Rings, Dance & Earwax: What Can Multispecies Data Teach Humans?

Between the Sixth Extinction and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, there has never been a more urgent time for humans to renegotiate our relationship to both our own information technologies and to the more-than-human world.

Photo by Nathaniel Sison.

There has never been a more urgent time for humans to negotiate the Sixth Extinction (the acceleration of the climate crisis and biodiversity loss) with the Fourth Industrial Revolution (unprecedented techno-human development).1 With the survival of humans at risk and increasing violence on nonhuman beings, it is becoming more and more important to extend beyond the exceptionalism of humans and recognise the intelligence of the more-than-human world: plants, flora, fauna, animals, fungi and all creatures underground and in the deep sea. To care for all species, it is imperative that humans begin to bridge their relationship within the multispecies universe through affirmative relational ethics.

So then, how might multispecies studies provide a more rewarding vantage point for understanding humans as participants in entangled human and non-human relationships? This stance situates humans within a multi-species entanglement, with various ethical and political ramifications. The intersection of the Sixth Extinction and the Fourth Industrial Revolution is increasingly relevant as GIS and environmental sensing technologies can and do gather ‘big data’ on climate change, biodiversity loss, and exploitation of natural resources.

Here, we explore multispecies data perspectives to inform environmental governance. In doing so,  we can move away from representing nonhuman others as mere ‘resources’ and instead integrate narratives towards human understanding of multispecies entanglements and potential collaborations.  As Van Dooren et al. put it, multispecies data “provides ‘thick’ accounts of the distinctive experiential worlds, modes of being, and biocultural attachments of other species”.2

Image by Patrick Fore, via Unsplash.

Tree rings reveal the embodied history of trees’ past, which is closely connected to the history of the surrounding environment and also the planet.3 The rings demonstrate that all trees express their environment, and the environment, in turn, is an expression of the tree. The embodied history of trees offers a glance into the estranged lives of plants by carrying the past into the present – should their stories be translated through scientific data. The tree rings as scientific data can also be interpreted as what it means to care for multispecies and how the idea of agency requires a visit: from mobility to rootedness, from autonomy to relationality, and from sovereignty to dialogue and responsiveness.4

Image by Atik Sulianami, via Unsplash.

Fungi are their own kingdom of life. Fungi have tiny thread-like tubes called hyphae that branch out and weave themselves into plant roots, connecting plants with a vast and collaborative underground network called the Wood Wide Web.Mycorrhizal fungi and their communicative network matter as it sustains the 90% of the plant kingdom by enabling them engage in communication, the basis of our existence (see Paul Stamets’ talk “Six Ways That Mushrooms Can Save the World”). This Wood Wide Web functions like the internet of the plant kingdom: it helps transfer nutrients, recognise kin, and send warning signals. The scientific data framework is increasingly using communication terminology to describe these processes of kinship: for example, the fungal underground is often known as tree talk or plant intelligence.6

Image by Nathaniel Sison, via Unsplash.

Ants use odour trails in foraging and are believed to communicate with each other through a Morse code-ish language through antennal tapping.7 8 Honeybee foragers and nesting-scouts use the waggle dance to communicate both direction and distance of food sources as well as potential nesting sites.9 Complex communication protocols consisting of sensing, data processing and feedback structures that form the backbone of swarm intelligence in these beings. In the age of big data, swarm intelligence describes emergent forms of technologies where intelligence is distributed and interactive. It also extends the technological discourse to social behaviour and interconnected modes of existence for humans drawn from the sophisticated processes exhibited by nature. Moreover, when bees and ants work in the interest of the group and decisions are made collectively and democratically. Humans are yet to figure out economic, political and production systems that are equitable and regenerative.

Image by Beanca du Toit, via Unsplash.

Quite similarly to tree rings, whale earwax gathers in layers or laminae, each layer represents approximately six months of life. By studying the sliced up pieces of wax, scientists discovered that the earwax revealed what pollutants encountered by the whale and record of whales’ hormones. This study is the first to quantify temporal stress patterns in whales and helps us to reassess history from the whales’ perspective. The whale’s earwax can tell us how many pollutants they are exposed to over their lifetime which is indicative of the growing impact of the Anthropocene.

