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.
Plants have a unique problem that animals don’t have. That problem is a lack of mobility. Since plants are unable to move, they manufacture chemical toxins to kill bacteria, alkaloids to ward off herbivores, and sweetness or color to draw in pollinators and animals that will disperse their seeds. They use plant chemistry for survival.
Crocus and gardenia flowers produce a chemical compound known as crocin. It gives the color to the gardenia’s red-orange fruit. Crocin is also the chemical that gives the stigmas of saffron flowers, commonly called “threads,” their bright hue. Researchers at the University of Buffalo have sequenced the genome of the gardenia and examined how it makes crocin. By duplicating those processes, they have produced crocin in the lab and made it available for use in medical and nutritional applications. Crocin has antioxidant properties and may help in the suppression of cancer cells. The plants use crocin to attract pollinators, and we use it for medical purposes.
Research shows that plants get the power to produce a whole arsenal of genetic tools to help them survive by a process called tandem gene duplication. Dr. Victor Albert, a co-author of a study published on BMC Biology, says that plants can duplicate some parts of their genetic toolkit and tinker with the functions.
Many of the processes and tools we have came from studying the design built into the living things around us. That is why the writer of Romans 1:20 says, “..the invisible things of God from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made…” The chemistry seen in the botanical world is an excellent demonstration of the wisdom of their design.
There is much more to God’s amazing design in the plant world. Tomorrow, we will bring you more on plant chemistry for survival.
One of the exciting things we see in the natural world is how living things solve problems produced by the environment. An excellent example is the carrion cactus that lives in hot and dry deserts of Africa.
Getting enough water is a challenge for plants that live in places where rainfall is very sparse. Those plants employ ingenious ways of storing water and reducing transpiration losses by having needles instead of leaves. What we might not have thought about is the problem of pollination in the desert environment. There aren’t enough plants to support a bee population, and pollinators are few and far between.
One cactus called the carrion cactus (Stapelia gigantea) has solved the pollination issue in an unusual way. When the cactus flowers are ready to be pollinated, they give off a foul smell that reeks of dead and rotting flesh. The smell of carrion attracts flies. As they scramble over the flowers trying to find the dead organism, they get pollen on their bodies and pollinate the cactus flowers.
God has created creatures that clean up dead and decaying organic matter. We have discussed the design roles of dung beetles, vultures, and worms in cleaning up the environment. In the carrion cactus, we see a plant that fools insects into thinking there is something to clean up as a way to accomplish pollination. This impressive trick allows a plant to thrive in the dry and hostile environment of the desert.
We saw the carrion cactus at the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They feature amazing displays of many kinds of plants, including desert plants and carnivorous plants, that show God’s creativity.
We take for granted that the simple things around us are just the way they are without realizing the wisdom and design they display. A classic example is the design of evergreen trees such as pines, spruces, and firs. Why are these conifers shaped differently from deciduous trees such as oaks and maples? The answer is that the design of evergreen trees is an example of incredible planning and wisdom. Their design gives these northern trees some built-in characteristics that allow them to exist.
The shape of the conifers is pyramidal, which is unique among plants. That shape allows sunlight to reach all of the tree’s branches. Since those trees often grow in cold areas, the shape also prevents excessive amounts of snow from building up on the top branches causing them to break. Evergreen trees tend to have a shallower root structure than deciduous trees, and wind resistance on the upper part of the tree would tend to topple it. The pyramid shape reduces wind resistance.
Instead of having leaves, the design of evergreen trees means they have narrow needles, which also reduce wind resistance compared to broad leaves. The branches are layered with space between the layers allowing wind to pass through. Since those trees often grow in northern areas where the angle of sunlight is low, the layered branches also allow the sunlight to reach into all of the branches. The needles reduce water loss compared to leaves so that the trees can survive in dry areas.
An evolutionist is constrained to believe that adaptations like this are lucky accidents. But as we understand the complex system of the world around us, the models that depend on luck become less believable. In the words of Romans 1:18-20, we can know there is a God through the things He has made. The Bible presents trees as God’s tools to sustain human life in the past, present, and future. (See Genesis 1:8-9 and Revelation 22:1-2.)
