Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ding Darling

I remember my Grandfather picking me up at the airport on our first trip to Sanibel Island.  I was 9 years old and we were missing school for a whole week to go to Florida and stay with them.  All I wanted to do was go to pool, but he insisted on driving through the Ding Darling Wildlife Reserve.  At the time, I was bored and hot in my long sleeve dress, but now that I am older, I finally understand why my grandfather was so in love with the reserve and Sanibel Island in general.  It is a barrier island that has set aside over 30% of its land mass to a nature preserve and every beach is natural and unmanicured.  It provides a glimpse of the life in the sea that we sometimes forget is there when staying at resorts.

Notes on the mangrove and horseshoe crab
On a recent trip, we went on a guided trolley ride through the Ding Darling where I learned more about the island I have been visiting for so many years.  Some of the interesting things I learned about mangroves:

  • Red mangroves grow in the lowest, wettest conditions and prop their roots up above the water to breathe through pores in their bark during low tide.
  • Black mangroves grow slightly higher up in elevation and breathe through snorkel like straws that stay above the water.  Their leaves glisten in the sun as they rid themselves of the salt from the water.
  • 50% of hurricane winds are blocked by mangroves and their roots help to dissipate wave energy
  • Mangroves store salt in vacuoles and then shed them in their leaves.

Spanish Moss

While in Florida, I couldn't help but notice the Spanish Moss (tillandsia usneoides) that hung from every tree. I wondered why it was there and what, if any, benefit it provided for the host tree on which it hung.

Spanish Moss
It turns out the moss is not beneficial for its host.  While it doesn't kill the tree, it lowers its growth rate by blocking light and increases wind resistance, which can be fatal in a hurricane.  It does, however, provide shelter for creatures such as rat snakes, bats, and jumping spiders (which are only found on Spanish moss).  It has uses for humans as well, such as building insulation, mulch, packing material, and mattress bedding.  

While we like to emphasize Nature's ability to create cooperative, mutualistic relationships, sometimes in the process of niche differentiation, resources are available and mutations present to create parasitic relationships  such as this one.  But it is interesting to note that while it is a parasitic relationship, it is not usually fatal to the host and creates benefits for the ecosystem as a whole.  

Friday, February 24, 2012

Life on an Island

Every year, I am lucky enough to visit Sanibel Island, Florida, where my family has been vacationing since I was a child.  It's funny, as a part of my Biomimicry Professional program, I get to travel to distant lands to learn about their flora and fauna, but many times animal life is hard to find.  But when I come to Sanibel Island, within ten minutes of arriving at the natural beach, I've seen five pelicans swarm within 10' of a dolphin, studied lizards and spiders, and collected more amazing artifacts that wash up on the beach.  I'm going to start advocating that the BPro coursework take a trip to Sanibel to study the natural beaches and the amazing Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge!

Some of the many amazing forms of life I saw on one trip to the beach:

  • pink sea vegetables which freaked out my daughter
  • some squishy blob that looked like a spineless sea urchin
  • another conch breeding placenta
  • dolphins looking for food and completely unfazed by humans
  • pelicans swallowing their prey and water seeping out of their pouches
  • lizards colored to match the twigs and brown debris at the bottom of the floor
  • mangrove trees trapping sediment and living in water
  • rainbow colored fish scales
  • spiders at the center of the web doing housecleaning by removing leaves from their web
So many exciting forms of life to explore and discover!

Branching Fractals

Fractals in nature are everywhere, and I am not going to pretend to be a mathematician and say that I understand the math behind them, but I am intuitive and can suppose why they work: efficient nutrient distribution!   Also, the branches form a web that catch debris, which could be useful for companion species!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Biomimicry of the Sweetgum ball

Walking through a neighborhood in Southern Illinois, it is impossible not to notice the sweetgum balls in February - they are everywhere!  I've always seen them, but I wanted to know more - perhaps see the strategy of the ubiquitous sweetgum tree through a biomimetic lens.
The Biomimicry of the Sweetgum ball
I noticed right away the hexagons!  They had modified leaves to form the seed enclosure.  They were extremely strong and almost broke my scissors trying to cut it - I had to use a chef's knife to dissect it.   The section cut showed that there was a dense core that everything grew out of and multiple seed pods were present on each gumball, and the gumballs were everywhere.

The tree has taken a common strategy where thousands of seeds are produced in the hopes that one or two will sprout and survive.  This strategy is an optimal one for the organism because the seeds, while abundant, are not energetically expensive and it doesn't jeapordize the tree's survival to produce this many.  It reminds me of the example of the cherry tree in the book Cradle to Cradle - nature is rarely efficient, but it is optimized for survival.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

So the groundhog got me thinking... do animals adapt to freezing Chicago winters? 

Humans seal ourselves off in conditioned homes and cars, burning a lot of fossil fuel energy to do so.  But animals don't have that option.  So how do they do it?  I decided to revisit my grade school classes and relearn what I've forgotten.  And maybe there is something we can learn for design.

Photo credit: National Geographic Society 
Groundhog Day got me think, of course, about groundhogs.  As I learned in grade school, they do in fact hibernate from approximately October to March, but toward the end of hibernation (oh, say February 2nd or so?), they enter various stages of arousal to test the temperature and scope out new territory before entering into a semi-hibernated state like torpor.  The purpose of hibernation, of course, is to conserve calories when food is scarce, so the animal's metabolic rate slows and the body cools, respiration and heart rate are depressed.  Groundhogs enter into obligate hibernation, where they are aroused by internal mechanisms and usually unable to be aroused due to external stimluli. Other animals enter into facultative hibernation, or semi-hibernation, where they are able to be aroused but the purpose is the same: conserve energy when it is scarce. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Thinking about Niches - a Spanish Biomimicry iSite

In Spain for our latest BProfessional intensive, we had an iSite where we picked an organism and looked to find it's niche - how it fits in with its environment. The location of our retreat was a hilly area with lots of clay, falling rocks, and erosion.  And even without a lot of water - the area was almost considered a desert - plants were there to stabilize some of the soil.  There were quite a few plants with really gnarly roots that seemed to zigzag down the slope in such a way that I thought it could be a stabilization mechanism, much like how we spread our feet and place them parallel to the slope to stabilize ourselves on a steep slope.  I can't find any mention of this form in the literature I've referenced, but I'm sticking with my observation until proven wrong.  So when looking at the contextual limiting factors for this Rosemary bush, it would seem that its ability to thrive in unstable soil with poor nutrients and not a lot of water allowed it to carve out a niche where other organisms aren't able to survive.  And the zigzag form is one that I find interesting. This tool for natural observation is one that I find useful when trying to understand the contextual factors that influence an organism's ability to survive and be resilient against adverse conditions.