Why the world has a lot to learn about conservation – and trust – from Indigenous societies

A family in northern Siberia watches – but decides not to hunt – a musk ox that wandered into the area where they live. John Ziker, Author provided

John Ziker, Boise State University

Twenty-five years ago, when I was a young anthropologist working in northern Siberia, the Indigenous hunters, fishers and trappers I lived with would often stop and solemnly offer something to the tundra. It was usually small, such as coins, buttons or unlit matches. But it was considered essential. Before departing on a hunting or fishing trip, I’d be asked if I had some change in my outer coat. If I didn’t, someone would get me some so it was handy. We left other gifts, too, such as fat from wild reindeer to be fed to the fire.

I was intrigued. Why do these things? Their answers were usually along the lines of, “We are the children of the tundra,” or “we make these sacrifices so that tundra will give us more animals to hunt next year.”

These practices are part of what I and other anthropologists call “traditional ecological knowledge.” Beliefs and traditions about the natural world are central in many Indigenous cultures around the world, bringing together what industrialized cultures think of as science, medicine, philosophy and religion.

Many academic studies have debated whether Indigenous economies and societies are more oriented than others toward conservation or ecology. Certainly the idealized stereotypes many people hold about Indigenous groups’ being “one with nature” are simplistic and potentially damaging to the groups themselves.

However, recent studies have underscored that conservationists can learn a lot from TEK about successful resource management. Some experts argue that traditional knowledge needs a role in global climate planning, because it fosters strategies that are “cost-effective, participatory and sustainable.”

Part of TEK’s success stems from how it fosters trust. This comes in many different forms: trust between community members, between people and nature, and between generations.

Defining TEK

Looking more closely at the components of TEK, the first, “tradition,” is something learned from ancestors. It’s handed down.

“Ecological” refers to relationships between living organisms and their environment. It comes from the ancient Greek word for “house,” or “dwelling.”

Finally, the earliest uses of the term “knowledge” in English refer to acknowledging or owning something, confessing something and sometimes recognizing a person’s position or title. These now-obsolete meanings emphasize relationships – an important aspect of knowledge that modern usage often overlooks but that is especially important in the context of tradition and ecology.

Combining these three definitions helps to generate a framework to understand Indigenous TEK: a strategy that encourages deference for ancestral ways of dwelling. It is not necessarily strict “laws” or “doctrine,” or simply observation of the environment.

TEK is a way of looking at the world that can help people connect the land they live on, their behavior and the behavior of the people they are connected to. Indigenous land practices are based on generations of careful and insightful observations about the environment and help define and promote “virtuous” behavior in it.

As an American suburbanite living in a remote community in Siberia, I was always learning about what was “proper” or “improper.” Numerous times people would tell me that what I or someone else had just done was a “sin” in respect to TEK. When someone’s aunt died one year, for example, community members said it happened because their nephew had killed too many wolves the previous winter.

A man in a hat kneels in front of a tent as he chops up small pieces of wood.
The author learning to cut up dwarf willow in the proper way for use in a summer chum, or tent, to smoke caribou meat. John Ziker, CC BY-NC-ND

Similarly, after stopping to assess the freshness of some reindeer tracks on the tundra, one hunter told me, “We let these local wild reindeer roam in midwinter so they will return next year and for future generations.” Here, TEK spells out the potential environmental impacts of greed – which, in this case, would mean overhunting.

Concepts like these are not isolated to Siberia. Much work has been done examining the parallels among ancestral systems of deference in Siberia, Amazonia, North America and other regions.

Trust and tradition

These examples illustrate how TEK is a set of systems that promote trust through encouraging deference for ancestral ways of dwelling in the world.

Moderation of self-interested behaviors requires such trust. And confidence that the environment will provide – caribou to hunt, say, or ptarmigan birds to trap – depends on the idea that people will treat the environment in a respectful manner.

Previously, I’ve studied prosociality – behavior that benefits others – in northern Siberian practices of food-sharing, child care and use of hunting lands.

These aspects of life depend on the idea that the “real” owners of the natural resources are ancestors and that they punish and reward the behaviors of the living. Such ideas are encouraged by elders and leaders, who commend virtuous and prosocial behavior while connecting negative outcomes with selfishness.

Trust is an essential component of reciprocity – exchange for mutual benefit – and prosociality. Without trust, it does not make sense to take risks in our dealings with other people. Without trust we cannot cooperate or behave in nonexploitative ways, such as protecting the environment. This is why it is advantageous for societies to monitor and punish noncooperators.

