Sunday, April 6, 2014

UST GS: The Intelligence of Naturalism: Let’s Take Heed to Nature’s Warning Signals

Dr Abe V Rotor
Living with Nature School on Blog Paaralang Bayan sa Himpapawid (People's School-on-Air) with Ms Melly C Tenorio 738 DZRB AM Band, 8 to 9 evening class Monday to Friday 

1. Animals can predict earthquakeBefore my son, Leo Carlo felt a mild earthquake, he was surprised to see the catfish in our garden pond restless as if attempting to escape. I felt the earthquake at UST and asked him afterward what time exactly did he notice the unusual behavior of the fish. Per our calculation, the time interval was about a minute before the tremor was felt.

Animal behavior is an age-long indicator of a coming force majeure such as earthquake. and typhoon

Can animals predict an earthquake? It is a old knowledge to the Chinese who are among the firm believers in the unusual ability of horses, reptiles, fowls and other animals to perceive the minute tremors preceding a major shock. In explaining the principle of a tectonic earthquake, imagine a stick bent slowly to form an arch. As pressure continues to build up, minute fibers and strands begin to snap (tremors) until the stick suddenly breaks into two (shock). Our senses are not as sensitive as those of animals in perceiving such initial signal.

2. Dragonflies hover before rain
Why do hordes of dragonflies hover overhead just before the coming of rain?

“It’s going to rain this afternoon.” I warned my students whom I accompanied on a field trip. “That is why we have to be back to our camp soon.” They seemed to be looking at an old barrio folk talking rather than a university professor. Disbelief showed on their faces, and I could not blame them.

I had to explain the basis of my prediction later. My hypothesis is that at extreme relative humidity that accompanies warm weather, small insects are disturbed in their natural habitats and feeding. With their sensitive antennae they pick up the signal, which tells them to pack up and leave. Rain is usually preceded with high humidity and air temperature.  This steamy condition progressively builds up into rain, and as the process continues, the ancient gene in these insects begins to work, as it has always been with their ancestors thousands, if not millions of years ago. Thus midges, hoppers, gnats, flies, and other insects flee to safer grounds on the instruction of this gene. It is during this mass evacuation that hordes of low flying dragonflies have their fill, snatching the helpless preys in mid-air.

3. Fruit laden kapok means poor harvest
“When you see plenty of dangling pods of cotton tree or kapok (Ceiba pentandra L), expect poor rice harvest.” I remember old folks saying who believed in this fateful tree. In the barrio such serious topic is hardly discussed as if no one would dare question an act of God.  But is there a scientific basis of this prediction?

Kapok is sensitive to water stress.  It does not have deep penetrating roots.  Instead it has large spreading roots that depend largely on shallow water source. To compensate for lack of water in summer, the tree stores a lot water in its fleshy trunk and branches like how a cactus does while there is supply available.  When the stored water is not sufficient to tide up with the long, hot summer months, a triggering mechanism controlled by hormone stimulates the tree’s physiology.  The plant bears flowers and ultimately fruits and seeds, which actually is universal to any organism facing stress.  This is the key to the perpetuation of the species.  In short, Nature has provided a means with which an organism’s ultimate biological function to reproduce is carried on.  And the more progeny it produces the more is the chance of the species to continue on.    

A proof that stress stimulates reproduction is explained why, by scarring (cutting the bark, staggered and at close intervals with bolo) the trunk of a mango that refuses to bear fruits, the tree suddenly blooms.  This is true with other orchard trees. Pruning follows the same principle. Botanists explain the phenomenon this way.  “Food”, which is otherwise used for vegetative growth will now be diverted to the development of flowers and fruits.  But geneticists have a further explanation.   Again, a gene that controls this balance responds favorably to saving the species – even with the risk that the parent may die.  In many cases this is also true in the animal kingdom, and among protists.

4. When earthworms crawl, flood is coming.
It was early morning at Kenting Park in southern Taiwan.  My student and thesis advisee, Anthony Cheng, and I saw earthworms, bigger than the size of pencil crawling away from their burrows.  He looked up the sky.  “Is it going to rain?” I asked noting the heavy overcast.  “No but we haven’t the monsoon yet.” It was already August.

By the way, earthworms are subterranean, eating on decomposing leaves, and converting them into humus, a very rich soil, called casting.  That is why farmers and gardeners call the earthworm as Nature’s fertilizer factory.  Tons and tons of castings are brought out of their burrows and deposited on the ground in small mounds.

