by Whit Gibbons

October 6, 2013

How long has recycling been in vogue? At least since Coors championed the idea of putting beer in recyclable aluminum cans more than half a century ago. Yet a quarter century ago most U.S. communities still had neither curbside recycling nor properly used recycling bins at schools and county sites. On the other hand, Mother Nature's worldwide recycling program has been around forever - it occurs each time an animal eats.

Lower trophic level links in the natural recycling process are benign and do not make people who are watching uncomfortable. An antelope grazing or a squirrel eating acorns does not stir much emotion. Some higher trophic level steps on the other hand elicit strong feelings. A leopard stalking, catching, and eating an impala or a rattler envenomating a rabbit can bring forth revulsion, disgust, or pity from some human observers. But that's life--and death. When humans get involved in the natural recycling process, the results can be unexpected, with consequences far different from what was intended, and sometimes with a dramatic twist. The following two instances are especially memorable.

One natural recycling event occurred at my wife's school when a kindergarten teacher encouraged students to bring in animals and plants for educational purposes. One student brought in a cocoon wrapped in a hickory leaf. What an excellent learning opportunity. Leave the cocoon on the twig it is hanging from, put it in the front of the room, and have students check its development each day or so. Nothing happens for a long time. Then, finally, a student notices that something is emerging.

In late spring the students got to meet the cocoon's resident, a luna moth, one of our most beautiful insects. Magnificent does not overstate their appearance. Pale green, with a purple splash on the front wings and a spot that looks like an eye on each back wing. The trailing extensions on the rear wings are longer than those of swallowtail butterflies.

Recycling time. After putting the luna moth in a large jar, the students went to lunch. When they returned it was time for the great event: releasing the moth into its home in the natural world. They even invited the other kindergarten class to come watch it fly away. The teacher tilted the jar and the luna moth launched itself. A big sigh went up from the two classes as the graceful moth rose into the blue sky. But the intake of breath a moment later was even louder as the students watched a blue jay swoop from nowhere and turn the moth into part of nature's recycling scheme. Perhaps the educational lesson was that luna moths fly at night to avoid birds.

Another recycling event was the result of an act of salvation. Steve Bennett, who at the time was with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, was returning from a trip and saw a small red-and-black snake on the highway. Recognizing it as a mud snake, one of the most beautiful and uncommon of southern snakes, Steve stopped and picked it up to prevent it from becoming roadkill. Finding a mud snake is so unlikely that the event is always a special occasion for a biologist.

Mud snakes live in swamps and other wetlands. Steve saw no water on either side of the road, so he carried the snake with him and drove until he came to a stream. Standing on the bridge, he pitched the little snake into the middle of the clear water. It had hardly touched the surface when Steve saw the snake disappear into the enormous mouth of a largemouth bass, the operator of a natural recycling bin disguised as a stream.

Don't feel bad for the moth and the snake. In each case another animal benefited from the recycling program, and worse things could have happened to them--such as being sprayed with pesticide, getting hit by a car, or having their native habitat destroyed. None of which can be deemed natural.

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