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The nature of cooperation

There is a famous quote from Lord Tennyson about nature being “red in tooth and claw”. The phrase creates this image of nature as a place where you either eat or are eaten. There is an easily recognizable truth in that statement that is easy to see.

We watch animals get eaten all the time. I watched a young Cooper’s Hawk pin a cardinal to the ground in my backyard and carry it away just last week. There were River Otters in Audubon’s pond crunching away on fish. I watched a tiny bird called a Brown Creeper creeping up a tree and getting insects from under the cracks in the bark. A coworker watched a hawk eat a crow this morning.

It is easy to see how there is a kill or be killed world out there, but that is only one aspect of the world we live in. There is competition out there, but there is also more cooperation than you think.

One of my favorite examples is something called symbiosis. Symbiosis is the process of two different species working together for their mutual benefit. One of the classic examples of this is a tiny organism called a lichen (pronounced “liken”).

You’ve seen lichens, probably thousands of lichens, but may not have realized it. Lichens come in many shapes and sizes. They grow as spreading blue-gray circles on the sides of trees. Some look like a wash of yellow down the side of a tree or a gray-green fuzzball in the branches. Rock tripes form big brown scales on rocks in rock cities. British soldiers are tiny lichens with a red cap, something often seen on the A-frame roof at Audubon.

These lichens are not made of one thing, or possibly even two. They are made up of two to three different organisms working together to make the world a better place for all of them to survive. One of these organisms is a fungus, which holds onto surfaces that are hard to hold on to. Another is usually an algae, that creates food from the sun’s energy and shares it with the fungus. Some lichens also have a special bacteria known as a cyanobacteria that also creates food from the sun for the lichen.

This form of symbiosis, where all the organisms benefit, is sometimes called mutualism.

I find the story of lichens inspiring. They may be a more primitive life form, but they work together to colonize, survive and thrive in places where other things trying to work alone would surely perish. People could learn a lot from lichens about the give and take that is essential to a healthy community.

Of course, symbiosis doesn’t always work for all the parties involved. Audubon’s staff discovered a wasp that appeared stuck to a tree last fall. It’s long egg laying tube, called an ovipositor, seemed to be stuck way into the tree while the wasp was hardly able to move. The wasp, called a Pigeon Horntail, injects eggs into the tree along with a fungus that softens the wood for the wasp larvae to eat. The wasp carries the fungus in special glands and puts some in with each egg so that the young have something to eat. The fungus benefits from getting a free ride to a new tree and the wasp benefits by leaving behind the ability for it’s young to eat. Everything benefits except the tree, which was already not doing well.

Nature is full of countless examples of cooperation. Experiments on White Pines show that they move water uphill during a drought to make sure all the White Pines on a hillside obtain water. Flocks of smaller birds chase bigger predators out of an area with lots of nests. Bees move pollen from flower to flower, which helps flowers make seeds and the flowers give the bees sweet nectar to eat. The list is long, but doesn’t get as many headlines as stories about deadly animals.

Cooperation is essential in nature, whether it is a bee pollinating a flower or a lichen only being able to exist with two or three separate organisms working together.

It’s essential to human communities too. Cooperation can be as simple as shoveling a neighbor’s sidewalk, knowing they will do yours when times are harder. It can mean calling or visiting someone who is lonely. It can be as simple as food baked with love to help someone during harder times. Nature can be red in tooth and claw, but it has other, softer lessons as well for those who are willing to hear them.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are still open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is partially open, including restrooms, the Blue Heron Gift Shop, and some exhibits. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.

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