Biology, Sheep, and Human Survival

Björn Oddson, Sveriges Radio – Farmer trying to round up his sheep after the Grimsvötn eruption 2011

As a biologist I feel I really must reply to the Blog on behalf of the sheep. I don’t know how many biologists read these Volcanic blogs and I wonder if geologists and physicists have a true concept of the science of Biology. I decided to write my first blog-post to introduce some philosophies and facts from a biological perspective.

Yes! Biology is the study of living things. Plants, animals and microscopic organisms that are a confusing mix of Animal, Vegetable and mineral.

I hear you muttering. “Earthquakes and Volcanoes belong in the realms of the Mathematicians and Earth scientists, what is a Biologist doing here? “

My philosophy is simple. No science is in isolation from all the others.

So my first Blog-post will hopefully demonstrate my philosophy and hopefully give some incentive for deeper study and encouraging wider scientific thinking. Many of you remember biology from school. Boring experiments with pea seeds. Watching with morbid fascination as bacteria multiplied on a Petri dish, (Yet still washing hands was/is a chore) and only getting 100% interested when the word sex appeared on the black board.

Humans are animals. As a species it is in debate whether humans are a successful species or not. Yes! We have colonized the earth but how long before a population crash? This is not doom-mongering. It is based on a basic biological fact. A species is only successful if it has enough food to support its population by being beneficial within it’s habitat and ecosystem.

In my view sheep are more successful than humans.

Photographer: Róbert Reynisson – Concerned farmer looking for his sheep, Grimsvötn eruption 2011

Physiology of sheep

Sheep belong to the family of Ruminants. They have four compartments in their stomachs. This enables the sheep to graze on the roughest, toughest plants and get the maximum nutrition from the poorest pastures. First the sheep eats the grass and fills the first compartment. It will then lay down and spend a few hours regurgitating this semi digested food, chewing again to break down the high cellulose structure of the plant and swallowing this allowing it to pass into another compartment for further digestion. The food is then fermented thus causing the sheep to produce plenty of methane gas from front and rear.

Sheep can be found in all Earth’s climatic zones. They are particularly well adapted to arid zones of all latitudes. Although the equatorial jungles are not conducive to sheep they can be found in the arid regions of the equatorial, tropical and sub tropical zones. (More about the introduction of domesticated sheep to tropical areas can be found here.)

Sheep have a skin that grows strong hair over all it’s body. This hair (Fleece) is a natural protection from sun, wind, rain and snow. It is dense and protects from minor blows such as falling rocks. It provides incredibly good insulation from heat and cold. Sheep have good eyesight and this does not deteriorate with age unlike humans.

Humans, like sheep can live in all climatic zones and because they are omnivores they can find food in tropical Jungles. However they have skin that needs protection and is easily damaged, They need more water and so must live where water is readily available. They do not digest vegetable matter efficiently and so are dependent on domesticated plants if they choose to be vegans. In times of crop failure, death and disease ensues rapidly. Sheep provided humans with food, body protection and by products such as oils which have been an essential part of civilization. (Tallow for heat, light and cleaning. Lanolin for medicinal and cosmetic use.)

Domestication of sheep

Sheep are docile, intelligent and sociable. In the wild they will only become aggressive if attacked or to protect their young. I have seen a fox surrounded and attacked by four highly aggressive ewes at lambing time on the Pennine moors in England. The fox eventually escaped from the ring of angry mothers. They form groups and the young learn from the older sheep where the best food and water can be found. It is believed that they have been in a relationship with humans for around 11,000 years.

I propose that initially sheep formed a mutualistic relationship with humans as this provided the sheep with protection as the humans moved from area to area in search of water and grazing. Their fleeces were removed as the weather became warmer thus giving the sheep instant relief of parasites and heat. The humans sustained the appropriate number of sheep to the available grazing. This benefited the flock, despite individuals being killed for human consumption. As anyone who has kept sheep will know they are great escapologists. This leads me to suspect the sheep stayed with the humans for their own benefit.

Photographer unknown, rights belonging to photographer – A child carrying a baby-lamb, Grimsvötn eruption 2011

Sheep and Volcanos

In many volcanic regions it is sheep that are able to seek out food in a post eruptive landscape. Without the sheep’s ability to graze and thrive on the most poor of pastures humans would be unable to return and make use of the ravaged land. Sheep provide via their waste products nutrients to the soils, wool for nesting materials for other animals and birds and of course sheep unwittingly carry plant and bacterial spores and seeds thus aiding the spread of numerous plant species. Sheep enrich volcanic ecosystems.

