Many years ago in Alaska, I had a discussion with a biologist who was studying the Alaskan soils. His study revolved around the fact that Alaska has very little soil and what it does have is developing. The lack of soil in Alaska has limited plant growth and made the ecology dependent on migrating salmon. Soils are complex mixtures of organic matter, minerals, water, air, and billions of organisms that form over hundreds of years. Good soils are vital for survival. President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.”
Research has shown that plants are designed to “call” for nutrients from the soil. A plant will release molecules called flavonoids, which cause bacteria in the soil to migrate into the plant and form nitrogen nodules on the roots. The nitrogen nodules generate food for the plant. If ample nitrogen is already available for the plant, it will not release the flavonoids.
This “hunger” by plants is vital to understand because many natural and human-caused processes can deplete the soil. Forest and brush fires, hurricanes, pollution, and climate change can deplete soils’ nitrogen content and kill plants. Studies of the giant sequoias in California have shown that the soil under them has twice as many bacteria as the soil under nearby sugar pines. We all know that bacteria influence human health, but bacteria also affect plant health and growth.
As our population increases and world climates change, it will become increasingly important to understand how soil allows us to feed our growing population. God’s design of the Earth includes providing the soils necessary to produce food. Good soils are vital for survival.
In Job 38:22, God refers to “the treasures of the snow” and “the treasures of ice.” In Job’s day, that may not have made a lot of sense. Even today, most people are not aware of the role glaciers play in our lives.
We are living in what scientists call an interglacial period when changes in Earth’s orbit have caused glaciers to melt. This interglacial period has been going on for some 12,000 years and is unrelated to any human-induced climate change. When scientists find evidence of forests, other life-forms, and human remains under the ocean’s surface, we can be sure that the sea level has been very different in the past.
Water molecules are designed in a way that allows glaciers to exist. A glacier is not a block of ice. When water is frozen and put under pressure, it behaves like a fluid. When I was teaching physics, we had a demonstration in which we froze a metal container of water and then used a piston to put it under pressure. The metal container had holes, and the ice would shoot out through the holes in a cylindrical form, just as any liquid or gas would do. Snow falls on the ground in a cold place and piles up, putting pressure on the snow on the bottom. The pressure changes the snow, and it begins to flow like toothpaste. Those gorgeous blue ice flows, the treasures of the snow, are glaciers.
So why is this a good thing for you and me? First, it locks up water, so it is available year-round. The amount of land area available to humans would drop radically if we lost all the glacial ice on the planet. As the ice melts, it does so gradually. Many areas of the world have water year-round only because slow-melting glaciers supply water in a controlled manner.
Many plants and animals depend on glaciers for their survival. Glacial algae get their water by producing dark pigments, which absorb enough sunlight to melt glacial ice. In that way, plants can grow in places like Greenland. The algae provide food for fish and other marine organisms in northern latitudes. Without the glaciers to supply drinking water for the bottom of the food chain, life couldn’t exist in northern marine environments.
Glaciers are also one of the strongest erosional agents in existence. Because of that, mountainous areas have u-shaped valleys with numerous cirque lakes and moraines. Glaciers have allowed a whole biosphere to exist in those mountainous areas. Human habitation in much of the Rocky Mountains is only possible because of the work of glaciers. Here in Michigan, we see and enjoy a continental glacial area where a vast ice sheet shaped the land and created thousands of lakes.
Job could not comprehend the full meaning of the words God spoke to him. Today, people who live where the glaciers have worked and are working can be thankful for God’s design of the “treasures of the snow.”
There is an essential relationship between fruits and birds. We all know that birds eat fruits, but we may not be aware of the system’s complexity and how it varies from place to place.
Here in Michigan, we struggle with poison ivy, and I am very sensitive to it. When I moved into my present house, the property was covered with a great deal of poison ivy. I spent most of our first summer eradicating it. The following spring, I found new poison ivy plants coming up in places where there were none the year before. One of my biology teacher friends informed me that birds eat the berries of poison ivy, and they plant many of the seeds resulting in a new crop. That makes it hard to eradicate.
