Saturday, December 17, 2011

Santa Rosalia: Patron Saint of Modern Ecology?

Rosalia Sinibaldi was the daughter of a wealthy Norman nobleman of Palermo, and was born in 1130AD.  The date of her birth is significant to Sicilian history because it was the same year that Sicily became a kingdom under the Norman king Roger II. Sicily at this time was at the height of its political and economic power and one of the most powerful kingdoms in Europe.

Rosalia's calling to serve her faith, led her to renounce her family status and wealth when she was very young.  She cloistered herself, becoming a hermit and living in a cave or “grotta” on Monte Pellegrino. She died in that very cave in 1166AD.  Santa Rosalia is always depicted as a beautiful young girl with a crown of flowers.

Centuries later in 1624, when Palermo was infested with plague, Rosalia appeared  to a sick woman in a dream, and later to a huntsman, whom she instructed to find her remains and take  them in procession through the streets of the city. As a result of this, the city was cured of the terrible plague and a sanctuary built in the grotto where her bones were found by the huntsman.  Since that time, every year on  July 15, the people of Palermo celebrate their beloved patron saint with a procession through the city streets.  To this day, the feast of Santa Rosalia is as sacred a holiday to the people of Palermo as Christmas. It is not unusual to see pilgrimages to Monte Pellegrino, with the faithful walking barefooted or on their knees.

Fast forward to the 21st century. 

My eldest son Vincenzo is a doctoral student in Biology at the University of Missouri at Saint Louis.  Fluent in Italian, Vincenzo studied in Italy and maintains strong ties to our large extended family in western Sicily. He is steeped in the traditions and folklore of Sicily and recently shared with me with a particularly delightful story that links Santa Rosalia, the patron saint of Palermo, to the study of modern ecology.   Vincenzo writes: 

“I find it immensely entertaining that part of the fundamental framework of modern ecology originated from an idea generated in Sicily at the grotto of Santa Rosalia.

The "niche" is an important idea in ecology. A species' fundamental niche refers to any area in the environment where a species could potentially exist because it can survive the range of conditions present.  A species' realized niche is a subset of the fundamental niche and represents the places the species is actually found.  The species' realized niche is always smaller than its fundamental niche (i.e., all the places it can tolerate) due to interactions with other species (e.g., competition, predation) that keep it out of certain places.

The niche was first made famous by the eminent ecologist G. E. Hutchinson in his address to the American Society of Naturalists in 1958 after being elected their president.  Hutchinson's address is titled "Homage to Santa Rosalia or Why are there so many kinds of animals?".  In it, he talks about a trip he took to Palermo, Sicily to collect water bugs.  I’ve  attached a link to the document and I recommend reading the first and second paragraphs and the last sentence. 

Hutchinson, G. E. 1959. Homage to Santa Rosalia or why are there so many kinds of animals? American Naturalist, 93: 145159.   

I will furthermore add that I am "academically related" to  G.E.Hutchinson.  Hutchinson was ecologist Robert MacArthur's major professor; MacArthur was ecologist Robert Ricklefs's major professor (for a short while): and of course Robert Ricklefs is my major professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis." 


For those who are curious, here is more information about Hutchinson:
George Evelyn Hutchinson Fellow of the Royal Society,  (January 30, 1903 – May 17, 1991), was an Anglo-American zoologist known for his studies of freshwater lakes and considered the father of American limnology, or  the study of inland waters.  (Limnology is often regarded as a division of ecology or environmental science and  covers the biological, chemical, physical, geological, and other attributes of all inland water.)
Born at Cambridge in England, he joined the faculty at Yale University in 1928, where he taught for 43 years. He became a US citizen in 1941.
In 1949, Hutchinson was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 1950 to the National Academy of Sciences. In 1984 He was awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences. He was awarded the Kyoto Prize in 1986 and the National Medal of Science posthumously in 1991.
 Thanks for reading and ...ciao a presto!