Live Long and Prosper: Nature Life Spans

From minutes to centuries, the varied life spans of Earth’s plants and animals are inextricably entwined. Learn more about plant and animal life spans and how they're affected by each other.

| June/July 2008

Take a moment to stop and notice the life all around you: millions of species of plants and animals, all living, dieing, evolving all around us. Some animals come and go in the blink of an eye, others live longer than humans. All organisms go through three distinct phases of life, but why do different animals have different life spans? Why do some animals of a given species live for many years, while others live for only a few? The web of life is amazing, intricate and varying — and we’re all interconnected in big and small ways.

Funny, how some seemingly trivial images stick in your head for decades. You can’t explain them, but there they are, stubborn memories that have no more apparent significance than countless others that have long since slipped away.

Among my own peculiarly steadfast recollections is one late-summer day on my grandparents’ dairy farm in western New York. I remember my cousin Bonnie and me, both of us 9 or 10 then, sprawled side-by-side and belly-down in cool green grass beneath one of the three old maples lined up like leafy-headed, one-legged sentinels in front of the big white farmhouse. The object of our fascination was a restless dinner-plate-size cluster of ladybugs — hundreds of them — at the foot of the tree. Not a hair’s width separated one ladybug from the other; they moved like a single red-shelled, black-spotted organism with 3,000 legs. With hands held sideways, karate-chop style, to form walls, we could steer them, nudge them forward or back, right or left, like cowpokes coaxing a miniature herd across valleys and over hills (the tree’s aboveground roots).

And that’s the entire memory — just that image, nothing more; no sense of how long we amused ourselves with those beetles, no recollection of the day’s events before or after.

I’m tempted to describe it as a moment frozen in time, but I know better.

Once or twice a year, if I am lucky, I make the trip back to Genesee County, N.Y., to see my family. Invariably on those visits, I am drawn to the site of my grandparents’ farm. I walk the familiar fields and woods, home at last. And always, at some point, I end up in the front yard beneath that maple where Bonnie and I and those beetles played. It must be a peculiar sight to passersby on the highway: a stranger sitting cross-legged among high weeds in an empty, overgrown field.

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