With a looming ecological disaster on the Gulf Coast caused by the BP oil spill it might be time to look at what species have the potential to survive or not.Biologists classify animals in many ways among them genus, species, family, phylum and kingdom. As the system of classification is refined an animal can move from one family to another and be placed in several genera with many different species names. It can get confusing even if you have been in the profession for 20 or 30 years. A general way of classifying animals that I like takes into account how they live and rates them as either generalists or specialists.A generalist is an animal that can live and survive by a variety of methods. These ways can include being able to live in a range of habitats, use a wide range of organisms for food or have multiple methods of reproduction. Generalists can be said to have strong adaptive traits. Take sharks as an example. Generalists can live in either salt or freshwater and everything in between, reproduce in a variety of ways, eat just about anything that swims, floats or crawls and have proven their adaptability by surviving for millions of years.Specialists are animals that maximize their survivability by completely adapting to a particular specialized habitat. Excellent examples are several species of plants called bromeliads that live in the Amazon River basin. Some species of bromeliads only live within a total area of a couple of hundred square meters at over 200 feet above the ground in the overstory of the rain forest. They are so specialized that any small change in their habitat could be cause for their extinction. With fish an example of a specialist might be the clown fish, which lives within the arms of the stinging sea anemone for protection or the remora, which attaches to the belly of sharks and lives on the scraps from the shark’s meal that float by. If the anemone or shark dies the clown fish or remora will have a hard time surviving.Humans are what we like to consider as the ultimate generalist with their strongest adaptive trait being their intelligence. Examples of this include: when it gets cold we make and wear clothes; learn how to use fire; grow and preserve food and invent ways to defend ourselves from predators. The one thing we have yet to learn very well is to adapt to our finite environment that is constantly changing and which has a limited amount of resources. Examples of this inability include driving an SUV when oil prices are high, failing to build or use mass transit and over populating the planet.People, in modern times, have tended toward specialization with individuals being unable to grow their own food, make clothes, build shelters or fix their computers. In a time of changing conditions generalists have the best probability of survival while the specialist, under more stable conditions, will come out on top. Which one are you?
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