This photo inspired this post:

Turkey Vultures

Vulture Party - ©ingridtaylar

I uploaded it to Flickr — where one of my favorite Flickr people had this to say:

It bothers me when people call them “ugly” or something like that . . . We have to learn and to accept . . . that all the living things are ok – that they are here to live their lives in their own ways.

Frank should know. He’s President of Reptile Conservation Resources, Inc. ( where the mission is “. . . to promote understanding of the role of reptiles and amphibians in the wild and in captivity.”

So, Frank deals with his share of misconceptions and fears about these animals. And here, he rightfully suggests a different worldview toward creatures that humans, in general, deem “ugly.” (Check out Ecosnake’s Flickr photostream for images and stories of the reptiles they’ve helped.)

Beauty = Form + Function

Beauty is, of course, in the beholder’s eye. I love Turkey Vultures. I’m in awe of their physiology, fine-tuned for their task in life. They can smell PPMs of decaying flesh and root out the environmental carrion that would otherwise fester. Many animal species are so specialized, their ecosystem simply wouldn’t survive without their presence.

One example: the co-evolution of certain orchids and their pollinators. In an interview I did last year with The Orchid Doctor (Dennis Westler), he described one such relationship:

One of the most important things that Darwin realized about the orchids was the co-evolution of flower and pollinating insect, and the pollinator specificity of orchids. In many cases only one species of insect can pollinate a specific orchid. And that flower is often irresistibly alluring to that insect. The famous example was Darwin’s statement — after studying the Madagascan Angraecum sesquipedale — that a moth must exist with a tongue as long as the enormous nectar spur of the flower (up to 18 inches). Entomologists scoffed, but 40 years later the moth was found, just as Darwin predicted.

I’ve never photographed the Madagascan Angraecum, but I did snap a shot of a wild Calypso Orchid closer to home, on Mt. Tamalpais. The Calypso Bulbosa requires certain soil fungi to thrive. And it finds those fungi in soils like those on the floor of a redwood forest. When those forests or the sole pollinators disappear due to habitat degradation or pesticide use or any one of modernity’s assaults, a ripple becomes a wave becomes a flood — of environmental repercussions.

Calypso Orchid

Calypso Bulbosa or Fairy Slipper - ©ingridtaylar

Protect One, Protect All

The same is true when any element of an ecosystem is disrupted. It’s why protecting an endangered species like the salt marsh harvest mouse is a much grander conservation effort than it appears on the surface. The decline in wetlands habitat and pickleweed is a significant factor in this mouse’s endangered status. Pickleweed is their preferred cover. But the implications are broader than the protection of this one mouse. As wetland and upland habitats disappear, all species intertwined in that system stand to suffer. In the case of the Clapper Rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse, they move closer toward extinction.

All of the above is to say that beauty in nature transcends our superficial sense of aesthetic. After all, as my mother used to like to say, we’re basically hairless primates . . . something to keep in mind when marking the scorecard. It’s the deer and the bluebirds and the bobcats who could look at us and wonder what purpose we serve here. This beauty — the beauty of the vulture or the rattlesnake or even the wood rot fungus — denotes seamlessness, form, function, purpose. A banana slug turns decaying plant material into soil humus. An opossum cleans up the pungent mess no one else will touch. A healthy hawk or a snake or a coyote population means a balanced rodent population.

Whether or not you see the beauty in a Turkey Vulture as I do, you cannot deny their perfect adaptation to an ecological niche. And that, to me, is flawlessness. What could be more beautiful?