The energetics of Nature’s tangled web
In 1924, the last wild wolves in Yellowstone National Park were deliberately killed by the US federal government. In carrying out this program of predator eradication, the government unknowingly destroyed a network of Nature’s energy conduits. Important food chains were broken. The course of running streams and the quality of waterways was hampered or destroyed as the overpopulated deer and elk ate the stream-side aspen, cottonwood, and willow saplings. The result was major changes in the energy flow in local ecosystems and in the terrain.
Our great predators, the wolf, the cougar, the bear, and others teach us about the vital importance of connections in Nature. They are top predators because the power of their connecting presence is an evolutionary driver of the diversity of life. Chains of life flourish with the force of predation. The absence of predators results in broken energy connections that make a big difference in how Nature operates.
In 1995, the previously banned wolf was reintroduced. The eating of elk and deer by the wolf resulted in a reduced population of grazing wildlife and a more balanced ecosystem. In turn, the former ecosystems and their energy delivery networks were restored. With the wolf once again feeding on elk and deer, scavenger creatures from vultures to beetles flourished from the scraps. With fewer elk and deer, the aspen, cottonwood, and willow saplings previously stunted by the overpopulated deer and elk, began to grow again. The restored aspen growth solidified stream banks. The stream site ecosystems began to flourish once more. With the demise of the wolf, the beaver colonies had died off with only one left. The reintroduction of the wolf ultimately resulted in 12 beaver colonies. After the healing of a 70 year sickness created by man, the returning keystone predator produced restored energy delivery systems in Nature.
Those scientists and naturalists who reintroduced the wolves to Yellowstone understood the energetics of Nature’s tangled web. And, through the wolf’s restoration of the energy networks, these stewards of Nature used Nature’s basic organizing principles to bring things back to a viable ecosystem.
Since the subject of energy flow in Nature seems to be popular, I’m offering a series of blog posts that discuss these principles. In this first blog post in the series, I present a summary of Nature’s six organizing principles. I will then write a series of six blog posts that discuss each organizing principle in more detail.
Energy is the fundamental currency for all life on this Earth. Nature’s ecosystems are conduits of interconnectivity that act as transporters and transformers of this energy. By understanding how Nature’s connections operate, we are able to develop sound, scientifically based environmental conservation strategies.
It is from the idea that Nature can be defined by the organizing principles of her energy flow that we are able to understand her in a more comprehensive way. These organizing principles are present in all of Nature at all scales and all levels. What follows is a list of these principles along with brief descriptions.
Nature’s Organizing Principle #1: Everything In Nature Is Interconnected.
If there is one unifying principle in all of Nature, it is that everything in Nature is connected in some way to everything else. The connections may be physical – such as our heart is joined within our body. Nature may also be functionally connected such as two birds communicating with each other through the pattern of their sounds. And Nature may be connected through the environment. A Right Whale and a Penguin are connected because they both eat krill within the Southern Ocean ecosystem’s food chain.
Nature’s Organizing Principle #2: Nature Is Composed Of Complex Systems.
A system is a collection of objects that somehow interconnect with each other to function as a whole and produce some effect that no single object within the system could do on its own. The configuration of a system’s parts can be physical, logical or statistical. The study of Nature’s ecosystems is the study of how things are connected. Using the terminology of Western Science, an ecosystem is a “complex system”.
By definition, a complex system has a large number of members capable of interacting with each other and adapting to their environment without a leader or a blueprint.
The interaction between members may occur with immediate neighbors or distant ones. The members can be all identical or different. They may move in space or occupy fixed positions. They can be in one of two states or have multiple states. This definition of a complex system is also the definition of an ecosystem. The terms “complex systems” and “ecosystems” are synonymous.
Nature’s Organizing Principle #3: Nature is Both Ordered And Chaotic.
Our universe is an elaborate ordered structure at many different levels. Ordered structure and patterns in ecosystems at all levels are the conduits by which energy flows. Connectivity is the essential and intimate component of order.
Nature’s Organizing Principle #4: Energy Flows Within Nature Using Complex Networks.
Because the key to how a complex system operates is the connectivity between its components, the use of network theory has become an important tool for the study of how complex systems work and how individual members in a system connect with each other.
Nature’s Organizing Principle #5: Nature’s Systems Are Self Organized And Emergent.
It is well known that individual agents within a system may interact and exchange energy locally by mechanisms such as attraction and repulsion, the exchange of biomass, flow, chemical compounds, information exchange, or other forms of signaling. These processes produce collective behavior at higher levels such as aggregation into animal herds, fish schools, bird flocks, or cities. What we have just described is the phenomena of self-organization. While not the only way that Nature organizes herself, self-organization is so common that we regard it as an organizing principle of Nature.
Here is a short video of self-organization in Nature. [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIgHEhziUxU#t=32 ]
Nature’s Organizing Principle #6: Nature’s Systems Are Self Similar.
Self similarity, and its closely related subject, scaling, are very important aspects of Nature that provide unifying clues to the interconnectivity that we see in Nature’s systems. Self-similarity means that as the magnification of an object changes, the shape or the geometry of the object does not change. An object’s pattern looks the same close up as it does far away. It is an endless inclusion of patterns within patterns, systems within systems. If a system is self-similar, there is some feature that is constant at all scales of magnification. This characterizes most natural systems such as trees, rivers, mountains, the structure of mammalian lungs, and the Internet. Walk outside and look at a tree or a sagebrush. There, you will see real life representations of self-similarity.
Nature is composed of many systems with huge degrees of freedom where many interrelated and intervening phenomena are going on at the same time. Scaling is a tool to discover underlying regularities within these mixtures of many systems as things change.
Scaling can help describe relationships and consistencies within a system’s energy transformation and transportation networks. Through the use of the power law model, we are able to classify and compare systems in Nature that seemingly have no obvious relationships.
After exploring these six organizing principles in more detail in future blogs, we will conclude the series by examining two corollaries:
Corollary #1: Nature is a highly interconnected and complex network of energy conduits. If you mess with one part of Nature, most likely you will affect something else. .
Corollary #2: Except in the short term, it is impossible for mankind to predict or control Nature.
Why Do I Write These Essays?
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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.