Ecology is the branch of biology that studies the interactions of organisms with each other and their environment. The animals and plants around you are living in relationship with each other and the environment, including yourself. Around your home you may have considerable control over the environment – moisture, nutrients, lawn-mowing, week control, pest removal – and thus you are probably the most important ecological factor in determining the diversity of life in that environment. But take a walk in the woods or a grassy field and you will witness a far more complex world. The organisms there are involved in an intricate pattern of interactions that would take a lifetime to fully explore and understand.
An appreciation of the complexity of ecological relationships and variables is best discovered by repeated observations of the same place over time. As a simple example, I frequently visit several nature parks near my home usually with a couple of kids in tow. The place we most frequently visit is a small Summit County park called the Springfield Bog Metro Park. Opened in 2011 this park consists of several hundred acres of former farmland and cranberry bogs. It is slowly being restored to a grassland prairie and wetlands. I have made frequent visits during this process and been able to witness how the communities of plants, insects and vertebrate life in the park have changed over time.
Below I share a few pictures I have taken at this park over several years and write about one of the big changes that occurred Spring of 2016. That change include an event that resulted in the death of thousands of toads and it got me thinking about the ecology of the Garden of Eden and the portrait that young-earth creationists paint of a perfect paradise.
Above are a few members of my family walking through the prairie restoration at Springfield Bog Metro Park in 2015. Over the years the sunflower perennials have become more established resulting in a carpet of flowers four to five feet above the ground. In the first years of restoration it was easy to look out over the plants because smaller annual plants and weakly established perennials were the norm (below).
A carpet of color in July, 2014, at the Springfield Bog Metro Park near Akron Ohio.
In the center of this preserve is a small pond.
This pond doesn’t have any fish. It is home to some large bullfrogs and has become a breeding pond for thousands of American toads. Below is an American toad from my backyard. In the spring toads make their way from their winter homes to ponds where they mate. Then they return back into the woods and surrounding neighborhoods.
About the third week of April the past three years thousands of American toads have come to this pond to mate. Last year the pond was absolutely full (probably more than 10,000) of toads. My kids could catch them to their heart’s content and then throw them back. This year there were about half as many toads as the previous year for reasons that will become clear below. I estimated between 2500 and 5000 adult toads were in the pond this year.
Above and below are pictures from early May after the eggs hatched. Hundreds of thousands of tadpoles fill the pond along with the a number of bullfrog polliwogs.
In the image above you can the tadpoles are finding sustenance on the carcass of a toad that died before leaving the pond.
As impressive as the above images might be, last year there were far more toads than there were this spring in the pond. Why is that? There could be many reasons including disease, especially harsh winter conditions, etc.. but I think I know the primary reason: fire!
This year the Metro Parks did a control burn of the large amount of dead plant material – called standing vegetation – that remained into the spring. That burn was undertaken just as the toads were making their way from the winter homes to the pond. Below is a picture of what the preserve looked like – behind my son learning to use a camera – in early March. There was a tremendous amount of plant material from last year and even the year before that still standing on the preserve. While this is good cover for small birds it inhibits plant growth and locks up nutrients in an inaccessible form.
Below is what the same area looked like in late March. All of that dead material is burnt away along with the first leaves of the new spring growth.
Many organisms met their demise the day of the fire. Millions of adults and eggs of dozens of species of insects were likely lost but most vertebrate animals were spared because they were able to flee either by going underground, running away or flying away from the flames. Had the fire occurred later when thousands of birds had laid eggs in nests the destruction to life would have been much greater.
But through destruction there is new life. The fire releases nutrients trapped in dead plants tissues back into the soil. Those nutrients will allow the plants to flourish which will provide even more food for birds and many other animals. The fire also removes underbrush that was choking some new plant growth. It also kills tree and shrub saplings that had been slowly establishing themselves in the preserve. Without fire those samples would grow up and shade the ground causing the herbaceous plants, and the communities that depend on them, to die. Many birds depend on the thick grasslands for survival and so the maintenance of these open grass and other herbaceous plants results in an increased diversity of organisms that can be maintained in Ohio. So, without fire, the beautiful fields of flowers and the birds that they support would be gone in a decade. That some organisms are killed or driven off temporarily is more than compensated for by the overall increase in productivity of the land for future generations.
