Ecosystems and Economies

October 22, 2008 at 5:17 am Leave a comment

A Poverty trap is a self-perpetuating condition where an economy, financial or otherwise, gets caught in one or more maladaptive feedback loops.  Once started, it becomes a self-perpetuating process possibly suggesting that the long run performance of an economy is greatly affected the initial conditions it is created in.

To avoid the pratfalls of poverty, humans sometimes form cooperative ventures.  This allows us to pool resources, reduce exposure to risks and increase potential gains. Other animals who live cooperatively,  like wolves and bonobos, employ similar tactics.

From ScienceDaily:

Over a 20-year period, Gregory Rasmussen, currently at Lady Margaret Hall Oxford, intensively studied every move of African wild dogs in Zimbabwe to the extent of “living with packs” for periods of up to a month in order to work out how much energy they were spending eating, sleeping, and running. He came to the conclusion that “whilst to date we have seen poverty traps as being something intrinsically human, they are not!”

Nature’s currency is energy, and in theory, keeping the cost of living low leaves more in the “piggy bank” for reproduction. However, staying in nature’s fast lane isn’t easy, and necessitates that evolution comes up with a “business plan” to bank energy (nature’s surrogate for wealth!) to survive. In the face of bigger competitors like lions and hyenas, whose larger stomachs cater for irregular meals, and which maximize returns by having low foraging costs, the dogs’ evolved a unique plan. Now highly endangered, the African wild dog opted for extreme metabolic adaptations to running, thus ensuring they caught a regular supply of food, and by forming packs, had many runners to reduce capture costs and stomachs to maximize on the returns.

This great strategy, however, has an Achilles heel as packs fewer than five are less effective hunters, and thus have to undertake energetically expensive extra hunts to secure their prey. The results from this study highlighted a weakness in the business plan, for when the financial energetic annual accounts were done, the benefits of having fewer individuals to feed in a smaller packs was outweighed by the greater costs of running. To chase their prey, wild dogs need to be lithe and athletic, a design that ensures their stomachs can’t be too big, which in turn limits the amount they can gorge in a sitting: a physical limitation on their gluttony which biologist call “a morphological constraint.”

Yikes – while the lions and hyenas evolved to play it safe – maintaining a safety net in the cash energy stowed away in their savings accounts bellies and fat deposits – wild dogs are adaptively forced into living from paycheck to paycheck. They manage to get along well enough until they get sick and don’t get paid can’t make a kill, have unexpected bills to pay need to feed a large litter of pups or experience other economic setback.  According to Rasmussen:

In the same way that Size Zero women can struggle to have children, and bouncing babies, this study highlighted an Achilles heel where energetic poverty translated into reproductive poverty, and a vicious circle whereby small packs have fewer pups, leading to even smaller packs, and driving them into an extinctive vortex.

From a conservation standpoint, these results demonstrate how evolutionary strength gained by sociality can be undermined by an Achilles heel that can push species into extinction. Professor David Macdonald, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, known as the WildCRU, which specializes in the science to underpin practical solution to conservation problems, said “This study, unique in its detail, shows the power of energetic theory to enable us to not only understand the evolution of packing power, and facets that dictate the survival of this stunningly beautiful species, but better understand how to conserve other social species of which we are one.”

From an article on physorg.com:

The poverty trap really starts to bite as pack sizes fall below five and their low hunt success rate means that the dogs have to undertake energy-expensive extra hunts, leaving even less energy for reproduction.’

Economically speaking – when you’re a wild dog living in a small pack, you’re going to have to hold down a second job just to get by. And that second job isn’t going to leave you much time for dating or other hanky-panky.

‘This study shows the extraordinary power of cooperation in animal societies,’ said co-author Professor David Macdonald, Director of the WildCRU. ‘Understanding the relationship between energy and cooperation is not only important to the survival of these stunningly beautiful, yet highly endangered, wild dogs but understanding the value of ‘pack power’ helps us better appreciate the principles that have driven the evolution of our own social lives.’

The stability of wild dog populations is strongly affected by habitat fragmentation. Persecution by humans and adverse affects from adjacent domestic dog populations (predation, disease transmission, competition for resources) also impact them directly. Because of their sensitivity to these factors, wild dogs are considered to be an important indicator species of the sub-Saharan Serengeti and Kalahari ecosystems.

(Maybe we should be studing them as an indicator species for our financial environment?)

The IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist Group’s African Wild Dog Status Survey and Action Plan discusses the factors that could cause the few remaining viable populations of wild dogs to decline or disappear.  They include:

Habitat fragmentation, persecution and loss of prey – considered to be the primary causes for the decline in wild dog populations.  Likely represent the principal threat to them today.

Competition with larger carnivores – limits both population (through predation and competition for resources) and available territory. These pressures mean that many wild dog packs now exist as small, fragmented groups. 

Contact with human activity- found to be responsible for more than 60% of recorded adult mortality through a combination of road kill and hunting.  Wild dogs that live in wildlife preserves range during hunting activies so they are often not adequately protected within these artificial territorial borders.

Disease- is a serious threat to modern wild dogs because domestic dogs that share their habitat are a vector for canine parasites and diseases.

Any one of these factors can disturb a population.  Add one or more of them together, and the adverse effects can quickly reach a threshold where the results are catastrophic. Once the population within a pack drops below the tipping point, a place where the emergent factors of these processes take over - the budget energy balance quickly falls into a series of maladaptive feedback loops and the stockmarket population crashes. It’s a poverty trap.

Like us, wild dogs live in a wide range of environments.  Different stressors affect each pack in a different way. This has made efforts to improve their survival extremely difficult – and to date, researchers have had little success.  Not only have they found that management techniques that work for one pack can prove to be disastrous for another - but in some cases, intervention by scientists appeared to hasten or cause population crashes.

In the lives of wild dogs and in our human economy, there are a lot of factors that function together in an incredibly complex way to produce a poverty trap. There are hundreds of traps out there to fall into, and when we intervene in an attempt to pull the wild dogs or our economy out of one trap - we all too often find that what we’ve done has just pushed it into another.

There aren’t any simple answers to our problems with wild dogs or with the economy. Economies and ecosystems are complex systems with emergent qualities. Healthy ones tend to be resiliant – when perturbed, they return to a stable state on their own - without an external control. But when we try to solve problems associated with these complex processes with simple fixes, unintended consequences are not only possible – they are likely to occur.

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