Bird flocks and forests teach us about connections in Nature

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In the spirit of Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic”, Janine Benyus, author of A Biomimicry Primer, admonishes us to “consult life’s genius” by letting Nature be our teacher.

Perhaps the most powerful way that Nature teaches us about her interconnected self is through groups. Species are composed of populations of individuals. These individuals are players that establish connections and interactions with each other in Nature to form groups. These groups, which include  bird flocks, animal herds, human crowds, and forests are not isolated entities. Instead, they are part of ecosystems where different groups of species are interacting with each other.

The coordinated motions of bird flocks are awesome to watch. One famous example is Starling bird flocks. Please take time to view this fascinating video.

Bird flocks, like these Starlings, require the interdependency of individuals. Interdependency requires some Starlingsform of connectivity. Numerous research efforts  have shown that these groups have no leader. Instead, each bird is guided by sensing the proximity of its nearest neighbors and flying in a manner that maintains a certain distance from these neighbors. Through this phenomenon, individual behavior is translated into group behavior. Said another way, the kinetic energy of an individual is transformed into the kinetic energy of the group.

One of the important features of Nature’s groups is that, through their interconnectivity, they offer resilience to the group. In this video you can view a fish school avoiding attacks by reef sharks.

The process of group formation is called “self-organization”. Groups whose individuals interconnect in this leaderless manner are called “self-organizing systems”.  Jonathan Howard defines self-organization as:

Self-organization is a process by which a system—several components together with interaction rules—becomes ordered in space and/or time. Often, self-organization leads to emergent properties, meaning that the whole system has characteristics that differ qualitatively from those of the component parts without the interactions. Self-organization is usually distinguished from self-assembly because self-organized structures rely on a continuous input of energy to be maintained.

This definition is important because it stresses both the importance of interaction and the need for energy input from other systems. Here, individuals like the birds in a flock self-organize into highly dynamic structures, through which there us a constant flux of energy. This energy flow can only come from Nature’s interconnectedness.

Self-organizing, leaderless, synergistic systems are part of Nature’s connectedness at all levels. In biology, examples of self-organization include:

  • The formation of flocks by birds, schools of fish, animal herds, and human groups.
  • The creation of structures by social animals, such as social insects (bees, ants, and termites) and many mammals.
  • The origin of life from self-organizing chemical systems.
  • The self-maintaining nature (homeostasis) of systems from the cell to the whole organism.
  • The development and growth of living organisms (Embryology, pattern formation and morphoogenesis ).
  • The spontaneous folding of proteins and other biomacromolecules.
  • The organization of the Earth’s biosphere in a way that is broadly conducive to life (the Gaia hypothesis).

Ecotones-0238Self-organizing systems provide a way of communication between the parts in a system. In this video, Professor Suzanne Simard shows that all trees in a forest ecosystem are interconnected. The underground exchange of nutrients increases the survival of younger trees linked into the network of old trees. This process is a way of distributing  or directing energy into useful forms. The subunits cooperate closely to produce effective functioning of the system as a whole.

Energy is the currency of Nature. Bird flocks and forests teach us that connectivity in Nature is the means by which this vital energy flows between individuals and self-organizing systems at all levels.

Conservation is the act of preserving these connections.

Worth Your Extra Attention :

Thanks for reading this blog post.

Earlier, I wrote a series of posts on Nature’s tangled web. This series will give your a deeper perspective on how an interconnected Nature has organized herself. One of these posts provides a detailed look at both self-organization and other ways that Nature forms patterns. I recommend that you take a look at the entire series.

There is a section in my blog entitled “Musings”. You can reach it by clicking on the menu tab near the top of my blog site. This area contains my growing list of posts that list web material that I have found interesting. You might stop by an take a look.

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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.

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