Category Archives: Reptiles

A Natural History of Leopard Print

As both an animal enthusiast and a rockabilly aficionado, it should come as a surprise to no one that I am a huge fan of leopard print. The primal power of leopard print is rooted in two wildly divergent strains of retro glamour, simultaneously stirring up cultural memories of a time before color photography and a time before agriculture. It is 1955 C.E. and it is 19,055 B.C.E. It is Cadillacs and wildebeest, hippies and hunter-gatherers, Zulu royalty and the Rolling Stones, Mickey Hartigay & Jayne Mansfield and Adam & Eve.

And part of me wishes they HAD been Adam & Eve.

Leopard print has never gone out of style — and has probably never not been in style, somewhere on Earth. (Many paleontologists believe that dinosaurs wore leopard-like spots.) Perhaps the reason for its endurance is that its parents are these two very different nostalgias. One is a deep-seeded yearning for the Paleolithic and pre-civilization, a length of time far longer than post-civilization humanity, when we as a species were in a more even conversation with nature and depended more on our physical prowess, our animal senses, and our understanding of the wilderness. To be sure, there are many people on Earth who are not far removed from this lifestyle, but for those of us in the “first world,” nostalgia for the time of spears and shamans exists as a distant cultural memory, perhaps stitched into the threads of our genetic code, like a dream we can’t quite remember yet which tugs on our hearts upon waking. We cannot shake the feeling that something, somehow led us astray from our true identity as the human ape, and adorning ourselves in leopard print reminds us of our species’ connection to wildlife of the world and our once-intimate relationship to it.

The other type of nostalgia, of course, is this:

My perfect world: 80% leopard print, 20% babe.

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Water Into Wine

The Son of Man. The Lamb of God. The King of Kings. The Knave of Hearts. The Sultan of Swat. Jesus of Nazareth, also known as the Prince of Peace, and in America, the God of War, was said to perform a string of miracles at the beach town of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee in Israel. One of them involved catching a great deal of fish with one net. Another, feeding several thousand people with very little food. And yet another involved walking on water to meet a boat full of his disciples, who were caught in a sudden storm.

"Duuuuude! Watch out for that waaaaaaave!"

Now, Clarke’s Third Law states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So nowadays, the miracle of the modern fishing industry, with its deep-sea trawlers, 150-mile longlines, and space-age tracking and echolocation technology, ensure that our nets can catch hundreds of thousands of fish at a time. (Though not for much longer.) And genetic engineering, bolstered by mechanized farming and artificial fertilizers, ensures we can feed the multitudes. (Though not for much longer.) But biologically and technologically speaking, how miraculous is it to walk on water?

Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!

Not very, if you’ve got the right tools, and the right size. The most classic example of animal locomotion on the water’s surface is the water striders, or water skaters, or water scooters, or any of the other collective names for these 500 species of insects that make up the Gerridae family. They are hunters that use surface tension to their advantage; where prey might swim, they float like a bubble. Their short front legs are for grabbing, their middle pair for “skating,” and the hind pair act as rudders. The secret to their unsinkability is the hydrophobic hairs on their legs. Each leg is covered in thousands of fine filaments called microsetae that spread the weight out on the water’s electric “skin” of surface tension, and the grooves in each filament trap tiny air bubbles which add to their buoyancy. So powerful is the effect that a water strider could carry fifteen times its own weight and still remain afloat, and a few species have even adapted to walk the waves of the open ocean.

The ability to walk on water kind of goes to their heads.

But it’s not only insects that have the ability to walk on water. A few reptiles have also evolved to stay high and dry. And more advanced insects have discovered not just how to walk on water, but how to turn water into wine.

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Five Feet High and Rising

The creek behind my uncle’s house here in Western Ohio is flooding; normally a laconic and nameless little tributary with quietly dipping mallards, last night’s thunderstorm and rapidly melting snow has raised the water level almost twelve feet and transformed it into a swollen, churning torrent. As I sit here watching the lawn furniture and Fisher Price playsets rush downstream, I thought it’d be appropriate to talk about animals for whom floods are home.

I’ve written before about the flooded forests of the Amazon basin, the Amazon river dolphin in particular, but it’s worth another visit. The Amazon is sometimes referred to as the River Sea, and the reason why becomes clear when the water level rises 30 feet and covers three times its already substantial area. During the Spring floods, a gondola navigating the trees in the rainforest might come upon a pair of giant otters chasing each other through the water, or glide into a mysterious pool of shimmering gold which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a school of piranhas. Here in the varzea, the underwater forest, the Amazonian manatee does the dead man’s float while grazing on submerged meadows, and the anaconda rolls like water boiling. And if you’re lucky, you may find the dragon of the Amazon: the arapaima.

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Shiver

If you’re anywhere north of Florida right now, you have probably had it up to here with this winter $#!*. The human body changes in the colder months, as even in heated homes we simply spend more energy thermoregulating our bodies minute-to-minute. Besides gaining “winter weight,” we do something almost unique to mammals and birds: we shiver. When the body’s core temperature drops below a critical threshold, our muscles involuntarily twitch to generate heat. While exercising in the cold does heat the body somewhat, which is why your dad always told you to suck it up when you were out shoveling the driveway, most heat generated by exercise goes to waste as it is flung into the atmosphere. Shivering produces a nice, constant, and most importantly, internal heat that keeps the hypothermia at bay. Heat generation is unique to us “endotherms,” or what used be known as the “warm-blooded” animals. But there are always exceptions to the rule. If you can start a fire by rubbing two sticks together fast enough, it’s possible for even a cold-blooded snake to keep a fire inside.

