The perils of predictability

Order is a standard part of nature, from the mathematical patterns found in natural structures to the predictable variation in sunrise times at different times of year. Indeed, animals and plants rely on regular, logical ordering of events.  For example, in my work on pollinator ecology bees rely on seasonal patterns in flower blooming as a food source. But this regularity is a double-edged sword: just as a bee can exploit regularity in flowering times, so can birds exploit the regularity in bee occurrence. A shared synchrony of life cycles brings costs and benefits. And this is where we bring in the Greek sea-god Proteus (pictured right). Proteus was a god who was able to change his form to avoid having to tell the future, and he has given his name to “protean” phenomena – those phenomena that are changeable or unpredictable. We can see a potential benefit in the plants altering their timing of flowering (of exhibiting protean flowering patterns) – if they remain predictable then the bees on which they rely for pollination are also predictable, which means that they are easy to exploit as food for birds. However, unpredictable flowering times might result in flowers occurring when there are no pollinators, which would be bad for both groups. Synchrony in the seasonality of flowers, insects, and birds is a complex association between populations (or even communities) of animals, and this makes evolutionary change slow.Read More »

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