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“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a poem that mistakenly may be the source of a secondary definition for the word albatross: encumbrance. One of the world’s largest birds the albatross is referred to in John and Mary Theberge’s beautiful book, “The Ptarmigan’s Dilemma”, as the perfect seabird. It was thought to be sailors. In the “Ancient Mariner” the albatross is a source of salvation not the encumbrance that the Mariner believed it to be. His crew forces him to wear the dead albatross that he killed around his neck in penance, after it saved them all from Antarctica. Becalmed the crew dies, but the Mariner survives wandering the earth repeating:

“He prayeth best, that loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all”.

“Ptarmigan’s Dilemma” is a book about the organization and process of life. This is a macro and micro tour of evolution, eco-systems (living and inorganic), populations (living), species, natural selection and genetic and environmental classification. The field studies are wonderfully descriptive of the environment. You visualize and feel what the authors are seeing and feeling. The information that is imparted is stunning.

The Ptarmigan is a grouse-like bird that lives in the tundra. It is an example of genetics and epigenetics; of genotype and phenotype. In the wild the Ptarmigan does not have a gall bladder, but in captivity they grow them. The genetic makeup of wild and captive ptarmigans are the same. The authors realized that what the chicks were fed in captivity had a higher fat content than what they would eat in the wild. Gallbladders aid in the metabolism of fat by timing the release of bile from the liver in the presence of food. Environment (epigenetics) as well as genetic networks impact development and inheritance. The Human Genome project is fabulous, but along with understanding proteins, epigenetics
warrants understanding.

Another stunning statement for me what they the earth will ultimately perish from lack of carbon dioxide. The authors are supporters of carbon dioxide impacting climate change, but this change is a blip that will not offset the reduction of carbon dioxide due to the reduced radioactivity at the core of the earth. It also is not a factor in the earth’s rotation, which precipitated earlier severe climate changes resulting in extinctions.

The authors marvel at the resiliency of life. It are the extremophyles that are the survivors, not humans or even smaller multi-cellular organisms. Human centric thinking about the world has its limitations.

While the authors argue for preservation and against extinction, the undercurrent of the book is that extinction is a natural process of adaptation. One point that I wished the authors would have explored in more detail are the higher trophic levels for salps. In discussing the warming of Antarctica and the replacement of diatoms by smaller cryptophytes, krill population has dramatically declined. Krill are vital in the food chain for marine birds and mammals. Cryptophytes are the food source for salps, but species will benefit from salps?

The book is occasionally preachy against human development and the failure of Canadian authorities to address it. They may be right, but the book is at its best when it is neutral and scientific. It mostly is.

There are too many gems in this book to discuss in one review. Even if you have no interest in the environment or biology, the discussion of natural organization models and processes merit attention. Ecosystems are very complex. Any modeler should be interested in them. Problem solving requires attention to detail and simple solutions. The natural world is the best case study, if we take the time to learn. Humans are just a prototype. Take the time and read this book.