January 26, 2015: Dinner On Planet Earth

~by Virginia Rhys Anson, OFS

The sun’s rays sparkled on the river’s surface.  Dragonfly zigged and zagged over the water toward an hibiscus flower, its reflection keeping pace as it floated on the river’s surface.  Dragonfly rested on the flower where it sucked the plant’s nectar.  Once finished, it zig zagged over the water again, occasionally playing tag with its refection.  It eventually hovered near a boulder on the bank.

Frog sat sunning itself on the boulder.  As Dragonfly hovered closer to an hibiscus growing nearby, Frog’s eyes followed its movement.  In an instant, Dragonfly disappeared as Frog’s tongue darted out and snatched it just shy of the flower’s petal.  Frog continued a croaking duet with a neighboring frog.

A short distance from the boulder, Bull Snake crept through the grass, flicking its tongue for the scent of food.  Snake inched forward, continuing to flick its tongue as it ascended the boulder.  It lunged forward and Frog disappeared–mid croak–first head, then body, then feet into Snake’s mouth.

Hawk, who had continued to circle high above, swooped toward the ground, momentarily hidden behind the trees.  She returned skyward with Snake dangling in her talons.

Thus ends dinner in the forest, with one animal becoming a meal for another animal—the food chain complete.  However, our dinner guests weren’t just filling their stomachs.  They were transferring energy from one animal to another.

All of creation as it was, is, and will be, is sustained by the Holy Spirit. In this natural realm–in which all flora and fauna exist–all of the energy on Earth comes from the sun.  This energy flows through the green plants that many animal species eat.  Some of these herbivores are food for carnivores.  The energy from the sun flows through nature to plants, then to the plant-eating animals, then to the meat-eating animals.  This energy is returned to the earth when an animal goes to the bathroom or when plants and animals die and their leaves and bodies decay.  If left on its own, nature recycles the energy and chemicals that allow our planet to continue to exist.  And it uses fairly small amounts of energy and chemicals to support the earth.

This is the secret of the food chain.  The food chain takes energy from the lowest member of the chain—the hibiscus—and passes it to the highest—Hawk—and back to the soil.  The hibiscus bulb got nutrients from the soil and energy from the light of the sun.  This produced food for Dragonfly as it fed on the hibiscus.  When Dragonfly became a meal for Frog, the energy from the sun moved from Dragonfly to Frog.  Frog was then eaten by Snake, which passed the sun’s energy to Snake.  Finally, Hawk, the highest member of this particular food chain, received the sun’s energy by eating Snake.  The sun’s energy moved from the hibiscus up to Hawk.  Each member of the food chain depended upon other members for both food and energy.

Now Hawk, being on top of this food chain, just flies around, occasionally swooping to catch a snake or a mouse, and then back up to the sky she goes.  Hawk really doesn’t help the chain, does she?  Think again.  When the hawk poops, the nutrients from her feces return to the soil and nourish the plants and trees.  Actually, the waste products from any member of the food chain can return nutrients to the soil.  Also, the chemicals given off by the decomposing, or rotting, bodies of dead plants and animals enrich the soil.  Microscopic organisms, such as bacteria and molds, break down these waste products or dead bodies and convert them into simpler chemicals.  These chemicals then return to the soil where they are used as food once again.

There is a balancing act in nature, and by natural order, the food chain is one way that nature maintains this balance in the environment.  Plants receive water and nutrients from the Earth and energy from the sun.  As we have seen, animals, in turn, get nourishment from these plants or other animals.

But doesn’t it seem cruel for poor Frog to be eaten by Snake? Certainly it wasn’t the Creators’ plan, but the fall of humankind came with consequences for all of creation.Frog is an important part of its food chain.  In the natural world, food chains are used because animals need food and because Earth doesn’t have an infinite supply of food.  So, most animals have natural predators that hunt them for food.  This keeps them in check.  Field mice, for example, usually have six litters per year.  And each litter typically consists of six to eleven young.  If there weren’t snakes or owls or other animals that eat mice, we would soon be walking on mice instead of grass.  Well, not quite.  But there would be a lot of mice. God created each creature to be exactly and directly what it is. In as much, animals such as hawks and owls inadvertently work to keep the mouse population down.

The populations of certain animals are, likewise,limited by their food supplies.  Jack rabbits and ground squirrels can have tons of babies–like the field mice.  But nature restricts their populations by providing only enough food for them to produce a limited number of young.  Even those species that are highest on their food chains, like Hawk, cannot reproduce willy nilly.  Nature has devised tactics for limiting their populations, usually by limiting the number of young they bear and, at times, their food supplies.

There are also places on Earth where food can become scarce.  In these areas, animals travel in nomadic herds in search of food.  This ensures that they have enough food.  In the days when the Great Plains were still open and free, bison and pronghorn grazed on prairie grasses, but moved from one area to another when the grass started to get low.  Nature kept the bison herds to manageable sizes by giving them a natural predator, the wolf.  Wolves fed on the weak and young members of the herds.

Every animal can become the prey of another animal or of human beings.  However, no species of animal is entirely vulnerable.  Both predator and prey come with their own forms of protection.  Some animals have speed so as to out distance a predator, while others have natural camouflage that makes them harder to detect.  The walking stick is an insect that looks like the twig of a tree and can hide easily.  The chameleon changes color to blend in with its background.  While camouflage protects an animal from being eaten, it may also allow it to hide from an animal or insect that is lower on the food chain–its dinner.  There are also animals that need no camouflage to protect them since they are high on the food chain and have no natural predators—lions, sharks, human beings.  However, they do need to hide until it is time to pounce on their prey.

Food chains—nature’s strategy for population-survival balance.  With the Creator, nothing happens by accident or coincidence.  All of creation is on a journey, each entity traveling its own particular path, guided by divine providence. God cares for all and sustains all, from the least to the greatest.Hibiscus to Dragonfly to Frog to Snake to Hawk and back to Earth.  Food chains, if left undisturbed, balances populations of the various species within a given ecosystem.  Next month, we’ll peruse the world of ecosystems.

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Virginia Anson grew up in the shadows of Sandia Crest in New Mexico. Family camping trips may have sparked her passion for nature. She holds an A.S. in Electronics Technology, a B.A. in Writing, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and a certificate in Wildlife/Forestry Conservation. Her book, Mother Earth’s Caretakers, targets middle school youngsters and is published as an e-book for Kindle. Virginia is a Vietnam Era veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and her volunteer endeavors see her as a lector, Eucharistic minister, and sacristan in her parish and as a habitat steward for the National Wildlife Federation. She especially cherishes her life in the Secular Franciscan Order, following in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi.

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