An August 17, 2020, report by the National Science Foundation told about a study of an evergreen shrub found in the U.K. and most of Europe. This plant, called Viburnum tinus, stores fat in the cells of its fruit, making it an ideal food for birds’ survival success. The fruit also contains a large number of seeds. The fat, or lipids, in the fruit’s cells, give it structural color, making it a very bright blue. Structural color is not made from pigments, but it is produced by internal cell structures interacting with light. The feathers of many birds, including peacocks, and the wings of butterflies have structural color, but it is very rare in plants.
Miranda Sinnot-Armstrong of Yale University says that they used electron microscopy to study the Viburnum tinus fruits’ cell walls. She said they “found a structure unlike anything we’d ever seen before: layer after layer of small lipid droplets.” Because of the lipids, these plants supply the fats that birds need. Their shiny metallic color signals the birds to lead them to this nutritive source.
The more we study the natural world around us, the more we see incredibly complex structures to allow life to exist. This is not an accident but a complex set of systems to provide diversity in the natural world. The relationship between fruits and birds is designed to give the birds a way to find nourishment and to support their food sources in a symbiotic relationship. It’s another example of God’s design for life.
The pandemic has made many people think that viruses are a bad thing. However recent research has shown that viruses are critical agents for life. They convert energy and organic matter at the bottom of the food chain into a form that provides us with what we need to live on Earth.
An algae called Emiliania huxleyi uses sunlight and nutrients from the ocean to produce massive algae blooms in the ocean. If it stopped there, the presence of the algae would be detrimental to ocean life. We all know about the “red tide” that afflicts coastal areas of Florida where algae are destructive.
But there is more to the story of Emiliania huxleyi. A virus called coccolithovirus infects the algae, killing it and produing organic matter that is the base of the ocean food chain supporting higher forms of life. Kay Bidle of Rutgers University is the chief author of the study. She says that this relationship is likely to apply to other virus-algae interactions in the ocean.
This new discovery is related to changes in the ocean observed from the International Space Station. The magnitude of this process is huge, and may provide a solution to some of our biggest environmental problems.
Viruses are critical agents for life. They are tools that God has built into the creation to provide the food and energy we need. Like all viral interactions, the virus works with other created things, in this case algae, to accomplish its provision for life’s existence.
The beauty of autumn’s brilliant colors is an amazing testimony to the creative wisdom of God as well as an expression of His love of beauty. The colors of fall are caused by several pigments and the interaction of sunlight and sugar.
Most of us know that chlorophyll makes leaves green. When leaves receive reduced sunlight in the fall, they also have a reduced supply of nutrients and water, causing the chlorophyll to be removed. The chlorophyll masks two pigments that have different colors. Carotene is yellow, and several varieties of anthocyanins are red. Many leaves contain tannin, which is brown and is dominant in oak trees. Sunlight acting on trapped sugar also produces anthocyanins with various sparkling colors, which is why the color is so spectacular on a sunny autumn day in a maple forest.
As the days grow shorter, the reduced amount of sunlight causes a corky wall called the “abscission layer” to form between the twig and the leaf stalk. This wall will eventually break and cause the leaf to drop off in the breeze. The corky material seals off the vessels that supplied the leaf with nutrients and water and blocks any loss of sugars from the plant.
What is especially interesting is that the leaf colors are not all the same. Some vines produce spectacular colors. Poison ivy takes on a beautiful red due to a high concentration of anthocyanin. Aspen has a high concentration of carotene producing the vivid yellows which dominate the woods in the Rocky Mountains. In Michigan, we have maples, gum, aspen, and oak, giving us spectacular colors that vary from one location to another.
The colors of fall are a great testimony to the fact that God paid attention to aesthetics in the creation. If survival of the fittest were the only criteria for choosing the chemicals that allow plants to survive, it seems that there would be one best choice. Different chemicals provide a vivid, beautiful splash of color for humans to enjoy. Beauty is not part of the evolutionary model, but it speaks of God’s creativity, giving us a wonderful and beautiful world in which to live.
