5 Tiny Human Projects That Birthed Giant Ecosystems
Right now, in one corner of your room, a ball of fallen hair is feeding a colony of mites. A roach is rustling through the pile of Starburst wrappers next to the bed. Mouse droppings at the bottom of the closet betray the rodents who make their home there, where one mouse’s corpse is detectably rotting, and some of the maggots feeding on it are maturing into flies.
Life is beautiful. And as much as human activity may have ripped little holes in nature, it also creates ecosystems of an entirely new kind. Ecosystems like…
The Portuguese Library That’s Full of Predators and Prey
Mafra in Portugal is home to a palace dating back to the 18th century. King John V built it, mandating that every single person living in multiple villages work on its construction, and then no royals ever ended up living in in the palace, since the building wasn’t very cheery. The highlight of the place is the library, containing 36,000 books that are centuries old. Seeing it, many visitors drop their jaws and just mutter, “Ma-fra!”
As with every library, insects pose a mild problem here, since hungry bugs aren’t great for books. Unlike most libraries, this one comes with its own pest control service in the form of a vast colony of bats. These bats are hardly bigger than large insects themselves, less than an inch long. During the day, they roost behind the bookcases or in the neighboring garden, and at night, they come out and feast on bugs.
This isn’t a system librarians set up, like the cats that libraries famously stocked to fight rats. The colony of bats sprang up on its own and appears to have been living in the library continuously for hundreds of years. The bats’ feeding habit is great for keeping insects from ripping through the old tomes. The only problem? Bat poop. They avoid sullying the books themselves, but they anoint the floor in droppings on a daily basis, and the librarians cover all the furniture to stop everything from going batshit.
The Radioactive Forest
Half a century ago, it seemed a fair bet that nukes were going to make life for some of us a lot more crispy. Those at ground zero would die, but what would some of the far-reaching consequences be? How well would nature recover from nuclear side effects? To find out, scientists in Long Island decided to irradiate a forest.
They put a source of cesium-137 on a pole and drove it into the ground. This would emit gamma rays, which would either make all nearby organisms grow larger and angrier or kill them all. Sure enough, it killed all the trees right next door, and from the air, we could soon observe concentric circles of vegetation — first grass plants, then shrubs, then weird disfigured trees, then healthy trees. Forty years later, the forest looked like this:
A dead zone still remained. But right in the middle now grew a healthy crop of Pinus regida, which sounds like a race where the yachts are steered by penises but is actually a type of pine tree.
Even just a decade after the irradiation, scientists who ventured into the dead zone found some surprising lifeforms there. Right in the middle were a bunch of dead trees, with the normal agents of decay unable to survive and break the wood down. But still growing there, on a placard that warned of the radiation hazard, was a green algae, Protococcus. They were searching for signs of life but hadn’t expected to find such a literal one.
Disney’s Jungle Cruise
Normally, the greatest insult you can level at a natural site is to equate it to a theme park. Children and families enjoy the lazy river at a water park. Real rafting fans head to a real river. If we say the lazy river is as good as the real thing, we sound dumb. And if we were to tell you that Disneyland’s Jungle River Cruise ride is a real jungle, you’d laugh at us for having no idea what we’re talking about.
Crazy thing, though: To make this clearly fake jungle, almost 70 years ago, Disney planted a bunch of African coral trees and Asian bamboo. Seventy years might be nothing on a geologic scale, but it’s a decent length of time for vegetation to get its hooks into the ground. And so, today, Jungle Cruise might still be a ride with robots and secret entrances into the park’s tunnel system, but the jungle part? It’s a self-sustaining forest.
The area has its own temperature and humidity, separate from the surrounding park and maintained by the vegetation. Leaves fall and become soil. Landscapers comb through the jungle every day, but they’re not servicing and replacing trees. They’re just going in with shears to keep the living jungle from swallowing the animatronic animals. The ride is, in fact, a lot more of a jungle than the 2021 film, which was filmed 10 percent in Hawaii and 90 percent on a hard drive.
The Las Vegas Sky Beam
Speaking of theme park versions of real life, let’s talk Vegas. Las Vegas is home to the Luxor casino, which is famously shaped like a pyramid and has a replica Sphinx in front. The real Luxor in Egypt has no Great Sphinx (though it has an avenue of mini sphinxes) and no pyramids (though it has a bunch of ancient temples and tombs). The Luxor Las Vegas also has something else that you won’t find in Luxor or even in Giza: a giant-ass sky beam.
That beam is powered by 39 lamps with 7 kilowatts of power each. Within a few inches of the lamps, the temperature hits 500 degrees. It all adds up to a vertical beam that’s 42.3 billion candelas bright, which is a value that, let’s be honest, means nothing to any of us. So let’s put it this way instead: It was the brightest beam in the world, until around decade ago, when the hotel halved the power output. If you’re high up, you can see it from hundreds of miles away.
Animals see it too. Insects swarm to it, naturally. Our old friends the bats then learned that the beam was a great place to eat moths. Then owls learned that the beam was a great spot to eat bats. They set up a whole food web, which is only occasionally disrupted by the entry of an even larger swarm of insects, which throws the whole thing off-balance. Like the time in 2019 when 46 million grasshoppers flew to Vegas. They shot toward the beam, got fried and their uncountable bodies fell to ground to be crunched.
Oil Drillers That Sank a Whole Lake into a Mine
In 1980 — and before then, maybe for thousands of years — there was a lake in Louisiana called Lake Peigneur. Underneath were vast salt deposits, mined by the Diamond Crystal Salt Company. They accessed the mine from the side rather than directly from above because you can’t drill down through a lake bed, obviously. Not unless you want a whole lake to go down the drain.
Also underground around here are oil deposits. In 1980, Texaco was poking around under the lake in search of oil. This was just exploratory drilling and should have been fine. But they got the coordinates of where they were supposed to drill wrong. As a result, they punctured all the way into the mine. Water poured through the hole, and the force was enough to quickly expand the opening. Some 2.5 billion gallons of water shot down into the mine — a mine staffed with around 50 people.
Every single one of those miners got out safely, presumably through the emergency “use in case of flood” escape hatch. The lake, meanwhile, created a giant whirlpool, yanking down boats, trucks and giant trees. Once the water had settled, the mine was unusable of course, leaving the mining company seeking hundreds of millions in damages. And Lake Peigneur still remained, but it was no longer a 10-foot-deep freshwater lake. It was a 200-foot-deep saltwater lake.
That would be downright impressive, if we’d made it on purpose.