Nature Connection: Everything Is Linked To Everything Else

by Mary Richardson

There’s a funny thing that happens when we talk about biodiversity. People think it’s simple, that it just means lots of different things living in an ecosystem and they move onto other topics to think and talk about. Yada yada and all that.

Here’s the thing. Yes, biodiversity does mean lots of things living in a shared ecosystem, but the most important part of that equation is the ways in which all those things are linked. When one organism is deleted or obliterated, many others are adversely affected, even ones that seem not to be related in any obvious way.

Climate change is wreaking havoc on ecosystems all over the world. Migration patterns of birds have remained the same for millennia. Many are based on food and shelter being available on both ends of the long trips but also on the places they stop for refueling and rest in between destinations. Because of the changes in our climate, many flora and fauna are starting to be a bit out of sync. Some of the most famous examples are penguins and polar bears, whose annual migrations are being severely impacted by the warming and subsequent melting of glacial ice in the arctic and Antarctica.

Here on the Cape, we have abundant examples of species that are dependent on the traditional timelines of other species. Our ospreys arrive when the fish begin to head back to our shores, especially the herring. Birds like swallows and flycatchers arrive just as the first flying insects are emerging. Other songbirds, such as orioles and hummingbirds, traditionally show up here when the quince and dogwood are blooming, as they are nectar seekers. Monarch butterflies arrive just as the milkweed begins to bloom. Amphibians and reptiles wake up to enjoy warmer days and nights when there are several sequential 50-degree days.

In recent years, the gradual warming we have all experienced has brought us flowers blooming weeks if not a month early. Frogs and salamanders wake up before winter is really over after unseasonable warmups that are, for them, sadly temporary.

Nature’s middle name is adaptability and over the many years a species lives in an area it learns to accept a certain range of temperatures and food availability. Those that do best eat a variety of foods so even if their favorite isn’t available they will survive.

If big birds such as ospreys arrive too far ahead of the fish migrations, some may starve, especially as they don’t eat a lot while migrating. Ospreys, though known for their fishing ability, have also been known to grab a rabbit or mouse when the opportunity arises, so those that are willing to eat something other than fish have a better chance of survival.

Monarch butterflies have a long and complicated migration that involves several generations. If our milkweed ripens too soon as it has been doing over the last few years, the leaves necessary for caterpillar development may shrivel and dry up before eggs are even laid. Although the butterflies feed on milkweed blossoms when they can, they will also feed on other flowers, but their young are not so fortunate. If eggs are laid on the wrong host, the tiny caterpillars will die.

Swallows that arrive too early or birds that nest before the supply of insects is up to snuff may starve or suffer from malnutrition, which may affect their eggs and nestlings. Frogs and salamanders may freeze if the weather turns sharply as it did a week or so ago. If the time is short, most will survive the temperature plunge but if it drags on to more than a day, things can get tricky for them.

If one is out in nature a lot, it is easy to see why biodiversity is important. One might assume a bird that eats seeds doesn’t care what kind of seeds are available, but anyone with a bird feeder can tell you birds can tell the difference between seeds quite readily. Many different species of birds can live in the same area because they all eat different foods, nest in different types of spaces, and serve as mutual security guards when danger is afoot, setting off vocal alarms and working together to chase off predators.

A natural field or forest has hundreds of types of plants which offer food and shelter to hundreds, even thousands of creatures, large and small. Each tiny arthropod or worm is as important to the health and vitality of an ecosystem as any of the larger occupants. Together they create a place where all can thrive. When the end comes, as it will for all, they will take their places as part of the team that rejuvenates the soil, feeding the generations to come.

Humans create monocultures, such as lawns and gardens with only a few special plantings, most of which are not native. This restricts the growth of native plants that feed the hosts of organisms that create a healthy place to live, for humans as well as our furred and feathered relatives.

Human population growth has brought devastation to natural habitats around the world. Now, with unresolved, human-caused climate changes, we are creating a blip in the natural world of synchronicity. How will this play out? We are already in a massive extinction event globally, some of which is caused by the sudden changes in temperatures and water levels. Species are moving into new territories, including those that carry disease and those that are invasive and threatening to the survival of whole species of trees and other plants crucial for our own survival.

Biodiversity and synchronicity are linked in ways that may not seem obvious right away, but in an ecosystem that is rich in biodiversity there are more chances for a reasonable adjustment and survival rate, for humans as well as birds and butterflies.

This year as you plan and plant your gardens, please consider what you are or are not doing to aid the biodiversity in your own yard, neighborhood, and larger community. It all counts.