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Lane Filler: Witness the species smackdown

Channelled whelk from the waters of Peconic Bay

Channelled whelk from the waters of Peconic Bay Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

You probably haven't noticed, but bats are battling a deadly fungus in our own backyards. Figuratively. Bat-filled caves aren't a common feature of Long Island properties in the way that, say, gas grills the size of oxen are, and if you found 113 bat carcasses in the begonias you would note it, but bats are dying quite nearby.

Simultaneously, in one of our backyard bays, Peconic scallops are facing off against hungry whelks and other predators, having barely survived a 25-year battle against brown algae.

And we will pick sides and try to change outcomes in the ultimate fighting championship that is the ecosystem. It's only, well . . . natural.

According to Bill Schutt, a bat specialist at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University in Brookville, local bats are under dire threat from white nose syndrome, a fungus first seen in 2006 that is spreading faster than gossip. It may have already killed 97 percent of local bats. He's trying to stop it - siding with bats and against fungus, which is entirely reasonable. Bats eat bugs, and if they stopped, bugs would likely devour both us and our crops.

But saving the bats isn't right or wrong, just reasonable.

There's no evidence humans caused the fungus or are the primary agent of its spread.

Similarly, no one knows what caused the brown algae tides of the mid-1980s, according to Stephen Tettelbach, also a professor at Post. They decimated local scallops. Since 2004, Suffolk County has spent $2.7 million to restore the population, by introducing 6.5 million scallops in the bay, with notable success.

But now along comes this whelk, eating the seed scallops.

Scallop boosters want funding for a $70,000 study of the whelks and other predators threatening the beloved bivalve's comeback. The Suffolk County Legislature is scheduled to vote on it today.

Again, totally reasonable. Scallops are a traditional cash crop and, scientifically speaking, they are yumalicious.

The whelk is also a delicacy, often called scungilli. That means two species we eat are facing off. It's as if bacon is battling beef and we're talking about arming the cows.

But Earth couldn't care less who wins between the bats and the fungus and the whelks and the algae and the scallops and the scientists and the chefs.

We try to shape the world to please us. When we stop timber harvesting to save the spotted owl, it's because we desire a world in which there are plenty of spotted owls. When a countermovement forms to stop the owlies ("owl lovers" doesn't sound right), it's because they prioritize a thriving timber industry over wise birds. We need the trees for oxygen and to absorb CO2, and because where else would we keep the tree houses - but that's still just another way of saying we want forests because they create the environment we crave.

Molding our planet to please us is our role. Just as beavers build dams and the wood chucks chuck wood (or don't, I'm not quite clear on that), we encroach and aid to create the world that suits us. Morality is not involved. Earth doesn't care.

Earth doesn't prefer owls to jobs, or jobs to owls, or clean streams to dirty ones. Our planet doesn't differentiate between plastic and pines, cyanide and cedar. The preferences are ours.

Personally, I support Schutt and Tettelbach in their missions and would put my resources behind them, if they felt 3,500 used paperbacks and a 1996 Nissan Sentra would help. That doesn't make me a good steward of the planet, any more than opposing them would mean I was an enemy of the big rock.

I just prefer scallops to scungilli and bats to the stinging, winged insects they dine on.


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