Do you remember the old nursery rhyme about the old lady who swallowed a fly?
For the uninitiated, the story goes as follows: There was an old lady who swallowed a fly. For what reasons she swallowed a fly we do not know. Perhaps she will suffer the consequences of her poor dietary decision. The woman, perturbed by the buzzing of the live fly she just consumed, proceeds to swallow a spider in order to catch the fly. The spider appears to successfully apprehend the fly, however, the spider has begins to wriggle and wiggle and tiggle inside her. Having learned nothing from her previous two experiences with swallowing live animals, she goes on to swallow a bird to catch the spider, then a cat to catch the bird, a dog to catch the cat, a cow to catch the dog, and a horse to catch the cow, at which she finally succumbs to her gluttonous behavior.
A child-appropriate bedtime story if there ever was one.
But ethical questions surrounding the grime nature of this nursery rhyme aside, the tale of the old lady who swallowed a fly provides great insight to the core of human nature. We tend to have limited foresight, unable to predict the consequences of our actions even when we have prior experience with them. Our carelessness towards solving problems hastily with poorly thought out solutions instead of taking the time to think critically and rationally about the situation at hand.
This tendency is best exemplified when it comes to the issue of invasive species. A similar pattern emerges every time mankind unwittingly introduces a foreign species to a new land. An alien organism is unleashed into an ecosystem that evolved without its influence. Consequently, the invading species propagates and decimates the native populations. So, in order to counter effect of the invading species, we introduce another foreign species into the ecosystem. The new invader propagates and decimates the native populations as well, and the cycle begins anew. Like the old lady, we assume that we can quell the fly’s buzzing by swallowing a spider without seeing that we’ll just to have to deal with the spider.
You’re probably thinking, That would never happen in real life. Nobody is that stupid. Allow me to point to the Hawaiian Islands, certainly no strangers to foreign invaders (See The Feral Cat Problem: The Unfortunate Truth About Alolan Form Meowth). During their expeditions, European explorers were accompanied by an uninvited guest, Rattus norvegicus, known colloquially as the brown rat. These furry stowaways followed humans on their many expeditions throughout the world, colonizing many remote islands alongside their human counterparts. Hawaii was no exception.
Rats are essentially the crème de la crème of invasive species. One could say that they were specifically designed to conquer foreign ecosystems. For starters, rats are very adaptable and are able to live in a wide range of environments. In addition, rats eat everything. That is not hyperbole. If it has any nutritional value, a rat can and will eat it. But perhaps what makes them so successful as an invasive species is their ability to reproduce exponentially. Rats reach sexual maturity at five weeks, females ovulate every 4-5 days, and they have a gestation period of only 22 days with as many as 20 babies in a litter1. A single pair of rats can produce as many as 2,000 descendants over the course of a single year2. Indeed, if there was ever an animal best equipped to conquer the world, the rat would be it.
And unsurprisingly, once these furry invaders set foot on the pristine island ecosystem of Hawaii, there population skyrocketed as they ravaged the countryside like barbarian tribes ransacking the Roman capital. They pillaged agricultural fields, disrupted local ecosystems, destroyed native bird nests, and spread a slew of new diseases and parasites which took their own toll on the native populations, animal and human alike.
The metaphorical fly had caused quite a bit of damage, so to quell its buzzing, in 1883, the sugar industry introduced mongooses to sugarcane fields with the hope of curbing the damage done by the rat infestation.
The mongoose is a native of India3. Like rats, mongooses are far from picky eaters. They will essentially feed on anything that they are able to successfully swallow. Hawaii with its diverse plant and animal life was an open buffet. Why stick to mere rats when you can dine on Hawaiian delicacies such as petrel hatchings, sea turtle eggs, and practically every moving object in sight.
Moreover, mongooses are able to adapt to a variety of environments, thus giving them unlimited range to hunt throughout the islands.
While their impact on rat populations has been rather insignificant, mongooses have annihilated native populations. They have all but exterminated the native lizard population4, driven several bird species to near extinction, and caused a reported $50 million in damage5. The Hawaiian goose, also known as the nene, had an estimated population of 25,000 in 1778. By 1952, that number had dropped to 306.
To make matters worse, mongooses are surprisingly intelligent, and tend to avoid most traps, especially when prey is abundant, and it is always abundant.
And as a final piece of cruel irony to this already depressing tale, rats are nocturnal creatures, coming out mostly at night, while mongooses are diurnal, being most active during the day7. The two species rarely came in contact with each other.
Goes to show that a little research can go a long way. #TheMoreYouKnow
In perhaps the most obvious parallel to its real-life counterpart yet, the Alola region is also victim to the narrow-sightedness of a few individuals. Yungoos, the Loitering Pokémon, is not native to Alola, but was introduced to the islands in order to deal with the overpopulation of a “certain other Pokémon”. It has now since been revealed the “certain other Pokémon” to be none other than Alolan Rattata, now a dual Normal-Dark Type, fitting for such a destructive creature.
Perhaps like with Alolan Meowth, the inclusion of this unfortunate real-life reference will bring attention to a critical issue plaguing the Hawaiian Islands, and maybe begin a conversation about the way we approach fixing our messes.
Maybe we should tell our children the tale of the old lady who swallowed a fly as a cautionary tale, so that they do not make the same mistakes we do.