I have lived my entire life in the woodlands of North America. I love walking through the vast areas of pines, birches, maples, oaks, blueberries, ferns, mosses, aspens, and raspberries. To me, it is pure joy to sit in the woods or in a boat on a lake or river and listen to the sounds of nature. I especially enjoy the fall when the colors become vivid, and animal life is in a rush to prepare for winter. The falling of leaves to the ground, followed by frost and snow, adds its own magic to the joy of being in the woods. Recycling enables the natural beauty we enjoy.
What we are seldom aware of is the massive amounts of waste produced in the woods. We all know about leaves and probably have had some cruel words about them when they cover our lawns. The fact is that a constant rain of organic material falls to the floor of the woods. Limbs, bark, twigs, dead grass, moss, sawdust, animal excrement, and carcasses pile up year after year. Yet when you walk in the woods, the floor is made up of a thin, spongy layer of black soil. What happens to the massive amount of debris that falls to the forest floor every year?
The answer to this question is under-appreciated by most of us. Recycling enables the natural beauty of the woods. God has built into the forest an incredibly efficient recycling system. When something organic falls to the forest floor, it is swarmed on by bacteria, termites, ants, fungi, and worms, which form the basis of the food chain for higher forms of life. Nutrients in the woods seldom last longer than a few weeks at the most. Rain is moderate and percolates through these nutrients, rapidly helping them find their way back into the forest’s living tissues.
Those places where there are not dense forests have a completely different system of recycling. In the far north, where forests are not dominant, migrating salmon provide the ecological balance needed. In desert areas, the lack of ecological balance means that life for humans is difficult at best. Human survival depends on God’s recycling system. In some areas of the rich farmlands of America, we can measure the soil in feet. That allows us to grow our grain crops that sustain our existence, but those areas were built in an ancient forest.
God told us to take care of what He gave us. (See Genesis 2:15.) One part of caring for the Earth is to copy God’s recycling techniques. Recycling enables the natural beauty by replenishing the nutrients we take from the soil rather than polluting the air by burning them or polluting the ground by bagging in plastic and burying them.
One of the most interesting studies in botany is the study of plants that live in areas with little or no soil nutrients. Scientists give them the genus name Nepenthes. We commonly call them pitcher plants and they grow all around the Earth. These plants get their nitrogen and phosphorous by eating insects and animals. Darwin called them part of the “carnivorous syndrome.”
Most people don’t realize that there are well over 100 species of pitcher plants. Each species has some unique features, but there are many things they all have in common. All pitcher plants have a cup which is funnel-shaped or tubular with a sticky digestive fluid inside. The top of the tube has a rim called the peristome which is slippery and causes prey to tumble into the cup. There is a shelter over the top of the pitcher to keep out rainwater which would dilute the digestive juices.
There are highly specialized pitcher plants that eat different things. In 2009, botanists in the Philippines found plants that were nearly five feet (1.5 m) tall and had cups that were roughly a foot (.3 m) in diameter. In Borneo there are pitcher plants that can hold three quarts of liquid and trap lizards, mice, and other small rodents. One species secretes sugary nectar on the lid with a perch that attracts mountain tree shrews. The plant doesn’t eat the shrews, but as the shrew sits on the perch eating the nectar, the pitcher servies as what one study called a “tree shrew lavatory.” The shrew’s droppings provide nitrogen-rich food for the plant.
There are many areas where soils are deficient in nitrogen and phosphorous, but for different reasons and in different amounts. Insects provide the missing nutrients for most Nepenthes in North America. The needs in a desert salt flat are very different from the needs in a tropical rain forest. It is quite a challenge to explain how the diversity that we see has come about by evolution. Furthermore, scientists cannot find an intermediate species, either fossil or living, to explain how Nepenthes developed by evolution. We see a common plan design with local adaptations allowing plants to thrive in environments that lack the essential nutrients for them to prosper.
Nepenthes are so unique that people sometimes collect them for house plants. They are a reminder that God has provided well-designed plants and animals for unique locations. The study of the Nepenthes genus teaches us how special needs for life are met by the intelligence of God as plants and animals reflect God’s wisdom.
