Have you ever heard of “six degrees of separation?” It's an idea that all people on Earth are linked through six or fewer social connections. I don’t know if that is actually the case, but interconnection between people is certainly real. What does this have to do with our science study, you ask? Well, first and foremost, interconnection is not isolated to humans - everything is connected.
Connections and relationships are the cornerstone of our science study this month: bioecology. In short, bioecology (or ecology) is the study of the relationships between living things and their environment. Ecology is a very broad area of study and divided into two main branches – autecology and synecology.
Autecology is the branch of ecology which studies the relationship between a single organism, or a singular species, and their environment. This branch includes behavioral ecology, which studies how organisms change with their environment. At its foundation, it is about specie adaptation. Traits such as camouflage, mimicry, and hibernation are all adaptations and fall into one of two categories, biological or behavioral adaptations.
Adaptations promote survival for all species, whether plant or animal. Biological (also known as structural) adaptations are one type of adaptation. They are physical adaptations organisms use for defense, food, or pure survival. They include mimicry and camouflage, as well as special structures like porous bones in birds for flight or different bird beak structures to account for varying diets. Plants also have structural adaptations. For instance, cacti stems have thick outer skin to retain moisture and their leaves are spines, which protect them from being eaten.
Even humans have special adaptations. The average altitude in Tibet is 15,000 feet above sea level – only .027% of the world’s population live at these altitudes. People from lower altitude regions get sick when they travel to these heights, but Tibetans have adapted to the high elevations. Their bodies use oxygen differently, enabling them to live and survive well in their environment.
The viceroy (left) is a butterfly species that looks very similar to the monarch butterfly (right), which is poisonous. The monarch's poison is a biological adaptation in and of itself, but the viceroy has also adapted biologically to look like the monarch. Both butterflies deter predators - one because it's poisonous, the other because it appears to be. Very sneaky!
Camouflage is another great adaptation that assists organisms with survival. Many predator species use camouflage as a way to successfully hunt their prey. Species like jaguars, snakes, and polar bears blend in with their environment well. Even insects have adapted camouflage for hunting, such as the flower mantis.
Organisms have also adapted camouflage as a way to hide from their predators. During the winter, snow hares are as white as the snow they bound from place to place, but during other times of the year their fur is brown. They are camouflaged throughout the year. What's even more amazing is that plants have even adapted camouflage for protection! The Fritillaria devlavayi (genus sp.) is a plant which is sought only by humans. Although the plant can be found in many colors, scientists discovered that in areas where people harvest it more often, the plant has better camouflage.
The second type of adaptation is behavioral adaptation. Behavioral adaptations are traits that organisms specifically adopt in order to survive as individuals, and as a species through reproduction. Some such adaptations include bird migration patterns, diurnality or nocturnality in species, and defense behavior. Adaptive behaviors are either inherited or learned.
Inherited behaviors are behaviors that are instinctual to the animal. These include behaviors such as courtship and reproduction; escape and defense; and aggression, all of which vary from species to species. Many species rely heavily on inherited behaviors. This is especially true for species who have superprecocial young. Superprecocial describes a newly born or hatched animal that does not need parental care or assistance to survive.
Superprecocial young are basically tiny adults and are completely independent at hatching. Some of them never even see any adults! Adult female sea turtles, for example, lay their eggs on shore and then leave, never to return to the nest. When the young hatch, they know exactly what to do through instinct and head straight to the ocean. Other superprecocial young include moths and butterflies, scrubfowl (bird species), and most lizards, among others.
Contrary to inherited behaviors, learned behaviors are actions that species develop over time. Learning is a change in behavior due to experience, so learned behaviors happen in a variety of ways and include a wide range of behaviors. Actions such as a dog sitting on command; a raccoon opening a garbage can; or predatory animals chasing, pouncing, or wrestling are all examples of learned behaviors. In general, animals deemed to be more intelligent have a greater proportion of learned behaviors than inherited ones.
One important aspect of learned behaviors is that they are more adaptable than innate behaviors. Since they have been developed, species can modify their actions when there are changes in their environment. A lion, for instance, may adapt its hunting technique depending on the animal specie (like a zebra versus an impala) or the weather (rain versus sun).
Next time you're outside, take a moment to observe. Look at the plants, insects, animals, and other organisms to see if you can identify any of their adaptations. And although adaptations are only a small part of bioecology, they play a huge part in understanding how organisms interact and connect with their environment.
References and Resources
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Says:, Herbalist, and Name *. “Plants Can Camouflage Too, and They're Hiding from Us.” Science in the News, 10 Dec. 2020, sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2020/plants-can-camouflage-too-and-theyre-hiding-from-us/.
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