I’ve just returned from a sojourn in the (mostly French) Pyrénées, during which I utterly failed to locate the desman. Hard to believe, you say? (That I spent nearly two weeks looking for it/them, or that I was unsuccessful?) And what, you ask, is the desman?
Well, it is—or was—one of the oddest critters to walk, swim, paddle, and waddle this planet, an aquatic insectivore (relative of mole and shrew) about 5 inches long, with tail about another 5 inches, weighing (or used to weigh) a mere two ounces, and outfitted with a truly comical schnoz that looks (looked) like a mini elephant’s trunk; this anterior appendage gave rise to its alternative name, “trumpet rat,” although it isn’t (wasn’t) a rat, nor a musician. Believed to be—or have been—monogamous, it eats—or ate—waterborne insects and other invertebrates, pretty much keeps (kept) to itself, and only emerges (emerged) at night, dawn, or dusk. Galemys pyrenaicus, as it is known to its Linnnean devotees, is the sole occupant of its genus, whereas in the physical world it occupies (occupied) high-mountain fast-flowing streams above timberline at an elevation up to 2,200 meters or so.
The desman has (had) been rare and endangered for quite some time and I wouldn’t have been (won’t be now) surprised if it’s no longer with us (hence my present/past tense equivocation), although we don’t even know why it disappeared or when … if indeed it has. Perhaps it is (was) habitat loss, or environmental pollution, or climate change. We know for sure that it wasn’t hunted or trapped to extinction; its fur isn’t (wasn’t) worth anything, nor do traditional south Asian medical quacks and their credulous clientele claim that its pancreas enhances (enhanced) libido or cures (cured) warts. We don’t even know for sure that it’s extinct, and indeed, small relict populations may still persist, most likely further south in the Iberian Peninsula. Or not. It is paradoxically difficult to prove the negative—that a species no longer exists, but oddly “easy” to show that it still does (if in fact it does, and also, if it’s large and diurnal … which the desman isn’t).
An even greater uncertainty, perhaps, is whether the desman’s fate—whether the desman has a “demain” (French for “tomorrow”)—matters, and if so, why and to whom?
It matters to me and I hope it does to you, although I can’t say why it does or should. I also think it matters to the ecosystems of which the desman is/was a member, although once again I’m in the dark as to why. It’s a big world out there, even now in its increasingly depauperate state filled with a mind-boggling array of fascinating creatures, large and small, wise and wonderful, ugly and beautiful and often beautiful because they’re so ugly. Think bulldogs. And although the evidence is increasingly clear that certain creatures (so-called keystone species) are fundamental to ecosystem health, others, like the desman, are shadowy at best. Certainly they aren’t showy. Much of the time, like the desman, they aren’t shown, or known. Do they matter?
Probably not a whole lot, at least if “matter” is defined as being consequential in ways external to themselves. It has been noted that when a species goes extinct, it’s as though the entire oeuvre of Shakespeare, Bach or Picasso were eliminated, and permanently. But the desman clearly isn’t (wasn’t) in their league. I, at least, have never been impressed by the argument that we should preserve species and ecosystems because some day we just might find some molecules therein that could help cure cancer or ingrown toenails.
Are we really the measure of all things? According to whom?
I’m all in favor of curing cancer and not at all fond of ingrown toenails, and I sign on enthusiastically to the preservation of species and ecosystems … but in my case at least, this isn’t because said species and ecosystems are good for Homo sapiens but simply(?) for the sake of the species and ecosystems themselves. But I’m still not sure why I feel this way, except perhaps for Francis Thompson’s observation that “All things … near and far, hiddenly to each other connected are, that thou canst not stir a flower without the troubling of a star.”
Substitute “desman” for “flower” and maybe you’ve got it.
[image from Wikimedia]