Chances are your garden is full of life that you have never seen. Don’t feel bad; there is an excellent reason these animals are difficult to see. Any animal that is easy to find quickly becomes a predator’s next meal.
A mother bird that must find thousands of caterpillars in just a few days to feed her young becomes very good at finding caterpillars. Over the eons, this has made caterpillars equally good at looking like their background, a condition known as crypsis. Insects that come to resemble a decayed section of leaf, a conifer needle, the bark they are resting on, and so forth are more difficult to locate than insects that contrast with their background. Often that’s all it takes to discourage a bird from searching for cryptic insects.
Birds must hunt quickly and efficiently; they must find lots of food to feed their hungry chicks and they must do it as quickly as possible to minimize their own exposure to predators. If a caterpillar looks just like a twig, a bird would have to look closely at every twig to find it. Looking like a twig, then, elevates the cost of searching beyond what the bird can afford both energetically and ecologically.
Fortunately, gardeners can learn to find even the most cryptic species themselves by learning where to look, when to look, and what to look for. The rewards are great from this investment, for cryptic insects are true marvels of evolutionary design.
All images by Doug Tallamy.
Rick Darke is a landscape design consultant, author, lecturer, and photographer based in Pennsylvania who blends art, ecology, and cultural geography in the creation and conservation of livable landscapes. Darke has studied North American plants in their habitats for over three decades, and his research and lectures have taken him to Africa, Australia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Chile, Japan, New Zealand, and northern Europe. His books include The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes, The American Woodland Garden, and In Harmony with Nature. You may also be interested in the author’s own Web site, RickDarke.com.
Doug Tallamy is currently professor and chair of the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware, where he has taught insect taxonomy, behavioral ecology, and other subjects. Chief among his research goals is to better understand the many ways insects interact with plants and how such interactions determine the diversity of animal communities. Doug won the Silver Medal from the Garden Writer’s Association for his book, Bringing Nature Home. You may also be interested in the author’s own Web site, plantanative.com.
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“Two giants of the natural gardening world, Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy, have collaborated on their best work yet.”—The New York Times