Nature

Nature’s Networks

Synopsis

It is considered an essential aspect of life, deemed immensely valuable and worthy of the utmost protection by scientists – but what does the term “biodiversity” really mean? And why is it necessary?

‘Nature’s Networks’ presents compelling, unusual insights into the natural world, from Borneo to Brazil and from Tasmania and Kenya to the fjords of Norway. The various inhabitants of these varied habitats may appear significantly different, but they all share at least one feature. From hummingbirds to orang-utans, every species has a clearly defined role in nature’s complex network, a network built on a foundation of variety – or, more accurately, biodiversity.

The orang-utan jungles of Borneo are dark, shady places. Every level of the forest is inhabited by specialist plant and animal species perfectly adapted to their surroundings. The wealth of leaves and vegetation catches the sunlight, preventing much of it from reaching the undergrowth. This can be advantageous for both hunters and prey, allowing them to remain hidden. However, those who require light to survive have to ensure they secure a place higher up in the trees. A rustling in the treetops announces the presence of an orangutan mother with her young offspring. The young male will spend several years in its mother’s company, learning how to navigate far above solid ground. She will teach the young orang-utan to survive in this complex ecosystem and to find its place in the jungle network – as orang-utan mothers have done for thousands of years. And yet: this is no longer the jungle of the past. In recent decades these forests, among the most diverse in the world, have been subjected to such rapid, destructive change that their inhabitants have been unable to adapt. Every day, human actions on Borneo are destroying the island’s valuable biodiversity.

In Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, another mother is attempting to ensure her offspring’s survival. The cheetah has three hungry cubs to feed. Cheetahs are the world’s fastest land mammal, and the mother is a skilled hunter. Despite these strengths, the survival of the species is by no means guaranteed. Cheetahs very nearly became extinct between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago. Since then, all the descendants of the few animals that survived share the same fate: a lack of genetic diversity. This makes these apparently strong, powerful creatures particularly susceptible to diseases. The difficulties the cheetahs face are compounded by human encroachment on their habitats. The combination of these factors could cause the extinction of the cheetahs in the foreseeable future.

It is raining in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest – practically an everyday occurrence here. Located close to the equator, the changing of the seasons is largely imperceptible here. The climate remains essentially unchanged, as does the weather, the amount of precipitation, and the length of the days and nights. This may suggest a boring, uniform natural environment, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Atlantic Forest is considered one of the planet’s biodiversity hotspots, home to an incredible range of flora and fauna species that are found only here. This spectacular variety is a direct result of the stable, unchanging environmental conditions.

No species in the rainforest stands alone. Each lifeform is part of a complex network. The large amounts of rain make it difficult for flying insects like butterflies to spread sufficient pollen throughout the forest. Nature has provided necessary support in the form of hummingbirds, largely immune to the effects of raindrops. The small birds use their comparatively long beaks to collect nectar from deep, narrow tubular flowers. Many of these plants are dependent on the hummingbirds for their continued existence. This is just one example of the complex natural systems that have developed within the rainforest throughout the ages. The ancient network appears both remarkably dense and incredibly resilient, consisting as it does of millions of species. Sadly, the destruction of the Brazilian rainforests is moving so fast that nature is unable to recover or adapt as we humans cut down the trees and clear the land.

The destruction now seems unstoppable – despite the fact that we are dependent on the air produced by the world’s forests for our own existence. The vast forests of Borneo, Brazil and other regions help to stabilise the planet’s climate. They also contain a range of natural ingredients that can help to prevent a number of diseases.

For a long time, scientists considered each species as a separate entity, ignoring the complex networks the species was an integral part of. The importance of the relationships between the different plants and animals in maintaining life on Earth is only now becoming clear – as we learn more and more about the fragile, endangered and wide-ranging ties that bind all lifeforms together to create ‘Nature’s Networks’.