Thursday, December 17, 2015

On Webs...

I was looking through photographs this morning search for a topic about which to write when I came across this photograph of a dew-covered web.

I have been thinking a lot lately about webs.  A spider's web is a collection of silky protein fibers produced by glands on the spider's body.  These fibers are spun by the spider into strands of silk of different diameters and strengths.  For their size, these fibers are among the strongest substances on the earth.  Some strands provide the infrastructure of the web, binding it in place with its surrounding.  Other fibers connect these strands together, enabling the spider to travel across its web or transmitting vibrations when a strand of the web is disturbed.  Still more fibers are covered with sticky secretions that ensnare the spider's prey. 

A spider's web only works because it is a collection of these varying types of silk, remove one type of silk and the web collapses.  It is no longer able to function.  Given time, a spider will construct a new web.  Over its lifetime, a spider may possibly construct dozens of similar webs, but each costs considerable energy to construct.  Often as the spider nears the end of its life cycle, the webs become more haphazard and less well constructed.  The spider lacks the energy that it had in its youth and the bonds that it creates are weaker.

But spider webs are not the only webs that exist in nature.  The webs that I have been thinking about are those that connect one species to another in a habitat and those that connect species to their environment  (soil, water, sunlight, etc.).  On July 27th, 1869 famed naturalist and conservationist John Muir (1838 - 1914) wrote in his journal, "When we try to pick out anything by itself we find it bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe." 

These works are mostly true.  The bonds that Muir wrote about definitely exist, but they can be broken.  Many of the cords only exist now as memories, having been severed long ago. 

Given enough time nature develops new cords.  It weaves a new web, but the new web is different.  Some strands are missing and new ones may appear in new places.  The web is not necessarily better or worse. It is different

Recently many of my school presentations have been about habitats and the interconnections that are found within a habitat.  I have been giving students a list of plants and animals and asking them to think of the ways that they are connected.  Schools do a good job explaining the concept of food chains and food webs, but they often fail at showing the other levels of connectivity. 

For example, I might ask students to explain the relationships between a Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger), a Red Oak (Quercus rubra), and Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes). They can usually come up with the food chain oak to squirrel to fox and the fact that the tree provides shelter to the squirrel, but they don't know about the competition between squirrel and fox for food. 

They don't think about the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.  They don't realize that the dung from the squirrel and fox help fertilize the soil that feeds the oak tree or that the squirrel disperses the seeds of the tree when it buries them and forgets them.  They also fail to see the larger connections when more species are added to the equation. 

Most students (and adults) fail to see how human beings are connected into the the complex web.  This isn't really their fault.  Most people see themselves as somehow different from nature and not part of it.  A large number of people have no personal connection to the natural world.  It is hard to imagine how this web can be impacted if you don't know that it exists.  One of the best parts of my job is introducing this idea of inter-connectivity and watching students discover that the world is connected in ways that they never imagined.  When you pull on a cord, you never know where the vibrations might reach...

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