Learning from Biology: Form/ Process/ System

Kayakers on the Schuylkill with the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the background

The Schuylkill river is ten blocks from my urban apartment.  It is nature in the middle of the city and a thriving habitat for every type of organism.  The Schuylkill River Walk is a paved path that runs alongside the river for 1.2 miles as the river runs through the heart of Philadelphia.

Despite its urban location, the river supports diverse wildlife and plant life. If we look at a list of biological functions, we can find numerous organisms that accomplish those functions in this environment.

WATER PURIFICATION/ CLEANING. River. The built-in tidal SYSTEM of the water in the river assists with water purification in the Schuylkill. Plants includes reeds, water hyacinth, iris and duckweed filter and clean water through their roots using a PROCESS called phytoremediation.  Marsh plants absorb contaminants through their roots and store them in the root biomass, stems or leaves. Algae in particular removes nitrate, phosphate, nitrite, ammonia and ammonium from the water. The long, spiky FORM of Grass assists in filtration and cleaning of rainwater as well.

ABSORBING. The particular FORMS of Grass, Trees, & Plant Life provide nooks and crannies that absorb rainwater that prevents excess water from overwhelming the river.

TRANSPORTATION OF MATERIALS.  The FORM of the river, using a SYSTEMATIC PROCESS, quite literally transports materials, from a macro scale of moving boats, people, driftwood to a micro scale of moving tiny organisms and chemicals great distances.  Humans are another very effective and very literal example of an organism who performs this function very well, for better or worse.

PROTECTION FROM BIOTIC FACTORS. Both the river and the trees that grow along it are excellent examples of protection from biota.  They do this in multiple ways.  The FORM of the trees and water provides protection for many animals from their predators.  River Otters are an animal that can occasionally be found in the Schuylkill river.  When in the water, there are very few predators that can catch a river otter.  The shell on a turtle is its protection from predators, especially considering its slow movements. The grass does this as well by providing shade and cover for smaller bugs and animals.

COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS. The Schuylkill River Walk’s most obvious communicating organisms are the humans.  Using many SYSTEMS, humans excel at sending and giving information, both verbally, physically and technologically. Another good example would be  geese, who can be found along the river walk as they migrate north or south, depending on the time of year.  Their SYSTEM of communication includes numerous types of migration calls and flying formations.

FEEDBACK SYSTEMS. The Schuylkill river itself is a feedback SYSTEM.  Natural water cycles consist of rain flowing into the ground, surface runoff flowing into the river, water evaporation into the air, turning into condensation, which becomes rainwater.  Rivers are an essential part of this process. At the most simplistic level, the oxygen-carbon dioxide feedback system between humans and trees is arguably the most important feedback system there is.  Humans and their buildings give off carbon dioxide. Through photosynthesis, trees and plants convert that carbon dioxide into oxygen.

PROTECTION FROM ABIOTIC FACTORS.  Turtles have the perfect protection from abiotic as well as biotic factors.  The FORMAL properties, which include shape. material, and color protect turtles from any harmful external factors.  Trees offer limited protection from abiotic factors for humans and their pets, and more extensive protection for smaller animals, like birds.

PACKAGING. Dandelions may be a pesky weed, but are excellent examples of efficient packaging with a specific goal of reproduction. Their essential FORM consists of seeds that easily scatter in any strong wind. Turtle shells are another example of efficient packaging with a very specific goal: physical and literal protection from external elements.


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