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Word Wisdom: Bellwether

The latest inspirational column from Rev. Dr. John Kreutzwieser
Word Wisdom

I remember a few years back, in my constant battle with gophers digging in our backyard, I tried small smoke bombs to eliminate them. One hole was under the cement stairs that I was sure was occupied by a young gopher. I tried the smoke bomb method of removal. The only thing that staggered out of the ground was a blotched tiger salamander about 6 inches long. It went a few feet then keeled over and died. Amphibians, unlike people, breathe partly through their skin, which is constantly exposed to everything in their environment. That is why amphibians are a bellwether for pollution, toxic chemicals, ultraviolet radiation, and smoke. I imagine the frogs, toads, and salamanders were stressed this summer with all the wildfire smoke across Western Canada.

Bellwether is a word used as an indicator of trends or the act of forecasting. If amphibians start to suffer and die due to environmental issues it is an indication that humans could be next.

Originally bellwether had nothing in connection with weather or the environment. The wether in bellwether was connected to sheep farming. We usually think of sheep as followers but in a flock one sheep must lead the way. From ancient times, it has been common practice for shepherds to hang a bell around the neck of the lead sheep in their flock. This animal was historically called the bellwether. A word formed by a combination of the Middle English words belle (meaning “bell”) and wether, a noun that referred to a male sheep. Bellwether has been in use since the 1400s. On a sheep farm today, the bellwether is a castrated male sheep. 

Eventually bellwether would come to refer to someone who takes initiative or who actively establishes a trend that is taken up by others, a leader. Thus, amphibians are bellwethers for environmental concerns. Bellwether stocks are the trend setters for performance on the stock market. “Nvidia also has become more important as a tech industry bellwether,” wrote Ian King, in Fortune, August 23, 2023.

On September 2, 2023, Rachel Ramirez and Eric Levenson wrote for CNN, “When torrential rainfall in August 2022 pushed the Pearl River in Mississippi to surge well beyond its banks, floodwaters spilled into the suburbs of Jackson and led an already-hobbled water treatment plant to fail. It was the final stroke in what experts described as a yearslong issue in the making, which eventually left tens of thousands of residents in the city without clean drinking water for weeks. What happened in Jackson, experts say, is a bellwether for what’s to come if America continues to kick the can down the road in addressing its aging and crumbling water infrastructure.” The same can be said for Canada too.

Biologists have long suspected that amphibians, whose moist permeable skins make them susceptible to slight changes in the environment, might be good bellwethers for impending alterations in biodiversity during rapid climate change. Already in 2008 two University of California biologists verified the predictive power of this sensitive group of animals in a global study of species turnover among amphibians and birds. “Our study supports the role of amphibians as ‘canaries in the coal mine’,” said Lauren Buckley, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Santa Barbara's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.

“Amphibians are much more tuned into the changes in their specific environments,” said Walter Jetz, an associate professor of biology at UC San Diego and the other author of the study. “They are much more sensitive to differences in environmental conditions as you move geographically from one location to another.”

Whatever the cause of climate shifting, the amphibians are a bellwether for our future life on the planet. Frogs, toads, and salamanders can be useful to us in helping shape the outlook for humanity.

John would like to know if anyone has a sincere interest in a relevant word that he could possibly research for an upcoming column. If so, please send your requests to Words will be selected according to relevance and research criteria. We cannot confirm that all words will be used.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication. 

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