The only vertebrate animal that seems to have been directly impacted by the fire were american toads. Below is a section of the field just adjacent to the pond. I did a survey of a 50 by 100-foot portion of this area and counted all of the burnt toad carcasses. I counted 49 dead toads in that small plot. I observed no other dead animals among the burnt plant remains.
Here (above and below) are a couple of unfortunate toads. Both of these pictures were taken no more than 30 feet from the pond. In addition to the methodical survey that I did, I also walked several 200 foot transects in each direction from the pond to see if there was a particular side of the pond where more toads met their fate than any other. I wondered where most toads were migrating from. What I found was that there were similar numbers of toads all around the pond. Much further – 500 feet or more – the density of dead toads was much lower.
Many toads, like the one below were full of eggs ready to be fertilized but they never made it to the pond. But many were already there and they were able to mate resulting in hundreds of thousands of tadpoles and surely tens of thousands of new adults.
How many toads didn’t make it? I took the number of toads in the area I surveyed and did a quick calculation of the total area around the pond and estimated that between 4000 and 10,000 toads probably died in the fire on the preserve that day. Since I estimated that there were maybe 5000 toads in the pond it seems likely that 50% of the adult toad population in this area was lost to the fire.
Two weeks later we visited the park to find a lush carpet of new growth.
Reflections on the Death of Toads and a Perfect Paradise
Looking at a landscape with scores of dead toads I could not help but ask myself: Is this death necessary? As a Christian and growing up in a community of Christians that were and still are disposed to approaching the creation from a young-earth perspective, the first response I am told that I should have is that toad death is unnatural. The original plan of creation did not include the death of toads. Rather it was a “good” creation. Not only that, but the “good” creation is usually understood as a perfect paradise. A place where death and suffering of any kind did not exist.
This is a foundational principle that flood geology and young-earth creationism is built upon. Death did not occur until after the Fall of Adam and Eve into sin. Therefore all death in this world which includes present day death and past death, witnessed in the fossil record, must have occurred between the Fall and today. Noah’s flood therefore becomes the only possible physical explanation for the evidence of past death in fossils.
What was life like before death? We are led to believe it was a perfect paradise in which all organisms lived in complete harmony. In other words, they lived under a completely different set of ecological rules or principles. Virtually nothing we understand today about biology must apply to that world. The Eden ecology would have been vastly different that anything we could imagine.
How different must the ecological rules been? Consider these toads and the ecology of this park. First of all, Ken Ham and his followers have defined “living things” as those that contain the sense of the biblical term nephesh. There is no universal agreement as to what organisms alive today have this nephesh but certainly all vertebrate animals such as birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish are included. What aren’t included are plants, microbes, insects and fungi. These organisms are not alive and thus they could “die” prior to Adam’s sin. So the Edenic rules of ecology would have been quite different. Animals were commanded to reproduce but could not die. They would have used resources but never have contributed substantially as a resource themselves. At the same time, bacteria, plants and insects could essentially have competed for resources the way they do now.
Bring in the toads…
How would a toad pond in the middle of a field of flowers work in a perfect paradise? Just look at the pictures of the toads above. They are clearly “designed” to reproduce with all species having internal structures perfectly suited for production of thousands of eggs. Look at the hundreds of thousands of tadpoles. Does anyone doubt that only a small fraction will survive to become adults? But in the perfect paradise every tadpole is a living thing that could not die. This pond would produce a hundred thousand toads. But where would they have gotten the resources to survive? It seems there must have been some special biological rules must have been in operation in Eden that we can’t identify today.
