The “Circle Of Life” Is A Little More Brutal Than Disney Would Have You Believe

Ecosystems are messy, chaotic, and in flux. Nature does not exist in perfect balance. Ricardo Reitmeyer/Shutterstock

Rachel Baxter 21 Aug 2020, 13:04

“Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance,” Mufasa famously told Simba. “As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures… we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.” 

We hate to break it to you Lion King fans, but Mufasa’s “delicate balance” has been rejected by scientists for decades. It is merely a cultural concept ingrained in many of our psyches – nature exists in a perfect equilibrium that over time will overcome any challenges it might face to restore the balance once more, allowing life to continue in a never-ending loop.

In reality, predators can eradicate their prey, invasive species can totally disrupt how native animals live and interact, and the actions of humans can send species extinct and overturn the composition of an entire ecosystem.  

The concept of the balance of nature has been around since the days of the ancient Greeks, when Herodotus described the seemingly perfect equilibrium between predators and their prey, with predators never overconsuming the species they hunt. The theory of the balance of nature assumes that natural systems remain stable, with changes being corrected via a negative feedback loop.

Nice as this sounds, there was just one tiny problem. When ecologists observed animals in the wild, the hypothesis didn’t hold up. So, in the latter half of the 20th century, other concepts were floated, and the idea that ecosystems are messy, even chaotic, rose to the surface.

Life does not exist in a delicate balance that persists forever. Life in the wild is harsh, and ecosystems are dynamic and messy. Mark Sheridan-Johnson

Before Darwin, the idea of nature’s “balance” was strongly connected to religion – nature was produced by a divine creator and therefore existed in perfect equilibrium, free from extinctions and haphazardness. When Darwin’s seminal book On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, creationism was challenged, and while Darwin still hinted at the idea of a balance of nature, he suggested it was rooted in natural selection, not a god.

In a perspective piece published in PLOS Biology, ecologist Daniel Simberloff notes that Alfred Russel Wallace, the British naturalist and explorer who came up with the theory of evolution via natural selection independently of Darwin, triggering Darwin to publish his work, may have been the first person to truly question whether nature is balanced.

“Some species exclude all others in particular tracts. Where is the balance?” Wallace wrote. “When the locust devastates vast regions and causes the death of animals and man, what is the meaning of saying the balance is preserved… To human apprehension there is no balance but a struggle in which one often exterminates another.”

In the 1930s and ‘40s, scientists began questioning the idea of the balance of nature even further. Charles Elton, an English zoologist and ecologist, published a book in 1930 titled Animal Ecology and Evolution, in which he challenged the concept. “The balance of nature does not exist and perhaps never has existed,” he wrote. As biologists began questioning nature’s supposed balance, researchers in the field were making observations that didn’t match up to the theory.

“It was really a lot of empirical and theoretical ecology research beginning in the 1960s that led to the explicit rejection of the idea by ecologists,” Simberloff, who is Gore Hunger Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Tennessee and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Biological Invasions, told IFLScience.

A real-life example of this lack of balance comes from an eight-year study conducted in the 2000s. Scientists isolated tiny Baltic Sea residents like plankton from their ocean environment and observed what happened to the food web (a system of interconnected food chains). While the researchers kept the critters’ environment constant, the food web was far from balanced and chaos ensued. One by one, different species would expand their numbers and dramatically decline, despite no changes to their environment.

“Advanced mathematical techniques proved the indisputable presence of chaos in this food web,” the study’s authors wrote in Nature. "The long-term prediction of species abundances can be fundamentally impossible."

Realizing that the natural world is a lion-eat-lion world with species in a constant, bloody battle for survival, ecologists discredited the balance of nature theory.

Unfortunately, the general public did not.

Animals are constantly battling for survival. Catchlight Lens/Shutterstock

Many of us glean what we know about the natural world from nature documentaries, where animals are often anthropomorphized and the innocent fluffy gets away from its toothy hunter at the last possible moment. Animals are often portrayed as persisting in perfect equilibrium and the true harshness of the natural world tends to be kept off the screen.

When discussing the matter in an interview with The Guardian, wildlife film legend David Attenborough himself said: “People who accuse us of putting in too much violence, [should see] what we leave on the cutting-room floor. My conscience troubles me more about reducing the pain and savagery that there is in the natural world than the reverse."

A big problem with our cultural view that nature is in equilibrium is that it affects how we think about, and react to, climate change. Evidenced by record temperatures and extreme weather, the climate crisis isn’t coming. It’s already here. Action must be taken and it must be swift. However, many people believe that everything will balance itself out, plants and animals will learn to cope, and the “Circle of Life” will go on.

“I imagine it has to do with the idea that a robust balance of nature (one that protects us to an extent) is a comforting concept, psychologically,” said Simberloff.

“People who believe in a robust balance of nature that protects us tend to think nature will somehow take care of itself, and of us, so they don’t worry so much about climate change or about disappearing species.”

However, a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications suggests we have reason to worry. The meta-analysis found that while animals might be adapting to climate change, they’re not doing so fast enough. As the planet warms, seasons are shifting, with spring occurring earlier and earlier. To cope with this change, animals have to adapt their breeding and feeding patterns but often, they can’t keep up. Arctic reindeer have begun feeding on seaweed to sustain their diet as the vegetation they normally graze is becoming trapped under ice. Despite this dietary change, many are still starving to death and scientists pin the blame on the climate crisis. In fact, scientists say a million species are under threat thanks to human actions and climate change, with many declaring we have already entered Earth's sixth mass extinction

“People who know a bit, or a lot, more realize that, whatever they conceive the ‘balance of nature’ to be, it is a fragile balance, it won’t protect us, and, if we care about nature, we have to protect it,” Simberloff said.

Relying on the notion that in the face of adversity, nature eventually just balances itself out, restoring to its former glory and maintaining the endless “Circle of Life” is naïve. As we continue to devastate habitats, overhunt, overfish, contaminate oceans and waterways, and pump harmful gases into the atmosphere, the natural world won’t cope. We cannot rely on it to protect either itself or us. To restore and protect nature, we must act. And act fast. 

Remember what Scar did to the Pride Lands? That’s what we’re doing to the world.

Deforestation in Madagascar, where over 3 million hectares of tree cover has been lost in the last decade. Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock

 

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