Vice Week continues with The Seven Deadly Sins. The next seven posts will describe an animal or animals that exemplify Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Envy, Wrath, Pride, and Lust. And no, “Sloth” will not be a Sloth, because I have already done the Sloth, because I cannot plan ahead.
When I think of animal gluttons, the first thing to come to mind is the Wolverine, whose other name is “the Glutton.” In fact, his scientific name, Gulo gulo, is Latin for “Glutton glutton.” The largest of the weasels, wolverines make up for in ferocity what they lack in stature. The adamantium skeleton doesn’t hurt, either.
You wanna dance, bub?
A wolverine can bring down a moose. They’re not particularly fast, but because of their broad feet they can outrun almost anything in deep snow. They’ve been known to challenge grizzly bears for a meal. And while they can eat a lot in one sitting, because they don’t eat often in those Arctic winters, they’re not the most gluttonous animal I can think of.
The sunbittern of Central and South America appears, at first glance, to be a very normal and nondescript water bird. This knee-high, heron-like hunter is cryptically colored to blend in with the leaf litter around the stream beds where it pecks at snails, frogs, and small fish.
But if the camouflage fails, and a predator or rival gets too close, the sunbittern unleashes its full fury:
Suddenly, the bird has disappeared and a bug-eyed beast from hell has materialized in its place. Today, we reconsider an ecological classic: false eyespots.
It is one thing to take flight from the ground. A push-off, a grab of air with your wings, and you’re up. It is another thing entirely to take off from the water. You can get a good running start, but once your body’s airborne you immediately feel the awful gravity of what we land-dwellers call “the real world.” You feel how heavy the sky.
The flying fish takes such a running start at almost 40 mph. It shoots from the water like a bullet and sails like a brief kite. Some of them have pectoral fins shaped like dragonfly wings, some like butterfly wings, but all have curved front edges like those of birds and airplanes. Merely gliding, it can stay airborne for 45 seconds. When it comes down after its initial flight, which may have reached 200 yards in length, it can skate on the surface of the water on the tip of its tail, zigzagging delicately on the waves for another 200 yards.
You will probably never see a purple frog. In order to see a purple frog, you very much have to be in the right place at the right time. The place: a tiny fraction of a tiny but biologically rich mountain range in Southern India called the Western Ghats. The time: the summer monsoons. If you come to the Western Ghats in October, or go anywhere else but that few hundred square miles of wet plateau in June, you and the purple frog will miss each other entirely.
It is a great round blob of an animal, the purple frog, with a hard, beak-like nose for breaking into termite tunnels. Its eyes seem too small, its stance pigeon-toed, its call sounds like that of a chicken. It is such an unusual animal that it’s surprising it wasn’t discovered until 2003. The reason it remained hidden so long is that the purple frog is subterranean, burying itself alive for most of the year until it hears the drumming of the monsoon rains on the earth above, and clambers up to the surface to mate.
The Art of being Buried Alive is not an easy one to master. It requires you to slow your metabolism to a crawl, to live as if hibernating, but without being asleep. It is a self-imprisonment during which you cannot dare to plan your escape, or you will go mad. I imagine you can’t think at all. The purple frog is not in complete stasis: it hunts termites, its heart beats. But mainly, it squats in the dirt and listens. Who knows if the purple frog’s mind remains safely dreamless and null as it waits in the earth. Perhaps it does nothing but dream.
This waking hibernation has a name: estivation. For most animals that employ it, estivation happens during the dry summer months, but the Indian monsoon season starting in June makes the purple frog’s cycle unusual. Consider the lungfishes, those ancient and air-breathing fish whose shallow ponds which, for much of the year, do not exist. That’s right: there is a fish that can survive in a lake with no water. During the dry season, the lungfish buries itself in the mud, coats itself in a mucus cocoon, slows its breathing rate down to next-to-nothing, and estivates. It is awake. It waits for rain.
It’s been a long, dry summer.
There is a sea with no shores. It is bound on all sides by a gyre of ocean currents, and inside the sea it is as calm as a hurricane’s eye. So stagnant is the water that sargassum kelp chokes the surface of the ocean, giving it the appearance of a great, flat, unweeded garden. That sargassum gives it its name, the Sargasso Sea, though stories of ships becoming caught in tendrils of seaweed was pure myth. The tendency of ships to disappear in the Sargasso Sea had nothing to do with the seaweed and everything to do with the fact that there is no current and no wind, and so it earned the sort of superstitious infamy only sailors can invent: The Bermuda Triangle. The Horse Latitudes, so called because Spanish ships mired in its dead spot would jettison their war horses overboard to conserve water. The Doldrums.
Here are a few animals that thrive in The Doldrums.
Last night I was gazing at the full moon, as is my wont, and started thinking about werewolves, as is my wont, and wondering if the full moon really has any effect on human body chemistry. Thousands of years of mythology say yes, science says no. I wondered, then, where the myth might have come from; surely the full moon has an effect on something in nature? Ah, yes, I thought. The tides. And then I recalled a plain-looking little silver fish with a very ugly-sounding name.
You probably know that the tide is highest when your part of the Earth is closest to the moon, due to its gravitational pull. Why, then, are there two high tides every day? Simply put, the tide is high when you are 180 degrees from the moon, because then the moon’s pull on the Earth is greater than its pull on the water where you are. It’s not so much that the tide is high; it’s that the Earth is low. Hence, the ocean is slightly oval-shaped on top of the Earth’s sphere, with its highest points being nearest and furthest from the moon, and its narrowest points on the sides — the low tides.
What’s more, there are different types of high and low tides, depending on the moon’s phase, which depends on where it is, relative to us. When the moon is new, it is right between the Earth and the sun, a monthly phenomenon known as syzygy. The sun adds its gravitational pull to the moon’s, creating super-high tides known as spring tides. When the moon is at a quarter or three-quarters, the sun’s pull works against the moon’s pull, creating weak, super-low tides called neap tides. When the moon is full, it’s on the other side of the Earth from the sun and creates another spring tide, albeit not as strong as the new moon’s. It’s a little more complicated than this, but I’m not a physicist and you’re not a sailor.
Which brings us to today’s animal: The Grunion.
The other day we discussed adaptive radiation, the process by which a single ancestor can split into an aardvark, an elephant, a manatee and a mole. But how do species split from one another? Usually by being physically separated for a good amount of time. The obvious illustration would be a species radiating between islands, but “islands” can occur on land, too. Even within islands.
Rodents Of Unusual Size? I don’t think they… oh, there’s one.
Meet the Bosavi Woolly Rat, a cuddly cat-sized rodent and the largest rat in the world. What makes it remarkable isn’t just its size, but its location. It was discovered only last year in the Bosavi volcanic crater in Papua New Guinea, along with at least 40 other amazing animal species heretofore unknown to science and native only to this one crater, including a fanged frog, a fish that “grunts,” a marsupial called the Bosavi silky cuscus, a tree kangaroo, a new family of sleestaks, an ogre-faced spider that fishes for its prey, a new species of bat, the world’s smallest parrot, a new bird-of-paradise and caterpillars that collaborate to look like a snake. These creatures had no fear of humans, having probably never seen one before. After all, they’ve been walled inside an extinct volcano for 200,000 years.