On my way home from work the other day, I saw a bloated, rotting carcass on the side of the road. It was so far gone I wasn’t even sure what type of animal it was. I had a visceral reaction. Somebody should get rid of that thing. Not me, of course. (Ew. Gross.) But somebody. I looked away and drove on.
We humans have a great fear of death. We subscribe to religious philosophies mainly to reassure ourselves that death isn’t the end. We bury or burn our dead. We don’t want to look at death. Those of us who eat meat are mostly repulsed by the idea of killing and preparing that meat ourselves. In nature preserves, when a mammal dies, the body will be quickly disposed of so the tourists won’t see it.
But according to this article, entitled “’Landscape of fear’: What a Mass of Rotting Reindeer Carcasses Taught Scientists”, we may want to rethink our treatment of carcasses in natural settings. It seems that 323 reindeer were killed in a freak lightning storm on a distant Norwegian plateau. Rather than instinctively intervene and deal with this mass die off, scientists decided that it was far enough away from humanity that they should take this opportunity to study what happens if nature is allowed to take its course.
First, the top predators came in. Wolverines. Arctic Foxes. Golden Eagles. Then came the scavenger birds such as ravens, crows, and eagles. They hung around for about a year. Once they cleared out, the rodents felt safe enough to come in. Voles and lemmings, mostly. And non-scavenger birds would come and go, feeding on the flies.
Meanwhile, the plants in the area were starting to change, as the scavengers left their droppings, which contained seeds. This can increase plant biomass by as much as five times more than was previously seen in the area. This, in turn, attracts plant-eating animals, which then attract predators. And so the great web of life goes on. Death makes life.
Am I suggesting that we should leave dead animals on city streets? No. That would put us too close to the disease process. But just as we are learning to allow dead trees to remain where they lie in forests, as a benefit to the ecosystem, it’s really valuable to let nature reclaim dead animals in less populated areas.
If we can just get past the “squick” factor, we’ll be fine.