by Whit Gibbons

May 1, 2011

An ecologist friend recently asked for advice about how to deal with a situation involving his wife. He said he knew I had once faced the same problem and he hoped I would have some helpful suggestions for him. Imagine my disquiet as I waited to hear what kind of marital difficulty he thought I might provide a solution for. Turns out his wife wanted him to go with her to visit several antique stores--and I did have a solution. Several years ago, I had even written a column about how I solved the problem now facing my friend.

Here is how I dealt with having to accompany my wife on a two-day expedition to explore antique stores: I conducted an ecological study of biodiversity in the wilds of the antique shop habitat. The biodiversity I found 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, which I defined as a "habitat," the objective was to determine the kinds and abundance of species and to identify the factors responsible for their presence or absence. Within the first 15 minutes of wandering around, I had recorded on my survey list a dozen Indian elephants, an American armadillo, and an African hippopotamus.

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

Indeed, the greater the diversity of items, cultures, and time periods represented in a store, 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 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 a much bigger store that looked like it held the loot from a pirate ship that had been engaged in global 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 made of snails, zebras, lizards, and cobras. Domestic species included numerous dogs and horses, occasional donkeys, ducks, and cats, even a few pigs. A botanist could probably have categorized the plant families represented. I identified ivy, grapevines, lilies, and legumes. The ecological message in 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 had found only a single grapevine 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 in chandeliers.

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