The observer effect

Close-up of a killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) giving me a little peep (2009_06_03_021880)

When I began voraciously studying physics in high school, the term “observer effect” intrigued me.  It applies to all observational methods, and although quantum mechanics was studied only in the cursory way an AP Physics class can cover any one topic, it put a whole new spin on the premise of the observer effect by showing it remained valid for all observers, even those who weren’t aware they were observing anything (e.g., an electron can cause the observer effect just as easily as a human can).

What the observer effect helps us understand is that the act of observing a phenomenon changes the state of that phenomenon, even if only a small bit.  Consider this: When you take a baby’s temperature, the thermometer must draw heat from the infant’s body in order to measure it, therefore the child’s temperature is changed by the act of observing it.

Although focused on quantum mechanics, a highly controlled study more than ten years ago proved a startling truth: “The experiment revealed that the greater the amount of ‘watching,’ the greater the observer’s influence on what actually takes place.”  But what does this have to do with the environment, saving the planet or nature in general?

Let’s start with this:

It features regularly on lists of things people want to do before they die, but swimming with stingray may not be the life-enhancing experience expected — at least not for the animals.

A new study has revealed that stingray at a tourist hotspot in the Cayman Islands are suffering because of all the human attention. The Grand Cayman sandbank, dubbed Stingray City, is regularly swamped with up to 2,500 visitors at a time, most of whom have paid handsomely for the chance to feed, stroke and swim with the creatures.

The study highlights the risks to animals posed by the growing “wildlife tourism” industry. Experts say wild populations of creatures such as dolphins, penguins and sharks are also affected by increased contact with curious people.

Other examples of the observer effect and how it impacts nature:

Dolphins: Creatures in Australia targeted by tourists are more likely to abandon their young

Killer whales: Whale watching in Canadian waters is shown to reduce animal feeding time

Penguins: Even minimal human contact is shown to double the heart rate of New Zealand’s yellow-eyed penguins

Apes: Mountain gorillas of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are known to be susceptible to human diseases

Yet not all manifestations of the observer effect mean obvious harm to nature.  In some cases humans are not seen as predators because they supply food and because they reduce the risk of predation.  Certain species react well to this arrangement, and it allows them to focus more time and energy on reproduction.  Take this video for example:

Simply by being there and observing, the people in the boat drastically change the outcome of the orca hunt, but their impact is not intentional and it is not entirely detrimental.  No one would argue that the penguin thought they were interfering, though it can be asked if the lack of a kill negatively impacted the whale pod, perhaps because of an ill or older member, or a very young member, who did not eat because of the observer effect.

Months ago on the TEXBIRDS mailing list, I remember reading from one woman who gleefully explained how she and another person traveled nearly 2,000 miles over the course of three or four days in order to see two or three rare birds in Texas.  I had to wonder what kind of environmental impact they had in their travels, what with driving all that way, consuming as they went, affecting nature through the act of observation.  If the carbon footprint of that trip could be measured…

Yet it’s part of a growing trend of eco-tourism.  People travel mind-boggling distances to swim with the stingrays, to observe the orcas, to see a rare bird.  They say getting there is half the fun, but it’s also part of the problem—and an integral part of the observer effect.

The rise of eco-tourism is a product of humanity’s sudden interest in the environment as something more than a source of fuel and food.  This newfound appreciation can benefit the environment and the creatures inhabiting it.  It can reduce the killing of wildlife, it can save habitat from destruction, and it can change people and economies in ways that allow humans to make a living by protecting the planet.

The catch, though, stems from the observer effect.  It behooves us to understand the impact we have and to manage that impact as best we can.  Long has been my hope in sharing my nature photography that it would allow people to see and better appreciate what will be lost through inaction, what often goes unnoticed by others until it’s pointed out.  I share this goal with those individuals and organizations that provide eco-tourism services whereby people can experience the breathtaking splendor too long hidden by consumerism.

But we must tread carefully and be certain throngs of appreciative people don’t trample all the life we’re trying to save.  And we must be certain that we do not drastically impact that which we observe.

A great egret (Ardea alba) in breeding plumage hunting in the shallows at sunset (2009_06_04_022126)

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Photos (just to give some eye candy to my little rant):

  1. Close-up of a killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) giving me a little peep.
  2. A great egret (Ardea alba) in breeding plumage hunting in the shallows at sunset.

4 thoughts on “The observer effect”

    1. I never thought of it that way, Murr, but you’re delightfully right: cities are cages for people, and as long as they’re in those cities, they’re not out demolishing what little of nature is left. I love the visual!

  1. Honestly, I feel guilty every time I plan a vacation any more, especially if it involves flying. (I feel just slightly less guilty if I’m driving, since I drive a Prius.) Most of my vacations are to natural areas, so I’m as guilty as the next eco-tourist.

    By the way, beautiful “eye candy,” Jason.

    1. Thanks, Scott!

      And though I can articulate the issue, I really don’t have good answers. On one hand, eco-tourism is good for the environment: people learn that protecting nature makes money, and the tourists learn to appreciate that saving nature has its own rewards. On the other hand, as the examples point out, it’s not a zero-sum activity, and as usual it’s nature that loses in the long run.

      Moderation is key, as in all things, and hopefully as the industry booms and grows, these issues will be taken into account and addressed. And obviously I hope individuals think diligently about their impact before it happens and take steps to mitigate that.

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