Monthly Archives: November 2008

The Turkey

As some 45 million turkeys come to terms with their own mortality at the insistence of the poultry-industrial complex this month, it seems as good a time as any for a review of this distinctly American bird. Well, this mostly American bird – Canada, Mexico, and Central America are home to some subspecies. And they’ve been spotted in Europe (transplanted, ex-patria all). Basically, turkeys are American in the way that basketball is American – the phenomenon originated here and is absolutely woven into the existential fabric of our country1, but occasionally our hand-picked turkey Dream Team will inexplicably lose in the Olympic semifinals to Greece. Still, we own this thing.

turkey1

Portrait of the artist as a young fryer.

The turkey most of us know today (corpulent, encased in reinforced plastic, its severed neck and a sack of its vital organs conveniently inserted into its own chest cavity by the helpful folks at Butterball) is a domesticated descendant of Meleagris gallopavo (lit. ‘Preheat oven to 250’), commonly known as the wild turkey. And although both domesticated and wild turkeys go perfectly with cranberry sauce and vitriolic political arguments with your entire extended family – there are some notable differences.

The single most important distinction is that wild turkeys can fly – at respectable speeds up to 50 miles per hour. By contrast, while their portly domesticated counterparts are genetically built for flying – and tend to flap their wings in some vestigial memory of flight – they find themselves perpetually grounded by a staunch, well-organized group who call themselves The Universal Laws of Physics. Simply put, domesticated turkeys are way too fat to slip the surly bonds of earth and touch the face of God. For most of these animals, it would be too much to ask for them to touch their toes. Thus you will find fighter jets with names like F-15 Eagle and F-22 Raptor, but you will never watch a squadron of F-24 Domesticated Turkeys buzz the Rose Bowl, trailing tight curls of super-heated stuffing-flavored exhaust from their afterburners. Clearly, the Air Force Naming Team knows what’s up.2

Another key difference is that wild turkeys can actually run at about 20 mph. This capacity, along with keen eyesight, a quick-to-panic mentality, and the aforementioned ability to fly earn wild turkeys a great deal of respect from bird hunters throughout the country, though this esteem is not enjoyed by the domesticated turkey for patently obvious reasons.

turkey2

‘Running? Nah. Too boring. Plus it hurts my knees.’

But ask any well-experienced hunter about wild turkey hunting, and he will mostly likely chuckle, stroke his chin, adjust his belt that not only clasps his jean shorts taut but also holds his massive cell phone in a leather pouch with a Velcro seal, and then say, ‘That’s why there are supermarkets.’ Then he’ll wait for you to laugh at his joke, and you’ll let out a forced chuckle.  Then you’ll look at the floor, confused, and only then will you realize that he means that hunting turkey is very hard. Now late to the joke party, you’ll say, ‘It’s tough, huh?’ And he’ll say, ‘Yup. You gotta be totally camouflaged, including your gun, tied to a tree, hoping they don’t run off before you get a shot. The calls take too long to learn. They’re very smart and they’re not easily fooled. Better you just go to the market and buy one.’ Then you’ll thank him for his time, grab your Department of Fish and Game map, and leave his sporting goods store as quickly as possible.

turkey3

Whoever coined the term ‘turkey shoot’ never met Ned.

Back to domesticated turkeys, it turns out that being flightless, overweight and unable to run from impending decapitation is not the end of their problems. To add insult to injury, we humans also openly mock them as stupid. And not just in the plain old ‘You’re-a-domesticated-turkey-so-what-do-you-know?’ way – but as deeply and profoundly dim. In fact, the term ‘turkey’ has become such a generalized insult that the wild variety resent their domesticated cousins more and more each year, to the point that wild turkeys undertook the process of legally changing their name to Smith a dozen years ago but were rebuffed by the awful mess they made of the paperwork.

Tension

The clerk barely got through the first page before giving up.

