Beauty in Natural Processes

Beauty can be appreciated at different levels of organization from the very detailed to broad landscapes. In ecological systems this can mean from a particular insect or a particular bird to widespread processes such as the flow of energy into entire ecological systems.


The mechanisms that guide transformations of nutrients and flow of energy that are important in the production and the maintenance of integrated ecological systems can be called natural processes. The most fundamental natural process is the capture of solar energy by green plants. That natural process, sometimes called “primary production” by ecologists is the only source of energy for most terrestrial ecosystems. That is also true for most marine and freshwater ecosystems. But, exceptionally, the flow of chemically ‘reduced’ compounds up from the earth’s magma out of deep sea vents can allow chemical oxidation that can provide energy for a few food webs in the bed of deep oceans.


Generally, ecological food webs are powered by the special ability of photosynthesis to capture the small packets of solar energy in photons. Each photon has too little energy to form a high energy chemical bond in food. Magically, photosynthesis assembles those too-small packets into large bundles of energy. Large enough to fill foods such as sugars and starches with high energy bonds. Such high energy foods are the basis for all energy flow in ecological systems and the vital basis for the accumulation of living and dead biomass. Green magic! All biodiversity starts from photons and photosynthetic pigments such as chlorophyll.


It is difficult to imagine anything more beautiful than a natural process that can turn photons into the diversity of many varied terrestrial ecosystems. From this viewpoint, it does not matter which green plant or which beautiful blossom it boasts. We can substitute many alternatives and the beauty of the natural process shines through. But thinking of the entire ecosystem, what if the green plants just kept assembling nutrients and water and solar energy into plant matter, without limit?


Runaway production of plant matter would soon clog the whole system by tying up all the available nutrients. But a second natural process regulates plant production and keeps the system running. Herbivores such as deer, meadow voles, grasshoppers and tent caterpillars control the accumulation of plant material by diverting some of it into herbivore tissue. Populations of grazers and browsers are increased by higher plant production. So another natural process demonstrates the beauty of an automatic mechanism that keeps the whole system running smoothly. Unless the herbivore population overshoots its food supply.


If too many herbivores are produced, patches of green plants can be wiped out. This has happened with deer, rabbits, locusts and other herbivore populations. Such overgrazing events are much less common if carnivores are present to remove and harass the hungry herbivores. Recently, in Yellowstone National Park (US) elk were damaging vegetation, particularly along valley waterways. Grey wolves were reintroduced from Canada. Within about five years, some of the damage to plants, such as debarking adult trees and prevention of growth of pioneer species along waterways, was decreasing. Certainly, some elk were killed by the wolves but in addition the wolves harassed elk that were out in the open valley bottoms. Soon the elk stopped browsing along the waterways in the open valleys and tree and shrub growth was renewed, protecting the stream banks. Carnivores protecting habitat. Additionally, there were interactions between carnivore species that rebalanced the faunal structure. Wolves harassed and sometimes killed coyotes and ranchers near the park noted some decrease in coyote predation on livestock.


Feedback mechanisms that avoid the upset of “boom and bust” in prey populations are among the most beautiful natural processes. In some ecosystems, such as inshore marine systems, reduction of predator populations by humans has been followed by reduced numbers and diversity of prey fishes. Feeding by the predators apparently had been causing compensatory population production in the prey species. Similar feedback systems have been noted in terrestrial systems.


Rotting of organic matter is usually not thought of as beautiful. But decomposers do drive beautiful natural processes. On Canada’s Precambrian Shield, in the cold and wintry north, the rate of release of nutrients for the plants from the bedrock is patently slow. If the primary production, the feeding of solar energy into the boreal ecosystem, was limited by that slow rate of supply of nutrients by release from the granite, the ecosystem would starve. But production by the boreal forest is not limited by the rate of release of nutrients from the bedrock. Decomposers make nutrients available at a much greater rate by breaking down all the dead and shed organic matter in the litter and feeding those nutrients back to the green plants. The same feedback system drives the much higher production of the tropical forest. There, nutrients are released by decomposers and are sucked up almost instantly by the forest plants. So much so that the soil contains hardly any store of nutrients. The decomposers feed the plants directly.


The beauties that we see in colourful butterflies, in flashing lightning bugs, in the courtship displays of wood ducks and in the rejuvenating display of spring flowers or the wide mantle of coloured autumn leaves all are so valuable that economists can’t even approach the topic. But what of the unseen? There is even more widespread beauty in the natural processes that support all the ecosystems vitally.


Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>