Barnacles in the intertidal zone.

Many people have discovered the benefits of yoga, stretching and strengthening, or other exercise forms to keep the body flexible.

But not only physical flexibility keeps us moving; when the world changes around us, mental flexibility is also important.

This summer, I have had to be flexible about my work plans too; some of them died, other opportunities opened up. The directives are changing, and while many things are more restrictive, other rules will be more flexible. We just have to keep bending and stretching and then, suddenly, it hurts less.

In ecology, we have the concept of a “realized niche.” If you look at the habitat in which an animal lives, you can describe a number of parameters.

Let’s take the polar bear, for example: It lives in the Arctic. As long as the sea ice is stable enough, it lives on the ice. When that is no longer possible, it lives along the shores of the Arctic ocean. Its realized niche is the lifestyle it lives at this time.

However, most organisms have a potential niche that is larger than the realized niche, but there is some factor that keeps them from using that additional habitat.

For example, our common mottled sea star, which likes to eat barnacles, would expand its range happily into those shallower areas along the rocky beaches that are just covered with barnacles, but it cannot survive being out of the water for very long. The sea star’s realized niche is the lower intertidal, but if sea level rose permanently, the sea star habitat would expand.

The barnacles, on the other hand, could also grow and survive happily underwater in the lower intertidal, but there are too many sea stars. Thus, the realized niche for barnacles is where sea stars can’t go — at least not for long — but barnacles can survive. If you had a sea star die-off, you might find barnacles growing in places where they never survived before.

Generally, when there are big changes in the world around, they may shift the limiting factors that determine where an animal can survive, and expand or limit its realized niche.

In other words, you would no longer find the animal in the same places. Lobster in the Atlantic and cod in the Bering Sea have a preferred temperature range.

Warming temperatures in the Gulf of Maine have caused the population of lobster to move northward, and while the lobster fisheries along the Mid-Atlantic coast are not doing too great, the Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy have seen an increase in the scrumptious and lucrative crustaceans. Bering Sea cod have also moved farther north than their historical range.

If you have or know a child who is preparing to return to school this fall, you may have seen the three-step plan the school district published as a guideline for what to do under various possible scenarios in an unpredictable future with a pandemic virus.

In an impressive effort, not one but three scenarios are planned out and prepared. These plans are to guide hundreds of Kodiak students and teachers to move forward with school.

Flexibility is the answer to survival for programs and businesses too. Some have managed to adapt and change, others have not been so lucky or could not flex. 

I just spent a good part of my weekend writing a report about a program that had to shut down and make suggestions about how to handle the marine science elementary school program in the new reality of the educational landscape.

I adapted the school district’s approach and submitted three plans, which could also overlap and melt into one another. 

Times of major environmental change have historically always brought great innovations. Geological periods of great extinction have always been followed by periods of an increased number of new species.

It is always difficult to embrace change. After all, we have no experience with what is coming and it is extremely unsettling not to know where we are going. But when you close your eyes, you can either stumble and fall, or you can remain flexible and imagine all kinds of amazing possibilities.

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