Category Archives: Lizards & Allies

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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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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Third Eye

What is the “third eye”? Is it a mystical part of the brain that acts as a gateway to a higher consciousness? Is it a cheap cliche used by hackneyed slam poets? Well, yes… at least to the last one. The concept of a “third eye” dates back thousands of years in the Hindu tradition, as a literal and figurative organ which allows one to “see” the future, auras, and the face of true knowledge. But before you start trying to access your sixth chakra to achieve clairvoyance, it might be helpful to talk to an animal that actually has a third eye, and ask it what it’s good for.


I will make your head explode with my mind.

The tuatara, a reptile endemic to New Zealand, is a curiosity in every right. Though it looks like a lizard, it’s not; its lineage can be traced back to the age of dinosaurs, far before the modern lizards and snakes. It is the only survivor of the genus Sphenodontia, which had its heyday 200 million years ago, and has been hiding out with the kiwis ever since. Tuataras have an incredibly slow metabolism which has two main effects: they are the slowest-growing reptiles, needing about 65 years to reach their maximum size, and they also tolerate cold better than any other reptile. Their optimum temperature is between 60-70 degrees F, but they still function at a chilly 40 degrees F. Their ears have no earholes nor eardrums, and their teeth are not separated, but rather two interlocking bandsaws of bone. But the strangest thing about their anatomy may be the hidden eye on their forehead.

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The Komodo At The End Of The Fork

This Spring, a giant monitor lizard was discovered in the Phillipines. It is beautiful, flecked with both green and gold scales. Like its close cousin, the komodo dragon, it is huge — 6 feet long and 22 lbs — and has a double penis. Unlike the komodo, it is entirely vegetarian, peacefully stalking fruit in the treetops.

We’ll call it by its scientific name, Varanus bitatawa, because its English name, the Northern Sierra Madre Forest monitor lizard, is kind of a mouthful. That a six-foot golden lizard could remain hidden to science for so long is surprising, but the reasons fit a few familiar patterns.

1. V. bitatawa is arboreal, spending no more than 20 minutes a day on the ground. If you want to find a new species, look up or look down. The forest canopy and the deep ocean are the undiscovered continents, the vertical frontiers of biology, and it makes sense that most new terrestrial animals are found above us, where it hurts our necks to look. In fact, a host of new creatures were recently discovered in the treetops of Papua New Guinea, including the world’s smallest wallaby and a “pinocchio” frog with an inflatable nose. It is amazing how many big, obvious things can be obscured in the mess of capillaries at the ends of the Earth’s blood.

2. But when I said it was “discovered” this Spring, I lied. It was “discovered” by science recently, but it was known to natives for countless generations, as a delicious meal. In fact, it was a picture of locals posing with their lizard lunch, taken in 2001, that prompted the expedition to find it. And this is the larger truth: If it’s out there, we’ve probably eaten it. If not us, something else. Hunger is the great explorer. It causes us to try poisonous plants and strangely-colored bugs, and learn about our environment that way. Knowing what to eat, and what not to eat, is the most practical application of biology. People who know how to hunt and forage have a far more intimate knowledge of their surroundings, and often — but not always — a greater understanding of their workings. So epicureanism — food appreciation and adventurism — isn’t too far from the science of biology, an expedition on the dinner table. Hunger makes you a keen observer. Hunger makes you a scientist. If you want to find a new species of rodent, follow a hawk. If you want to find new mushrooms, follow a wild pig. I think we will soon recognize that the quickest path to finding out the secrets of the Earth is the oldest and most direct. To find the hidden creatures in a forest, ask the locals what’s on the menu.


Airbenders

The origins of flight are debated, but one thing is certain: it began as gliding. And, most likely, it began as gliding from tree to tree in the forest canopy. As of yet, there are only two ways to truly fly: have wings on the back (like insects), or wings on the forelimbs (like birds and bats). But nature is constantly innovating, finding new ways to get high. Today, we look at some gliding prototypes being developed in the laboratory of the rainforest canopy, and imagining what kind of flying animals they might become.

The Prototype: Flying Dragon

I love animals that sound like kung fu moves. The flying dragon of Southeast Asia has developed a different way to glide: it extends flaps of skin connected to special, movable ribs to create “wings” in its midsection; its obvious advantage is that, unlike birds or flying squirrels, its arms and legs are free, so it can read the SkyMall catalogue. It’s able to glide about 25 feet, even executing a nifty little loop-de-loop to slow its descent near landing.

The Future Model: The Butterfly Lizard

Okay, gliding lizards have existed for 144 million years. So if this design could turn into powered flight, it probably would have by now. But if you gave the lizard a keel, the breastbone in birds to which the flight muscles attach, the flying dragon could conceivably evolve into a fluttering lizard with brightly-colored wings, making short, powered jumps upwards into the canopy to catch slow-moving insects in its elongated forearms.

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Leapin’ Lesbian Lizards!

Today’s weird animal is a local: The New Mexico Whiptail Lizard. I see them often when I go for walks on the sunny side of the Sandias, or around the volcanoes. All in all, they’re actually pretty normal lizards. They enjoy eating insects, and sunning themselves on rocks. Only the females have something rather odd about them. The one pictured below is a female.

How do I know it’s a female? Because they’re all female. All of them. All their lives. Male New Mexico Whiptail Lizards no longer exist. So how do they reproduce? It’s called parthenogenesis, and it’s responsible for all those virgin births you occasionally hear about. It’s not quite cloning; the female’s DNA simply recombines with itself during meiosis, so each daughter is slightly (but only slightly) different from her mother. Oh, and I should point out that while it’s not absolutely necessary that two female whiptails simulate the act of copulation in order to conceive, studies have shown that it sure helps.

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