I could write so much more. I do hope this first Biology blog-post will initiate more discussion, argument and study. I also hope I have demonstrated that the science of biology is inter-twined with other sciences such as meteorology and geology.

Sheep are an important part of the human psyche. Sheep provide a foundation for many religions. They are an essential part of folk memory, classical literature and sociological patterns. Without sheep there would be no Golden Fleece, no Christmas shepherds and no desirable fashion statement provided by the celebrities.


306 thoughts on “Biology, Sheep, and Human Survival

  1. I understand there have been earthquakes recorded at 15k and 12k in the El Golfo Bay area within the last 24 hours. As this magma continues its route upwards am I right in thinking that the remaining depth of rock/material will be softened, thus reducing noted eq activity? And because this remaining rock/material has been heated it will therefore be softer and weaker and much, much easier to break through? Sorry if it’s a stupid question and I hope I don’t sound like a right div for asking.

    • Hard to answer since you did not say if you meant the rock above, below or on the side of the quakes that we see.
      The part above would on general not be warmed up, but the parts that have been infused with magma would be warmer and therefore more ductile and therefore more quiet.

  2. OT I know but for anyone else in Scotland it looks like rough weather for Saturday. We have a forecast of Force 11 just when I’m supposed to be doing a Christmas craft fair. I can see my pictures splatted all over the countryside if I go.

    • Do you have a website where I could see your pictures please? I’m in Bakewell in the Peak District on Saturday, the weather is not predicted to be too much better round there! Rosy cheeks, mulled wine and bakewell pudding all round 🙂

        I may decide to increase my range of products sometime but I can’t find the enthusiasm. I tried to create a calendar of West Skye to sell on Saturday but a review of the ink useage has meant that the cost is too high. The calendar looks fantastic but I don’t think anyone round here is going to shell out 12 quid for it. Back to the drawing board 😦

        • Brian, that number two photo is absolutely fantastic!!! The colour and form put me in mind of a Tiffany stained glass window.

        • After seeing those pictures.. I would have shelled out a twelver for it in a heartbeat. Damn, your a good photographer.

        • This is Skye, seen through the eyes of a very clever photographer. A beautiful island on the beautiful West Coast of Scotland.. Brian I think you are a very lucky man to live in such a hauntingly lovely place. The West Coast of Scotland has long been my favourite place to visit in the whole of the UK. I once came close to crossing to Skye but the Ferry prices at the time were high and we were heading home with very little money left after a wonderful holiday.

        • The first time I saw a sunset from Skye over the Hebrides I burst into tears – it was so beautiful, and there are many places in West Scotland that take the breath away. For the Randies among us part of it is also a geological park with lots of little museums in the Information Centres explaining about the rocks – many ancient volcanoes among them.
          @ eyeofskye: I was looking for a calendar of Skye this year – I’d buy one for 12 quid!

        • I was telling someone only yesterday how Skye is my favourite place for dramatic geology in the landscapes and the changing colours. The table top mountains of the south and the jagged spires of the north are stunning.

  3. Translation:

    I eat no pork
    And I’ll tell you why:
    If he has eaten a hundred turds
    It will only make him laugh;
    He turns them, he twists them,
    He grins at them, and then he nibbles them.
    I eat no pork.
    The pig went playing,
    All along the bank of a river.
    He saw a turd floating by
    He scooped it out to regale himself on it,
    Saying the following:
    “Turd floating on the river,
    Surrender or you’re dead.”
    I eat no porc.

        • That would be the before mentioned SCA. Men with large beards drinking mead and hitting each other with rattan on the bottom, then drinking more mead and eating “medieval” food and singing songs from the fourteent and fifteenth century. And while eating shooting grapes at each other with dinner-table catapults.
          The women drink mead, dance weird dances, and also uses grapepults. The grapes normally land in the decolletage of the beforementioned women. Unless it lands somewhere in a kilt for some reason.
          After that more mead is consumed.
          Once a year they ritualistically go on pilgrimage to Pennsylvania to drink even more mead, use more rattan on each other, and yes… More grapepulting.

        • Mmmmmm mead! Always meant to try some. One more thing to do before I die. Drink the mead that is not join the tomfoolery society.

