Monthly Archives: August 2008

Skunks

It may look pretty in your pictures, but Nature is one big horrible evolutionary battleground. So striking are the similarities between evolution’s battles and those fought with tanks and planes, biologists actually use the term ‘arms race’ to describe the defense and counter-defense strategies that microbes, parasites, plants and animals continually develop to do combat with ever-increasing efficiency. It’s war out there, plain and simple. Were it not for the enormous time scales required for evolutionary battles to play out, journalists would be embedded right now with the various divisions of Kingdom Animalia.

‘Can you tell us how many newts have survived long enough to reproduce, Suzanne?’

A typical example of an evolutionary arms race can be seen in the Great War between Kingdom Plantae and Kingdom Animalia. It went down something like this:

Plants arise. Animals arise and eat plants. Plants grow thorns. Animals counter with thick skin and fur. Plants say ‘Yeah? Get a load of these toxins. We hope you like diarrhea.’ Animals declare diarrhea a gratuitous ‘prelude to war’ and introduce simple digestive enzymes to break down the toxins. Plants make vague conciliatory gestures at mediated peace talks while their military secretly draws up plans for deadlier toxins. Animals appeal to the defense sector to begin work on a liver. Propped up by surging nationalism and xenophobia at home, plants begin testing bark. Et cetera.

The Oleander envoy confers as negotiations break down in Geneva.

Of course, plants don’t have to be involved. Deadly arms races between animals have been raging ever since there were animals. For example, the crab would not have engineered its infamous Claw O’ Hurt had the sea snail not first wrapped itself in a thick shell. The list is endless and depressing, but let’s cut to the chase: Animal Review is pleased to announce there is a winner in the evolutionary arms race.

The skunk.

The skunk (Family Mephitidae) vaulted itself out of the contest some time ago with a stunning technical achievement that rocked Kingdom Animalia to its very core and made most of Nature’s weapons irrelevant overnight. The skunk was the first animal to enter the nuclear age.

‘Get me Harry Truman on the horn.’

As with man’s first fission bomb, the skunk’s weapon represented a quantum leap in technology, although the techniques varied slightly. Instead of imploding a sub-critical sphere of plutonium with focused lenses of high explosives to maximize the plutonium’s density and trigger a chain reaction, the skunk went with a horrendous yellow oil composed of sulfurous thiol compounds and a simple delivery system of two scent glands1 positioned on either side of the anus. Gross? Certainly. But the anus had its advantages during top-secret testing phases, because who’s going to look there?

In a host of ways, the skunk is the Israel of animaldom. Both Israel and skunks are surrounded by hostile neighbors, but in both cases their would-be aggressors know full well that attacking would only mean their own instantaneous demise, or perhaps a long bath in tomato juice, followed by days of solitude, even after you burn your clothes and shave your head. In any event, the two sides can be certain that destruction is mutually assured. The central difference between Israel and skunks is the fact that Israel has never admitted to own any nukes, whereas skunks paint themselves black and give themselves white racing stripes as a way of advertising that, yes, they are skunks, and yes, they’re ready to mess you up bad.

Aw, how cute. Suitcase nukes.

Possession of the bomb has other bonuses. If you’ve ever seen a skunk, they tend to walk around freely, even in large open fields, without so much as a hint of fear of foxes, wolves or other predators2. Just like Israel, they feel no need to seek cover under logs or constantly whip their heads about like those manic, poorly-armed squirrels. Many skunks are overweight, because they do nothing but eat insects, worms, frogs and berries all day without ever running away from anything. And they have lousy vision that they’ve never had to evolve because, really, as long as you can see the big red button, that’s all you need to see.

After leap-frogging the other animals with high-tech, the skunk moved into a sort of Cold War with what used to be its natural predators. Instead of tearing each other apart in open skirmishes with crude claws and teeth, skunks and wolves are now relegated to giving carefully-crafted statements and then putting on large headsets to wait for their opponent’s response to be translated.

Even in such civilized surroundings, the wolf still looks nervous. Here’s to military technology and brains over brawn.

GRADE: A

1 With a nod to the Manhattan Project, the skunk calls the scent glands ‘Fat Man’ and ‘Little Boy.’

2 The only animal in the whole world the skunk has to fear is the great horned owl, which has no sense of smell. But you’d think that after awhile the owl would get tired of eating alone.

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Giraffe

The giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis, lit. ‘Tiny, but said ironically’) is Nature’s concept car. Large and impractical, the giraffe was never meant for mass production, but some executive fell in love with it at Detroit’s annual Animal Show a few years back, and giraffes have been losing money ever since.

