The Sciences

Unscientific California: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Serpentine and Biodiversity

The IntersectionBy Sheril KirshenbaumJul 15, 2010 1:23 PM

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In light of California's most recent faux pas, today's guest commentary comes from California native David Lowry. David's an extraordinary plant biologist

working on the genetics of switchgrass as a postdoc at the University of Texas at Austin. (And yes I'm biased, he's soon to be my husband).

Given the economic crisis has wreaked havoc to my beloved home state of California, why are our lawmakers spending any time on a horribly misguided quest to dethrone serpentine (pictured left) as the state rock? A bit of background: Serpentine is commonly found in the hilly areas of California. It usually has a lovely smooth green or whitish tinge and its chemical composition has other characteristics fascinating to geologists, which I won’t detail here…except to include that some forms contain a small amount of asbestos, which leads us to our current predicament. You all remember asbestos, right? That lung cancer-causing white powdery substance that closed down your school gym as a kid for a year when they discovered it in those flame-resistant tiles (which seemed like a good idea at the time) lining the ceiling. Yep, it’s nasty stuff. We know we don’t want it around and can move on, right? Wrong! In a misguided attempt to “educate” Californians about the dangers of asbestos, State Senator Gloria Romero introduced a bill (SB624) to remove serpentine as the state rock. The result has been a widespread revolt among geologists--at least in the twitterverse under the hashtag: #CASerpentine. These raucous geologists just can’t understand why Senator Romero wants to castigate a perfectly good rock, especially given the fact that most serpentine does not contain asbestos. And even in cases where rocks do, someone would need to work at intentionally inhaling the stuff like a teenager sniffing glue to even have a remote chance of getting cancer.

But I'm not concerned about serpentine losing its status because of intrinsic beauty or Senator Romero's poor understanding of chemistry. I am a botanist, so plants are close to my heart and what I spend a lot of my time thinking about. Throughout my childhood growing up in Northern California, I was educated about the importance of serpentine to the plant communities in state. Yes, it is indeed toxic, but mostly to them. Even so, many plants have evolved to deal with toxic soil and well over 200 species in California live exclusively on this special rock. That's 10% of all endemic biodiversity, even though it only covers 1% of the state. Serpentine-adapted plants include the majestic carnivorous Cobra Lily (Darlingtonia californica)--known to eat insects, frogs, and even the occasional snake--and many other marvelous species that are rare or endangered. If Senator Romero really had education in mind, she would stop bashing serpentine. Rather, she would make sure that all children in California learned about this important treasure and the bounty of biodiversity it fosters in the Golden State.

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