      • Looks interesting but I dont do French, and I am tired of giggles translations, although perhaps they would be better at French? Nah, don’t think so.

    • That article [in French] was written Sept. 28, so there is no new information in it. It is mainly historical and background information about the island and the seismic activity up to that date, and it speculates about what type of eruption might take place, and where. It focuses on the possibility of an eruption in one of the submarine volcanoes south of El Restinga and talks about cypressoids, i.e., rooster tail bursts, hence the great picture at the beginning.

      • I did make a mistake. I assure you, I do know the difference between Spanish and French. I apologize for directing you to this link, but I am interested in the ocean floor topology, and I thought the volcanoes near the Southern Ridge were interesting. I have not seen them portrayed before on this blog.

      • Karen, wordpress automatically embeds yoube videos – we discovered this in the Friday bar thread. Carl decided to leave it as is for now, as long as people don’t overdo it. 🙂

      • With the small addendum, volcanovids and threadrelated vids in all threads, the rest of the videos to be posted in the Sheepy Dalek.
        Just to make sure that we do not bump of bandwith.

  4. Somewhere above here lots of you said nice things about my pictures. Thanks, I hadn’t intended to create an advertisment though. Heartened, I will produce ten copies of this calendar and present them to the public on Saturday unless the wind is too high. If I still have ten after that I may be looking for buyers of what is likely to become a limited edition of ten!
    There will of course be a “Sleepy Hollow Hens and Geese” calendar again this year as I’ve done that for friends for the last 6 years.
    Who wants to create an Icelandic and Canary Island Sheep Calendar? It could sell well, particularly late at night on Fridays.

  5. I was just reading AVCAN fb tonight and there was an earthquake at 21:09 that several people in various places all over the island felt. Then they started a game to try to estimate the magnitude before the IGN posted it – and most of them got it down to 0.1M! Now they call each other for human seismographs and joking that they are more reliable than IGN…

    • The sad thing is that by now they are probably as exact as IGN.
      So I guess we just need ten Hierrans and we have our seismonetwork that would never lie about the quakes 🙂

      • Yes and it’d be a dynamic network, where you could change their positions as often as necessary following the earthquake locations. 🙂

  6. Also from one of AVCAN commentors, spatial distribution of CO2 values of 15 Nov (from Involcan) superimposed over the map of the island:

    • Now that’s a facinating image. The higher values almost right over the tunnel could be a little worrying. And the one next to Tanganasoga.

      • There’s three high patches right on the main road up the escarpment from La Restinga. If its not from vehicles’ exhaust then that an the tunnel might be suspect routes for escape.

  7. There seem to have been quite a lot of EQs under and around Los Llanillos this last day or so. Is the moving magma beginning to show its hand?
    Does the name Los Llanillos suggest to anybody else that it ought to have a narrow gauge railway?

    • This last quake of 3.3 mag was only 1.78 km from los Llanillos and with a depth of only 17 kms it is not surprising it was felt in many parts of the Island. It is good that the people can joke about it, reminds me of Cockneys joking during the blitz. It is a good way of psychologically dealing with the normal apprehension they must feel.

      • Believe me if I lived there I would have a lot more apprehension. I really feel for them in their uncertainty. If you have an an eruption underway you can at least get on with coping with the disaster but what they have now is like waiting for a hidden bomb to go off.

      • May be utterly obvious, but looking at the plot of all EQs since July, most of them are in and around the upswell that Carl’s voices were telling him about, the ones Lurking so ably illustrated for us…

  8. Ahaaaa – so this is where you are all hanging out !! I’m feeling all warm and fuzzy again. Great to hear from all you familiar people once again and hope the blog is hugely successful. Well done to you Carl le Strange – always thought you may start your own blog. As you have said elsewhere – it’s more than just one person that makes it work. I’ll have to change my name to something a bit more ‘cool’ but for now it’s still just ‘Jim’. Great article about sheep Diana – often helped with sheep shearing and dipping in the summer in Glenlivet, Scotland !

  9. On all the island seismographs there appears to be a largish EQ at 18.58 but it doesn’t appear in the list. Is this an earthquake somewhere else in the world?

  10. Hi Diana,

    Great Blog on Sheep thank you. I collect sheep, have always loved sheep, all types and having a small animal sanctuary full of rescued and abandoned animals especially sheep, instills a kind of comradeship with your blog, so again thank you.

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