Monday, May 6, 2019

What Good Is a Skink?

For as long as I can remember in my professional career I heard countless people ask "what good is it" regarding some plant or some animal about which they knew little.  Once while dissecting the esophagus of a female American Avocet I had collected for a food habits study in Stutsman County, North Dakota, a local farmer stopped to ask what I was doing.  I explained my research project and he asked about the "snipe" I was dissecting.

"Its not a snipe," I said, "Its an American Avocet which is a distant cousin of the snipe."

The farmer responded, "Can you eat it?"

I had no idea if you could eat one but assumed if you were hungry enough you could.  I told him so.

The farmer then snorted "Well if you can't eat it what good is it?"  He then drove away.

Living organisms like plants and fish and birds have intrinsic value even if you can't  receive money for them.  Many plants have "value" because of the chemicals they provide that can be converted into medicines.  Digitalis, a drug that helps strengthen heart muscles, is extracted from a plant called foxglove.  

Sea urchins and starfish first showed us how embryos develop from a single fertilized cell…sharks, skates, lobsters and crabs helped scientists understand how our kidneys work …squids and lobsters built our understanding of how nerves conduct electricity… and horseshoe crabs and skates taught us a lot about human vision.

The list of benefits humans receive from plants and animals is almost endless yet no matter how many times you explain "value" to people most often they just don't get it.  At other times, however, they do. 

Following is one chapter from my book "Slices of America's Pie" published in 2014 in which I recount the story of a grizzled old man in Palco, Kansas, who experienced a light blub flicker to life in his head one night at the local Lion's Club meeting where I gave a talk.

Maybe you can use this example when some uninformed individual asks you what good is a shark or a cockroach, or even a mosquito.  As Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife biology once wrote "The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to not throw away all of the parts."

The Lion’s Club Meeting in Palco

Rooks County, Kansas

Steve Goddard was a recovering Mormon from a little town in Utah.  After receiving his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from state universities in the Beehive State he moved to Oklahoma State University where he received his Ph.D. in wildlife biology.  With that degree in his pocket he was hired by the Biology Department at the University of Wisconsin River Falls where he taught ornithology and wildlife biology and, as he put it once while we were duck hunting, “classes that the Chairman assigns me just to piss me off.”

When I entered graduate school Steve became my major professor and thesis advisor.  He oversaw the research I conducted and his was the most important signature on the signature page of my Master’s thesis.  Steve wasn’t a slave driver but he demanded the best of his students.  He also demanded that his students not only understand how to write but more importantly how to communicate.  I vividly remember a Friday afternoon attendance- required “seminar” he held at Bo’s and Mine, a local pub in River Falls, Wisconsin.  After putting away his sixth or seventh beer of the evening Steve looked at his assembled graduate students and said “It does no good to amass a million facts and figures about wildlife, its habitat, and the threats they each face if you cannot communicate those facts and figures to people who can make a difference.”  I took to heart what Steve said that evening in Bo’s and Mine and continually strived to educate people about issues affecting the creatures and their habitats.  When John Spinks called me one November day and asked me to move to Grand Island, Nebraska, he told me “I want you to go out and sell the Platte River when you get there.  I don’t care how you do it. I just want you to do it.” 

The Platte River is famous in wildlife circles because of its long-standing importance as a spring migration stopover for 80 percent of the world’s sandhill crane population.  Probably since the departure of the glaciers, sandhill cranes have gathered along the Platte River in spring to prepare themselves for the continuation of migration to nesting areas in Arctic Canada, western Alaska, and in eastern Siberia.  Older established pairs of cranes reinforce their life-long bonds with their mates (unlike in humans there is no divorce or cheating in crane society) and birds that have no mates come to the Platte River to find one.  If there is any place in the animal kingdom that could be called a “pick up bar” it would be Nebraska’s Platte River.

The Platte’s importance lies primarily in its wide channels and the submerged sandbars on which the cranes roost and sleep at night.  However through the rapacious withdrawal of water to irrigate surplus corn crops in the watershed, more than 80 percent of the original flow in the river has been diverted and used elsewhere.  Less water means that trees could grow on more and more of the now-no-longer-submerged islands in the river and that made it more difficult for sandhill cranes to function during their six-week stay each spring.

Recognizing the negative effects of past water withdrawals added to the potential for additional near-term withdrawals, I was asked by a colleague to prepare a paper for publication in a scientific journal that described the probable future status of the Platte River.  Completing that task I put together a slide show that explained the scientific information in layperson terms and I began talking to anyone who would listen.  I called the presentation “Is There a Platte River in Your Future?” and I set out on the task John Spinks had given me.  I presented it once to a group of wildlife biologists in Fairbanks, Alaska, and presented it bilingually at the University of Costa Rica.  Once it was a graduate seminar for the conservation biology program at the University of Maryland and another time I flew to San Francisco and made a presentation to a meeting of the garden clubs of California.  It didn’t matter who when where why or what age group, if someone wanted to hear about the Platte River, I wanted to talk to them.

