23 June 2010

It's all over for the little sycamore, but we won't cry for it

Sometimes the life of an animal or a plant is cut short by an utterly random and ineluctable event. It is as if nature draws a death lottery every now and then and selects the winners, or rather the losers, without any regard whatsoever for their genotype or phenotype. If those that are killed have already reproduced and passed on some of their genes to the next generation, they don't have much to lose; otherwise, the game is over and there is no 2nd chance for them. Too bad, but nobody cries, nobody cares and life goes on. As Richard Dawkins once wrote, "nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent."

Here is an example. While rummaging around in the woods a couple of weeks ago, I saw this long-dead tree on the ground. I had passed by the same spot recently without noticing the dead tree, because it must have been still standing at that time. It probably came down during the windy thunderstorm we had had a few days earlier.

When the dead trunk came down it crushed whatever happened to be under it, including a young sycamore tree that was in its path.

The sycamore still had green leaves on its branches that were now touching the soil. The hapless tree will probably continue to photosynthesize for a while, but eventually, and long before the tree that bowed its trunk turns into soil, it too will become dead wood.

Such capricious acts of nature are outside the realm of natural selection and evolution. This particular sycamore may have great genes that could have given it a long life and many offspring. Alas, it was at the wrong spot at the wrong time.


Fred Schueler said...

but maybe if it has good "sprout-from-trauma" genes, and there's enough light at the site, it may send up shoots, and again reach its present size in 5 years.

Snail said...

'Tis the way of the world!

Trees and very large tree limbs are always dropping here. They open up the canopy, giving other plants a fair go. But what amazes me is the resilience of the saplings that get battered by the falling timber. (They're more imperilled by the brush turkeys.)

Anonymous said...

A sycamore near my residence was brought down by the outlying winds of Hurricane Rita in Houston in 2005. Some branches on the fallen tree rooted, and now the offsets are around eight feet tall. So have patience and take heart: you may see signs of new life from the fallen sycamore pictured here.