Even as we plot to preserve their juiciness in the oven, we still perpetuate undignified rumors about turkeys, perhaps to ameliorate our guilt over eating them, perhaps to just make ourselves feel smarter. Here’s one rumor widely-whispered: Turkeys are so dumb they will stare up into a rainstorm until they drown. Here’s another: Turkeys consistently confuse astrology with astronomy. Not a good sign.

While the latter may be true, it’s also true of many animals. And as to the first rumor, it’s simply untrue that the turkey is dumb enough to drown itself. This has been confirmed by poultry scientist Tom Savage of Oregon State University who was the first to realize that an underlying genetic abnormality called tetanic torticollar spasms causes turkeys to look up at the sky for no apparent reason – a behavior that’s roughly akin to an uncontrollable nervous tic – not a sign of stupidity. Having proven this, Dr. Savage then concluded his paper with the sentence ‘Well, that wasn’t a horrible waste of research dollars at all.’

In short, the turkey has gotten a bum rap, most of it due to people’s decision to domesticate a great number of them. These soft, sad birds are like obese teenagers who look lazy, shiftless, and weak – but the truth is that the fault lies with us. We gave them too many calories and stopped expecting them to toughen up or exercise – and then mock the result, when we really are just angry with ourselves. One need only look out towards the impressive wild turkey to see its true potential. Would that we let them develop it. In the meantime, there’s a ton of leftover turkey in the fridge if you want any. Assuming you can manage to get off the couch.

GRADE: B

(A for taste)

1To the point that Benjamin Franklin proposed it as the national bird, though as anyone who’s read much about Franklin’s later-life habits – or gazed at a picture of him in his coonskin cap – would agree that, whatever his many qualities, aesthetics was not among them.

2Being assigned to the Naming Team is the plum job in the Air Force, since it requires actual work only once every seven to twelve years when a new airplane is introduced. It’s nearly impossible to get, so don’t bother. And if a recruiter promises that he can get you a guaranteed slot on the Naming Team if you just agree to sign here, here, here, here, here, and here – then rest assured, he’s definitely tricking you, and you’re probably going to end up in the Never-Ending Pushup Squadron.

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North American Mountain Goat

Not to overstate the somber lesson of the zebra, but the very first thing you learn in a veterinary comparative anatomy course is that, as a general rule of thumb, animals indigenous to North America are pretty lame compared to their counterparts in the rest of the world. That’s not to say that animals such as rattlesnakes and Bobcats are boring per se. But compare a Bobcat to a Siberian tiger or place a rattler side-by-side with a King Cobra (nota bene: you will instantly regret doing this), and you’re left with the inescapable conclusion that many North American fauna are rapidly falling behind.

Let’s face facts. Our eagles are bald, our trout are swimming at third-grade levels, the star-nosed mole is an unmitigated disaster, and, with the extinction of the American mastodon, 100 percent of our circus elephants are now imported from overseas. And to think North America was once home to the Tyrannosaurus Rex. These days it’s become so bad that even our myths fall short. The Pacific Northwest’s grainy, 18-frames-per-second Bigfoot vs. Nepal’s laser-eyed (apparently) Yeti? Game over.

yetivsbigfoot3

Even North America’s pretend animals are clearly outmatched.

However, all is not lost. There is, of course, the Bear Category, where the American Grizzly regularly defeats China’s panda in under ten seconds (including the three-count). What’s more, there is also a shining hero of an exception in the Goat Division: the North American mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus, lit. ‘Mountain Goat American’). A large, sure-footed, attractive, aggressive, even-toed ungulate, the North American mountain goat manages to at least achieve parity with high-altitude goats across the globe. Even its harshest international rivals, when pressed, will admit it’s rather cool.

mountaingoat

‘Any of you Gobi Desert wild camels wanna climb up here and try to knock me off? Japanese snow monkeys? Koala bears? Anyone? That’s what I thought.’