Or is the YEC characterization of a perfect paradise in error. Must the death of a tadpole represent the consequence of Adam’s sin? I don’t believe it is necessary for us to accept this interpretation of scripture. The creation was “good” and is still “good” as testified to by scripture. The YEC concept of perfection is not a Biblical concept but rather a man-centric definition of perfection that imposes conditions on the creation that God must follow.
Continuing with toads…. if the tadpoles all lived to maturity and then were to have lived forever, what about all the creatures that are adapted to eating tadpoles today? Herons, some ducks, fish, water snakes, etc.. benefit to varying degrees from tadpole protein in their diet. But in the YEC perfect paradise these animals had only plants – and maybe insects – to eat. So they also must have lived by radically different ecological rules.
Many creationists will concede that insects may not be living and thus stepping on one in Eden would not have caused death though even that point isn’t always conceded (see: Did Adam Step on an Ant Before the Fall?). It is one thing to argue over insects but tadpoles are “living” by any creationists’ measuring stick. How could ducks eat water plants and dinosaurs step into the water without accidentally squashing a tadpole? And even if there was some special protection such that they just would not die, how could there be enough resources – including living space – for all the tadpoles to grow into adults?
The Edenic rules of ecology must have been so strange that it seems senseless for Ken Ham or anyone for that matter to describe in words or pictures how the original creation would have worked if death of any animals before Adam was not possible. One simple way to see how exotic this world would have been is to think about one basic ecological principle: nutrient cycling in the biosphere. Take any nutrient such as nitrogen, phosphorous or even an essential building block like carbon and follow what happens to it as it moves through the environment. Plants accumulate nitrogen from soil, animals like tadpoles eat those plants and then use that nitrogen to construct their own DNA and proteins. Some of that nitrogen may return to the ground in urine and feces but the majority would be kept by the growing tadpole and toad. If the toad did not die that nitrogen would be permanently stored in the living animal. If animals did not die nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur, and even all carbon would inevitably become trapped in animals and those resources would become very scare in the environment making more plant growth very difficult. In other words, growth would come to a grinding halt. This “perfect” world would seem to lack the ability to continue as a perfect place where the command to be fruitful and multiple could be carried out. Constant miraculous fertilization would appear to be the only solution to the unidirectional flow of nutrients. Even then, animals would fill the Earth at such a pace that they would eventually have filled every square inch within a few months.
One response might be that God foresaw that man would fall into sin and thus bring death – and a radical new ecology – into his creation. But this would imply that His original creation was never intended to function over long periods of time because the rules he had made to govern the world would not work with the creatures He had made and commanded to be fruitful and multiply. It was simply a temporary state of being awaiting man to usher in an ecology that necessitates death for its proper execution.
It is interesting to notice that Ken Ham and company have tacitly accepted this view of history. They are advocating that the diversity of species and their adaptations to a fallen world are the result of God having pre-packaged massive genetic variation including all the deadly abilities of predators and skills such as avoiding being killed by fire etc.. into the original created kinds in Eden. Those features would have had no useful purpose in Eden, the ecology of the creation was non-functional and only after Adam’s sin did God’s created creatures find their purpose in the features he planted in their genomes.
I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg with a toothpick with respect to this topic of the nature of nature in Eden and the theological ramifications. These aren’t solely my ideas. They are partly inspired by an excellent book, Peril in Paradise, by Mark Whorton that examines the theological problems with the YEC view of Eden. For much more on this topic I highly recommend this book at a good starting point.
*In all such scenarios the YEC could always invoke miracle and just say that fire happened but didn’t kill anything but non-living things just like they could say that an elephant could step on a dung beetle but couldn’t kill it.
Addendum: I should be clear that I am not denying that vastly different ecological rules are not possible. Surely Heaven is a place where the ecological rules will be quite different but just because heaven will be different doesn’t mean the original creation obeyed those same rules. Heaven is not the re-creation of the Garden of Eden. We don’t look forward to going back to that state that although “good” was not the intended end state of God’s creation. What I am suggesting is that the YEC understanding of the original ecological state of creation is flawed.