Category Archives: Ungulates

Dog Whistles & Subwoofers

Last Friday’s horrific earthquake and tsunami in Japan got me thinking about the last major tsunami in memory, the cataclysmic Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Much was made of the fact that, though entire towns were leveled by the flood, very few wild animals perished. It seems that about eight hours before the tsunami hit the shore, there was a massive migration of animals to higher ground. What tipped them off? The infrasonic sound of the approaching wave rumbling under their feet. And when I think of infrasound, the first animal I think of is the giraffe.

Really? I don't remember saying anything.

Why the giraffe? Why not a well-known basso profundo like the elephant? I have written about giraffes before, mainly in the context of how incredibly gay they are. But I’ve never written about their songs.

It was thought for centuries that giraffes were practically mute. Like rabbits, they were only known to make sounds in times of distress or courtship: whinnies, bleats, snorts, coughs, and even the occasional groan, mew, or bellow. But it was presumed that, for the most part, giraffes were simply very tall wallflowers. Then, in 1998, a bioacoustician named Elizabeth von Muggenthaler borrowed some high-tech equipment and discovered that giraffes are actually extremely talkative. They’re simply having a conversation below our range of hearing.

That giraffes are basses should have been obvious from the necks.

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What the Heck?

Once upon a time in South Africa, there lived a curious zebra that only had half its stripes. It was called the Quagga, and the Dutch and British colonialists didn’t know quite what to make of it, for it only had stripes on the front half of its body, and those stripes were so variable in their waviness that naturalists couldn’t be sure if there was only one species, or many. While the scientists pondered this question, the hunters kindly answered for it for them by blasting the quagga into extinction. Now there were no species!

Then, in 1971, a South African naturalist named Reinhold Rau, following a challenge proposed by German biologist Lutz Heck, decided to try to bring back the quagga, even though the last one had died in a zoo in 1840. After all, what is a quagga but a zebra with a plain brown butt? DNA analysis of quagga remains in 1980 further encouraged Rau: it turned out that the quagga was not its own species, but a sub-species of Plains Zebras. Rau embarked on his mad mission, visiting the world’s zoos and selecting Plains Zebras to breed. Finally, in 2005, a foal named Henry was born with the trademark quagga quirks. Party up front, business in the back. But Henry presented a new conundrum: if it walks like a quagga, and eats like a quagga, and is striped like a quagga, is it a quagga? Is it possible to recreate natural selection through artificial selection? Can you bring an extinct species back from the dead? Well, the quagga isn’t the first animal we’ve tried to put back together from missing pieces.

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The name comes from the Sanskrit word for “testicle.” It is not a single chemical compound, but rather a single scent that can be produced by many different chemical structures and many different plants and animals. But the scent we call “musk” gained favor with humans with one little Asian deer, a shy and humble creature that touched off a revolution in human sexuality.

“Shy and humble” aren’t adjectives generally used to describe animals that look like vampires. But though the primitive musk deer makes up for its lack of antlers with freaky fangs, or tusks, used for defending itself against predators and rivals, it is otherwise quite peaceful. The musk deer belongs to an older class of deer than your modern white-tail, and the enlarged canines and absence of antlers are only the most obvious indicators. Others include the presence of a gallbladder; the absence of facial glands; the possession of only one pair of nipples; and, in males, a sexual musk gland located on its belly, near the genitals. For this gland, the otherwise gentle, leaf-browsing musk deer has been chased by hunters through the forests of the southern Himalayas for thousands of years, almost all the way to extinction.

How did humans acquire a lust for the scent of a tiny organ in a small, reclusive deer found only in montane South Asia?

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Heart of Darkness

We’ve had a few theme weeks here on The Quantum Biologist: Shark Week, Ant Week, and Vice Week. Today we begin a new theme week: Old Dead White Naturalist Guy Week! This week is an homage to the courageous, pith-helmeted, mustachioed white men of the 19th century who ventured to the far corners of the globe in the name of science, enlightenment, empire, or just adventure, along with the fascinating animals they “discovered.” (Sir Pilkington-Smythe should be pleased.) I’ll avoid the obvious names, like Darwin and Wallace and Audubon, in order to give credit to those whose names are less-remembered by the modern public. Whether for brilliance, bravado, or simply eccentricity, these are men I believe deserve greater fame.

Or, in this case, infamy.

Sir Henry Morton Stanley was not a naturalist. He was an explorer, and probably the model for exactly what you imagine when you think of the phrase “pith-helmeted, mustachioed white men.” Welsh-born and American-raised, Stanley was a hard-pressed foreign correspondent for a New York newspaper when he was tapped to head the expedition to find rock star Scottish missionary Dr. David Livingstone, last seen gadding about the Dark Continent. It was Stanley who coined the phrase “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”, though there is no evidence that he ever uttered the phrase when he finally found Dr. Livingstone in Tanzania. (Livingstone does not mention it, and for reasons mysterious to the world, Stanley tore out the pages of his diary detailing the encounter.)

Real men keep diaries.

