We have recently begun an initiative to work with small businesses, building owners and environmentally-driven organizations around Philadelphia to create a series of interconnected murals relating to the natural world. Our goal with the murals is to highlight the beauty of different ecosystems across the planet, and also educate on current efforts of restoration and preservation. Each mural will contain a QR code that links the viewer to this page, offering educational resources and tools related to the specific issues of each mural. We hope to beautify spaces for those who share common goals with Hagopian Arts, while also offering a visual tool of education and inspiration that finds common ground between science, public art and community building.
A Note From Kala Hagopian…
As a young child, I grew up exploring nature and studying the ecosystems of Vermont. I was fascinated by the interconnectedness of my surroundings, how each and every living creature effects one another. Not only did I spend hours outside studying wetlands, fields, and forests, I began drawing and painting the flora and fauna of these environments. This, in turn, developed into a larger interest in ecosystems around the world and our place as humans within these environments, both our interdependence and our impact. I’ve always aimed to express this fascination throughout my paintings and murals, and I am so inspired to directly continue this study through the mural-making process.
Pilot Project – Coral Reef Ecosystems
Our first piece for this initiative is artwork inspired by the ocean life of the South Pacific. This mural is a direct expression of the visual beauty of this important ecosystem, looking at coral reefs specifically.
This mural was designed and painted by Hagopian Arts with the assistance of Olivia Losee-Unger. Check out the slideshow below to see our mural-making process.
Before Mural Installation
Why we chose to explore Coral Reefs through the mural-making process…
Coral reefs are environmentally invaluable: they contain more species per unit of area than any other ecosystem on earth. Stony corals lay the foundation for large reefs: their polyps produce a calcium carbonate exoskeleton that attaches to rocky outcrops around continental shelves, maintaining the shape of our shores. Corals grow into ornate colonies comprised of a hierarchy of organisms that interact through symbiotic relationships. Corals are the nurseries of our oceans: one-quarter of the world’s fish develop and hatch in the safety of reefs. Reefs are home to some of the world’s most colorful, striking, and complex animals on earth, drawing billions of dollars annually through tourism. Coral reefs only make up about 1% of our ocean’s floors, but they are home to a remarkable 25% of all marine life.
The incredible diversity of life in coral reefs relies on a delicate balance of environmental conditions. Human interference has caused massive damage to reefs through pollution, tourism, and destructive fishing practices, but the most pressing issue facing reef communities today is climate change. Corals rely on a symbiotic relationship with dinoflagellate algae in order to survive: these algae live in and on the coral polyps, converting sunshine into nutrients. When water temperatures rise, corals reject their symbionts, leaving dying polyps that appear translucent and white. This process is referred to as coral bleaching, and is the most direct cause of reef death. Many reefs boast nearly ten thousand years of growth, but can be lost in mere months: a recent study suggests that since 2016, over 60% of the Great Barrier Reef has been irreversibly bleached.
When corals experience large scale die-offs, entire marine ecosystems begin to collapse around them. Without nurseries, many of the fish we eat have no place for their young to develop, and their numbers fall dramatically. The diverse communities that live in and around corals disappear and many species that are coral specialists go extinct. Eventually, coral exoskeletons decay and erode, leaving our coastlines more vulnerable to extreme weather events. The need to preserve coral reefs is becoming increasingly clear.
Preservation efforts are taking place across the globe to help offset coral reef degradation. The Nature Conservancy is leading an initiative to triple the coverage of marine habitats by 2020 through cooperation with nearly a dozen governments in the Caribbean. Other organizations have set up offshore coral nurseries, attempting to replenish coral stocks locally. While coral restoration is a slow process, a multifaceted approach can produce wonderful effects: many other movements involved with spreading awareness of responsible boating and fishing practices can also help decrease and offset the human impact on degradation.
The goal of this project is based on our belief that protecting coral reefs starts with an effort to place these issues at the center of public education. Coral reefs display a beautiful example of the interdependence of life, how species adapt to live for the benefit of one another, and how we as humans must acknowledge our role in this web in order to sustain its longevity.
