by Denny Olson

The Planetary Story: Part One.

Very, very long ago and not so far away, a giant blob of rock and iron cooled, water pooled over much of its surface, and somehow, green things that reproduce themselves populated the water and the land, oxygenating the thin skin of atmosphere. Plants didn’t need anything else.  They made their own food. But after crawling out of the primordial ooze, we animals, being resourceful, took advantage of that. Fruits, vegetables, berries, green leafy stuff — most herbivore and omnivore animals spend a lot of time at the salad bar.

About 480 million years ago according to biologists and archeologists, first in line to eat plants were the insects. Insects, especially in their caterpillar stages, ate plants, and multiplied like, well, insects! Along came spiders and ate insects. Some insects decided to be predatory, and began to eat each other. Amphibians, then reptiles, began to eat insects and spiders and, yup … plants.

Eventually, over MILLIONS of years, nature smiled on some reptiles,  who began to walk on two legs — and then grow their arms and fingers — and then jump — and then jump farther by growing feathers, for gliding. And finally, after 330 million years of nothing but plants and bugs and amphibians and reptiles — we got our first birds!

An asteroid paid a visit (BIG boom!) and wiped out the giant reptiles (dinosaurs) — and the birds flew to where it was safer, and the first mammals somehow managed to escape the fate of the dinosaurs. And then, another 150 million years goes by … and here we are. Today.

This story took a few minutes to summarize, but it took a ridiculous amount of time to actually happen. And in that ridiculous amount of time here’s what has transpired:

We now have 450,000 known species of plants in the world. We can’t begin to estimate the individual number of plants in the world, but satellite estimates of just the number of trees is 3 trillion. At this point in time,we humans have removed half of the 6 trillion trees there were a thousand years ago.

We probably have 6 million species of insects. We have 10 quintillion (19 zeroes!) individual insects. Those are not understandable numbers for the human brain. They are uncountable living things that took uncountable years of the “e-word” to get as diverse as they are now.

Let’s toss in at least 160,000 species of spiders, most of whom eat insects, and then, probably 400 billion birds, of perhaps 18,000 species, eating plants, and insects, and spiders.

That’s the big, big picture. 8.7 MILLION species of plants and animals, humming along for millions of years, eventually getting to a (somewhat fluctuating) state of equilibrium — a balance!

Birds, spiders, bats and other insect predators eat untold numbers of insects — controlling their ridiculous reproductive capacity — but not too many of them. Insects nibble on trillions of plants — but not too many of them. It’s about balance.

Occasionally, that balance gets  ambushed by the unexpected. An asteroid might crash into Mexico and wipe out giants called dinosaurs. (Geologists say that was only the latest one.)

Or, our SUN might decide to take a catnap for a million years now and then, and we get an ice age. Luckily, it usually takes a few thousand years for it to fall asleep, and another few thousand years to wake back up — and animals and plants can usually adapt without getting very unbalanced.

Sometimes the Sun has too much coffee when it wakes up, and makes things hotter than usual — it was that way 5000 years ago. But again, it was a SLOW warming and a later SLOW cooling — back to what I would guess would be called “normal”.

Another unexpected ambush of the balance — for example — would be when a species of animal gets so smart, they learn to use most of the things on the planet just for themselves. That could REALLY throw things out of whack in a big hurry. An animal like that could pour so much energy into their own interests, they could change the whole climate! But it’s hard to believe that an animal like that wouldn’t also be smart enough to modify their own behavior — and follow the rules of balance that nature has perfected over those millions of years. Isn’t it?

(Next month, Part Two: The places on the planet — restoring balance.)

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