Field of Science

Making sense of a messy natural world

It's a mess out there!  Or perhaps more accurately, it's complicated out there. Nature involves interactions, and they are so diverse that as a biologist you begin to wonder if you can make any sense of it at all. So two projects are underway to see if some of this messiness can be sorted out. A couple of prairie plants are involved, one being studied by a student and one being studied by TPP and his colleague. In both cases the plants interact with animals in two different ways that together determine the reproductive success of the plant. Both plants require bee pollinators, primarily bumblebees, so plants in a patch sometimes get better pollination by living in proximity to other individuals who help make this a foraging patch that attract more pollinators and provide more pollen to each other. But at the same time, other insects feed on the flower buds, flowers, young fruits, and seeds, and perhaps growing in a patch allows such insects to find you more easily, and that which aids in pollination might be detrimental in terms of loss of flowers, fruits, and seeds. To make matters even more complicated, although not part of this study, our plant is a hemiparasite that requires plant hosts. As you may guess, you expect that perhaps there is an optimal clustering for reproduction, one that provides decent enough pollination but that does not overly expose the plant to the deprivations of other insects, and of course all of this may depend upon weather events and other factors as well. This is why evolution is necessary.  Organisms must be able to adapt to all of this change, this diverse mess of interactions. And if by chance you get any signal at all out of all of the back ground noise, you become quite convince that you have figured out something quite real about how all of this operates. Now multiply all of this by the number of species in the community, and you get some idea about how many interactions are taking place all the time. None of this operates in a clock-work manner, rather out of the whole emerges the appearance of organization. And then you see one more thing, something that you had never noticed before, and you begin to realize that you've just scratched the surface. One of the weevils that feed on the flower buds of this wild indigo are very cryptically colored and it had never occurred to TPP before that it had camouflage coloring. Even a small prairie patch has several lifetimes of things to study. Wait, isn't TPP retired? 

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