Animal Engineers and Survival Ecosystems

Animal Engineers and Survival Ecosystems
A sand goanna monitor lizard (Varanus gouldii) peers out from its tunnel.

One of the most interesting demonstrations of design in the natural world is the way some animals build structures that provide for the needs of other animals. The work of these animal engineers creates new ecosystems for survival.

The classic North American example is the beaver, which goes to great lengths to provide a whole ecosystem that benefits other life forms. One might question whether a dam is necessary for a beaver to eat plant material and raise babies. Dam building requires the beaver to spend massive amounts, and the dam is easily destroyed. A large number of other life forms depend on beaver dams and the ponds that form behind them.

Science News (February 13, 2021) published a similar example found in Australia. Life forms in northwestern Australia have to survive in a challenging environment with little water and extreme heat. How do all those animals survive in the harsh conditions?

The answer to that question is large monitor lizards. Two species of monitor lizards dig holes that are up to 13 feet (4 m) deep with numerous side channels. The monitor lizard lays its eggs at the bottom of the long, spiral-shaped tunnel. After the monitor lizard abandons the nest, other animals use the side channels to escape the extreme environment above ground. Arthropods, toads, snakes, lizards are included in 28 different vertebrate species using the abandoned monitor lizard lairs. Researchers have found up to 750 creatures in a single monitor’s pit and side channels.

Like the beaver, monitor lizards provide an environment that allows life in a place where survival is difficult. In the natural world, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. That is not true when animal engineers are needed to allow a diversity of life in a challenging environment. The more we learn of God’s creation, the more examples we find of intelligence and design, which frequently involve animal engineers.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Fires in Australia and God

Fires in Australia and God

Not long ago, we were appalled at the horrendous fires in California, and now we hear about terrible fires in Australia. In our August 16, 2018, post we talked about the California fires, and we discussed why they happened. We pointed out that blaming God for the wildfires in California was not logical, scientifically correct, or biblical. (You can read that again by clicking HERE.)

Our primary resource for that discussion was Keith Crummer, whose whole career with the United States Forrest Service revolved around managing the forests in California. His main point was that the cause of the fires was mismanagement by people who thought they were protecting the forests. They were stopping the natural fire-preventing design from operating. Now we see this again with the fires in Australia.

Before we go any further, let us state that our hearts go out to our friends in Australia, who, like the victims in California, have suffered an unimaginable loss. To watch everything you own go up in flames is a heart-wrenching tragedy no matter what the cause. There are two points we want to make:

#1) The fires in Australia are not a retaliatory act of God. Some religious figures are saying the fires are God’s punishment for Australia’s movement away from belief in God and its immersion in secularism. There is no question about the contributing factors to the fires, and none of them include miraculous acts of God. That is also not the way God operates. If God retaliated every time a group of people deliberately defied Him, Washington D.C. would have gone up in flames long ago. Passages like James 1:13 tell us that God is not the source of the bad things that happen to us. The following eight verses identify the cause as human greed and selfishness.

#2) Like the California fires, the fires in Australia are a consequence of human mismanagement of resources. In its natural state, the environment prevents such massive fires. Water storage in the soil, small fires that clean up underbrush so it can’t erupt in huge, hot fires, plants that are resistant to fire and don’t burn well all reduce the fire hazard. Imported plants, inadequate management of water resources, and overuse of the land are the main contributors to massive fires
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Today you can go back to the areas in California that were scorched so severely in 2018 and see that the land is recovering. Hopefully, the bad management practices of the past won’t be repeated, but sometimes humans fail to learn from past mistakes. God doesn’t cause tragedies like this, but He also doesn’t force humans to manage intelligently, and He doesn’t take away the results of mismanagement.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Beautiful Tulips in History and Culture

Beautiful Tulips in History and CultureTheir vibrantly colored blossoms are symbolic of spring. Tulips are part of the lily family (Liliaceae) and exist in many different species. They flower in the spring and die back in summer when the life is stored in an underground bulb until the next spring. Beautiful tulips are an excellent example of the beauty designed into this planet.

Tulips are known for their bold colors and attractive shape. Most varieties are almost perfectly symmetrical. The blooms have three petals and three sepals, but the tulip appears to have six petals because the sepals are large and generally the same color as the petals. You can find tulips in almost any color from white to black, but the bright and sunny colors are the most popular.