A number of small objects are scattered around the top of a sleigh sitting in a field.
An abandoned reindeer sleigh, likely a grave, with several personal items. One is not allowed to disturb it, which would disrespect the dead, who are considered the true owners of the land. John Ziker, CC BY-NC-ND

Put another way, minimizing one’s resource use today to make tomorrow better requires trust and mechanisms to enforce it. This is also true in larger social formations, even between nations. Groups must trust that others will not use the resources they themselves have protected or overuse their own resources.

Lessons from TEK

Today, many environmental experts are interested in incorporating learnings from Indigenous societies into climate policies. In part, this is because recent studies have shown that environmental outcomes, such as forest cover, for example, are better in Indigenous protected areas.

It also stems from growing awareness of the need to protect Indigenous peoples’ rights and sovereignty. TEK cannot be “extracted.” Outsiders need to show deference to knowledge-holders and respectfully request their perspective.

One idea societies can adopt as they combat climate change is the importance of trust – which can feel hard to come by these days. Young activist Greta Thunberg’s “Fridays for Future” initiative, for example, highlights the ethical issues of trust and responsibility between generations.

Many outdoor enthusiasts and sustainability organizations emphasize “leaving no trace.” In fact, people always leave traces, no matter how small – a fact recognized in Siberian TEK. Even footsteps compact the soil and affect plant and animal life, no matter how careful we are.

A more TEK-like – and accurate – maxim might say, “Be accountable to your descendants for the traces you leave behind.”

John Ziker, Professor of Anthropology, Boise State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Corals and sea anemones turn sunscreen into toxins – understanding how could help save coral reefs

aerial photography of island
Many places have banned sunscreens with certain chemicals in an attempt to help protect coral reefs. Westend61 via Getty Images

Djordje Vuckovic, Stanford University and Bill Mitch, Stanford University

Sunscreen bottles are frequently labeled as “reef-friendly” and “coral-safe.” These claims generally mean that the lotions replaced oxybenzone – a chemical that can harm corals – with something else. But are these other chemicals really safer for reefs than oxybenzone?

This question led us, two environmental chemists, to team up with biologists who study sea anemones as a model for corals. Our goal was to uncover how sunscreen harms reefs so that we could better understand which components in sunscreens are really “coral-safe.”

In our new study, published in Science, we found that when corals and sea anemones absorb oxybenzone, their cells turn it into phototoxins, molecules that are harmless in the dark but become toxic under sunlight.

A dead coral reef.
Reefs around the world – like the Great Barrier Reef seen here – are bleaching and dying because of stressors like increased water temperatures, and sunscreens may be exacerbating the issues. Amanda Tinoco, CC BY-ND

Protecting people, harming reefs

Sunlight is made of many different wavelengths of light. Longer wavelengths – like visible light – are typically harmless. But light at shorter wavelengths – like ultraviolet light – can pass through the surface of skin and damage DNA and cells. Sunscreens, including oxybenzone, work by absorbing most of the UV light and converting it into heat.

Coral reefs around the world have suffered in recent decades from warming oceans and other stressors. Some scientists thought that sunscreens coming off of swimmers or from wastewater discharges could also be harming corals. They conducted lab experiments that showed that oxybenzone concentrations as low as 0.14 mg per liter of seawater can kill 50% of coral larvae in less than 24 hours. While most field samples typically have lower sunscreen concentrations, one popular snorkeling reef in the U.S. Virgin Islands had up to 1.4 mg oxybenzone per liter of seawater – more than 10 times the lethal dose for coral larvae.

A chemical diagram of oxybenzone.
Oxybenzone is a common ingredient in many sunscreens. Fvasconcellos via WikimediaCommons

Likely inspired by this research and a number of other studies showing damage to marine life, Hawaii’s legislators voted in 2018 to ban oxybenzone and another ingredient in sunscreens. Soon after, lawmakers in other places with coral reefs, like the Virgin Islands, Palau and Aruba, implemented their own bans.

There is still an open debate whether the concentrations of oxybenzone in the environment are high enough to damage reefs. But everyone agrees that these chemicals can cause harm under certain conditions, so understanding their mechanism is important.

A number of small test tubes with little sea anemones growing inside of them.
By putting sea anemones into test tubes with oxybenzone and controlling what kinds of light they were exposed to, we could see whether the sunscreen was reacting to light. Djordje Vuckovic, CC BY-ND

Sunscreen or toxin

While laboratory evidence had shown that sunscreen can harm corals, very little research had been done to understand how. Some studies suggested that oxybenzone mimics hormones, disrupting reproduction and development. But another theory that our team found particularly intriguing was the possibility that the sunscreen behaved as a light-activated toxin in corals.

