Biology, Sheep, and Human Survival

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

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

This is a reposted article from November 21, 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.

Physiology of sheep

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

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

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.

Sheep and Volcanos

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

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

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.


18 thoughts on “Biology, Sheep, and Human Survival

    • Is it known why Ruapehu and Tongariro are so much more “normal” than the rest of the volcanoes of the TVZ?

    • Drums have looked like this for a few days – regular low amplitude tremor. GNS aren’t concerned enough to have raised alert level (from “1 – minor volcanic unrest”).

  1. And in old news, New Scientist (subscription-ony) has a story on “Kingdom-busting volcanoes linked to the rise of the roman-empire/, claiming that a number of volcanic eruptions in the period 150-300BC affected water flow in the Nile and destabilised Egypt, allowing Rome to take over as the dominant power. No data is shown and I don’t think this was a particularly volcanic era, so it is not clear to me which volcanoes that would have been and whether they would have bene powerful enough to stop the rains that feed the Nile. There was a major bang in 44BC (Chiltepe) with major climatic impact, and an unidentified tropical eruption in 426BC which is possibly the worst one for effect on temperature over the past 2500 years (total sulphate is similar to the 1258 eruption of Rinjani, and 2.5 times that of Tambora) but nothing particularly bad in this period. Of course they may have new ice core data which shows differently, or the rains in the Ethiopian highlands may be particularly sensitive to sulphates. Interesting.

    • I know that Turkana was cut off from being the source of the Nile and that it affected things, but I have forgotten when.

      • Nope, that occured 9500 years ago as the northern part of the lake inflated so much that the river exit was permanently closed off from the white nile.

    • I believe that is Satsuma Iwo-jima, at the north edge of the Kikai caldera. It steams frequently, and once in a while you can see a little incandescence there.

  2. Nice article.

    I am a (food) microbiologist myself. Though the only thing i could tell you in connection with volcanoes is that Lava is likely sterile. Hot vents have a interesting flora of bacteria and having a BBQ on lava is a bad idea.

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