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.
When you walk into the forest and look up at the trees, it’s easy to realize that all of those structures towering over your head are alive. What you may not think about is that their seeds under your feet are alive also.
Many trees produce seeds to grow new trees. There are maple seeds with their familiar “helicopter” method of blowing in the wind. There are cottonwood seeds that look like “summer snow.” Those seeds and others are carried far away by the wind.
Oak trees produce seeds we call acorns. They’re too heavy for the wind to scatter them, so that’s the job of squirrels. Squirrels gather acorns and store them to eat later. When later comes, the squirrels have often forgotten where they stored their treasure. Instead of being eaten, the acorns grow into new trees to produce more acorns. Both the trees and the squirrels benefit from that arrangement.
The seed of a coconut tree is the coconut. The wind can’t blow coconuts around, and squirrels can’t carry them. They often grow near water, such as a stream or an ocean. A coconut falling into the sea can float to an island thousands of miles away, where it can take root and grow. Cherry trees produce their fruit with a seed we often call a pit. Birds eat the cherries and drop the seeds over a wide area.
The key to a seed beginning to grow is the breaking of the shell surrounding it. Many things can cause that to happen, such as moisture, temperature, fire, mechanical abrasion, or a combination of methods. Some seeds have to travel through the digestive system of birds or animals for them to begin to grow into a new plant.
Most seeds wait a year before they start to grow. Cherry seeds can wait for hundreds of years. Scientists discovered a lotus seed (Nelumbo nucifer) in a bog in China. They cracked the shell and started it growing. When they carbon-dated the shell, they found that the seed had been waiting for 2,000 years to sprout into a lotus plant.
As I write this on January 21, my outdoor thermometer says that the temperature here in Michigan is -5 degrees Fahrenheit. I just graded a correspondence course from a young lady who lives in Tennessee. She asked, “How can the squirrels I see outside live when it is so cold here, and not even shiver?” It was 35 degrees Fahrenheit where she lives. Why don’t we see squirrels and other animals shivering in the cold?
Recently an atheist said that if God did exist, He wouldn’t make incredibly cold places like Alaska. In his mind, God is just too cruel to believe in. He would rather have the whole planet be like where he lives in central Florida.
There are so many problems with that view it would take much more space to discuss them all. The fact is that many animals are designed for the cold, right on down to making their bodies not feel it. The February/March 2019 issue of National Wildlife (page 8) has an interesting discussion about species of animals that have cold-sensing nerve cells that don’t feel temperatures below 68 degrees F. This allows an animal’s body temperature to drop for long periods so they can hibernate. They do not experience the cold that would keep them awake. Animals that don’t hibernate can survive and be active in temperatures as low as 35 degrees F without feeling the cold, and they can do so for up to nine months.
My wife likes to organize things. Items in our pantry are grouped together based on what is in the box or can. All of the spaghetti is stacked together on the same shelf as the spaghetti sauce. All of the soups are together on their own shelf. All the cereal is together on its own shelf. Etc. etc. etc. When I put something in the wrong place, I am chastised, and she expresses amazement at my male inability to understand the importance of organization. I recently learned that fox squirrels do the same thing.
I have often wondered why the large female squirrel I see outside my office window is chattering at the smaller male squirrel who is dashing around seemingly looking for something. It is the dead of winter here, so thoughts of baby squirrels don’t seem to be a reasonable explanation.
A recent experiment done at the University of California-Berkeley may give an answer. Squirrels sort their nuts by a process called “chunking.” Researchers at the university used GPS devices to track 45 male and female fox squirrels for two years. They gave the squirrels different kinds of nuts–almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, and walnuts. The squirrels buried the nuts in unique spots with each nut having its own location.
The researchers made the nuts available one at a time, at different times of the year, and in different locations. The pattern of distribution caused the researchers to conclude that “the squirrels use a surprisingly flexible and sophisticated memorizing strategy to cache their nuts.” I have noticed that our grey squirrels here in Michigan do the same thing. I recently found a cache of sunflower seeds that came from my bird feeders, and later found a cache of acorns. There were no sunflower seeds with the acorns and no acorns with the sunflower seeds.
Fox squirrels gather between 3,000 and 10,000 nuts a year. By using the chunking method, they know where to find each nut type. That simplifies locating food sources. Like my wife, the squirrels know where to find each unique meal item.