It All Depends

Photograph by Alex Mustard / Nature PL


words by willow defebaugh

In the natural world, species find ways to not only coexist but support each other as a means of survival—a symphony of symbiosis.

“Interdependence is a fundamental law of nature. It is because our own human existence is so dependent on the help of others that our need for love lies at the very foundation of our existence.”

Dalai Lama XIV

It can be terrifying: depending on anything outside of ourselves for our wellbeing. And yet, we all do. We depend on medicine to stay healthy. We depend on our partners, friends, and family for support, joy, and love. We depend on food, water and oxygen for survival. On the most basic levels, we are not designed to be wholly independent. We rely on the world around us, just as it relies on us: a symphony of symbiosis. And while not all forms of symbiosis are positive, those in which both organisms benefit—known as mutualistic relationships—exist all over our planet.


Beneath the waves, a flowerlike creature blooms—though it’s not a plant at all. Rather, sea anemones are marine invertebrates that possess a powerful neurotoxin in their tentacles which they use to take down plankton, crabs, and fish. One fish has evolved to be immune to their sting, though: clownfish. With their signature orange and white stripes, these fish take shelter among the anemone’s tentacles. In return, they keep their habitat free of parasites and provide nutrients to their neighbor by dropping food. Their bright colors even lure in more prey for their anemone hosts to feed on. Anemones with clownfish have lower mortality rates than those without.


Elsewhere, in the tropical jungles of Borneo, another mutualistic relationship flourishes. Pitcher plants are experts at attracting prey; a slippery secretion on the lips of their cylindrical bodies cause unsuspecting mammals and insects to fall into their acid-filled pits, where they are slowly digested. But one animal chooses to entire this territory willingly. Wooly bats use their claws to hang from the rims of the plant, providing them a safe space to rest. As compensation, their waste provides fertile food for the pitcher, allowing it to grow healthy and strong.


Across African savannahs, red-billed oxpecker birds find companionship with their considerably larger mammalian neighbors. They feed on the parasites that crawl over the bodies of giraffes, zebras, wildebeests—ridding their hosts of vampiric ticks and flies while scoring an easy meal. Recent research has found that they have a particularly beneficial relationship with rhinos, which have famously terrible vision and are therefore relatively easy to stalk. Oxpeckers, on the other hand, have good eyesight—which they use to identify potential threats, making alarm cries to alert the rhino of approaching predators and even poachers. They protect their companions.


When the moon rises over the Sonoran Deserts of North America, the senita cacti bloom. Under the cover of nightfall, they are visited by fluttering white and brown senita moths. Females of this species have evolved abdominal scales that allow them to transfer pollen from flower to flower. As they do, they lay a single egg on a flower’s petal. When it closes and the egg hatches, the burgeoning mothling feeds on the cactus’s growing fruit. But they devour less than 21% of it, leaving the cactus enough to continue on—a lesson in not only mutualism, but sustainability.


Popular wellness theory will tell you that “you have all you need within.” And I agree with that to an extent; obviously our need for external validation and fulfillment has grown destructively excessive. At the same time, I think that mentality reflects yet another side of late-stage capitalism: its isolating obsession with individualism. We consume and we scroll, forever longing for what’s outside—but I don’t think a lack of independence is what drives us. If anything, it’s the opposite; we’re interdependent. What we’re reaching for is connection.


I wonder if clownfish ever forget the anemones that keep them company, if wooly bats ever long for the sanctuaries that grow so abundantly for them. I wonder if rhinos ever lose sight of the fact that someone else is looking out for them, if senitas ever bloom with uncertainty about who might find their rare brand of night-born beauty. I wonder if we humans are the only species that gets lonely. When we do, we can trust that life is symbiotic. How frightening, how magnificent it is to realize what we know in our deepest cores to be true: to be alive is to depend on each other

Keep Reading


60 Seconds on Earth,Anthropocene,Art & Culture,Climate Migration,Black Liberation,Changemakers,Democracy,Environmental Justice,Photography,Earth Sounds,Deep Ecology,Indigeneity,Queer Ecology,Ethical Fashion,Ocean Life,Climate Solutions,The Frontline,The Overview,Biodiversity,Common Origins,Fabricating Change,Future of Food,Identity & Community,Movement Building,Science & Nature,Well Being,