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Nature's laws are a paradox at work

As I See It

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Media contact: Rodney Barreto

The nature of nature is sometimes counterintuitive to our everyday, common-sense thought processes. This paradoxical subject deserves far more attention than it gets.

Most people realize a healthy natural environment depends on beneficial associations between plants, animals, soil, climate and other factors. These relationships are often so complex, unraveling them can take years, even decades.

Even though we at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) don't know everything there is to know about nature, we do know some very important things about Mother Nature's uncompromising character and how natural systems and the laws of nature work to maintain healthy habitats for the wide variety of fish and wildlife species that call Florida home.

An example of nature's affinity for creating a paradox is fire. We used to think forest fires were the enemy of wildlife. Just ask Bambi or Smokey Bear. Yet, when conservationists researched fires, they learned that regularly occurring fires in most Florida wildlife habitats aided wildlife to a far greater degree than anyone imagined.

Plant diversity is a key to sustaining wildlife long-term, and fire in Florida provides that benefit. Fires fertilize the soil and cause the seeds of many beneficial plants to germinate. The many plant species that sprout after a fire during the growing season provide a balanced diet and also help ensure that food for wildlife is available throughout the year and for years to come.

Researchers also found that, in most cases, wildlife is well-equipped to avoid the effects of fires and to take full advantage of the new growth. Land managers now regularly employ prescribed burns to improve habitat conditions for wildlife. Who knew - besides native Indians who regularly set fire to the Everglades?

FWC wildlife managers also employ mechanical and chemical treatment of noxious vegetation to encourage the growth of native plants.

Without these management efforts, plant communities would eventually age to the point where they become dominated by one or two species that cannot provide enough sustenance to support most wildlife populations on a year-round basis. In Florida, these older plant communities tend to be dominated by vast areas composed mainly of oak and palmetto, or monocultures of thick woods - all of which shade out the variety of succulent native plants needed by all sorts of creatures, from invertebrates to mammals.

The effects of floods and droughts are another example of the paradox of nature. While floods and droughts can cause some wildlife to perish, floodwaters act to push mucky deposits of decaying plant and animal matter from the lake or river bottom into the adjacent flood plain. When floodwaters recede, the decaying matter dries and compacts in the flood plain.

Droughts benefit aquatic ecosystems when mucky bottom sediments are exposed to sunlight and air. The exposed sediments dry and compact and, even when re-flooded, remain hard. These hardened bottom soils are perfect spawning areas for sport fish, while providing both a medium for rooted native plants that cleanse the water and habitat for invertebrates that feed sport fish.

In concert, the alternating processes of flood and drought are required to maintain a viable functioning aquatic environment. Where flood-control efforts have interrupted the natural cleansing process produced by cycles of flood and drought, FWC lake managers conduct artificial droughts called drawdowns. These trained professionals oversee heavy equipment that scrapes mucky sediments, which are too thick for Mother Nature to cure. In areas that have been scraped and re-flooded, native aquatic vegetation can be replanted or allowed to re-establish on its own.

These natural disturbances - and their human-made simulations - are a paradoxical necessity in the grand scheme of maintaining a healthy environment for native wildlife and fish.

There are many other facets of nature's law and animal behavior that follow this pattern of paradox. Needless to say, nature's sometimes violent ways don't follow the expectations of the human heart. However, understanding the role these events play is a basis for developing an appreciation of the uncompromising, resilient spirit of nature - and a key to embracing its glorious paradox.

FWC Facts:
Bottlenose dolphins use echolocation to find their prey.

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