Sure, reflexively anti-American critics will point out that there are mountain goats in the world with much larger horns. But longer horns likely mean a more competitive mating environment, meaning that the North American mountain goat is, when it comes to mating, confident enough in himself to keep his horns to an understated length. His are horns that say, ‘Sure, I got horns – here they are – but there’s so much more to me than just horns coming out of my head.’

markhor

Pakistan’s high-altitude Markhor might be competitive were it not for the wine openers. Also, he reeks of cologne.


ibex

Likewise, the Ibex of Africa and Eurasia has cleared 22,000 feet but is disqualified by the bike rack, which is incredibly inconvenient to hook up to his rented Lamborghini.

Moreover, the American sense of restraint so present in our mountain goats’ culture doesn’t make them less effective, nor does it stop them from butting heads so hard that their hoofs sometimes fall off. Apparently less is more (though it can also result in fewer hooves).

Their first criticism rebuffed, the Le Monde columnists will likely then fall back on the old trope of scoffing at the relatively lower altitudes achieved by North American mountain goats. Yes, the reality is that North America’s mountains simply leave much to be desired, with not even one in the top 50 peaks. But let’s please not go punishing goats for the lack of compression forces in the lithospheric plates deep beneath their feet. If it were there, they would certainly climb it.

Most independent experts agree that mountain goats should be judged on two qualities: skill and looks. And the North American mountain goat more than holds its own in both departments.

First up, these animals can jump about twelve feet on their strong, thick legs. When they eventually land (on some precarious cliff in the Rocky or Cascade Mountains up to about 13,000 feet), it’s on split cloven hooves, each with two widespread toes to increase balance. Better yet, their hooves sport a unique super-grip surface that provides additional traction. This is why you have never seen poorly-shot video of a mountain goat slipping and falling into a wedding cake on America’s Funniest Home Videos. They climb ferociously, without oxygen tanks or ropes or sherpas or gorp or pretentious lecturing about how awesome Denver is. They effortlessly navigate inclines greater than 60 degrees with ease, never once bringing up some long-ago post-climb trip to a Denver-area microbrewery. And just to show what fearless adventurers they are, females prefer to birth their young up on the highest peaks they can find. For the North American mountain goat, it’s all about the thrill of the climb (and avoiding wolves). Never once is Denver mentioned.

As far as looks go, the North American mountain goat has a beard, which is because it’s a mountain climber who likes having a warm face. Even the females have beards. That’s how hardcore they are. They also have thick, beautiful, white coats to protect them against extreme temperatures reaching 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius).

There is one area where the mountain goat, well, falls down. They don’t have good mountain climber names. Male mountain goats are called ‘billies,’ the females are ‘nannies’ and, indicating a complete lack of imagination, they refer to their kids as ‘kids.’ Those who have seen Stallone’s Cliffhangar or read Krakauer’s Into Thin Air know that serious climbers should really go by names like Walker, Tucker, Weathers and Hall. Markhor and Ibex were on the right track here, but then they overshot things by adding techno music to their website.

billie

Can we at least call him ‘Billie the Kid’?

Names aside, the North American mountain goat is a living tribute to all that is good and right with the continent: understated competence, a willingness to take risks, and a rich tradition of high-altitude birthing.

So well done, North American mountain goat. Here’s to you.

GRADE: B+/A-

Mosquito

The term ‘mosquito’ comes from the Spanish meaning ‘little fly,’ or ‘my shoes are sad,’ depending upon which region of Latin America you happen to be saying it in. Pretty much all reasonable people hate mosquitoes, and for excellent cause. Every waking moment, all over the world, mosquitoes are plotting to abscond with our precious blood. And the manner in which they carry out this sub rosa crime is surprisingly clever and underhanded. When all is considered, the modus operandi of the mosquito is less like that of an annoying winged arthropod and more like something you’d see in the Oceans Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen series. Instead of piles of cash in a casino, it’s the tasty blood flowing through a high-security mammal that they’re after. And so the game begins.

misquito1

‘Are you in or out?’