These examples of more-than-human data discussed above show a new way to understand multispecies and their entanglements with humans and the human world. Multispecies data practices demand our attentiveness to issues of justice in their worlds. Why justice? Because this is their world as much as it is ours. As their extinction is human-driven, the impact of their extinction affects the survival of humans. For example, human food cycles are dependent on pollination by bees but the bee population is in decline for several reasons, including climate change. It is thus imperative to extend this perspective to governance and policymaking paradigms. Currently, governance is implicitly understood as a human domain and is limiting when the swarm intelligence of ants, bees and complex intelligence of other beings are ignored. In the data examples, ‘other’ species have their own ways of governing and regulating the balance with the environment: reciprocity between them and their environment. There is not only exchange of information, energy and matter but also the constitution of a community.

Recently, there has been a revival of interest in including nonhuman animals in politics and law. In some places in the world, nonhuman beings are being given the status of legal personhood to protect their right. In New Zealand and India rivers have been granted legal personhood. Ecuador and Costa Rica added animal rights to their constitution. These examples mark a shift from human-centred ways of governance, but they are still reformist and embedded within colonial legal systems. We instead question the need to find justice for nonhuman beings in anthropocentric legal and justice paradigms when we could extend justice in more non-anthropocentric ways. Technologies and design methodologies have recently been picking up on the notion of swarm intelligence and other more-than-human participatory methods that aid humans to listen and collaborate with nature through ethics of care. As many insects and animals face extinction and in that lies questions of human survival, will we move away from human-centred governance paradigms and to more-than-human governance paradigms? Nonhuman beings may not be capable of exercising political agency in the human domain but the changing climate and rising sea levels are a sign or a result of their agency. Whether for reasons of relational caring or self-interest, humans are compelled to collaborate with natural intelligence and exercise “our” political agency in ways that extend care and responsibility to the larger environment and nonhuman beings.

1. Braidotti, Rosi. 2020. “‘We’ May Be in This Together, but We Are Not All Human and We Are Not One and T.” Ecocene: Cappadocia Journal of Environmental Humanities, Cappadocia University. https://doi.org/10.46863/ecocene.2020.3.
2. Van Dooren, T., and E. Kirksey. 2016. “Multispecies Studies: Cultivating Arts of Attentiveness.” The Environmentalist. https://read.dukeupress.edu/environmental-humanities/article-abstract/8/1/1/61679.
3. Schweingruber, Fritz Hans. 2012. Tree Rings: Basics and Applications of Dendrochronology. Springer Science & Business Media.:
4. Nassar, Dalia, and Margaret M. Barbour. 2019. “What Can an Embodied History of Trees Teach Us about Life? –.” Aeon. Aeon. October 16, 2019. https://aeon.co/essays/what-can-an-embodied-history-of-trees-teach-us-about-life.
5. Simard, Suzanne W., David A. Perry, Melanie D. Jones, David D. Myrold, Daniel M. Durall, and Randy Molina. 1997. “Net Transfer of Carbon between Ectomycorrhizal Tree Species in the Field.” Nature388 (6642): 579–82.
6. Gorzelak, Monika A., Amanda K. Asay, Brian J. Pickles, and Suzanne W. Simard. 2015. “Inter-Plant Communication through Mycorrhizal Networks Mediates Complex Adaptive Behaviour in Plant Communities.” AoB Plants7 (May).
7. Buehlmann, Cornelia, Paul Graham, Bill S. Hansson, and Markus Knaden. 2015. “Desert Ants Use Olfactory Scenes for Navigation.” Animal Behaviour106 (August): 99–105.
8. Jackson, Duncan E., and Francis L. W. Ratnieks. 2006. “Communication in Ants.” Current Biology: CB16 (15): R570–74.
9. Biesmeijer, Jacobus C., and Thomas D. Seeley. 2005. “The Use of Waggle Dance Information by Honey Bees throughout Their Foraging Careers.” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology59 (1): 133–42.

Hira Sheikh and Kavita Gonsalves are PhD Candidates with QUT Design Lab, Brisbane, Australia. As an architect and urban design theorist, Hira’s research is situated at the intersection of more-than-human geographies and multispecies data governance. With a focus on activism and transdisciplinary creative engagement, Kavita focuses on placemaking by marginalised groups through the use of technology, storytelling and play. Through their works, they explore justice for all: humans and multispecies. Their work lies entangled between the More-than-Human Futures Research group, Urban Informatics Research Group, and QUT Digital Media Research Centre.