We’ve covered regenerative creatures, methuselah creatures, and immortal creatures. Today’s post is about ephemeral creatures.

The shortest-living animal in the world is the gastrotrich, a microscopic aquatic creature complete with a mouth, cilia, and guts. Its lifespan: 3 days. It experiences birth, all the sensory pleasures and agonies of life, and the existential horror of death in roughly the same amount of time I go between shaves.

Close your eyes. (No, wait, open them so you can read this.) Now, think about everything you’ve done since this time on Saturday.

Okay, now imagine that’s everything you ever got to do. Satisfying life?

Like a candle in the wind.

More interesting to me is the mayfly, the totem animal of ephemerality. It’s not that mayflies are short-lived insects; they live over a year. But almost all of that time is spent in their nymph phase. (Insect “nymphs” are one of nature’s most disappointing misnomers. Instead of looking like smoking hot, horny naiad chicks, they look like scary aquatic earwigs.) But when they do get hot n’ horny, they molt into their adult phase, complete with glassy wings, long erotic tail, and two sets of gonads for both males and females. Their only purpose left in life is to fuck. In fact, their mouthparts are vestigial and useless, and their guts are empty. They will mate as much as possible, lay eggs, and die. Their adult lifespan is as little as half an hour.

What’s fascinating to me about mayflies is that the adult phase is like an exquisite orchid flower capping the long stem of their life as a juvenile. Or, perhaps not so much orchid as day lily. But look at it; how could such a sublimely designed animal not be compared to an orchid? It is as if its life on Earth as a nymph — brown, banal, practical, surviving by scuttling in the anonymous muck — is justified by one magical night dancing on the surface of the lake it’s spent its whole life beneath, flying with crystalline wings and brand-new gown at an imperial ball of thousands.

With only half an hour to find a dance partner, you might say it’s desperate. I bet it’s also fun, if insects have a sense of fun. For mayflies, their adult bodies are their sex organs, just as a flower is the sex organ of its plant — except this flower exists in time, not space. The twin attractive forces of sex and death are inseparable for the mayfly. Its petite mort is followed by the great one. Its body is transformed into its piece de résistance, its last wish granted. Between a hard life in the mud and total oblivion: one perfect bite of dessert, one dance on the sunlit water, one supreme satisfaction of the insect soul.


About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

2 responses to “Ephemera

  • minnesotamicrophone

    “Its petite mort is followed by the great one.”

    Nerd. (I love it.)

  • Curtis X Meyer

    “[A] brand-new gown at an imperial ball of thousands.”

    Only you could find a way to romanticize insects. Though I am equally taken with the ugly duckling quality of the mayfly’s plight, I imagine less a grand ball, more a group of horny teenagers ala’ American Pie:

    “C’mon guys! This is going to be the night we remember for the rest of our lives!”

    Seriously, I’m waiting for The Quantum Biologist book, book tour, appearance on Colbert, et cetera.

    Oh and by the way, the best part of this post is the Terminix ad at the bottom, courtesy of Google ads.

    Keep up the good work comrade. You’ve got me reading the site every day.


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