Without a doubt, beautiful tulips have a rich and interesting history. They originally grew wild in temperate areas from southern Europe to central Asia. They were first cultivated in Asia around the tenth century. Diplomats who visited the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century brought them back to Europe where they became hugely popular.

The tulip obsession began with Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius in 1594. He was the first person to identify “broken tulips,” which is a virus infection that causes impressive streaks in the petals. He would go on to create many different color variations of the flower. His amazing tulips led to a period from 1634 to 1637 called “tulip mania” when enthusiasm for the flower created an economic frenzy. Tulips quickly became the most expensive flowers in the world. At the peak of tulip mania, some bulbs were selling for ten times more than the annual income of a skilled worker. People even used tulip bulbs as currency. Artists of the Dutch Golden Age, including Rembrandt, depicted tulips in their paintings.

Today, the tulip is the national flower of Turkey and Afghanistan, but the most prolific producer of tulips is the Netherlands. There are annual tulip festivals around the world including the Netherlands, England, Switzerland, Canada, and even Australia, where the spring bloom occurs in September and October. Several locations in the United States have tulip festivals, including Holland, Michigan, which is near where we live.

It’s interesting how tulips could have such an impact on economics, culture, and history. God gave us beautiful tulips, and human intelligence has modified them to develop a variety of colors and patterns. If human intelligence could do that, think how much more intelligence was required to create the living plant with the genetic code that made it all possible.
— Roland Earnst © 2019

Alien Invasions Causing Extinctions

Alien Invasions such as the Brown Tree Snake on Guam cause extinctions

New research published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment on March 4, 2019, indicates that alien invasions are causing extinctions of native animals. Humans are mostly to blame.

When humans throw the world of plants and animals out of balance, the result is extinctions. We can destroy God’s designed balance when we introduce a non-native species into an environment. The introduced species without natural predators uses up local resources leaving native species without food. There are many examples.

One example is the brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis) which was accidentally introduced to Guam aboard a military cargo ship after World War II. Those snakes are native to Australia and Indonesia where natural predators control them. On Guam, they have decimated 50 percent of the native bird and lizard species and two of the three bat species on the island. The brown tree snakes considered those native species to be tasty treats, and the snakes had no predators to control them. The result was the extinction of many species, some of which existed nowhere else on Earth. Alien invasions of brown tree snakes forever changed the ecosystem of Guam.

In other cases, humans throw nature out of balance by their direct actions. An example of that is the over-hunting of sea otters. Sea otters kept the purple sea urchins in check. Steller’s sea cows (Hydrodamalis gigas)were giant relatives of manatees, and they lived on kelp. Without control by sea otters, the purple sea urchins ate so much of the kelp that Steller’s sea cows had no food, and they became extinct. However, the research project indicated that direct interference by humans in cases like this has less impact on extinctions than the alien invasions have.

Sometimes humans make the mistake of bringing in another non-native species to control the first one. That technique often makes the problems worse. Usually, by the time people discover the problem of alien invasions, it’s too late to fix it.

The research concludes that 25 percent of plant extinctions and 33 percent of animal extinctions were caused by alien invasions – the introduction of non-native species. The bottom line is that humans have not been good stewards of the planet God has given us to enjoy and protect. God gave humans the responsibility to have dominion over creation and “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28). Romans 13:1-4 indicates that those who rule over people have the responsibility to protect. We might say the same of us who rule over the creatures.

— Roland Earnst © 2019

What Good Are Termites?

What Good Are Termites? Termite Mound

We have had the great pleasure of presenting our lectureships in Australia. One of the common questions from college groups has been, “What good are termites?” The termite mounds in some places we saw were over 10 feet (3 m) tall. People frequently complained that they couldn’t build structures out of wood. There were so many termites that the wood didn’t last long enough to make it cost effective.

Science News
(February 16, 2019, page 4) carried an interesting article about termites. Kate Parr is a tropical ecologist from the University of Liverpool in England conducting research for the university and the Natural History Museum in London. She has been examining how ants and termites affect the decomposition and consumption of organic material in rainforests.