Massive ungulates and the tallest of the land animals, giraffes can be up to 18 feet tall and 3,800 pounds, and about two thirds of that is neck. Like most mammals, the neck of a giraffe has seven vertebrae, though in the giraffe each is elongated and covered in tacky chrome plating. Looking to justify the expense, the neck was put to use for getting leaves off acacia trees on the Africa plains, which was sold in the giraffe marketing campaign with the slogan ‘Whether in the Whole Foods produce aisle or on the Serengeti Plain – you’ll never go hungry.’ And then, in a truly gauche moment of designing nonsense, the giraffe’s head was topped with two ridiculous-looking cartilage horns.

‘Let’s throw some horns on it. There we go. Now that says class.’

As with most concept designs, the enormity of the giraffe created more problems than it was worth. To move blood against gravity up the neck, a giraffe requires a two-foot heart. It requires special anchor muscles to keep the neck upright. It requires a complex pressure regulation system in the upper neck to prevent blood flow to the brain when the giraffe bends over to fill up. It also requires a tight sheath of thick skin over its legs to keep the capillaries from bursting due to the blood pressure such a neck height creates. All this requires energy. Too bad, acacia trees.

‘Forget the stupid laws of physics! Let’s make this thing BIG!’

As one might suspect, the giraffe’s size isn’t the advantage the guy at the dealership says it is. Sure, giraffes can eat from trees, and most predators leave them alone, but it’s not uncommon for lions to give it a go at knocking a giraffe off its feet. Then these very same lions will promptly eat the giraffe. As a rule of thumb, once one thing goes wrong with your giraffe, several other things are likely to follow. Repairs are famously expensive, and a certified giraffe mechanic can sometimes clear six figures a year.

Further looking to make up a use for the neck, male giraffes also fight each other with their necks. Because what else are they gonna do? Leg wrestle? No, they are not going to leg wrestle. They need those to try to get away from lions.

‘What do you mean “trunk space”? Are you high?’

So conceptual is the giraffe that each individual giraffe has a unique pattern of spots, adding further pointless costs coming out of the factory. Originally meant to appeal to collectors, it’s yet to catch on in the classic giraffe community and has provided an easy way for lions to coordinate between one another about which giraffe they’re going to knock off its feet and then eat.

‘Yeah, that one. The one where the spots go spot-spot-line- spot-line-spot. Let’s knock that one off its feet and then eat it.’

The one feature of the giraffe that might stand the test of time is its insomnia: a giraffe requires just ten minutes to two hours of sleep per day. The rest of the time is spent up on blocks in your friend’s dad’s garage, where nothing on it ever gets fixed but he keeps telling everyone not to go near it.

GRADE: D

Earthworm

The earthworm (Phylum Annelida, class Underachiever) has spent millions of years evolving in the dirt and detritus, yet peculiarly enough didn’t put in the little extra effort required to become a snake. It already has well-developed organ, circulatory and nervous systems neatly packed into a successful tubular body plan. Relatively speaking, how much more DNA mutation is involved to whip up a simple venom gland and a fang or two? This lack of follow-through is perplexing and disappointing, to say the least.

‘Don’t make the same mistakes I did. Stay in school and become a snake.’

Following this colossal evolving blunder, the earthworm got itself involved in some pretty hokey stuff. Not to judge or anything, but have you heard that the earthworm is a hermaphrodite? That’s right. Earthworms wield male and female reproductive organs, meaning that any given earthworm can, and, unfortunately will, mate with another. This whole unseemly process is well described and probably more off-putting than you might think. It involves the formation of cocoons and the mutual exchange of…you know what…let’s not do this. Let’s leave it at Ick.

The second tragedy in the earthworm story is that when it failed to actualize its full biological potential (opting instead to pursue a sad ecological niche eating rotten organic matter, aerating/enriching soil, and having relations with anything that moves) there was another, smarter, biding organism by the name of Homo sapiens waiting in the shadows for a chance to profit from the earthworm’s poor self esteem and enticing body parts. Mankind is like a manager at a strip club.

Soft, fleshy, cheap, fairly complex, abundant – and most important, harmless creatures with low estimations of themselves – make excellent candidates for dissection. Thus the earthworm followed the frog into the biology labs of high schools and colleges throughout the country. It’s worth pointing out to the earthworm that snakes don’t generally have this problem because they have fangs. If you want something to dissect, it’s much easier to wait until it rains and scoop slow, toothless specimens off your driveway then it is to go following the sounds of cautionary hissing coming from under rocks. In short, half of life is simply showing up at the midterm.

