that could be refuted are allowed, and the only genuine tests of a scientific hypothesis are attempts to refute or to falsify it. This means that science builds up a vast webby nebula of logically interconnected stories constructed over the unknowable face of the world like a mask, fitting more closely in some areas, and more loosely in others. This web of not-false stories enwraps individual phenomena, enveloping each one in a gleaming aura of qualifications and explanation. Like an Australian following songlines on walkabout, the scientist sees every organism, event, and object manifesting the action of a multitude of theories, while also exposing each of these theories, more or less, to the possibility of being shown to be wrong.

In its bald form - the Sun bending the light of stars when observed during an eclipse, conforming to Einstein's correction of Newton's mechanics - this is the simple story of "Popperian falsificationalism" (to give it its philosophical name), and it's the core of the scientific method. But, away from simple universal laws, the chain of evidence and reasoning between phenomenon and conclusion grows tangled and complex. This is why scientists who seem to have a perfectly good explanation for something keep testing it again and again and again in different ways: each test is an attempt to find something that's wrong with the explanation, in order to form a better explanation, or to find something related that's also interesting.

Scientific results often "don't make sense" until the theory behind them is understood, so they can be hard to explain to those who haven't studied the theories, though they're "common sense" to those who have. In Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (footnote 2), Bruno Latour shows how the interweaving of observer, equipment, and phenomena combine with social and political circumstances to mould these new stories, which are then chanted back into the dreamtime of the past, a place that both exists and is still being formed. Thus, the scientists are are not merely attached to the world, they are essential to its existence. The world as we know it exists, even as it is being created, breathed into being by stories that have survived ever-sterner tests. Some of the most powerful of these songlines are models of the landscape woven by landscape ecologists using Geographic Information Systems.

Chris Jones, now with the Ontario Environmental Monitoring and Reporting Branch, in Dorset, has calculated the "impacts" of human activity on the streams at every bridge in southern Ontario. Kari Gunson, for the Ontario Road Ecology Group (OREG, footnote 3), has calculated a projection of how many forest and wetland-dwelling Animals are likely to be found on every 15 metres of road in Ontario, based on the distribution of these habitats within 200 metres of the road segment.

This summer Kari and I tested her model on a circuit around Leeds & Grenville counties south of the Rideau River. She had calculated "hotspots" and "coldspots" where maximum and minimum roadkills were expected. We followed our Global Positioning System (GPS) units to each computer-generated spot, and then walked 100 metres along the road in both directions, noting or picking up all the roadkills we saw. The model was strikingly effective; this was my home territory, and the model found all the traditional scenes of roadside slaughter. OREG now plans to incorporate roadkill data, topography, streams, Ecological Land Classification, traffic volume, and season into the model, and to begin to branch it out into models for particular species.

Such models are grand hypotheses about where Animals are likely to cross roads. Kari's model has the potential to tie the whole province together, and to tell quantitative stories of seasonal, historic, and habitat patterns in the movements of many species. We often know about breeding or nesting migrations, but there are multitudes of subtler patterns, triggered by subtler stimuli than the onset of spring, which will only begin to be understood by analysing data from many sites over many years.

Roadkill is an important source of mortality for many species, and this model will both document where it occurs, and point out sites where mitigation can be undertaken. OREG plans to seek funding to achieve on-going testing and refinement of the road-mortality model, encouraging individuals, conservation authorities and naturalist groups to report locations of wildlife-vehicle collisions within their communities. It's only when we know something about the movements of each species that we'll be able to understand the extent to which roads fragment the landscape.

But refining this grand province-wide model doesn't engage the observer in forming or testing hypotheses. For the observer it could be no different from schemes where the citizen scientists are employed as roving bird-o-meters or frog-o-meters, relaying observational reports to some central office, but not doing any science themselves.

OREG is, however, proposing a true citizen science project, "Adopt-a-Crossing," which will both contribute to refining the province-wide model, and require the formation and testing of local hypotheses. Episodic or fortuitous sampling can't reveal anything like the whole picture of road mortality. At the very least, an eager crew of scavengers, from Robins to Ravens to Raccoons, is standing by to remove the evidence before an investigator can reach it. To know what's going on in detail, you need to study a place near where you live, with surveys conducted when Animals are on the road, or as soon as possible after they are killed.

We've tried this at our home in the village of Bishops Mills, starting in 2003, along 246 metres of streets, going out, whenever there is a possibility that something might be on the road, and recording what's there. From 2004-2006 we were out 572 times on 392 days on surveys that took 4-10 minutes. This produced 990 species records, of 3342 individuals of 48 taxa; 3.9 individuals per metre in 2004, 5.8/m in 2005, 3.9/m in 2006. There was a range of mortality rates, and in the middle of the range, about 86% of individuals of each species of frogs and toads was road-killed.

