Biodiversity Prospecting in Costa Rica

Biodiversity Prospecting in Costa Rica - Costa Rican sunset
Sunset in Costa Rican rainforest

Costa Rica is home to 500,000 species of plants and animals that are unique to that country. Many times human actions such as rainforest destruction result in the loss of many unique species. For almost thirty years, the government of Costa Rica has worked with medical, pharmaceutical, agricultural, biotechnology, and food industries in what has been called biodiversity prospecting.

The National Biodiversity Institute of Costa Rica (INBio) was established in 1989. In 1991 they reached an agreement with the pharmaceutical giant Merck to explore the forests of Costa Rica to find marketable drugs from the resources there. Merck paid money up-front and agreed to pay royalties on any drugs they discovered. Instead of destroying the diversity of wildlife, bio-prospecting encourages sustainable use. Similar efforts could be made in other nations that still have unexplored regions both in forests and in ocean ecological systems.

We would suggest that one of the things God has done is to build into the world’s ecology materials that humans can use to promote their well being. These natural materials are much more likely to produce solutions without ecological drawbacks than human-made synthetics. The Bible refers to materials that ancient people used to serve various purposes. Genesis 30:14-16 is an example where the Hebrew word dudai is translated “mandrakes” and is also found in Song of Solomon 7:13. Another example is what the Hebrew rimmon translated “pomegranate” in Deuteronomy 8:8. In ancient times, people used it to make astringent medicines.

Biologists are still learning what ancient people knew, and what some primitive tribes in today’s world know about natural medicines. God has already created many solutions to what ails us, but they await our discovery. If biodiversity prospecting can bring financial resources to developing countries while sustaining their natural habitats and creatures, we believe that is good stewardship of God’s gifts.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Original article in National Wildlife magazine, December 1991, page 29. For further information click HERE and HERE.

Your Skin Holds Everything Together

Your Skin Holds Everything Together, but that's not all

You can go online and get all the factual information you want on every part of the human body. Put in the word “skin,” and you will be amazed at how much information there is about human skin. One comic said, “Your skin holds everything together.” In truth, it does much more than that.

We tend to classify humans based on their skin color, but our skin color is related to the needs of the body. Black objects radiate heat more efficiently than white objects. Take two identical cans and paint one black and the other white. Heat them to the same temperature and then let them sit in an insulated environment. The black can will cool off faster than the white can. Dark skin color is due to a biological pigment called melanin. Melanin absorbs ultraviolet light and thus protects the body. People living in tropical areas where they are exposed to more heat and ultraviolet light have more melanin than people living in cooler regions. There is, therefore, a latitude effect on skin color.

The more you study the design of your skin, the more amazing it is. One square inch of human skin contains nearly 20 million cells and 625 sweat glands. That square inch of skin can also have as many as 65 hairs, 19 feet (5.8 meters) of blood vessels, and 19,000 sensory cells. To limit bleeding, blood vessels in your skin temporarily shrink instantly if the skin is cut or if pressure is applied. Your body sheds skin cells when they die and replaces them with new ones. Three-quarters of the dust floating around your house is made up of dead skin cells.

So, if you think your skin holds everything together, and that’s all, you would be wrong. Your skin, the largest organ in your body, does a wide range of things that help you to stay alive and comfortable. When David wrote, “I will praise you, God, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalms 139:14), he was not aware of many things about our bodies that we know today. As we look at ourselves with tools such as microscopes, we see design in the construction of our bodies that David could not have imagined.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

There is a wonderful book published in 1989 and now out of print that gives many other examples of the incredible designs we see in our bodies. The title is The Compass in Your Nose and Other Astonishing Facts About Humans by Marc McCutcheon and published by Jeremy Tarcher, Inc.

Why Do We Need Insects?

Why Do We Need Insects when they are so annoying?

Many years ago, while working in a teen camp in Alaska, I heard a skeptical teenager disparage God’s existence by saying that if God existed, He certainly wouldn’t have made mosquitoes. I have heard similar comments about ticks, hornets, lice, locusts, spiders, and stink bugs. I suspect we have all had times when we were unhappy with annoying bugs, yet when you examine the role of insects, you realize they are critical to our own existence. The well-known entomologist E. O. Wilson said, “If human beings disappeared tomorrow, the world would go on with little change, but if invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt the human species could last more than a few months.” Why do we need insects?

