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Recognizing the importance of traditional ecological knowledge

By: Ella Daly, University of Alberta

Up until the 1940s, scientists dismissed the idea of venom production in shrews as folklore. That is, until one scientist finally decided to check. Oliver Pearson tested what the bite of a northern water shrew, a small mouse-like animal, did to live cats and found that it killed them instantly, meaning that actually, yes, they are venomous. This was an astounding finding that was only possible because one scientist decided to explore a “myth.”

In his 2009 book, On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear, Richard Ellis dismisses accounts of polar bears using tools to hunt as unsubstantiated mythology. However, a recent paper by polar bear experts Ian Sterling and colleagues suggests that, like the case of the shrew, there may be more truth to this myth than once believed. Their paper details accounts from Inuit hunters describing polar bears using heavy objects, like ice blocks or stones, to hit or bludgeon their prey. Until recently, these accounts were dismissed as far fetched like in Ellis’ book, but now they’re receiving real consideration. Here’s why.

First of all, the consistency in prey choice. In all accounts, the bears were after walruses - the largest animal a polar bear’s likely to hunt. According to Sterling’s paper, they weigh, on average, three times more than an adult polar bear and they spend most of their time in groups for protection. They also have long, deadly tusks. On top of all that, they have skulls so thick that an adult polar bear can’t even bite through a juvenile’s head. Their imposing physicality and thick tusks make walruses a high risk, but high reward meal for a polar bear and one that’s usually scavenged instead of hunted. However, the big potential payoff means it may be worthwhile for polar bears to take the time to try out different hunting strategies.

Combine this with evidence from captive polar bears and their closest relatives, grizzlies, and the case is compelling. Both species are able to use tools to access food, when given the time and opportunity. However, not all individuals do use tools when they have the chance so even if the basic brain ‘hardware’ for tool use is present in these species, it may be used rarely. Rare, opportunistic behaviours by species in hostile environments are difficult to observe firsthand by scientists during brief research trips.

We have a scenario where a plausible phenomenon, with multiple, similar firsthand accounts spanning centuries, has been deemed, until recently, a myth. This begs the question of what counts as proof. Is the lack of belief because no one has yet taken pictures or videos of this event? Or is it an issue of trusting the sources? Photographic evidence wasn’t possible for early naturalists, yet they recorded their accounts in other ways and scientists generally accepted them. To this day, countless unexpected one-off species interactions have been published in scientific journals, with no pictures or video required (though they are more common now that everyone walks around with a camera in their back pocket). That brings us to an issue of sources.

Since the 1980s, scientists have been talking about traditional ecological knowledge, knowledge acquired by Indigenous people over hundreds or thousands of years in a region, but accepting and acting on new ideas takes time, as we saw with the venomous shrew. Only recently has traditional ecological knowledge begun to be incorporated in scientific models, studies, and recommendations.

In the 1960s, scientists were only just beginning to accept that non-human animals could also use tools. Like past resistance to a universe without Earth at its centre, this idea conflicts with a human-centric worldview, which may have slowed down its widespread acceptance. Today, descriptions of tool-use by non-human animals are abundant because scientists now know to look for this phenomena. Who knows what “new” discoveries the integration of Indigenous knowledge with academic science could soon yield?

It takes time for knowledge, and views, to disseminate, but we’re entering a new era of science – an era where scientists are opening their eyes to a broader spectrum of knowledge and learning how to incorporate diverse knowledge sources. We’re already seeing recognition of Indigenous knowledge in the management of wildfire and ice-bound species. In the face of the ever-expanding effects of climate change and human disturbance, we can no longer afford to overlook the rich understanding that Indigenous peoples have of the land on which they’ve lived for generations.

Edited by participants of the 2021 Science Writing Internship program and B.G. Borowiec. Header photo from Unsplash.

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