Wild Ideas: A matter of perspective

Animal, plant or fungus? At left is the larva of the butternut woolyworm sawfly, and at right the fruit of the white worm coral mushroom. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Animal, plant or fungus? At left is the larva of the butternut woolyworm sawfly, and at right the fruit of the white worm coral mushroom.

As first a photography student, then photojournalist and photography instructor at a small college, I learned that finding the right perspective is one of the most important things in capturing the essence of a subject in a photo. Shifting perspective is also one of the most useful tools in figuring out nature and has made learning and writing about nature a rich, satisfying and endlessly surprising experience for me.

One of the things I love about the highly entertaining comedy film “Men in Black” is that, at heart, it also deals with shifting perspective in viewing the cosmos. The heroes in the film are out to save the galaxy — while fighting off an alien insect that is out to destroy the galaxy and is big enough to swallow them — only to find that the galaxy in question is so small it fits on a cat’s collar.

On a more profound level, chemist James Lovelock, with help from microbiologist Lynn Margulis, shifted views of our own planet in their “Gaia hypothesis,” named for the Greek goddess of Earth. Lawrence E. Joseph neatly summarized their hypothesis in Slate Magazine in 2000:

“The hypothesis states that the global ecosystem sustains and regulates itself like a biological organism rather than an inanimate entity run by the automatic and accidental processes of geology, as traditional earth science holds. In essence, Lovelock’s hypothesis sees the surface of the Earth as more like a living body than a rock or a machine.”

Going from the macro to not quite micro in exploring the complexity of natural systems, biologists Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson also helped shift our perspective on social insects. The authors explained the phenomenon of social-insect colonies that, together, function as a single organism, or “superorganism,” in their book “The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies.” (And we humans think we came up with the notion of crowdsourcing.)

Although we as a species have worked very hard to categorize all the organisms on this planet, eager to find a taxonomic box for each one, species continue to defy such efforts. An entire group of organisms, lichen, are a good example. These “composite, symbiotic organisms,” as the website “Lichen Biology and the Environment” describes them, come from “as many as three taxonomic kingdoms”: fungi, algae (Protista) and cyanobacteria (Monera).

In trying to understand nature, I find small truths revealed every time I shift my perspective, relax my preconceptions, and really look at what is in front of me with an open mind. Getting on the ground to capture a bug’s-eye view of the world or watching the hunting behavior of some bird species can lead to understanding more about them and natural systems. Such shifts in view also invariably lead to many more questions.

With the white fuzz removed, the larvae of the butternut woolyworm sawfly is revealed.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
With the white fuzz removed, the larvae of the butternut woolyworm sawfly is revealed.

We don’t have to go far to stumble onto a mystery or challenge in nature. On a recent walk in the forest above my yard, I found a butternut (white walnut, or Juglans cinerea) sapling with the underside of some of its leaves looking ragged and covered in tiny bits of something white and fluffy. Whether the bits of white stuff was responsible for the leaf damage was unclear, as the white bits were not moving. I wasn’t sure even which kingdom they belonged to. They resembled the fuzz of a baby bird, or that is attached to some plant seeds (like that of milkweed) that have evolved to be dispersed to other areas by the wind. Or was this some kind of fungus?

In searching on the Internet, I found that folks at the Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History (a nonprofit education and research organization based in York, South Carolina) had also gone a-Googling in trying to identify the same organism. In writing about what they found, they echoed my love of nature’s complexities:

“One of the great things about nature is that it is so full of surprises. No matter how long you’ve studied natural history, no matter how many times you’ve visited a particular wildlife locale, there’s always something new to see or learn. . . . Usually, we have some idea of what a new discovery might be, but this week we came across something unique and exciting that had us stumped.”

Identifying the fluffy bits was easier in the Center’s case: theirs moved on its own, which at least ruled out a fungus or plant seed. After careful examination, the people at the Center determined that each bit of fluff had six legs under it. With a magnifying glass, I reexamined the fluffy bits I found and could barely make out legs. Then, as suggested by the Center, I rubbed off the white stuff, finding grayish-green larvae underneath. While they looked like caterpillars, they were actually the larva of a butternut woolyworm sawfly (Eriocampa juglandis), as the people at the Center had discovered. Their examination, as well as mine, required ruling out other species and shifting perspective to find what was under the fluff.

Resembling an aerial photo of a forested mountain range, this landscape is actually moss on rocks at the Rock Mills swimming hole.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Resembling an aerial photo of a forested mountain range, this landscape is actually moss on rocks at the Rock Mills swimming hole.

The woolyworm reminded me of another mysterious white organism I’d found growing in the lawn recently. It had, like the woolyworm, white tendrils, but these were longer (two to three inches) and waxier, looking more like worms than fluff. Thinking this was likely some kind of fungus, I again went a-Googling, putting in “white worm fungus.” In the results that turned up was a Wikimedia entry for Clavaria fragilis, a mushroom more commonly known as white worm coral, fairy fingers or white spindles. Mushrooms in this genus, but orange in color, were also growing down by the ponds.

Sometimes it’s the scale of something in nature that shifts my perspective and sends my mind going walkabout. On a visit to the Rock Mills swimming hole one summer day, I was admiring the lovely green moss growing on the big boulders there. In getting down on the ground to take some photos of this miniature landscape, my mind went to aerial photos of early forest succession in mountain ranges.

It’s all a matter of perspective.

© 2015 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 332 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”