Insects pollinate plants, aerate and fertilize the soil, decompose dung, and the bodies of things that have died. They control pests contributing 70 billion dollars every year to our national economy. Ninety-six percent of land-dwelling birds feed their young on insects, consuming approximately 400 to 500 million tons of insects. Most creatures in and around lakes and streams feed on insects, including fish and bears.

Why do we need insects? Humans are already seeing the cost of eradicating them. There are 68 species of bumblebees and roughly a fourth of those are in danger of becoming extinct. In Europe, the data shows a 76% drop in insects, including bees, beetles, lacewings, and katydids. The loss of pollinating insects has sharply affected the growing of many cash crops, and scientists are studying the effects of insecticide use.

Before we castigate God for what He has created, we need to be sure we have all the facts. We should learn what each creature does and how it contributes to our own well being. I dislike mosquitoes as much as the next person, but a majority of misquotes are pollinating insects. I am reactive to a bee sting, but bees contribute to much of what I eat. From our earliest existence, God has challenged us to take care of what He created. (See Genesis 2:15.) That includes caring for and protecting the agents that allow Earth to be hospitable to our existence.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Data and quote from National Wildlife magazine, June-July 2020, pages 26-31.

Bird Droppings and Waste Disposal

Bird Droppings and Waste Disposal

If you ever found your car looking like the one in the picture, you know how frustrating it can be. Maybe you should have parked in a different spot. Seriously, bird droppings and waste disposal by all animals present many design challenges.

One of the major issues for all living things is how to dispose of waste. Left inside the body, waste products can be toxic. Surviving the toxic effect can be a significant challenge for a hibernating bear. For birds, it becomes complicated because they must remain lightweight to fly. They cannot have a waste removal system that is heavy or dense. That means there is no bladder and no elaborate intestinal tract in birds.

God has designed a system of waste removal in birds that we are all aware of, but may have never considered carefully. The next time you see bird droppings on your car or the sidewalk, take a close look. You will see that there is a dark spot surrounded by white material. The dark spot is fecal matter, and the white stuff is urine. The urine washes away quickly in the first rain, and the fecal matter remains. Waste removal systems frequently benefit other forms of life, and that dark spot may contain seeds that contribute to the spreading of plant life.

Some birds have unique disposal systems such as owls, which make pellets out of solid material they eat, including bones. The birds that decorate your car are specially adapted to flight. The design of their disposal system allows them to be rulers of the sky. Birders are probably familiar with a periodical put out by a humorous writer who called himself Dick E. Bird. Years ago, he wrote this poem to explain how birds defecate:

“Birds, ya know, don’t got no bladder,
So wherever they is, it just don’t matter.
On the deck or on the sills,
The spirit moves, you hear a trill.
Then they fly, just like a thief,
That is how they spell relief.”


God intelligently designs every living system, and waste disposal systems are no exception. Bird droppings and waste disposal from animals also require clean-up after the fact, and God has that covered too, as we have discussed before.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Sunlight Affects Life Cycles

Sunlight Affects Life Cycles

One of the wonders of life on planet Earth is the influence of sunlight. As winter fades away and summer approaches, we see all kinds of changes in life. As scientific research continues into the wonders of the animal and plant kingdoms, we see more carefully designed biological systems. Here are some examples of how sunlight affects life cycles:

COCCOLITHOPHORES: These are tiny phytoplankton plants that live in the ocean. As the season changes and the Sun warms the waters, those organisms increase their rate of reproduction. They would smother themselves with overcrowding except for the fact that they give off dimethyl sulfide. That chemical rises into the atmosphere and oxidizes into solid sulfate particles. For raindrops to form, there must be moisture, cool temperatures, and condensation nuclei. The solid sulfate particles provide the condensation nuclei, and the rising air cools the moisture from the sea resulting in clouds. The clouds block the sunlight, thus cooling the sea and slowing down the reproduction rate of the coccolithophores and avoiding a massive die-off. This phytoplankton literally manipulates the weather to ensure its own survival.

SALMON. These fish know when to return to the waters of their birth to spawn. Built into their bodies is a pineal gland that stimulates the pituitary gland, triggering an urge to spawn. Navigation tools designed into the salmon allow them to find the place of their origin where they spawn and die.

