Monthly Archives: August 2012

A Lesson for Miss Muffet in Mutualism

By Valerie Fieldwebster


If you want to live and thrive, let the spider run alive. – American Quaker saying


Mutualism describes the type of interaction, between organisms, where each party benefits from the existence of the other. A Cedar Waxwing eating the fruit on my Serviceberry tree is benefiting from the tree. The tree is benefiting from the Cedar Waxwing when it flies away and passes undigested seeds with its droppings.


Interactions within our ecosystem are wherever you look. These interactions are the strands that hold our web of life together. In our world every plant, animal and insect and their interactions is essential and no one is more important than the other.


Unfortunately on the day that Miss Muffet met the spider, she did not understand this concept, and so she lost her curds and whey. Sadly, I have seen more fatal outcomes played out for the spider on our world stage.


The spider is a fascinating player in this web. No less and no more than any other player but perhaps under-appreciated.


Spider venom has been used in ancient and modern medicines. It has been used to cure male impotence and it has been discovered that the venom of a Chilean Rose Tarantula has the potential to regulate the electrical signalling of the heart and prevent erratic heartbeats.


The orb spider’s dragline silk, if made as thick as your thumb, could support a fully-loaded jet. And in a bizarre way scientists have been able to genetically alter goats to produce spider silk in their milk.


To the annoyance of many, spiders can be found all over our earth. Of the nearly 40,000 different spider species Canada is home to approximately 1,400. Only 1 of those species can serious harm a person and, statistically, more people are killed by flying champagne corks than spiders!


Our largest and most common spiders are the Fisher and Wolf spiders, and these spiders are not poisonous to people.


My very favourite spider lives in my spice and nut cupboard. A few years ago, I discovered some small brown moths in my cupboards. I cleaned them out, but then I found their larva in my walnuts. I threw out my walnuts, but not much later the moths reappeared and I began to find more larva in different foods.


It became a race between me cleaning my cupboards, throwing away food and moth reproduction. The moths were winning until she appeared! Out of nowhere my sweet little brown spider came to live in my cupboard and she feasted on those little brown moths.


She still lives in my cupboard, protecting me from any unwanted visitors, and I provide her with a safe and warm place to live. Between me and my little brown spider, it is a relationship full of mutualism.


Past articles are available in this blog under the Watershed Notes Articles category or under Past Articles in the Resources section.

Liken the Lichens

By Valerie Fieldwebster


Fifteen thousand years ago after the Wisconsin Glacier receded, this area was left with bald rock. The melt waters from this enormous glacier inundated the area. The scouring action of this tumultuous water carved potholes, drilled tunnels and turned rock to sand and gravel.


It took thousands of years of evolving and revolving at 900 miles per hour for nature’s finely balanced cycles to allow succession to take hold and thousands more to make a visible difference. The naturalising of our landscape reads like a bizarre science fiction. All of our lush and complicated ecosystems began as rock, water, sunlight and some microscopic algae.


As the Glaciers retreated algae began to grow in the frigid water. Through photosynthesis the algae converted the sun’s energy into organic matter. Sadly, the algae had no structure and were therefore limited to living in the water. Then an ancient relationship blossomed, a relationship which provided the foundation for the next step in developing our ecosystem.


A shy, beguiling, limp alga met the fungi, and oh, what a body that fungi had. Each in awe of the other’s capabilities, they became one and called themselves lichen enmeshed in a symbiotic dance. Like the fungi, the lichen could grow on land, and like the algae, the lichen was also able to photosynthesize.


Lichens are a hardy bunch. They can grow in the cold arctic, on the wave-whipped rocks of Georgian Bay, or in a lush Muskoka forest. The lichens grew all over this fair land providing the foundations for the soil which supports us today.


Their foundation work done, lichens are now providing us with another function. They are now our ‘Canary in a coal mine’: Lichens don’t grow where the air is polluted. The Lichens declared Toronto inhabitable years ago.


Our natural ecosystem today is a great web of relationships. The greater diversity of species and the more relationships between species, the stronger and more resilient an ecosystem is. Lichens are just one small but important component of this complex system.



 Past articles are available in this blog under the Watershed Notes Articles category or under Past Articles in the Resources section.