Most species move mostly when it's wet -- slugs, snails, Earthworms, frogs & Toads -- so there's very different patterns in years with different precipitation. Changes in "lawn care" along the streets, as well as apparent general differences in reproduction and movement, also affect the numbers seen and killed. Tallying all on-road Animals along a short transect of streets not only has allowed us to estimate total mortality, but has also brought a number of seasonal movements to our attention that we weren?t aware of before. Continuing through multiple years points out which movements are regularly annual, and which depend on differing weather or populations among years.

The most abundant Vertebrate on our streets is the Leopard Frog (Lithobates [formerly Rana] pipiens). The first peak of activity is frogs that are moving to breed in April, the second is yearling frogs that go out foraging while the adults are still in the breeding ponds. Then around the first of August the newly metamorphosed frogs arrive. For some reason in 2004 they were out under one particular street lamp getting killed, but in other years when there were lots but they mostly stayed on the lawns. In 2007 reproduction failed, and there were almost no juveniles. The final movement, in October, is what we call "Burn Henry Ford in Effigy Night:" the big migration to the creeks to hibernate, when there's terrible mortality from cars.

Except for low-flying queen Bumble Bees, struck down in the spring as they're provisioning their infant nests, Lethocerus americanus, the "Eastern Toebiter," or "Electric Light Bug," is the only large Insect seen regularly, usually under street lamps, from early April to early November. It was restricted to spring and fall pulses in in most years, but was seen sparsely through the summer in 2005.

OREG's Adopt-A-Crossing Program will be modelled on our prototype survey. There are plans to work up identification guides ("Know your Road-killed Slugs") and protocols, and for an on-line database and user-friendly viewing portal for on-going data synthesis, which will test hypotheses about both local and regional patterns of movement. If OREG can't set up this programme on a funded basis, you'll be able to download the forms you'll need to do this from this page.

In the dreamtime, when most of us are asleep or indoors, billions of Animals move across Ontario -- Deer and Beavers and Bull Frogs and Redbelly Snakes and Toebiters and slugs. For most species we have no idea what these movements are, and no idea what guides the migrants along their chosen lines. It is a parallel universe where our notions of time, space and motion do not apply, where past, present and future merge into one. But this parallel universe is every bit as real as our workaday world, and it's only by getting to know it at every scale, from the 60cm patch of silt on the west side of the intersection where the Deroceras laeve slugs come out in October when it's moist but not raining, to the influence of snowfall on the early spring road mortality of Raccoons in the Great Lakes Basin, that we'll have any hope of being able to sing even a little of its song.

Adopt-a-Crossing logo]

some of what we've written about this:

Gunson, Kari E., David Ireland, and Fred Schueler. 2009. Incorporating road-mortality hotspot modeling and connectivity analyses into road mitigation planning in Ontario. PUBLISHED IN PROCEEDINGS -- International Conference on Ecology and Transportation. Duluth, Minnesota. September, 2009

Schueler, Frederick W. 2007. DOING THE STREETS: HERPS ON THE ROAD IN A RURAL ONTARIO VILLAGE, 2004-2006. CARCNET poster paper, Sept 2007, Kingston, Ontario.

Schueler, Frederick W. 2007.Doing the Streets: Animals on the Road in a Rural Ontario Village, 2004-2006. Roads & Ecopassages Forum, 20-22 March 2007, Toronto Zoo.

Schueler, Frederick W., and Aleta Karstad. 2009. Reckoning Wasted Lives -- Thirty Years of Road Ecology in North Grenville. presentation at Kemptville Earth Day Fair, 19 April 2009, Kemptville, Ontario.


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COMMENTS: This manuscript, this page, and the Adopt-a-Crossing programme are all in preparation. This page is put up now to hold the place I'd advertised in a pre-release release of the manuscript.

Note that I'm not saying that aboriginal cosmogonies are in any sense scientific, just that the scientist moves through the world in much the same way the aborigine moves: the methods can be entirely different, while the ways the methods are used are similar, and sometimes even the results, at the largest scale, may be similar.

And, of course, archeology suggests that aborigines everywhere settled down to quasi-equilibrium life styles only after they'd killed off all the slow and tasty originally indigenous species, and there's often no way to know how much of their current quasi-equilibrium philosophies were composed after they'd had a while to observe the hugely out-of-equilibrium antics of commercial invaders. -- F.W.Schueler - 9 Nov 2009.

footnote 1: The Massey lectures are all online. The following quotes are from a National Public Radio interview covering much of the same ground as the Massey Lectures - as are paraphrases of science into dreamtime later in the text. [back to text]

footnote 2: 1999, Harvard University Press, 336 pages. [back to text]

footnote 3: ROAD ECOLOGY is the study of the interactions between road systems and the surrounding natural environment. Championed by the Toronto Zoo, the ONTARIO ROAD ECOLOGY GROUP is made up of government and non-government scientists, educators, and transportation planners. Our goal is to raise awareness about the threat of roads to biodiversity in Ontario, and to research and apply solutions. Southern Ontario is home to the largest diversity of non-marine plants and Animals in Canada, and also to the largest population of people. Roads are important to human settlement and activity, but they have a devastating impact on wildlife, and may substantially change ecosystems. [back to text]