Why do earthworms abandon their burrows before an impending heavy rain or flood?
Earthworms drown when water fill their burrows, so that their recourse is to move out to higher grounds. Nature has equipped them with sensitive hairs around their body connected with a neural system that guides them find rich deposits of organic matter and water. In summer earthworms penetrate deep and wide.  Then in monsoon as ground water rises, they burrow in higher areas, this time to keep away from too much water.  Making use of this evolutionary tool - a kind of Noah’s sixth sense, so to speak - earthworms avoid getting entombed in their very burrows.

Here is a poem I wrote at Kenting Park.


I wonder how you forewarn the coming of flood.
Do you also hear, like Noah, the voice of God?
Make soundings or read a measure for rain?
Ash, but you’re an Annelid, with neither eyes nor brain.

At the heels of the farmer the nest where you lay
Yields humus, product of your laboratory;
You’re a fisherman’s joy while the world’s busy;
Suddenly you jolt us seeing you a refugee.

5. Swarming winged termites
They come by the armies, careless and suicidal, attracted by light and ending in a basin of water.  That is how we catch gamu-gamu, or simut-simut  in Ilocano, which we feed to chicken, or sauté into a rare delicacy.

Where did the swarm come from?  And why only at a specific time of the year?

Termites belong to a very ancient Order of insects, Isoptera, which means “same wings”.  Yet when we examine termites after digging their nest called anthill (punso’), we find them wingless, naked, and small, except their large heads, and mandibles especially in the case of the soldiers. (See photograph) In the royal chamber lies a queen, enormously large, the size of the index finger.  Her job throughout her long life is to lay thousands of eggs everyday and keep the colony intact through a scent she produces called pheromone.

It is the end of summer. After the first heavy rain usually in May, the anthill becomes extraordinarily busy.  Inside, the once sterile males and females – formerly soldiers and workers - awaken to the dictates of hormones.  They develop strong wings, and with their bodies filled up with fats, they are ready for the once-in-a-lifetime adventure - swarming.  The nocturnal swarm soon takes place, and moves as one huge army guided by light – celestial or neon – before it splits into congregans, allowing intermingling with members from other anthills. Now the much-awaited nuptial flight begins. For hours the winged termites circle around lights, very much like the proverbial moth in Rizal’s writings. In the process, individuals, which survive the frenzy and onslaught by predators, find their mates, move together to a potential place, and finding it suitable to start a new colony, soon lose their wings. Here they live together for a very long time.  Termites are the longest living insects, surpassing the life of the 17-year old locust or cicada. 

6. May or June Beetle tells whether the rains came early or late
We call it salagubang, scientifically Leucopholis irrorata, a destructive pest of many field crops.  Its larva, a white grub, which feeds on roots, remains in the ground until the first strong rain comes. Then it comes out as beetle.  If the monsoon is early they come out in May, otherwise they are seen coming out in June.

But this year I have noticed that the emergence of this beetle was as early as in April.  Why is this so?  It is because of the unusual rainfall pattern this year.  Practically there was no summer as you have probably experienced.  It means then that the insect responds to meteorological signals that govern its biological clock.  How this phenomenon works is not well understood, but definitely, it is a product of a long evolutionary process that enabled the species to survive up to this day.

Co-evolution with plants on which it thrives in both larval and adult stages gradually developed through time into a dynamic pattern, that while the host plants are at the receiving end, the insect’s feeding habit and life cycle are attuned to a tolerable level. Thus we usually find the insect in areas where this natural relationship exists. If you find the salagubang, and its relative, the salaguinto, in May, farmers are likely to start plowing their fields soon. Farmers are glad to see the beetle come out in May, or as early as April.  It is because they can plant earlier which allows for a second crop of vegetables or legumes – or another rice crop.   
Nature’s mysterious ways are discreet and take place when all is still and quiet.  But anyone of us who stirs to the nuptial flight of winged termites and ants, to the restlessness of catfish before an impending earthquake, the dangling of numerous pods of kapok which signals the coming of El Nino, earthworms abandoning their underground homes to escape flood, the emergence of “April beetle”,  - is indeed endowed with a special intelligence – naturalism. If however, no bird sings when the spring has come, either we have slept too long, or we have failed to prepare for its coming. ~

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