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Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home


Several years ago I tried my hand at bird’s nest building. It wasn’t actually my idea to do this. As mother helper of the day, it was my job to assist the kindergarten class in their various projects. One of these was the nest building. We were provided with grass, feathers, wet mud and so one. What we didn’t have was know-how. One person held grass in a rough circle while another tried to daub on wet mud. What a mess we made! One thing we did learn was a profound respect for birds. How do they manage with only beaks, feet and wings? The birds obviously know what they are doing. Who told the birds how, what, where and when to build their nests? This is a very good question.

Recently I read a book about animals that build structures for various purposes. Some build for protection (from predators or extreme weather), for food catching, or simply to raise their young. In every case these homes are made exactly right for that animal’s special requirements. I know I wouldn’t be able to duplicate any of these homes. Not only do I not have the appropriate tools to carry out the work, but I also lack the blueprints for these jobs.

Consider the case of the prairie dog. Its home consists of underground burrows that may extend long distances. The entrance to the home is a cone shaped mound of mud with a hole in the centre. The cone prevents floods from cascading down into the tunnel should there be a sudden downpour. Inside the soil, the main tunnel descends stright down for almost four metres. Just below the surface however is a little spy chamber where the home owner can sit, hidden to listen for suspicious noises such as from predators in the outside world. When all seems safe, the animl cautiously peeks out of its burrow. At the bottom of the long descent, the tunnel turns sideways for thirty or more feet to bedroom and bathroom chambers. Rather than a quick free fall, the animal slows his descent by bracing his four feet against the wall of the tunnel.

Besides prairie dogs, quite a number of mammals dig special quarters for themselves. We once had rabbits and they were incredible diggers. We all know too about black bears and grizzly bears, pocket gophers, and badgers besides moles, voles and many other organisms. Compared to beaver dams and lodges however, the tunnels and chambers appear low tech. Many other organisms with much less brain power, in fact, build much more sophisticated (fancy) structures. Social insects such as honey bees and bald-faced hornets, for example, not only construct amazingly precise homes, but they even manipulate natural products to make special building materials. Never that popular, the hornets process wood fibres into paper homes which do not collapse or tear. Honeybees, on the other hand, not only manufacture wax from honey (itself derived from plant nectar) but they also collect and process wood fibres into a varnishlike substance. Apparently the very special waterproofing and binding properties of this material “cannot be matched in the laboratory because the honeybees alone possess the necessary additive.” (Wanda Shipman. Animal Architects. Stackpole Books p. 4) Without this varnish, the bee’s nest would be easily damaged by water or penetrated by parasites. Indeed the precision, cooperation and good housekeeping talents of these insects are unequaled by human societies.

One of my favourite animal architects is the spider. Did you know that these talented individuals are always the females? A news item on spider silk the other day reminded me about these extremely talented creatures. According to a Financial Post report (September 18, 2000) a Canadian company called Nexia Biotechnologies Inc. succeeded last year in producing (by means of gene transfer) two strains of goat which produce spider silk in their milk. Of course the company did not have the welfare of baby goats in mind when they inserted a spider’s gene into the nanny goats. The fact is that the U. S. Department of Defence has, for more than thirty years, been trying to produce large quantities of spider silk to use in the manufacture of bullet proof vests, parachutes, bridge cables, artificial tendons and other objects that require extremely strong, stretchy but lightweight material. Spider sik is the best material there is, only we don’t know how to make it. The news article ended with the remark that Nexia hopes to figure out a way to process the liquid silk into a commodity. Some observers might say “Dream on!” to this hope. It is what the spider does with these proteins that makes the silk so special. Indeed an article in Equinox (March/April 1996 p. 53) discussed this exact issue. Author Garry Hamilton quoted the colourful remarks of scientist John Gosline from University of British Columbia: “One of the big problems is how to take this protein, which you can isolate as a glob of snotlike material, and turn it into a fibre that has all the properties you want. Nature knows how to do this. We don’t.” Chalk up 100% success to spiders and zero, so far, to human technologists.

The book I was reading failed to mention it, but some single cell organisms are among the most amazing architects of all. Some golden algae called diatoms, for example, form incredibly complicated and dainty walls of glass. However there are also some single cell animals with amazing talents. Some amoebas (single cells that ooze along, changing shape constantly) manufacture urn shaped houses for themselves by collecting individual grains of sand. Others called forams, extract chalk (calcium carbonate) from seawater, depositing it as a spiral shaped shell. Nor have we even considered the clams and snails, which build amazingly beautiful shells for protection. These creatures are famous for their lack of brain power, yet they build wonderful homes.

It is evident that not one of these animals begins his/her building program by reflecting on problem solving strategies.. All that has been achieved for them. They simply follow the blueprints with which they have been programmed. It makes nature study all the more interesting to realize who is the Master Programmer or Designer. It is the Creator who holds the patent on all these organisms.

Next time however that the kindergarten class needs a helper, I’m busy. I’m sure it’s your turn soon. If you are called upon, do remember to share your insights with us.

October 2000

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