It wasn’t surprising, then, one May morning when I received a phone call from the President of the Lion’s Club in Palco, Kansas.  Originally from a town along the Platte River, the President had heard my talk and wanted to know if I would be willing to travel five hours one way to Palco to talk to his club.  Of course I would come I told him.  I then checked an atlas and discovered that slightly more than 200 people lived in Palco.  With luck maybe ten would show up at the Lion’s Club meeting and that was fine with me.  All I wanted was for them to hear my message.

Completing arrangements my contact warned me that “you’ll be talking to irrigation farmers so it could get a bit rough.”  That was fine with me!  Talking to garden clubs or Audubon groups or graduate students was all just preaching to the choir.  The only progress that could be made was by talking to the people who caused the problem and hope that a light bulb or two would suddenly switch on in someone’s head.

As I drove the five hours from Grand Island, Nebraska, to Palco I wondered why a Lion’s Club meeting in a town of 200 residents was being held in the high school gymnasium. That seemed like overkill but on my arrival I discovered that the monthly Lion’s Club meeting in Palco is the social event of the month in a four-county area and more than 200 people were waiting for me.  People were dressed up for the Lion’s Club meeting. Some brought their wives and others brought their dates and the mayor of Palco met me at the door.  I was seated at the head table on the stage above the basketball court and a local group served us rubbery chicken and mashed potatoes for dinner.  When the meal was completed the mayor stood, tapped his knife against his water glass to get everyone’s attention, and then introduced me and the topic of my talk.

There were more than 400 eyes staring back at me, each eye belonging to an irrigation farmer or the spouse or girl friend of an irrigation farmer.  I informed the Palco Lion’s Club that my precious river in Nebraska had been emasculated by irrigation farmers and that if something wasn’t done soon the life-support system on which the river relied would have its plug pulled.  I ended my talk as I always did saying that “the answer to the issue is contained in the title of an album by the Moody Blues and that album’s title is ‘A Question of Balance.’ Right now the Platte River is out of balance and the only way we can get it back in balance is through your concern and your help.  Are there any questions?”

From somewhere in the audience a crooked arthritic hand rose skyward.  Recognizing the hand’s owner I called on him and was asked, “What’s a skink?”

I said, “A skink is a species of lizard.”

He replied, “Do you think a lizard should be allowed to stop a water development project?”  Yes I do, but I wasn’t going to tell him that so I probed him and discovered that a state endangered species of skink was getting in the way of a small watershed development project and this man thought it was the worst thing since the atomic bomb.  He completed his explanation by asking me if I thought it was a good idea.

Rather than answering him I asked him if he knew what an armadillo is, saying “it’s a little animal that spends most of its life dead along the sides of roads.”  He knew.  I then said, “Armadillos are the only species of mammal that cannot contract leprosy.  They carry the virus in their blood system but produce a chemical that keeps the virus from growing and causing the disease.  In fact sir, there is enough of that chemical in one armadillo to treat seven human victims of leprosy.  Now do you know what is in that skink?”

He didn’t know.  I said I didn’t know either and then asked, “Do you want to take the chance?”
Answering soto voce he said, “No.”

“I don’t either.  That’s why we have the Endangered Species Act, to keep all of the parts no matter how seemingly inconsequential together.”  I then asked for the next question.

Questions kept flying until well after 10:00 p.m. and I answered each of them to the best of my ability.  Eventually the meeting began to break up and when perhaps only 30 people remained my original skink questioner walked up to me.  Figuring he was about to verbally abuse me as had happened so many times before, I was surprised when he stuck out his hand to shake mine and said “I want to thank you for opening my eyes.”

I gave him my stoic bureaucratic exterior look saying, “Thank you sir. I’m happy to hear that.”  Inside however I was giving him two thumbs up thinking to myself “He got the point!  He heard the message!”  Maybe with luck tomorrow morning he would be in the local coffee shop chatting with his buddies and asking them if skinks can prevent leprosy and what would happen if we lost them.  Whatever the avenue is that works to get the message across I am all in favor of using it – even if its leprosy in a road killed armadillo. 


  1. Great read!That's the point...Of course you are preaching to the choir with me, but I'm passing this along and hopefully other "skink-sters" will read it and have their light bulbs turn on...

  2. i learned a new way of explaining "everything is connected" thanks Craig.