If you are interested in learning more, getting involved, and gaining further resources and tools, please follow the links below to learn more:
Symbiosis is a term used to describe long-term relationships between two or more different organisms within an ecosystem. There are three categories of symbiotic relationships: mutualistic (both organisms benefit), commensalistic (one organism benefits, the other is unaffected), or parasitic (one organism that benefits at a detriment to the other organism). Like humans, organisms across every imaginable habitat cooperate to survive, reproduce, and thrive. Sometimes these relationships are so specific that they evolved together: without the varied species of bacteria we have in our gut, we could not absorb vitamins or digest dairy. Without us, those bacteria would likely not exist at all in their current evolutionary form.
Hagopian Arts’ Symbiosis mural explores the more colorful examples of mutually beneficial relationships. In Africa, plains zebras carry helpful passengers: oxpeckers. These little birds have an obligate symbiotic relationship to sub-Saharan Africa’s herd animals. Oxpeckers live the majority of their lives on the backs of zebra, rhino, giraffes, and impalas, picking off parasites and insects with their specially evolved beaks. In return for their role as walking buffets, zebra who have an oxpecker guardian are less likely to succumb to infected tick bites, burrowing larvae, and itchy mosquitoes.
Symbiotic relationships can provide protection as well as sustenance. Anemones are polyp organisms that attach to hard surfaces on the seafloor. Their tentacles are armed with cnidocytes, or stinging cells, that stun and poison passing fish and invertebrates. The clownfish, however, is an anemone specialist who makes its home in the poisonous polyp. It’s unclear whether the clownfish coevolved with anemones and developed a genetic immunity, or if they are able to secret a mucus on their skin that traps stinging cells. While the clownfish receives protection from its predators, they return the favor by cleaning away parasites and dead tentacles.
Plants and insects have symbiotic relationships as well. The most classic example is the honey bee, which spends its life gathering nectar from wildflowers. While reaching for the sugar secretion at the center of a flower, the bees are dusted by pollen. As they move on to the next flower, the pollen is distributed, resulting in cross-pollination and the fertilization of female flowers. Scientists hypothesize that flowers evolved their dashing colors solely to attract insects, using ultraviolet lights like runways to guide passing pollinators.
Symbiotic relationships can occur even after death. Bracket fungi are colorful organisms that occur in step-like patterns on decaying trees. They are part of the Polyphore family, which are related to mushrooms. Polyphores like bracket fungi are crucial to a forest’s ability to sustain itself through nutrient cycling. After a tree dies, decomposers break down the dead wood, releasing its nutrients into the soil, providing habitats for small mammals and insects, and creating room for new growth. Polyphores are unique due to their participation both in the death of their symbiont but also in providing space for its rebirth.
Symbiotic relationships can be incredibly complex, and result in our most precious and biodiverse ecosystems on Earth. Treasures like the Great Barrier Reef and the Amazon Rainforest are the product of these relationships, and are also examples of the vast destruction caused by human interference. Understanding symbiotic relationships is to understand how important it is for every person to participate in restoring balance to these delicate communities: by curbing our carbon emissions, lessening pollution, and preserving ecosystems at risk.
Honey Bees & Pollination
It’s hard to put into perspective just how important bees are to the environment at large. They are a keystone species in the wild, pollinating the vast majority of all fruits, nuts, and vegetables on Earth. Bees are responsible for the reproduction of nearly one-third of all the food that humans consume, making them our greatest agricultural partner. Unfortunately, climate change has begun to take its toll on our pollinators. Hagopian Art’s mural Symbiosis at Emlen Elementary celebrates the bee and hopes to bring awareness to their steep decline as a result of human environmental interference. Bees and other symbiotic partnerships are featured in Symbiosis as a part of Hagopian Arts’ Eco Mural Project, a new initiative that brings these complex ecological wonders to Philadelphia’s small businesses and public places.
