Nature never gets old, on Martha’s Vineyard or anywhere else

Ants protecting aphids from predators. The aphids have glands that produce a sweet liquid that the ants drink. — Photo by Matt Pelikan

When I was 18 months old, my mother, writing in a scrap book she kept of my development, commented that little Matt “prefers animals to people.” During the subsequent decades, things have only gone downhill. By first grade, I knew the common birds in my neighborhood and spent hours watching our family’s bird feeders. By high school, I was a proficient birder playing hooky to catch the warbler migration, while diversifying to watch butterflies, dragonflies, and wildflowers.

Now, at age 54, observation of nature is so deeply ingrained in my mind that I can’t shut it off. Part of my attention is constantly on the natural world, noting and classifying sights and sounds, screening the stream of stimuli for something unusual or interesting. Where the average person notices just the sound of generic birdsong, for example, or maybe notices nothing at all, a portion of my mind, like a computer program running “in the background,” methodically identifies each note, counts how many individuals are calling, and draws conclusions about where they are and what they’re doing. The world is a very different place for me than it is for most people.

But as I’ve learned to identify more and more wild species, and as I’ve developed my understanding of what they do and why they do it, I’ve noticed something odd. Every single thing I learn raises multiple new questions; the questions multiply faster than the knowledge, and as a result, the impression I have is that my knowledge base is steadily shrinking. Moreover, while my understanding of nature greatly enriches my life, it isn’t what I already know that provides the most enjoyment: it’s investigating what I don’t know, adding (if I’m lucky) some little piece to my understanding of the natural world. As one question leads to others, I can’t resist the thrill of investigating.

A recent example of what I mean occurred the other day as I sat in my office at work. Small objects — seeds? insects? something else? — kept drifting upward from the ground outside. It’s the kind of thing I’m almost physically incapable of ignoring; my mind won’t leave it alone, and so, inevitably, I stepped outside to investigate.

The mystery particles proved to be ants. Winged ants, each about half an inch long, thousands of them, swarmed on the ground, climbed the vegetation, and, in a steady flow, took flight and drifted upward until out of sight. I looked closer. In among the seething swarm of winged ants were smaller ants, lacking wings, reddish and plump where the other ants were black and slender.

Now, there were some pieces of this picture that made sense. I knew, for example, that the males of many ant species have wings, and that mass courtship flights, with winged males competing to mate with a queen, is part of the reproductive behavior of these insects. And I know, likewise, that ant species often exhibit several different forms, which may not resemble each other very closely. And finally, I know that ants sometimes live in close association with other ant species (or with even more distantly related insects), with one species parasitizing, assisting, or enslaving by the other.

But this general knowledge hardly sufficed as an explanation of what I was seeing. I had no idea what species the winged ants were, or whether one or two species were involved. I realized I don’t even know what features are important for ant identification! Why were the two forms interacting? More questions followed: are these swarms seasonal or random in their timing, and is the rule the same for all ants? What are the important features for identifying ants? How many kinds of ants live on the Vineyard, anyway, and what governs where they live and how common they are?

I can see where this is going. Reading and research on ants over the winter. Next year, ant photographs, ants in jars, ants under a microscope, ants followed as they wander, ant colonies partially disassembled, ant parasites noticed, ant food habits observed…. And always, always, more questions than answers.

The point is, as much fun as it is to spot a familiar bird, plant, or insect, it’s much more fun to learn to recognize a new one. The complexity of nature is virtually infinite, and in a half-century of study, I’ve barely scratched the surface as I focused mainly on the most easily observed wildlife. Wherever I look, I find a galaxy of questions, and it is these things that I don’t know that pull me onward like an irresistible aroma. So please forgive me: if I haven’t returned your phone call, it’s because I’m outside somewhere, busy being puzzled.