BEAN APHIDS AND OTHER ANIMALS. Bean aphids give birth when the length of the day reaches 14 hours and 55 minutes, assuring that the offspring will have warmth. Similar triggers by sunlight affects life cycles, allowing muskox to shed their insular undercoat, mallard ducks to shed their winter down, and snowshoe hares to change their color from white to brown before all the snow melts.

FROM FRUITFLIES TO HUMANS. Fruitflies shed their pupal husk an hour before dawn even when kept in the dark. Even when kept in total darkness, hummingbirds slip into torpor at dusk, allowing them to conserve energy. A poppy folds its petals at dusk, even in a dark box. Both the hummingbird and the poppy will resume operations at dawn, even in the darkness. Scientists are still researching what triggers these changes even without sunlight. Medical researchers are also studying how humans respond to a lack of sunlight, causing seasonal affective disorders (SAD).

Studying the incredible ways in which sunlight affects life cycles on Earth is a great way to grow in appreciation for the creation process. We marvel at the careful design built into all living things. David looked at himself and his world and remarked, “I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are your works…” (Psalms 139:14).

John N. Clayton © 2020

These examples were found in National Wildlife magazine Volume 32 # 1.

Evidence for Design in Symbiosis

Evidence for Design in Symbiosis
Nymphidium leucosia caterpillar being tended by Crematogaster ants

The natural world is full of examples of two species living together in a way that each benefits the other. This mutualistic relationship is known as symbiosis. In some cases, the species are totally dependent on the relationship for their survival. In many plant/animal relationships, the animal depends on a plant for food, and the plant depends on the animal for pollination or the spreading of seeds. We see evidence for design in symbiosis.

One of the most interesting symbiotic relationships is between ants and butterflies. Scientists refer to the caterpillar in this relationship as being myrmecophilous, which means “ant-loving.” Dr. Philip Devries has written several articles in scientific journals about the caterpillars of certain butterfly species and their symbiosis with ants. The caterpillars feed on the nectar of croton trees, but they have a mortal enemy in the form of wasps. The wasp will find a caterpillar, kill it by stinging and then eat it. If ants are present, they will drive off the wasp and protect the caterpillar. Devries has covered some croton trees with ants, and they will have many caterpillars, but trees without ants will have very few caterpillars.

So the ants benefit the caterpillars, but what do the ants gain from this relationship? The caterpillars have organs on their posterior which extrude a clear liquid containing amino acids but virtually no sugar. The croton tree has a secretion that is 33% sugar but has very little nutritional value. The ants get vital nutrition from the caterpillar even though what they get is not sweet.

The caterpillar has other ways of attracting ants, including an organ on its back that secretes an ant pheromone that chemically attracts them. The caterpillar also has an organ that attracts ants by sending sound vibrations through the wood of the tree. Because of this feature, Dr. Devries coined the term “singing caterpillars.”

One of the great challenges to evolutionists is explaining how such a complex system of symbiosis happened by chance mutations. The more we study such relationships, the more different systems of design we see in the natural world. The more relationships we see, the more difficult it is not to recognize evidence for design in symbiosis. It speaks to us about God’s wisdom and design that allows the biological world to exist.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

An article by Dr. Devries appeared in Scientific American, October 1992, pages 76-82.

Nitrogen Fixation and Life

Nitrogen Fixation and Life

There are many chemical wonders in our world, but few are as important and complex as the chemistry of nitrogen. Nitrogen makes up 78% of our atmosphere. It combines with oxygen to form nitrates and with hydrogen to produce ammonia, both of which are essential for growing our food. Nitrogen fixation, which is how nitrogen gets from what we breathe to what we eat, is an amazing demonstration of design.

First, let us review a little high school chemistry. The atoms of all elements have electrons which give them their properties for forming compounds. The electrons are arranged in pairs with their magnetic poles designed so that in a stable arrangement, one electron’s north pole is matched with its neighboring electron’s south pole. The electrons have various orbitals with different energy levels. The atom is stable and chemically inert if an orbital is filled with all the paired electrons it can hold. For example, neon has 10 electrons. The first two orbitals each have two paired electrons, and the last orbital has six electrons in three pairs. This pairing of electrons makes neon an inert gas which does not combine chemically with other elements.

