The Natural World and its Natural Intelligence
(or Percy the Giant Tortoise)
“Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birdwings.” (Rumi)
David Attenborough knows what it’s about.
And so does my dad.
For as long as I can remember my dad has been a keen gardener. Every successive house my parents have lived in has had a larger garden and been a smaller house – until my mother wonders if one day she will be living in a shed in a forest…I have inherited no such interest or aptitude for gardening, compounded by the fact that I live in a London flat without a garden to speak of. I have always loved the natural world however, my flower is the Gardenia and having access to green spaces is incredibly important to me. My dad has also always maintained that plants are ‘super intelligent’, followed by animals then us lowly humans at the bottom.
(I’m not sure where that leaves vegetarianism however…)
My dad has set up a mini feeding chain for animals in his garden. Every morning the same usual suspects appear. Firstly the crows spot the food and make the call to the others, then followed by the magpies who circle and observe before taking what they need, finally the pigeons who only seem to get the remnants afterwards. All know to take their turn, with a bit of negotiation, and are then followed by grey squirrels and the occasional fox who always send the birds scattering. Very rarely this is sublimated by a young deer or two who have been known to wait diffidently until the others have had their fill, behind the garden fence. Occasionally my dad will catch these events on film and was particularly happy this one morning due to seeing a fox with a new red coat. Unfortunately his tablet was nowhere to be seen, but sometimes seeing with our own eyes is the best, unmediated, experience.
* * * * * * *
There have always been a plethora of programmes about the natural world.
Here are some of my highlights.
Just recently I saw a remarkable example of the unique intelligence of animals. A species of lizard (looking remarkably like a miniature dinosaur that would have been filmed for a 1960s version of Sinbad or some prehistoric adventure) had developed the ability to know which predators to fight – or fake…
The lizard knew that certain snakes in its natural habitat were small enough for it to intimidate and it therefore knew it would live to see another day. However, when encountering one who was unusually large and aggressive it employed a very different tactic.
It knew there was no way it could run from this particular encounter – and no way it could use physical force to manoeuvre its way through either. Once the snake was near enough to sense the lizard’s presence and the opportunity for a welcome meal, the lizard most dramatically faced the snake head on, stood upright on its hind legs…and then spun in the air and collapsed on its back in the most unexpected way…it was not indicating submission and acceptance of its death, this was a most audacious attempt to ensure continued survival. For snakes will not eat creatures who are already dead, unless they have killed the prey themselves…the snake was understandably bemused and waited around for a few seconds to ensure that this possible meal was definitely off the cards. Once it had satisfied itself that this was the case it slithered away leaving the lizard to tentatively open one eye while still in its death stance to check that all was safe, before righting itself and proceeding on its way.
Another example of the peerless intelligence of the natural world. Due to advances in digital photography and our growing understanding of animals, we are now able to see a level of detail and colour that can replicate what we now believe insects see when they look at plants. We only see a particular range in the colour spectrum, from red to violet, but insects can see a shorter range still that encompasses the ultraviolet spectrum. It is hugely different to what we see with our own eyes and guides a range of insects to knowledge of which plants are ready to be consumed and when.
My personal favourite? A sequence with a giant tortoise who was intractable and stubborn and refusing to comply with the demands of the humans around him to move and eat what they felt he should. Too much cajoling would just inevitably lead to him (I think his name was Percy – or else it should have been) retreating into his substantial shell. After some experimentation it had been discovered what Percy’s plant of choice was, but the plant itself had evolved its own unique method of survival…it knew it should only ever flower once it had grown tall enough to avoid the tortoise’s range, once out of his shell. Until then it was a tall and thriving, but leafless plant. And so unfortunately for the tortoise the leaves it craved remained within its sight but just outside of his reach – until human intervention put paid to this.
Some interdependent relationships between species of plants and insect are entirely exclusive however. One extraordinary species of orchid that has both male and female plants, apparently rare in intelligence, can only be pollinated by one specific species of bee which knows which Orchids it must seek out for its survival. Gustavia’s pollen can only be fertilised when this bee buzzes at the exact frequency for the flower to release its pollen. There is only a tiny window of opportunity for this to occur and the pollen grains that are released are themselves far too fine for the human eye to see. The bee gets the exclusive nutrition from this rare pollen and the survival of Gustavia’s pollen is guaranteed. There is a dark side to these relationships, however. The larger, predator plants who are aesthetically some of the most beautiful, attract a range of insects and even larger animals such as mice, but not for any mutually beneficial relationship…the attraction just leads to their inevitable demise…think Venus Flytrap.
Finally a clip I stumbled across, from ‘Sustainable Human’, showing the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park. 4 minutes of magic.
Please just watch this as none of my imperfect descriptions will be able to do it justice:
One last example of intelligent cooperation between the species. Sustenance is rare and hard to come by in the harsh winters of Yellowstone…In one sequence a young bear had been forced off the kill of an Elk by a pack of wolves and was observing them from a distance, enjoying the spoils of the hunt. It then saw a much larger bear aggressively approaching the wolves to claim a piece of the kill. The wolves were much smaller but worked as a pack to preserve their gains and eventually drove this bear away.
The younger bear then made his approach. But used a surprising tactic.
It moved in slowly. And in peace. And as a result the wolf pack allowed him to feast alongside them.
They were all able to feed.
Thanks Mr Attenborough.
And thanks dad.
by Maleeha Jaffery