by Whit Gibbons

August 22, 2004

A friend of mine who is an ecologist asked if I would advise him about a personal situation involving his wife. He said that another friend had told him that I had faced the same problem myself some years ago and would know what to do. Imagine my apprehension as I waited to hear what kind of marital dilemma he thought I could possibly have a solution for. Turns out his problem was indeed a serious one--his wife wanted him to go with her to visit several antique stores. And the other friend was right. I did have a solution that was compatible with keeping a happy wife. Here is what I had to say about my experience when faced with the same dilemma.

On seeing myself headed toward a wifely entrapment that would require my participating in a two-day expedition to explore antique stores, I saw need for a plan. My idea was to conduct the first ecological study of biodiversity in the wilds of the antique shop habitat. The slice of biodiversity available in the 21 antique stores we visited was astonishing.

Feeling a bit like Walter Mitty, I decided to approach the study in the spirit of an ecologist beginning a species survey and environmental assessment. For each store, or habitat, the objective was to determine the kinds and abundance of species and identify the factors responsible for their presence or absence. Within the first 15 minutes of wandering around, I had seen and written on my survey list a dozen Indian elephants, an American armadillo, and a hippopotamus (Africa).

The parallels between examining biodiversity in antique shops and natural habitats are several. Both have features that can influence how many species occupy them. Size of the store, or habitat, can be important as can a variety of intrinsic features. For example, simple ecosystems like caves or small islands ordinarily have lower biodiversity than more complex habitats such as tropical rain forests or southeastern wetlands. Thus antique stores can be simple environments that specialize in a single type of merchandise, such as Victorian furniture or Oriental vases. In contrast, a store having china, furniture, silverware, clocks, and estate jewelry from a variety of cultures and eras would be more complex.

This first hypothesis was unquestionably supported--the greater the diversity of items, cultures, and time periods, the higher the diversity of plant and animal species present. One store specialized in place settings produced in China from 1760 to 1910 designed to be exported. The rose medallion pattern characteristically had colorful butterflies and birds and pink peonies. I also found a dragonfly on one, and on a similar style known as mandarin I found bats and a lotus plant. But aside from these specimens, along with a few more kinds of flowers I could not identify, that was pretty much it. Low biodiversity.

Meanwhile, at another much bigger store that looked like it held the loot from a pirate ship that had been plundering for five centuries, the biodiversity was overwhelming. Among the wild animals popping up everywhere--on furniture, plates, brass door knockers--were owls, monkeys, foxes, storks, frogs, beetles, bears, lions (lots of lions), parrots, and turtles. Rare sightings were even made of snails, zebras, lizards, and cobras. Domestic species included numerous dogs and horses, occasional donkeys, ducks, and cats, and even a few pigs. A botanist could probably have categorized the plant families represented, but I'm sure of ivy, grape vines, lilies, and legumes. The ecological message of all this is that wildlife is woven deeply into the artistry of many forms of antiques, with certain ones being closely associated with specific times in history.

One mystery emerged. After looking at more than 50 chandeliers, I found only a single grape vine twining around one plus butterflies and birds associated with another. Perhaps this was sampling bias of some sort, but the chandeliers seemed to represent a broad array of vintages, yet a sterile habitat without the life that pervades so many other art forms.

My friend agreed a biodiversity quest would be one way to endure the trip and accepted the challenge of learning more about antique store environments. On his expedition he plans to specialize on chandeliers.

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