As they conducted their study, the research area went through a drought. During the drought, termite numbers doubled, and decomposition rates increased dramatically. They found that during the drought in areas where termites were not disturbed, and their numbers increased there was a greater amount of soil moisture, more nutrient mixing, and better seedling survival rates. Areas where the termites had been eliminated had massive die-offs of plants which affected the animal population. In times of normal moisture with no drought conditions, there was no difference in all these variables. What good are termites? It seems apparent that the termites allowed life to prosper during droughts. In places like the Australian outback, the presence of termites is apparently vital for the avoidance of drought die-offs.

One aspect of design in the cosmos is the fact that there always seem to be animals that serve a unique roll in an area when destructive agents threaten the balance of the ecology. The role of insects and small life-forms in the existence of life on Earth is an area that is very understudied. But new discoveries are coming fast and furious as we see the designs of God allowing life to exist even under the most severe environmental conditions.

–John N. Clayton © 2019

Ultraviolet Defense Mechanism

Ultraviolet Defense Mechanism
The human eye is an incredible creation. It not only allows us to sense the visual world around us, but its connection with the brain is amazing. The image that falls on the back of your eye is inverted, and your brain turns it over so that you see everything right side up. Most animals have eyes that do unique things, but not all of them use visible light. Ultraviolet light has a higher frequency than the light we can see. That means it is more energetic than the human eye can detect but less energetic than Xrays. Many animals use ultraviolet light as tools to enable them to survive. Some birds can see in the ultraviolet as do monitor lizards, some foxes, and some snakes. Sometimes ultraviolet vision helps them to find food. Other times prey use it as an ultraviolet defense mechanism.

Among the things those ultraviolet-seeing predators eat are lizards. A lizard called the blue-tongued skink lives on the ground throughout much of the continent of Australia. This lizard would seem to be an easy target for predatory birds and ground-dwelling animals. However, it has an ultraviolet defense. The tongue of the blue-tongued skink is highly efficient at reflecting ultraviolet light. When threatened by a predator, the lizard will open its mouth wide and stick out its tongue. The tongue will give off a blast of reflected ultraviolet light. Experiments show that birds and ground animals that see in the ultraviolet are startled by the sudden burst of ultraviolet radiation and veer away from the lizard.

One of the problematic things in designing any natural environment is building a system where living things can survive over the long term. If there is not a balance between predator and prey, the result is disastrous. Many years ago someone introduced rabbits to Australia. They had no natural enemies, and they reproduced so rapidly that soon the whole continent was overrun with them.

God has designed prey and predators in such a way that, if humans don’t mess it up, the environment and all of the living things in it can survive indefinitely. We are only now beginning to understand how difficult that is, even involving ultraviolet defense mechanisms. We need to allow the Earth to continue to be fruitful.
–John N. Clayton © 2018
Data from Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology journal and reported on CNET.com

Earth Movers

Echidna
Echidna

They are designed to move dirt. The echidna is one of only two mammals that lay eggs. (The other is the duckbilled platypus.) Every year the short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus), lays one leathery egg which is about the size of a grape. The egg is put into the mother’s pouch, and it hatches in about ten days. Two patches of pores in the pouch ooze milk and the baby, which is called a puggle, laps the milk from the mother’s skin. The baby hangs on to the mother for weeks as she forages. When it the starts growing spines, the mother will put the puggle into a burrow, and it is on its own.

Echidnas get their food by clawing and poking their snouts into termite hills or ant nests. They flick out their sticky tongues and draw in the insects. The echidnas’ toes point backward on their hind legs and forward on the front. Their short legs slant outward, and they move both left feet at once and then both right feet at once, so they rock as they walk. They may look awkward while walking, but they are well-designed to move dirt. Echidnas spend 12% of their day excavating so that in a single year each echidna will churn up 204 cubic meters of soil. That’s enough to bury 100 full sized refrigerators.

Turning over the soil mixes nutrients and aerates the soil to benefit the Australian ecosystem in which the echidna lives. The echidna improves the soil while removing ants and termites making this animal an important part of God’s design for this planet. Everywhere we look we see testimony to the wisdom of God.
–John N. Clayton and Roland Earnst © 2017