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 (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.
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.