‘Okay. Now pin my ventral nerve and make a two-inch incision along my subpharyngeal ganglion until you bisect my… whoa, whoa! I said my subpharyngeal ganglion, you freshman. Have you even looked at Chapter 12? Oh man, I should’ve been a snake.’

So basically, that’s why earthworms can always be found beneath a scalpel – and why they are so often bitter about it. Dissection, more than anything else in the earthworm’s life, is a potent aide-mémoire for bad choices made.

‘Now THAT is my subpharyngeal ganglion. You getting all this, freshman?’

Lastly, we’d be negligent if we didn’t mention that earthworms have five hearts and the ability to regenerate lost segments of their segmented bodies. These are impressive features, to be sure, but, again, they go to waste wriggling around in the muck and the mire.

Were Animal Review to offer one piece of advice to earthworms, it would be to pick themselves up, dust off, evolve something long and pointed in their mouth, and go bite something.

GRADE: C-

Hippopotamus

The common hippopotamus is a massive sub-Saharan semi-aquatic mammal of the family Hippopotamidae whose closest relatives are the whales and porpoises, though to be honest they hardly keep in touch anymore. The name for this largely vegetarian animal comes from the Greek words hippos, meaning ‘horse,’ and potamus, meaning ‘river,’ which yields ‘horse river’ and gives a pretty good indication as to why people stopped learning Greek. The hippo is identified by its barrel-shaped torso, enormous head, hairless body, and stubby legs, as well as by obviously being a hippo.

More than any other animal, the hippopotamus manages to combine adorable comedy value with sheer terror. Unlike the lions, tigers, bears, cobras, and Great White Sharks, all of whom look like animals that will kill you, the hippo is bald and fat. Instead of fear, your first impulse upon seeing one is to dress it in a tutu and invite it to perform at your kid’s birthday party. But as too many people have found out the hard way, this is a very bad idea that will ruin almost any get-together.1 For their adorableness belies the fact that hippos are killers. In so many words, in Kingdom Animalia hippos are the guy in his mid-40s who lives alone and juggles his time between his jobs of part-time party clown and full-time serial killer.

He always kept to himself.

As with human serial killers, hippos usually seem harmless and can be remarkably charming, yet won’t miss a chance to bite you in half with their massive tusks. Also like human serial killers, precise statistics on how many victims they’ve killed are unavailable, though, again, some experts believe them to be the world’s deadliest animal. And as with human serial killers, hippos don’t actually float, but instead run and paddle along the bottom of lakes and rivers while holding their breath for up to five minutes, and then try to capsize boats of sightseers.2 However, unlike human serial killers, they can also hear underwater, so don’t gossip about them while they’re down there because they’re totally listening in and will then turn it around and guilt you into letting them kill you.

Let’s talk about your parents.

Before giving in to your burning desire to hug a hippopotamus and put lipstick on it and try to see if you can ride it – consider these facts: a male hippo can weigh up to 8,000 pounds and be up to fifteen feet in length, while their two-foot tusk-filled mouths can crash down with several thousand pounds of pressure when these fiercely territorial animals feel like defending their space, which they always do.3 Also consider that hippos live in groups of up to 40 called a pod, herd, dale, or bloat. This part is less important though.

So I shouldn’t try to put a red bandana and tiny cowboy hat on them?

Nature was clearly messing with us when she made hippos so profoundly cute. The massive head, the pear-shaped body, the stumpy limbs – everything about a hippo begs us to feed them treats and knit them whimsical little sweaters. And if you’ve ever seen a hippo lumbering over land at up to 30 miles per hour, well, you’ve known pure bliss. Just don’t try to get them to play fetch.

Whatever you do, don’t look behind you or you’ll fall over laughing and be killed instantly.4

The obvious temptation towards failing the hippopotamus (for being so darn cute to the extent that we have to constantly remind ourselves how they are waiting to kill us) is obviated by a few factors. First, hippos have been known to bite crocodiles in half, and in this regard they’re sort of like a serial killer who kills bad people, though, unlike Dexter, it is more than happy to kill you too because you happened to wander past. Second, they spin their tails while defecating to cover the greatest possible area with dung and better mark their apparently never-ending territory. And third, they are retromingent, meaning that they urinate backwards, likely for the same reason. And you have to give credit where it’s due.

GRADE: D

1Unless it’s an animal murder theme party, in which case it’s a great call.

2Steve Irwin, who used to make a joke of dangling his own babies in front of crocodiles, once said that taking a boat across a river filled with hippos was the most dangerous thing he had ever done.

3For a sense of how territorial hippos are, go to a zoo and toss a melon into their pool. Every hippo will immediately charge with rage in their eyes and hate in their hearts until realizing that it’s a yummy melon. The reaction is easily worth the hassle and weirdness of smuggling a melon into a zoo. Or so we’re told.

4This park ranger barely escaped with his life, and later testified against the hippo at trial.

*UPDATE* – Sloths

As swimming record upon swimming record is broken at the Summer Olympics, these inspiring feats call to mind the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius. But that does mean one should ever forget the sloth’s equally poignant motto: Festina lente.

*UPDATE* – Pandas

Watching thousands of Chinese performers at the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games moving in perfect rhythm with a national inferiority complex was yet another reminder that the panda, like China itself, is a recipient of exceptional PR.

Ladybug

Of the roughly 350,000 species of described beetles, and the estimated 5-8 million undescribed beetle species, the ladybug (Family Coccinellidae, lit. ‘Nature’s Homecoming Queen’) is the only one who can land/crawl on or near a human being without risking severe bodily injury or death. Even among the simplest members of Kingdom Animalia, there are advantages to being attractive.

I got pulled over for speeding once…the officer gave me a warning and then asked for my phone number.

In America and in parts of Northern Europe, tradition holds that a ladybug landing on one’s body brings good luck and makes wishes come true as the person fortunate enough to be graced with the ladybug’s presence gently releases it to the wind. Contrast this with, say, the also-harmless-but-horned rhinoceros beetle, whose impromptu appearance on a shirt sleeve is generally greeted with gasps, followed by exaggerated attempts to remove it and then murder it where it falls. Things are so much easier when you’re pretty.

Nature is always bringing me flowers.

As one might expect, the ladybug’s cosmopolitan grace and classical good looks have a positive effect on everything in her life. Not only is she never bothered with things like getting squashed under a boot heel, she also enjoys regular free meals. Because ladybugs are cute and they eat aphids (a.k.a. destructive ‘plant lice’), many gardeners love having them around to be cute and eat aphids. Who needs skills? Similarly, the Mall of America, a mega mall in Bloomington, Minnesota, has released, over the years, more than 20,000 ladybugs in its Camp Snoopy theme park as a natural form of pest control for the park’s indoor garden. The mall also gets the ladybugs whatever they want at Ann Taylor.

I’ve never been to Camp Snoopy.

With respect to their sanguine coloring, it should be noted that ladybugs are in possession of some smarts, too. Stick with us here. The ladybug is poisonous – she can emit a yellow alkaloid toxin from her joints that goes with her outfit and is, while noxious to her natural nemeses, mostly harmless to humans and other large animals who tend to adore her and thus overlook things like yellow alkaloid toxins secreted from arthropod joints.

But rather than proving this toxicity posthumously (i.e. after being eaten), she simply advertises the fact by being seen around town in bright red designer wings – a visual cue for ‘don’t even think about biting me, you loser.’ In other words, she’s broadcasting the message she’s literally drop-dead gorgeous. Or at minimum, drop dead unpleasant to take a bite out of.

Biologists call this colorful warning strategy aposematism. The idea is that a given predator eats one brightly-hued/toxic animal, gets sick and the next time they spot the same creature they think: ‘Oh, yeah. That thing.’ As this translates for the ladybug, life becomes less about kicking off her high heels and running away from small birds and more about rose bush hopping and fun and calling her friends from backstage at the Dave Matthews concert and saying, ‘Trish, you are not gonna believe this…’ And so forth.

Have I showed you this picture of me already? I did? Sorry. I was just checking to see if I showed you this picture of me already.

It turns out aposematic coloring works out well for both predator and prey, because each avoid harm with very little effort. Though nothing in the aposematism playbook says adorable and complementary colors are required. This is clearly the ladybug’s personal take on the whole thing. But it suits her, and serves as yet another reminder for the rest of us that cute pays in dividends.

Especially when the grades come in. As the ladybug always says after she’s had a few too many margaritas at the Mall of America food court, ‘Don’t hathe tha playa, hate the game, because, like, some people? Sometimes don’t like me becauthe I’m pretty and stuffff.’ Then she almost passes out and we all rush over to make sure she’s OK.

GRADE: A –