This week, Age of Union meets with Adrian Forsyth. Biologist and conservationist, Forsyth is the author of nine acclaimed natural history books and the creator of five biological field stations across Central America and the Peruvian Amazon. Forsyth was inspired to write this exclusive article for Age of Union to inform the world on how fulfilling it is to reconnect with our inner naturalist.
“ From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.”
– Charles Darwin, Origin of Species
Every child is born a naturalist. If you parent a young child, you will notice how at an early age they hold objects up to you for you to name and identify – even before they can speak in sentences. Object recognition and naming is a need that arises from deep in our genome. For millions of years, when we lived on the land daily, we confronted species that could feed us or poison us, clothe us or consume us. Those evolutionary forces were a big part of selecting the human brain to be capable of pattern recognition with massive memory storage that is informed by our excellent color vision, sense of smell, taste, touch, and hearing. Being a good naturalist was an essential part of becoming human.
Unfortunately, your inner naturalist may have been buried by the process of becoming an urban species. More than half of humanity globally – and as much as 80% people in countries like Canada, the USA and much of Europe – will be born, live and die in an urban environment. The challenge this poses is that we rely on the world’s biodiversity to maintain an ecologically functional planet, to sustain a genetically resilient food system, and we ought to benefit from the constant biological innovation we now enjoy. But if children and their parents are cut off from biodiversity, how will they understand and appreciate it and ultimately defend it when choices need to be made about its fate?
Fortunately, even if you are living life in a tower of apartments, you have great options for releasing your inner naturalist. You do not need a university degree to understand and appreciate biodiversity. You do not need to go to a rainforest, to the African savanna or a coral reef to encounter biodiversity. Even the most developed city has a vast store of biodiversity for you to enjoy.
Natural history begins with names – without a name it is hard to remember a species, it is difficult to talk about it with a friend or child or look up information about a plant or an animal. In the past, names came with much effort: you needed books, a mentor, a lot of free time, and an education. But you no longer must shoot a bird, kill a butterfly or send a specimen to a museum to learn its identity. All you need is a phone and a fantastic app called iNaturalist. It is free. Every day it gets better because it is fed by the continuous contribution of millions of people who upload photographs of living creatures into the system. Specialists verify identities and with each of these the system gets smarter. Some groups with little interest such as fungus gnats or deep-sea shrimp may be undeveloped but even now iNaturalist and such apps can usually get you to a level of identification where you can begin learning. The first time you upload a photo into iNaturalist you will have transformed yourself into a “citizen scientist” building the collective understanding of our planet.
To get started with iNaturalist I suggest you set aside the idea that interesting wildlife only comes with four feet and fur. Find yourself a congenial spot. A good place for anyone to begin exploring biodiversity: in a backyard, a city park, a vacant lot, a railway, or a canal embankment. Get down to child-level sitting or lying on the ground because most biodiversity is small. But macro-scale does not mean what you will see is not beautiful, bizarre, and interesting.
A name is just the beginning. It is the interactions of life forms that make them interesting. Pollination is a dynamic relationship. The plant is paying for gene dispersal by providing extra pollen that bees will use as food for their offspring and by offering nectar that contains the carbohydrate needed to power the flight of pollinators. At the surface this sounds like a nice orderly arrangement. But nature is complex. You may find the system is parasitized by predators like Laphria robber flies that have evolved to mimic bumblebees and avoid predation by sting-wary birds. When they come to flowers it is not to pollinate but to ambush and kill bees with their highly toxic venom that instantly paralyzes their prey and digests its tissues. The Syrphid flower flies who feed on nectar and pollen are not as effective as bees who constantly move flower to flower, plant to plant, yet many of these flower flies have larvae that feed on aphids. They can reward a plant by acting as a predator on their pests. Some bees like carpenter bees are mainly thieves – they have short tongues that are unable to access the nectar of long tubular flowers that evolved to be pollinated by hummingbirds or long-tongued moths. The carpenter bees use their powerful mandibles to cut into the base of these flowers to take the nectar while performing no pollination whatsoever.
Everything you see happening at a flower will be the result of complex evolutionary relationships that produce alliances, juggle tradeoffs, and lead to compromises, deception, and reciprocity. This is what creates biodiversity and its perpetual refinement.
There is nothing unique about pollination systems and you will find equally intriguing relationships happening in leaf litter, under tree bark, or in pond water, under rocks. Just get your face down and look.
Confined to my urban yard by the Covid pandemic I spent a lot of time looking at flowers, some of these I planted, but many were common weeds you can find around the world. I took these photographs all in my front yard in the city of Washington DC. Almost everything I could put a name to was by using iNaturalist. Technology need not divide us from nature – indeed, technology can bring us back to knowing and understanding nature.
For those of you lucky enough to have a yard or garden, here is one parting bit of advice: make it messy. Neatly mowed lawns, spaces free from weeds, woody debris and clutter are anathema for biodiversity. Biodiversity needs structural complexity to survive. If you take all the dead leaves, sticks and debris of a garden and throw it in the trash each autumn you are literally throwing away next year’s bees, flies and beetles who hibernate in that debris. Leave it – less work for you, more life for the world.
Photos 1 "Many of the small sweat bees (Halicitdae) that nest in old wood piles such as this Augochlora pura, the golden emerald sweat bee, are so beautiful close up that the sight of one makes flower watching worth the effort. This one was pollinating late autumn asters."
Photo 2 "The Gnat Ogres were active at dusk – but not eating gnats. I photographed three different individual ogres and they all had been killing ant queens – winged females who leave on nuptial flights en masse, especially after a rain. It is tough out there."
Photo 3 "Golden Sweat bees Augochlorella Aurata on the shiso flowers today, extending their relatively long tongues into the flowers. I saw one cleaning its nectar-soaked tongue revealing just how complicated a bee’s tongue can be."
Photo 4 "This migrating buckeye seemed to be unconcerned that 60 million people who have access to education and a still free press choose fealty to a man who lies to them, squanders their hard-earned wages, despises them, and is throwing them under the Pandemic Bus. Travel on beauty, it is not your fight. Oh wait, he is degrading your planet."
Photo 5 "The Peacock Fly (Callopistromyia annulipes) does use its wings in a flipping, rowing, waving kind of strutting about display. But it is not like the avian Peacock whose elaborate display is developed by males and used to court females."
Photo 6 "My front yard. For those of you lucky enough to have a yard or garden, here is one parting bit of advice: make it messy!"