Bees are the main pollinators for the majority of our staple foods, and much of the grains and alfalfa that we feed to our livestock. If you’ve ever enjoyed fruits, berries, seeds, coffee, grains, nuts, chocolate, or spices such as nutmeg and peppermint, you have pollinators, and especially bees, to thank! Plants pollinated by bees benefit from greater genetic diversity and resistance to disease. These plants also improve the quality of our soil, air, and water. Without bees, the complex ecosystems that depend on most flowering plants would cease to exist. Bees live on nectar, which is found at the center of all flowers. When bees search for nectar in these flowers, little hairs on their legs and bodies become coated in pollen, which is then delivered to the next flower they reach. Bees turn this nectar into a variety of products that humans find useful, including beeswax, honey, and royal jelly.
The most common domesticated species of bee is the Western Honey Bee, which can be traced back to Neolithic human cultivation. Honey bees live in complex social structures called colonies. Their colonies are built upon a hierarchy of roles: at the top is the Queen, who produces eggs. Several hundred male drone bees that maintain the cleanliness of the hive, circulate air throughout it by vibrating their wings, fertilize eggs, and look after the larvae. The largest social group is made up of thousands of infertile female bees, called worker bees. These are the bees that pollinate flowers and crops, and the ones providing sustenance to the colony. In all, a hive can be home to as many as 80,000 inhabitants, relying on their social roles and communication to sustain them.
Bees owe their high level of productivity to a unique system of communication. Besides the common use of odors and taste that many insects use to convey messages or denote territory, bees have a complex form of communication that resembles dancing, or “waggling”. This behavior has been observed by scientists since the days of Aristotle and is interpreted as an alert to the colony of a successful forage or the direction of new foraging sites. Bees are able to learn, and will not repeat trips to foraging sites that provide weak returns. They possess remarkably complex memories, especially when it comes to navigation and problem-solving. Bees who watch other bees perform complex tasks are much better at replicating those tasks themselves, and recent studies have suggested that bees are able to use tools, such as pulling a string to receive a reward.
The 21st century has seen a staggering loss of these incredibly important pollinators. According to a 2015 study from a UN group called the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), 37% of all bee species had seen a decline due to pesticide use, climate change, habitat loss, and industrial agriculture. A recent report from the Center for Biological Diversity found that in 1,400 North American bee species, nearly 700 were at risk of extinction. Over the past couple of decades, beekeepers the world over have seen massive yearly die-offs of their colonies. It’s natural to lose around 20% of the hive during winter when worker bees expel male drones from the hive to conserve energy and heat. Recently beekeepers have been reporting die-offs of up to 45%, an unsustainable and alarming amount. The struggle of beekeepers is indicative of the suffering of wild bees the world over: Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, is another massive issue facing wild and domesticated bee populations today. Scientists have several hypotheses for why colonies face a sudden loss of worker bees, which include pesticides, viral infections, and parasites, but consensus has not yet been reached.
The EPA has taken action under President Obama towards funding extensive research into the decline of pollinator species, but recent victories in the tightening of regulations on pesticides and improving environmental standards have been lost due to the defunding and deregulation imposed by the Trump Administration. There are many steps that individuals can take to ensure we protect our cherished pollinators: participation in community gardens, planting of native flowers and plants, and voting for representatives that will limit habitat loss and support a robust crackdown on pollinator-killing pesticides. Citizens who are interested in learning more are encouraged to visit the following organizations and donate to their research and rescue efforts in maintaining wild bee populations worldwide:
The Pollinator Project: http://www.pollinator.org/
The Honeybee Conservancy: https://thehoneybeeconservancy.org/
Greenpeace: Save the Bees: http://sos-bees.org/
Join Hagopian Arts as we continue our initiative to create public facing murals educating on aspects of environmental conservancy! Follow our social media pages below to get updates on our latest murals, information on conservation efforts, and ways to get involved: