Keystone Plants and Caterpillars

Keystone Plants and Caterpillars
Oak Trees are Keystone Superstars

As we think of the design of life in our world, we tend to focus on animals, birds, and fish. As scientists study the things that support these life forms, it becomes apparent that all land life on this planet depends on keystone plants and caterpillars. Plants capture solar energy during photosynthesis, but how that energy gets into a bird or other animal is primarily through caterpillars.

Caterpillars transfer more energy from plants than any other form of life. Ninety-six percent of terrestrial birds depend on the protein-packed bodies of caterpillars for food. Most of us are familiar with monarch butterflies that deposit their eggs on milkweeds because they are the only plants their caterpillars can eat. North America has 17,000 native plant species, and having a caterpillar that can eat plants from only the milkweed genus is very rare. Some plants are called “keystone” plants because they support many different caterpillars and other species.

The superstars of the keystone plants are the oak trees that provide food for 952 species of butterfly/moth (Lepidopteran) caterpillars. In addition to that, nesting birds, woodpeckers, squirrels, and other animals survive because of oak trees. A single oak tree will support tens of thousands of individual species of life in its lifetime. Goldenrod is another keystone plant, and it blooms from late summer to fall when other plants can’t support caterpillars. There are more than 100 goldenrod species in America, and they support both caterpillars and bees.

North American ecosystems are designed so that caterpillars are available to support birds and other caterpillar eaters. God’s intricate design of life is evident in keystone plants and caterpillars that eat them, transferring energy from the Sun to many birds and other animals.

As we learn about the creation we live in, we see more and more examples of God’s wisdom in design that sustains all life and speaks of the complexity of what may appear to be simple things.

— John N. Clayton © 2022

Reference: National Wildlife, April-May 2022, pages 29-35.

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

Design of Symbiosis

Design of Symbiosis

One of the most interesting examples of design is the massive number of symbiotic relationships that exist in the natural world. These are arrangements two or more plants or animals benefit each other. Sometimes the design of symbiosis is essential for their survival.

Living by a river in Michigan, we see many animals that couldn’t exist without symbiotic relationships. Such common animals as squirrels need a designed symbiotic relationship that allows them gives them a growing abundance of food. We have a wealth of oak trees. In the fall, there are so many acorns on the ground that you can’t go barefoot. I counted 14 squirrels in my yard this morning, gathering acorns. They not only eat the acorns, but they bury them so that they will have a reserve of food for the rest of the year. They hide so many in so many different places that they eat only a small fraction of the acorns. The rest sprout and produce more oak trees. The oak forest spreads, and that means that the squirrel population can increase. The trees feed the squirrels, and the squirrels plant the trees in the design of symbiosis.

I grew up in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The bedrock there is mostly granite. Granite is hard, and water cannot penetrate it. That means that growing crops is difficult in the “U.P.” Animals would have it tough except that God has provided an animal with a symbiotic relationship to the soil and rocks of the area. To retain enough water to take the entire ecosystem through periods of drought, beavers construct dams in the streams. The multiple dams create small ponds that supply the water needs of plants and animals. What would otherwise be a sterile wasteland is a temperate paradise of woods with a wealth of birds and animals all dependent on the beavers. As beavers reproduce, their kits build their own system of dams and ponds, expanding the availability of water for all northern life.

What is the most expensive meal you can order when you go out to eat? Ask for the “diamonds of the kitchen” and you will be served a fungus called a truffle. A three-pound truffle recently sold for $300,000, and yet it is just a fungus. Truffles grow underground on the roots of trees. The truffle keeps bacteria and corrosive elements away from the tree roots, and the roots provide a protected place for the truffle to grow. This is another design of symbiosis. The way most people search for truffles is to have pigs root around trees until they uncover a truffle. Truffles are said to be the most expensive food in the world, but to locate them requires the use of animals that most of us don’t care to be around.

There are countless symbiotic relationships. The question of interest is, how does such a relationship develop? Is it merely by accident? We suggest God has looked at the nutritional needs of all of His creatures. In His wisdom, He has created living things in a way that links their food supply to other living things in their environment. The design of symbiosis is a marvelous creation of God.

— John N. Clayton © 2019