That phrase is the most the average modern person knows about Sir Henry Morton Stanley. You can vaguely conjure an image of him in his khakis, bushwhacking his way through cannibal territory, hacking snakes with a machete and waxing his mustache with his free hand. What people forget is the utter, unmitigated brutality of this man, who was really nothing more than a flag-planting pawn for European powers carving up the African continent for their own appetites. Stanley’s expedition to find Livingstone was half media event, half mission of conquest; his 7,000 mile route from Zanzibar to Tanzania was claimed by England, while Stanley’s New York Herald sold record papers. After another newspaper-financed expedition down the River Congo, during which he lost 242 of the 356 members of his entourage — a full 2/3rds, he was commissioned by King Leopold II to map out the Congo and claim it for Belgium. Leopold II’s conquest of the Free State of Congo is one of the most brutal in modern times, amounting to nothing less than enslavement and genocide, with over half the Congolese dying under Belgium’s rubber bootheel. Stanley’s baggage train traveled in long routes through Africa to claim the greatest amount of land, spreading disease and violence where ever they went. Stanley himself was said by one peer to “shoot negroes as if they were monkeys.”

So why is Stanley the subject of my post? Following yesterday’s essay on cryptozoology, I wanted to write on a mammal that Stanley didn’t find himself, but “discovered” through local rumor. It is one of the most elusive mammals in the world for its size — so elusive that it was not scientifically described until the 20th century and was not photographed alive in the wild until 2008. It’s the okapi.

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Of the seven deadly sins, Envy is my least favorite. It is the only one that offers no pleasure at all in having it, and which necessarily can never be fulfilled. While it is fun to sleep in, gorge yourself, get laid, get paid, and dress up, it is absolutely no fun to want what’s not yours. Even Wrath, while technically an unwanted emotion, is a guilty pleasure at times, a green, intoxicating gamma-ray cocktail of adrenaline, testosterone, and bile. But Envy? Envy is a sulking sin. It whines like a child whose sibling got the front seat. It screams like a man in love with a married woman. Envy, an unchecked desire, is the root of all pain. It is samsara.

So you might think that envy is the one vice that is truly human. But think again. Animals can possess things (food, mates, nests, territories, physical attributes), and where ever there’s possession, envy is sure to follow. It’s especially prevalent in social animals that have fluid hierarchies. Primates are well-known for jealousy: female gorillas offer non-procreative sex when they see other females mating with the silverback, just to curry favor with him, and capuchin monkeys are far less likely to cooperate with researchers when other monkeys were given better treats. Elephants show jealousy, especially sibling rivalry. And a recent study of dogs found that, in what should be no surprise to dog owners, dog become envious when other dogs receive more attention or better rewards. Birds, too, feel envy and jealousy, and not just those sociable, evil-eyed parrots. When it comes to mates, even bluebirds, those harbingers of marital bliss, are known to become abusive husbands when they suspect infidelity.

With envy so ubiquitous in the animal kingdom, but mainly only proven in domesticated lab animals, which wild animal can I pick to represent Envy? For the answer, I turn back to the King James Bible. Maybe it’s not an envious animal, but the object of envy:

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that [is] thy neighbour’s.

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In prehistoric Africa lived a beast that terrorized our hominid ancestors like no other creature in history. In fact, it killed more early humans than lions, crocodiles, and water buffalo combined. With over two tons of bulk and sharp, foot-long tusks – its skin oozing a red viscous liquid that made it appear to be sweating blood – one of these monsters would attack suddenly for no reason, charging out of the water far faster than its hapless human prey could run, snapping their entire body in half with a massive bite. But it didn’t eat its victims – it was an herbivore. It killed simply because it was 8,000 lbs of testosterone-fueled rage.

The scary thing is: It’s still around. And everything that was true then is true now. It’s the deadliest, most wrathful animal in the world.

And it’s hungry, hungry.

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The Tiger Farm

Don’t ask me how I got to Kalmykia.

It had something to do with the president of Kalmykia, the only Buddhist republic in Europe. Part of the Russian Federation, located between the Black and Caspian Seas, the Republic of Kalmykia is run by an eccentric genius named Kirsan Ilyumzhinov: Conservationist, publisher, ex-president of the World Chess Federation, and according to recent news, alien abductee. My circuitous route through the study of Kalmykia brought me to one of its most peculiar animals: the Saiga antelope.

Look at that schnoz! The saiga’s elephantine nose is well-suited to the tundra: in the winter, it warms up cold air before it hits the lungs, and in the summer, it filters out the dust. During the last ice age, they roamed from England to Alaska. At the end of the 1800’s, they still roamed from the Carpathians to Mongolia. By 1920, they were almost extinct, restricted to central Eurasian countries like Kalmykia. Why? Because conservation groups and governments encouraged hunting them as a substitute for the white rhino, claiming that their horns could take the place of the white rhino’s horn in traditional Chinese medicine. Boiled rhino horn is used to treat fever, convulsions, and delirium. Elephant skin for acne. Bear bile for heart and liver conditions. Tiger bone for rheumatism.

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