Nitrogen has an uneven number of seven electrons. So how does nitrogen become chemically stable? The answer is that two nitrogen atoms share three electrons, giving them stability. The two nitrogen atoms bond together to form a diatomic molecule that cannot be easily pulled apart to bond with other elements. How strong is the bonding? To break up a nitrogen molecule into two nitrogen atoms requires temperatures of 400 to 500 degrees Celsius and pressures of 200 atmospheres. So with nitrogen as the dominant element in our atmosphere, the atmospheric gases are stable and inert. Also, nitrogen is not a greenhouse gas that could threaten our temperatures on Earth. How then has God built a system that takes these stable nitrogen molecules and breaks their triple bonds to produce nitrates and ammonia?

If you think this isn’t an important subject, ask yourself where your food comes from? The answer is that 50% of the American diet is produced using artificial fertilizers containing nitrogen, which has been “fixed.” Nitrogen fixation combines that inert gas with oxygen and/or hydrogen to supply the soil with the chemical needed to grow the plants we eat, and which the livestock eat to provide us with meat.

Bacteria accomplish God’s method of nitrogen fixation. The bacteria turn nitrogen into ammonia, which is a nitrogen atom sharing electrons with three hydrogen atoms instead of with another nitrogen atom. Plants known as legumes such as soybeans and peas, as well as bayberry and alder trees, attract bacteria which concentrate in nodules on the plant’s roots. The bacteria turn nitrogen gas into ammonia and nitrates the plants can use. Cyanobacteria in the ocean and cycad plants on the land are also major nitrogen fixers. Scientists are also discovering tropical plants that contribute to the wealth of nitrogen compounds in the soil.

Most of our fertilizers have nitrogen fixed by a method called the Haber-Bosch process. It uses massive amounts of energy to break the triple bonds of nitrogen gas. Producing 500 degrees and 200 atmospheres is expensive, and that is why you pay so much for the fertilizer you use in your garden. God’s methods are free. Scientists are trying to figure out how to recreate God’s nitrogen fixation method to save energy and produce more food.

Many bacteria are beneficial in various ways, and nitrogen fixation is only one of them. This is a great apologetic for God’s wisdom and design in preparing the Earth to provide food for us to eat.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

An excellent article on this topic titled “Out of Thin Air” was published in Science News, April 12, 2008. It is available online at THIS LINK, but a subscription is required to read it.

Origin of Our Microbiome

Origin of Our Microbiome during pregnancy

The microbiome consists of trillions of beneficial bacteria that support our bodies in many ways. Some bacteria play an essential role in digestion and in separating the waste and processing it so that it can be excreted. Other bacteria play a role in our reproductive system. When I was a student at Notre Dame, there was a germ-free laboratory on campus where researchers raised animals with no bacteria. One of the complications of doing that was that even rabbits could not conceive if they were germ-free. For years, scientists have debated the question of the origin of our microbiome.

One interesting discovery that has come from prenatal research is that pre-born babies have their own microbiome separate from their mothers. For the past century, medical experts believed that babies acquired their microbiome at or shortly after birth. Research like that done at Notre Dame was thought to support the” sterile womb paradigm” hypothesis. Recent research has suggested that the origin of our microbiome may be from small amounts of bacteria built into the placenta. Discover magazine (June 2020, page 16) reviews the debate over when babies get their microbiome. Part of the problem is that it is very easy for contamination to get into the research specimens creating confusion over whether the bacteria were natural or if they came from contamination.

Our interest in this subject is not so much about the origin of our microbiome as to look at the implications of the data. Everyone agrees that the baby does not have its mother’s microbiome. Some microbes like E. coli are so common that they are found in all microbiomes. Beyond those, there is a unique makeup to each person’s microbiome, including newborns and pre-born babies.

Maintaining that a baby is an extension of the mother and therefore has no rights is to ignore the evidence. Morning sickness is caused by the mother’s immune system not recognizing a foreign object, the baby, and going into defensive mode. The baby growing inside the mother is a unique person with its own genetic makeup, awareness, and microbiome.

The abortion issue ignores the evidence and attempts to create a new vocabulary to make it seem less brutal, but taking a baby out of the womb and killing it is still infanticide. As tough as this issue is, we need to not shield the vile nature of this process by ignoring the evidence. Instead, we should look for solutions that recognize the value of life and the worth of every human being.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Frog Reproduction Variations

Frog Reproduction Variations

We tend to think of frogs and toads as fairly common creatures, varying only in color and size. Dr. William Duellman has done extensive studies of the amphibian order Anura which includes more than 3800 separate species of frogs. His studies show enormous frog reproduction variations.