To be sure, the mosquito (Family Culicidae, Lit. ‘Flying Grifter’) is one high-tech criminal. For starters, they’re equipped with chemical sensors that can detect trace amounts of CO2 and octenol in your exhalations. That’s how they find and track large sources of blood (they call them ‘marks’) from a distance. Once at close range, the mosquito surveils from a fake plumber’s van, then switches to thermal receptors on their antennae to guide them the last few meters – often in the dark. By the way, it’s the female mosquitoes who do all the biting. Apparently, they require large amounts of iron and protein to sustain their eggs. Why this has suddenly become our problem, we’ll never know. But it somehow has.

With a suitable iron-rich mark selected, the mosquito lands and deploys a microsurgical instrument called a proboscis, which was previously constructed to the mosquito’s exact specifications by the Don Cheadle character. Among other curious things, the proboscis contains two tubes – one used to withdraw blood and the other to inject special saliva. Why the special saliva? The reasons will be laid bare as the plot unfolds.

In order to feast on our blood for the minute or so she requires, the mosquito must suppress and somehow overcome a massively redundant, top-notch security system. Like casinos and their cash, we humans aren’t exactly giving away blood. We actively discourage crimes throughout our sprawling vascular system with myriad, expensive (w/r/t energy) defenses. For starters, there’s our complicated clotting mechanisms with their infamous plasma coagulation factors. Past that, there’s the vasoconstriction pathways which limit blood loss by reducing the diameter of the vessels carrying said blood. On top of that, there’s our sophisticated immune system with its swift, local inflammation response (plus red lasers criss-crossing the floor). And finally, let’s not forget the world’s most advanced central and peripheral nervous systems that continually monitor everything and instantly inform us of an intrusion in any sector, however slight.

misquito2

A T-cell rushes from the thymus. And that’s IF you make it past the plasma coagulation factors.

A daunting task by any measure. But it’s a walk in the park for the female mosquito, even without the help of a small Chinese acrobat. She’s smooth, cool and professional. After landing, she removes her flight helmet, releases her long flowing hair from a bun, and jams her proboscis through the skin to begin probing for a vessel. She then injects a biochemical cocktail specifically formulated for the task at hand. Mosquito saliva contains an anticoagulant and a molecule to counteract vasoconstriction. Together, these chemicals keep our vessels wide open for business while she loads the duffle bags.

She also injects us with a mild pain killer (to buy her some time) and numerous other molecules that scientists believe may further suppress our immune system’s inflammation responses. In essence, these techniques are the biological equivalent of patching pre-recorded video of vacant rooms and hallways into the casino’s TV surveillance system. The brain (security HQ) has no idea what’s going on. Alas, her tricks work only temporarily – maybe for a few minutes — but that’s all she needs to get in and get out with the loot.

In the end, we’re left with a big pile of missing blood, and an itchy red bump – the mosquito’s calling card – which we notice as our immune and nervous systems finally come back online. Great work, immune and nervous systems. Thanks. Way to be. Of course, as the mosquito flies off into the night, there’s one more surprise in store for us. Depending on our geography, we might also now have any number of additional problems1 including malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, West Nile virus, encephalitis and even elephantiasis2.

Here’s where the mosquito looks back over her shoulder and sneers, ‘That should keep ‘em busy for awhile.’ Or just makes a buzzing sound.

Roll credits.

Grade: C

(The final grade may surprise you. Sure, there’s a great case to be made for failing the animal that kills more people annually than any other, except Great White Sharks. And without a doubt, the world would be a happier place minus mosquitos. But that being said, you have to respect a criminal who can pull off a job like this.)

1 Each year, more than 700 million people will be affected by a mosquito-borne disease. To fully grasp how dramatic that number is, imagine 700 million people, all of whom are affected by an illness they got from a mosquito.

2 The one where you get the huge scrotum. Gross. Also note the proper spelling (and associated pronunciation), elephantIASIS. Not elephantITIS. Just saying. Oh and it’s caused by a microscopic parasitic worm. Double gross.