To test this, we used the sea anemones our colleagues breed as a model for corals. Sea anemones and corals are closely related and share a lot of biological processes, including a symbiotic relationship with algae that live within them. It is extremely difficult to perform experiments with corals under lab conditions, so anemones are typically much better for lab-based studies like ours.

We put 21 anemones in test tubes full of seawater under a lightbulb that emits the full spectrum of sunlight. We covered five of the anemones with a box made of acrylic that blocks the exact wavelengths of UV light that oxybenzone normally absorbs and interacts with. Then we exposed all the anemones to 2 mg of oxybenzone per liter of seawater.

The anemones under the acrylic box were our “dark” samples and the ones outside of it our control “light” samples. Anemones, like corals, have a translucent surface, so if oxybenzone were acting as a phototoxin, the UV rays hitting the light group would trigger a chemical reaction and kill the animals – while the dark group would survive.

We ran the experiment for 21 days. On Day Six, the first anemone in the light group died. By Day 17, all of them had died. By comparison, none of the five anemones in the dark group died during the entire three weeks.

A close-up of a blue coral.
Corals – like the mushroom coral seen here – and sea anemones absorb oxybenzone and metabolize it, but in doing so, they turn it into a toxin. Christian Renicke, CC BY-ND

Metabolism converts oxybenzone to phototoxins

We were surprised that a sunscreen was behaving as a phototoxin inside the anemones. We ran a chemical experiment on oxybenzone and confirmed that, on its own, it behaves as a sunscreen and not as a phototoxin. It’s only when the chemical was absorbed by anemones that it became dangerous under light.

Any time an organism absorbs a foreign substance, its cells try to get rid of the substance using various metabolic processes. Our experiments suggested that one of these processes was turning oxybenzone into a phototoxin.

To test this, we analyzed the chemicals that formed inside anemones after we exposed them to oxybenzone. We learned that our anemones had replaced part of oxybenzone’s chemical structure – a specific hydrogen atom on an alcohol group – with a sugar. Replacing hydrogen atoms on alcohol groups with sugars is something that plants and animals commonly do to make chemicals less toxic and more water soluble so they are easier to excrete.

A chemical chart showing two different molecular structures.
When cells try to process oxybenzone, they replace part of an alcohol group (highlighted in red on the left) with a sugar (in red on the right) and in doing so turn the sunscreen into a phototoxin. Djordje Vuckovic, CC BY-ND

But when you remove this alcohol group from oxybenzone, oxybenzone ceases to function as a sunscreen. Instead, it holds on to the energy it absorbs from UV light and kicks off a series of rapid chemical reactions that damage cells. Rather than turning the sunscreen into a harmless, easy-to-excrete molecule, the anemones convert oxybenzone into a potent, sunlight-activated toxin.

When we ran similar experiments with mushroom corals, we found something surprising. Even though corals are much more vulnerable to stressors than sea anemones, they did not die from oxybenzone and light exposure during our entire eight-day experiment. The coral made the same phototoxins from oxybenzone, but all of the toxins were stored in the symbiotic algae living in the coral. The algae seemed to absorb the phototoxic byproducts and, in doing so, likely protected their coral hosts.

Two rows of photos of sea anemones, with the top row showing a slower death.
This photo series shows how darker-colored anemones on top with algae in them lived longer than the lighter-colored anemones on the bottom that did not have algae living in them. Djordje Vuckovic and Christian Renicke, CC BY-ND

We suspect that the corals would have died from the phototoxins if they did not have their algae. It is not possible to keep corals without algae alive in the lab, so we did some experiments on anemones without algae instead. These anemones died about two times faster and had almost three times as many phototoxins in their cells compared than the same anemones with algae.

Coral bleaching, ‘reef-safe’ sunscreens and human safety

We believe there are a few important takeaways from our effort to better understand how oxybenzone harms corals.

First, coral bleaching events – in which the corals expel their algal symbionts because of high seawater temperatures or other stressors – likely leave corals particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of sunscreens.

Second, it’s possible that oxybenzone could also be dangerous to other species. In our study, we found that human cells can also turn oxybenzone into a potential phototoxin. If this happens inside the body, where no light can reach, it’s not an issue. But if this occurs in the skin, where light can create toxins, it could be a problem. Previous studies have suggested that oxybenzone could pose health risks to people, and some researchers have recently called for more research into its safety.

Finally, the chemicals used in many alternative “reef-safe” sunscreens contain the same alcohol group as oxybenzone – so could potentially also be converted to phototoxins.

We hope that, taken together, our results will lead to safer sunscreens and help inform efforts to protect reefs.

[Understand new developments in science, health and technology, each week. Subscribe to The Conversation’s science newsletter.]

Djordje Vuckovic, PhD candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University and Bill Mitch, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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