Not pictured: About twelve feet and partially-digested goat.

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Pseudocidal Tendencies

If you want to know how to fake your own death, you have many exemplary mentors to choose from: Andy Kaufman. Tupac Shakur. Elvis Presley. Jesus Christ. Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The art of pseudocide is a revered tradition throughout human history. The most popular way to fake death is by drowning, as it eliminates the need to provide a body, though the 9/11 attacks also provided a convenient excuse for escape artists to vanish into thin air. The motives for pseudocide are many: most folks who fake death are evading the law, but there’s always the ever-popular publicity stunt, or fraudulent collection of life insurance. Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, faked his death and fled to Paraguay in 1966 to avoid jail time for possession of marijuana. “Lord” Timothy Dexter, a New England businessman and famous kook, faked his death in the early 1800’s just to see how people would react. (His wife refused to cry at his funeral, for which he later caned her.) Connie Franklin faked his death by homicide in 1929. Later that year, the “Arkansas Ghost” was discovered in a nearby county and was brought to court to testify at his own murder trial.

Elvis Presley: Currently 75 years old, a Walmart greeter in Boca Raton, and 500 lbs.

But pseudocide isn’t just a lame plot device or a conspiracy theory for fans who can’t cope with a celebrity death. (I know you’re reading this, Stephen Jay Gould!) Animals use the tactic of faking their deaths to get out of a pinch, just as humans do. You know it by its more common name: playing possum.

The larval stage of the Virginia Opossum, before it metamorphoses into its final "roadkill" phase.

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Serpentine

It’s Kung Fu Week on The Quantum Biologist! Chinese martial arts have been imitating the hunting and defense styles of animals for thousands of years. What can we learn about the animals from the fighting styles? Shaolin Kung Fu has five major animal styles: Tiger, Panther, Crane, Snake, and Dragon. But there are many subcategories from other regions, including Horse, Mantis, Monkey, Frog, and even Duck. We’ll examine three this week.

Love them or loathe them, you have to admit there are few animals so hypnotic to watch move as a snake. With no legs to focus on, the snake seems to move with all parts of its body at once, one fluid and graceful length of momentum. This fluidity, paired with its quick, explosive attacks, is what is mimicked by the kung fu masters of the Snake Style.

Snake Style is primarily a Southern Chinese specialty, characterized by a low stance, quick footwork, and hands held up like twin cobras and stiffened into spears for striking pressure points with blinding speed: eyes, groin, joints, and major blood vessels. Circular parries and attacks may be what best define Snake Style; the arms imitate a snake’s body while striking the opponent from unusual angles. The spirit of the style shares the low, quick, accuracy-obsessed aspects of Mantis with the flexible, slippery, sinuous grace of Crane. A Snake fighter seems to be everywhere and nowhere at once, constantly moving and evading blows, like her namesake. It was popularized in movies by both Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, whose small stature and legendary speed lent itself well to the style. Legend has it that the modern Snake Style is an amalgam of what were originally several styles modeled after different species: the coil-and-strike venomous snakes like the viper and the cobra, and the bite-and-constrict method of the python.

So let’s reverse-engineer the kung fu style to find out how snakes really fight. When two snakes go at it, it usually comes down to a matter of wrestling one or the other into submission, and indeed the kung fu style allows for such grappling techniques. But since the style mainly mimics the coil-and-strike method of terrestrial venomous strikes, we’ll focus on that. Like most animals, snakes would strongly prefer not to fight; fleeing or hiding is the first response to a threat, and failing that, warning coloration, or an inflated hood, or emission of noxious smells, or rattling usually gets the message across. (And it isn’t just rattlesnakes that rattle; many species shake the tips of their tails in order to rustle dead leaves.) Only when there’s a complete failure to communicate will it defend itself. A snake such as a viper or cobra can attack from any position, but the classic defense posture is the coiled pedestal: two-thirds of the body is wrapped in a circle on the ground, while the top third forms a wave pattern, so that it can strike and return from a standstill.

Snake for "Eff Off."

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The Subterraneans

Underground! From rabbit warrens to nuclear fallout shelters, it’s a great place to hide out. If you’re a terrestrial vertebrate, the safest place you could conceivably be is underground, where you’re protected by a temperature-stable bunker, an ocean of dirt, rocks, and roots. But it’s one thing to dig a burrow, and another to spend all your time underground, swimming through the soil. If you’re a full-time tunneler, there are really just two body types you can evolve to fit: the “mole” model, and the “earthworm” model.

Consider the difficulties of underground travel. You don’t want to be too large, or digging would be exhausting. You don’t want large eyes, which would be useless and become full of grit. You’ll need a keen sense of smell and touch, as you’re likely to be finding food by chemical and tactile signals rather than visual ones. This star-nosed mole from North America is a great example of the mole archetype: small, compact, wedge-shaped, with sealed-off eyes and ears, powerful front claws, and 22 fleshy appendages that are among the most sensitive touch receptors in the animal kingdom. Star-nosed moles are true swimmers; they breaststroke through soil, but are also quite adept at catching prey in the water. Moles are insectivores, related to that most ancient of mammals, the shrew. But thanks to the awesome power of convergent evolution, you don’t have to be related to the moles to become a mole.

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