Brown marmorated stink bugs (Halyomorpha halys) have become a significant pest in areas of the United States. They are native to Asia, but humans accidentally introduced them into the USA in 1998. Since they have no natural predators in North America, their numbers have grown dramatically. We can learn a lesson from stink bugs and human mistakes.
Brown marmorated stink bugs are commonly known to Americans simply as “stink bugs.” The “stink” is because they give off a foul smell when disturbed. “Marmorated” refers to their marbled coloration. You can distinguish brown marmorated stink bugs from similar-looking beetles by the alternating light and dark colors on their antennae and the edges of their abdomen.
When the weather turns cold, these pests find ways to get into homes through small openings, and there they hibernate. Sometimes the heat in the house causes them to become active and annoy the residents during the cold months. The real problem arises when warm weather arrives. That’s when they come out in force.
Halyomorpha halys is a major agricultural problem in some areas because they feed on a wide variety of fruit and vegetable crops. They pierce the plants or the fruits with their needle-like beaks and suck out the fluids. At the same time, they inject saliva, which causes shriveling and rotting.
In their native countries, there is a wasp that feeds on these stink bugs. The US Department of Agriculture has looked into importing those wasps into the United States to bring the bugs under control. The problem with that idea is the wasps might become new pests because they don’t have native predators. Traps remove only some of the bugs, and pesticides can have harmful side-effects. Pesticides are also not very effective because they stay on plant surfaces. The stink bugs don’t eat the surface of the plants. They pierce through the surface and drink the juices from inside. Perhaps the best hope, for now, is that some of our native birds and insects start to develop a taste for stink bugs as their population increases.
It seems that God has created creatures to fill every possible need that can occur in nature. One of the most interesting of these is a beetle that is actually attracted to fires. According to the American Museum of Natural History, the beetle is of the genus Melanophila. People who live in areas where wildfires are frequent refer to them as “fire chaser beetles.”
When a fire occurs, the beetles sense its presence and fly toward it. They will lay their eggs in forest material that is still smoldering, or in material that has been recently burned. The biological explanation is that their eggs are safer from predators than they would be in an area that has not been burned, but how would they know that.
If you think about it, this beetle is a significant factor in the recovery of a burned area. One problem after wildfires is that much of the food for birds and mammals has been destroyed. The whole ecosystem has to be reset, and the eggs and baby beetles of Melanophila are at the bottom of the food chain. The fire chaser beetles’ ability to locate the fires involves an infrared detection system. Instead of flying away from the fire, as you would expect, they fly toward it.
How such a system could develop by natural selection is an interesting question. It seems that fire chaser beetles are part of God’s design to assist the recovery of burned-over areas.
Various types of plants are pollinated by bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, or bats. Non-flying mammals pollinate some plants. Rodents accomplish pollination of an African lily (Massonia depressa) that grows in a desert region of South Africa and Namibia.
Massonia depressa forms two huge leaves lying flat on the ground. Its flower in the center is at ground level within reach of the gerbils which pollinate it. Each evening the plant secretes globs of nectar as thick as jelly. The strong yeast-like scent attracts hairy-footed and short-eared gerbils that come at night to eat the nectar. The gerbils get covered with pollen as they spread the flowers open with their front legs and push their faces into the nectar.
Although the nectar is sugar (sucrose) jelly, it is 400 times as thick or viscous as an equivalent sugar solution. Rodents are the pollinators because the nectar is too thick for insects to drink. The gerbils lap it with their tongues. To accommodate the mammal pollinators, the flowers must be more sturdy and produce more pollen than plants pollinated by insects. Unlike the brightly colored flowers that attract flying pollinators in the daytime, these flowers are dull. The Massonia depressa produces seeds that are light enough that the wind scatters them.
We see evidence of design in the pollination of an African lily. This plant depends on a gerbil for reproduction, and the rodent depends on the plant for food. They need each other to survive. The plant is on the ground where the animal can easily reach it. It produces a fragrance and jelly to attract and feed the animal. Insects can’t eat the food or pollinate the plant. The lily and the rodent seem to be made for each other. Some suggest they evolved together by coincidence. We suggest this is another project by the Master Designer.