Look around the world of living things, and you will see a system that has been carefully designed. Not only the system, but the individual life-forms could not exist without careful engineering. Countless problems had to be anticipated and solved in the creation process, and one of those involves butterfly wings and rain.
One of my favorite memories of my wife Phyllis, before she passed away, was the last trip, which included a visit to a butterfly house. I went through the screened-in house in 20 minutes and waited outside for Phyllis to join me. After waiting for what seemed like a long time, I went back in to find her. She was sitting on a large rock, literally covered with butterflies. As they fluttered around, they kept landing on her. An attendant came up to me and asked me if my wife was diabetic. When I said she was, the attendant said, “That explains it. Her blood sugar must be high.” Later my wife described the sensation of delicate wings dancing all over her head and arms. She was afraid to move for fear of injuring those delicate wings.
That raised the question in my mind about butterfly wings and rain. How could something so delicate survive a heavy rainstorm? Recently, Cornell University posted an article addressing that question. Butterfly wings have tiny bumps that break up incoming drops of water into small droplets that don’t damage the wings. In addition to that, the wings have a water-resistant wax coating, so the droplets slide off, making the wings essentially dry, even in the rain.
Similar features to what we see in the design of butterfly wings also occur in other living things such as plant leaves and feathers. Those features must have been present from the very beginning of the existence of those life-forms. Otherwise, they would never have survived to produce offspring and pass on the genetic information.
Romans 1:20 tells us that we can know there is a God through the things He has made. The design of butterfly wings and rain is one more example of how we can build our faith as we see God’s creative wisdom.
One of the interesting aspects of the story of Adam and Eve is the environment in which God placed them. Genesis 2:8 tells us that God planted a garden, and verse 9 tells us that He planted every tree that was pleasant and good for food. The Bible doesn’t say how long God took to plant the garden and what was involved in the garden’s growth. Verse 15 tells us that “God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.” After establishing the man’s environment, the Genesis account turns to man’s spiritual nature. But the planted garden with every tree is our focus here as we think about deforestation and disease.
The Bible describes the first humans as what anthropologists call gatherers. Agriculture was a long way off. The eating of animals isn’t even suggested until chapter 4 when Abel brings “the firstlings of his flock” as an offering to God. An article in Scientific American (June 2020, page 8) points out how modern agricultural methods have led to the three major highly infectious viruses since 2002 – SARS, EBOLA, and COVID-19.
Slashing and burning to create land for crops, such as palm oil, reduces biodiversity and puts humans in contact with wildlife that carry microbes able to kill us. Species that survive the clearing are more likely to host illnesses that can be transferred to humans. In addition to the three main viruses of our time, the Scientific American article mentions some other diseases have come from rain forest inhabitants – Zika, Nipah, malaria, cholera, and HIV.
We mentioned yesterday that plants use scents to attract friendly and helpful insects and animals. They also use fragrances to protect against unfriendly visitors. Seemingly passive plants have secret weapons against insect invasions. We call it chemical warfare in the plant world.
A good example is the lima bean. Spider mites attack lima bean plants, but other predatory mites eat spider mites. When spider mites attack a lima bean plant, it floods the area with a chemical signal that attracts the predatory mites. This chemical odor also causes other lima bean plants to emit the same chemical. When the spider mites are gone, the plants stop secreting the chemical.
Some plants, such as tobacco and corn, protect themselves from destructive caterpillars by sending off a signal to attract wasps. Research has shown that plants customize the signal to attract a particular species of wasp. The wasps can tell the difference between the chemical signal of plants attacked by tobacco budworms and corn earworms, and different chemicals attract a different wasp species. So far, cotton, corn, and beets have been shown to have different emissions as they call for protection.
We previously mentioned wasps that kill and eat the caterpillars of certain butterflies. In that instance, ants have a symbiotic relationship with the caterpillars to protect them from the wasps in exchange for food. The U. S. Department of Agriculture is looking to find ways to cause one insect to combat another. This research is necessary because it can help us find ways to protect crops.
Chemical warfare in the plant world shows that God has equipped plants to protect themselves against different insect scourges. Because of that, we can survive on a planet where insectshopelessly outnumber us. The design that the Creator put into living systems is truly amazing.