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Have you ever noticed that everybody seems to place a high value on problem solving? I can well imagine one’s mother saying “This room is way too messy! How are you going to manage your clothes, toys, electronic gadgets (or whatever) so that this does not happen again?” She clearly expects you to come up with a plan and to follow it! Possibly you may come up with some way to organize your treasures in order to keep mum happy.

In school too, problem solving is big with educators. Many people, through the years, have wrestled with math problems such as a train leaves point A traveling at blah blah km per hour and it passes another train traveling at a different speed (also provided). If we know how far apart points A and B are, find out at what point the trains will pass each other. How I hated those problems! But teachers don’t stop there. Now they want you to design a vehicle out of straws (or whatever) that can carry a heavy load of pennies. Never satisfied, teachers later give more complicated problems, like how would you keep a beef broth from going bad.

Many people actually enjoy the challenge of problem solving. It can be great fun to use your wits to come up with a plan that works better than your friend’s device. Hurrah for brains! There is actually no way to avoid problem solving. It is an essential skill. However, have you ever considered how important problem solving is to all living creatures? Every organism is faced with lots of challenges that could prevent them from maturing and leaving offspring for the next generation.

Consider the dandelions which dot my lawn. My objective is to eliminate them. Their objective is to bloom, set seed and produce another generation. There they sit in my lawn. Each rosette of leaves may cover a circle 25 cm or more in diameter. No grass grows under those leaves. So I set forth, determined to pull up each and every rosette. But what is this? Each has a tap root which extends 25 cm or more into the soil. Do I manage to pull up that entire tap root? Hardly ever. Of course the remaining root quickly sends up new leaves and soon there are new rosettes covering the lawn. By now I am too tired of weeding and so the dandelions continue to thrive. Another impressive feature of dandelions is their 100% seed set. They don’t need pollen from another flower to produce seed. This happens even in plants with blossoms which have been pulled up. The flowers turn into seed heads before you know it.

Another feature of dandelions is the way that blossom heads elongate once the seeds are ready. You may not have realized there were so many dandelions in your lawn until you see all those pom pom seed heads stretching way above the grass. In this way the seeds are exposed to the wind which soon distributes those seed into the rest of your garden and into your neighbour’s garden.

The dandelion obviously is a very successful plant when one considers the challenges it faces. Other plants like thistle also display a deep taproot, a wide rosette of leaves and seeds dispersed by the wind. This is just one small example of the amazing  solutions to problems of existence that we see among living creatures. Among plants, we see lots of different solutions for species which live in very dry climates. Often these plants only grow when there is rain. But this means that they have to complete their life cycles really fast while conditions are still moist. Other plants must manage to survive very harsh winters. There are all sorts of interesting ways that they do this. Then there are plants that live in moist tropical climates. Things aren’t perfect there either for the plant. Each one must compete with all sorts of other plants. Thus different problem solving strategies are called for such as growing really fast in locations where light penetrates to the forest floor past the tree canopies above. Other plants like some orchids, simply grow on top of the big plants. They then must collect enough moisture and mineral nutrients from the falling rain.

Animals too face many challenges. Harsh climates are only one of the difficulties that they face. Also they must find food and avoid predators that would like to eat them. Not only do animals need special body plans to enable them to survive, but they also need suitable behaviour patterns as well. Thus we see bats with their amazing wings and echolocation skills for pursuing and catching insects. The body parts would be useless if they did not know how to use them. We see North American beaver that build dams and winter lodges with food stored nearby. We see birds and large four footed animals which migrate amazing distances for rich food and a good breeding place in the summer. These return to home base to survive when conditions at the summer site deteriorate. Monarch butterflies also migrate thousands of kilometers. This is perhaps the most amazing case of migration that we know of. Then there are sea turtles and eels, and other creatures in the ocean that also display amazing talents of migration. These animals all need body plans which allow them to migrate, and the behaviour patterns to know when and how to do so.

The variety of ways in which “problem solving skills” allow animals and plants to survive, is truly astounding. It causes one to stop and think. Did these creatures solve the problems on their own? As we have already discussed, problem solving takes brain power. It seems obvious that the monarch butterfly did not provide itself with an extra fancy navigating system (see Dialogue November 2009 at www.create.ab.ca ) and most unusual behaviour patterns to solve its challenges. Nor did bats or beavers or eels solve theirs by trial and error. These creatures were created with the problem-solving solutions already built into them.

For fun and to exercise your own problem solving skills, why not choose a local animal. Think about how you would solve the problems these creatures face, and then find out if this is how they actually survive. Such an exercise gives us all a lot more respect for the Creator of all creatures great and small!

September 2011

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