Some frogs lay eggs in clutches near, but not in, the water. They glue the eggs to vegetation or rocks where the tadpoles drop into the water when the eggs hatch. Other frogs lay eggs in a protective foam that protects the eggs and provides food and water that can last for up to ten days. One-fifth of all frog species hatch into froglets instead of tadpoles. Each four-legged froglet has an attached yolk to supply nutrition until it can catch its own food. The males of one frog species glue themselves to the back of the larger females. The female digs a burrow in the ground to lay the eggs. She then wets the eggs with water from her bladder, and the male fertilizes the eggs.

The males of the African hairy frog develop rigid hairlike extensions of their skin during breeding, so when the male sits on the eggs, he protects them from predation. In the poison dart frog of Costa Rica, both sexes guard the eggs. When they hatch, the female brings unfertilized eggs to the tadpoles to eat until they can find food on their own. The females of the Jamaican tree frog lays water-filled capsules along with the eggs to provide adequate water for the tadpoles. In some species, the tadpoles crawl onto the back of either parent. Some frogs have pouches on their backs that hold eggs that have gill-like structures that enable the embryos to breathe.

Other unconventional frog reproduction variations include Darwin’s frog in Chile. The male scoops up the newly hatched tadpoles into his mouth and broods them there for several weeks until they mature. Even more bizarre is an Australian frog in which the female swallows the eggs after fertilization and incubates them in her stomach. This process, called gastric-brooding, usually takes six weeks in which the female does not eat. The tadpoles secrete a substance called prostaglandin E-2, which neutralizes the hydrochloric acid and pepsin normally used for digestion.

All of these reproductive strategies are designed to cope with different environments. Frogs can exist in a desert or a tropical rain forest or even a polar area. Survival is only possible because their reproductive systems are designed to fit the environment in which they live. The intricacy of frog reproduction variations is an excellent example of the intelligence and design God has built into the simplest of living things.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

To read more, you can find it in Scientific American, July 1992, pages 80-87. Available digitally HERE.

Strong Enough to Bend

Willow Tree - Strong Enough to Bend

In 1988 Tanya Tucker had a country song titled “Strong Enough to Bend” that had a great message. In the song, she compared a willow tree to human relationships. She pointed out that willows can survive because their limbs can bend instead of breaking.

Interestingly enough, that concept is present in most living things in the creation. God rarely uses stiff materials in what He creates. On the other hand, humans tend to use rigid materials such as metals, ceramics, dry wood, etc. In your own body, how many stiff materials are there? Bones and teeth are about it. These are components designed for a specific purpose where hardness and stiffness are required. Most things in the biological world are soft, not brittle.

A classic example of the benefit of being soft and not hard is kelp and other marine algae. Those plants live in the violent world of surf. If you have ever surfed, you know the power of waves. I have seen surfboards thrown against rocks, pounded by the waves, and turned into a pile of shredded plastic in a matter of minutes. Kelp live in the surf with one end attached to rocks and the surface of the plant exposed to sunlight for photosynthesis. Kelp can survive because they are strong enough to bend.

Waves produce flows that reverse direction every few seconds. As soon as the plant grows longer than the distance the local water travels between reversals, the additional length of plant material is swept back and forth with the water. The plant literally goes with the flow. Since it moves the same direction as the water and at the same speed, there is no friction between the plant and the water. Kelp can grow to lengths well over 130 feet (40 m). A rigid plant like an oak tree in the surf would be pounded to splinters in a few hours.

Closer to home for most of us, are the leaves of land plants. Take a cardboard tube like a paper towel tube and try to bend and twist it. Then make a lengthwise slit in the tube and try it again. Notice how much easier it is after you cut the tube. The reason leaves have exotic shapes is to allow them to bend and twist rather than breaking in high winds or creating wind resistance that would take down the tree.

This design shows highly complex engineering, and our lives exist because of it. Imagine what would happen if our skin, eyes, ears, stomach, blood vessels, hair, etc. were not made of soft, pliable material. A good sneeze could shatter our face! Our Creator knew that being strong enough to bend was critical for our existence.

— John N. Clayton © 2020