Armor is nothing new in the natural world

The Eastern Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is common in the wetlands of APG. It has a tough shell that can be over a foot in diameter (State record of 19-inches). It can’t completely cover its head like a box turtle but has a “serpentine” neck with a powerful beak that makes that only a minor disadvantage. |U.S. Army photo by Joe Ondeck

A brief tour around the living world and it doesn’t take long to see evidence that nature has employed armor and defensive strategies long before we started engineering protection for our bodies, transportation devices, and shelters.

Both fauna (animals) and flora (plants) have evolved features that increase their likelihood of survival, dispersal, and success in a sometimes hostile, always competitive, and always unforgiving natural order.

Shells, scales, leaves, needles, bark, fin, fur, and blubber fall into the category of almost entirely defensive features. Other defensive features including antlers, spikes, tails, teeth, tusks, horns, beaks, claws, and talons may also be employed offensively when the situation calls for it (think heroic John Wayne movie character fighting with a bulldozer).

There are even incredibly sensitive systems in the wild natural world for detecting threats and knowing when to employ those defensive or offensive systems (think a cat’s whiskers, a blood hound’s nose, or the sensitive lateral line of a fish). Plants and animals have sensory tools with such precision and accuracy they are the envy of observant scientists, designers and engineers.

The Eastern Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is common in the wetlands of APG. It has a tough shell that can be over a foot in diameter (State record of 19-inches). It can’t completely cover its head like a box turtle but has a “serpentine” neck with a powerful beak that makes that only a minor disadvantage. Don’t get your fingers close to these guys.

Herpetologists tell us it has been around about 40 million years since the snapper evolved, and the spikes on its tail resemble a dinosaur (think Stegosaurus); but modern birds are actually more closely related to dinosaurs than these powerful reptiles. And remember, these turtles have survived through the millennia, the dinosaurs are gone. Natural selection isn’t sympathetic to a bad design that can’t adapt to a changing environment.

Animals are not alone in the many ways in which armor is used in nature. Plants also have protective structures for survival. The very protective and buoyant thick bark of cork trees (a type of oak) had obvious uses for historic navies— and not just for holding the grog in the bottle— but other varieties of oak trees and other species (elm, fir, pine) found here at APG were highly prized by the navies of the world for centuries.

Historically, oak species were the dominant trees, anchoring the ecosystem, on both necks of APG. Current Forest Management Plans here are designed to favor oaks over invasive plants (especially non-natives), in support of both the entire ecosystem as well as the Army’s military mission.

The English Navy’s HMS Victory (circa 1750s and the oldest remaining naval ship still in commission) was built from about 6,000 mature oak trees (about 100 acres for one ship) which puts in perspective the unsustainability of that type of over-exploitive use of the forest. In fact historians report that the demand for wood by the Royal Navy of that era helped deforest large parts of the British Isles, with tremendous impact on both natural resources and international affairs. Natural regeneration of the forests was hard-pressed, even in those days of much lower populations, to sustain whole navies of wooden ships.

Our Navy’s famous ship USS Constitution was nicknamed “old ironsides” supposedly when cannonballs bounced off her thick hull made of Southern Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) harvested farther south along our coast. Ships, as recent as World War II employed wood for durable decks, block and tackle, and even the hulls of the PT boats that were made in nearby Annapolis. Pine forests were also needed as pine sap includes resins that protect the tree but were also used by humans to manufacture materials from household cleaners to industrial solvents used by both civilians and the military (“naval stores” the British desperately needed from the Colonies).

For trees, bark is an armor against insects, sun damage, bird beaks and other attacks. It protects the vascular system circulating water, nutrients and sugar (energy) through the tree. Damage to a tree’s bark which exposes bare wood, particularly if it encircles or “girdles” the tree, can kill or at least hasten the demise of even the largest trees. Expensive nursery trees can be inadvertently “strangled” to death by well-meaning homeowners constricting the protective bark with support wires or ropes intended to straighten a tree’s posture for aesthetic purposes.

Ever tried planting seeds collected from fruit? Germination won’t occur for many without scarification, the removal of the water-tight and gas-tight barrier layer armoring the embryonic tree inside.

Seed coats and their coverings are another way in which living material (the genetic code of future generations) is protected by a type of armor. Some fruit seeds actually require digestion by a bird or other animal in order to sprout out of the protective layers of hard fibers or waxy coatings. Some pines require the heat of a forest fire to open their cones and release viable seeds to start the next generation.

Tree leaves and needles, though usually not rigid, also provide a type of armoring that protects trees and serves humans. Evergreens protect your home (and lower heating costs) on the windy or colder north side of your land. Deciduous trees shade the sunnier southern exposure of your home (and lower cooling costs) in summer, yet thoughtfully drop those leaves to let the rays of sunny winter days brighten and warm your home (while also replenishing your soil with nutrients and organic matter).

If you have, or know, young readers interested in armor “from armadillos to armored cars” you may be interested in the children’s book “Peter Kent’s Big Book of Armor” published by Kingfisher (ISBN: 978-0-7534-6423-6) that, along with the above photo, inspired this article. As you observe the natural world around us at APG, you may be more inclined to observe the diverse ways in which plants and animals benefit from their many fascinating protective structures and how they may also benefit humans in the process.

APG natural resources managers have a long history of continually coordinating the natural infrastructure stewardship that supports and sustains the Army’s testing and training mission every day. Working with partners from APG tenant organizations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, APG DPW personnel developed and coordinated our Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan (INRMP) as a roadmap to the future for APG natural resources management.

For more information about the natural resources at APG, contact: Mr. John Wrobel

By John Leader, APG Directorate of Public Works, Natural Resources Branch