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The importance of friendships

Eastern Phoebes often perch on the backs of deer, eating the ticks and insects found in the deer’s fur.

As I write this, it’s Valentine’s Day; a day to celebrate relationships. While traditionally, romantic relationships are celebrated on this day, recent trends, like Galentine’s Day, have encouraged the celebration of friendships.

There are many types of relationships in the natural world that serve all sorts of purposes, just like in the human world. Today I would like to honor the friendships found in nature, mutually beneficial relationships in which plants, animals, and other organisms work together and support each other for communal benefit.

The friendship that we are probably the most familiar with is the relationship between flowers and pollinators. Many flowers attract insects like butterflies, bees, moths, wasps, and flies, as well as birds like hummingbirds. These critters are attracted by the sweet nectar the flower produces. As the animal collects the nectar, they are covered in pollen that is brought to the next plant the animal visits. It’s a relationship that works well for both sides: the pollinators get their food, and the plants have easy transportation for their pollen.

Another food-based friendship is between White-tailed Deer and Eastern Phoebes. The little birds have formed a close relationship with the larger deer to get food. Researchers in Mississippi have found that phoebes will perch on the backs of deer and forage food, mostly ticks and insects in the deer’s fur. In return, the deer’s fur is cleaned of various pests that were living there.

Ants and aphids also share a similar relationship. There are species of ants and aphids that work together in finding food. The aphids will stick to a plant stem, sucking the sap from the plant. As they eat, they excrete a sugar-rich substance called honeydew, which is food for the ants. The ants provide protection for the aphids as they eat and make honeydew, and once the aphids deplete the sap in one plant, the ants will carry the aphids to a new plant. Sometimes, the ants will even bring the aphid eggs to their nest to over-winter, ensuring the aphids will survive for the next year.

Ants harvest the honeydew from aphids, a relationship that helps both insects.

There are also the non-animal-based relationships. Many plants, such as beech trees, benefit from a fungus friend. Fungi will wrap around and penetrate the roots of the plant. The fungus gets food and sugar from the plants, and in return, gives the plants nutrients like nitrogen from the soil that the plant cannot normally access itself. Some of these fungi can also deter small animals that may be trying to chew on the plant’s roots.

Like the rest of the natural world, humans also benefit from symbiotic relationships. Think of our two most common pets, cats and dogs. While many pets are spoiled, loved, members of our families, historically they served a much more practical purpose, which is less common in modern life. Dogs were a significant form of protection, warning of and warding off animals or other intruders. Cats helped control pests like mice that could damage crops and stored food.

Humans also have a much more intimate relationship with other organisms that call our bodies home. Our stomachs are host to a community of bacteria that need us to survive, and we need them. They are evolved to live in the environment of the human stomach, and we provide them with a safe home. In return, they help us digest food that we would not be able to digest otherwise, giving us access to valuable nutrients. We work together to help each other survive, and without the other, we would be in trouble.

Relationships like these are the ones the world is built on. Plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria all work together to support themselves and the entire natural world. These relationships bridge the gaps between species, reminding us that we are not here for ourselves but to support the living world. So, say a little thanks to the bacteria in your stomach, and appreciate everything we do for each other.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails and outdoor facilities are open from dawn to dusk. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.

A bee’s legs are covered in pollen after collecting nectar from a flower.

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