LEAD TO ECOLOGICAL QUESTIONS
can become an amateur ecologist, and I encourage more people to give
it a try. All you have to do is be interested in observing nature and
the outdoor world of plants and animals, even if youre just in
your backyard or local park. In the simplest terms, observe with a question.
Color is a good starting point. When you see a plant or animal, ask
yourself, why is it one particular color instead of another? The color
of a birds plumage, a flowers petals, a mammals fur
can give clues to its habitat, behavior, and general ecology.
with green chlorophyll or trees with brown dead leaves or limbs may
not be particularly intriguing. But more striking colors of obvious
significance to the existence of a plant or animal set the stage for
environmental mystery. Even not-so-colorful animals can prompt the curious
to wonder why they sport a particular pattern of stripes or spots. Ecologists
themselves do not always agree on the answers.
for some color patterns may be apparent. For example, many male birds
develop bright plumage in the winter and spring. During the period of
courtship, males use their enhanced colors to attract and impress females.
Males of some species use their breeding colors to threaten or intimidate
other males. The ready distinction between males and females assures
that courtship efforts or acts of aggression are not expended on the
question can be asked about color in most mammals, which is, where is
the color? Most mammals are some shade of black, brown, or white. Birds,
butterflies, and lizards come in an endless array of yellows, reds,
and blues. But except for a few primates, mammals seem to be stuck with
varying shades of dull. Is one reason mammals have few displays of bright
color because most of them are color-blind? If so, the common function
of color to attract or dispel others of the same species would serve
often ponder black-and-white color patterns in mammals. Some have special
traits that make the reason for their coloration obvious. Prime examples
in North America are the skunks. The black-and-white contrast is not
for protective camouflage but as a warning signal to other species.
Even a color-blind bobcat quickly learns not to tangle with what might
look like an easy meal. The black-and-white coloring among penguins
in Antarctica, where they have no land predators they need to hide from,
requires a different explanation. Penguins do dive for fish in dark
waters where marine predators lurk. The birds black back and lighter
front offer countershading that help it be inconspicuous when observed
from above or below while swimming.
color patterns are less easy to explain, and ecologists often do not
agree on what the correct explanation is. For example, at least 14 different
hypotheses have been proposed for a zebras stripes. One suggestion
is that the striped pattern creates moving vertical lines that make
it difficult for a predator, such as a lion, to focus on. Thus the herd
can sometimes escape before an individual can be singled out for capture
by a confused cat. Which of a dozen other explanations has the most
validity is a matter for debate. You may even be able to think of an
explanation for black-and-white striped zebras that has not yet been
world is full of color displays. The explanations may not be obvious,
but natural selection in the past has resulted in the colors we see.
For whatever reason, the ancestors of the species were successful.
you see a moth with pink wings, a brown chipmunk with white stripes,
or a trumpet vine with orange flowers, ask yourself why it sports these
colors and patterns rather than another. You can enjoy the guessing
game without consulting a book or searching the Internet. Or you can
make your own guesses and then find out what explanations have already
you have an environmental question or comment, email