Keiran's World World by word by word

Choosing the island life has its consequences

Victoria Times Colonist, November 23, 2012—The words “isle” and “isolation” share linguistic roots. Both derive from the Latin word insula, which itself gives us the word “insulate”.

A curious thing can happen to large-ish mammal species that live on isolated, insulated isles. Over long periods of time, some species become smaller.

This phenomenon is called island, or insular, dwarfism. Scientists believe it results from the limited food resources typically available on islands and in other geographically cut-off areas.

In the short term, food deprivation leads to smaller birth weights and decreased growth in mammals. Over the long term, smaller bodies require less energy, or food.

Think of how much a football player or a basketball player or, better yet, a Sumo wrestler eats to maintain muscle mass and energy levels.

When food is persistently scarce, being petite confers a survival advantage.

And, so, over time, mammals on the large side when they live on mainlands may shrink in size when marooned for generations on desert isles.

(Gilligan, the Skipper, too, the millionaire and his wife, and the rest of S.S. Minnow gang weren’t stranded on their island long enough to show the effects….)

Living examples of island dwarfism include the Key Deer, found only on the Florida Keys. The Channel Island fox is the world’s smallest fox. It is native to California’s—you guessed it—Channel Islands.

Here on the B.C. coast, we have the Sitka deer on Haida Gwaii. Columbian black-tailed deer that live on the smaller Gulf Islands tend to be smaller than their mainland cousins. This, despite the abundant shrubberies and other garden delicacies we provide year-round.

Extinct species include dwarf ground sloths in the Caribbean, dwarf elephants in the Mediterranean and small elephant-like creatures in Southeast Asia. The Philippines once were home to small buffalo. Indonesia’s Bali boasted the smallest tiger of all until it went extinct in the last century.

And so, when B.C. Ferries raises rates and cuts service, and adds to the existing physical isolation of B.C.’s islands, the spectre of island dwarfism raises its tiny cranium in my own tiny cranium. As a science nerd, when I hear of the ferry corporation’s proposed cuts to meet budget constraints, I sigh and think of the Hobbit.

Not Bilbo Baggins. Nor the Peter Jackson movie due out mid-December. I’m talking about Homo floriensis, that wee relative of modern humans whose remains were discovered by archaeologists on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003.

Partial skeletons of nine individuals were uncovered, dating from 95,000 to 13,000 years ago. The tallest would have stood 87 centimetres tall when alive. Hence the nickname, the “Hobbit.”

As ferry service is cut, as it and the options of flying or watertaxi-ing to and from the islands become ever more costly, what with increases in fares, fuel surcharges, airport and dock fees, parking costs, security levies, carbon taxes, cost of living, etc., etc., will our fate as Island residents be to grow ever smaller, as Hobbit Man (and Woman) did on Flores those millennia ago? Will our descendants follow the eventual path to petite-ness taken by the Sitka and local Columbian black-tailed deer? Will we, too, nibble our neighbours’ shrubberies when food imports from the mainland become too expensive? Will decreasing physical contact betwixt mainland and island eventually result in a new hominid species, our very own Homo vancouverislandensis?

Is this the destiny we choose when we choose to continue living here?

Okay, all smart-aleck questions, but the question of choice underlies them.

And it is a choice. Unlike deer, cougar or bear, we choose to live here, despite the cost of living, inconvenience, and limited employment in some fields.

More accessible and affordable alternatives exist… some, where employers are even hiring. Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, for instance. Where it snows more.

We choose this place.

We must also accept the consequences of that choice.

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Note: Nature Boy, wildlife expert, assures me island dwarfism won’t happen in our lifetimes, regardless of the outcome of BC Ferries’ current public consultations or its coming service cuts and fare increases.

“I keep hearing about island dwarfism,” he says, “but I’ve lived here for more than a decade and, well, I just keep getting bigger.”

—30—

A version of this article appeared in the Victoria Times Colonist.

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